Magnetic North Blog

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Archetypal stories again..

Last week I heard two programmes on Radio 4 within the space of an hour which seemed strongly connected and set me thinking. First, I heard Peter Brook talking about his new production 11 and 12 (on at Tramway in April) on Start the Week.  There has always seemed to be something quite elemental in Brook’s work – a search for some basic truths of life that has seen him explore some of the great world myths and stories, including The Mahabharata, as well as head of on a journey through Africa with a group of actors in the 1970s.  Brook is always fascinating to hear because he has such a restless, inquiring mind – always exploring, never satisfied but always defining interesting points on the journey.  As a side note, he was particularly interesting about politicians and the common belief that they lie to us.  Like any actor, he said, a politician can only be convincing if he or she believes absolutely in what he or she is saying. To me, this idea is much more interesting than assuming that, say, Tony Blair lied about Iraq.


Immediately after the programme came A History of the World in 100 Objects – British Museum director Neil McGregor’s new series which aims to do exactly what the title suggests.  The item under discussion was an Assyrian clay tablet more than two and half thousand years old. In 1872, only a dozen years after The Origin of Species had been published, a story startlingly similar to the Biblical story of the Flood, but much older, was found on this tablet.  The man who translated it and realised its significance was an autodidact named Charles Smith who was apparently so excited by his discovery that he began to dance around the room stripping off his clothes, to the understandable alarm of those in the room with him. This discovery caused some difficulty for the religious (and continues to do so for those of a fundamentalist persuasion) because it seemed to contradict the idea that the bible was the word of God.  Was God perhaps a plagiarist?


The answer is that there are some stories that are so fundamental and important that they will continue to be retold and reinvented (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes the argument that there is a fundamental difference in the intention of the two stories). The flood myth that appears in the epic of Gilgamesh appears in many civilisations.  These stories are mythical in the best sense of the word, which to me suggests something that is fundamental to our understanding of life rather than untrue.  There is actually something unnervingly truthful about great myths, which I suppose is why they survive, they seem to make us understand something about ourselves without us necessarily completely understanding what it is – more like an intuition. This gets to the heart of what I think art should do – make us sense something about ourselves without necessarily understanding what it is that we now understand. 


Peter Brook’s restless search has seen him continue to work into his 80s and he seems to tap into that same sense of indefinable truth that myths contain.  Although 11 and 12 has had a mixed response, it will still be fascinating to see his latest thoughts.

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Shouting and Pointing

I used to have a tape of songs from Hollywood movies that I would listen to in the car and at one point I developed a theory that the difference between good and bad art could be summed up by the difference between Al Jolson singing Mammy and Gene Kelly singing Singing in the Rain (I was doing a lot of driving at the time).  Jolson is all ham and razzmatazz, he tries so hard to show you he really means it that I always feel like he doesn’t mean a word of it and by the time he slows right down to sing “I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles (big gulp) my ma (big swoop) aaa mmy (pointless flourish on last note)” you feel like crying for all the wrong reasons. Gene Kelly, on the other hand, is so light that he leaves space for the listener (or viewer if you’re watching the film) to share the experience, rather than bludgeoning them into submission.

I have been reminded of this by the publication of a fascinating sounding book called Michelangelo’s Finger by Raymond Tallis.  In it, Professor Tallis discusses why pointing, so apparently simple, is actually an incredibly complicated and transcendent act. I half-heard him talking about it on Start The Week while I was getting ready to leave for work a few weeks ago, and then came across a mention of the book in The Guardian a little later. The central thesis of the book, as I understand it, is that, although the act of pointing is apparently simple, it is an incredibly complicated and culturally vital activity.  What caught my ear on the radio was Tallis’s notion that the act of pointing implies that the person who sees you pointing will understand that there is something of interest to look at and that this implies a shared sense of culture, which defines humanity.  I remember hearing Stephen Fry point out the futility of pointing in the direction of a thrown stick to a dog because the dog will look at the finger rather than the stick, but it had never occurred to me how important this is. Imagine, every time you point at something, you are confirming your humanity by placing your self in a transcendent “other” place.

I love the idea that the essence of humanity can be iterated by such a simple action. It seems to me that art, at its best, tells us something about how we live.  Bad art merely tries to provoke an emotion in the passive viewer/listener/reader, good art provokes a stream of thoughts and sensations the end result of which may or may not be emotional.  In rehearsals or in preparing a production, we are often trying to find the simplest and most direct ways to communicate ‘the thing’ that the play is about (and discovering what ‘the thing’ is in the first place is one of the hardest parts of the process).  Many of the greatest plays find an apparently simple metaphor that perfectly captures a more complex idea (the storm at the beginning of The Tempest, Willie Loman’s job as a salesman), but the idea that our innate humanity can be summed up by one gesture is so breathtakingly, beautifully simple that it takes my breath away in the way that Al Jolson never could.    

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Archetypal stories

I recently took my four old son to see Up, the new Pixar film.  It's very good - well written, beautifully (and expensively) made and very sophisticated in that rather slick way that Pixar seems to have nailed for making films that work just as well for both adults and children.  The opening of the film is an astonishing montage sequence that tells the life story of the central character Carl - voiced by Ed Asner - from his first boyhood meeting with his future wife Ellie to his present status as grumpy old widower in five minutes of beautifully observed animation.

The real story then begins, but everything in the opening sequence is necessary to our understanding of the rest of the film.  Without spoiling things for anyone who might be planning to see the film, I'll just say that there are several action sequences later on in the film that involve savage dogs. My son got quite upset at these scenes - particularly a night-time one where Carl, his young companion Russell and their canine companion are surrounded by the dogs, who are all under the malevolent control of the antagonist Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer).  I reassured my son that everything would be alright in the end and we settled down again, but the final showdown on the top of an airship was too much for him and we had to leave – him in floods of tears, me wanting to know how the inevitable ending would be played out. "Up" was clearly following a traditional narrative in which good would triumph over evil – Muntz would be defeated and Carl would find a new place to live - and we were at the stage of the final complication before the denouement.  But why would my son know this?  Archetypal story structure is clearly something that has to be learned, however inherent it may appear.  There are certain rules that must be followed for a satisfying narrative - and there is something satisfying about a well-told traditional narrative – and storytellers know that they mess with these rules at their peril.  It would be inconceivable for Muntz to triumph – there would riots in the cinema.  The skill in working with  archetypal genres is keeping us engaged with how the inevitable ending will be achieved.  We know that Gary Cooper will have to win the shoot-out in "High Noon" and that Catherine Bennet will have to marry Mr Darcy, but we don’t know how it will happen. Robert McKee has observed that satisfying films always have a scene that is made inevitable in the minds of the audience by an early occurrence – the showdown between Robert Shaw and the shark in "Jaws" has to happen from the moment he scrapes his nails down the blackboard.

I was telling a friend of mine (who also happens to be a storyteller) about the incident in the cinema and we got talking about context. He told me about some students who had told him that they had been to see “United 93” (about the hijacked plane that crashed on 9/11) with someone who hadn’t realised the context and was completely devestated by the ending – he had assumed this was a straightforward good v. evil film in which, whatever the odds, good would triumph in the end. 

Archetypal stories are a source of fascination for me, and Bruno Bettelheim writes persuasively  in “The Uses of Enchantment” about their purpose in fairy tales. Archetypes are necessary for us to discover things about the world and to understand how it works: we need the stories to answer the questions we don’t even consciously realise we have - Bettelheim was a  Freudian after all -  and what better way to find the answers than listen to stories?


(If you haven’t seen Up, find an excuse and go and see it - you can see trailers for it here  If you’re interested in archetypes, try Bettelheim’s “The Uses of Enchantment” or Joseph Crane’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”; Robert McKee’s book on structure “Story” is very interesting, though primarily about film structure.)


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Anger Management

On Friday I had two encounters with extreme anger within the space of an hour.  In the first one, I saw a man and a dog walk out into the road in front of a car. The driver (a woman) stopped in time, but the man walked aggressively round to her side of the car and began shouting that she had almost killed him and his dog.  The woman said that he had stepped out in front of her and he became even angrier, and out his hands onto her half-wound down window.  as I was crossing the road quite close to the scene, I asked the driver if everything was OK.  She said "Yes, it's fine" and the man turned to me and starting shouting that I was a racist and walked off down the road shouting loudly.

About a quarter of an hour later I was at a counter in the bank and a man at the next window became incensed when the cashier asked him for identification.  He spoke angrily and said that it was his own business that he was cashing the cheque for, why did he need ID?  The cashier remained calm and said she had asked because sometimes businesses sent other people to cash cheques and she just wanted to check who she was dealing with.  The man angrily demanded his cheque back and said that he didn't like the woman's attitude - he stormed off in high dudgeon attempting to maintain dignity as everyone in the bank stared at him.

What intrigued me about both these events was the inability of either man to accept that they might be in the wrong, or that the other person might have a point.  The man at the bank had of course stitched himself up completely: he had come to cash a cheque - a relatively straightforward transaction - but had failed because of a sense of injured pride.  The woman behind the counter might have been briefly upset at being shouted at, but he had not only made himself appear foolish in front of several people, he had failed to achieve the main purpose of his visit and he would not be able to achieve it without further loss of face (this being the only branch of this particular bank in Edinburgh, and there only being two cashier's windows - side by side of course - in this branch).  As I left the bank a few minutes later, the man was sitting at a table by the window staring out, possibly trying to work out which was worse - not getting his money or going back sheepishly to the cashier.

This is the stuff of drama - people behaving foolishly on the spur of the moment and then living with the consequences - but there is something tricky about the sudden burst of anger over trivial matters on stage or screen. How can it be made to seem believable?  Mike Leigh has made these moments an essential element of his work - all of his plays and films contain a moment of embarrassing, irrational, angry loss of control - but, in less skilled hands, I sometimes find myself thinking "oh, I don't really believe anyone would do that."  The problem for dramatists is that, in real life, these eruptions often seem irrational to the outside eye, though they are obviously rooted in something much deeper for the person concerned - the fear of humiliation, the memory of an earlier embarrassment etc.  The skill of a dramatist in these moments is telling us enough about the character before the eruption so that we accept it when it happens - when Basil Fawlty beats his car with a branch because it has broken down, we accept it because the barely repressed frustration that defines his character has been carefully plotted to lead us to this point. Likewise Mike Leigh's characters - Keith's demolition of the campsite in Nuts in May, for example.  The other essential is the ability of the actor to show us the complexity of a character's make-up as simply as possible and this is where these moments often stand or fall.

Both events left me wondering why we do it  - why do we have these sudden rushes of blood to the head?  I'm sure everyone has experienced this at one time or another.  There is no doubt an evolutionary reason why we have this capacity, but most of the time we keep it suppressed I suppose.


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The cult of collaboration

In his review of choreographer Rafael Bonachela's new work The Land of Yes and the Land of No in The Observer Luke Jennings makes an interesting observation on collaboration.  His main point is connected with what he percieves as the lack of subject matter in much contemporary dance, but what interested me most was this observation:

"Bonachela is a generous, postmodern soul, who likes to spread the creative kudos and the subsidy money around, but the hard truth is that art is not a democracy. Multiple layers of collaboration don't generate multiple layers of meaning, and in this case they serve only to obscure, and to distance us from the quiet detail that is Bonachela's forte."

It was particularly the phrase "art is not a democracy" that intrigued me.  I spend a lot of time thinking about collaboration and how it works, not least because theatre is at its heart a collaborative art.  There has been a very clear move towards more collaborative modes of development over the last few years - partly, I think, because of an unease about hierarchy - though collaboration has always been there.  Diaghilev was a consumate creator of collaborations.  The phrase that always comes to my mind is Pierre Boulez's definition of a conductor as "a collaborator who decides" (quoted, I think, by Peter Brook though I can't find the reference right now) - I often repeat this to the young directors I work with at Glasgow University as it neatly sums up a director's role.

But Jennings raises the question of whether collaboration is necessarily a good thing, whereas current orthodoxy tends to hold that it is.  I think of myself as an instinctive collaborator, whereas there are other directors who find it difficult.  When I was working as a staff director in the 1990s, I worked with someone who is now one of the foremost opera directors in the world and he almost defiantly disliked collaboration.  He prefered to design his own productions, and when he couldn't, worked with designers who would realise his vision.  Collaboration for him meant everyone listening and  then doing what they were told and, crucially, doing it very well.  This director made sure he worked with top notch people, even though he didn't particularly want then to bring their ideas.  This was (and is) a technique that works well for him, but others prefer to draw together the ideas of those they work with.  I remember reading an interview with Tim Albery about a production of Macbeth he had done for the RSC and he described sitting reading the paly with the designer and seeing what evolved (the designer was Stewart Laing I think).  Wonderfull as this sounds, it is a surprisngly rare thing - too often meetings are hurried, constrained by everyone's availability.

The perfect collaboration, I've heard it said, is when you can't remember who suggested what.  My most recent production, Walden, was certainly the best collaboration I've ever had.  Part of this came from working with visual artists who didn't have the usual database of thearical solutions to draw on - this is not a dig at designers, just an observation that "theatre people" (myself included) have particular ways of looking at things, drawn from experience and tradition and sometimes its helpful to work with people who question the obvious solutions.  Mainly though it worked as a collaboration because we respected each other's work and opinions.

The real "elephant in the room" to use Jennings's rather tiresome phrase, is the question of who decides.  In an article on collaboration in The Guardian a few months ago, Katie Mitchell said of her collaboration with Leo Warner that "It's clear I'm the boss".  Daniel Kramer notes that "leaving the ego outside the room is a huge challenge", whereas his collaborator says more bluntly "the first week of working together was traumatic".  This is the real challenge and probably the thing that defeats more promising collaborations than anything else - go too far towards democracy and it looks a mess, go too far the other way and everyone's work is subverted to one vision.  There's no one solution, it's different for every group - I'm about to embark on our uber-collaborative Rough Mix programme, and one of its aims is to promote collaboration and it'll be aprocess of finding out all over again how to help a group of individuals work together.


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