Post by Nicholas on Aug 4, 2017 16:14:05 GMT
Were Committee to have had less courage in its convictions, I think it would have been a minor masterpiece. As it is, I think it’s a fantastic, if weirdly clichéd, obscurity. By Sondheiming the facts and nothing but, it does something fascinating with the form – but whether this particular story will quite capture the imaginations of the world remains to be seen, and it genuinely could have. Nonetheless, as it is, I was still a fan of this obscure and odd little show.
Committee dramatises a court case, as a court case, and on paper, that seems to be that. So, um, to ask the bleeding obvious, if it’s just the facts and just the words, why does this need to be a musical? Well, as the person behind me said as we walked out, “I suppose it stops it from being boring”. And genuinely, I do think that is, in no small way, that. Perhaps there’s a comment that, in this age of rolling news where entertaining matters as much as informing, this was not meant to be a show-trial, but all trials can be. Simply restaging it would grate, would be untheatrical. Making a musical of it brings it to the masses, makes a point about populism in politics. And it’s worth mentioning that I enjoyed its music – I’d hugely enjoy a cast recording.
But where Billington says “By shaping our response to the material, it overlays it with editorial comment”, I rather feel he’s missing the wood for the trees. OF COURSE it does! OF COURSE this is biased! Were it not biased it would just be talking heads – by making an editorial comment, Rourke and Fraser turn it into a battle, and clearly come on Kids Company’s side. Solely on the basis of these 80 minutes, so did I, because as it’s presented here, one wants to be idealistic and help as many people whatever the cost. The “£150 shoes” moment is defines it – for one party, that’s a scandalous waste of our money, whilst for the other there’s no price tag on autonomy and rehabilitation; taken as a political point alone, it’s easy to feel one way; taken as the 11 o’clock number in a musical, our biases are swayed towards our heroes, deliberately, obviously, willingly. And given the artifice is laid on thick, that’s completely fine. I think it’s constructed in such a way as to remain somewhat balanced – no-one would leave thinking Batmanghelidjh was anything but an idealist perfect for people skills but lacking in leadership skills, for example, whilst Yentob’s somewhat po-faced throughout – and the facts complicate the fictionalising, but the music and the structure makes its biases obvious.
Superficially, then, this ‘musical’ seems a successor to London Road – and, indeed, it’s hard to imagine this existing without that blazing some sort of trail in how ‘real’ a musical can be – but actually, the far more apt comparison would be with In The Matter of J Robert Oppenheimer, that hit Broadway smash we all know and love. Anyone who saw Morton-Smith’s more recent play (which clearly was none of the Olivier committee, given Cumberhamlet was up for an Olivier and the Heff wasn’t) would be able to tell you plenty of biographical details about Oppenheimer’s life, but equally could tell you that there were obvious elements of artifice – for starters, bombs don’t talk. Instead, anyone who sees Kipphardt’s version of that trial would assume that the court transcript is the truth. And yet, naturally, what Kipphardt presents as the honest facts are skewed and subverted to suit his argument. His Oppenheimer is HIS Oppenheimer, not the real one. It’s hard to hear that final speech Oppenheimer gives in court and not consider the man a poet, a rebel, a tragic hero – and yet it’s complete fiction, something Kipphardt wrote in addition to Oppenheimer's own words. Yet it’s presented as fact, in factual context. And indeed, isn't the rest of it skewed to make Kipphardt's point anyway? Oppenheimer objected to it, of course, primarily objecting to the entirely fictional final speech, but the entire text skewed his words to make Kipphardt's point, and Oppenheimer seemed to dislike that dishonesty too - by making his own words theatre they become fiction again. Committee is the successor to ‘let’s just stage a trial’, but by layering this ‘true’ trial with clearly overdramatic music, Rourke and Fraser lay their biases on the line, and give it to us not as the truth, but as one truth, as their truth – as show trials are, as all trials are. By “overlaying it with editorial comment” they make it work as drama.
That issue of reality/artifice has been true of verbatim works in the past, although far less over the last fifteen years or so (Simon Stephens is very interesting about that here, apparently his verbatim play’s a musical too!). I remember some discussion here, about Another World, about one of the talking heads being somewhat unscrupulous – whereas in that show (which I rather enjoyed) he’s depicted with integrity intact. Everything in that show was presented as the simple honest truth – and whilst I thought it made some worthwhile points, given the breadth of the subject tackled there, that’s clearly not true, and dishonesty in reportage is dangerous. And that’s why Committee works as a musical – unlike London Road, which was a musical about overcoming which happened to use verbatim voices to make it more real, this is a verbatim play which uses music to wear its biases on its sleeve and make its sometimes boring story literally sing. There’s an absolute honesty in this fiction, by wearing its fiction so heavily, and by balancing the boring truth and the fictionalised fantastical battle in this way, it’s an interesting step forwards in both what musicals can get away with and what verbatim plays can get away with.
That does lead to the next question: why does this need to be verbatim? Weirdly, that’s a more pertinent question than why Alan Yentob’s singing – why is it Alan Yentob using Alan Yentob’s words in the first place? For a verbatim play to work, the voice or collections thereof need to be interesting, relevant, new. This tends to be using multiple voices, multiple viewpoints, multiple times, and making something through combination. London Road used ordinary cadences to make extraordinary music (music I enjoy humming along to), and collated the themes of hurt to tell the well-trodden story of overcoming a tragedy as a community chorus. David Hare’s verbatim work is a collection of researched voices. More relevantly, in Oppenheimer, Kipphardt gives voice to one of the greatest minds talking about one of the greatest moments of the century – and truth be told, even after openly fictionalising portions to make it more morally grey and more palatable to theatre, it’s still a wee bit too static, and a wee bit too dull.
Here, there are two distinct sides – Company (good) and Committee (bad) – and the editorialising is fine, it’s what makes it drama, and it’s upfront about its drama – and that’s it for characters. As any drama goes, that’s a bit didactic, a bit stilted, a bit still. In theory, this trial transcript lends itself to some cornerstones of basic drama, as explicitly edited and editorialised. In this version of the truth, the case happens to tackle some of the oldest themes in the book: with a liberal dose of liberal bias, the trial centres on personalities vs parliament, on idealism vs accountancy, on success vs failure. The facts are almost clichéd in their archetypical approach to debates. There are moments of great drama, moments of inadvertent comedy, moments of David vs Goliath – all the moments you want in an issue like this – as the best verbatim plays do, it actually would hold up to literary criticism. But unlike the best verbatim plays, it doesn’t use the real words to comment or critique – it just uses them because they’re the words – and despite the editorialising making the themes more explicit, it’s one side vs another for 80 minutes, neither budging, until we’re dismissed, the winner dictated by fact. I rather think that by sticking solely to the transcript, the scope of Committee becomes too limited. Were this willing to expand out more, makes its characters characters and not arguments in exciting costumes, and deal with the politics politically, I think this would take Broadway by storm in its innovation – I think London Road absolutely has global appeal, and this would have too. As it is, it’s too monotonous. None of the ideas are particularly profound or fresh beyond the bizarre but brilliant concept, and whether this court case is really the best way to explore these themes I don’t know (its 80 minute run time does mean that any broader, murkier, interesting issues get put to the wayside, and that is a shame). There are also some factual gaps, as any 80 minute version of a three hour event will have, and whilst some of those would be footnotes, some omissions are bad – particularly the ending, a matter upon which the script doesn’t properly deliver, and which is necessary to know. At best, this uses deliberate artifice to make a gripping fictional debate out of interesting fact – but unlike, say, the Donmar’s past Frost/Nixon, it doesn’t delve into the two sides of its debate as anything more than two sides of its debate. In fact, I was a fan of Temple, which was sheer Socratic debate – strophe/antistrophe for 90 minutes, based on fact – but Waters made his characters caring and carefully crafted people amidst an otherwise balanced debate. By editorialising activities outside the courthouse Committee could have done this too, but in being too daringly focused in form, it remains too factual to be fascinating.
Despite this, I was very much a fan of this flawed show. I think that Fraser and Rourke have crafted a (kind of clichéd) story about the eternal debate between idealism and accountancy, between what charity is but what charity needs, and what society should offer and what society is capable of offering. I think the music was fantastic, awkward, engaging stuff. I thought the debate was crafty, the characters larger than life. And I felt there was a grand honesty in how this presented its biases. It’s somewhat simplistic and sometimes on-the-nose, but nevertheless it’s a novel idea well executed, fascinatingly done, and musically astute. Perhaps it’s more interesting in theory than in actuality, but it’s engaging and exciting nonetheless. I’d give it four stars, for the exact reasons Billington gives it two.
P.S. Is Josie Rourke secretly the most radical AD in London? In the five years (!) since she’s taken over, she’s done a great job at balancing perfectly good sell-out fodder (from The Recruiting Officer to Saint Joan), via left-of-centre revivals (Anhouil, Peter Gill, My Night with Reg) and new plays with a topical dint to them (Steve Waters’ new works), to productions which really dare to do something different – the techy well-researched wizardly of Privacy, the national study of one moment in time of The Vote (which I’m sure was going to have a rewrite and revival in 2020, thanks for botching that one up too Mrs May), to this strange adventure, to the genuinely groundbreaking Shakespeare trilogy, a four-year-long, unashamedly political, almost Hamilton-esque deconstruction of national norms and clichés, one of the most remarkable theatrical achievements, perhaps, of the decade? The Donmar still doesn’t have a reputation for being as adventurous as other theatres – perhaps because it sometimes does shamelessly populist or famous, perhaps because it’s closer to the West End – but given her track record I don’t see why. She recently did this as well, pushing the building's potential further – and given Michelle Terry’s new gig, their relationship bodes very very well for that building too. Quietly in Covent Garden, I think that building’s become far more unpredictable, progressive and exciting than it’s ever been before. Let’s step back and celebrate what a five years she’s had.