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Critical Strokes in Paris

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It was fascinating to learn a bit more about the state of criticism and the internet in Paris, where a debate on Saturday afternoon punctuated the international programme of the eighth "Ideal Standard" festival at MC 93, Bobigny.

Bobigny is one of the most important of all the great suburban and provincial theatres in France and, under the artistic direction of Patrick Sommier, has been a European focal point for the best in world theatre from Russia, China, Germany and France itself.

Rarely, though, is there anything from Britain, though one of Sommier's predecessors, and close friends, Ariel Goldenberg, tells me that Ed Hall's Propeller might soon receive an invitation.

In the meantime, I flew the flag and received the usual dumbfounded response in telling the other guests that in London alone we have five theatres totally dedicated to contemporary playwrights (the Royal Court, Hampstead, Bush, Soho and 503).

But our debate concentrated on how theatre news and views are mediated in the media. Arthur Sonnen, former director of the Holland Festival, said that new critics would only come from the internet; the newspapers, he said, had only "culinary" critics.

So, the Dutch Theatre Institute has subsidised a theatre site open to all but controlled by an editorial board, and he reckons that, in five years time, this will have settled down into the country's most important outlet for theatre discussion.

A delegate from Marseilles suggested that, contrary to common perception, the internet is actually restoring the practices of reading and writing that, he reckons, the newspapers themselves have destroyed.

He also said that the internet would restore the ability of critics to write at the greater length they once enjoyed in print -- he himself had written the equivalent of seventeen pages on a recent production of Richard II!

I was able to say,of course, that our own newspapers were holding up, for the moment, pretty well in the allotment of space for theatre, even though the critics as an entity probably felt under threat and this probably had something to do with the increasing convergence and conformity of opinion among them.

Spanish and Italian delegates confirmed the worst: the Spaniards have a single cultural programme on television about theatre, and it is broadcast at 1.30 in the morning; theatre otherwise is identified solely with "entertainment."

In Italy, even the greatest daily newspapers report on the theatre only once a week. The ivory tower, we were told, is under siege and the barbarians have turned aggressive. A once vivid connection between the theatre and national television has been brutally destroyed, along with any semblance of critical thought expressed in public.

Like Britain, Germany is coping pretty well at the moment. The critic is still regarded as a serious public interlocutor, so his or her writing usually carries a political as well as a cultural influence.

Apart from all that, Mrs Lincoln, did you enjoy the show? The highlight was undoubtedly a most beautiful musical theatre production from the Vienna Burgtheatre by the new wunderkind, David Marton, a 35 year-old Hungarian pianist-turned-director.

He has transformed  Peter Esterhazy's astonishing 1,000-page novel, Celestial Harmonies -- a family chronicle of the sponsors of Haydn across centuries of upheaval, persecution and personal discovery -- into a 40-page expressionistic oratorio.

If you thought John Doyle's actor/singers knew a thing or two, you should see this: some of the most difficult and gorgeous music of Haydn, Schubert, Bartok and Verdi played in dramatic situations, often on the run, and in quest of the truth.

Who was, actually, the protagonist's father? And this father is an "every father" linked to the more literal confrontation in the Dutch play This Is My Father performed by a real father and son divided by reactions to antisemitism experienced by the latter.

It was one of the extraordinary ironies of a packed and rewarding festival weekend to discover that Patrick Sommier's own father, a former theatre administrator, has recently published a book that his own son finds faintly embarrassing.

In such degrees of tension and reaction do we proceed and survive. And the expression given to this in Marton's Celestial Harmonies is both stunning and heart-breaking. 



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