Lovely to see the London cast strut their stuff.

This House & Rhinoceros

Saw a couple of plays in Edinburgh recently:

This House is about the efforts of whips to maintain the shaky Labour government from 1974-79. When it premiered in 2012, a time when the most exciting thing in British politics was the coalition government between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, it doubtless felt like an exciting, topical play about the idealism and reality of politics – hence the rave reviews.

Between Brexit and Trump, shit has gotten very real, so the play has lost some of its power in its 2018 incarnation. But that’s not the only reason why it left me cold. Fundamentally, it’s a story about Parliament, not politics. You never hear from a single person who isn’t a politician; you never spend a second outside of Westminster. It feels clammy and paternalistic. And I’m not sure that I care for that kind of story any more, not given the state of our politics lately.

(I also didn’t like the play’s fast and loose treatment of the arithmetic of the 1974 elections and just how governments are formed, but whatever.)

Rhinoceros was written in 1959 and is essentially about fascism and Nazism – note-perfect for our times, sadly. I enjoyed it very much and if there’s a production near you, I recommend you see it.

Here’s what I tweeted at the time:

Act 1: hey I thought this was meant to be about fascism, wtf?

Act 2: whoa whoa too much, pull it back!

Act 3: ok this is perfect

Disney’s Giant Leap Forward

When Disney surveyed the public about a hypothetical immersive Star Wars hotel early this year, it felt like an idea from the future, not an actual commitment. Surely they’d wait until after the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge — already a highly ambitious and risky new park area — before starting work on a whole new hotel?

But at this year’s D23 convention in July, Disney confirmed not only that the hotel was real; not only that it’d be fully immersive; but that it’s a pilot for an entire ‘Disney 360 vacation concept’:

According to Bob [Chapek, Chairman of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts], this revolutionary new vacation experience will be a living adventure that allows guests [i.e. paying visitors] to immerse themselves in an entirely new form of Disney storytelling.

“It’s unlike anything that exists today.” Bob said. “From the second you arrive, you will become a part of a Star Wars story! You’ll immediately become a citizen of the galaxy and experience all that entails, including dressing up in the proper attire. Once you leave Earth, you will discover a starship alive with characters, stories, and adventures that unfold all around you. It is 100% immersive, and the story will touch every single minute of your day, and it will culminate in a unique journey for every person who visits.”

…which is about when every Star Wars fan on the planet posted shut_up_and_take_my_money.gif

There are two extraordinary things about this announcement.

One: Disney has chosen one of its most valuable crown jewel IPs for what anyone should realise is a highly risky venture. Star Wars may be the best possible fit for an immersive hotel (more on that later) but that only raises the stakes if the tech doesn’t work or the story or acting is bad.

Two: The immersive storytelling experience at the hotel is what guests will be paying for. It’s not an alternate reality game promoting a TV show. It’s not a free smartphone-powered Phineas and Ferb adventure at Epcot, or a $50 interactive Harry Potter magic wand at Universal Studios, both of which you might only expect to deliver a couple of hours of fun and would forgive for having a few technical hiccups, because you’re really at the theme park for the rides, not the games.

No: Disney’s Star Wars hotel may well cost thousands of dollars for a family, and the entire point of going is the immersive storytelling experience. It’s what they’re paying for, so it has to be sensational.

I’ve spent the past 13 years designing alternate reality games with emails and websites and actors and black helicopters, and smartphone games that make exercising more fun in the real world. I can guarantee that the Star Wars hotel team will be rightly terrified at the scope of what they’re building, and thrilled that they get to be the first people in the world to do it.

But what’s driving Disney to build this ‘360 vacation experience’? Why was it so hard in the past, and (just about) feasible now? What kind of technology might it employ? And most importantly, what will the experience be like?

Disclaimer: My company, Six to Start, has consulted for Disney Imagineering on theme park stuff in the past. It had nothing to do with Star Wars and I have no inside knowledge on what they’re up to.

Why ‘Living Adventures’? And why now?

Disney has a poor track record with immersive storytelling experiences, providing that you look only at its most popular incarnation: videogames.

Over the decades, they’ve tried again and again to develop videogames in-house, with little lasting success. With the shuttering of Lucasarts, Disney Interactive, and the $100 million ‘toys-to-life’ Disney Infinity in recent years, and Star Wars games now farmed out to Electronic Arts (who promptly delivered a game with precisely zero story), it certainly seems as if Disney’s thrown in the towel.

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Not quite

Their heart was never really in it. Disney had to pursue videogames because too much money was at stake, but their most talented storytellers and artists and designers never truly wanted to work on games; movies were where true artistic glory lay. Along with the theme parks, they were the font of all new and refreshed IP, from Toy Story to Frozen to Moana.

More prosaically, I think Disney see themselves as narrative storytellers, and they’ve never figured out how to tell the stories they want to tell in a wholly digital and interactive format while still making bucketloads of money.

It’s tempting to draw comparisons between the Star Wars hotel and videogames. They both involve people interacting with computer systems with the aim of progressing in an immersive, digitally-mediated environment where multiple outcomes are possible, some of which are more desirable than others. You might then conclude that the Star Wars hotel will fail in just the same way as before, with Disney not quite making their stories mesh with a deeply interactive experience. Continue reading “Disney’s Giant Leap Forward”

English Literature

At my school, all students were entered into the English Literature GCSE. What this meant was that a couple of times a week, we would take out copies of ‘English Literature’ – things like The Crucible, A Passage To India, various Shakespeare plays, poems – and take turns reading them out.

There is nothing that kills a good story more than having a bunch of bored schoolboys reading out books like these, not to mention Shakespeare. For one thing, reading ‘blind’ means that the speaker has absolutely no idea what emphasis to put on the words; for another, it usually took a few weeks to get through a single work. Most of the time I’d already read the whole thing at home right after receiving the book, and so sitting in class took on a special kind of boredom.

As if this wasn’t enough, we would then have to write essays about the ‘significance’ of various parts of the books or plays. What did the red brick colonial house in A Passage to India signify? What is the meaning of this passage in Macbeth? And so on.

Despite all of this, I quite enjoyed some of the books – I still remember The Crucible quite fondly. However, it wasn’t until I saw The Merchant of Venice being performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company on a school trip that I realised his stuff was not only good, but actually really funny. See, until then, my experience of Shakespeare had been these readings in class, and a video of Richard II, where Richard was played by a woman.

Presumably some people liked this production, otherwise I can’t see why our teacher chose to show it. But I can’t think of a worse thing to show a bunch of schoolboys – it just seemed totally ridiculous. It was hard enough trying to follow the play on a TV, but the lead character swapping sex was just too much. I suspect a lot of students from my school still dislike Shakespeare due to these experiences. I don’t entirely blame my teacher, because she was just trying to prepare us for our exams (it was that kind of school), but it seems a shame nonetheless.

A comment on Metafilter reflects my feelings on this perfectly:

As far as I’m concerned, “Hamlet” doesn’t have a “point.” There’s nothing to “get.” It’s not something to see so you can check it off the “things I guess I should see” list.* Please! If that’s your reason for seeing it, don’t see it in the first place…

…I blame school. In school, we’re forced to read Shakespeare when we’re don’t want to. Most of the people I know who love Shakespeare, love him in spite of that, not because of it. Luckily, they already liked Shakespeare before encountering him in school, so the forcing didn’t seem like forcing. Or, if they were like me, they hated it. I hated “Romeo ad Juliet” when I was forced to read it in High School. I hated anything I was forced to read, just because it was forced on me.

Most people in my shoes feel a distaste for whatever was forced on them for the rest of their lives. At 42, I’m only JUST getting over my distaste for math. I can see math is a beautiful subject, but because it was forced on me before I was ready for it, it’s hard for me to shake the desire to rebel against it. And because of gym class, I wonder if I’ll EVER learn to like sports. Luckily, I had other formative experiences that stopped me from associating Shakespeare with school. So I like Shakespeare.

Also, in school, one is pretty much told that we watch/read plays to “get the point.” It’s all about Theme, Message, Social Import, blah, blah, blah. It’s not about crying when Cordelia dies or laughing when Bottom turns into an ass. School ignores or — worse — scorns the best part of fiction: the laughter, the tears, the emotional spice!

Finally, school teaches us that smart people are supposed to like Shakespeare — or at least read/see his plays. If you don’t like it, you’re dumb. So we wind up with a bunch of people who don’t really want to read or see Shakespeare but feel like they should. Of COURSE these people — once they’ve finished with the pain of sitting through “Hamlet” — don’t want to do it again

He’s right. In my class, we never talked about the emotions of the play. We never thought we were supposed to laugh at this stuff, or treat it like anything but a chore.

Masque of the Red Death – almost an Adventure Game

Over the course of history, scientists and philosophers (who, until recently, were essentially the same thing) tended to interpret the universe – and, interestingly, the human brain – through the lens of their era’s technology. During the Renaissance, the universe was thought to operate like a clock, mechanistically and predictably. Later, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, more complex machinery was brought to mind. In recent decades, we see the universe and the brain as a kind of computer.*

Should it be surprising, then, that a game designer would interpret a theatrical production as a game?

On Wednesday, I went to see Punchdrunk‘s latest production, Masque of the Red Death, at the Battersea Arts Centre. Punchdrunk has made a name for itself by creating plays which take place across many rooms, involving many different, concurrent performers. In these plays, the audience don masks and walk between the rooms at will, occasionally being seen and addressed by performers, but usually ignored. This is not a completely original style of production, but it’s one that Punchdrunk is particularly good at.

I had deliberately not read any reviews of Masque before going to see it, in order to remain unspoiled. And while I should point out that I got a free ticket from the director, Felix Barrett, I’d intended to buy one myself anyway. The point is, I had no idea what to expect other than what I’ve said above.

What I found, after putting on a mask and entering the production, was an immense, sprawling and breathtakingly atmospheric set of corridors, tunnels, cupboards, rooms, halls and courtyards. I am not talking about a few rooms, or even several rooms – I’m talking about three floors and dozens of rooms. Every single surface had been carefully disguised from its true, mundane origins, and made up as part of an decaying, unsettling, elegant Victorian manor. Eerie sounds and music echoed from odd places, and I often found myself disoriented and lost.

Among these rooms were perhaps two dozen actors who engaged in brief conversations and encounters with one and other, occasionally deigning to notice the audience members and pull them into rooms for various private confidences. At certain times, groups of actors would come together and perform a highly scripted set piece, such as a dining room conversation and dance, or a heated argument in a bedroom. This was all very impressive and intriguing, but I was most struck by the feel of the place.

As I paced the corridors, trying every door and looking in every cupboard with a real sense of exploration and fear, I thought to myself: this is just like being inside a graphical adventure game. Here I was, in a beautiful fictional environment, opening all the doors and sifting for clues in every conceivable place – I might as well have been playing The Longest Journey and clicking on every hotspot in sight. This was wonderful! Continue reading “Masque of the Red Death – almost an Adventure Game”

A Christmas Carol

The idea of Patrick Stewart doing a one-man production of A Christmas Carol was a surprising one, but also one that I felt knew what was going to happen. I presumed that he’d read the book out on his own, using his unmistakable voice to enliven proceedings; nothing terribly difficult, and not terribly interesting, apart from the fact that Patrick Stewart is doing it. Basically, the sort of thing Dickens would have done when he toured England. That was enough for my girlfriend and I to book tickets for the opening night’s performance at the Albery Theatre in London.

And indeed, Stewart came out striding onto the stage at the start, bearing a big red book. He opened it, said a couple of words, put it down on a lectern at the front and then didn’t look it at for the next two hours. Now, I know that good actors are supposed to memorise their lines well – it’s their job – but to see Stewart reciting practically the entire book from memory, with no prompting and only one break, was very impressive.

Reciting isn’t a good description. Acting is. Stewart played all the parts, from the narrator to Scrooge to all the members of the Crachit family, to random merchants in the street and little children. At first, this seemed rather odd and very occasionally confusing, since his switching between characters involved nothing more than perhaps moving a step or two and changing his voice (no changing clothes, for example). However, after a while it became completely natural and I forgot that it was Stewart out there, and instead really believed that he was playing the characters. My only other experience of this was watching Being John Malkovich and completely believing that John Cusack inhabited John Malkovich’s body by the end of the movie – it’s that sense of immersion that makes for a brilliant actor. You can perfectly visualise the Crachit’s Christmas dinner thanks to Stewart, despite the fact that the only things on the stage are a table and the Captain of the Enterprise.

A Christmas Carol features a lot of Dickensian humour. Many might believe that Stewart, being rather dour in most of his roles, wouldn’t be able to pull this off. However, anyone who saw him in Extras recently will know that he’s perfectly capable of being funny, and several people who worked on Star Trek: TNG have said that, of a cast full of jokers, Patrick Stewart was the biggest one. His humour really shined in A Christmas Carol – not merely for the bitingly sarcastic Scrooge, but also for Mrs Crachit and the various children, whom he often danced around the stage as.

Aside from Stewart, the only other person actually working on the show while it was running was the lighting guy. Since the set consisted of a chair, desk, table and lectern which Stewart moved about himself, the lighting had to indicate the setting, mood and time of day, which it did in a very good, very sparse manner. As for sound, Stewart handled that himself. Our first treat of this was of the bells ringing the time. While Stewart was curled up asleep on the table (which at this was representing a bed), he said ‘Guh-dooiinnngg’ twelve times. It seemed a bit stupid the first time he did it, but it rapidly became a running joke that Stewart exploited later on in a wink to the audience.

The final part of Stewart’s performance that impressed me was his ability to rapidly change roles and emotions. This exhibited itself best when he was playing Bob Crachit and crying over the body of Tiny Tim, and within a split second, he switched back to the narrator. Ditto for when Scrooge starts his hacking laughter towards the end; it’s not that he doesn’t do it well in the rest of the play, but at those particular points, he does it so quickly and dramatically that I was taken aback.

The show wasn’t perfect. Stewart did occasionally fluff his lines, and I felt that the ghost of the past and the ghost of the future were a little boring and indistinct (more than they were supposed to be). Other than that, I can’t think of any other problems, so I’m duty bound to recommend the show. I’ve seen a number of plays in London since I moved down here, including the excellent new production of Sweeney Todd, and this has probably been the best of the lot. A Christmas Carol is on until December 31st in London, and while it’s possible he might do it again next year, I wouldn’t count on it, so if you want to see it, get tickets now.

Oleanna

I made the impulse decision this morning to join a couple of friends to see Oleanna down in London. This particular production has been running for a while at the Garrick Theatre now and stars Julia Stiles (Ten Things I Hate About You, Mona Lisa Smile) and Aaron Eckhart (Possession, Paycheck), the former of whom I was quite keen to see.

We rolled up an hour early and managed to buy the best seats for only £17.50 when they normally cost £52. I’m told that you can do this at practically every single production in both London and the US and it’s the sole reason why most students can afford to see so many plays. I’d always known at the back of my mind that such things like this existed, but they’d always seemed rather remote and time-consuming possibilities instead of the remarkably trouble-free experience I had.

There was very little I knew about the play before it began; I knew it was about sexual harassment in a university, and that you were guaranteed to be intensely frustrated by the end of it. Considering that the total time of the play was a little over an hour, and there were only two actors, it turned out that beyond those two things, there really was very little else to the plot – not that this is meant as a denigration, but simply as a description. It was a highly intense and focused hour, with the two characters constantly interrupting each other (the script supposedly has more ellipses than words in it) in difficult performance.

Neither Stiles nor Eckhart struck me as giving outstanding performances, but then again it seemed to me that the play didn’t really give them the opportunity to show their range beyond anger/frustration and confusion – however, that’s just the way the play was written. Indeed, Eckhart’s self-serving condescension in the first act, and Stiles’ descent into righteous (and confused) fury in the third act left me extremely frustrated, as I’m sure was intended by David Mamet, the playwright.

So, a good experience which I will certainly repeat with all the other plays I can find.

After the play we waited outside the Stage Door to get autographs. Eckhart emerged first, looking particularly drawn but still signing autographs (including one on my ticket). He did disappear quite rapidly though, citing tiredness. Stiles, on the other hand, sneaked out through some other entrance to magic herself into a waiting car no less than five metres behind the crowd awaiting her. For some reason she still seemed quite happy to see all the fans, perhaps because they were behind glass.

This turn of events led me to attribute Aaron Eckhart’s tiredness to the fact that it was his turn to greet the fans, and Julia was in a good mood because she got to sneak out while we were distracted. In any case after Julia disappeared I could be heard exclaiming loudly, “What the hell is this? I didn’t even want Aaron’s autograph, and now Julia’s gone?”

Still, a quick trip to Harrods later saw us happily munching on Krispy Kreme donuts. They are as good as I have been led to believe, and for the benefit of readers I will now explain How To Get Free Donuts from Harrods.

When you stand in line at Krispy Kreme, they give you one free donut anyway. This display of generosity stuns most customers who happily munch away and order large amounts of additional donuts. However, the more savvy among us will realise that the only way the staff know that you have already received a free donut (which they are obligated to give all customers) is if you already have one in your hand.

Clearly, the solution is obvious: on receiving your first donut, immediately make it disappear. Whether it goes into your pocket or a bag or someone else’s bag is immaterial – what matters is that it is rendered invisible as soon as possible. At this point, since the staff are worked quite hard, the person who gave you your first donut will wander off somewhere else and another staff member will offer you additional donuts on seeing that you apparently haven’t been given one yet.

This strategy works best with three people. This allows the first two people to immediately backhand their donuts to the designated Donut Concealer (usually someone with a bag) and also allows for people to rotate around without arousing excessive suspicion, as might occur with larger groups. In a single queue, you can repeat this as many times as you dare; we only managed to get two free donuts each in total but I’m of the opinion we could have managed to get another one if we hid our second donuts as rapidly as our first.

A final word of caution – with great power comes great responsibility. If you get two free donuts each, and then go on to buy another donut, then you have approximately 600-900 kcals of donuts each. This is a rather enormous number of calories which significantly exceeds the amount that a normal person can burn off in a serious one-hour exercise session. Therefore, treat this strategy as more of a one-off trick rather than something to be repeated regularly.

His Dark Materials

Lal, Kim, Lat (Lal’s sister) and I met up in London last night to see the first part of Nicholas Wright’s adaptation of ‘His Dark Materials’. Naturally, in true Culture style we only managed to get to our seats in the very nick of time, not once, but twice! (it is nothing less than an abomination that they should have an interval of a mere 15 minutes between the two halves).

We were seated near the back of the upper circle so we were some distance away from the stage, but I didn’t feel it impeded our experience very much – of course, I would have rather sat right up at the stage but then that would’ve been a bit more expensive and difficult to sort out.

The play began with Will and Lyra, sitting on a bench in the Oxford Botanic Gardens, talking to each other from different worlds, which was a rather good introduction to the story, and this was also used at the start of the second half. From there we plunge headfirst into main story of ‘The Northern Lights’ which in the play is more or less left untouched. While I can understand that, at least for the first book, you need to leave all the major events and characters in, the restrictions of a 6 hour play (3 hours for each of the two parts) mean that several sequences are compressed into only the most essential details – which unfortuantely leaves a lot of the wonder and charm out of them. Take Lyra’s stay at the bear palace in Svalbard – in the book, there are a fair few things that happen there. In the play, it deserves a scant five minutes – Lyra pops in, talks to the usurper King, there’s the fight, and that’s it. So to me the compromise between time and accuracy was acceptable, even good, but imperfect.

Generally, the actors were extremely good. Lyra and Will were cast very well and interacted smoothly. Timothy Dalton as Lord Asriel was also well done, but you don’t get to see that much of him in the first half. Other good characters included the Master of Jordan College and Lyra’s mother.

The various supporting roles suffered from slight cariacture and totally bizarre accents. The audience was left in no doubt as to the identity of the main bad guy (for the first part, at least), Fra Pavel, as he walked onto the stage with an unidentifiable but unmistakably evil accent and – even more amusingly – a shimmer of violins and foreboding music every time he opened his mouth. Was this really necessary? I don’t think so. Ditto for the head of the Church, who had the strangest Irish/American/Italian accent. To their credit, they were both convincingly nasty.

Lee Scoresby, the Texan, had an overdone accent and seemed relegated to the role of comic relief, mostly. Iorek the bear, I felt, was played very well although Lal and the rest had issues with the accents of the other bears.

By far the worst offenders in the play were the witches. Serafina Pekkala easily won the title of ‘Most Irritating Voice’ – a kind of overdone, grandiose, booming and Very Profound voice. She was backed up by the other witches, who couldn’t seem to decide whether they were real witches or some idealised Amazonian warrior tribe who danced around a lot.

Finally, Father Coren of the gyptians was played perfectly.

The set design was excellent, and for someone like myself who hasn’t been to a major play or musical for a very long time, the versatility of the stage was highly impressive. The centre and surround of the stage would regularly move up and down and rotate between and during scenes and the backstage crew were clearly hard at work switching things around to make them look convincing. Given that HDM is apparently the cheapest production around at the moment only makes their efforts more praiseworthy.

The fact that I haven’t mentioned the daemons yet goes to show that they were done very well. About a minute before the play started, I think Kim mentioned something about the daemons being manipulated by puppeteers in black suits. This immediately filled me with a sense of impending horror, and certainly for the first five or ten minutes of the play I found it hard to look past the puppeteers and see the daemons (also voiced by the puppeteers). However, after the novelty wore off I quickly forgot about the guys in black suits and instead looked at the daemons themselves, which were manipulated very well and amusingly, Mrs Coulter’s in particular. Only the main characters were given ‘proper’ daemons – the minor characters had to do with daemons they carried around themselves.

On the whole I found the play very enjoyable. I haven’t read the books for at least a couple of years but it seems that Wright has so far been very faithful to them. There are many things that could be improved, but even more that shouldn’t be changed. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the next part on Tuesday.

Incidentally, we all thought that watching all six hours of the play in one afternoon wouldn’t be that difficult. Think again. Three hours was long enough.

Some links about the play in today’s Guardian – an article about Archbishop Rowan William’s praise of His Dark Materials and the praise itself.

Copenhagen

I’ve just come out of a production of Copenhagen at the ADC Theatre here in Cambridge. A more complete post and review will have to come later, but I have to describe what I felt. Through the stages of revisions and unveiling of hidden and assumed meanings throughout the play, at the end it seemed that everything around me was suffused – almost turgid – with meaning. Yet whenever I tried to pause and think about a single item, the meaning flitted away. Brings a new meaning to the term ‘thoughtful’.

SemiShake

Whenever I go on holiday, I always think it’d be a good idea to do something spontaneous and unusual. Most of the time though I don’t really bother since there isn’t anyone I know who’s around to watch, and in any case the ideas I have invariably involve a fair amount of risk or money. So on Saturday, after a long visit to San Diego Zoo and the nearby science center, I was pleasantly surprised to see the Semi Spontaneous Shakespeare Society performing in the park and looking for actors.

The Semi Spontaneous Shakespeare Society puts on performances of Shakespeare’s plays every Saturday in Balboa Park, and practically all of their actors simply walk in off the street (as it were). After watching a couple of scenes of All’s Well That Ends Well, I thought it’d be fun taking part and within a few minutes I was being coached through Act IV Scene III as the Second Lord.

The scene was fairly long and the guy I was talking with mainly was pretty good. As for my own performance, I don’t know how that went – the audience didn’t throw anything at me, at least, and there was even a good bit of applause at the end. Having an English accent obviously helped.

A real problem with doing this sort of thing in the UK is that the weather is completely unreliable, and since the point of the society is to get members of the public to participate in a classical production with the minimum of effort, it really does have to be done in a public place like a park with decent weather. Of course, this is no problem for San Diego, which I have long since concluded has the best weather in the world.