Thursday, 28 November 2013

Das Schottenstück. Konzert für Macbeth – Volksbühne, Berlin

[written for Exeunt]

If you think you like German theatre, go to the Volksbühne. To my mind the Volksbühne is almost completely unlike any other theatre in Berlin. The work there feels more more politically committed, more dramaturgically difficult, and just more out-and-out alien to the British mindset. Deutsches Theater? Piece of cake. Schaubühne? Walk in the park. Volksbühne? Ah.

Part of the reason might the longstanding intendant-ship of Frank Castorf, who has a reputation for being a difficult Communist with a preference for destroying Chekhov over the course of five hours rather than say, making a nice watchable production which leaves time for a post-show supper. But it’s hard to say for sure. After all, the Volksbühne is effectively the Berlin home of Gob Squad, and they’re likeable enough fluffy nonsense. And even René Pollesch – Castorf’s second in command – is a bit more visually and temporally user-friendly.

So why does it feel like there’s a kind of Volksbühne aesthetic which permeates into more of the work here than it should? Perhaps it’s the dramaturgs, perhaps it’s the auditorium, or perhaps it’s just my imagination.

I’ve seen bits of David Marton’s work before. I adored his Die Heimkehr des Odysseus, I was pretty impressed with his Das wohltemperierte Klavier too. But these were both takes – admittedly incredible takes – on extant works. Heimkehr, an opera with a a plot, and Klavier, at least a single cycles of music grafted onto a single book. The approach here is much more similar to the Extreme Jukebox Musical style of Christoff Marthaler’s Meine Faire Dame (which remains one of the best, most life-and-mind changing things I’ve ever seen as regards the possibilities of theatre) – essentially taking any piece of music at all and using it because it feels dramaturgically correct for telling the story.

[I will fill in the rest of the review bit ASAP, but my hostel has YouTube blocked on the wi-fi to stop da kidz uploading porn of themselves, apparently – ah, the modern world – so I’m just filing the whole playlist in a coffee shop to check it works.  Still, well worth a listen.  Some amazing stuff and the links, leaps and contrasts tell the story all by themselves really...]

Henry Purcell - The Queen's Funeral March

Henry Purcell - Canzona

Arnold Schönberg - Suite for Piano Op 25 Trio

Arnold Schönberg - Red Mass

Ludwig van Beethoven – Come fill, fill my good fellow

Jón Leifs – Vögguvísa

Geoffrey Burgon – Nunc Dimittis

(yes, really. That made me sit up and take notice, I can tell you)

Johann Sebastian Bach – Passacaglia in C-Moll

Béla Bartók – Miraculous Mandarin

Johann Sebastian Bach – Partita II C-Moll BWV 826, Sinfonia

Pietro Locatelli – Cappricio

John Cage – Experiences No 2

Henry Purcell – Funeral Sentences

Henry Purcell – Thou knowest Lord

Cream – Strange Brew

Nina Simone – Tomorrow is my turn

Eugène Ysaye – 2. Sonate

The Shaggs – Philosophy of the World

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi – Stabat Mater

The Doors – Shaman’s Blues

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Morning – Gorki Theater, Berlin

[written for Exeunt]

May 2012 suddenly feels like an awfully long time ago. From here – late November 2013 – even August 2012 is starting to feel like a different era in British theatre. I mention those two months in particular, since the former saw the British première of Sebastian Nübling’s astonishing production of Simon Stephens’s Three Kingdoms; and the latter saw the slightly less trumpeted World première of his subsequent play, Morning, directed by Sean Holmes with the Lyric Theatre’s Young Company, at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh.

A year and a half later Three Kingdoms has pretty much become legendary. It’s already been written into the theatre history books as a kind of revolutionary wake-up call to British theatre (much to the irritation of some radical British theatre-makers, since they were already making work that influenced Nübling (Forced Entertainment) or were just as radical already (too numerous to mention)). I think the real game-changer, however, was seeing that work on the main stage of a “mainstream” theatre. And knowing that it was “mainstream” for the other theatre cultures from which it came (Germany and Estonia).

All of which is far too much set-up for whatever Nübling did next. As it happens, I’d already had my first post-Three Kingdom’s Nübling encounter with his production of Volpone for Bochum Schauspielhaus, which I hadn’t much gone for. And, brace yourselves, folks: I’m not sure I was such an enormous fan of t/his Morning either.

As a compare and contrast exercise, the the difference between Holmes’s Morning and Nübling’s are instructive. Visually, where Holmes’s (designed by Hyemi Shin) was cluttered, messy and visceral; Nübling’s (“visuals Philip Whitfield”) is spare and stark. It has two basic elements flour and wood. The wood is all lent against the back wall in rough, unfinished planks. The flour is everywhere. Starting off in the performers pockets, or replacing the liquid in beer cans, the piece kicks off like a gig stand-off between Death in June (a single drummer beating violent rhythms on a lone snare – albeit a drummer who looks exactly like Fotherinton-Thomas) and Fields of the Nephilim (a goth band mostly famous for covering themselves in flour. Man, I have got to get me some more recent cultural references). The rest of the aesthetic looks much more like a hip-hop advert for All Saints.

Nübling’s production is for/with the Junges Theater in Basel (effectively one Swiss version of the Lyric Young Company). As such, the other two key-notes of the production beyond wood and flour are the company’s extreme youth and, interestingly, in the context of choice of music, their extreme whiteness. Where Holmes’s production not inaccurately represented the social and racial make-up of Hammersmith in West London, I imagine Nübling’s does much the same for Basel. As such, the appropriation of urban music feels somewhat strange. Now, (as the Fields of the Nephilim reference above makes clear) I know next to zip about urban music, and even less about the socio-economic and ethic mix of Basel. For all I know the kids in this production are all working class (Switzerland must have some sort of working class somewhere, right?) and the British/American accents they’re appropriating here for the rapping might be a more-or-less direct transfer. On the other hand, it might be a bit more like what it looks like, which would be like Barnes Youth Theatre making a show about “Thug Life”. You see my discomfort?

Similarly – and I’m pretty sure this is a grotesquely unfair judgement – the business of the company’s performance of youthfulness looks a bit more top-down than the Lyric company’s. Actually, since I’ve read Ashley Scott-Layton’s brilliant account of the Basel rehearsal process I know that denying the young people’s own agency in the work would just be incorrect. So instead I have the difficult job of explaining that what they’ve creating in collaboration with Nübling looks, (a bit, from the outside), like that kind of “grown-up’s version of what young people are like”. My (German, feminist, theatre-agnostic) friend who I saw it with mentioned Skins, and I knew what she meant.

There’s also the tricky problem of gender. Coming to this straight from Katie Mitchell’s Alles weitere kennen sie aus dem kino, moade for a stark contrast. Whatever else it does, Alles weitere... presents a version of women-on-stage that is utterly, fiercely, perfectly feminist. (Although I prefer the word “right” to the word “feminist”. Feminism shouldn’t be the exception, it should be the norm.) By contrast, the way that the women exist on stage here feels less progressive. Now, given that this is a collaboratively devised show, it would be idiotic to lay “blame” for this at Nübling’s door. On the other hand, he and his dramaturg (Uwe Heinrich) might have thought to come up with more elegant solutions to presenting the world.  (And I still wouldn't call Nübling a misogynist; possibly more of a provider of equal-opportunities objectification in an unequal world. Although here, with the additional youth of the performers, it did feel at once more worrying: but it also felt more insolent on the part of the young people, all of them, so maybe telling them how to stage themselves isn't my business.)

The issue is, though, that the young people are creating a vision of the world of the play, and its social context, largely through physical theatre. In many ways, I feel that I must have been spoilt by the quality of what I’ve been seeing recently that I’m not just immediately rolling over and letting this staging tickle my tummy. I mean, it is bloody amazing, don’t get me wrong. However, even within the world of amazing, we have to ask tough questions. And the question here is: does the Basel production of Morning fall into a rather rudimentary trap by – in seeking to delineate the blank, sexualised world of “youth culture” in which Stephanie, Cat and Stephen live – reproducing the tropes of that world, twerkin’ ‘n’ all, on stage? Here, unlike in Homes’s production, Tabea Buser’s Stephanie is a pretty relentless, screamin’, shoutin’, “sex bomb”. Cat, by contrast, is so much of a wallflower here that she literally spends whole scenes sitting against a wall playing videogames on her phone.

Beyond the shouting (of which I could have lived with less), there’s also the interesting sub-question of whether where one sits and the audience’s relation to the stage to take into account. If this Morning felt a bit more oppressive than Sean’s, then possibly partly this might have to do with the fact that Nübling’s actors towered over us on the Gorki’s strange thrust stage, rather than being surveyed way beneath us and far away as performers tend to be in the main space of the Traverse.

But what got me, and what confused the hell out of me, really, was that fact that despite – obviously – having completely rejected naturalism, the tropes that Nübling/the company were employing kind of brought the “realism” back in through a side door. This is a tricky idea to articulate, but in the Lyric production it felt more like Stephanie was allowed to remain partly as a symbolic, hypothetical set of propositions about the world. In the Basel version, she seemed more like a slightly unevenly written “real character” – in spite of the non-naturalistic playing. It perhaps didn’t help that Nübling has removed the Marx from Morning (and perhaps less significantly changed the going-to-university catalyst of change between Cat and Stephanie to going to a posh boarding school).

So, all this worrying aside, I should say that this production is actually pretty incredible. That I spent a lot of time wondering about these various aspects of it possibly just reflects the amount of time I’ve been spending in theatres recently, and the incredibly high-standard of that work, that mere brilliance of staging and sparks of energy and genius are no longer enough. Now I want purity of ideological expression and content as well. And in that respect, this production of Morning left me with a lot more niggling doubts than positive questions and propositions.

Alles weitere kennen sie aus dem kino – Deutsches Schauspielhaus, Hamburg

[written for Exeunt]

[this review contains a few errors of analysis, which I've left in due to a misplaced sense of honesty]

Martin Crimp’s new play Alles weitere kennen sie aus dem kino (The Rest Will Be Familiar to You from The Cinema) is an adaptation of The Phoenician Women by Euripides, which in turn is a version of Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus.

Katie Mitchell’s staging of it is possibly the best piece of theatre she has ever made. It is probably one of the best made things I’ve ever seen in a theatre full stop.

There’s an interesting thing going on with Katie Mitchell’s growing body of work: as piece follows piece the complete oeuvre feels like it’s gradually taking on an almost solid form of its own, a kind of over-all dramaturgy. Piece by piece it gradually returns to previous themes and ideas and re-explores them. Her productions of the classics more and more explore plays with a female perspective (Ipheginia at Aulis, Women of Troy, Idomeneo, this). Her choices of new plays and original work reflect a growing horrified concern with the future of the environment (Ten Billion, Lungs). At the same time, stagings of other texts – Waves, Reise Durch Die Nacht, A Woman Killed With Kindness, Pains of Youth, Written on Skin – experiment with different possibilities of staging.

Much as Reise Durch Die Nacht felt like the apex of her work with video so far, Alles weitere... feels like the absolute best of her non-video work (although I started late on this with Women of Troy). What also feels exciting, though, is the extent that you can see the traces of so many previous stagings in this one. The most notable elements are the “scene-change Scene of Crime Officers” adapted here from Pains of Youth, the “opening the fourth wall” lighting and sound effect that I first saw in Women of Troy, and then there’s the best example yet of the “people walking backwards” thing that definitely featured in, again, Women of Troy, but also Written on Skin and I think much else in between.

However, theatre criticism isn’t a matter of just seeing a lot of someone’s work and then listing the familiar elements which recur from previous productions. These elements are distinctive, strong and important to this new work. It is significant that there is such a strong, increasing through-line to Mitchell’s work now. The idea of a theatre director as an artist in such control of their body of work is something that we should all get excited about. Of course theatre is a collaborative art-form, but one gets the impression that it is not unreasonable to credit Mitchell as the intellectual driving force behind the series of pieces that she has directed.

Being a British critic writing about a British director directing a British writer, it is of course sacrilege to suggest this. How have I got three paragraphs in and not mentioned Martin Crimp? Inconceivable!

Being as Alles weitere... premièred in German, in Germany, I got the theatre’s press office to send me a copy of the play ahead of the performance. Interestingly they could only send me a copy of the German translation, because the English version – the original – isn’t licensed. Which is as fascinating as it is insane – how can me translating what Crimp wrote in English back to English possibly be an improvement on what the German translator (Ulrike Syha) was handed to translate in the first place? Y’know? On the other hand, I think it does admirably make the point that this play had its world première in German. And that the German text is A Thing in its own right. (Also, being in Germany, it was nice to not be the only critic reading the play before seeing it. Being English, however, I only read the first half, so I could have both experiences. And because I didn’t want to spoil the ending...) But, we want to talk about the play...

It’s a testament to the distinctness of Martin Crimp’s voice that you can run a German version of one of his plays through Google Translate and the English version comes out looking and sounding recognisably like the work of the man who also wrote Attempts on Her Life, In The Republic of Happiness and In The Valley. I mention these three specifically as, like Mitchell, Crimp also has his own growing body of work and Alles weitere... is definitely also an expansion of his own themes and motifs. The text basically alternates between two modes. One, reminiscent of Attempts... or part two of Republic ... – and with changes in speaker signified by the same dashes – has the chorus of Phoenician women musing on their situation with non-sequiturious digressions into reflection on the modern world. These alternate, however, with scenes where the named characters of the Greek tragedy engage each other in dialogue which runs close to the general thrust of the original, discussing the deeply strange situation in which they’ve found themselves.

(In brief: in this version of the Oedipus story, Jocasta hasn’t committed suicide, and Oedipus has been bundled off out of Thebes, which leaves his sons Polyneices and Eteocles to take over the city. However, Eteocles has seized complete power and now Polyneices is outside with an army. Old favourites like Tiresias, Creon and Antigone also all put in appearances. It almost feels like a Greek Tragedy’s Greatest Hits album.)

Now, what’s fascinating about having read half the text before seeing the show is that I had a pretty good mental picture of what Crimp was driving at. No. Mental picture is wrong. I had no particular visual sense of how the thing would look, but I could hear the voices very strongly. The voices – possibly even a range of different possible voices – from an imaginary English version. What comes – came – across most strongly in the reading is the impression of the sardonic exercising of power on the parts of the men waging the war. And of Jocasta, actually. And Antigone. The sense of them as arrogant upper-class rulers. Very English upper-class rulers, in fact.

Mitchell’s production takes that assumption and forensically shreds every last scrap of it. Here we are in a draughty looking, semi-abandoned-looking old upper-class home or perhaps some sort of asylum or other similar institution (beautifully designed by Alex Eales). (It is wonderful to notice that as well as there being a discernible continuity within Mitchell and Crimp’s work, there is also a satisfying dramaturgy in Karin Beier’s opening season, with this production making a neat pairing with Schwarze Augen, Maria, and Beier’s own projected three-part Trojan War sequence which would have included her own (re-mount?) of Die Troerinnen (Women of Troy). Here again is Tiresias surrounded by peeling paint...). The Phonician women (we assume) are dressed in severe black dresses with high necks and no arms. They have a clinical, military air about them. The dramatis personae of the play are also mostly dressed in black, but like the Trojan women of Mitchell’s production, they look more like they’ve been taken out of a black-tie dinner (the men are indeed mostly still wearing black ties).

But what’s remarkable, the entire extra element that the production adds to the written text, is that this chorus seem to have all the named characters held prisoner. Rather than re-staging a world which leaves unchallenged that miserable lot of these women held prisoner Mitchell has rewritten the balance of power so that the unnamed women exert observable power over both the men and women of the play.

So, the way the action runs is thus: the women deliver their “chorus” bits. They do so facing front, mostly. They then detach from one another and in a series of pre-planned (in the world of the play) movements, they disappear off through the many doors leading out of the main room (the set also has two floors, a grand staircase, and one cutaway upstairs room), reappearing with glass cases such as you might find in museums, containing authentic-looking ancient Greek artefacts – the props of the story the characters are involved in, in fact.

The actors of the story are brought in and are apparently made to deliver their lines under duress. The chorus of women don overcoats to “pretend” to be the women from Phoenicia, but they plainly never lose control. Even when they’re “in character” the named players remain observably terrified of them.

This also has an interesting impact on the way the characters speak. Rather than delivering their lines with whatever sort of level of contempt or bravado appropriate to their status as rulers of ancient cities, they now instead speak with the hysterical fear of a prisoner in a beheading video. It seems likely that every time they are taken off the stage again when they parts are done they are being tortured in some way in the unseen rooms. They don’t come back on bleeding or anything, but you can imagine that they are perhaps being forced to listen to disorientating white noise á la that brief but haunting scene in film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. When they have been positioned by their chorus captors, that brilliant lighting effect of an iron being raised from in front of the stage plays out every time, so we also get a sense that they are now being shown to us.

The effect this has on the “meaning” of the piece as a whole is fascinating. It is at once distancing and makes the entire thing feel somehow incredibly more present and plausible. Instead of asking us to directly relate to the pre-historic troubles of Mediterranean aristocrats, we think of the modern world and the horrors of war that are still being perpetuated. In the reading which I made on Sunday night there was a sense of this being an examination of what happens to the losing side in a war. These meta-theatrics creating a situation very similar to the one in The Trojan Women. A series of Nuremberg Trials or Truth and Reconciliation Committee being played out well beyond the boundaries of international law by infinitely more vengeful inquisitors.

The other effect that this style of staging has is the purely aesthetic. On one level, quite apart from and beyond the contents (which is a stupid thing to say, but bear with me), Alles weitere... is one of the most beautiful-to-look-at pieces of theatre you will ever see. As well as all the action being superbly choreographed, there are also sequences where scenes “rewind”. So, a scene will take place, and then when it is finished, or perhaps because it didn’t go as planned, or... to be honest, the precise logic of why a particular scene might re-play or simply be reversed is largely opaque – but opaque in a way that makes you think about the possible reasons it might have re-wound. Is it to do with the title – a modern idea of history where all events spool forward as in a cinema, but can be recalled and re-written or re-imagined? The way that subsequent generations re-write and now even re-film history? That all history is just a series of framing devices and relative understandings and post-fact justifications? All this seems possible and present. (So, even while I say “apart from the contents” an element I was about to position as entirely aesthetic does in fact create meaning.) However, these rewind sequences, beyond the additional possible meanings they create, are also just astonishing to watch. The precision with which the actors perform all their actions in reverse is more akin to watching contemporary dance (coupled with the vast room-setting, I was most reminded of Two Cigarettes in the Dark). The first time it happens it’s impressive enough, but there is at least one sequence where an entire scene rewinds – for what feels like minutes (in a good way). I was conscious that my jaw had actually dropped. It really is that impressive. And also beautiful. But also strangely painful and troubling.

The more I write, the more I feel like I’m completely failing to really deliver either succinct enough analysis, or clear enough description. This is one of those pieces which I think might be termed a “two review show”. i.e. to really do it justice, one would probably have to write about it more than once. One review probably just gets the froth in your mind out of the way. Perhaps later, down the line, a better, more thoughtful, more precise analysis might be possible, once the immediate excitement has died down a bit. At the moment it feels a bit like trying to describe why a rollercoaster was great just after getting off. Moreover, this is certainly the sort of thing I’d really want to watch again and again in an ideal world.

For the time being, though, suffice it to say that if you can possibly get to Hamburg before this run closes, then you must. Otherwise, pray that it gets picked up by TheaterTreffen and that the Barbican (or someone else) brings it over to Britain. In a British context, this is the most revelatory and revolutionary piece of theatre since Three Kingdoms. And this time we won’t have to argue about the feminism.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Hedda Gabler – Thalia Theater

[written for Exeunt]

What’s you impression of the first ten minutes of Hedda? Probably not much, right? A pretty run-of-the-mill expository conversation between Jörgen Tesman’s aunt, Juliane, and his housekeeper Berte. Here, in Jan Bosse’s brand new staging for the Thalia, it is one of the funniest things I’ve seen on stage all year. The curtains (a kitschy effect in themselves) open onto a large brown room with the ugliest wallpaper you’ve ever seen. Berte, played here by Julian Greis, looks more or less exactly like Mark Gatiss playing Joan Sanderson, while the short, serious, Patricia Hayes-y Karin Neuhäuser as Juliane is wearing a brown and orange top with such extravagantly frou-frou-ed sleeves that you’re giggling before they even start speaking. There is such an elaborately overdone atmosphere of camp and bad taste that it’s very hard not to just keep laughing out loud. When Tesmaan (Jens Harzer) arrives, he looks, from where I was sitting, like a young Bruno Ganz doing a John Cleese impression, with added bits of Tommy Cooper.

Something you notice when such broad comedy is inserted into this scene is how cleverly Ibsen makes you want new stuff to keep happening. This whole set-up – campery or otherwise – is all about setting the audience up to regard Hedda in something like the same light as the other characters on stage: this idea that she is so beautiful, that she exercises such a fascination for and control over the other characters; that they are all in her thrall.

And Patrycia Ziółkowska (completely unrecognisable from Die Brüder Karamasow) takes set-up and absolutely knocks it out of the park. Where all the other characters seem to be stuck inside their mad physicalities in a 70s sitcom, Ziółkowska stalks in like Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box. It really is an astonishing performance. She strikes exactly the poses, widens her eyes, exaggerates facial expressions in that silent-movie acting style, that whole lost language of expressionism is suddenly reborn. It’s just amazing to watch. And hilariously jarring with the rest of the set, characters and concept. Tesman is wearing a dressing gown so brown that when he stands too close to the wallpaper his body seems to disappear, chameleon-style. Ziółkowska’s Hedda, meanwhile shimmers in an iridescent black and silver gown.

Richter Brack (Daniel Lommatzsch) is a dead-ringer for a young Derek Jacobi playing a metrosexual David Beckham-alike, in a red, raw-silk, seventies-cut suit. Perhaps slightly disappointingly, Lövborg is also dressed up in a seventies suit, a bit scruffier, and more down-at-heel than the others, perhaps ironed into this conformity by Marina Galic’s slender, brown velour trouser-suited Frau Elvstedt.

Another fascinating aspect of the production is the energy with which all the characters are attacked. I’m a bit used to seeing Fr. Elvstedt written off as a bit of a cardigan-wearing frump, often as a deliberate visual contrast to a more conventionally “glamorous”, “pretty”, or “beautiful” Hedda. Seeing her also played by such a striking actor, albeit one who still contrasts totally with Ziółkowska, is a bit of a revelation. But every character here seems to be playing the most attack-y reading of their lines possible. Immediately Hedda and Elvstedt are fencing, not hedging; Brack is entirely, overt with his sexual designs on Hedda from the get-go; and all the while Greis’s Berte glides about like a ghostly, disapproving Mrs Danvers.

This renewed attention to physicality also creates a real sense of how Hedda’s body itself is a site of conflict. In an early conversation when they are alone, Brack very violently and deliberately puts his hand between Hedda’s legs. The effect is completely shocking and appalling. It even works without textual support as Ziółkowska’s face registers Hedda’s mortification, shame and disgust, and parallel realisation that there’s nothing that she can say to anyone, while Brack carries on as if nothing has happened.

I’m not fully convinced it *all* works. There are moments when the pace drops, and then the mind wanders slightly (more possible and less helpful if listening to a second-language on which one needs to concentrate to understand). But part of me wonders if one can ever really recapture the thrill of seeing Hedda Gabler performed for the first time (without even knowing the plot, in my case). And after that, well, there a bit where you maybe find yourself thinking, yes, yes, this bit. Go on, get to the next bit. Is that bad? Can anything be done about that? What? (honest, open-ended questions). Some other bits, though – bits you equally know are coming – are still great, although I suppose I should admit that I found the bits which had been given a precise new bit of visual language the most satisfying: for example, when Hedda burns Lövborg’s manuscript she does so by dropping the pages through a trap-door in the stage followed by their burning cover. We then watch the orange light play on her face as the unseen flames eat the book.

I did wonder *slightly* about the conceptual frame: yes, it’s bloody funny, and it makes you look at the play again, and it makes you appreciate anew the fine-tuned mechanics of Ibsen’s plotting. At the same time, I’m not sure it says anything desperately profound about the world of the play. It’s strange. It at once feels a bit like an attack on the piece, and like some big Regietheater konzept, but at the same time like mostly just an enormous amplification of what’s already there, and no so very much critique. But maybe it’s not meant to be, and that would be fine. And, as I say, the beginning works so beautifully that you fall in love immediately.

Act by act, walls from the set are flown out. So, from the closed room in which the play begins, the stage gradually becomes a vast empty(-ish) expanse by the final scene. The back wall covered by a low-hanging, hilariously tacky, airbrush-art picture of a pine forest that looks like it’s only missing a wolf from a biker t-shirt. The string quartet which accompany the action with edgy, staccato modernist stabs is visible. And to kill herself Hedda simply slips out under the hanging picture. While this is a lovely visual effect, I wondered if it really reflected the play terribly well. Is Hedda Gabler a play in which all the walls disappear? Isn’t it the precise reverse? Don’t more and more walls spring up until she can see no way out other than to shoot herself? On the other hand, perhaps, a) it would be crass to precisely mirror the narrative structure with the set, and, b) isn’t there also an attendant process of desolation going on for Hedda herself? Also, c) it does basically *feel* like the right decision. Perhaps not an at an intellectual level, but somewhere earthier.

Ultimately, the production feels incredibly clever, but not quite clever enough. However the acting, the performances, the design, the music, even the lighting, are first class. And I reserve the right to come back in a week, once I have spent more time thinking about this production, and claim that actually it is doing something incredibly clever indeed, which I haven’t yet worked out because I’ve been too busy describing it to think about it. If I don’t, however, let the above stand as testament enough to my preparedness and desire to do so.

Revolver Traum – Thalia Gaußstraße


It opens with a woman wearing a short shift dress and a rabbit head singing ‘Can’t Get You Outta My Head’ incredibly slowly into a vintage microphone which is suspended from the ceiling.

[Good. There have been far too few animal heads (previously none) and nudity (still none) this week. Even the big tellies and microphones have been in short supply. I was starting to worry that this wasn’t Germany at all.]

[Actually, I entered Revolver Traum under a slight misconception. I was only familiar with the writer Lola Arias as a collaborator with Stefan Kaegi and Rimini Protokoll, so from the vague blurb on the site (lovingly rendered meaningless by Google Translate thus: “Behind the title “Revolver dream” to hide the same three pieces of the Argentine. Three stories about life, love and death. You draw people in a big city in search of refuge, people who want to understand why they are unhappy, why love is broken or can not come, they want to understand what keeps them alive, what makes life valuable. At the end they find themselves in an eerie dream again, is played in the Russian roulette. They all vie for a ball to put an end to her life. Maria Origin tells these stories as tender and touching evening of theater in which the stage continues to rotate, 32,000 sequins coming up at the end to the fore: strung lovingly flickers the dream past us.”) I suppose I was still vaguely expecting something Rimini Protokoll-y involving “real people”, non-performers (“experts” as RP call them).]

[Turns out, as well as collaborating with futuristic theatremakers, Arias also writes *proper plays*. If she wasn’t originally Argentinian, I’d have finally found some *German New Writing*!]

[Anyway, I should stop pissing about and tell you about it.]

After the brief rabbit-headed lady singing, Revolver Dream *proper* (ha!) opens with a man and a woman sitting on a low bed pushed against a coldly lit concrete wall. Upon entering, the man has slipped a small revolver under the mattress of the bed.

It is nearly pitch black. The man is in his boxers and a t-shirt. The woman is wearing the same light green embroidered slip- dress as the rabbit-woman. The man flicks his lighter compulsively. They are talking. They plainly don’t know each other very well. They’ve only just met. What they’re saying, well, what they’re saying could be approached any number of ways – playful, flirtatious, languid, erotically-charged... – here it’s blank and blunt, deadpan. They’re not really saying anything of consequence. It’s reminding me a lot of the opening of Blasted. But somehow less pointed. They talk *a lot* about animals. She talks about a chicken she used to have as a child? He talks about a dream he has about a pony sitting in his bed? (man, I could be getting this wrong.) She explains that her mother is dead, and how her father didn’t want a chicken in the house because they’re dirty. He talks about playing Russian roulette. At some point she reveals that she is only 16. He is 36. He springs off the bed like he’s been burnt. Her dad isn’t much older. She turns more challenging. What’s wrong she wants to know. Suddenly she’s pointing the gun at him. The conversation has suddenly turned to “love” and she’s got a loaded gun...

Then the scene changes. The solid-looking concrete walls at an oblique angle to the audience suddenly turn out to be fold-able so that the man and woman are now divided by a wall pointing straight at the audience. Microphones are brought on. As the performers walk round and round this short right angle the man meets another man, hands him the revolver and the second man remains. It’s a bit like a theatrical version of that thing that happens in recent David Lynch films where a character suddenly becomes another character, or rather the same character, but a different actor, and a different person. Oh, you know the films. You explain it.

In this next bit (which seems like it might be Arias’s piece “Striptease”, if descriptions elsewhere are anything to go by), sees two parents conduct (what is described elsewhere, if it is Striptease as) a telephone conversation while their child cries in between them. This isn’t signposted anywhere in the performance, however. They might still be intended here as a later version of the same couple, perhaps. Same, but, thanks to the change of male actor, different. And, similarly, the microphones, while possibly standing in for telephones, might equally just represent a distance between the characters or a desire by director Maria Ursprung to amplify their voices so that they can speak very quietly and we can hear the texture of the quiet voice amplified.

The third section, which follows another scene change – this time with the flexible “back” wall (it’s actually cutting off quite a lot more of a much deeper stage/room) being straightened right out and then revolved several times on a central pivot in an effect similar to Gotscheff’s staging of The Persians. The wall turns out to have a spangly giant-sequined reverse to its concrete side. And it comes to rest with this facing us. In front of this big bronze shining backdrop is plonked a dowdy sofa, a workaday coffee table, and onto the coffee table, a cushion with the placed revolver on it like a crown.

On the sofa sit three larger-than-life puppet humans. From left to right a fat, ginger man, a hollow-cheeked, dead-eyed woman and then an older, bald “schauspieler” with an expression of continual disbelief, disgust and incredulity on his big, immobile, papier mâché face.

These three types are asked a series of questions, big questions about life, love and death, and they all have stabs at answering. There seems to be some level of jeopardy. Perhaps the one who answers wrong first is going to have to pick up the revolver and Russian roulette themselves (let’s face it, it’s a TV format waiting to happen)...

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Anniversary Postcards

[a big thank-you]

Today is the sixth anniversary of the first blog I wrote after returning from the 2007 SpielArt festival in Munich. The first of the eight festivals I attended as part of the Festivals in Transition Mobile Lab for young European critics. That year changed my outlook, my perspective, my practice, my writing, my “criticism” and my life. And I’d like to say thanks again to Lyn Gardner for recommending me for it (“I worry I’ve ruined you for England forever,” she suggested when we bumped into each other at The Roman Tragedies a couple of years later) and also to LIFT co-founder, Rose Fenton, who organised the whole thing and who was a great friend and inspiration throughout the year. I should also thank the other brilliant tutors we had, especially Rok Vevar and Max Ryynänen, who between them made me question every assumption I’d ever had about how a theatre “review” should look or what it might do.

It seemed fitting that six years later, this September, I saw the first piece that we saw in Munich, Heiner Goebbels’s Stifters Dinge, again (see “cover photo”). This time at the Ruhr Triennale, albeit in its installation incarnation, rather than as the sit-down performance that we saw on that first night six years ago (17/11/07). Yesterday I also went and hung out with one of my Mobile Lab colleagues who lives in Hamburg and her new baby. And then, in the evening saw Revolver Traum: a play written by Lola Arias, one of the other artists whose work I first came across in Munich (in the form of Soko São Paulo, a collaboration with Stefan Kaegi of Rimini Protokoll. Of whom I’d also never heard before.)

When I was writing that chapter of Modern British Playwrights: 2000-2009 (a book about which one day I might shut up and stop plugging), I kept on realising that I only really date my “career” – such as it isn’t – from 2007. And that, problematically for the book, much of my early career felt like one long stint of critical evangelising about the work being made on the other side of the North Sea. Or else, often unwittingly championing the artists who would end up going over there to make work.

For example, perhaps the earliest marker of when I thought my reviews might actually be being read and were plausibly of any use to anyone at all was – as I’ve said before – when the National Theatre used a quote from my CultureWars review of Katie Mitchell’s production of Martin Crimp’s Attempts On Her Life on their website. Tomorrow evening I’m seeing the world première of Martin Crimp’s newest play, The Rest Will Be Familiar to You from The Cinema, directed by Katie Mitchell. In German. In Hamburg.

About a year later, in October, it was in Nitra, Slovakia, thanks to Festivals In Transition that I first saw Sebastian Nübling’s production of Pornography. And first met Simon Stephens. Roughly three full years before the world première of Three Kindoms at the Münchner Kammerspiele.

So, yes. Apologies for the sentimentality, but it’s been an amazing six years, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have experienced them. And I just wanted to say a big thank you again, especially to Lyn, Rose, Rok and Max, but also to Andreja, Anna, Anna, Ewa, Eva, Dária, Goda, Gundega, Inta, Madli, Marta, Martin, Mark, Miriam, Monika, Ott, Patryk, Pete, Pilvi, Pippa, Riina, Toms, Vilmantas, Zane and Zane.

Don Giovanni. Letzte Party – Thalia Theater

[written for Exeunt]

[Well, my run of extraordinary good luck with what I’ve been seeing in Germany had to run out sooner or later. And nothing ever looks as bad in the cold light of morning. But...]

It isn’t original to suggest that theatre is a bit like a machine. All the parts need to be functioning correctly in order for it to work. Sometimes theatre’s total reliance on all the parts functioning every time a piece is performed seems incredibly stupid. All of which is to say: it’s depressing to watch a piece of theatre malfunction. Even more annoying when it seems that the piece of the theatremachine malfunctioning is its audience.

Last night [21/11/13] Don Giovanni. Letzte Party played to an audience of the too-old and the too-young. The elderly chuntered to themselves and occasionally made loud jokes to amuse their friends, the young meanwhile contented themselves with talking through the whole thing and checking their phones. Once in a while what was happening on stage actually shut them up. In conditions like these, it’s difficult to imagine whether in different circumstances the thing actually works. It was shortlisted for TheaterTreffen’13, so someone somewhere liked it, once upon a time...

The piece kicks off with over ten minutes of Leporello (Mirco Kreibich) leading an audience-participation singalong. Five-note scales, breathing exercises, that sort of thing. He does so with an air of Oh-what’s-the-point? – Imagine Forced Entertainment doing a pantomime. No bad thing in itself, but the audience’s reticence-bordering-on-outright-hostility was an early marker of the shape of things to come.

The next section turns this aesthetic around completely: a huge lighting ring of three concentric rings descends from the flies as smoke fills the stage. When it rises again (the sections can move independently, and can tilt all the way up to vertical. It’s bloody great. Every theatre should have one...) the figure of Don Giovanni (Sebastian Zimmler) is revealed, having snuck up through a trap door in the stage. The band appears – eight women dressed as kind-of goth version of Dangerous Liasons – all beehives, backcombs, fierce fringes and rock‘n’roll attitude. One is briefly tempted into believing that all Mozart should have a pounding Mo Tucker drumbeat and be played on bass sax, keyboard, two acoustic guitars, and trumpets.

Briefly, I think I’ve got a handle on the territory. It’s an amphetamine-fuelled version of the David Marton thing, right? Take an opera, get it performed by actors who can sing a bit, deconstruct and dramaturg the hell out of it, and then call it theatre and reap enormous acclaim.

Except here the intent seems a bit more tricky to discern. There’s certainly an anarchic punky spirit to it. This Don Giovanni looks like a cross between Robert Smith and Russell Brand, and the sound of the band, well... Put it this way, this ex-goth was happiest when it turned out that they seemed to be making the overture into Ennio Morriconi’s ‘Harmonica Man’, as covered by Fields of the Nephilim crossed with Bauhaus.

So, yes, for the first half an hour or so, I was pretty much prepared to be racing home to write the rave of the century. And it’s hard to work out where it all started going wrong. Over the following hour and a quarter I think it’s fair to say that the company had a pretty bad night. Arguably the pace drop was an artistic decision. Similarly, the stoppy-starty, house lights up, house lights down interplay with the audience was obviously on purpose. The problem is, if the audience doesn’t play ball when asked to participate, and won’t bloody stop joining in when there’s no room for them, then you’re looking at an artistic endeavour in danger of complete capsize.

The piece pretty much burlesques its way through the plot of Don Giovanni, however, the real coup of the piece comes 1hr40 in (of 2hr30). As Don Giovanni throws his party, he invites “100 women” from the audience onto the stage. It’s hard to tell whether the (plausibly actually 100, probably fewer) young women (six-form age, mostly) who do leap up are actually bona fide punters or plants. I doesn’t matter at all, but I’d be curious to know. Once on stage, the iron comes down. A door in it is opened so we can just about see into the party and there’s a half hour interval, while the party rages (the live band play cover versions of stuff like ‘Sex Bomb’, ‘Word Up’, ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ (!) and ‘Purple Rain’). Eventually, and boy are the company going big on that whole “contempt for the audience vibe – the boldness and extent of which I actually rather loved, and in this instance also thought totally justified (maybe they play nicer with nicer audiences) – the iron is raised once more and the finale plays out rather like a ramshackle curtain call on the last night of a show when people keep stopping proceedings Kanye-style to make their own speeches. And, instead of ending with Giovanni being dragged to hell by an evil robot, he is instead taken off by the sad, sassy old diva dressed in black who has been intermittently singing Eartha Kittsy takes on arias throughout, like some dark angel waiting to take her prey.

And that’s that, really. Instead of a feeling of retribution, ...Letzte Party seems to propose that in a Godless universe where we can fuck our way through everyone we meet, irrespective of what we do, we all die anyway and that’s kinda sad, but kinda inevitable. The days of enormous ghostly cosmic punishment are long gone.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Orlando – Thalia Gaußstraße

[written for Exeunt, mostly]

[After posting yesterday’s review of Die Brüder Karamasow, I got into an interesting discussion with two of my international colleagues (a Pole and a Romanian) who expressed their surprise that I would “review” a stage version of a book I hadn’t read, performed in a language I wasn’t always terribly good at understanding. Leaving aside the my unconscious defence that I often don’t really think of what I’m writing these days as anything like as definitive as “a review” or even, often, “a critique”, it’s an interesting question. Then, while leaving Orlando last night, I had an unexpected revelation: “That was better,” I thought to myself, “I understood about as much of that as I understand in the average Shakespeare play...” And a penny dropped: are the British as a theatregoing nation possibly the most used to going to watch plays performed in a language that they don’t speak and frequently don’t even understand? Am I happy letting what actors are saying wash over me in something like the condition of music because I’m so used to it happening at home? Moreover, might there even be something about the purity and structure of the German language (with its Du and Sie and its early-modern sentence structures) that resonates somewhere deep in British bones? Something to ponder. Anyway, Orlando...]

If I only had two consecutive nights with which to demonstrate the sheer uselessness of using “German theatre” as a catch-all term Die Brüder Karamasow and Orlando might as well be them, with the added advantage that they are both “German” takes on the art of novel-adaptation.

Where Karamasow is all high seriousness, austerity and beauty, director Bastian Kraft and dramaturg Beate Heine’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando gathers a surprising amount of its brilliance and emotional force mostly from being very funny.

It opens with the five performers (Sandra Flubacher, Sven Schelker, Nadja Schönfeldt, Cathérine Seifert and Victoria Trauttmansdorff – all great, and all playing Orlando and all the other characters uncredited, except as an ensemble), dressed in the classic stage-version of “their own clothes”, gathered around a table downstage. Onto the table is plonked a book. The book is opened and the word on the first page, “Orlando” is projected onto the video screen upstage via the live feed camera hanging above the table. At the sides of the space are five dressing tables and costume rails to which the performers retire to don their rough, period-indicative costumes. Women don bald-wigs or dresses, and Schelker, the only male in the company, has the first go at being the eponymous hero/ine.

I’ve become a real convert to the Gatz/“German” method of literary stage-adaptation, and I was powerfully reminded of why here: a lot of books really lend themselves to being played on the stage. And not because of their storyline or dialogue, but because of the way that the author addresses herself to the reader: that the novel is so often an exercise in the most direct address possible – instructions for an imagined monologue. In this respect, Orlando is perfect for this sort of immediate transfer of its contents onto stage. The fictional “biographer” that Woolf casts herself as is discursive, inquisitive and compulsive in sharing her fascination with her audience.

However, it is pre-knowing that Orlando is/was “really” written as an extended love-letter by Woolf to Vita Sackville-West, imagining West as this hero-heroine – a kind of immortal traversing space and time, and always somehow radiant, charismatic and adored – which really gives the story its kick. Here, in this staging, I think that aspect is powerfully tangible, but perhaps it might be a case of that thing where once you’ve decided on something you’ll be able to find a trace of it no matter how absent it may be in actuality.

Another crucial aspect of this “multi-media” (as we used to call them) staging is Arthur Fussy’s musik. While the pieces immediately recall Michel Nyman’s scores for early Peter Greenaway films (mostly obviously the long funeral dirge for The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and the Timelapse sequences in Zed and Two Noughts), a crucial difference is that these – at least in the context of the show – feel emotional rather than intellectual. The tunes’ strange quavery insistence give the play its time signature, but also re-plug a lot of the feelings back in that might otherwise be lost in the postmodern fun (and corpsing – deliberate or otherwise) of the quickfire costume changes and buggering about with two overlaid live video feeds. (Yes, this production also has (deliberately) rudimentary Green Screen live-projection, so that we can watch live actors lying on one videoed flat surface projected onto the live-fed picture from the “story book” which functions as a kind of swatch of all the “sets”. Peter Baur’s simple, mobile set of wheeled columns and mirrors accommodate his adept video design perfectly.)

I’m not sure that this Orlando really intends to make us feel anything especially deep, or to reflect hard on the transience of life, or the enduringness of spirit, or anything like that. It felt, as much as anything – perhaps fittingly for an adaptation of a love-letter – like its chief aim was our delight. To make us feel *stuff*: happiness, laughter, and perhaps the odd bit of prickliness behind the eyes.  The ending of this version reaches beyond the scope of the book, which famously ends with the date: “Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen hundred and Twenty Eight.” On stage, the company, accompanied by the small real-time LED alarm clock, which has been present for the previous 1hr36, promise that then entire piece will conclude in ten minutes. Then, with the clock hanging in mid air, they proceed to make ten minutes pass as rapidly as I’ve ever seen in a theatre; projecting increasingly rapid images of the recent past as the present hurtles toward us and them until we finally meet in the absolute present, as if for the first time, and: applause.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Die Brüder Karamasow – Thalia Theater

[written for Exeunt]

Luk Perceval and Susanne Meister’s stage version of Dostoevsky’s Братья Карамазовы (Brothers Karamazov) is a thing of stark, austere stillness, beauty and concentration. Running at three and a half hours (mit pause), it offers virtually no “action”, no special effects. No cheering diversions. None of the comforting consolations that the stage can provide. And yet, it might be one of the most transporting, “escapist” experiences I’ve had in a theatre.

Annette Kurz’s stage design sets the tone perfectly. On the empty stage of the Thalia main house – roughly the same dimensions as the Lyric Hammersmith, but with a smaller, more intimate auditorium – she has created an undulating floor of black planks. In the centre there is a rusted old bell topped with rough wood. All around hang massive chime bells like suspended tree trunks (marvellously, onomatopoeically, credited in the programme as “klanginstallation” (Kurz plus Ferdinand Försch, who also composed the music that it is used to create)). Over and across this, Paulus Vogt’s lighting design casts the cold light of a grey winter’s day as if filtering in through high seminary windows; or, elsewhere, creates the impression of discrete rooms downstage, shifting subtly and imperceptibly as the narrative unfurls.

Then there’s the actual “dramatic action” itself. It would appear my German language skills are in something of a state of flux. Interacting with Schwarze Augen, Maria I was pleasantly surprised by how much German I seemed to know. Here, observing Svetlana Geier’s translation of the novel, I may as well have been watching it in the original Russian. I had enough of a working knowledge of the novel to be able to keep up with where roughly we were in the enormous, rambling, discursive “plot”, but the apparent brilliance of the text and the way it was being used here washed largely over me. (I was lucky enough to see it with a couple of friends – one English with fluent German and one Austrian (with fluent English, naturally), so I could at least have my suspicion that it was brilliant textually and linguistically too confirmed, but it’s scant use to you, dear reader.) What was also useful to to have confirmed was that way that the “version” was working. Rather than picking all the dialogue out of the novel and turning it into a script as the most straight-forward English approach might, here director Perceval and his dramaturg Meister had instead cut and pasted together whole passages of the novel, meaning that we were watching something more akin to an edited Gatz-like approach.

[I say Gatz-like for the benefit of English readers as it is far and away the nearest recent point of comparison we have. I believe the Germans have been using this approach much longer. Maybe other Anglophone companies have too – but I only seem to have seen dialogue-based stage adaptations of novels in English, hitherto. By coincidence, Duška Radosavljevic’s new piece for Exeunt seems to discuss a similar phenomenon.]

In the case of Die Brüder Karamasow, this strikes me as an excellent approach, since much of the genius of the novel comes from the way in which Dostoevsky uses the narrative voice. As such, it is great that a stage adaptation doesn’t just iron this out into the simple series of events and the things that the characters in the story do or say. Also interesting, as a result, is watching the way that the actors “perform” the “text” – hanging between character and narrative, as the original authorial voice does in the novel. There is something like the quality of sculpture in how this is executed. Even the way the space is used, how parts of the stage seem to echo, expand or contract with light or sound, seems key.

The performances are uniformly excellent. It’s pretty rare to be absolutely gripped by someone just saying something you don’t even really understand. Here, that’s the sort of level of charisma we’re talking about. Jens Harzer as Ivan K. and Alexander Simon as his younger brother, Alyosha, both have something of the David Tennant about them, although watching them I was forcibly reminded both of what a beautiful language German is at a purely sonic level and how differently it can be used as a tool of communication compared with English. There is both the possibility for calmer, less jagged, more lyrical speech: less dependent on inflection or intonations rising and falling; which also makes possible a way of shouting through which works more as music than the equivalent volume in English.

Patrycia Ziółkowska as Gruschenka, meanwhile, is a study in astonishing stage presence and detached physicality. She enters in off-white fur coat and hat thrown over a loose-fitting off-white dress – stark against the black void of the empty stage – and for a long while is the only significant movement on the stage, as she stalks, slow-motion, backwards, around the perimeter in high heels.

[No, I wasn’t 100% sure about the way women were presented in this production. And, not having the narrative to distract me, I did spend quite a bit of time contemplating the differences between the way that male and female directors stage female characters. No enormous conclusions, but it does feel as if there’s a difference in the way they position the body of someone from the opposite sex in terms of spectatorship. It would be crass to say that women in productions directed by men “invite” the male gaze more, but it does feel like one can observe something of the way that that gaze has already seen them – as if a crucial identification-with has often not taken place – if that makes sense.]

That said, problematically positioned by the male gaze or otherwise, Ziółkowska clearly finds an agency of her own within the staging. Her Gruschenka is continually the most active agent on the stage. Like a bolt of lightning she illuminates the craggy rockface of the three brothers’ crumpled black lives.

I wish I had already read the novel, but this production has made me desperate to do so. I also wish my command of German was such that I could deliver a penetrating and sublime analysis of how the piece’s closing moments really feel when one fully, instinctively, natively, understands the weight and connotations of the words spoken. It is a testament to the intricacy of this slow, solemn, electric production that even without precise comprehension that, as well as being one of the hardest watches I’ve ever endured, it was also somehow one of the most profoundly satisfying.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Nach Europa – Malersaal, Deutsches Schauspielhaus

[written for Exeunt]

As a way into understanding some of where “German theatre” is currently at, Nach Europa would serve peculiarly well. It is an adaptation of the book Trois femmes puissantes (translated to German as Drei starke Frauen, or Three Strong Women) by Marie NDiaye, a mixed-race French author. It has been adapted by the director Frederike Heller. It is about the struggles of three (confusingly four, here) women to reach various parts of Europe from various parts of sub-Saharan Africa. All four African women, self-described in the staged text as young, slim, and black, are played by an older, larger, white German woman.

And of all the above facts, the most surprising thing is that there is a German theatre doing a play about immigration issues. At least, it is surprising that they are doing an immigrant’s-eye-view of the issue. Even if it is third hand. Adaptations of novels are common (this week, I’m seeing versions of Brothers Karamazov and Orlando; next week, René Pollesch’s take on Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes). That the director just knocks up the version of the novel they’re doing themselves is de rigeur. Getting a playwright in would be totally weird. And of course several young black women are played by one older white actress.

The discussion about the German habit of using white actors to play black characters has been had before. I defended it in The Stage about this time last year in response to Bruce Norris kicking off about it. But, what with the leaps and bounds being made, especially at Berlin’s Gorki Theater – at least in terms of equality of opportunity – it is all starting to look a bit curious. On one hand, I totally accept any argument which says that employing actors who are “really” black in order to secure a spurious sense of authenticity is nonsense. On the other hand, not then deploying them elsewhere, as a further means of trashing spurious senses of authenticity – “real” white people as Danish princes, for example – means that you’re effectively just cutting the chance of employment for any black, Turkish, whatever actor down to nil. Which is dumb at best. And, well, racist at worst. Germany’s problem, it seems, is to still accept “white” as a gold standard of neutrality. And all BME actors as Other. (Indeed, flicking through the DS SpielZeit 2013-14, I can see only one BME actor and she is Japanese, which I’m pretty sure doesn’t quite reflect Hamburg’s make-up.)

Talking to a colleague after the show, she voiced the concern I daren’t even name: that this production was letting “fat” stand in for “black”. We both hoped that it weren’t so, but the fact that this was a conclusion so easily arrived at rather suggested to me that someone somewhere hadn’t been terribly clever at the conceptual stage. Perhaps it’s exactly the sort of provocation we should try to brace ourselves for. There is a very real prejudice against fat people. There is a very real prejudice against black people. Perhaps this sort of exchange makes us see both prejudices more clearly. Although I’m not especially convinced. I think instead, it glosses all prejudices together into one big fluffy ball of “not nice” and completely obscures all the issues in doing so.

In terms of the piece itself, if you’ve seen one play about the hardships, trials and tribulations of those migrating from Africa to Europe you’ll know exactly what it was like. Possibly many of this audience never had, and the bits where something appalling happened – at one border checkpoint we are told a man’s feet were slashed with a machete – the theatre still fell appropriately silent.

The staging was engaging enough, if a little ‘so what?’ after four hours spent with SIGNA in the afternoon. The two actors – Matthias Bundschuh and Bettina Stucky – were both energetic and charismatic, talking almost interchangeably to us and each other. Indeed, this direct audience address was far and away the most notably successful aspect of the production. I should also record that there is a third performer credited, the musician Peter Theissen, under “Mit:” in the programme. And if I’m happy to include the musician as the fourth member of a Romanian dance quartet, I don’t think I should necessarily start thinking differently just because this is theatre. And he took the bow with the two actors, so perhaps I should widen the scope of how I was thinking about the performance. In my defence, he was sat behind Sabine Kohlstedt’s opaque wall of a set.

Re: the set, while on one level it looked pretty much like any identikit anonymous wall in any European airport, all bolted together shiny pre-fab sections (albeit here rendered in differently light-able plastics and gauze). However it did occur to me, pushed so far forward, it could equally suggest those gradually stepped sets that the Germans often use as the sets for their productions of Greek Tragedies. Except here, the production is not Greek, and the steps are slammed shut like the fold-away tiers of retractable raked seating. Modern tragedy, it suggests, is a sheer wall, not gradual steps. It’s almost certainly an over-read, but it’s an over-read I became very fond off while watching this most basic and repeated of stories.

And it is precisely this – this issue of repetition – that poses precisely one of theatre’s greatest current challenges in approaching these narratives and explorations of immigration: that, contra Tolstoy, lots of families (and individuals) are now unhappy in exactly the same way. The challenge, if we want theatre to continue to take notice of them and make any kind of difference, or even just to just keep on being watchable, is how we make these representation as alive and vital and urgent as theatre must be and as their stories demand.

For my money Nach Europa didn’t succeed, but it definitely provoked a hell of a lot of useful questions.

[oh, and re: top image, at the start there was that image live, a bloke wearing feathers in silhouette, for about two minutes. And it was the best bit of the show. The rest of it looked more like...

Produktionsfotos © Matthias Horn

I have no idea what:
"Veroeffentlichung gegen namentliche Nennung, Honorar (Umsatzsteuersatz 7%) und Belegexemplar"
means, but I'm happy to take the photos down again rather tha actually pay to use them...

Schwarze Augen, Maria – Deutsches Schauspielhaus (off-site)

[written for Exeunt]

Schwarze Augen Maria invites us into Haus Lebensbaum*. It is open-day and we’re meeting the, what? Patients? Inmates? When entering, knowing nothing about the show, my immediate concern was that a lot of this review was going to be a long ethical tussle about the exoticised use of the real-life learning disabled or mentally ill in performances. Happily, it turns out that the condition under investigation, or perhaps only being contained, at Haus Lebensraum is “Tiresias Syndrome”. Which is totally made-up.
[*Tree of Life House, I guess – although I couldn’t help wondering whether the assonance with “lebensraum” was entirely coincidental.]

This is new, totally immersive, site-sympathetic piece by Danish-Dutch group SIGNA – the brainchild of wife and husband team Signa Köstler (co-director, co-stage-and-costume-designer and performer) and Arthur Köstler (media design and performer) – here made in collaboration with Sebastian Sommerfeld and Mona el Gammel. Thanks to a malfunctioning main stage at the Schauspielhaus it is also the show that kicks off Karin Beier’s artistic directorship in Hamburg. Even without seeing Beier’s cancelled triptych of Greek classics, Die Rasenden (Iphigenie in Aulis, Die Troerinnen and Die Orestie), which was supposed to open the season, you get the sense that Schwarze Augen is an equally good introduction to her tenure; bringing together as it does a notably even-handed gender balance of creatives, a radical, innovative take on the classics, and a notable level of internationalism.

The patients/inmates welcome us as visitors to their hospital-home and after a few prefatory notes, perform Michel Jackson’s ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ (or ‘Earthsong’. In German). It is, all at once, brilliant, incredibly funny, totally serious. Focussed character acting rendering it paralysingly unnerving. We’re in the situation enough to feel that we can’t really laugh openly at such a sincere effort on the part of the characters. We really are in the room, after all, and they – in character – can see, hear and react to us. They don’t force us to pretend, or take a role through either coercion or a slightly naff sense of let’s pretend. They make us do it with manners. It’s an overpoweringly successful way of immersing us. At the same time, this much straight-faced, misplaced sincerity really is incredibly funny.

After the performance, we are divided into small groups by “a doctor” and led away by various patients to see their living quarters. As luck would have it – or perhaps this was the first thing that everyone was told – my group was taken up to an apartment on the second floor and were split up again so myself and another man got to talk to the “family’s” son while next door the two women in our group sat down and had a small coffee with the father. Th son told us that he was an expert on ghosts, or perhaps The (Holy?) Spirit. He showed us passages from the Bible which he had copied out. He sniffed our necks and when he touched our hands he cautiously tasted his fingers afterwards. He criticised us for wearing too many black or dark clothes.

The father, meanwhile, was much more matter of fact. He was sat at the family coffee table and was gradually assembling a model of a motorway pile-up. He showed us the newspaper article concerning the motorway-pile-up he was recreating. A woman had run out into the road causing a truck transporting pigs to swerve and overturn killing the animals. Several other vehicles then ploughed into the overturned lorry. Death everywhere. Nine months later, the children now living in Haus Lebensbaum with their parents were born. And born with these black eyes – large glassy contact lenses worn by the performers. Properly unnerving – and this is “Tiresias syndrome”.

From here we were more or less free to wander about as we saw fit. There were six or seven families, the doctor and, under the stairs on one floor, the woman who had walked out into the road, causing the accident, and whose children had all died, Maria (played by Signa K. herself).

The piece lasts for four hours and the effect is cumulative. You are repeatedly offered coffee and sweets. Every room you go into you notice the complete lack of bright colours. Everything is muted, or pastel, or beige; even the clothes worn by the patients and doctors. There is nothing vivid anywhere. All is fluff and neutrality. Comforting whites and baby-pinks predominate in the children’s clothing. They make themselves elaborate nests in their bunks. And you are offered more sweets. The adults, the parents, look tired, concerned. They are maybe drinking a bit more than is healthy in some cases. Many of the mothers are bedbound, sometimes mute. The fathers careworn and heavy with resignation. The children themselves – older teenagers now – are strange, awkward, curious. Tiresias Syndrome manifests itself as a condition something perhaps most akin to autism, it seems. The doctor tells us that the only medication he prescribes is anti-epilepsy drugs.

Some of the children are affectionate, some are withdrawn. Every so often they all begin to make a strange half-moaning half-singing noise at the same time and gather together in the hallways of the old building. Gradually the dusk gathers outside. At times it really is intensely spooky. You find yourself sitting on a sofa, uncomfortably close to a young girl who only looks at you in a handheld mirror in the gathering gloom, for example, as her mother leans, collapsed and silent against the threadbare armchair; tended to by her heavily bearded, unwashed husband. Free to come and go as you please, and to interact exactly how you like, how intense it all gets is entirely down to you. I tended to keep nipping to the (indoor, God be praised) smoking areas. It was interesting to see a performance in which “parents” and “nurses” also smoked. Some of the parents also drank. And you could share their alcohol, which was totally real.

One thing I didn’t get to do a lot was talk in English. It seemed that the back stories of the children (necessarily) and a good many of their parents precluded that possibility. This meant that most of my afternoon was spent talking and listening in German. As a result, I think I might have had the best experience possible, since I couldn’t try to be “cleverer” than the performers. I couldn’t be difficult, to try to break the story, or test the limits of the immersion. I was already at such a disadvantage linguistically that instead I was incredibly grateful to the performers for keeping everything working around my somewhat limited language skills. That said, for not-great German speakers, the hesitant, simple language of the children especially made it an ideal immersive performance to attend.

This is the most impressive immersive performance I’ve seen (although my experience is far from comprehensive given the amount of this work that exists in the UK), but these really were extraordinary performers: completely submerged in their roles. Mike Leigh-perfect, as I put it to a colleague last night. Utterly convincing, sustained, close-up naturalism; and incredibly life-like casting. Let’s not forget how uncomfortable I was when I went in; worrying that they really had got a couple of minibus-loads of pupils from local special schools involved and what the ethical ramifications of that might be. Admittedly, the fact that they hadn’t could perhaps be seen to raise the opposite question of the ethics of “able-” actors playing “learning-disabled” characters. However, while the specific learning difficulty is that of “prophecy” I guess it’s all pretty much up-for-grabs.

And what one does with the whole thing? Well, I wish I’d had the language skills to pursue the actual “story” further; to really wring more of the narrative from my interlocutors. But, even without that possibility, what there was felt rich and deeply allusive.

If there was a slight question for me I suppose – perversely – it was wanting a bit more pointed-ness or directed-ness in what was being alluded to. On the other hand, the sheer multiplicity of possibilities was incredible. This is a piece dealing with Greek myths, how we treat exceptional children, healthcare, ethics, adulthood, parenthood, childhood and even more banal concerns like “happiness” and our own lives. And all this was there to be contemplated, perceived, or even discussed with the performers. At the same time, just having a whole Midwich Cuckoos-crossed-with-Twin Peaks narrative to walk around inside would be pleasure enough. Also, interestingly (and fittingly, given that neither of SIGNA’s founders are German), this didn’t actually feel like “German theatre” in any meaningful sense whatsoever. That such work is being made here, and so brilliantly, is excellent news, however.

Produktionsfotos © Erich Goldmann

[Veröffentlichung honorarfrei für die Berichterstattung bei namentlicher Nennung des Fotografen. Wir bitten um eine Veröffentlichung der Bilder im Originalzustand]

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Women at the NT – some facts

[guest post, mostly]

Denys Lasdun putting the finishing touches to his south bank NT

In the last week since the National Theatre’s interesting two hour NT50 extravaganza on BBC2 there’s been a gradual accumulation of criticism for the lack of representation of women writers, culminating in Sam Potter’s piece for the Guardian.

As is now inevitable with this sort of issue, I spent most of the week discussing it behind relatively closed doors on Facebook*. However, my friend, the writer and director James Morris, happened to have a spreadsheet which contained details of every production the NT had done, so he did a bit of number crunching. The below results are mostly copied and pasted directly, and reproduced here with permission.

We started out with conjecture:

“If you sort the data in that spreadsheet by playwright it makes for depressing reading. You’ll find that you probably have more productions of Shakespeare (up to and including Peter Hall’s latest Twelfth Night, to which you can add Othello and Timon of Athens since) than you do plays written by women.

“In fact, I’d go so far as to say if you added David Hare, George Bernard Shaw, and Tom Stoppard together, then you’d probably have about the same number of plays by those three men alone as there are plays by all women in the NT’s history, and I’m being generous and counting plays that Katie Mitchell devised/developed from source material (e.g. Waves or some trace of her) as being ‘written’ by her.

Then James checked it out:

“Okay, I did the math: if you only take into account the Old Vic, Olivier, Lyttelton, and Cottesloe (no Shed, no Paintframe, no Loft, no Shunt, etc.) then you have 67 shows that were either written or co-written by women and 726 that were written by men. When shows were devised I generally grouped them under the gender of whoever was leading the process - whatever I did here would be flawed in some way. That makes for about 91% of shows on the National’s main stages being written by men. 31 of those 67 shows were under Hytner, along with 192 by men, meaning he’s above average at about 13% written or co-written by women.”

For all that 13% per cent is a pretty uninspiring figure, let’s at least note that ALMOST HALF of everything written by a woman to be staged at the NT was staged under Hytner’s regime. Let’s also remember that many of the men tipping this balance are “dead white males,” to use a strangely familiar phrase.

During Hytner’s time, if you discounted plays by playwrights who are dead [I count 54], you’d still have a gender imbalance, but it wouldn't be anywhere near as bad.

No. It goes up to 23% – so, of commissions of living playwrights, we got up to almost a quarter in the last decade. Annoyingly, of course, that figure goes down again when one takes into account the fact that virtually every *version* of a foreign playwright, alive or dead (and entirely male, I think), was undertaken by a male playwright.

Of those 67 plays by women in the NT’s entire history, 42 were in the Cottesloe (14% of 291 Cottesloe productions), 16 were in the Lyttelton (5% of 214 Lyttelton productions), 6 were in the Olivier (3% of 199 Olivier productions), 3 were at the Old Vic (3% of 89 Old Vic productions)

For comparison: there have been 68 productions of plays by Shakespeare.

[NOTE: this includes duplicates with revivals and also things like the Animals & Children Took to the Streets. This information is for all productions from the first performance of Hamlet up through all announced shows for the rest of 2013.]

Re: my suggestion (made first on Facebook and then as a comment on the Guardian blog) that for the next fifty years we should just reverse these figures, James pointed out:

The NT probably does more plays in a year now than it used to, even after transferring to the South Bank. At the moment they probably do circa 22-25 shows a year. Back in the late 70s and early 80s it was more like 15-18.

So, the good news for male playwrights is that the NT can probably start commissioning more work from them again (at a rate of 50%, equal to the rate with which women will also be being commissioned and produced) sooner than 2063


After this, we turned our attention to directors.

Directors who have directed the most plays by women/co-written by women: Katie Mitchell (7, including several of her own workings) and John Burgess (5). Howard Davies has directed 2 plays by women and 33 by men, Hytner now has 37 productions (more than anybody else) and they were all written by men. Peter Hall has 30, all by men. Trevor Nunn has 20, all by men. Laurence Olivier has 8, all by men. Richard Eyre is the only Artistic Director of the National Theatre ever to direct a play written by a woman on one of its stages and that was more than fifteen years after he stepped down: Welcome to Thebes, by Moira Buffini. He has directed 32 productions at the National, 31 by men.

[update: see comment below from John Burgess, who adds to his five: "two Studio Nights in the Cottesloe Theatre – The Women by Clare Booth Luce (co-directed with Peter Gill) in March 1986 and Travelling Time by Rosemary Wilton in March 1987"]

There have been 7 productions co-directed by men and women, 106 directed by women, and 678 directed by men.

The number of shows directed by men whose first name is Peter is 76.

(I couldn't find details of who directed a couple of shows like Inua Ellams’ Black T-Shirt Collection [update: it was a man] and Daniel Kitson’s show the other year)

Katie Mitchell is the most regular female director with 18 productions, followed by Marianne Elliot with 11 (+ 2 co-directions), Deborah Warner and Di Trevis with 7 each, then Melly Still and Phyllida Lloyd with 5 each.

The first woman to direct for the National Theatre was Joan Plowright in 1969 - she directed Rites by Maureen Duffy and co-directed The Travails of Sancho Panza with Donald MacKechnie.

The first woman to direct an NT production on the South Bank was Nancy Meckler in 1981. Between 1969 and 1981, not a single National Theatre production was directed by a woman. In the entirety of Hall's time as Artistic Director (1973 to 1988), there were 8 productions directed by 5 different women: Nancy Meckler, Sheila Hancock, Cicely Berry, Di Trevis, and Sarah Pia Anderson.

By contrast: in 2007 alone, there were 9 productions directed by 7 different women: Anna Mackmin, Deborah Warner, Emma Rice, Katie Mitchell, Marianne Elliot, Sarah Frankcom, and Thea Sharrock.

Of those 9 productions, only one show was (co-)written by a woman: director Emma Rice's version of A Matter of Life and Death.

Of the 113 productions in which a woman was involved as director, 30 (26%) were written - or co-written - by women. Of the 678 productions directed solely by men, 37 (5%) were written - or co-written - by women.


* As a side issue; it’s interesting how much writing-about-theatre now takes place entirely on these “unofficial” social networking sites. It still feels that between Twitter and Facebook half the impetus for blogging was totally removed when they arrived, and also that a significant amount of time was also taken off the table. This is, I suppose, my “first-wave blogger” reactionary grumble akin to Michael Billington’s bemoaning the passing of “the kind of prolonged argument about the arts that once took place in the correspondence columns of newspapers”.