Sunday, January 20, 2008

Land of the Dead/Helter Skelter by Neil LaBute, Bush Theatre, 15-Jan-2008 – Directed by Patricia Benecke

There has (by the time I’ve got round to writing this) plaenty of stuff written about how terrible it is for the Bush to lose 40% of its funding. Mark Shenton seems to have summed it up fairly well in his blog including a bit about the sheer impossibility of Bush artistic director Josie Rourke’s figures countering those of the Arts Council. The Bush claim that their attendance figures are nearer to 40,000 as against the Arts Council’s estimate of 14,600. Given the 80 seat capacity of the Bush they’d need to put on almost 500 performances to reach 40,000 and the real figure for the Bush itself is probably nearer to 25,000. To be fair to the Bush they are counting the extra attendances from shows like Elling and Whipping It Up which transferred as well as touring productions, which they admit on their homepage.
In a situation like this where the accountants at the Arts Council seem to be making the muddle headed decisions I wonder though, whether it is wise to play the emotional cards (the theatre is unique, it has a special history, reputation etc.) when it is rationality not passion that seems to be the deciding factor. Also using misleading figures against an enemy will always allow that enemy to point out that the figures are misleading and ignoring the substantive arguments that they ought to answer.
Another thing is the Bush claiming proudly that their free script reading service is well worth keeping: Certainly the Bush’s literary department (including the script-reading) is well worth keeping but anyone with an accountant in their head might quibble about the need for the script-reading to be free. I wouldn’t dare to put it forward as a real suggestion but on the face of it charging fifty quid for a script to be read would probably wipe out any Arts Council induced deficit. Of course a problem that I can see with this idea is that it might put off the timid and talented writers while proving no bar to the conceited and rubbish ones. You could also make the argument that £50 is a lot of money to some people which I’d have to agree with although I wouldn’t go so far as to buy the idea of writers as artists starving it a garret.

Anyway the plays: I found them rather mild, especially for LaBute. In previous plays by Neil LaBute I’ve always found a great energy; even if, as in the Shape of Things, he tries to get me to like the Smashing Pumpkins (the appalling incidental music used in the 2001 Almeida – I still think that it’s why Pinter walked out). It could have been the shortness of the plays but I remember being very stirred by bash-the latter day plays which was a sequence of short pieces.
Land of the Dead was, I thought a rather heavy slice of American Irony, I hadn’t paid attention to its 9/11 (or 11/9 if you prefer) connections. It was written to mark the first anniversary of the attack but it came as one of those unsurprising surprises when it turned out that way.
For Helter Skelter I made the foolish move of reading the last few pages of the script and kept wondering if the damage caused to the lacework of Ruth Gemmell’s dress by a serrated steak knife would be repairable or if they had a dress for each night. The play itself has a woman wanting the reaction her discovery of her husband’s infidelity (with her sister) to have the power of a Greek tragedy. While the ending is a bit Greek it is only a bit Greek.

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