Blurred Lines at the National Theatre

Blurred lines: video and song, women in contemporary society, actresses, breaking the fourth wall, prostitution, rape, misogyny, with character face.

Necessarily the play skirts over big issues of women in society and equality by trying to tackle all of them. The emotional journey is intense. An exclusively female cast of seven this devised play is a series of sketches of contemporary society from the woman’s point of view. The scenes are interspersed with music that too comments on women’s place referencing, indirectly the song that is the title of the play.

The form consciously plays with the notion of a play. There are scenes played behind the fourth wall and others that break it. The play opens with the actresses reciting typecasts, ‘Northern, bubbly’, ‘divorced’, ‘older, with character face’. This is interrupted by one of the black actresses pleading for work, that she’s prepared to do anything to get more work. For me there were three memorable scenes. The first a discussion between husband and wife where the husband justifies his use of prostitutes as an honest transaction. The second an intense journey following a teenagers coming of age and unfortunate rape made more powerful through a scene where the rapist and victim’s mothers’ try to persuade each other of their point of view. The last an exquisite parody of a theatre Q&A where the male director is challenged to justify clothing his female actress in only lingerie for a particular scene and the actress sits mute – merely a decoration on the platform.

I liked that the play tackled the themes it did. I thought the scenes were incredible in their emotional intensity. I wondered whether the sketch style form was right for the play. Any one of the the scenes presented could have been a play in its own right. I would probably have preferred a longer play to give the space to explore more fully. Having said that perhaps this is the warm up – preparing audiences for the female point of view.

I hope that we continue to see diversity of voices in the theatre so the male director with his lingerie clad actress will be just what they are here – a sad joke.

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Waiting room

The official waiting rooms have been taken away. The substitution requires you to pay to wait. Waiting as a business. Hardly the stuff of Hemingway, no romance, no longing, lust or sunshine. It’s cold drafts, blue morning light and a sense of purposeful energy that is directed at… Waiting.

Bob Marley sings about shooting the sherif whilst eleven single people dressed in their uniform of black, brown or grey outerwear hunch. They hunch over their coffee. They hunch over their free newspapers. They hunch over their laptops or phones, catching up. It’s a serious business, waiting.

The staff bustle, quickly clearing the tables. A blue screen displays the departure times. The announcements are muffled but echo around. The track changes – upbeat is it Queen… No. I can’t figure this one out.

Through the windows you can see the trains and platforms. There’s no entry directly. This isn’t a waiting room. Except someone just walked by, he didn’t sit down with a coffee to read his messages. He was walking too fast for that. There was a clunk. The draft changes direction. A few people look up. He slams the door. He’s escaped. He’s walking along the platform. His rucksack over one shoulder. His coat flaps open. There are no alarms. He’s not accosted for evidence, his ticket to travel. He could be going anywhere: Kings Lynn, Sunderland, Hull or Edinburgh. He could stow away. He could jump off, catch a boat, sail away with his ruck sack swinging and coat flapping.

Everyone else carries on with their newspapers, email and hot drinks.

KT Tunstall sings, “suddenly I see”

The Pass

I wouldn’t have gone to see this play by John Donnelly at the Royal Court as it’s about football. Except it really isn’t.

It’s set around football and follows Jason and Ade. They are 17 year olds on the cusp of their football career and we see them again at the start of their middle age. In between we follow Jason becomes a successful and fabulously famous footballer who at 29 and with dodgy knees realises that nothing that happened in the preceding 12 years was meaningful.

It’s set in three hotel rooms that are each better appointed than the last to reflect Jason’s increasing success.

Russell Tovey as Jason was tremendous – he appeared to visibly age through the evening.

The play was a game of two halves. The first tramped along; dynamic, challenging, funny and tight. The second half less so – I don’t mean to diminish the second half. I simply wanted it to sparkle as much as the first.

What I liked was the way that during the course of the the play my sympathies moved from Jason to, the largely absent, Ade. In the end was left with the feeling that whilst Ade had not succeeded in the big league he had succeeded at life.

Wolf of Wall Street

I couldn’t believe the time. I thought I’d be tucked up in bed by 11:00pm. Instead I was walking through the rainy streets of Leeds wondering why none of the girls out partying was wearing a coat. In January.

The party on the streets of Leeds probably could have made it into the film… The low rent, version with poor wintry weather.

The film itself was excellent. For me it told Jordan’s story without glamorising or moralising. Some said otherwise but I thought it worked. It runs for three hours but the time doesn’t drag. I it’s dark, funny and tragic in turn. The scenes flow nicely and you see Leonardo do Caprio skilfully play the role of young hopeful become a master of the universe to losing everything before a modest redemption.

What I liked was the dark comedy, the ‘ludes’ scene was hilarious. The bacchanal scenes got a bit repetitive after a while – they made the point that the Wolf likes to party but really, did we have to see so much tits and arse?

The Guardian

The Independent

Bella

Bella was a beautiful golden labrador that I used to know.  She lived across the street from my parents and whilst my grandmother was alive, living with my parents Bella used to visit my grandmother.  Her owners would open their front door and say – go visit Vi – and Bella, looking both ways before crossing the street, would run up to my parents front door and bark to announce her presence.

Bella’s favourite way to get to know someone was to have a good sniff and, if she liked you, would either want to play a game of fetch or would rub herself against you showing affection.  Any contact with Bella resulted in gaining a deposit of short golden hairs that you could never quite get rid of.  My father still has a black fleece jacket that’s covered in her hairs.

I don’t know how many times she visited over the few years that remained to my grandmother but I was told she was a huge comfort and entertainment to her and even attended the funeral. 

I didn’t believe that she could distinguish between people she knew and didn’t.  I only saw her about once a year so thought she was a naturally friendly dog.   Her owners disagreed and claim that she’s saved them on more than one occasion.  It was only whilst we were waiting for pizza to be delivered at their house that we saw this in action.  Before the doorbell even rang Bella became anxious: pricked up her ears, started to pace and gently growled.  Then the doorbell rang.  She barked a warning but, of course, we knew it was most likely to be the pizza delivery.  Despite Bella’s warnings we answered the door.  Once the ‘intruder’ had gone Bella was back to her chilled out self trying to snag some pizza from us.

Bella is sometimes taken on holiday.  This time she, with her owners, have a camper van that they’re using to tour northern Canada.  Towards the end of the trip they take a ferry back from Alaska to Vancouver.  This is a standard commercial operation and not a cruise.  It takes about 5 days and stops in many locations down the coast.  The ferry supports the commercial activities along with the holidaymakers.  Whilst the owners have a basic cabin for the journey Bella has to stay in the camper van on the car deck.  

At every stop Bella is taken out for a walk.  The ship’s crew and passengers get used to seeing her at the dock and on the car deck, nosing around, enjoying her 30 minutes of leg stretch before she has to go back to her camper van.  

It’s 3:30 am and the penultimate stop on the journey.  As usual Bella is taken out for her walk and by the time she’s back in her camper van her owner decides to stay up and get a cup of coffee.  He’s sitting in the ship’s canteen and one of the other passengers comes over to chat.  

– You’re the guy with the golden lab

– That’s right.

– She’s a working dog

– Well…

– Yeah.

– What do you mean?

– You’re with the Drug Enforcement Agency.  She’s checking us out.

The owner said nothing, drank his coffee, smiling at the thought that Bella was a working dog.

 

Getting into an argument

I’ve been thinking about conflict.  How it starts.  Why.  What happens.  Does it resolve.

I want to understand this so I can write better plays, as a drama is conflict.  In a drama you put characters with opposing viewpoints together and see how it plays out.  Usually one character transforms when confronted with something or someone that they initially oppose.  Usually this confrontation ends up changing the character in some small or large way.

Psychologists say that there is a basic human (mammalian?) response when faced with a threat: to freeze, flee or fight. All of these responses are natural and part of life.  They are also transformational reactions.  They are extreme reactions.

Ordinarily if you are faced with an opposing view you won’t react in this extreme way but will probably put across your point of view.  You’ll argue trying to get the opposition around to your way of thinking.  Sometimes you’ll be successful and sometimes not.  Sometimes you’ll forget about it.  Sometimes you’ll remember.  You might change your behaviour – perhaps if you like the person and want them to like you then you won’t mention the topic again.  If you dislike the person then their opposing point of view will be even more reason to avoid them in future. If you dislike them but can’t avoid them – they are in your circle of friends – then perhaps you’ll start to convince other friends that they shouldn’t be trusted.  You may, if you are convincing enough, succeed in ostracising them from your group.  This last behaviour is an escalation in the conflict – probably way beyond the subject of the initial disagreement.  This escalation is what plays are made of and ultimately the escalation concludes.

I’ve been wondering how people get to the point where they wholesale disagree with another point of view and the penny dropped for me the other day.

I’ve been reading psychologist Daniel Kahnemann’s, Thinking, fast and slow.  It describes two types of thinking the intuitive or ‘fast’ and the methodical or ‘slow’.  Slow thinking takes more effort and humans tend to use the fast, intuitive, route.

The key idea that helped me with my argument conundrum is in the chapter on the fourfold pattern.

People attach significance to their gains and losses.  Generally speaking people do not like to lose something they already have.  This has been shown in experiments that analyse the brain’s reactions to losses and gains.  If a person is about to lose something significant then the areas of the brain that are triggered relate to unhappiness and depression.  They will tend to play it safe to avoid large losses.

We are also disproportionate in our excitement about the prospect of a large gain when it is an outside chance e.g. one in a million chance of winning the lottery but much less excited if it’s a dead certainty.

The model that’s presented in the book is interesting and relates to our assessment of risk and shows the types of behaviours that may arise in extreme situations.

In a situation where there is a significant chance of a specific outcome e.g. win some money the following happens:

  • Gain: Someone will play it safe if they have a 95% chance to win large sum of money
  • Loss: Someone will take a risk if they have a 95% chance to lose their large sum of money

In a situation where there is an outside chance of a specific outcome e.g. win the lottery the following happens:

  • Gain: Someone will take a risk if they have a 5% chance to win a large sum of money
  • Loss: Someone will play it safe if they have a 5% change to lose their large sum of money

How this plays out could be like this:

Ann has a dispute with Bill, her neighbour, over the upkeep of his property.  She is worried that his poor maintenance has a detrimental effect on the valuation of her home.  She is looking to sell.  She has talked to Bill about her concerns but he’s done nothing to help.  She sells her property for £50,000 less than the asking price.  She now wants to take Bill to court to get the difference.

Ann’s lawyers have said that she has a 5% chance to win the money as it depends on the jury and their view of what Bill is worth.  Bill is advised that he has a 5% chance to lose the money.

Bill would like to settle out of court and has offered £10,000 to Ann in compensation.

Ann would rather take the risk of going to court – against her lawyer’s advice – as she imagines that she has a higher chance (higher than the 5% stated) of winning.

Ann goes to court and loses.  Ann gets nothing.  Bill keeps his assets intact.

Ann will probably feel even more aggrieved at this ‘miscarriage of justice’ than she did before she decided to go to court.   She probably imagined a satisfactory scenario where she’d got the right amount of money for her house and the extra effort and legal costs were worth it.  Ann will probably never forget the incident and this event will shape how she views future events. Bill however is pleased and can get on with his life.  He no longer has Ann as his neighbour and over time will probably forget the whole incident.

The conflict was in Ann and Bill’s assessment of the outcome of the legal action.  Ann had nothing to lose so took the large risk to go to court and present the evidence in front of the Jury.  Bill had £50,000 to lose and wanted to play it safe.  Ann wouldn’t let him but in the end he won.

What I take from this is to apply to drama is that each character makes an intuitive assessment of the risks associated with the conflict they’re in.  If they are at the extreme ends of the scale then they’ll take a large risk but have a small chance of it succeeding.

Returning to glory?

On average they seemed shorter than the other side. The home team though was still greeted with cheers as they skated onto the ice. The stadium, a little tired perhaps, but filled with pennants of past victories. A lot to live up to for this young team. The half full stadium of loyal supporters stands for the national anthem sung with gusto from a local singer. Applause, whistles and hooters and the five players on each side, with their goalkeeper making six skate out onto the ice.

Our team have lost the last ten games in succession. They’ve had a bit of a break. They should be fresh. This time could be different. The opposition has eight supporters at the arena. The break and advantages of the home game, surely must count for something?

They start and the play is at the opposition’s end. The score board assures us we have the upper hand with more attacks on goal than the others. But the first period is sluggish with none of these attacks converting into an actual goal. The announcer makes a plea for us to buy raffle tickets with the promise of $40,000 prize money.

The opposition are penalised and one man is sent to the sin bin for checking. This is our moment. Two minutes, with one man more than the opposition… The coach and manager gesticulate from the side lines. Players are swapped over. Play begins. Nothing.

Time out.

We take a moment to appreciate the generosity of the sponsors. The coaches give their teams a pep talk.

Two minutes to go to the end of the period. The play is all down our end. Our goalkeeper is so large there is no way the puck is going to get past. It does. The eight supporters wave their banners, make some noise. The rest of the stadium claps politely. Manners.

The hooter blows.

A second raffle, this one is for the chance to win a voucher for Subway or one to get your car cleaned. Check the front of your programme for the four digit route to happiness. We don’t win this time… Maybe at the next interval. The Zamboni goes back and forth and once done the goals are put back in place and the players emerge. Our side with heads down.

Play resumes, now the other side are on the attack. They have double the attacks on goal than we do. A bit more aggression from ours, tempers beginning to fray. Now we’re one man down. Our side dig in, closer to one another, in contact. They play as a team rather than a collection of individuals. They don’t seem to want to concede another goal. It works.

More play. One of our more established players is back on the ice. It makes a difference. The others respect him, he has support when he makes a break. He scores! Relief, elation, cheers. The commentator is ecstatic. Once he’s calmed down a reminder to buy one of those all important raffle tickets…

Meanwhile the play has continued. Spurred on, heads now up our team renews their attack. It works and we’re ahead and only two minutes until the end of the second period. Perhaps we’ll win after all. Perhaps the change in coach is beginning to work. Perhaps there’ll be a return to our glory years. Let’s not jump ahead of ourselves.

A break.

This time you can throw a puck on the ice or win some more vouchers. Maybe just get a beer or have a walk around, get the blood flowing into your legs again.

The final period begins.

Goal!

All they have to do is hold on. 15 minutes away from victory. The back and forth continues. The pressure is on the other side now. They’re the more experienced team. On paper they should have the upper hand. Tempers show. The checking, blocking and slamming continues. They’re no. 24 is pulled off by the coach before he ends up in the sin bin. He comes back on the ice only to cause more aggravation and mayhem. He’s warned again. The coach gets him off the ice again. The aggression will come in handy but timing is everything.

Two minutes. We just need to hold on for another two minutes.

The opposition renew their attack. They take their goalkeeper off and substitute with another player to have all their efforts concentrated on getting another goal. The pressure is massive. No. 24 is let loose. He scores.

Still with only one minute to go we can hold onto this.

The eight supporters cheer again.
Another one, how?

We’re tied.

Shit.

Into extra time four against four.

We hold on but don’t score.

Three minutes into extra time. There may still be hope?

No.

The eight cheer again.

It’s all over and they’re off the ice. The goal posts are moved before we’re out of our seats.

The fear

The noun
– a feeling of distress
– reverence or awe
– concern or anxiety

The verb
– to be afraid
– to respect
– to be anxious about something

Psychologists say that it is an emotion induced by a perceived threat where the reaction is to be paralysed, confront or run (freeze, fight or flight). The emotion of fear shouldn’t be confused with that of anxiety which is triggered without an external threat.

Fear is a basic survival mechanism. It is a response to a threat that could result in loss of anything that is held as valuable such a:s health, wealth, status, power, security. It is usually an emotion held about a future event.

The top fears that humans holdare of: demons and ghosts, the existence of evil powers, cockroaches, spiders, snakes, heights, water, enclosed spaces, tunnels, bridges, needles, social rejection, failure, examinations and public speaking. Another study had the following: flying, heights, clowns, intimacy, death, rejection, people, snakes, failure, and driving. Fears held by a group of 13-15 year olds were: terrorist attacks, spiders, death, being a failure, war, criminal or gang violence, being alone, the future, and nuclear war.

If these lists are to be believed then our top fears are as follows:
Paranormal
– Demons and Ghosts
– Clowns
Other animals
– Cockroaches
– Spiders
– Snakes
Physical
– Heights (inc bridges)
– Water
– Enclosed spaces (inc tunnels)
– Needles
Human
– People’s behaviours (inc social rejection,fear of failure, public speaking, exams, intimacy)
– Being alone
– Evil powers (inc criminal or gang violence, war, terrorist attacks, nuclear war)
Human activity
– Flying
– Driving
Metaphysical
– Death
– The future

Collected together in one person and you could see why they wouldn’t get out of bed… Ever… Except they’re probably afraid of the enclosed space.

Looked at rationally none of these items seem worthy of much time or energy. There are risks attached to each but all are manageable in the modern world (except perhaps for the paranormal). Psychologists advocate facing your specific fear in a controlled environment. They suggest that becoming friendly with your fear it becomes easier to understand and ultimately less fearful.

This is an approach I’ve always adopted but yesterday whilst skiing I was overcome with fear. It is early season conditions so the snow cover was less than I’m used to. It meant I had to adapt my skiing turning to avoid obstacles such as rocks and bushes and small trees that ordinarily would be covered by snow. I was disappointed that things weren’t going to my plan. At first I was stoic thinking that there was only a small patch to cross. Then, when I caught my ski around a small branch, frustrated. Then, when I started to sweat and breath heavily, angry. I wanted the skiing to be fun. I wanted it to go my way. I was reluctant to accept and work with what was there. I forgot to breath. Everything became harder, every turn was laboured and jagged. When I was offered advice I snapped back. If the mountain could behave the way I wanted it to then everything would be all right again.

I forgot why I ski.

I forgot to enjoy the beautiful landscape.

I forgot to appreciate being in such a wonderful place.

All this effort was a waste of energy. I was not under threat. I have enough experience to ski in the terrain and conditions.

In the end I decided to face into my fear. I remembered to breath. I started to look at the terrain as a puzzle and a game. I got down absolutely safely. Once I let myself accept the situation I began to learn from the experience rather than reject it as something unpleasant to be forgotten.

Would I do it again? Yes, because it means I won’t be as scared the second or the third time. If I’m not scared then I’ll be able to enjoy being out in the mountains – my comfort zone stretched to accommodate this situation.

Elektra at The Royal Opera House

‘… Normally at this point I end by wishing that you enjoy the opera but, as it’s Electra, I’ll say I hope you enjoy the drama…’ said the ROH member of staff as she introduced the dress rehearsal.

The curtain lifted, there were women on their knees scrubbing blood off the floor.  A futile job as later Clytamnestra, Electra’s mother, goes on another killing spree triggered by a nightmare.  Electra already exiled from the palace becomes her mother’s confidante and fortune teller but all the time pursues her agenda to avenge her father Agamemnon’s death at the hands of Aegisthus also Clytamnestra’s lover.

A complex plot it was told in one act and over 90 minutes.  It had drama.  It was a league away from most other operas I’ve seen in terms of complexity plot and concise re-telling.  As you might expect from the ROH the production and casting were superb, I heard that there was a full standing ovation on opening night.

I liked the complexity of story told using the opera form.  Overall there were four stories.   The principal one centred on Elektra’s need to avenge the death of her father.  The remaining three were for the secondary characters: Clytamenstra  wanting to get rid of her nightmares about her exiled son Orest,  Electra’s sister wanting the two sisters to run away and finally the exiled brother Orest who returns…   When Electra learns that her brother is probably dead she decides to take on the job of killing her mother and step-father thus freeing the remaining family from their curse.

Yes, there was blood everywhere and the body count was high.  Yes it was a tragedy and therefore not a fun night out.  For me it was inspiring.

I try to see most operas at least once and I of course I enjoy the classics.  This goes deeper, explores the complexity of human nature rather than skirts over the top using stock characters and crams it all in to 90 minutes.  Perhaps the opera form is past it’s sell by but if we had more Elektra’s it might have a chance of revival.

Elektra, Royal Opera House

Reviews:

The Financial Times

Daily Telegraph

The Guardian

The rules

I’ve blogged before.  Who hasn’t and wants to write?  Starting off is the hardest thing, especially when it’s supposed to be about writing and showcasing my work.

I’ve thought, prevaricated then I was played this, Kid President.  I thought I’d better just get on with it.

I’ve formed some rules for this blog:

  1. This is a place to play
  2. This is for work in progress
  3. This is a place for things that inspire me
  4. This is where I try to work things out
  5. I haven’t got a fifth rule

So there we have it.

A place to play.