The arts are my passion: drama, music, opera, dance, sculpture, painting, art history, architecture, film, literature... old and new... national and international... and after a period living, writing & performing in Australia and Italy this passion has brought me back to London. 'Blog Julie Arts' is a spin-off after success with 'There's Always A Story' at blogjulie.com

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Connect, Converse, Collaborate

I started 2018 in a social bubble, while focusing on rehearsals in London for the opening of my new cabaret show, All The Girls You Are.  Apart from my immense enjoyment of the artistic process and the satisfaction of getting the show up and running (something I couldn’t have done without great collaboration from The Philip Foster Company), it was the visceral connection with the audience in the intimate space of The Pheasantry in Chelsea which has proved most memorable.  There is nowhere to run or hide in a one-woman show.  You have to feel the fear and do it – authentically and honestly for 2 x 45 minute sets of songs and stories.  If you don’t, you lose them immediately; because an audience up-close-and-personal knows if you fake it. 

Since coming out of that theatrical bubble, I have seen three productions in succession which have impressed me so completely I simply have to rave about them.  Each production, in its own way, reaffirms the importance of creating and trusting true connections between people in a world which too easily and flippantly gives us a carbon-copy of the real thing. 

I understand Hugh Jackman wanted to bring the story of P.T. Barnum to the screen for years.  Like me, he probably saw the inimitable Reg Livermore play Barnum in a tour around Australia when he was a boy, and I suspect nursed the project close to his heart until he was old enough to play the role.  Good for him - because the resulting film, The Greatest Showman, is wonderful in so many ways.  I defy critics who say it’s “hokey” or “not historically accurate”.  So?  The film is musically and artistically exquisite – every song, every element of choreography and design, a sheer delight.  The story, however fantastical, is compelling; the moral pure and uplifting.  Running beneath the narrative is a question about what it is to be authentic – to one-self and others - and what it is to be human.  P. T. Barnum was accused of being a fake because he did something others hadn’t done before, and because he mixed with people considered ‘odd’ or ‘outcast’.  (Sound familiar?)  In doing so he proved it is the opposite of fake to include people in society who may not be mainstream, who may be poor, scary, or ‘different’.  Barnum, the impresario, gave voice to people who had never been seen or heard before, and as such his life’s work was brave and honourable.  Audiences don't care about artistic license when the results are brilliant.  And I suspect it is the compassion and humanity (with all its ‘oddities’) within the story which pulls you into The Greatest Showman even if you aren’t a musical theatre aficionado.  Good on ya, Hugh!  Bravo all 15,000 people who worked on the film, acknowledged as they are in the final credit.  This film was definitely a successful collaboration, and a worthwhile message about the dignity of human connection and the importance of community.  Ignore the naysayers (like the critic in the film) and go and enjoy the circus! 

The National Theatre’s production of Beginning which has transferred to the West End is a two-hander by David Eldridge documenting the challenge of finding a lover (soul-mate or partner) to share your life when you are in your late 30s, have been hurt numerous times, may lack courage, are desperately keen to find love and create a family, but for reasons of digital disconnection and alienation are having no luck on dating sites.  This new play is the best piece I’ve seen about romance in the modern age and I highly recommend it.  I have repeatedly said my arts blogs are not traditional ‘reviews’.  They are arts-life ‘crossover stories’ which I only write when I feel inspired.  Yet even if I did think of myself as a critic, I would have nothing negative to say here.  Beginning is superbly written (David Eldridge), sensitively directed (Polly Findlay), honestly and bravely performed (Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton), and well produced by The National’s production team.  I cried and laughed so much I had to regularly cover my mouth with my hand for fear of making a spectacle of myself in the front row; or worse, pulling focus.  Many felt moved in the same way, including a young man two seats along who identified so much with the vulnerable, wounded, awkward and funny character of Danny that with tears in his eyes he said afterwards, “he was so much like a lad from Essex it was hard to remember he was acting”.  There is no better praise, I’m sure. 

As usual, the articles in the National’s programme are valuable.  Two respected writers respond in print to a key question:  “In theory, we have never been more connected.  So why, in practice, are we feeling so lonely?”  Both replies dig into the (potential) hollowness of a life lived on or through social media.  Hadley Freeman says that for many women the paradox is: “how do you date in the modern world, live in a modern life, behave how a modern woman is supposed to, when you are still shackled to antiquated biology?”  She is referring to the “non-negotiable roadblock of female biology”, as one of the dilemmas in the play is the cruel but unavoidable limitation of time.  Tim Burrows picks up the theme of longing, writing “connectivity is one of Silicon Valley’s many mantras, but... there is mounting evidence that social media often diminishes the feeling of communion it purports as its raison d’etre.”  He explores the idea that social media dependence creates a “half-life glowing in the background”... that technology “flattens and reduces” our membership of the world, as we leap from “app to app, echo chamber to echo chamber, buzz to buzz”... ultimately leaving us more isolated – UNLESS we remember the importance of “escaping our digital fortresses” and actively reaffirm that, as humans, we need each other.  Beginning is first and foremost an entertaining and well executed piece of theatre.  Yet it has the integrity to become a classic because it does not shy away from the big questions of life – how vulnerable and honest dare we be when it comes to chasing and holding the love every single one of us wants?  And does technology help or hinder us in the pursuit of real connection and intimacy?   
The third production which has connectivity at its heart is Network, a Lee Hall adaptation of the 1970s Paddy Chayefsky film about the power,and corruption of television.  Thanks to a friend I was one of the lucky recipients of a seat on the stage in the Littleton Theatre, where I was not only in thrilling proximity to the action but where throughout the play I was served a four course meal with wine.  A good meal it was too – served by subtle actor-waiters.  If I wasn’t a theatre addict to begin with I might complain of over-stimulation.  But wow, bring it on!  If I had to choose a single word to describe that night of combined dramatic, intellectual, visual, digital, culinary and sensual stimulation... it would have to be satiated.  Or... Bacchus.  Yes, by the end of the night I felt like Michelangelo’s famously sozzled Bacchus - tottering on my heels from abundant artistic indulgence.  I’d be interested to see the play again from the house, while not eating and drinking, but I’m sure everyone in the audience agrees that from any seat the likes of Bryan Cranston, Douglas Henshall, Michelle Dockery, Tunji Kasim, Robert Gilbert, Michael Elwyn and many more gave us a deeply exciting and memorable evening.  Thank God for the skill and resources of our National Theatre!  There are dozens of first rate performances here (including the sound and design on stage and television screens), and the direction from Ivo van Hove is driven and insightful. 

On my theme much resonates.  Where are the parallels in our world today if television was considered at its peak to be “a media equivalent to fast food”?  How much do sound-bites, and the drive to keep ratings high, compromise the integrity of ‘real news’?  How much does popularity (or fickle trends) suppress comprehensive thought and debate about important matters?  Or as the programme notes warn: there is a danger in the digital age that “we connect but do not bother to converse”.  The questions central to Network are as relevant as ever because a hashtag or tweet can only reveal a small part of any story, and cannot substitute for complex discussion between human beings that need to understand and respect each other.  The Howard Beale character in Network, played to edgy perfection by Bryan Cranston, identifies the ‘bullshit’ in much of the ‘news’ he’s been peddling, and in a last ditch attempt to find redemption he dares to come out and say so in prime time.  Each time he got the audience (in its role as the American public) to yell out “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” I thought about the lies we were told in the Brexit Referendum and I gave it full voice.  In the play the results for Howard Beale are hilarious and tragic, as are the back-room deals to secure ratings on the back of his meltdown and demise.  Crucially, when the lights finally came up in the auditorium, even an overfed and sumptuously entertained Bacchus walked out into the London night wondering about the double-edged sword of media – in all its forms – and the alertness, and healthy cynicism, we must maintain if we want to ensure humanity and truth are not lost in a digital glare.

It is complete coincidence these artistic experiences coincide with my personal decision to embark on a Facebook Detox in 2018.  I haven’t deleted my FB account (as I learned my professional page would also close if I did).  Yet I feel affirmed my decision to talk to real people face to face for a while – or via other communication channels – is a valid choice for as long as I feel so inclined.  And who knows, it may yet bring unknown surprises? 

#TheGreatestShowman     #ntBeginning   #ntNetwork