Tag Archives: Opinion

Opinion: Dogfight – Misogynistic, Or Just A Show About Misogynists?

Jamie Muscato (front) as Eddie. Photograph: Courtesy of Darren Bell.

Jamie Muscato (front) as Eddie. More “douche” than a French shower! Photograph: Courtesy of Darren Bell.

Anyone who has seen Dogfight at the Southwark Playhouse, or even been aware of it, will also be aware of the divisive twitter it’s gotten critics in. Some, like myself, loved the show, whilst others found it to be offensive in it’s apparent excusing of misogyny. So, I’ve decided to wade into the argument (late) with my own thoughts as the show closed at the weekend.

Where’s the Offence?

I was actually quite shocked to hear that some people had found the show abhorrent, even going as low as 2*s from The Evening Standard. I consider myself a male feminist, so was a little taken aback at the whole debate, and was panicked at the prospect that I missed something quite dire. I thought it was fantastic, and whilst my review wasn’t a full 5*s, I think there’s so much here that’s worth praising and was genuinely some of the best new musical theatre to have hit London in a long time.

Particularly, I loved Peter Duncan’s book, based on the film by the same name. Gone is the fairy tale/Hollywood transformation and shallow redemption of a protagonist bee-lining towards a happily-ever-after, and instead we get a tale that’s awkward and a resolution that’s rocky and incomplete. The number “First Date, Last Night” wonderfully encapsulates this less than perfect character development.

But I’ve been trying my hardest to think about what could possibly be offensive. The easiest thing I could find offensive were the marines themselves. I myself describe them as “odious” in my review. And I think that’s the point: you’re supposed to hate them. They’re chauvinistic pigs of the highest order, even going as far to rape a prostitute, forcing her to have sex against her will by using the threat of violence. I would loathe to meet anyone who didn’t find them deplorable! But just having them present and behaving such doesn’t mean this celebrates or excuses them, does it? At least, it shouldn’t.

What I think may enshrine this as a misogynistic show in some people’s minds is that they don’t get their just comeuppance. Eddie, on the cusp of a moment of self-awareness and self-respect, literally throws it away for pride and bully-boy camaraderie. He doesn’t learn, and it’s infuriating. But in the very last scene, we see Eddie return to San Francisco, and is embraced by Rose. There are two possible ways of interpreting this. Either we praise Rose for being a most forgiving, intelligent, and humanitarian character that sees the good in everyone and tries to educate them to being better people. Or we scold Rose as someone who suffers patriarchy, and/or is too shallow, cowardly, or stupid (!!!) to give Eddie the scorn he justly deserves: thus misogyny wins.

Laura Jane Matthewson as Rose. Heroine, or patriarchal enabler? Photograph: Courtesy of Darren Bell.

Laura Jane Matthewson as Rose. Heroine, or patriarchal enabler? Photograph: Courtesy of Darren Bell.

Other Misogynistic Theatre

Though I can see at least one way of interpreting Dogfight as misogynistic, what makes me titter about this debate is that there is far more misogynistic theatre out there. For example, the solid but lengthy recent musical adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles isn’t exactly a feminist war-cry. The whole crux of Hardy’s story is, “patriarchy sucks, but there’s bugger all you can do except die by it,” which is probably more uneasy to accept than Eddie’s difficulty in changing into a civil citizen. Then there’s Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel. Whilst the last thing I want to do is wander into the debate surrounding people who chose to stay with their abusive partners, neither do I wish to belittle their reasons, I find this a bigger excuse for misogyny (and domestic violence) than Dogfight. Also, there’s the production that the fringe forgot, The Last Ever Musical, which was out-rightly the most offensive and misogynistic thing I’ve ever seen. Two hours of singing songs and making schoolboy jokes about menstruation almost had me storming out of the theatre and forfeiting my review because I was so aghast.

So why has Dogfight received the brunt of criticism? I think it’s because the misogyny here is so explicit; it’s not shielded away from, and shocks because of this. In contrast, a quite easy way of looking at Carousel is that it’s a piece exploring difficulty in consoling love and violence, dressed in some great music and a lot of high-romantic ideas. But Dogfight is balls-out outrageous regarding the disrespect the marines have for women. It’s far more visible, therefore easier to be offended by it.

Male v Female?

The majority of critics who loves the show have been male, and the majority of critics who disliked the show were female. But this is no means, “Oh, well that explains it!” It’s a red herring, if anything, and probably says more about male critics than it does female. But is this really a male v female situation? I think not. It’s more of how a person, regardless of gender, interprets the show. Indeed, there are plenty of females who see the show in a similar light as I and many others.

Worth reading is Rebecca Trehearn’s, who plays Marcy, blog post that brilliantly tackles the debate: one of the most intelligent and objective looks at the argument, where she ultimately takes a positive view of the show. But I also took the time to ask one of the most prominent female theatrical figures in London for her views, who also just happens to be Dogfight’s producer: Danielle Tarento.

“I’ve been astounded by [the debate], to be frank,” claims Tarento. “Firstly, just because we don’t like something, doesn’t mean that a) it doesn’t exist or b) that we shouldn’t look at it. And secondly, surely the show is the opposite of this! Yes, the boys behave badly, but in each instance the girls come out on top. Yes, there was bravado and bad behaviour but to hide the fear and ignorance and to bond as a group. That may not make it right, but that’s no reason not to not confront it.”

Yet I want to do is use Tarento’s words to justify a dismissal of those who think otherwise. As much as I hate the phrase, “check your privilege,” I think it’s important here. I’m a white(ish) lower middle-class male. I am probably going to default to a more to a rosy view of the show than others with less privilege than I, and that’s something I need to bear in mind. Therefore, even with Tarneto’s backing, I recognise that I may not be the best person to have an opinion on the issue. Thus, I’ve actually found my rethinking of how I view and interpret the show a thoughtful experience as a result of this debate.

Laura Jane Matthewson (left) and Jamie Muscato (right). Photograph: Darren Bell.

Laura Jane Matthewson (left) and Jamie Muscato (right). Photograph: Darren Bell.

Critical Miss

Elsewhere, I think too many people have looked to put weight their own, and only their own, opinions on the subject. Particularly, Paul Taylor and Mark Shenton (I use these as two as of the most prominent current critical voices) were quick to come to the show’s defence and fend off the cries of misogyny, neglecting to try to actively engage in their articles with those who oppose their thoughts, even missing a trick in getting in contact with any authoritative females voices, such as Tarento.

I’m disappointed with their responses. Taylor ultimately says that people should see it again and try to see it as not a misogynistic piece, suggesting they “resisted” the first time around, thus implying there isn’t any other viable way to interpret Dogfight. Shenton, though a little more balanced, concluded that, “perhaps some have proved blind to what the show is trying to show.” Whilst I agree that people have seen something quite different to what Tarento has said about her vision in her own words, I think saying that they’re “blind” is a bit too dismissive. I think Taylor and Shenton’s defence of the show is too defensive which hasn’t helped the discussion. Even if difficult to understand and/or agree, these dissents are at worst interesting and at best important, and shouldn’t be shrugged off with such ferocity. Misogyny in entertainment should be an important discussion, and one approached without such polemic dialogue.

The Real Question

Whilst I think it’s right that we’re having this debate, and I think it’s right that people have seen it the way they have, I think the real question is whether audiences should be sheltered. Should producers be putting on shows that offend?

Offence is something that Tarento isn’t worried about. I asked her what she would do if she was given a piece that was potentially offensive. Although being very clear that she does not find Dogfight offensive, she says, that:

Should I actively be choosing a show because of its potential to offend, I would serve the text as honestly and as fully as possible by giving it the best possible production and letting the audience decide.”

As Tarento’s response shows, theatre should challenge and it is up to us to take whatever we will from it. Producers and directors shouldn’t shy away from putting on shows that may offend, within reason and proper context, especially if they spark much needed debates such as this one. But in doing so audiences and critics should not scoff at the fact that something some people might be offended, even if it didn’t offend them: this approach only stymies debate.

In summary, to me Dogfight is just a show about misogynists, and not a show that is misogynistic. I think the fact that Eddie and his marines are hideous human beings, really colours the show and makes it different and engaging, especially as it doesn’t end the way we’d like it to. But just because you disagree, does not make your opinion invalid. In fact, I’m more than interested to hear what you think, and have my own perceptions of the show challenged.

Dogfight played at the Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 6BD between 8 August – 13 September 2014.

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Opinion: See the Best Theatre in London (Members Only)

Pay up, pay up, for the greatest show in London!

Pay up, pay up! For the greatest show in London!

Benedict Cumberbatch has sold out. I’m not talking artistically; I’m talking about the fact that, in less than a day, the Barbican’s production of Hamlet has been absolutely booked-up. Tickets to see Cumberbatch’s last London foray at the National Theatre in Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein were also rather difficult to get hold of. But the story of tickets selling quicker than a flash of summer lightning is not a new one. Gillian Anderson is also currently cramming in the punters at the Young Vic, contributing to what has been the fastest selling show in London’s theatre history, David Tennant caused a booking frenzy when he visited the capital with his interpretation of Hamlet, and James McAvoy in Macbeth meant you had to possibly commit regicide yourself to get in on the show.

So how does one go about procuring some of London’s hottest tickets? The answer: pay up!

Friends With Benefits

Many theatres have membership schemes. These are where you make a yearly “gift” to get a certain amount of extras as a thank you for financially supporting the venue. The most valuable of these benefits is priority booking. This is when these exclusive members get the chance to book seats before the rest of the plebs fight it out.

And it’s not just theatre that offer this priority perk either. The British Film Institute (BFI) also has a membership scheme which really comes into its own for the London Film and Flare (formerly London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival) festivals, where being a member is really the only way you’ll be a good shot at tickets for almost all their showings. Even mobile carrier O2 offers priority ticket allocations for its customers for events at its music/entertainment venues, meaning free mobile-to-mobile calls between pretty much everyone at Kate Bush’s upcoming tour.

A Costly Relationship

So if you really want to be sure to get tickets, committing yourself to a theatre is probably the best way to go. But how much will it cost you?

Well, that really depends on the theatre and how good a “friend” you want to be. The National Theatre has the cheapest basic membership that offers priority booking, at a mere £15 per year. But then, membership fees for higher tiers and other theatres can go for £100 or more. More philanthropic members of the public can even purchase packages for up to £50,000 (Almeida)!

But it’s worth it to be able to get those hot “tiks”, right?

“La membri teatro è mobile!”

Membership only gives you a better chance of getting seats by offering this priority period. Despite being part of an exclusive crowd that has first dibs, there are still stories of members having to fight for tickets among themselves, with servers and booking lines become so overload that they go down even when it’s just the presumably exclusive few who are able to book. Members who have been unable to get tickets during these priority periods, due to the theatre or member priority allocation selling out, then have battle it out with the rest of the public during the general booking period: sometimes ending up with no tickets at all.

Therefore, some theatres, like the Barbican, Donmar Warehouse, and Old Vic, have extra priority booking periods for members who are able to buy into a higher tier of membership, from £65 (Old Vic) upwards to £350 (Donmar Warehouse). So if you really want to get those seats, you’re looking at paying an additional up to two, three, or nearly ten times more per year than the actual ticket price itself for that extra level of chance.

James McAvoy and Claire Foy as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Photograph: Courtesy of the Ambassador Theatre Group.

James McAvoy and Claire Foy as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Photograph: Courtesy of the Ambassador Theatre Group.

I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Off The Stage

Part of the problem is that theatres and productions keep pulling in big acting names and causing massive box-office pandemoniums. It’s a marketing ploy and one that works. Create a hype, get someone involved that everyone’s going to want to see, and the show is a sell-out success even before the critics can get a sniff at the actual quality of direction, production, or in some cases, the play itself. The reliance on having a renowned star in a show is becoming a bit of a bore and a cynical exercise. A production doesn’t need a celebrity to be brilliant. Shakespeare in Love currently on in the West End is getting rave reviews despite no big-name brands appearing in it. Famously, when Tennant was unable to make several performances for Hamlet, his understudy, Edward Bennett, did a fantastic job receiving standing ovations, and was arguably a bigger smash than the Dr. Who actor himself.

But to suggest that the resolution to this problem is to keep the stars off the stage is an unfair one. Many of them can offer just as nuanced and interesting an interpretation of a character as any other professional actor, and should be free to do so. To disallow them to play these roles would be a loss to theatre, especially as many of today’s TV and film stars steeled their craft on the stage to begin with, and in many cases have really added something to a show that is unique and incredible. Whilst they should be allowed to appear on London’s stages, their presence really isn’t helping the situation.

A Costly Compromise

Memberships to artistic ventures and venues are nothing new, and have been around for decades as a way of supporting theatres and the work they do. These days, with sweeping funding cuts to the arts, theatres are having to rely more on the kindness of strangers (well, “Friends”) to enable them to continue putting our some rather marvellous shows. Theatres like the Old Vic have even taken to auctioning props on eBay to make up the funds they need. It might seem greedy on the surface, especially given the number of critical and sell-out hits they’ve had, but there are huge costs involved in putting on shows. For all the success and money the public see being poured into the theatre from ticket sales, there’s a lot more going out of it then you’d realise.

But what this creates is a very sad and uneasy compromise. The most anticipated and sought after theatre is becoming a thing that only those who can afford membership, particular the higher tears, can get a decent change of accessing. With London theatre officially having a bigger audience than the Premier League, you begin to realise the potential amount of theatre goers who will end up being priced out of seeing some great shows, especially if they don’t have they the tenacity and sheer luck needed during the general booking period.

Whilst the fringe still, and always will, offer some brilliant shows for much more reasonable prices, actors like Cumberbatch, Anderson, Tennant, and McAvoy shouldn’t be kept merely at the pleasure of those who can cough up the cash. They should be able to be seen by everyone.

Smiley happy members having fun. Photograph: Courtesy of Ambassador's Theatre Group.

Smiley happy members having fun. Photograph: Courtesy of Ambassador Theatre Group.

Members Only

It’s difficult situation to come up with a solution to. Limit the number of membership priority seats and/or stymie the priority booking period and you get a lot of disgruntled people who have paid-up for nought, causing theatres to lose that level of commitment and funding. Without the reliance on those who can act as such mini-philanthropists, we would probably lose some of our best theatres and wouldn’t be able to even have imagined productions such as Frankenstein, A Streetcar Named Desire, Hamlet, or Macbeth. Celebrity stars are unfortunately a key ingredient to ensure a production actually makes money rather than run at a loss and/or close prematurely (usually), so getting rid of those won’t solve things either. But without trying to give the general public more and fairer opportunities to get to see these shows, theatre may well become the playground for the relatively wealthy, enjoying an elitism that has stereotypically been seen as the reserve of opera.

But that’s not to say theatres are at all giving up on the general more cash-strapped public. Many still offer discount and low-cost tickets for shows. But these seem to be getting fewer, not because their allocation is shrinking but because their demand is growing. You just need to get up early enough to see the lengthy queues forming as early as 7am for returns and day tickets for some productions. Even broadcasting theatre to cinemas, another well-meaning and noble way of opening up the accessibility and increasing an audience outside of auditoriums, feels like a cheap consolation prize. In reality, you’re pretty much seeing a film and not a theatre show: it’s just not the same. It’s great that theatres are still looking to cater to those on lower budgets, but the truth is that, for want of trying, the provisions are becoming rather inadequate.

It’s a tricky conundrum, but one that should probably be seriously considered in order to keep theatre for everyone, even if there isn’t an immediate answer. This is made more pertinent when theatre groups, such as the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), have come under intense scrutiny about how they make their money recently.

But ultimately, there are a lot of people who would have liked to have seen Cumberbatch play the Prince of Denmark but lost out because they couldn’t pay for priority booking: not just because of a lack of availability. Theatre shouldn’t be proud of this.


Opinion: Theatre Breaks Down, And Secret Cinema is No Exception

Secret CinemaThere’s been outcry in the theatre world in the past week. Secret Cinema’s incredibly ambitious staging of Back to The Future had its first few shows cancelled, disappointing literally thousands of fans in some cases just hours before they were to attend the performance.

It’s been a social media storm in a tea-cup, with Secret Cinema’s digital PR presence being heavily criticised for how it’s been dealing with some very understandably upset fans, and the rest of the media lapping the drama up for its own benefit. But for all the furore it has caused, we seem to have forgotten a very basic fact about theatre: sometimes it doesn’t work.

Theatre Breaks. Get Over It.

Theatre has always been quite a technical endeavour, and the more ambitious it gets, there are more chances for it to go wrong. Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark is probably the most renowned shows that physically didn’t work, with technology malfunctions and even accidents and injuries amongst the cast (let alone the panning it got from critics and audiences alike) making it go down as one of the most infamous Broadway productions of all time. Shows were cancelled, and some performances stopped part-way through. It tried to be an extravaganza of techno-theatrics, but it seems to fall on its own sword far too many times due to its ambition and complexity. Even when witnessing the technological wizardry of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the little train at the finale of Act I failed to move when it should have. Hardly a show-cancelling fault, but it just made you realise about just how much could go wrong within that production at any moment. If you can’t get the little things right, what hope is there for the bigger things? Who knew that the show would ultimately succumb to ageing plasterwork.

But it’s not just the colossal mechanical scale of some shows that cause a production to go wrong. Even more humble productions can have their problems. When I went to see Akram Kahn’s brilliant DESH the audience were sat for nearly an hour after the show’s billed curtain-up time as crew tried to sort out digital projection difficulties, with rumours of the performance, one of a very few, being cancelled. Thankfully it wasn’t.

Non-technical things can stop a performance too, specifically the cast itself. They could be ill, stuck in a location, or even have absconded, leading to cancelled performances. On the fringe, understudies are few and far between, and a poorly cast member can really put the brakes on a run with disastrous effect. Death, as was the case with Michael Jackson, is the ultimate show-stopper.

Even fraud has put a stop to shows, such as what happened with Best of Friends.

Though a performance may not get cancelled if something goes wrong, seasoned theatre-goers know to brace themselves for a little disappointment. David Tennant’s absence from Hamlet was something that, despite specifically paying to see him, patrons just had to deal with. Connie Fisher and Martine McCutcheon drew similar ire for their missed performances in The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady respectively. But there’s little you can do when that happens. Sometimes the billed leads can’t always be there, sometimes the show’s technology doesn’t quite work, or sometimes the show has to be cancelled altogether. There is always a lot of understandably disappointed audiences in the wake as a result, but it’s nothing new.

Death By Hype

Secret Cinema’s plight is caused partly by its own ambition. This is a huge theatrical project, the biggest in London since Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man, and arguably much larger. But it’s not necessarily because it bit off more than it can chew with regards to building Hill Valley and hiring and rehearsing the 80+ actors. In a recent interview with The Independent, founder Fabian Riggall quietly points the finger at bureaucratic interference/oversight rather than negligence and/or tardiness as the rumours would have it. But why things have gone so sour is much more because of the hype the event has created.

Taking a cult film and giving it such an audacious performance was always going to do two things. Firstly, it was going to attract people who wouldn’t usually go to the theatre, and therefore might not be used to some of the disappointments that more regular patrons would steel themselves for, let alone have the right type of expectations for this type of theatre event that you’d expect.

Secondly, it becomes such a big and anticipated occasion that the margin for error is reduced to pretty much zero, as expectations for the show become close to unreasonable especially given the high price of tickets. That is by no means to say that those who have spent a lot of time, money, and even travel to the show are unjustified in their tweet-vented upset. It means that Secret Cinema now have to deal with trying to manage the truly exceptional customer expectations created by their product, and some truly remarkable accounts from customers about being cancelled on to go with it.

Yes. It’s a royal pain and a huge disappointment if you were one of myriad patrons that have been disappointed over the past few days, and it is generally unacceptable that the product you bought become unavailable or isn’t as promised. But if you’ve planned to go to previews and very early performances of a massively ambitious theatre project, brimming with technical and legal/corporate complexity, then don’t be so surprised when the show doesn’t go on. When you pay for a show, especially one so bold in its remit, you also pay for the chance it might not work: like you do when you buy any other product like a new TV or a car. When that happens, you go through the processes of getting a replacement or a refund, like what Secret Cinema are offering all customers affected. You’re not the first theatre-goer in London to have been cancelled on or disappointed, and you certainly won’t be the last.

From another point of view, the aforementioned The Drowned Man drew criticism for parts of the complex being unfinished during its preview period. Would it have been better to just cancel than to have people pay for an incomplete show? Would you willingly have gotten involved in an incomplete or even potentially unsafe Hill Valley experience for £53?

If you’re one of those who went to a lot of effort to get to the show, my heart goes out to you. But there’s really nothing you can do as cancelled shows are not uncommon, but thankfully still a relative rarity. There certainly are questions about how well/badly Secret Cinema have handled the situation and what more could have been done to prevent it (hindsight is a wonderful thing), and this is yet another case-study for the impact of social media in journalism and on business/customer relations. But maybe we should be focusing our scrutiny on producers truncating runs and disappointing ticket holders due to less transparent reasons – cf: The Full Monty?

Back to the Future plays on various dates until 31st August 2014. To book tickets, visit www.secretcinema.org.