Tag Archives: Shakespeare

The Maynardville Bridgehead (Like war, but for theatre sissies)

20 Jan

BRIDGEHEAD:

  1. A strong position secured by an army inside enemy territory from which to advance or attack.
  2. Super-cool war terminology that a lazy writer can use to spice up the title of his/her essay.

Let us, you and I, sit for moment and calm the fuck down. As we breathe, using our diaphragms to suck the air in and push it out, we must endeavor to let go of the things we can change and the things we cannot and hope to christmas and the angels of malarkey that we will know the difference. “Why this plea for tranquility”, I hear you whisper, your hot breath tickling my earhole. Because, dear reader, I’m about to discuss Maynardville and I wish to do so without the usual mouth frothing and skin tearing that comes with a discussion, critical or favourable, of a theatrical institution, tradition, legend or practice.

A quick recap: (Previously on Uncle Loo): When I say Maynardville I refer to the annual staging of a Shakespeare at the Maynardville open-air theatre. This is a production of The Maynardville Theatre Trust, supported first and foremost by Artscape. I have publicly stated my dissatisfaction with past Maynardville productions and my previous blog was in anticipation of 2014’s “The Tragedy of Richard III”. What I learnt is that public criticism of such a sacred cow is frowned upon and viewed as troublemaking for troublemaking’s sake. Privately, however, there seems to be a lot of agreement, especially surrounding the issue of Maynardville’s quality (or lack thereof). Asking publicly for Maynardville to be better is akin to shitting on Athol Fugard’s forehead, even though privately everyone is shitting on Mr Fugard’s forehead and gleefully sharing the sight of their well aimed turds with their friends.

*Please Note: I have never, nor will I ever attempt to make a shit on Mr. Fugard’s forehead, nor do I condone such nasty business. The analogy (ANALogy, haha) was purely for illumination’s sake.

Back to the business at hand (And now for our feature attraction): It was a muggy Saturday night and I held in my left hand an opening night ticket courtesy of a friend and in my right a Castle Lager cooler bag which contained two bone-chilling Castle Lites, a bottle of cheap-as-dirt-but-not-fancy-dirt-more-like-dirt-poor-white-trash-dirt white wine and a single wine glass, wrapped ever so carefully in an unwanted page of that morning’s newspaper (the arts section, perhaps? Stop it, you sly buggers.). The ticket ensured my entrance and the booze ensured my full attendance and yes, my full attention. Not because of the booze’s effects, but because it kept me occupied, which is essential when attending a a 3-hour+ play with unpadded seats. Yes, perhaps fruit and cheese would be better, but I couldn’t goddamn afford it, okay? Who are you? My mother? (Okay, settle down, Loo. Diaphragm, remember?) During the next three hours, two significant things occurred: A decent amount of the audience left at the interval, and I, having stayed until the end, exited Maynardville Park disappointed that I did not enjoy the play.

At this point, you may be asking, but is that not what you (me) expected? And to tell you the honest cross-my-heart-hope-to-die truth, it was expected. I was not surprised that I didn’t like the play. I could name, almost scene for scene, performance by performance, what I thought was wrong with the play. There were moments I didn’t hate, as there is with anything, but in general I walked away thinking it was pretty much par for the course when it comes to Maynardville (which, in my opinion, is not good enough, to put it mildly.) My compatriots and I met for a drink afterwards and we laid out the problems we had, lamented moments which could’ve worked but didn’t, and laughed at instances we found ridiculous. But then, half way through another ice-cold Castle Lite, a draft this time (wearing my big-boy pants in front of my theatre cohorts), a feeling of melancholy settled over me. I wrestled with this feeling through late hours of that night and until the evening of the next day. Why did I not run home, as I expected to do and what was expected of me to do, and write with glee about the faulty production I witnessed?

My best guess, as I still struggle with it, is that I wanted “Richard III” to exceed my expectations and when it didn’t there was a sense of celebration amongst those I know and those who share my feelings about Maynardville. And this is what made me melancholic. We were glad the production failed (in our estimation and opinion, which is not shared by everyone). I reason that we were glad, because it’s another nail in the coffin and that it’s one step closer to an implosion which might lead to a serious change. The truth, however, might be closer to the childish joy of saying “I told you so.” We can revel in our own superiority by pointing at the failure of an institution that cannot win us over if it tried.

This is an not an attempt to vindicate Maynardville or “Richard III”. The play was not good. The faults outweighed the merits, but in saying that. I am admitting that there were merits. And there were. There’s one thing I can’t fault the production with and that’s the fact it was obviously trying. The director (the very talented Lara Bye), her mostly-miscast actors, designers and crew were definitely attempting to break from the confines of mediocrity for which Maynardville is so famous. That they couldn’t rise above the history is a shame, but should we not be hopeful that an attempt was made?

Another reason for my lugubrious mood may well be the realisation that Maynardville won’t change because no one wants it to change. No one. Not us, nor them. If Maynardville and its shadowy cabal of a board (I imagine them in a castle, pale, feeding on virgin boys and singing Prussian monastery hymns) continue to resist change, then we, their critics, get to continue our criticisms. Welcome to the circle of unimportant, egoistic bullshit. Am I ashamed of my critique? Not at all. Is there something to be done about it? Of course. Why haven’t we done it? Because it’s easier to point out Maynardville’s flaws than to make a serious, loud, positive attempt to change what bothers us.

I don’t want Maynardville to disappear. There I said it. I’m glad it exists. It has employed many of my friends and will continue to do so in the future. That is also the reason I will continue to demand an improvement. At the risk of being rousing, we, the schlubs who make up this tiny, fragile little industry, can fight for something better. It is not only our right, but our duty. What good is it to sit in the back row, hurl insults and claim fraud, and then refuse to take the broom and sweep up the trash that so offends our art. This is not a call for group-think or inclusion or even forgiveness, but if we want challenging theatre then perhaps it’s time we challenge ourselves.

Maynardville has earned our scorn. And scornful we shall be. But what happens then? We can make it hard for them to do another weak production, or we can make it easy for them to do a good one. I hope to choose the latter.

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Bleatings of a Maynardvillain (Why can’t we be frenemies?)

15 Jan

It was the first week of the new year, and not a creature was stirring. The Theatre Town of Cape was scandal free, or rather free of new scandal. The Fleur Du Caps, still months away, had not poisoned theatre practitioners (yet) and turned them against their peers (yet). No festivals were under way, so madness and pioneer-blindness were not issues to be dealt with. As far as theatre was concerned, the week had that new born baby smell. But then I did a fart on the baby.

I arrived home one fine evening after visiting my local pub and perhaps it was the one-too-many Guinnesses (Guinni? Guinnessees?) or even a harmful streak that lives behind my forehead and gets bored a little to easily… in any case, I sat down in front of my computron and booted up the old Facebook and was met with the poster for the annual Maynardville production of a Shakespeare play, this year “Richard III” is the chosen one. Maynardville, the famed outdoor theatre, a branch of Artscape, attended by all ages, a summer ritual, a Cape Town past-time, is the only South African institution (as far as my research intern knows) to guarantee a fully realized Shakespeare production every year. Quite a few of my actor friends have appeared in the plays over the years and various directors, from visionaries to hacks, have attempted to wrangle a decent production out of its cage and onto the moonstruck, windswept stage of Maynardville.

Here’s the rub: in my opinion Maynardville is not very good. Or hasn’t been for a long time (before my time). It’s had acceptable moments, a performance here, an interpretation there, but that makes it even more unacceptable; a promise unfulfilled is worse. My opinion is not shared by everyone, but it is shared by some. And you would think it’s alright to say something, wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you? A-ha! You’re wrong. Take that. Shove it, Mr and Mrs Wrong. You are absolutely not allowed to say anything negative about Maynardville, because you are not saying words; you are shitting streams of foul smelling faecal material into the mouths of Grandma Friendly and her knitting circle friends made up of Ouma Rusks, Mrs Balls, The Mandela Family, Woolworths and little AIDS babies.

Before I plead for sanity, let’s go back for a second. There I sat, burping Guinness, the blue glow of Facebook highlighting the pubic-quality of my wannabe-moustache, looking at acclaimed actor Warrick Grier staring at me through Richard III’s eyes, dull text surrounding him, inviting me to travel to Wynberg, bring a bottle of wine, settle in for some Shakespeare-ing and get ready to… um… wait… I almost have it… ugh, damnit… At this point I opened up that little status thing-a-majig and wrote what can be considered the first shot in a war that will ravage the landscape (it won’t, but it’s fun to imagine). Here it is, the first exhibit in the prosecution’s case against me with my puppy dog eyes:

I love the disappointment that comes with the inevitable fuck-up and bastardization of Maynardville’s annual sodomizing of a great Shakespeare play. Go theatre.

“Woah, woah,” I hear you say, “The fuck did Maynardville ever do to you?” Well, not much, dear reader. Not much. Most of what I’ve seen has been dull, obvious and lazy. Some of what I’ve seen has been offensively dull, obvious and lazy. And on a few occasions it has been tantamount to a criminal offense for anyone who loves theatre and in particular, the work of Billy-Bob Shakespeare. It was with this in mind that I said what I said. And I stand by the intention, if not the sarcastic tone. Should I have said it? Why not? Am I allowed to say it? You’re goddamned fucking-A right I’m allowed to say it.

Let’s skip forward to the next morning and the days that followed. I wouldn’t say that shit hit the fan, but the hushed tone of those who took offence was comparable to a threat. Rebuke came from unexpected people who all share the same sentiment: I’m a trouble maker who will only end up hurting myself if I take on Maynardville (Remember, this is Maynardville, not Godzilla. So, you are allowed to laugh.) How dare I, was the theme of the day. My Facebook statement was taken as unfair; an attack on those who live with the angels. A few friends informed me that I was making new enemies. Enemies? Like, bona-fide A-grade enemies? Wait… new enemies? New? I have old enemies? Holy mind-fuckery, who was I? And what… did… I… do…? (Insert obnoxious fart sound effect.)

Let’s start with the obvious plot-hole in this terrible tale: why in pluperfect hell would Maynardville and her play-pals give a flying Cohiba-shaped shit what I have to say? Why is the theatre industry so insecure that institutions, safe and secure and well funded institutions, force us to defend them in the hopes that these institutions, who do more bad than good, will look upon the industry with benevolence and stroke our heads approvingly. Why are we not taking a stand against bad theatre? If the notion that Maynardville does shitty theatre annually sits uncomfortably with you, then let’s change the parameters of the argument: If Maynardville is not bad, then can we all agree that it can be better?

I believe it can be better. I am excited by the idea of a great (or at least with the fully supported plan to be great) fully funded Shakespeare every year. I imagine that world and I smile. I do not smile at the thought of Maynardville’s destruction, because I don’t believe that a void is better than mediocre work. I believe that we, you and I, should be able to say, “This is not good enough.” We should be able to criticise Maynardville without it being taken as an attack on the people who work hard for months to make it a reality. I do not begrudge anyone taking a long-term job, especially in an industry that believes it’s acceptable to underpay (or not pay at all) actors, stage-managers, directors, stagehands etc. I do not criticise a director who attempts to lift the quality of Maynardville’s output, but is shackled by a committee of soft-handed, paranoid, detestable, on-the-verge-of-extinction layabouts who are as terrified of progressive theatre as they are of their own shadows.

How’s that for making enemies?

As I write this, “Richard III” is three days away from opening, and I plan on going. There are talented people working on the production; there are also untalented shit mongers. What if it’s good? Wouldn’t that be something? I would praise it, but more importantly I would be expected to praise it. And if it’s not? Should we shut up? Where do we draw the line between allowing something to float into obscurity, and fighting for the idea of doing better?

I’ll admit my expectations are low, but this allows me to enjoy it even more if it’s good. Then I’ll eat my words, Maynardville. Go ahead, prove me wrong. I dare you.

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