Wednesday, 14 July 2010

You Me Bum Bum Train - LEB Building

Ok. So the review I really want to write of You Me Bum Bum Train can’t be published until the piece has finished its run, because I’d like to engage with specifics, but to engage with them, I’d have to say what they were, which would be a pain for anyone who was going to see the thing.

Until such time, in order to fulfil my contract with the Barbican (under whose auspices, this Oxford Samuel Beckett Trust Award-funded show is presented, and by whom press tickets are granted), I’ll offer some general comments and a lot of encouragement for you to try to get hold of a ticket.

You know the basic premise, right (you’d have to have been living under a rock to have missed all the advance publicity)? You turn up, on your own, at the LEB Building in Bethnal Green at an allotted time, wearing practical clothes and with no small amount of apprehension. You are greeted, hand over everything to a cloakroom assistant and are then seated in a wheelchair and pushed out of the lobby.

Then, for the next forty minutes (is it really forty? It seems like about five minutes) you are catapulted through a series of scenes, the precise nature of which it seems only fair not to reveal until they’ve ceased to exist. Suffice it to say, one is variously impressed, delighted, amused, mildly worried, occasionally embarrassed and sometimes made to jump a little, with the result that by the end your awareness is heightened, your pulse has risen, and you’ve got something of the reckless, energetic fearlessness usually only available through a hard night’s drinking.

YMBBT’s creators, Morgan Lloyd and Kate Bond, trained as visual artists rather than theatre-makers. I have no idea how much theatre they might have undertaken to see for themselves in the meantime, but my guess is: not much. In this instance, it works to their advantage. Instead of recognisable theatrical references, what we have here is a fascinating mixture of the logic of dreams, the visual language of cinema and the unexpectedness of late-night channel surfing, unhampered by a reverence for theatre’s history or current trends.

In fact, one of the most striking things about YMBBT is how few of the scenarios into which you’re plunged are ever seen in theatre. And it’s not simply because of the perspective change. Of course the immersion factor does completely alter the way in which you experience the scenes – being “inside”, either as participant or observer, is different to looking though a fourth wall – but the “subjects” or “situations” themselves that are also new. Or rather, they are nearly all stock scenarios, but stock scenarios from film or TV, rather than the usual subjects of theatre.

In a way, YMBBT is like a hectic fast-paced exam in pop-cultural knowledge. The game is almost like a matter of correctly identifying the new trope in which you’ve found yourself, and then adjusting your behaviour accordingly (or not).

In fact, I’d be very interested to know what strategies other participants adopted either throughout or in particular scenes.

There’s more than a hint of narcissism about the piece, which ends up perhaps reflecting more on you and how you deal with situations than on the situations themselves. Or maybe that’s just my own narcissistic reading.

But beyond this, when it’s possible to talk about the actual scenes themselves, there are interesting observations to be made about the world that the piece chooses to construct, in terms of what has been included and excluded. Analysis of the state-of-the-nation-ness on display here also wouldn’t go amiss, but is impossible until the thing closes.

Suffice it to say, for now, it’s an impressively broad landscape that YMBBT offers but an interestingly selective one, and it’d be interesting to hear, somewhere down the line, whether there were specific rationales behind the choices and whether there were any particular themes, unified or disparate, that the company were interested in drawing out for their audiences. Or perhaps the thing should be read more as a collection of pieces in a gallery. Curated, to an extent, but not necessarily with the aim of telling a story, per se.

Anyway, more when possible. Until then, although it’s sold out, it might still be worth seeing if there are returns, or even whether it’s possible to swell the ranks of the volunteer “audiences”...

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Kinemaatiline Müsteerium – an old barn, Rakvere

For some reason, more and more people seem to be doing “photo-essays” at the moment. Happily, Estonians Erik Alalooga and Hans Gunter Lock’s site-something piece, Kinematic Mystery, offers a perfect opportunity to do likewise.

The blurb for Kinematic Mystery cutely notes that it “is an interactive performance that cannot happen if the audience is too passive!”

However, in common with Answer Me, there are absolutely no suggestions as to how to be usefully *active*. Presumably this is the mystery.

The audience is bussed over to the “site” and stand around in the yard.

Many have been given keys. We then go through the lengthy rigmarole of finding which key fits the door to allow us to enter. The odd encouragement, or perhaps insult is shouted in Estonian. I don’t speak Estonian, but even those who do look pretty non-plussed.

Eventually, some poor soul (a plant?) finds the key and we get to enter via one of the least safe ladders I have ever used.

Once inside the space – perhaps the dustiest room I’ve ever been in, in my life (Estonian theatre really isn’t a victim of Health and Safety regulations, or indeed any regulations, so far as you can tell)

- one is confronted with a range of Heath Robinson-esque machines.

They’re a little reminiscent of Eduard Bersudsky’s creations for Sharmanka’s Gothic Circus, as seen at LIMF ’09 in the Shunt Vaults.

The piece’s blurb continues:
“If there is a red switch and you don’t know its function, would you push it?
Would you have enough courage?
There is always the possibility to deny the suggested chance and contribute to the retardation of the process.
But you must take full responsibility if you decide to switch the switch!
What dominates at the moment of choice – conservatism or adventurousness?
The red switch is waiting for you!”

On this showing, plenty of people had plenty of courage, but the purpose of the machines remained obscure.

People gamely prodded and poked at them, but not a whole lot seemed to happen. No further instructions were forthcoming. The rules of engagement remained somewhere between opaque and non-existent.

Then, someone went into the wrong place and knocked a rather lethal looking axe which wasn’t apparently meant to be knocked, and severed all the power in the barn.

Someone else found another key and the audience exited again.

Apparently into someone’s back garden

Perhaps an object lesson for companies making interactive work not to obscure the channels and purposes of the interaction too much? Or maybe I’m just too used to being spoon-fed.

Answer Me – Dood Paard – Rahu Hall

[I’m afraid this is less a review and more like a 2,000 word exercise in catharsis. Feel free to skip it. It’s mostly just a dialogue with myself checking that I hadn’t missed the point. I’m pretty sure I didn’t and that this really was the worst thing I’ve seen since Making Ugly in 2006. Oh, and the tenses skip about like nobody's business, but I just can't be bothered to correct them all]

Veteran Dutch company Dood Paard’s new show Answer Me is one of the most comprehensive failures I have ever witnessed in a theatre.

That it failed is undisputed. Of a starting audience of maybe 300, roughly a third left before the end. Of those who remained until it finished half simply left instead of applauding. And, judging by every conversation I had or overheard afterwards, those who did clap were just being polite. What is more interesting is how and why it failed. And, moreover, why it provoked such an actively hostile response.

Answer Me is billed as a performance about interrogation. This is just about a fair description of its starting point. Four performers stage take to the stage dressed in a mixture of military uniform and spangly, tarty kitsch. Think Rocky Horror Show in a mixture of khaki and gold lamé. They immediately begin by barking a series of questions at the audience:
“Who are you? What's your name? How old are you? Where do you come from? Are you a journalist? Do you love me? Are you Dutch? Turkish? Portuguese? Do you even know where that is, Portugal? What they speak there? What do you speak, actually? Can you even speak? Why are you here? What were you doing in Pakistan? What were you doing in Utrecht? What were you doing in Riga? Are you married and if yes, why? Was there a woman who wanted to marry you? A man perhaps? Where do you come from? What're you after here? What have you done? Name? Age? Profession? Keep your head up! You are a terrorist! We’ve got you now! And we’ll give it to you good! You fuckers! Have you ever worn blue shoes? Have you ever seen kid’s films? Do you drink water! Do you love your mother? Do you love your father? Did Tommy Cooper pay for your ticket? Have you ever had a pet? A dog, a cat, or a marmot? Or a Negro? Have you ever experimented with explosives? Would you like to work for us? You’ll mix in interesting circles. Harley bikers’ circles. Would you tell us something interesting? Can we arrange a fine place for you to spend the night? Nice and warm. With a mattress. And a blanket. A shower. If you cooperate with us you’ll be able to sleep in peace. As long as you want. I know that your God gives you power. You’ve been living in those tiny cages for so long. No one could keep that up. You all pray and your God helps you. Otherwise you’d go crazy of course. Do you love me? Answer me! Bastard! I love you.”
(copied and pasted from their website, here)

You get a rough sense from the above of the tone of the thing, but perhaps not quite enough of an idea of just how childish it sounded. And then, working against this already underwhelming text are the unspeakably bad performances. The basic mode is that of the grotesque. To this end, the performers gurn like mad and shout in deliberately ugly voices, while twisting their bodies like a line of schoolchildren desperate for the loo. It is so one-note as to be almost a parody of how to bore on stage – how to perform in a way guaranteed to switch any audience off.

The lines are distributed apparently at random between the four performers (joined later by a fifth). They are shouted at the audience. Sometimes they are addressed to a single person, sometimes thrown open to the whole audience. The “you” here pings between singular and plural.

Pretty quickly you get a sense of the piece’s concerns: terrorism, perhaps most specifically Islamist terrorism, state homophobia and state racism. Beyond this, there then begins a series of more pointed accusations that could increasingly be read as attacks on the audience for being complacent, apathetic dupes of Western capitalism.

This is pretty galling. We’ve all read (and maybe even seen) Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience, but now the thing that’s most offending this audience is seeing a very old idea trotted out again quite so flagrantly and ineptly. But I’m not quite sure that’s the whole story.

There are two far more basic, central problems. Firstly, there was the irritating inaccuracy of the accusations combined with the sheer stupidity of the assumptions behind them which the company were making, added to the fact that they were on stage in front of us wasting our time with this stupid, boring, patronising, clichéd, GCSE-Marxist stuff as if they were possessed of some new, radical bits of thinking.

Following on from this irritation, the second major problem was that either singly or collectively we were being asked questions. And there was no indication whatsoever whether or not we were meant to respond. So, we sit there listening to these trite constructions of ourselves framed as questions and completely unsure if we’re meant to respond in any way. Since, through the piece, an increasing number of the insults hinge on the fact that we don’t have thought enough in our heads to respond, this presents an interesting dilemma. Patently a vast majority of the people in that theatre had plenty to say. One got the sense that everyone was not responding out of politeness either to the performers on stage or to their fellow audience members.

It’s really hard to know what the company imagine the show achieves.

It also feels almost impossible to write about it without giving the impression that this was “edgy”, “challenging”, or “confrontational”. You’ll just have to trust me.

The sloganeering is rubbish. Every observation is a commonplace. The performances are just terrible. You get the impression that everyone on stage thinks they’re being terribly shocking – that they’re really presenting you with ideas you’ve never heard before – making connections between things that you could never have thought of, when in fact they are compiling the most banal, over-exposed list of associations imaginable.

And of course it occurs to you that maybe this is the point. Maybe it’s about the boredom and how rubbish the performances are, and about how shallow and idiotic the politics are. And about how everything everyone says on stage is manifestly less intelligent than the stupidest thought anyone in the audience had before breakfast. But even if that is the point (and there’s a worrying sense that it isn’t) it isn’t a very good one, or an interesting one, or even one that’s being very well made or pointfully prosecuted.

It amounts a sort of checklist of the most trite list of observations of life under advanced Western capitalism imaginable. The sort of thing that a disaffected Rage Against The Machine fan could have knocked up in half an hour.

By this point, people had started to leave in a steady tickle that was turning into a stream.

Then, as if to demonstrate a complete lack of their grasp of stagecraft or even of the meaning of what they were doing, about half way through the performers produce a chair and one of them sits in it. From this moment, half the questions still being yelled by the other performers are directed at him, while other questions were still thrown out to the audience or barked at individual audience members. The on-stage interrogation could in no way be said to amount to anything even slightly approaching drama (or post-drama), while the other questioning remained as superficial as before. What the change of focus does do, however, is demonstrate that even the performers didn’t have enough faith in the original format to believe it could sustain an hour.

By this stage the hostility in the audience had reached the stage where several clumps of people who hadn’t left were chatting quite openly amongst themselves, phones were being flagrantly checked, the rudeness from the stage was essentially being responded to in kind.

Sadly, the performers didn’t really seem to have the faintest idea what to do with all this negative energy they’d produced. Apparently this wasn’t the aim at all. They all looked a bit uncomfortable. In between trying to shout lines aggressively at us, they looked a bit worried by the number of people leaving. Again, it’s hard to convey how clear it was that this wasn’t the point. Even writing this, it sounds interesting, and perhaps like the sort of thing that Forced Entertainment might have made, and which would have been good.

But, still the performers continued to act in a way that was at once unwatchable and perfectly suited to their obnoxious text. And still people kept on filing out of the theatre.

It’s very hard to pin down precisely what it was that pissed everyone off more: the fact that nothing about the material being presented was anything new or the fact that the whole thing was just so childishly obnoxious. It was one of those pieces that, if it had been created by students whose sole purpose had been an experiment in getting a reaction out of an audience, provoking real hostility, then one might have been able to credit them with having at least achieved this aim, regardless of one’s view of such a purpose. But the problem here was that the piece really did seem to think it was being clever.

Infrequently there were bits where the performers on stage broke into ironic (or perhaps it wasn’t ironic) applause. They encourage the audience to join in. The audience joined in. We were still being asked questions. Still no one had really responded. No. That’s not true. At one point in the middle a girl in the front row had been asked what her name was and she’d said. No one else had said anything in response to anything.

It was during one of the rounds of applause that I decided to see what level of engagement was being asked for. The applause stopped. I didn’t. I kept clapping for a bit. I was interested to see what would happen next. I was also interested to know whether anyone else would join in. If I’m entirely honest, part of me hoped that if everyone had immediately joined in, then we might be able to close the show early with a display of group solidarity suggesting that the show was over whether the performers liked it or not.

The performers looked surprised. I had at least assumed they’d have some sort of contingency plan for dealing with responses from the audience. After all, this is a text which asks between 20 and 60 questions a minute for an hour. And apparently there’s no back up plan as to what to do if anyone actually responds all the accusations of being bovine and empty-headed by refusing to play along.

This demonstrated the piece’s greatest and most ugly weakness. Here was a show all about accusing the audience of being weak and complicit in their own servitude and of not having a clue, and yet it could only present this argument if the audience were polite enough to sit there and let that accusation be the case.

And even this might be fine if the audience were meant or allowed to challenge these accusations, but since the show’s producer later told me that it wasn’t meant to be what happened, then it really is impossible to see what conceivable value there was to any of it.

I shan’t even go into the extent to which it felt embarrassing watching Dutch performers doing such a terrible show that about totalitarianism, homophobia or state interrogation in front of a largely Estonian (and other Baltic states) audience who have only been free of Soviet occupation for 19 years. The combination of terrible text and terrible performances coupled with distinct impression that these people really thought they were doing us a favour by telling us about what a terrible place they thought the world was only heightened one’s embarrassment for them. The sheer arrogance of it was quite breathtaking.

The most worrying thing was that afterwards the company really didn’t seem to have grasped just how utterly, terribly, offensively, dreadfully misguided the whole thing was. Apparently it had worked perfectly well in a smaller space in Portugal. Excuses about the size of the venue and the audience’s comprehension of the (poorly delivered) English text abounded.

I hope that on sober, mature reflection, the company bin the project entirely and start something else altogether. It is a piece of theatre with absolutely no value whatsoever. It is trite, simplistic and patronising. It doesn’t understand its own relationship to the stage or to its audience.

Sometimes, the only constructive criticism possible is: You’re wrong. This doesn’t work on any level. Please, please stop.

Big Bang – Philippe Quesne/Vivarium Studio – Baltoscandal 6

[written for Baltoscandali Ajaleht]
[the above pic is from Quesne's previous show, but still gives a rough idea of the sort of staging. Will post a properly relevant photo as and when I get hold of one]

It is possible for a performance to remind you of a show you haven’t seen? For reasons that I find slightly suspect, Philippe Quesne/Vivarium Studio’s Big Bang reminded me hugely of Forced Entertainment’s World in Pictures. Which I’ve never seen.

Ok, there are some good reasons. For a start Big Bang seems to have a similar topic: a kind of potted history of humanity -- or perhaps the planet -- from the ice age up to our own ecologically concerned times. I say “seems” – the work doesn’t exactly bend over backwards to fix or underline what various sequences actually mean/represent.

There’s also the comparable sort-of-clownish, sort-of-ramshackle sense of humour and aesthetic: the piece starts, for example, with performers shuffling about on their hands and knees, first under white plastic sheeting before emerging from under this to similarly shuffle under white and then brown fake furs, suggesting a rudimentary vision of ice caps melting, polar bears evolving and then brown bears or perhaps walruses turning up. The stage lights conspire with this impression, rapidly suggesting suns rising and setting, while a smoke machine delivers stuff that could easily be read as arctic mists. All this is also very funny and, when the bears start speaking with cute French accents, tres charment.

Quickly, the bears evolve into cavemen wearing furs in some cases, and a small group of apparently multicultural French designers in others. The stage rapidly fills with the detritus of ancient and modern life: wood fires, an upturned car and, for some reason, an ever-growing pile of inflatable dinghies. The cavemen sit in the upturned car reading graphic novels drinking Lilt. Such is progress.

The back wall of the stage is lowered to reveal a further similarly sized stage behind it, this time in green. Water rains down from a shower hidden in the ceiling. There’s more smoke. Music plays. Some players don green overalls, blending into the backdrop and performing obscure tasks. A ‘cello is moved across the back of scene. A small heap of material at the back of the growing onstage lake becomes a silhouetted island, vaguely discernable through the mist. The scale bounces between miniature and actual. Other performers wear space helmets and pose tableaux. A small lonely astronaut sits in the abandoned overturned car downstage reading a graphic novel. Inflatable dinghies pile up in the pond.

It is uplifting, optimistic, funny, pretty, wistful and melancholy. Sometimes by turns, sometimes all at once.

There’s a sense that there might be the tale of a society naïvely driving itself toward eco-catastrophe though joie-de-innovation in amongst all the fun and romance, but it could equally claim to be the world’s most innovative staging of The Tempest. There’s care and attention behind the creation of the stage-pictures which repays whatever level of investment you might bring to bear on reading them, and enough archetypes at play to offer any number of satisfying variations of the story they might be telling.

above: the ante-room of the venue "Baltoscandal 6" - a massive deserted factory on the outskirts of Rakvere.

Muki Munad – Cabaret Rhizome – Väikese Maja Kolakamber

[written for Baltoscandali Ajaleht]

If part of the job of the theatre critic is to explain the context of work (or at least their perception of a work’s context) to their readers, then in one’s own country, this is pretty standard stuff. Indeed, familiarity with current climates and forms of work is the backbone of one’s practice.

Watching work from another country is more complex. Doubly so in the context of seeing national work at an international festival. Does the work’s inclusion point to it symbolising a particular apex of a national form, or is it, even in the context of its home country, unusual work which has been selected for that very reason?

It doesn’t help that Cabaret Rhizome’s Muki Munad (or Muki’s Balls in English – Muki being the most popular Estonian name for a dog and “balls” carrying the same full set of connotations as it does in English from “courage” through “nonsense” to “testicles”) has to be one of the oddest things you’re likely to see in any language for quite a while.

It’s a kind of physical comedy show about the end of mankind, as enacted by four guys in white dressing gowns, one guy dressed as a dog and a fairly sizeable white rooster bathed in red light.

Beyond post-Python clowning routines revolving around some schtick with hard-boiled eggs, a much-fetishised wig and dress standing in for womankind, and a lot of Sesame Street-style running around and screaming (think: Beaker meets Beckett), it’s very hard to know what the thing’s driving at. Is this simple love of absurdity for absurdity’s sake, or do the stentorian narrative voiceovers – apparently delivered by the aforementioned rooster – signify something more satirical or philosophical?

There seems to be some sort of satire of gender politics or the eternal failure of the sexes to comprehend one another thrown into the mix, but whether this is really meant to be taken seriously or is just a springboard for more mucking about is unclear.

Apparently the company have their own space in Tallinn in which small audiences are sat in comfy sofas and get to watch the entertainment as if in the comfort of their own living room. Perhaps this is the most significant missing bit of context. Seeing it while crammed past capacity into a Very, Very Hot Room and sandwiched between other shows with barely time to draw breath, perhaps some of the necessary relaxation of the original article is lost.

Nevertheless, it’s testament to something about that show that one leaves such conditions in a slightly better mood, if not, perhaps, much wiser.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

As You Like It - The Bridge Project / Old Vic

For the most part, I absolutely loathed Sam Mendes’s new production of As You Like It. I mean really loathed. Proper writhe-in-your-seat, grinding your teeth, loathing.

It’s not all a catastrophe. It has got one of my favourite rarely-seen actors Ron Cephas Jones (last seen, by me at any rate, in The Trial of Judas Iscariot at the Almeida in ‘08), although he’s wasted here as Charles the Wrestler. Edward Bennett (of RSC Laertes/substitute Hamlet fame) acquits himself well in the small role of Orlando’s grumpy brother, and Stephen Dillane makes a fine melancholy Jacques. And that really is about it. Maybe some of the minor characters, made to feel all the more minor in this production, aren’t too bad; although Thomas Sadoski’s gurning and bug-eyed Jim Carrey impression of a Touchstone grates like mad. The rest of the thing is just awful.

I don’t have to tell you the plot, do I? Orlando, the son of a deposed duke (or something) wins a wrestling match, then has to leave court, but meets a girl, Rosalind, before he leaves. They fall in love, she then gets exiled as well, or something, and they all spend a load of time buggering about in a forest – Rosalind disguised as a “peevish boy” finding out more about Orlando’s love for her, while they are beset by a bunch of yokel comic turns.

The most obvious problem is that Christian Carmago as Orlando and Juliet Rylance as Rosalind are both utterly dreadful. They are dreadful in different ways, though. Christian Carmago is a total charisma void. He looks great – curly black hair and impossibly high cheekbones – but looking great is no substitute for being watchable when you’ve got that many lines and your story is basically what we’re meant to be taking an interest in. Instead, he overdoes sullen to the point of boredom, but does deliver his lines at various volumes in an attempt to claw back some interest.

Rylance, on the other hand – though visually making a convincing boy – suffers from the exact opposite problem. She just can’t stop acting. Every. Sodding. Line is treated to the same affected, over-projected, musicality that sacrifices nearly all the meaning of what she’s saying to the same one-note, plaintive gush (when she came on at the beginning of The Tempest as Miranda and started doing exactly the same thing, I nearly walked out). The net result, then, is that the burgeoning, ambiguous love between Rosalind and Orlando is reminiscent of someone doing a drama school audition at a sulky mannequin. And this is the romance that is meant to drive the play.

One of the reasons Orlando might be so sulky is Tom Piper’s atrocious set. The thing starts off on a bench in front of a big, black, rough-wooden wall. As a rule I like big walls, but somehow this one was just annoying. Perhaps it was the way it was lit. Perhaps it lacked the courage of its convictions. Perhaps it was the furniture that got liberally distributed in front of it during the blackouts (Blackouts! I know!), but, yes, even As You Like It’s set was infuriating. The maddening wall then rises to reveal a patchy forest, which looks to have been enjoying a good twenty years worth of acid rain. With another big wall at the back. Again, there didn’t seem to be anything technically wrong with it, but for some reason it was just about the most irritating, not to mention ugly, stage design I’ve ever seen. By this point, I was even starting to feel anxious about why I disliked it so very much, but dislike it I did. Maybe part of the problem was the lighting (Paul Pyant) – mostly very dim. Perhaps a contribution to “bringing out the darkness of the play” as Mendes suggests he is doing, somewhere in his flimsy director’s notes.

Actually, the lack of a directorial vision here seemed particularly striking. There really didn’t seem to be a reason that they were doing this play in particular, or that there was any especial reason for why they were doing it the way they were doing it. If anything, this was just a stab at “actors’ theatre” – you know, putting the thing on the stage with not too many gubbins so as to best display the talents of the actors in an established text. Which sort of works fine if you’ve got the actors for it. But this year, Mendes doesn’t.

It is interesting watching them, though. Edward Bennett, who is very good, manages to get a laugh out of a single “no” just by the way he says it. To someone who doesn’t really know the first thing about acting (me), it seems remarkable that someone can hit a monosyllable with such precision as to make it funny and at the same time seem to acquire a bit more sympathy for and understanding of their character from the audience, while at the same time, and under the same director, someone else can gabble their way through reams of lines without once even making an especially compelling case for themselves as a human being, let alone one we care about.

Anyway, the whole thing was largely terrible. Funny about twice, and tedious in the extreme the rest of the time. It was only professional duty that stopped me making a break for it in its interval.

(the Bridge Project continues below)

The Tempest - The Bridge Project / Old Vic

(Continued from As You Like It, above)

Curiously, for a production which shares cast, set, director and designer with As You Like It (see above), the Bridge Project’s Tempest is actually several shades more hopeful.

It doesn’t start promisingly. The trees from Tom Piper’s post-apocalypse squash court set are gone, but it’s still awful dark, and Ariel’s sixth-form devised-piece antics with the Milanese & Neapolitan seamen conjuring the tempest are nothing to boast about at parents’ evening.

But then Stephen Dillane’s Prospero kicks in. And he’s very good. Part of it is that we’ve seen Dillane do other stuff (in fact, wasn’t he in the last major London revival of The Real Thing? Yes, he was. At Mendes’s Donmar), and he’s not *that* old. So instead of the usual wizened wizard with a stupidly young daughter, we’ve got a plausible deposed duke who just hasn’t been able to get a decent shave these past twelve years.

What’s also nice about Dillane’s performance is that he speaks the lines as if he were a human being talking sense. Indeed, he even mumbles a fair few into oblivion, but this feels like a small price to pay for having that interminable opening exposition scene explained by a person rather than in the usual pompous magisterial sort which crucifies most Tempests before they even get going.

The shipwrecked nobles are fine. They’re dressed unimaginatively in the cast-off costumes from Kenneth Branagh’s film of Hamlet, but since they’ve got to wear something, those are perfectly god things to wear. And while the characterisations are nothing special, they’re serviceable enough.

Juliet Rylance’s Miranda is unspeakable. And exactly the same as her Rosalind (who was pretty much exactly the same as her Ganymede). Although she does perform with such a lack of anything at all that it’s possible to imagine all sorts of better Mirandas onto the tabula rasa of her performance.

Conversely, Christian Carmago, who had made such a catastrophic Orlando, makes for quite a passable Ariel, dressed like a New York new waver circa 1979, with his pretty boy looks and sullen blank stillness making a preferable reading of the part to the usual high-voiced capering and scampering that actors often seem to feel the need to adopt.

Annoyingly, all the scampering and capering seems to have been left to Ron Cephas Jones’s Caliban. Although given the external factors pointing to potential for over-doing the possible post-colonial readings of the play, it’s a pretty straight-forward, and even intelligent version of a creature that no one ever seems able to pin down.

In fact, as Tempests go, this is most defined by its clarity. In most other respects it’s a bit like a compilation tape of other recent “straight” Tempests (it’s remarkable that a play that has so many fantastical elements so often seems to end up looking exactly the same), but at least it’s one that knows where it’s going, if not precisely why it’s important that it does.

Piper’s set benefits enormously from the removal of the “forest” at the back, which is replaced by what I presume is a sort of reflective-bottomed moat against the back wall (from the stalls, you can’t see any water, only the dappled reflection of water playing on the walls). The net effect is strangely reminiscent, at times, of scenes from Peter Greenaway’s earlier films (not Prospero’s Books, happily) – I can’t find precise photographic evidence on Google, but I’m pretty sure there’s stuff like it in Drowning By Numbers and A Zed and Two Noughts. Anyway, it looks jolly nice and goes a long way toward making amends for As You Like It. Downstage there’s a large-ish circular sandpit which neatly allows us to imagine the rest of the island being viewed and interfered with from Propsero’s cell, which actually works well as a way of containing the play’s many location changes without all the awkward faffing about of, well, As You Like It.

But, for all this acuity, the thing does begin to drag after a while. I’m not sure if it’s always going to be played without an interval, or whether that was just to get press day over and done with in an acceptably short time, but it definitely needs one. There’s not so much momentum going on here that it wouldn’t benefit from a bit of breathing space.

As for the rest, there’s some pleasant music (though much of it sounds like Michael Nyman’s score for The Piano and none of it is as good as his masque music from Prospero’s Books, sadly), and well, not really much by way of a ‘take’ on the whole thing. By the end, you get a good idea of what happens in the play, but very little idea of what attracted Mendes to it, beyond a desire to prove his competency at making stuff clear. That said, it does “wistful” better than any previous production I’ve seen. The point where Prospero and Gonzalo are reunited is actually touching, and this is the first time I’ve heard the line: “We are such stuff as dreams are made of” related with regret – that being of the same stuff as dreams, rather than the usual “magical” reading, is like admitting to a total lack of substance, an ephemerality.

In short, some lovely moments, but not nearly enough to keep the whole afloat.

Sucker Punch - Royal Court

It’s a strange beast, this new play of Roy Williams’s. On the surface of it, it’s a straight-forward tale of a young black lad, Leon, growing up in eighties London which purports to “look back on what it was like to be young and Black [sic] in the eighties” and apparently “asks if the right battles have been fought, let alone won” (cover blurb for playtext programme). Of these two elements, I’d suggest that the latter is by far the more interesting, fertile and successful ground than the former.

After all, the narrative is rather specific: Leon (Daniel Kaluuya) and his friend Troy (Anthony Welsh) find themselves cleaning out their local boxing club as punishment for breaking in before the play starts. Even at the level of metaphor, it can’t have been like that for everyone young and black in the eighties. There aren’t even any black girls in the play. Anyway. At the start of the play, the club’s (white) owner, Charlie (outstanding understated, honest performance from Nigel Lindsay), is concentrating all his efforts on Tommy (Jason Maza), his best hope for the Under-18s ABA Championships. Who’s also white. After a playground-style scuffle at the club, though, he soon spots Leon’s potential.

When it’s not moving the plot along, the dialogue in the initial scenes is heavily peppered with racial abuse (of the sort that both white, male characters claim as “as bit of fun”/“joking”), references to recent events (the inner city riots loom large) and references, cleverly, to only high-street chain stores which have ceased trading since the eighties (Rumbelows, Our Price, etc).

The underlining of the Main Themes does at times veer dangerously close to the theatrical equivalent of those “Do You Remember the Eighties?” TV shows, trotting out the same landmark moments and items of period kitsch. But this is mostly offset by a story which is quite fiercely its own thing.

Granted there are a few clichés there too. The only two white male characters are both basically racists, while Charlie’s daughter, Becky (Sarah Ridgeway) does at times seem like she’s only been thrown into the mix to provide some “love-across-the-barricades” action. But in the main, the plot is much better when dealing with relationships. The whole thing is wrought out of the precarious deals of trust. Leon despairs of his Falstaffian father “Squid” (a name presumably sharing a provenance with Lemmy from Motorhead) (Trevor Laird), who is forever borrowing more money from his son to blow on horses or drink, forms an uneasy alliance with Charlie, who has just had his trust in Tommy thrown in his face when Tommy runs off with a more glamorous manager/trainer.

At one point Squid suggests that “black people” are “Nuttin but crabs in a pot. When one gets to the top, all the others want to do is drag it back down”. Except that this is true of everyone here; all struggling to get to the top and, in the scramble, most, irrespective of colour, not caring who they need to stamp on to get there.

As a narrative, it’s often workaday stuff. Feeling a bit like those endless moral stories about how one shouldn’t “abandon one’s friends on the way up”, or how you shouldn’t “abandon your roots”, which are told across class, gender and race.

The plot itself moves at a fair old pace, with Williams adopting the blink-and-you-miss-them scene changes (in fact, there aren’t even “scenes” in the text), which one associates Mike Bartlett. Glancing at the programme, I see that Sucker Punch has indeed been directed by Sacha Wares who also did Bartlett’s first play, My Child and transformed the Theatre Downstairs into a distended tube carriage to do so.

Here again, the Downstairs has been remade (again by Miriam Buether, who as well as My Child, also created the fighting pit for Mike’s Cock), this time as the seating round a tacky Daily Mirror-sponsored boxing ring, which doubles as the ring in the training room.

It is partially this staging which lifts this play much higher than other recent Williams stagings. Of course, it’s been given a hefty boost by the subject of the play. After all, boxing – just the sheer physical spectacle of two athletic men with their tops off bashing away at each other – is a sort of theatre of its own, while the way that the ring, the stage, towers above the seating also enacts its own urgent dynamism on the space. Coupled with the physicality of the performers, and the whipcrack pace of direction, the more mundane bits of business are constantly being lifted by sheer adrenaline charge, underwritten by another excellent bit of sound design from Gareth Fry – sequencing drum machine rhythms, onstage microphones, and all sorts of aural cut-ups to create a kind of sonic artillery, with Peter Mumford’s lights creating blinding white flashes when punches are landed.

So, yes, if it were just a matter of staging, moments here would be astonishing – with extra points added for Kaluuya’s charismatic central performance. Although I reckon the outstanding bits would have worked for a staging of anything – and indeed might even be the more exciting for having been applied to something other than a play that was actually about boxing. This could have been a revolutionary Hamlet, for example.

So, what’s interesting is, that, away from all the visceral stuff and the plot, the “thinky bit” of Williams’s play is probably one of the most thought-provoking he’s yet offered. As I mentioned at the beginning, the blurb asks if “the right battles have been fought, let alone won”. Now, there’s a lot in the play that suggests this might be to do with an idea that “white people” “love nuttin better than to see two black men beat up on each other. They too afraid to do it themselves, so they get you to do it” according to Squid. Or that “We [white people] hate you” according to Charlie. Since both these father figures are pretty unreliable theoreticians, I’m not sure we should be reading them as the ciphers voicing Williams’s own concerns. Their viewpoints are interesting in the mix, and certainly there is a side of the play concerned with whether Leon is selling himself out to a “white” “establishment”. Except that Williams at no point presents a plausible “black” position which wouldn’t also involve “selling out”. And at the same time, we see white people selling one another out too.

No, the two most fascinating things here are the vast shadow cast by America, and the incredibly careful, almost intricate way that Williams uses language. Perhaps the key moment of the play for me is the moment only minutes before the end (p.82 of 86, since you ask) where someone uses the word “Nigga”.

It’s been completely absent from the show up to that point, where in previous plays about contemporary Britain (contemporary black Britain?), it’s used almost like punctuation.

Significantly, it’s a black character who says it. Moreover, it’s an American black character.

What the play most interestingly investigates is the relationship of Black Britain with Black America, and how Black America seems to have rapidly evolved and overtaken Britain in terms of emancipation and representation, but at the same time, has a new, harsh proto-neo-con, arch-capitalist agenda behind it.

Coupled to this is a quiet but insistent critique of American capitalism, and perhaps the seeds of questions that Black Britain might be asking Black America. These questions lie very subtly within the text, but are the driving force behind it.

As a play, it barely even frames its bigger questions, as if they only really filtered out in the telling of the story, but if this is the ground toward which Williams is moving into exploring, then his next few plays (no doubt staged before the end of the year, given the phenomenal rate at which he seems to crank them out) might be some of his most exciting yet. And this one isn’t half bad as a starting point.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Idomeneo - ENO, Coliseum

Katie Mitchell’s staging of Mozart’s Idomeneo is a thing of great elegance and intelligence. It also makes a neat companion to her 2007 NT production of Euripides’s Women of Troy. The opera, based on Antoine Danchet’s French text, is another post-Fall-of-Troy narrative, this time concerning the king of Crete, the little-known Idomeneo of the title.

In the beginning, we’re introduced to Ilia, one of Trojan king Priam’s daughters, who has been brought back to Crete by Idomeneo’s son, Idamante. The pair have fallen in love with one another in spite of the decade-long war between their respective nations, but neither has told the other of their burgeoning passion.

The overture is played over a stark, beautiful black and white photograph of the texture of waves on a calm sea, which covers the entire safety curtain, which then rises to reveal the first of Vicki Mortimer and Alex Eales’ many gorgeous sets.

The production is set in scrupulously observed modern dress and settings, achieving non-specific internationality by rendering all the interiors as the sort of expansive, expensive, characterless beige lounges, lobbies and conference rooms of high-end hotels across the globe, conjuring an atmosphere of slick corporate efficiency.

The brilliant thing about these sets, though, is that way that Mitchell and Mortimer/Eales (along with movement advisor Joseph Alford from of Theatre O) have their cake and eat it: at once enjoying the tongue-in-cheek (and frequently laugh-out-loud) moments provided by being able to have a steady stream of suited men walking briskly across the stage, or punctuating the dramatic action with primly officious waiters performing rituals of elaborate hospitality during the more notably twiddly bits of the score, while at the same time still creating beautiful, memorable stage-pictures. Perhaps it’s this constant movement which, as well as bringing the sense of place vividly to life, keeps the pace whipping by so that each hour-long act feels more like fifteen minutes.

What’s most striking about Mitchell’s direction is the level of detail in the naturalism. A lot of opera tends toward either the ludicrously generalised – offering acting and settings which look like a big trifle – or the austerely symbolist – mythic figures in mythic spaces behaving, well, not very much like people actually do in space dominated by a big sculpture. I haven’t got anything against either approach. But, while Mitchell’s approach already yields astonishing results in theatre, it might feel less remarkable there just because such techniques are more expected – indeed, in theatre, it is usually Mitchell’s signature deviations from what appears to be realist, fourth wall naturalism, which mark her out as special. Here, in the context of opera, it’s the intensity of the clarity which with Mitchell delineates the emotional arcs of the four central characters which really sets this production apart.

Where in theatre Mitchell’s almost “fetishistic naturalism” (cf. Krankheit die Jungen) can sometimes feel like a tic or affectation, underscored by Mozart’s music, and subject to the fact that the performers are having to sing, it takes on a different sort of function. It looks as if she has really worked with the singers on their acting, so that they really do have a reason that they are saying/thinking/vocalising/singing even every repetition of each line.

Alongside this emotional clarity, there’s also the recurrent sense of humour. When in the opening scene Electra (Emma Bell), Ilia’s love-rival for the affections of Idamante, blows into the palace/hotel conference suite, in contrast to the sober, dark-suited populace and subdued captive Trojans she turns up in a bright red coat and a look of “What? What’s wrong with this coat?” establishing the character (or at least this characterisation) minutes before she gets a line.

Electra is certainly the most fun in this Idomeneo. The central narrative revolves around the tragic consequences of the king promising Poseidon that he will sacrifice the first person he sees if he is allowed to reach his homeland safely, and then that person transpiring to be his son, Idamante (shades of Iphigenia at Aulis). The romantic subplot leads to Ilia, though noble and pretty, not really getting to do much but virtuously waft about lamenting her lot – touching though this is. So the real dynamism here is found in Electra’s mad cackling and vows of bloody revenge, hilariously overplayed with thunder and lightning flashing outside the windows of Mortimer/Eales’s set, while the princess irritably sends back glasses of wine and picks grumpily at her food. Elsewhere in the piece, where everyone else sings arias about their despair, Electra gets drunk and sings about how she’s going to re-seduce Idamante, while simultaneously touching up a hapless waiter who happens to be passing.

Being Mozart, there’s a sense that what you’re watching is basically a sequence of stuff thrown together with the primary purpose of delighting; a sense of a composer-slash-dramatist, basically contriving ways of giving people stuff that they’ll really like. Scene after scene. Every time the dramatic action might look like it’s about to flag a bit, Wolfgang chucks in some more allegro twiddling. He happily piles up the arias in act two, and then follows them with a massive climactic thunderstorm/tsunami. If there’s a weak point in both the music and the plotting, then it’s the seemingly bolted-on happy-ending in which Poseidon rears up out of the sea and forgives everyone, but even this is rescued by good old Electra going nuts with a revolver shortly afterwards.

The chorus numbers are, to this theatre-goer, impressive even before anyone opens their mouth just because of the sheer weight of numbers and the elegance of the mise-en-scene. And then when they do actually start singing... Well, it’s not all post-baroque showing-off. There are also some seriously beautiful choruses here.

What’s most glorious, though, is this marriage of Mitchell and Mortimer’s modernist sensibilities to Mozart’s ornate orchestration, with the clean lines and crisp direction at once grounding and being lifted by the richness of the music. There’s something wonderful about just the sheer expense and scale of it all, too. And then, because it’s not “theatre” per se, there seems to be less of an anxiety about certain aspects of the staging – covering scene changes with the return of the big black and white photo of the sea seems fine since there’s also the fact of the orchestra playing yer actual classical music. Live. I don’t suppose such things would excite a regular opera-goer very much, but to these funding-starved eyes, it all seemed pretty damn remarkable.

I should point out that the seat I was sitting in was thanks to a plus-one from a colleague, so I’ve got no idea how the production fares from the affordable seats. But if you’re a theatre-lover who has liked Katie Mitchell’s other work and the better part of ninety quid is something you happen to have in your disposable income, then I’d book a ticket in the stalls immediately if I were you. I’m not sure how well it will translate from the higher seats in the balcony, but it might be worth taking a look. If nothing else, it’s just great to see something of this scale on a stage. And then to see that scale handled on such a human level. Actually, it’ll probably still look great from the back of the balcony.

Either way, this is inspiring, brilliantly intelligent stuff.

Edit: Oh, and perhaps thanks to some spectacularly dim reviews in the national press, tickets seem to be a bit cheaper at the moment.

Photo: Emma Bell, Paul Nilon, Robert Murray, Sarah Tynan © Steve Cummiskey

Lulu - The Gate

As a text, Lulu seems to have suffered as chaotic a life as its eponymous heroine. Initially conceived by Frank Wedekind as two plays, it has been performed together and apart, frequently cut or banned, mistreated by the authorities, called by various names, remade as a film or opera, and then, unsure of what it is anymore, it ends up bedraggled in London where it is butchered. Only kidding.

But, like Lulu, there isn’t really a definitive Lulu, so the brief of Headlong and the Gate’s annual New Directions award – to adapt and reimagine a classic European text – is almost a given for any staging. However, as in previous years, the rubric seems to have given director/adaptor Anna Ledwich the necessary sense of freedom to go beyond mere restoration and into what reads on stage like something that is almost entirely her own dramaturgically.

Ledwich has stripped the script down to one possible set of bare essentials and rendered them in stark, almost emblematically contemporary language. Indeed, the thing whips by at a little over two hours including an interval. And you hardly feel the time passing. And yet, to the best of my memory, all the significant episodes of the play are still there – or at least, this version runs fairly similarly plot-wise to Georg Pabst’s early film-of-the-play Pandora’s Box.

At the start, Lulu is the worryingly young bride of a wealthy older man having her portrait painted by a dashing, romantically-minded young artist. This is virtually all that is certain. Is she flirting with the artist as he paints her, or is he projecting that onto her? Seeing what he wants to see, or seeing what he cannot help but see? It isn’t giving many minutes of the plot away to note that this first husband soon dies and Lulu immediately takes up with the young artist, establishing a pattern that is to see her through the rest of the play as a sort of cross between serial-monogamist and serial-murdereress, or rather, someone who happens to be in the vicinity of an unusually high number of deaths. More like a curse than a killer, perhaps.

Sinead Matthews’s performance is unsettlingly compelling. She bursts onto the stage like a cross between Bonnie Langford in Just William, Marilyn Monroe and Lolita; childishly energetic and disturbingly sexualised and provocative. What’s unsure is whether the sexuality is knowing or whether she is completely oblivious to her effect on men. This is a tension which is played on repeatedly. Does Lulu know what she wants? Does she ever really fall in love? Does she enjoy sex or tolerate it? Are these men using her or is she using them?

Thanks to the way that the piece uses modern idioms and partially places the scenarios in which Lulu finds herself in a modern context, we find ourselves assessing her along modern pop-psychological lines – did an “abusive father”, as we would now have it, plant the seeds of her troubled psyche? For example.

Ledwich is canny in her choice of contemporary language. The sexuality and relationships get discussed with contemporary frankness and candour, but there’s a total absence of “therapy-speak” and, more importantly, glib, harmful press coinages like “people-trafficking” or “abusive childhood”; coinages which have become so over-familiar that they immunise us to the misery which they denote. It is refreshing, albeit unpleasant, to be reminded of the actuality without the euphemisms.

Not that Lulu is much of a play for dwelling on misery. What’s fascinating is how little, compared to modern plays, the depths of the characters’ psychologies are trawled. Lulu isn’t a play that’s much interested in getting you to understand why the characters do what they do. They just seem to go about doing things. In this respect it’s rather reminiscent of Woyzeck; or what now seems destined to become Alan Bennett’s single most famous line – the description of history as “just one fucking thing after another”.

But Wedekind’s deeply linear, if apparently a-consequential, plotting isn’t the focus here. Indeed, for all that we find Lulu fascinating, she seems to exist at a bit of a safe remove from us and from Ledwich. More “emotional Brechtianism”, perhaps. Because, for all the cleverness on show in the translation, and the lovely performances elicited from a fine cast, the other real star here is the staging. It doesn’t look like it’s going to be, initially. The Gate is laid out other-end-on (the Gate’s space is adaptable, but the lighting box is usually at one particular end of the long, narrow room. This show is pointed at where it usually is), and the right hand wall is rendered as a half-finished tattered construction of wood and thick plastic sheeting. The stage is cut across with more curtaining – plastic, rags, velvet – which each in turn are drawn as the play proceeds. At first, the scrappyness of the look doesn’t seem to serve much purpose beyond a kind of impressionist naturalism. By the end, the sense of the stage deepening, particularly the removal of the “final curtain” (deliberate My Way gag?), has created a real feeling of movement, of the stage evolving to fit and accommodate the play or the narrative.

There are nice “Headlong-y” touches too – the best involving The Smiths’s I Know It’s Over, actor Michael Colgan and a whole lot of stage blood.

Actually, the soundtrack deserves a full-length review all of its own. Watching the play I’d lazily assumed that sound designer Carolyn Downing and composer Alex Silverman had done a few bits and pieces with a computer and then used a lot of found music by the likes of Monroe Transfer, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Arcade Fire and maybe some late-period David Lynch soundtracks. Wrong. All the music you hear in the show – beyond Marilyn Monroe’s I Want to be Loved by You and, oh, another pop song (someone remind me?) – including the cover of I Know it’s Over were recorded specially for the show. And it’s great. The music is also brilliantly mixed into the overall soundscape of the piece – with clattering guitars fading in and out of the sound of cities at night.

Similarly, Helen Goddard’s visual design is at once cleverly specific and bluntly non-committal. I mean this as a compliment. Everything that appears on stage, everything that everyone wears, looks like it has been carefully chosen and thought about, but none of it adds up to a specific “period” costume, nor does anything read like “an anachronism”. At the same time, costumes both conjure particular periods and perhaps usefully tie specific moments to particular tropes. In a sequence where Lulu poses as a photographic model for a Countess (who, on press night, was startlingly well played by the director herself after Caroline Faber suffered an injury), for example, Matthews is dressed not unlike a Bettie Page type pin-up from the fifties. It feels like there’s plenty of iconographic temporal travel, with no especial purpose other than to best present the scene. Perhaps there’s a more complex matrix at work, but if there was, I wasn’t reading closely enough to pin it down and offer a translation. But I’d be more than happy to believe there was something cleverer than necessarily-needed-to-be-spotted going on. It was that sort of production. Intelligent, carefully thought-through and worked on, but not *off-puttingly referential. If you don’t see any more than the play, then it still works, but there’s certainly more, both transparently and perhaps opaquely, going on beneath the surface for those who like their theatre more “readable” than “legible”.

So, in conclusion: it’s a bit of a strange original; not, perhaps, offering much for those interested in emotional engagement to get their teeth into. This is a clever, intelligent staging, with interesting decisions from the supporting cast and a remarkable central performance from Sinead Matthews. It’s also an excellent calling card for the director. Here’s hoping that even away from the New Directions rubric this is the sort of production we can expect more of from Ledwich, Goddard, Downing and Silverman in the future.

photo: Sinead Matthews © Catherine Ashmore

Through a Glass Darkly - Almeida

The big story here is that Through a Glass Darkly is the world premiere of the first adaptation for stage of Ingmar Bergman’s film of the same name. The only one of his films that he gave official permission to be so adapted.

It’s not a film I’ve seen, so there’s a bit of an elephant in the room here. This one of those perennial questions about reviewing. Once you know something’s going to be adapted for stage – be it novel or film – should you immediately seek out a copy and read or watch it, or should you watch it closer to the actual event, or save it until after you’ve seen the stage version? Because there’s always going to be an impact of one onto the other. I tend to think, if I’ve not seen/read the thing before I hear about the adaptation, I should probably leave off seeing the original until after I’ve seen the stage adaptation, so as not to wind up experiencing the stage version – which is after all the one I’m actually meant to be reviewing – as a pale shadow of the original.

The problem with this approach is that you wind up not knowing where to attribute praise and blame. Have difficulties of transposition been masterfully surmounted or has the film forced the play into an odd place? How much has it been adapted? Is the original better or worse? Should one even go about comparing a good film to a good play? Anyway, it’s too late now. I’ve seen the play and I haven’t seen the film, so this is essentially a review of what’s on stage at the Almeida. So much for critics being authoritative.

Though a Glass Darkly opens simply enough. A family emerge from a sauna/steam room/ swim in the sea, towelling themselves off and chatting happily. Thanks to the vagaries of casting conventions, it takes a couple of minutes to establish that the older man (David, Ian McElhinney) is father to the young woman (Karin, Ruth Wilson) and youngest man (Max, 22-year-old Dimitri Leonidas, who’s playing sixteen here), while the other man (Martin, Justin Salinger) is Karin’s husband.

Almost at once we’re made aware that something isn’t quite right. Father and husband talk of the wife’s recent dispatch from hospital. They exit. On another part of the coast, Karin and Max sit and chat. They’re awful flirtatious for a brother and sister, but that’s fine, right? Except that we now know she’s a bit unspecifiedly nuts, and so her every action seems that little bit more underscored with our concern.

And this is sort of how it continues. Little encounters between members of the family at David’s remote holiday cottage/writing retreat. A table rises up through the trapdoor of the Almeida stage and the family sit down for dinner. There’s mention of a deceased mother. Max has written a play, Karin has carefully rehearsed the prologue to perform to David. Martin sits up the other end of the profile and keeps a low profile. David, given more to self-absorption than parenting fails to take an interest in the play. Max is sad, Karin is cross, then it’s time for bed – for which the table lowers halfway back into the stage to double as a bed.

In the night Karin hears spooky voices amid the dripping and creaking of the old house. We hear them too. The thing circles and turns about in much the same way for the majority of the remainder of its 90 minute stage-time. It’s well done. Mostly pretty well acted – Ruth Wilson is best, and it’s a toss up between McElhinney and Leonidas for least good (although both have their moments).

What’s most striking is that, as narratives go, it’s very still. It feels like it maybe should be quite Ibsen-y, except that we know all the information. There isn’t really a shock revelation of something buried that’s underpinning all the tension.

There’s the dead mother. She had the same mental illness that Karin now has. And the father didn’t really deal with it very well at all. Indeed, he writes in his diary that he pretty much used his wife’s illness as an engine for his not-terribly-important writings. But Karin discovers this diary entry almost immediately and confronts her husband about it, who in turn confronts David.

Similarly, Karin recalls her mother’s “mad” episodes. They didn’t strike her as a child as madness, but as fun adventures. And there’s a sense that she isn’t quite sure whether or not she really trusts that her “madness”, or mental illness, as we might now prefer to think of it, is really “illness” at all.

Karin’s illness revolves around her hearing voices and trance-like states in which she imagines herself in a waiting room to heaven, waiting to look upon The Almighty. As a consequence, she isn’t at all sure that she wants to “get better”. Her husband and father aren’t especially convinced that she could anyway.

There’s sort of a question, at least in the text, of whether or not she is indeed mad, or whether this “madness” is a construct of the men around her. Strangely, the staging dispels this ambiguity by apparently playing us the voices in her head, and then, when Karin goes into one of her trances, by playing appropriately “heavenly” music and shining a Very Bright Light down onto her from above. Assuming we’re not meant to read these visible, audible signs as literally existing in the world of the play, but rather as manifestations of what Karin’s seeing, there doesn’t seem much ambiguity in the mind of director Michael Attenborough as to whether or not Karin is on the same page as the rest of us.

While the staging looks hugely competent and nicely designed (although I found the slightly off angles of Tom Scutt’s impressionistic sort-of interior/sort-of cliffs oddly annoying), it doesn’t feel like the whole thing was properly gelling on the night I saw it. Now, of course, this would be where it would be most useful to have seen the film. Perhaps viewed as a supplement to the film – as an adaptation of something previously known – it comes over as much more interesting, insightful commentary, but as a stand-alone experience it feels strangely inconclusive. There is drama here, and some moments of beautifully nuanced performance (not just from Wilson. I quite liked just how Scandinavian Salinger somehow managed to seem, while saying and doing very little), but the whole wound up feeling more like a celebration of well-done-ness than as a thing which fascinated in its own right, coupled to the fact that a fifty-or-so-years out-of-date understanding of mental illness is always going to grate slightly, especially when it’s married to the dubious trope of “holy lunacy” (like “idiot savant”, but even less savoury). But, yes, all very well done. Probably just me not going for the wider picture.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Faust (erster Teil) - Deutsches Theater

Goethe’s Faust occupies a position in the German literary canon for which we Brits – perhaps fortunately – have no dramatic equivalent. Basically, it’s sort of an unstageable peak. I think the closest we could get would be if Shakespeare’s pair of history tetralogies was just two plays. With no real reduction in length. But, as if the histories contained as many coinages and (now) clichés of our language as Macbeth and Othello and held a similar place in the national imagination to Hamlet or King Lear (but with as many duff moments as Pericles, Timon and Cymbeline combined), but with the curious extra dimension that Goethe wrote Faust in deliberately völkisch idiom – so perhaps imagine all the above if Shakespeare had written the above plays in cod-Norse/Anglo-Saxon/Chaucerian. Actually, all that godawful Arthurian stuff by Tennyson is probably nearer the mark.

Some of you might have seen Silviu Purcarete’s reportedly lavish staging in Edinburgh last year (sadly, I didn’t – but I imagine it’ll turn up at another festival). Another useful point of comparison might be Peter Stein’s 21-hour staging of both parts in 2000. These productions perhaps give some idea of the difficulties of size, length and scale demanded by the text.

Michael Thalheimer’s production of the first part runs for 1hr50 and offers only six (seven?) characters on stage. To call this a study in stark minimalism doesn’t even begin to cover it. The staging is also a thing of much starkness.

The first fifty minutes to an hour are played on the very front of the stage – virtually a corridor – between mostly Faust and the various visitors to his scholarly cell (a neighbour, a student, Mephistopheles), while the stage’s enormous revolve essentially contrives to make it look like the high, plain, black, walls of his cell are continually turning (if you see what I mean).

This first setting basically takes us up to the bit where Faust, weary of everything that the world seems able to offer, sells his soul in the hope that he’ll ever experience anything worth experiencing.

As a thing to watch, much of it is intensely still (save for the ever revolving wall). The performances – my heard-German is still what it could be in terms of comprehension – are fascinating just on a level of what the actors seem to be doing – there’s a weird kind of style deployed here –and it’s not the first time I’ve seen it – which is almost operatic in its treatment of text. It’s not sung, per se, but it is variously delivered lentissimo, allegro, sotto voce or fortissimo con fuoco. And so far as anyone has ever explained to me, while not actually *random*, there isn’t necessarily an obvious reason for where these differences might be deployed. No one seems to do anything so frightfully obvious as shouting when they’re angry or talking slowly when they’re thinking, for instance. That said, it’s worth noting that Goethe’s rhyming text is, at the same time as the above innovations, is still being spoken more as naturalised speech than being end-stopped as verse.

Not understanding half as much as I’d like to, puts me at a distinct disadvantage in terms of staying interested here, but in my defence, I’d say I did mildly better than the party of not-quite-tacitly restive teens amongst whom I was sat. (Still, full marks to them for even turning up on a gorgeous Sunday evening for two hours of Goethe, even if it was mostly to text one another throughout).

Perhaps mindful of his audience’s patience, perhaps also in lieu of an interval, Thalheimer chucks his audience a brilliantly unexpected curve-ball. So far, we’ve had this mostly pretty muted, very sober setted production. It’s a fair assumption that most people in the audience know what’s coming up in the story, and so, instead of Mephistopheles taking Faust to the Witches’ Sabbath he gives us about seven minutes of this:

Yup. Seven minutes of Deep Purple’s Child in Time, while Ingo Hülsmann’s Faust dances, air guitars and throws himself about in front of the revolving wall, which now has bright white light shining out from the gaps between the planks. It’s one of those moments which really reminds me why I love German theatre. An hour of really serious looking and sounding heavy dialogue, apparently brilliantly edited, and then seven minutes of buggering around to 70’s metal as a dramaturgical decision. Brilliant.

It’s not very deep, I know; but I do love it. Quite a large part of me also wanted to get out my phone’s video camera, film it, and send the clip to my best teenage friend with whom I grew up listening to this sort of stuff with a note explaining what it was (It’s 9pm on Sunday, I’m in Berlin watching Faust in German. Check this... – kinda thing).

After the Purple/Sabbath (is that the gag Thalheimer’s going for? One imagines not), the remainder of the action from Goethe that he can be bothered with is the stuff concerning Gretchen. For those of you who don’t know Goethe’s Faust, this is where Part One takes serious leave from the Marlowe (the Witches’ Sabbath scene does, after all, have mild equivalences in its Elizabethan forerunner). Basically, Faust sees a young madchen walking down the street and falls in love with her. Her one discernable character trait is her purity/chastity. Mephistopheles sleeps with her neighbour Marthe, Faust gets the girl, gets the girl pregnant, and then buggers off. Somewhere in all this, Gretchen asks Faust if he believes in God. Apparently in German, this is known as “die Gretchen frage” (the Gretchen question) – which is now a catch-all term for asking a naïve question.

Here the question is repeated a number of times, in what is clearly another key aspect of Thalheimer’s approach to the text – his emphasis on the existential questions of desire and knowledge at the play’s heart.

Gretchen’s eventual suicide is gorily rendered as a sudden spurt of blood from her neck as she cuts her own throat. And that’s practically it. Faust and Meph. slink off not-very-guiltily to wait for part two to start happening to them in another theatre another time.

Did I like it? Yes and no. I think my enjoyment would probably have been doubled by actually knowing what the hell Faust and Meph. were talking about, tripled by being able to appreciate Goethe’s actual use of language, and quadrupled by knowing the text well enough to really appreciate the cuts that Thalheimer’s version makes and being able to have a perspective on them. It would even , possibly, have been quintupled if I’d previously seen lots of other, more traditional, more staid productions, more literal productions against which to compare this sleek minimalist version.

Even so, aside from perhaps being a bit on the slow side (it really is very still indeed) there was something admirable about the austerity and the unpatronising demands made on the concentration. No spoon-feeding or playing to the gallery here – or very little, at any rate – this was serious seriousness being taken very seriously indeed, and I liked that a lot. You didn’t get much of an impression of a director worrying if his audience were “entertained”. Instead, this felt like someone taking a highly regarded piece of literature and offering their version of it to people who they trusted to appreciate being treated like thinking adults.

There’s an excellent description of Thalheimer’s style over at the Goethe Institut here, which manages to explain what I’ve been trying to describe above with a much better grasp of the context.

And another blog review in English of the production here, which fills in a few of the literary blanks.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Carrie on regardless

Screen cap. of the Tricycle website. Someone clearly has a wry sense of humour.

(click on image to enlarge)

Monday, 7 June 2010

The Man - Finborough Theatre

[written for CultureWars]

[With shows like The Man, there’s a massive advantage to not being a “proper” critic. For a start, I was under no compulsion to go, see the play, and then file my review by midnight, one in the morning, or half nine the following day (which was fortunate, since I was also keen to catch Mike Bartlett’s Bull, of which more another time, perhaps). Second, it meant I didn’t feel as embargoed from talking to The Man’s author James Graham about a few details of the show’s construction. And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it meant I could go and see the show a second time (after I came back from Pulse).

Of course, all these factors modify my experience of the piece, and in ways that “proper” critics aren’t really supposed to modify their experiences, but I think there’s a pretty compelling argument for approaching Graham’s piece in this way [is the British school of critics trying to preserve the purity if their perceptions against external (often useful) information necessarily *best*?]. It also means I don’t feel obliged to start the review: “Nothing is certain in life but death and taxes. The Man is a monologue about both...”]

The big thing with The Man is its liveness. The piece is being performed by a rotating, or, rather, fluctuating cast of four actors. But, more excitingly, despite there being a printed text of the play, the piece is different every night of its run. The premise of this monologue is its narrator, Ben, going through his receipts for the last year as he attempts to fill out his first tax return form. As the audience enters, each member is handed a receipt. The order in which any given audience hears the narrative depends entirely on the order in which these receipts are given to the performer.

At the conclusion of my first viewing of the show, I was more or less convinced that this “live” element was actually a bit of a cheat. I thought there was probably a certain amount of forward planning, or perhaps Derren Brown-style trickery so that we the audience *thought* we were feeding the performer receipts entirely at random, but in fact were just handing precisely the props he needed when he needed them. There isn’t.

Talking to Graham, consulting the script, chatting to other actors doing the show, and then seeing the piece for a second time – with the narrative delivered in an entirely different order – it’s entirely true: the order is complete chance. Which makes the show, a) a bugger to review (how to avoid “giving away the ending” when you don’t know which section is going to end any given performance?), and b) a pretty impressive testament to Graham’s strength as a writer.

On first viewing, you experience the unfolding narrative as completely logical. More than this, it feels as if the order you’re hearing it in makes *most sense*. Yes, it jumps about chronologically – first you hear about something from quite late on in the year, then a new receipt takes you back ten months, then forward five and so on – but it feels completely natural for it to do so. Like when someone is telling you an anecdote and then realises that you need a bit of context about their relationship to the person in the anecdote, and so they go back and tell you a bit about how they know that person, which in turn leads to another anecdote...

The way that the randomised order of the receipts appears to prompt these “memories” is about as unforced a way of achieving this effect as I can imagine. It also reveals something about the way in which we in the audience construct links between events and anecdotes ourselves. Perhaps the first order we hear the monologue in will always feel more definitive to us than it ever will to anyone involved in the production, because we’ve just heard the stories for the first time and have therefore forged all the information around it and the pictures it has created for us into a cohesive whole. It’s interesting that people I saw the show with on both nights swore that their (entirely different) orders of the script seemed like the ideal order to hear the play in.

Importantly, the randomised order doesn’t just feel like a gimmick. In fact, it seems like a beautifully judged way of owning up to the way that the audience and performer share the space. At the same time doesn’t seek to introduce some spurious notion that we’re “controlling” the action – the effect on the show’s order would be exactly the same if the performer just picked the receipts out of a hat, but it does make the whole experience feel much more “shared”.

It’s tempting to say that the narrative itself (or rather the events that are covered in the piece) is “classic Graham”. Except that looking back at the reviews of the other two plays by James Graham (Little Madam and Sons of York) I happen to have reviewed, that claim seems a little hard to back up. Where previous plays (see also: Eden’s Empire and Tory Boyz) have worried hard at Britain’s class-based politics, The Man, while touching on political themes (not least the question of taxation, which lies at the heart of every British election), is unashamedly personal. It deals primarily with attempts at love and coping with death. It’s also a smartingly funny snapshot of what it’s like being a non-native, twentysomething Londoner, living on precious little money in the early 21st century.

The first performance of The Man that I saw had James Graham himself playing the protagonist. This fact, coupled with the myriad receipts we had been handed, did make me wonder if the show might be a clever way for a writer to recycle the clutter of their tax receipts. But, no, in fact all the receipts are worryingly perfect forgeries – even the train tickets and Sainsbury’s receipts. Indeed, the receipts from iTunes (a clever way of seamlessly providing the show with a soundtrack) even have the character’s name and address on them.

Graham’s performance initially struck me as something of an essay of the part: the author gamely stepping up to undertake the same pretty difficult task of learning an hour an a half’s worth of material and then delivering it in a random order every night that he'd inflicted on his actors. By “essay”, I suppose mean I thought that Graham wasn’t really doing “proper acting”. Sure he was a hugely likeable presence on stage, but if anything he seemed a bit too “live”, somehow. Like he wasn’t really “pretending” enough to be “acting”.

His delivery of the emotional bits, for example, was somehow a bit too much like how someone really would brush away the actual emotional content of what he was saying with one too many silly jokes (which were, of course, in the script anyway) and nervous laughs. At which point, you realise that this really is an incredible performance. Graham really has a talent for stage-delivery. He captures the character perfectly, completely blurring the boundaries between himself and the person he’d made up; to the extent that, aside from the more writerly touches, you’d be happy to believe at the end of the show that he’d been talking about himself. Except without the self-indulgence that this would imply.

Seeing Samuel Barnett’s performance only six days later was perhaps a bit unfair (on Barnett) – not least for the reasons mentioned above about the extent of the relationship one builds with the first version of the story you hear. Barnett’s is an excellent performance, but one which feels much more assured and controlled in comparison with Graham’s. But then, I also knew the twists and was enjoying comparing the delivery of the jokes, rather than just laughing at them as I had done in the first version of show I’d seen.

That said, having four actors rotating in the part feels like an excellent idea for a new play, as it offers four different takes on the material in an way that new plays are hardly ever afforded. Granted it’s only got one director (the excellent Kate Wasserberg) and one “staging”, but it feels like the actors here – clearly with the two I saw (and I haven’t ruled out trying to catch more) – haven’t been shoe-horned into a role “created” by another actor, but are each offering their personal interpretation of the part.

So, what does one get out of the whole experience? I’ve rabbited on at unhelpful length mostly about the theatrical properties of this production – because that’s kind of what I like about theatre: its theatreyness. But actually, The Man is also a lovely, big-hearted, very funny story about getting round to growing up a bit. It’s really sweet and it leaves you feeling generally cheered up and the better for having seen it. Which isn’t a bad result for an impressive exploration of the relationship between audience and performer, performer and text, and text and audience.