updating for godot

I saw an advert on the tube last night which said they’re doing another run of Waiting For Godot at the Haymarket Theatre.

As I think I said when I wrote about it before, if you have any interest AT ALL in any kind of literature, philosophy, psychology or performance art – even if you are retarded and don’t like Beckett – then you have to go and see it. Seriously. You have to.

There’s a few cast changes (Roger Rees has replaced Patrick Stewart as Vladimir and, believe it or not, Matthew Kelly is doing Pozzo. At first I thought this might mean Ronald Pickup would emerge through a cloud of smoke to announce, ‘Tonight, Matthew, I will be playing Lucky’. But it won’t – it seems Kelly has gone back to being a serious actor nowadays, and he’s good at it).

The main reason you have to see it, though, is still McKellen as Estragon. He was phenomenal before and he still will be.

You can get tickets in the cheaper seats from £16 here, and if you don’t have a job then you might even be able to get tickets on the day for £11. Considering I paid £50 in the summer and though it was worth more, this is a total bargain.

I’m going again. Anybody wants to come, let me know…


a witty fool

Happy New Year! And we’re back.

So, I’ve been reading a lot of Shakespeare over Christmas. I like Shakespeare a lot, for two main reasons:

1) The sonnets are fucking stunning

2) His comedians (not comedies – comedians) are brilliant.

Take the Fool in Timon of Athens. Admittedly it’s a bit of a weird play, but it’s one of my favourites because it’s about philosophers, and also because it’s not like a normal tragedy – it’s so well written (apparently with help from Thomas Middleton) that you have to take a kind of sadistic amusement in Timon’s stupid downfall.

Anyway, the Fool in it is awesome. It’s no accident that he appears with Apemantus (who is clearly the smartest person in the thing – despite having ‘apeman’ in his name).

Why such an awesome fool? His banter is just spectacular: it’s cutting and insightful and self-deprecating at the same time, like perfectly judged heckle put-downs. But given the chance he’s also got things to say. Like in this bit:

Are you three usurers’ men?

Ay, fool.

I think no usurer but has a fool to his servant. My mistress is one, and I am her fool. When men come to borrow of your masters, they approach sadly and go away merry; but they enter my mistress’ house merrily and go away sadly. The reason of this?

I could render one.

Do it then, that we may account thee a whoremaster and a knave; which notwithstanding, thou shalt be no less esteemed.

What is a whoremaster, fool?

A fool in good clothes, and something like thee. ‘Tis a spirit. Sometime it appears like a lord; sometime like a lawyer; sometime like a philosopher, with two stones more than his artificial one. He is very often like a knight; and, generally, in all shapes that man goes up and down in from fourscore to thirteen, this spirit walks in.

Thou art not altogether a fool.

Nor thou altogether a wise man. As much foolery as I have, so much wit thou lack’st.

That answer might have become Apemantus.

How good is that? Bonus points if you spotted the bollock gag. But mainly, this is funny because the fool is actually saying something quite wise about money-lenders and about men’s attitudes to women that gets there 400-odd years ahead of all our pathetic ‘hey, women can really mess with our heads, what’s the deal with that?’ stand-up.

But the thing I love most about Shakespeare’s clowns is that whatever the situation is, they are never the arsehole. (And as the philosopher Kent Valentine says, “there’s an arsehole in every situation – and if you’re looking around and you don’t know who the arsehole is, guess what – it’s you!”) But in Shakespeare, the clown is never the arsehole.

It’s worth asking why this is. Possibly it’s that, from the point of view of a satirist, they can stand above the situation they are commenting on and so are able to make a better judgment of it. Possibly it’s the tendency we’ve had for so long (that exists right up to the present day with Jon Stewart et al.) not to trust people who are too serious in comparison with the joker, who seems to have nothing to gain but laughs – which makes them more trustworthy.

Or possibly it’s just that Shakespeare wrote a lot of his ‘Fool’ roles for his mate Bob to play and he wanted to make him look cool and witty.

But whatever it was that made Shakespeare make his comedians smart and his arseholes overly serious, it’s always left a pretty profound impression on me. I’ve been an arsehole plenty of times, but (I hope, since I’ve got out of my teens at least) not on the scale that Shakespeare’s real arseholes – like Romeo or Lear or Polixenes or even Malvolio – are.* And I hope that’s from not taking myself too seriously.

What Shakespeare’s fools teach us is that life is funny, and if you demand to be taken seriously in that context, then the only place you can go from there is tragedy, humiliation or madness. But if you’re ‘just’ a clown, you’re free to say what really needs saying.

It’s interesting, too, how many arsey things comedians are permitted, even encouraged, to get away with in comedy clubs. I remember somebody or other – I forget who but I think it might have been John Gordillo – saying that comedy audiences don’t pay to see somebody be nice; they pay to see somebody call a cunt a cunt. Which I like immensely. Clowns are given the green light to say things which are more arseholey than a real arsehole would ever say, because we all know that they are saying it from a position in which they are not expecting to be taken seriously.

“Better a witty fool than a foolish wit,” says Feste, famously, in Twelfth Night. I don’t like Twelfth Night that much, but it’s a line that’s stuck with me; it’s something I only wish Gordon Brown could learn from Boris Johnson; and it’s certainly something worth remembering for everyone else who’s playing this Big Game Of Not Being The Arsehole we call ‘humanity’…

*I know what you’re thinking – should Hamlet be in this list? No, of course not. He’s a comedian. But that’s for another time…

le stand-up

I went to Paris at the weekend and met a French stand-up comedian.

It wasn’t intentional. Even going to Paris wasn’t planned, it was just that Nan got offered some eurostar tickets that were too cheap to refuse; so we got up at 4.45am on Saturday and went.

We arrived in Paris, still tired, to find it pissing with rain but not as cold as Paris is capable of being in January. It was, at least, warm enough to sit outside a cafe. And regular readers of this blog will know how much I like cafes. So we went up to Les Abbesses, sat outside a cafe, and ordered cafe cremes and a croque monsieur.

And then a man came and sat down at the table next to me and took out two things. The first was a little computer translating device. The second was Logan Murray‘s book about Stand-up.

I know Logan’s book well, because as well as being a super comic, Logan is also something of a comedy sensei. I’ve been on three of his courses and every time have come out of them as a better, more inventive, more confident comedian. His book is also quite good. So I thought I’d better say hello to the man sitting next to me.

It turned out that his name is Francois Winz – you can see from his website, which I just found, that he is essentially an observational-style stand-up who has achieved some impressive acclaim in France by dissecting the minutiae of life – fragments of his dreams, how women speak, the details of topical issues – in a humourous way.

What is wonderful about this is that it seems stand-up is still so new and exciting in France, that this kind of thing doesn’t seem hackneyed or cliched there. This is partly because I get the impression from talking to him that Francois is quite good at it (he’s been doing it seven years), but also because stand-up is still developing there – it never had a big boom in the late 80’s the way it did in London. I think Jamel Debbouze is working pretty hard to break it in, but there’s still work to be done. So while monologues and sketch comedy are enormously popular, the idea of a guy talking, as himself, in what appears to be a genuine dialogue with le public is much rarer.

Admittedly my understanding of comedy in France comes almost entirely from Eddie Izzard (who Francois is also a fan of) and from reading Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island (which everyone should read, but especially men, women, and stand-up comedians); but Francois pretty much confirmed what I’d heard.

From what I understood (he didn’t really speak much English and my French is woefully stilted so our conversation was a little fumbled), he was telling me that his training in theatre comedy means that it’s hard for him to go off-script, to engage with the audience, and that anyway it was quite rare for there to be what he wonderfully referred to as ‘ecklerrs because French audiences don’t expect to be part of the show. I told him there are plenty of comics in London, too, who are terrified of going off-script and that I’ve known really great acts be stumped by a simple comment from a punter.

But it seems a shame that gigs like my ‘monkey dance’ gig from the other night – which felt so spontaneous and natural and…alive! – could be rarer there.

I told Francois he should come to London – after all, everyone else seems to – or better still, go to Edinburgh.

He seemed keen.

comedy is art 3: stand-up is art

Simon Munnery used to have a brilliant bit – I’m not sure if he still does it – where he’d quote a review of his act which said he was ‘as close as comedy gets to art’. He would then point out (using something close to a venn diagram but not quite) that this sentence implied that not only could there not be an overlap between the two, but that he didn’t really fall properly into either category – so it was saying that not only was his act not actually art, but it wasn’t really very funny either.

This bit was funny, because it wasn’t true – he is funny (and besides, the review wasn’t actually denying that). Or to put it better, it’s funny because it had an element of truth in it, but was ultimately a fiction; without wanting to get all poststructural* at this early point in the blog, what Munnery creates in that bit of stand-up is a fiction, a lie (it is false that he is neither artistic nor funny) which transcends itself to creatively reveal a deeper truth (that in fact, he aspires to be both, and is quite neurotic about reviews that might imply he isn’t). Which is, I think, what art is.

So by suggesting that what he’s doing is neither funny nor artistic, he’s being both. But if it wasn’t funny, it would be neither.

Confused yet?

Okay then, let’s go back a few steps. I’m trying, as I was yesterday and the day before, to construct an argument that if Arts Council England are going to provide support through funding for the arts then they shouldn’t exclude stand-up or sketch comedy.

Now at this point, I’m going to do two things that some readers might not like. The first is that I’m going to point out that we shouldn’t be arguing for the eligibility of ‘comedy’, but for ‘stand-up’ ‘sketches’ and (if we must) ‘musical comedy’ to be eligible; because ‘comedy’ is not itself an artistic medium but a style or mood. As Michael Fabbri quite accurately pointed out at our initial meeting, it makes no more sense for the Arts Council to have a section in their application form for ‘comedy’, that it would for them to have one for ‘tragedy’. You could get funding for a comic play by Aristophanes (and everybody should), or a tragedy by Aeschylus, if you applied through the ‘theatre’ section.

The second thing I’m going to do is focus my argument entirely on stand-up. This is partly because it’s my art – I’m not really a sketch performer and I’m certainly not a musical act. But it’s also because it’s probably the hardest of our artforms to argue for – not because the argument is weak but because there is so painfully little understanding of the aesthetics of stand-up that to most people it does simply look like a guy telling jokes into a microphone. So I reckon if I can make the argument good for stand-up, then all you sketch troupes out there will have an easy time of it.

I suppose I’m also going to need a proper definition of ‘art’. Annoyingly, I haven’t got space for a full and challenging discussion of this here, but having talked to a lot of people and read a lot about this in the last few days (well, years really) all the standard/popular definitions seem to agree that for something to qualify as art, it must meet certain criteria:

1) It must have a ‘creative’ element to it;

2) It must involve some way of presenting or re-presenting some physical phenomena in a way which is qualitively different from the ‘everyday’ presentation of that phenomena (ie grass in a field isn’t art, but if you paint a picture of it, sing about it, write a story about it, etc then that picture/song/story might be. Nietzsche points out that because eg the grass presented in the art is not the original or ‘real’ grass, that art is an ‘untruth’ – but a good and useful kind of untruth which helps us cope with the world we experience).

3) the presentation must be so well-crafted that it somehow ‘transcends’ the craft of its materials to reveal some deeper or higher truth or experience. As Aristotle says, “the aim of art is not to represent the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” Some folks say this is likely to be the expression of some kind of emotional or ‘metaphysical’ truth.

In short, art is a created artifice, or fiction, which reveals some ‘deeper’ truth or emotion. (I’m not entirely happy with these criteria, but they are pretty popular and at the moment I’m not out to change anyone’s view of what ‘art’ is.)

So, does stand-up fit these categories?

Well, it’s pretty easy to see that it fits the first two. Just coming up with a sentence is creative, and stand-ups do this all the time. But that doesn’t make it art, any more than a man ordering a pizza is art; it needs to meet the other two criteria as well.

The second is not much tougher. While it might appear that stand-up is just a person talking to a group of other people, a comedy club is in no way an ‘everyday’ communicative context, and the words and sentences stand-ups create are not ‘natural’. As Stewart Lee likes to point out, comedy clubs are bizarre and articficial places where even though the comedian might pretend to be speaking ‘normally’ as themselves, they quite frequently do or say things that sane people just wouldn’t do when addressing a group (like announcing, apropos of nothing, what their favourite high street coffee chain is).

The reason for this is that the words, gestures, and actions used in stand-up are crafted to have a different performative function (ie to get consistent laughs from a large group) and there is therefore a different expectation from the observer than there would be in ‘normal’ conversation – so some artificial work must be crafted. (In fact, it’s not just the words and sentences that are crafted: a decent stand-up craftsman will take the audiences’ responses and make them an intrinsic part of the work, smashing the theatrical ‘fourth wall’ in a way that would have made Brecht proud; and a master craftsman can often  ‘play’ the audience like a musical instrument, measuring subtle phrases and gestures that illicit different sizes and types of laugh in varying structural arrangements to give a really satisfying performance. This is not a ‘normal’ way to communicate.) So the very form of stand-up involves the presentation of a physical phenomena (a person saying words to a group) in a way that is exceptional from its normal or ‘everyday’ presentation.

And of course, it’s not just the form that meets the second criterion; more often than not, the content does too. We often don’t really believe that ‘a funny thing happened on the way to the gig’ any more than we believe that Eddie Izzard likes putting babies on spikes, or that Simon Munnery really thinks his review was a negative one. These are fictions. Some people get annoyed when comics pretend things are true when they’re not, or come up to us after gigs and say, “did that really happen to you?” This shows that they’ve missed the point – it doesn’t matter whether what has been said is true or not as long as it was funny. (To be fair, the format of stand-up doesn’t really help this misunderstanding; we do quite frequently appear to be speaking as ourselves and say things like ‘this really happened’; but it doesn’t really matter whether the thing happened or not, because ultimately this is just a rhetorical device to make the story more believable and thus get a bigger laugh. Even still, it’s a confusion that comes from widespread misunderstanding of the artform: I bet nobody ever went up to Michael Jackson after his gigs and asked whether Billie Jean really was or wasn’t his lover, and if they did they were idiots who missed the point that it was a song, duh – and it didn’t matter whether it was literally true or not.)

My point is, the craft of stand-up, despite it’s ‘natural’ appearance, is packed with artifice and falsehood. Or, as Nietzsche (almost) put it, good healthy lies. So, second box ticked.

Again, though, this doesn’t make it art; just an incredibly difficult craft (and most aesthetics theorists do think there’s a difference between craft and art). We still need to meet this third criterion, that it has to somehow transcend the craft and reveal something ‘else’, something which is somehow higher. A lot of people seem to think this ‘deeper truth’ (or ‘inward significance’, as Aristotle puts it) has to be emotional, and while a lot of artists, including very funny stand-ups, certainly do reveal their genuine emotions about given situations by joking about them, there’s enough dispute around emotivism in art to not take emotion as being the only thing or even the most important thing that might be revealed.

Before pointing out exactly how stand-up does this, there’s another important point I’d like to make. If this whole campaign ever really struggles, it will be because of a quite dodgy idea that the point where stand-up becomes art is when the comic stops going for laughs and says something profound or emotional instead.

On Saturday night, for example, I saw Daniel Kitson’s current show, which has a wonderful minute or two near the end where (without wanting to ruin this bit of the show for anyone) he stops worrying about the laughs and instead outlines how a fairly Heideggerian existentialist philosophy helped him through what sounds like an awful period of thinking about death. Now, this was genuinely heartfelt and beautiful to watch. The problem is that there seem to be a lot of people, particularly in the stand-up community, who think that this is what made his show into art. But – and I say this as someone who thinks that Kitson is just the most brilliant stand-up I’ve seen – the point where he stops going for laughs is actually when his stand-up stops being art, because it stops meeting the second criteria: it stops being the craft, or artifice, of stand-up and becomes something more like live philosophy or confession.

Stand-up is about laughs. If stand-up is like painting at all, then the jokes are the paint. It doesn’t matter for artistic purposes, how much paint is on the canvas, how thick or sparse the brushstrokes are (Stewart Lee’s laughs, for example, can be pretty minimalist, as can Reg D Hunter’s sometimes); but if a stand-up isn’t working towards a laugh, then they aren’t painting. When a painter decides that part of their canvas is not eligible to have paint on it (as Kitson decided with that part of his show) then that doesn’t by definition make the rest of the canvas somehow more artistic. A lot of stand-ups seem to think this, though, and it is this unfortunate view that led Andrew Watts to be absolutely rightly concerned that state-funded ‘art’ comedy will be less funny.

Besides, it does a disservice to our artform to say that in order to be art, comedy has to have unfunny, ‘honest or emotional’ bits which don’t in any way have a laugh in their sights. A great comedian can say something so emotional, so honest with a good joke; but that honest truth is rarely revealed on the surface of the joke. Take, for example, Frank Skinner’s bit about being convinced his girlfriend is cheating on him; or Kitson’s old routines about his childhood, or his speech impediment, or in the current show about going to see people he loves in hospital; David Trent’s story about the aftermath of an argument with his wife; Andrew’s bit about kiss inflation; pretty much all of Woody Allen’s old act… All of these disclose a deeper emotional ‘truth’ – an insecurity or anger or despair – which rests just below the surface of the joke, but which is revealed in a laugh which is deeper and more heartfelt than a laugh for a knob gag, however well it’s crafted.

It doesn’t have to be simply an emotional truth either – jokes frequently disclose a political or philosophical point. Stewart Lee’s phenomenal story about his encounter with Jesus, or in his current show the completely made-up stories about Richard Hammond and the Magners advert, (which for a careful listener, subtly reveal his rage at the tendency of apparently credible media people to whore out themselves and whatever else they can find of value); Tony Dunn’s bit about having a theological conversation with his grandmother when he was a small boy; most of Doug Stanhope’s set…

When I wrote on Tuesday that comedy could become art if it made us not just want to laugh but also to cry or think or scream, a friend pointed out to me that if we stop laughing and start crying or thinking, then it isn’t stand-up anymore. She’s very clever and she was absolutely right, but she’d missed my point – great, artistic stand-up makes us want to cry or think at the same time as we’re laughing – and makes us laugh more deeply and more fruitfully – because it reveals something that isn’t just a play on words or a silly story or a funny facial gesture, but something else, something higher and richer and more necessary to us in the challenges we face when trying to cope with life. As Robert Schumann said, “to send light into the darkness of men’s hearts; such is the duty of the artist.”

Or, as Peter Ustinov put it, “comedy is just a funny way of being serious.” And that is where we find its artistic value.

Anyway, I think that meets all three of the criteria I established before. It should also, hopefully go some way to reassuring anyone who’s worried that if the ‘comedy is art’ campaign succeeds it will lead to less funny, more pretentious comedy. We just want the Arts Council to recognise that great comedians are artists; and while it’s true that some of the artists I’ve mentioned here are doing just fine without funding, some of them aren’t: I want audiences all over the country to see David Trent’s act, for example – it would make their lives better! – but he’s only just establishing himself and (I assume) isn’t making enough out of comedy to fund and publicise a proper tour. The situation is the same for a great many brilliant, creative acts who are trying to establish themselves. A lot of potentially great artists give up, especially when they see less artistic comedians (who may be excellent craftspeople but often take few risks and have nothing really to say) getting picked up by Jongleurs and making money; and the losers are the audiences around the country who never see the art that could be produced. We have an Arts Council whose role it is to prevent this loss; it’s time they start getting on with it.


*If I was doing that, I’d point out how Munnery’s text folds in on itself so that the underlying reading undermines the surface of the text, thus destabilising its meaning and blurring the boundaries between truth and falsity etc. – but a) comedy writing does this so much as a matter of course anyway that it seems pointless to write about it, and b) quite a few people I’d like to convince with this blog think that Derrida is all wanky bollocks, even though they quite like it when comedians (often inadvertantly) demonstrate his arguments with the kind of jokes I’m talking about. But that’s the English for you…

storytelling, with cheese

Last night’s Scurvy Wednesdays show was interesting and strange. We had a big crowd in (in part courtesy of our friend Carrie, who did a great little open spot) and everybody performed well, but for some reason there were very few big laughs and the whole thing never quite went off the way it often does.

This makes it very difficult to tell whether what I did was actually any good or not; it only got a few really good laughs, but then so did all the other acts and they were all doing good stuff. 

But it’s particularly annoying because I was trying something totally different:  I’d had quite an interesting few days last week that led to a genuinely surreal and funny conclusion where I ended up in a strange part of Coventry with a santa outfit and a reblochon cheese. So I thought it might be fun to just tell the story – with a few made-up details, obviously – in a very rough, unwritten (but not un-thought-about) kind of way. But I was conscious that for the story to work, I’d have to put in a few narrative bits that weren’t funny, or at least that I hadn’t yet had the writing time to make funny. So the narrative was fine but the punchlines were deliberately a little more sparse than they usually would be.

The trouble is, the usual way of judging whether a piece of stand-up has worked is the number and size of the laughs it gets. And what I did got some laughs, but it felt like they weren’t quite as loud or as frequent as they ought to have been, and there’s no way of knowing whether that was because of the act or because of the room. Basically, there were too many variables for it to be a fair test…

(I possibly didn’t help matters by starting out saying that what I was about to say was true, which explains why some of it wouldn’t be funny. That was intended to be a kind of ironic self-deprecating joke in itself, but I didn’t quite pull off the delivery and the audience, many of whom were friends of Carrie and had never been to a comedy night before, took it at face value, expected not to laugh, and then often didn’t. Even at some of the things I’d thought were pretty funny.)

Still, when I watched the video back this morning I realised that I didn’t bore the audience at any point – they were intently following the story all the way through; and there were even a few big-ish laughs for some bits which I may try and appropriate for my normal stand-up set, if I can get them to work out of context.

So it wasn’t a complete waste of time. But whether it was worth bringing the cheese along to demonstrate how smelly it was – and thus going round carrying a bag which smelled of cheese all night – I’m not sure I’d do that again…

day 16: black swans and other surprises

I’ve been wondering recently about what exactly makes a joke.

There are a few theories out there; I particularly like the simplicity of Logan Murray‘s theory that it is just a thought, and then an afterthought which takes the initial thought in an unexpected direction.

But I’d prefer an even more simple definition: that a joke is simply some kind of satisfying surprise. I can’t think of a single thing I’ve ever laughed at that didn’t contain an element of surprise; and it can’t be an unsatisfactory surprise, like getting hit round the head, because that would probably be unfunny. Unless, of course, there was some satisfactory element to it – like if it happened to someone who deserved it…

But in addition to jokes and unsatisfying surprises, there is another category of surprise – what Nassim Taleb calls ‘Black Swans’. These are things which are not merely surprising, but which we had considered – by overestimating our own certainties and by underestimating the randomness of chance – to be highly improbable. At least, that is, until they actually happen, forcing small revolutions in how we interpret our experience.

I saw three Black Swans yesterday.

The first was in the Scottish National Gallery, where I went to meet my mum before she caught her train to Iona. It was my response to a pastel drawing, little more than a sketch, called something like ‘Portrait of a Young Woman’, by the 16th Century artist Federico Barocci. I just couldn’t believe it was so beautiful; I stared at it for a while, just admiring the colouring of the skin, as close to tears of aesthetic joy as I have ever been in an art gallery. I like art, but I’d always thought it pretty much impossible for me to respond to a pastel sketch quite like that.

The second Black Swan I saw was a phenomenally good play by a student drama society. Bizarrely, the play was called ‘Black Swans’, and though I don’t think it was a reference to Taleb’s book, it was the title that got me thinking about them.

Anyway, it was the middle play of a triple-bill by Goldsmiths University Drama Society, and it was a free festival show. I’d been flyered in the morning by a girl with a big black triangle on her forehead.

Hm, I had thought. This could easily be terrible.

But it wasn’t. It was outstanding. It was set in a post-collapsed-state dystopia – bad anarchy, basically – and was an exploration of what would happen to two groups of people: one group, a family, always sat at a table centre stage, unable leave their hiding place, who just wanted safety and always spoke in lost, broken voices; the other group – the ‘Black Swans’ – all around the stage, was a collective of politician and serial killer types, the kind who want to dominate and hurt others.

As the focus shifted between the two groups, it became increasingly clear that the only way either for the family to be safe or for the Black Swans to increase their power was to return to a state-type system.

Like I say, I don’t know how closely it related to Nassim Taleb’s idea of Black Swans, but as a demonstration of Hobbesian hopeless nastiness it was incredible. I hadn’t thought it possible that a free show by a student drama society could almost persuade a anarcho-utopian like me to be grateful for statist authoritarians. I had to remind myself several times that the anarchy presented in the play was clearly the result of a revolutionary collapse of the state, rather than the kind of gradual and cautious dismantling of authority (in which, for example, state education and the NHS would probably be the last things to go) that might actually work.

Then, amazingly, the cast and director of the play turned up later at the newsroom (just as we finished our evening show) to see their friend perform in The News At Ten-ish. It was very nice to meet them, especially having been raving to Loz about their play all evening…

(I should also add, as a follow-up to yesterday’s blog, that the audience for the News At Ten-ish seemed to really enjoy the show and that perhaps what I wrote was unfair. Or perhaps it was a fluke and the format is still problematic).

The third Black Swan? I had a really fun night in the Library Bar.

Who could have predicted that?

CTD: Audience – full; Performance – good (7/10)

SSS: Audience – full; Performance – I’d have been happy with this at the start of the run, but I skipped and rushed stuff and it wasn’t up to the last few nights. After doing 7s and 8s out of 10, this felt poor (6/10)

Other stuff: unpredictable

Overall: WIN

en attendant…quoi?

I finally saw – at long last – Waiting for Godot at the Haymarket Theatre Royal this afternoon. I read it when I was 18, but it’s taken this long to find a production of it that was likely to do justice to it. It’s a masterpiece, of course – right now I’m tempted to suggest it might just be the masterpiece, as if the whole point of performance art, maybe the whole point of Europe even, was to produce this one play.

And in particular, it was worth waiting for this cast: Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as Vladimir and Estragon; Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup as Pozzo and Lucky… McKellen’s Gogo in particular is so grizzled and so pathetic and so genuinely funny that I don’t think I’ll forget it as a comic performance: every glance, every pause, every vocal inflection is so perfectly timed and delivered that at times it almost felt like Patrick Stewart, in comparison, was phoning his Vladimir in. He wasn’t, of course – it’s just that to perform alongside that kind of presence would surely make any actor feel like they’re being carried. When I saw Stewart do ? in Hamlet back in December he dominated every scene; that just shows how good McKellen was today. But even if Stewart was phoning it in, it wouldn’t matter; he’s so perfectly cast and directed that he can probably afford to do that and still put on an outstanding show…

The only real special thing about the actors though, is that they are actually up to the script. For part of act 2 we watched four men lying still on a stage for ages, and not only did we not get bored but when the dialogue came it was funny enough to make the girl on the row behind me splurt her icecream all over the people in front, who were laughing so much they hardly even noticed. That doesn’t often happen at £50-a-seat matinees.

But this play is remarkable; it seems like for the whole of the 19th and 20th Centuries, Northern Europe had something on the tip of its tongue that it wanted to say and couldn’t quite find the words for. It took an Irishman to even get close, and even then he had to say it in French first (and when he said it the whole thing was dark and thick with the best spirit of Heidegger, who never seemed sure how to say what he was trying to say either). And this play is the closest Europe got to saying it, before realising it was never going to be able to say it clearly and collapsing into whatever postmodern non-signifiers it can still drag itself to managing.

So you can still see this production in English, and you come out feeling confused and lost and strangely focussed, even though we always knew as a contemporary audience that Godot’s not coming (I once had an argument with a French professor at Warwick about whether it wouldn’t be a good idea for Godot to arrive sometimes, just so that there’s still the sense of theatrical suspense that the first audiences who saw it would have experienced. But having seen it properly now, I think that really would defeat the point).

Anyway. The point is, it’s funny and you should see it if you still can. There’s not many dates left, but I paid £50 I can’t afford for my ticket and I’d pay several times that if I had to. See it.

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