Watching Big Brother: Northern Ballet’s 1984 on stage and screen.

Watching Big Brother: Northern Ballet’s 1984 on stage and screen.

(Originally published in Blue Pages, the journal of The Society of British Theatre Designers)

Having seen Northern Ballet’s 1984 both on TV and on stage at Sadler’s Wells, I was intrigued by what kind of relationship the filmed version had to the live production. I discussed this with the choreographer, Jonathan Watkins, and the designer, Simon Daw. Jonathan is a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, and has a long-term working relationship with Simon, including collaborating on As One for the Royal Ballet. As Jonathon’s working in New York, we talked by email and voice message. This is an edited version of that conversation.

PB:      There have been many different attempts to reimagine 1984, both for stage and screen. What were the main ideas that defined your interpretation? Continue reading

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A Long Wait for Radical History

A Long Wait for Radical History

My personal projects always seem to take ages to get off the ground. I suppose this is because all the work that leads up to getting funding has to happen in the gaps between everything else, not least designing shows for other people. Which I love doing and I get paid for. I’m not complaining. Still, getting a project underway takes a while and this one is taking even longer.

I had the idea for a project about English radical history around eight years ago, I think. At any rate, it was while I was directing A Place at the Table. Our stage manager at the time, Peter Barnett, was another fan of folk music. I remember discussing the exciting new idea with him, so I can roughly date it. This was also roughly around the same time as the Black Smock Band emerged from a series of gay folk nights in Vauxhall. A lot has happened since, with the far right seemingly in the ascendent, but even then it felt as though the narrative of dissent and radicalism in English history needed a bit of rescuing, from all that nonsense about how the Empire wasn’t so bad really and migrants are ruining our way of life. (Quite how you can hold both beliefs at once I don’t know. Anyway.) A major part of what we do as a band is explore the links between then and now, often updating traditional songs to explore their resonances to our contemporary social or political situation. Oh and making them less bloody heteronormative. It made sense to bring these two things – the band and the idea of a performance around English radical history – together. Continue reading

Cleansed/Deadpool

Cleansed/Deadpool

A few months ago I saw, in the space of a week, Katie Mitchell’s production of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed and the blockbuster movie Deadpool. The juxtaposition got me thinking. Of these two events, the live one was essentially a fourth wall play (we’ll come back that vexed issue) which uses extreme violence in way that offers a (deliberately) highly problematised take on catharsis. The prerecorded one also challenges us (or thinks it does) with the way it shows violence but is obsessed – paradoxically, I suppose – with breaking the fourth wall.

I have to get something off my chest, sorry. At one point in Deadpool, the eponymous hero addresses us directly, which leads into a story, in which he also addresses us directly. A fourth wall inside a fourth wall: that’s sixteen walls, he calculates. No it isn’t. Why would it be four squared? It’s clearly a concentric construction; four walls within four walls. Eight walls. Continue reading

A Tale of Two Exhibitions

A Tale of Two Exhibitions

(Originally published in Blue Pages, the journal of The Society of British Theatre Designers)

In 1979 my mum was running the art gallery at Harlow Playhouse, I was very small (but apparently not too small to be captivated by theatre models) and the UK won the Golden Triga at the Prague Quadrennial. Three and a half decades later I find myself organising a display of theatre design in the same town and meeting a new generation of young people. But we’ll have to wait until later in the year before we know about the Golden Triga.

A post-war new town, Harlow has a remarkable history of civic cultural activity; when it was founded it even had its own string quartet. Its single most notable aspect is the sculpture collection, and Harlow was recently given the official title of “Sculpture Town”. It’s even on the signs as you drive in. Harlow’s arts scene was greatly diminished in the late 80s and 90s, mainly because of rate-capping, and for a while it was without an art gallery. It also lost its iconic 1950s Town Hall, designed by the town’s master planner, Sir Frederic Gibberd. The replacement building is architecturally bland but does house a fantastic exhibition space. Continue reading

A Bigger Splash: Painting after performance – a personal response

A Bigger Splash: Painting after performance – a personal response

(Originally published in Blue Pages, the journal of The Society of British Theatre Designers)

Visiting A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance, currently at Tate Modern, is an odd experience for a theatre designer. The exhibition interrogates the relationship between performance and painting – and, in fact, other visual media – from a variety of angles, sometimes tenuously but almost always in a way that is engaging and thought-provoking. However, it does this entirely within the frame of reference of visual art. It is as if performance outside the art gallery either does not exist or is merely a cultural phenomenon to be knowingly referenced; not a major group of art-forms that have their own evolutions, their own traditions and their own avant-garde movements. Yet we, as theatre designers, are engaging with many of the same issues as the artists in the exhibition, and with no less professionalism and integrity.

Continue reading