Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Victory Condition – Royal Court, London

[seen 09/10/17]


Chris Thorpe’s Victory Condition is brilliant. It’s such a simple idea that I’m staggered it hasn’t been done before now.

The action of the play is this: a couple arrive back at their quite nice flat after a short holiday (weekend break?) with their little wheelie suitcases. They open their post (a new computer game from Amazon); they open a bottle of white, airport Marks and Sparks wine; they discover they’ve run out of fish fingers and order a pizza via some app on their iPad; he puts on the computer game; she takes a shower. His little guy runs about on screen killing wizards or something, the flat fills with steam from the shower. The pizzas arrive. The couple sit down and eat the pizzas and drink a bit more of their warm white wine.

While they do this, however, the man and the woman are each narrating a completely different person’s point of view. In this version, the man (Jonjo O’Neill) is telling us about his position as a regime sniper looking out over a square where there’s an anti-regime protest. For a few chillingly prescient minutes, it could just as easily have been about Las Vegas. Hell, it might still be Las Vegas, a few years from now. But for now it’s probably Syria, or Ukraine, or Egypt. Etc. Etc. Those places. Those reassuringly far away places. A long way from this flat. And from this couple. And from their easily obtained app-ordered pizzas. The woman (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) is telling us a more fractured story, a story about being some sort of advertising executive, or designer (I think. I don’t really understand semi-proper jobs), who is both at their office and imagining having a brain haemorrhage on the platform of an underground station. At one point she describes the logo on a can of fizzy pomegranate juice. Which is a little bear with a rapier. The can seems to be scattered throughout these realities, like how something you saw during the day recurs in a weird context your dream that night. At another point, it seems like she is speaking for a child who is imprisoned in a bathroom – perhaps in another part of the city not too far from the advertising company, from this flat. The child has been imprisoned in the bathroom so she can be sexually abused. And everything else we hear about might be in her imagination. Possibly even the flat we’re looking at. But at the same time, they’re completely accurate imaginations*.

That’s the mechanical description of what happens.

[It’s really beautifully directed and designed by Vicky Featherstone and Chloe Lamford, btw. There’s not an elegant way to talk about it, but the attention to detail in the *visible reality* part of the show is *so good*, both on the level of how O’Neill and Duncan-Brewster interact with each other, and on the level of *their things.* I don’t remember the last time I saw a naturalistic play so well done, let alone a supernaturalist play like this. I mean, by the time one of them got the Flora out of their small fridge, I think I knew everything it was possible to know about this couple. I mean that wholly admiringly.]

But what actually happens is more complicated than that. There should be a handy pre-agreed term for theatre that operates on the synapses like this. Chris Thorpe’s plays do it a lot. Simon Stephens’s Wastwater did it, Rita Kalnejais’s This Beautiful Future does it, Nina Segal’s Big Guns... It’s theatre that you move through in your mind, receiving continual new information about the situation you’ve been asked to imagine. And the new information radically alters how you can imagine the situation. Theories and ideas seem to form and disappear like phantoms of this kind of imaginative fog you’re in. Here the seemingly neutral-but-information-loaded visual context is the perfect foil. It’s *so* grounded in recognisable (middle-class, “kidult”) reality, that the harsh descriptions of anything/everything else are at once completely alien, but also as familiar as listening to international news or documentaries about child sex slavery in the safety of your own home. With the pointed difference that you – as a member of this theatre audience – get to reflect on just how those different realities are unimaginably incompatible. It’s interesting, perhaps, that the piece doesn’t also make you [well, didn’t also make me] reflect on the further incongruity of going to a theatre in Sloane Square to undertake this sort of reflection [at least, it didn’t make me think about it until I was on the train home last night typing this]. But maybe that’s a thread we don’t want to start pulling on too hard just yet [EDIT: Ok, the published script *does* deal with that too. But, on balance, I think the stage-edit is probably wise to quit where it does]. Maybe it’s enough for now to look at this apparently quite nice, happy-seeming couple, and their (sort-of) blameless holidays abroad (let’s not think about global warming, maybe they were on Eurostar?), and the simulated violence of the computer game contrasts with the obvious tenderness and mutual support of the relationship.

Indeed, this is the actual genius of Victory Condition; it goes a step further than Sarah Kane’s Blasted, which located the seeds of the explosive violence in ex-Yugoslavia’s civil wars in the workaday racism and domestic rape and violence of an ordinary English couple. Victory Condition hints that the seeds for the savage civil/proxy wars now raging in Syria (&c.) are also located in Western work, leisure, and even kindness and comfort. It doesn’t even matter if we’re being nice to each other in that expensive hotel room in Leeds (or this nice flat in Dalston or Castlefield or wherever), us just being nice to each other also has consequences; maybe along the lines of “all the evil needs to flourish is good people just being nice to each other somewhere else,” and maybe partly in the ways that Katie Mitchell’s 10 Billion made clear. (The other dramatic touchstone I’d invoke here is several plays by Wallace Shawn, which this production also goes further than, not least in terms of finding a dramatic form with which to make the ideas really resonate.)

So, yeah, Victory Condition strikes me as a real step forward for British theatre. Granted, it’s a sort of “writer’s regietheater” (i.e. the brilliant directoral concept has been supplied by the writer, so the director is serving the text...), but in its defence a) it’s a brilliant concept, b) it gets the much-blunted ball rolling again with non-literal, completely counter-intuitive text/production relationship, and c) I daresay there *are* other ways to do it (in chorus with a whole stage-full of people in a naturalistic restaurant, maybe?) which will be discovered in subsequent productions (and doubtless a zillion -student productions which think they’ve discovered chairs and microphones for themselves... :-/ ).

Oh, and, because I hardly ever remember to say this, I should say that O’Neill and Duncan-Brewster are both really brilliant too. I mean, sure, I do think the play is very clever, and the production looks brilliant, but all that would be absolutely for shit if D-B and O’N hadn’t found a way to deliver some pretty dense poetic thought clearly, hypnotically, intelligently, compellingly, and – ultimately – hauntingly. (And all this while credibly carrying on like a couple who have just returned from a city-break with a bottle of airport wine and have had to order pizza because they’ve run out of fish-fingers... They’re bloody geniuses, people. I know we knew that about each of them already anyway, but it doesn’t hurt to say it again. Geniuses.)

But, yeah, this is about as exciting a play as I’ve seen this year in England. So, of course, it’s destined to go on that ever-lengthening list of “insanely underestimated Royal Court classics” along with everything from Blasted to Wastwater et al. And, honestly? I don’t think I can imagine a higher compliment to pay Victory Condition than this.


*I’ll refrain from mentioning Twin Peaks: The Return and its question “who is the dreamer?” from the main body of this review, but I do think that question is definitely present in Victory Condition. I don’t have any particular answer as to what it means in this context. Perhaps a close relative of the “England’s dreaming” from ‘God Save The Queen’ here?


Monday, 9 October 2017

(The fall of) The Master Builder – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

[seen 09/10/17]


It strikes me that WYP’s new adaptation/production of Ibsen’s The Master Builder is a good example of where British Theatre™ has got to in 2017. A good place to take its temperature, so to speak. It’s worth saying at the outset that it’s good. Very watchable. (“Enjoyable” wasn’t ever going to be exactly the right word, but despite that it *is* enjoyable; in the sense of “dramatically satisfying,” at least.)

The first half cleaves pretty close to Ibsen’s original, played naturalistically in a realistic set, updated to present day Engway/Norland (insofar as everyone has Yorkshire accents, Norwegian names and place names, and HRH Prince Charles is down to open the new shopping centre (with a spire!), which Halvard Solness has designed). In the second half, there is some polite adaptation. Clunky chunks of expository scene are binned in favour of snappy, to-the-point monologues. The cast – still in character – talk into microphones in a downstage mini-orchestra pit, while Reece Dinsdale’s Solness alone stays in/on the office set stage, the rear wall of which gradually advances on him as the net of accusation/evidence tightens around him.

So, what do we get? I think it’s fair to say that we get a decent account of Ibsen’s (relatively rarely performed) classic play, The Master Builder. It is an account that both highlights and solves the problem of Ibsen’s 1892 original; that it is basically the tragedy of an heroic nonce. Which we maybe don’t find so heroic in 2017. We now have modern words for the sort of relationship that arose between Solness and Hilda Wangel, words like “inappropriate” and “grooming” (in much the same way that we can now bear to say “syphilis” as they never quite manage to in however many pages of Ghosts). Zinnie Harris goes a long way further toward removing any doubts we might have about what Solness’s behaviour really means. Here he is revealed as a serial offender. As such, it’s perhaps a bit of a shame that Harris hasn’t updated Wangel a bit more too, since she alone seems to have come straight from 1892, only stopping to change into some modern clothes, which don’t suit her any more than her six-year virginal wait until she can come and bother Solness some more, or her anachronistic unfamiliarity with the concept of child abuse.

It feels like a very British solution to a “problematic” text; re-writing it, so that it now acknowledges our modern need to condemn inappropriate behaviour unequivocally wherever it is found. There is precisely no ambiguity left in the play by the time Solness (do we really need to “spoiler warning” this?) chucks himself off his spire; now to escape justice at the hands of a baying mob below, bathetically shouting “kiddie fiddler” at him.

Similarly, the microphones‘n’modernity set feels like a very British compromise with the need for theatre to innovate and move forward formally. A modern set and microphones are in. no. way. actually innovative, or new, but they are excellent signifiers of the need for innovation; and, in a city theatre that has been largely without innovation for many, many years, they’ll do as a symbolic representation of actual experimentation, and doubtless strike many people watching as very daring, but, crucially, not off-putting. They are the ideal compromise solution for signalling radicalism without alienating the core audience. I’m not sure how much actual intellectual sense any of it makes, but that’s maybe an unfair bridge too far. And why not just chuck *some stuff* at a staging? The overall piece doesn’t suffer too badly for it. Because...

The main event here is the acting. Ultimately, this is not “writer’s theatre” or “director’s theatre,” this is very much actors’ theatre. Reece Dinsdale is properly, properly brilliant. (Ok, it took me maybe five minutes to adjust to the stage-shouting volume here, but once I was past that...) It’s almost impossible to pin down why it is you’re worried by him from the minute he steps on stage, but he’s just lethally threatening, without threatening anyone at all. If anything, at face-value he’s more needy than anything, it’s just the sense that Solness is the sort of person who might suddenly snap and get very nasty indeed, which rolls off the stage in waves. And he co-opts us, the audience, too; often furtively looking out through the fourth wall, to catch our eye, as if to share a look with us that makes us complicit in dismissing whatever’s been said to/about him on stage. It’s a very clever device indeed. It also works perfectly as the wholly credible character trait of an abuser with a public profile. Not only going about his abuse in plain view, but enlisting observers as both complicit and forgiving. The supporting cast is (almost) uniformly excellent (_ _ as Hilda is dreadful and not even remotely up to the standard of everyone else. Sorry).

So, what’s not to like? Very little. What *is* strange, and what this production highlights, perhaps, is the strange place we seem to have got to with Plot and Meaning in the early C21st. In Ibsen’s original, Solness ambiguously falls to his death, and it’s somehow mysterious, slightly supernatural, and both “tragic” and also a kind of final judgement-ex-machina on his conduct. Where I say above that the plot has been updated to placate modern norms and niceties, it’s the ending that now sticks out like a sore thumb. What do we actually want from endings these days? This one suddenly feels a bit too pat. Where the actual business of the play itself feels acute and perceptive, the ending now feels like a daft device. Perhaps it always did, but without any belief in anything more than postmodernity and capitalism (or whatever it is we do actually believe in now), neither accidental death nor suicide seem like a satisfying ending.

Perhaps the real answer is that we now demand another 12 hour-long episodes of painstaking trial and imprisonment drama on Netflix, stretching on into 2nd, 3rd, and etc. series in which we slowly get to know Solness or Hilda more and more (while allowing for discrepancies between individual episodes and writers), even unto what feels like an infinity...


Friday, 6 October 2017

The Stage: A Nazi Comparison

[written for The Stage]


For a couple of days I’ve been trying to remember where I’d previously heard A Nazi Comparison as a title, then [and I swear I’m not making this up; my German isn’t that good] I remembered. It was the song from the end of Leopard Murders, shown as this years FLARE festival (scroll down for rough English translation). And I slightly wish I’d just filed it as my review:

Der Nazivergleich

Der Nazivergleichist
die Schwäche der eigenen Sachargumente
ist der Versuch, Verbrechen aufzurechnen
relativiert die Nazis,
verunglimpft die Opfer
ist typisch Deutsch

Der Nazivergleich
ist eine rhetorische Ungeschicklichkeit
ist was für Schwächere
bringt inhaltlich nicht weiter
ist stumpfer Populismus
zerstört den vernünftigen Diskurs

Der Nazivergleich
ist ne Geschmacklosigkeit,
diskreditiert sich selbst
ist eine Unverschämtheit
steht unter jedem zweiten Online-Zeitungsartikel
vereinfacht ein komplexes Problem.

Der Nazivergleich von Rechts ist Geschichtsklitterung
Der Nazivergleich von Links ist nicht hilfreich
Der Nazivergleich ist das Totschlagargument

___


The Nazi Comparison

The Nazi Comparison
is the weakness of one’s own argument
is the attempt to settle crime
relativizes the Nazis
disparages the victims
is typical German

The Nazi comparison
is a rhetorical stumble
is something for weaker ones
brings nothing of substance
is obtuse populism
destroys reasonable discourse

The Nazi comparison
is tastelessness
discredits oneself
is a brazenness
is found after every other online newspaper article
simplifies a complex problem.

The Nazi comparison from the Right is a historical misrepresentation
The Nazi comparison from the Left is not helpful
The Nazi comparison is the thought-terminating cliché


[for the Press Gazette story about this review, click here

Dehli Dance – OKT / Vilniaus Miesto Teatras

[seen 01/10/17]

To survive in a modern, multicultural English context, I rather imagine Ivan Vyrypaev’s “Delhi Dance” would need a different production to the one which it has been given here by leading Lithuanian director Oskaras Koršunovas...

[to be continued...]

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Sun and Sea – Nacionalinė dailės galerija, Vilnius

[seen 01/10/17]


[Ok. This is going to be a very short review. I guess, for form’s sake, I’ll try and do it as a 250-word Stage-style piece, if only to keep my hand in.]

Sun and Sea is a contemporary opera made by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė. This presentation at the Sirenos festival is in its “installation” form, at Lithuania’s National Gallery. To this end, the piece is played at the bottom of a wide stairwell, and we – the audience – watch leaning over three floors of bannisters, looking down on it, with the surtitles projected (in white, on white) onto the staircase. Initially it is visually arresting, but we’re soon let off with a caution.

The form of the piece is essentially a kind of psychic seagull’s view into the minds of various sunbathers on a foreign beach: we hear their (sung) frustrations, petty grievances, and trivial satisfactions, set to an undulating electronic ambient score (played live? Who knows with electronic music?). Some of the bits are more interesting (both musically and emotionally) than others. There’s a bass whose Nietzsche-for-Businessmen approach to life is clearly driving him into an early grave, and a mezzo soprano whose bitching about other people leaving rubbish on the beach is a real musical pleasure.

On one hand, this set-up feels incredibly modern, and perhaps even a teeny bit iconoclastic, but it’s basically Lithuania’s answer to London Road, without the narrative drive. And, while I’m all for ironic postdramatic detachment, if there aren’t going to be chairs, then I reckon we might still need a more compelling reason to stay standing than *some musings*.

As it was, you could hear the music round the entire gallery, so I *might* have wandered off and looked at the paintings for the last half hour.




Director and Set Designer – Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė
Librettist – Vaiva Grainytė
Composer and Music Director – Lina Lapelytė

Soloists: Aliona Alymova, Svetlana Bagdonaitė, Auksė Dovydėnaitė, Saulė Dovydėnaitė, Leona Kairienė, Artūras Miknaitis, Eduardas Paciūnas, Vytautas Pastarnokas, Eglė Paškevičienė, Violeta Savickaitė- Paciūnienė, Ieva Skorubskaitė, Jonas Statkevičius, Alfredas Tamulynas, Lukas Vaičiūnas, Eglė Valčiukaitė, Povilas Vanžodis, Šarūnas Visockis, Stasė Žaltauskaitė-Malūnavičienė

Keyboards – Tomas Dičiūnas
Sound Director – Valdas Karpuška

Three Sisters – Lietuvos Nacionalinis Dramos Teatras

[seen 30/09/17]


Initially, the most striking aspects of Yana Ross’s new Trys Seserys for the National Theatre of Lithuania were the similarities and differences to Simon Stone’s idiotic version of the same at Theatertreffen this year.

Both are updated to the present day, and to the country where the producing theatre is located. Both end with von Tuzenbach (or his analogue’s) suicide (rather than death in a duel). And both are considerably less than “the full text in translation” – but where Stone’s rewrite managed to be about as long as a full translation, even with half the characters missing, Ross’s keeps almost the full compliment of characters, but looses about an hour and a half of script. The result is that while the story is still moving here, we’re kept such a long way from the characters – meeting each of them only fleetingly – that it is pretty difficult to get too involved in their personal woes. For me, this wasn’t such a huge problem; I mean, we can all remember what each of the three sisters wants, and why Andrei is such a shame generally, etc. What Ross brings to the table to compensate (more than adequately, I’d argue) is the sense of impending military calamity in Lithuania/the Baltic States/Northern Europe.

This Three Sisters is set in a kind of aircraft-hangar-y mess hall for the NATO troops stationed in Lithuania (a very real and present thing). The three sisters are indeed Russians, left behind from ‘Soviet Times’ after Lithuanian independence. The only thing that’s dodged here is that, realistically, the real reason they’d be going back to Moscow would be because Putin had successfully reinvaded and NATO had failed to stop him (see: current military exercises all along the Lithuanian border by Russia’s massive armed forces).

Within this promising comment on the real, actual state of the world right outside the theatre, the story of the play makes complete sense, but – even more so than in Chekhov’s original – seems to matter less. Ross – as per Chekhov – seems to be playing most of it more as bitter comedy than bourgeois tragedy. While the stakes might be life and death for the play’s self-absorbed characters, they are the tragedies that Stalin compared to statistics.

As such, the really moving parts of the production are just as often the footage of Russian and NATO forces firing missiles in the snow; of helicopter gunships and fighter jets flying low over beautiful pine forests. There’s a sense in the production (if not quite yet in reality) of the inexorability of war; of the sheer instability of the current Pax Europa. Against this backdrop, yes, sure, it’s still sad if husbands and wives grow apart, if people don’t fulfil their potential, if people are unfaithful to their partners, if love is unrequited, etc. But, Christ, it doesn’t half put things in a sobering perspective. 

What is perhaps cleverest about Ross’s show is that it really does give back the sense of the trivial and the uselessness that Chekhov always seems to be driving at, but which is often just sentimentalised away in production (particularly in UK). Here we get everything back, the hurt feelings, boo hoo, but also the futility and meaninglessness of the hurt feelings. As a result, while not always directly pleasurable, this is perhaps the most bracing Chekhov I’ve seen in a good long while.

In this, it is the exact reverse of what Stone attempts (and fails, even on his own terms) to deliver. Here instead of smug complacency and childish point-scoring at the expense of the characters is something which gives us both the hilarity of personal tragedies and the seriousness of comic futility.



Director — Yana Ross
Set designer — Simona Biekšaitė
Music by — Yana Ross
Video designer — Algirdas Gradauskas
Light designer — Vilius Vilutis
Cast: Rimantė Valiukaitė, Vitalija Mockevičiūtė, Monika Bičiūnaitė, Marius Repšys, Paulius Tamolė, Dainius Jankauskas, Daumantas Ciunis, Toma Vaškevičiūtė, Tadas Gryn, Miglė Polikevičiūtė, Ramūnas Cicėnas, Vaiva Mainelytė, Valerijus Jevsejevas,

B – Royal Court, London

[seen 02/10/17]


Note to self: next time, maybe don’t go to an English “International” offering when you’ve just come back from abroad. It only makes you cross.

By pretty much any available measure, B is not good. Or rather, this entirely divorced-from-context production of Guillermo Calderón’s B, translated by William Gregory, directed by Sam Pritchard, designed by Chloe Lamford, lit by Lizzie Powell, and performed by Sarah Niles, Danusia Samal, Aimée-Ffion Edwards and Paul Kaye, isn’t very good.

The set-up is fine: two deadpan teenagers are planning a terrorist attack. In Pritchard’s production it comes across as Harold Pinter’s Four Lions meets Baader-Meinhof Komplex (with additional material by Eugene Ionesco and Joe Orton). For about half an hour, it’s quite passable. For the next half an hour, much less so. And then until the denouement (including an explosion appallingly rendered as sixth-form expressionism) it’s pretty much dead.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a play so thoroughly defeat a director, much less the last time I saw such a shrug of a production. If you don’t have an idea, don’t direct the play. It’s as simple as that. There’s literally no point in young directors being made to stage unperformable scripts, while being forced to “serve” them. And, given Pritchard’s outstanding Pygmalion, it just makes the Royal Court look like a place where talented directors are neutered (see also, Michael Longhurst’s barely-passable Linda). (In mitigation, I should note that B is playing in rep./double bill with Victory Condition, so has almost certainly also been hamstrung by that.)

Re: the script – I’m sure it’s perfectly good in Spanish, so maybe perform it in Spanish, and let us do the work with the surtitles? Because having English people flatly deadpan their way through a bunch of unsayable sentences about how someone is someone else’s white horse or something doesn’t work one bit. I daresay even some Chilean actors could have made a bit more interpretative sense of it, but, dear God, not native Englishers doing their most deadpan accent thing. Not that.

Ach. There’s not much more to say, really. There is interesting stuff to think about in the play, but the production doesn’t incline you to do so. Edwards is quite funny and good as one of the terrorettes and Paul Kaye is actually very good indeed as their enigmatic bomb-maker. But, y’know, theatre’s a bigger artform than that, so the presence of some functioning parts in a malfunctioning whole isn’t even slightly enough.

Pfft.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Lokis – Lietuvos Nacionalinis Dramos Teatras

[seen 29/09/17]


Polish director Łukasz Twarkowski’s production of Lokis – a Very Free adaptation of Prosper “Carmen” Mérimée’s horror story of the same name – is about the most impressive use of video that I’ve ever seen on stage. The whole thing lasts around three hours (plus interval) and for long stretches is almost hypnotic in the way it operates. The plot of the original is apparently some insane French confection (which *was* originally set in Lithuania; hence the interest, presumably) about a woman who is attacked by a bear, and nine months later gives birth to a son, who in turn goes on to kill his bride on their wedding day. Or something.

Twarkowski, and writer Anka Herbut, have taken this original story, added a much more recent (true?) story of a French film star who was also murdered her husband after she was filming in Vilnius, and turned the whole thing into a compelling, horrifying, hallucinogenic meditation on violence against women. There might even be a third murder. If I’m honest, details/clarity (at least when here coupled with surtitles) weren’t the piece’s strongest point. But in the same way as “please explain the plot of Inland Empire” isn’t really a thing, neither is it here. Instead of linear narrative clarity, we instead have this nightmarish journey into the heart of these murders, and into the minds of these men who murder women. Towards the end, there’s even this attempt to try to reconstruct the thoughts of a man about to murder his partner – an attempt deliberately doomed to failure. Of course. But the piece itself reflects on and revolves around this unknowability. [I should add/reassure that it absolutely doesn’t glorify violence against women, nor needlessly fetishise it for entertainment. (There is one shot of a woman – presumably dead – lying naked on a bed, which could have been lost, but maybe even this is a comment on that trope, rather than an example of it).]

What’s really compelling here, however, is the stagecraft. The thing opens (a bit like Dead Centre’s Lippy) with “the director,” and eventually his whole team, talking about their rationales for making the piece. While interesting in its own right, this also sets up the audience perfectly and effortlessly with a way to approach watching it. There then follows one of the best bits of lighting-design-as-performance that I’ve seen. Again, reminiscent of the David Lynch aesthetic, but at the same time completely theatrical. From this, the thing starts to move into a version of the Katie Mitchell camera show, as if reimagined by the Frank Castorf/Gob Squad camera show (as it were). I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it’s the best video work I’ve ever seen on stage. If anything, it’s more like Sebastian Schipper’s film Victoria than anything you’re used to seeing on stage: there’s both the fluidity and anarchy of Castorf but with the eye for a decent shot of Mitchell’s video collaborators, but without the static painterliness.

As it happens, a fascinating thing happened the night I saw Lokis: about twenty minutes from then end, the live-feed went completely dead. The entire rest of everything continued, and someone came out into the middle of the stage – as if totally intentional – and told a strange story/joke about a rabbit in a wood(?). Or something. Then the scene that had cut out started again. Given the rest of the show, it was genuinely impossible to say for sure whether it was a real mistake, a slightly odd dramaturgical decision, or actually great. I’d have been happy with any option as the “correct” explanation.

Similarly, while it’s not a piece which really draws attention to its actors (the style and anti-narrative really militate against it), you do eventually notice just how great they are – just really subtle, understated, naturalistic-but-not kind of acting that communicates everything you need to know without somehow making communication the point.

So, yes: while in places at time-of-watching it felt slightly “over-long,” on reflection, I don’t think I’ve have wanted them to cut anything to “streamline” it. I was never bored, and it was great just to be able to sit back and have the senses assaulted by this maelstrom of smoke and strobes and music and video, executed with rare panache, exploring something curdled at the heart of humanity.




Antichrist – Menų spaustuvė, Vilnius

[seen 29/09/17]



I was quite taken with Artūras Areima’s production of Unter Eis at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, much to the surprise of several Lithuanian colleagues, who were several shades more sceptical about the extent of Areima’s talent. With Antichrist – entirely devised, as far as I can make out; possibly based loosely on Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1895 book of the same name (definitely zip to do with the Lars von Trier film) – I began to see from whence their scepticism came.

Antichrist is, to put it simply, a series a shock gestures, mindless sloganeering, nudity and excess. It *might* be about various things, including the result of the American election, geo-politics, Russia, and maybe The Internet. I think it also cleaves pretty close to Nietzsche’s rejection of Christian virtues in his daft quest for proto-fascist perfection. It’s not remotely clear whether Areima envisages Nietzsche as the originator of our current problems, or the best tool with which to combat them. It feels very much like the work of a 15-year-old boy who’s been saturated with “shock” images from MTV, CNN, etc. but wants to outrage their theatre studies teacher (here the teacher could be left- or right- wing. Either way they’d find plenty to complain about).

Perhaps, then, the most interesting thing about this piece is that it actually ends up feeling rather like the perfect theatrical expression of something like 4chan. A completely random assemblage, with absolutely no meaningful political allegiances, prepared to make whatever gesture will be most “shocking”. Antichrist “says” nothing, and we’re maybe reminded of that early Laibach interview in socialist Yugoslavia, where they repeatedly refused to deny that they were fascists. In this respect, I suppose I found it quite useful, insofar as: there’s always something quite good about having your assumptions about what it’s “ok” to put on stage challenged. I mean, sure, on a technical level the format of scene/total energy loss/scene/total energy loss/etc. was pretty witless, despite the four performers’ obvious commitment. But actually trying to criticise it on that score might be missing the point entirely. Maybe, like punk, it’s technically bad on purpose, because technical proficiency is bourgeois, or something. (Tbh, it’s very hard to know who or what the targets were, or who – if anyone – is actually meant to be being “shocked,” rather than a usual international theatre audience registering that the piece is using all the tropes of “shocking” to deliver something that, if it is shocking at all, is mostly shocking on the level of “blimey, I didn’t realise anyone was still making this show!”)

There are some “nice” moments in it, but – call me old and out-of-touch – I would have been quite interested to have seen what could have been achieved if there’d been a dramaturg and a discernible point. Two hours is quite a long time to watch people just throwing shit at a wall to see what sticks.


director/scenographer Artūras Areima | actors Monika Poderytė, Giedrė Žaliauskaitė, Andrius Mockus, Valerijus Kazlauskas



The Stage: The Shed Crew – Albion Electronics Warehouse, Leeds

[seen 22/09/17]

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Written for The Stage. Click here.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Our Town – Royal Exchange, Manchester

[seen 19/09/17]


What to say about American playwright Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town? It’s apparently the most performed, most loved, most well-known play in America. And, well, just look at America.

On a superficial level, it’s very nice. In three meta-theatrical acts, the audience is genially walked through birth, marriage and death – all taking place in a New Hampshire town (population 2,000-ish) – by a folksy “Stage Manager” character.

On the next level down, it’s less nice. Sure, Wilder notes the almost mysterious “disappearance” of the native Americans*, but more than that – possibly due to the state America’s in now** – you become aware of the way that division is hardwired into the place. Here, it’s the Polish Catholics on the other side of the railroad tracks, of whom we see nothing, and of whom we hear only what our on-stage WASPs occasionally deign to mention. So the claim of “Our” becomes pretty pointed pretty quickly. Although, as I say, it’s a such a genial, “universalist” play, that you pretty much let that point go. (Or at least, I – a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant – let it go. The Catholics *are* always “over there,” as far as I’m concerned, so why would I notice or particularly care when a play confirms this impression to me?)

And, of course, this could well be Wilder’s intent. There’s a very fine essay in the programme by Steve Bottoms of Manchester Uni, which quotes Edward Albee brilliantly describing it as “a real tough play” which “everybody performs like it was a fucking Christmas card.” (Although I’ve never seen a “Christmas card” production, I can well imagine it – just like Twin Peaks, as soon as David Lynch and Mark Frost stepped away, turned into a succession of fucking idiots putting kooky things on screen, because that’s what they thought it was about.)

These textual levels are, of course, complicated by the fact that this is a play-script, and so there’s also a production. And, as is customary with the Royal Exchange, the production is about as utopian, inclusive, and non-divisive as you could wish for. Which is lovely. Of course. But it also makes things *quite complicated*. For example, let’s take the relatively simple issue of the accents used here: Youssef Kerkour as the Stage Manager speaks with an American accent (his own?). Most of the rest of the cast speak with various Manchester accents (probably mostly their own)***. What does this really say? Sure, I think I can read what’s intended: a nod to the play’s American heritage, but with the nitty-gritty transposed to the here and now, but with all the words, idioms, events and traditions still intact. With an overall message that backs up one possible meaning of the play: that people the world over aren’t so different. Which is both comforting, and probably a tool of American imperialism. (I mean, I don’t suppose people are so different either, but it’s telling that I’ve seen several productions of this play, suggesting we’re all like people in New Hampshire, but no plays suggesting that we’re all like people in Kinshasa or Tehran or Pyongyang.****)

Anyway, that’s the over-thinking part done with.

The production itself is very nice. It’s a good production of a play that’s still interesting and has lots of good things in it. Frankcoms’s direction is good, the cast are very good, and Fly Davies’s set suddenly includes a theatrical coup which was (for once) completely unexpected, which I didn’t see coming, which worked brilliantly, and which also introduced a level of problematic Sarah Kane kitsch***** that – and I say this admiringly – added about 100 extra levels of difficulty to the whole. Max and Ben Ringham’s sound design was great, as was Jack Knowles’s lighting – particularly in Act One, where lights are shone through the frosted glass walls of the Exchange’s weird pod-theatre from outside it to create the sunrise...

If I’ve a reservation, it’s that I wonder if last night they didn’t slightly throw away the ending. The Third Act, after the interval, felt to me like it could have supported more silences, more pauses, more slowness; the audience felt primed for that, and could definitely have lasted longer than they were asked to. But that’s an entirely subjective feeling. Conversely, I also appreciated the unsentimental performance of something is that still, to me, unarguably sentimental.

But, yeah, it all works well. It’s modern (for England). It’s about as progressive as it can be (while remaining faithful to the script). The cast seem lovely. It’s a credit to Manchester. Etc. Etc.



* best joke ever written about America: “America sure is having some bad luck; it’s almost like it was built on an ancient Indian burial ground.”

** Or, more accurately: the suddenly-made-explicit/visible state that America has always been in.

*** Everyone in New York director David Cromer’s English remount of Our Town at the Almeida in 2014 spoke with their own accents too, so no prizes for Shock of the New here, but thank Christ anyway. I think – particularly after Benedict Andrews’s ATROCIOUS Cat On A Hot Tin Roof – fake American accents should be banned for at least a decade.

**** While I’m in complete support of equal casting rights, I do wonder again about actors of colour effectively neutralising the play’s potentially problematic all-white origins. Again, there’s no simple answer to this. It certainly wouldn’t be any better to stage it with an all-white cast just to show how bad that looked. (Not least because, as per the Catholics above, far too many (white) people probably just wouldn’t mind/care/notice.) But, I dunno, on some level, just making it nicer without acknowledging the problems seems too easy. Similarly, while a year ago, Dominic Cavendish made himself no friends by questioning the logic of casting Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Maxine Peake’s sister, part of me does wonder if the “colour-blind” casting-logic here just winds up inadvertently signalling “all these characters are actually white”.
[No animosity intended here. I just wonder if there is a way that theatre can do any better than it’s currently doing. And whether there’s any way at all of redeeming old American drama.]

***** Who even knew that that was a thing?

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Nederlands Dans Theater – EIF, Playhouse, Edinburgh

[seen 21/08/17]


I don’t know who’s in charge of the theatre programming at EIF, but whoever it is urgently needs replacing. Ok, that’s not quite fair. Real Magic *is* brilliant, it’s just a pity I’d already seen it. The thought of Zinnie Harris’s 4hrs30 Oresteia wasn’t enough to keep me in Edinburgh to see it (indeed, may have prompted me to leave early), and the reviews of the six hour Ayckbourn were enough to make me return my press ticket.

Thank God, then, for John Eliot Gardner’s Monteverdi concerts and Nederlands Dans Theater.

The NDS triple bill (which I characterised at the first interval as “a mixed programme of applause, queuing, intervals and a bit of dance” (total dance-time: 84 minutes, total running time: getting on for three hours)), was, overall, pretty good.

I was maybe a bit crabby in the first interval, as the first piece, Shoot The Moon, was merely “fine,” with many points lost for their use of Philip Glass’s Tirol Symphony, movement 2 (made available here on YouTube as “motivational music” to “start your own business,” one idly notes).

The basic dance set-up involved a three-walled revolve, creating three different rooms, with windows and/or doors, with an additional live-stream screen above it. Seven dancers seemed to tell a fairly hum-drum story of suffocated marriages, yearning and infidelity(?), which, when scored by Glass’s identikit music, made it look like the movement bits in a(n imagined) Katie Mitchell adaptation of The Hours (perhaps performed on the set of Heiner Goebbels’s I Went To The House But Did Not Enter). But, yeah, things I concluded during Shoot The Moon: a) I prefer contemporary dance where they don’t dance *to* the music (if there has to be “music” at all), and b) I’m pretty over my adolescent thing for Philip Glass now. Especially his soupy, trying-to-be-emotional stuff.

Annoyingly, the third piece – Stop-Motion – is also choreographed by Sol León and Paul Lightfoot, this time to the strains of some soupy Max Richter. And is an open-stage version of much the same register, albeit with a different plot/arc – this one somehow more like a deconstructed group Swan Lake in many repeated vignette-like iterations of character. And with some tediously tasteful black and white projections of a woman wearing a black black dress on a hanging screen on the right hand side of the stage. For a while. Until it lifts up and disappears.

The stand out here is Gabriela Carrizo’s The Missing Door – for all the world like a compressed model of David Lynch’s Inland Empire. On a loop...

Dolly Would – Summerhall, Edinburgh

[08/08/17]


Oh look, 2016 Fringe First winners Sh!t Theatre again. What is it this time? Oh, is it unemployment? Is there a crisis? Did the government do something wrong again? No, it’s a show about Dolly Parton. We f*cking love her.

Which leaves me in a difficult position. I mean, I f*cking loved Sh!t Theatre’s Letters To Windsor House last year. I even wrote a ridiculously personal review of it, based mostly on my uncle. Sadly, I don’t have a single family member I can pull out of the hat with even the slightest connection to Dolly Parton. And my own acquaintance with her pretty much begins and ends with this cover of ‘Jolene’ by the Sisters of Mercy.

Mercifully, this being Sh!t Theatre, the piece gives critics a fair bit of room for speculation. The thing itself – as with Windsor House – is a kind of investigative reality travelogue, this time to the Dollywood theme park that Parton bought a share in and rebranded for herself and her fans in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. This narrative is intercut with repeated fragments from interviews with Parton (some absolutely breathtaking male-chauvinism); digressions about Dolly, the world’s first cloned sheep; a bunch of stuff about (inevitably, apparently) breasts; Parton’s secret-not-secret lesbianism; and Pigeon Forge’s other merch-laden “tourist attraction” a “body farm” where donated corpses are allowed to decompose forever in various states, presumably for the researches of CSI types and etc. All this feeds into ideas (as discussed in the Jen Harvie podcast) about mortality/immortality, Parton’s signifiers and signifieds, her semiotics, the idea of it being possible to be “more Dolly than Dolly” (as exemplified by the fact she entered herself into a Dolly Parton-themed drag contest and lost). These themes are carried on through the clone sheep Dolly, and a question of whether reproduction diminishes quality (the Sh!ts never quite get as far as quoting Benjamin, but they might as well).

Matt Trueman links this tendency to Andy Warhol – and I don’t disagree. But for me, the unshakeable image here was that of Donald John Trump, 45th President of the USA. I mean, sure, Parton seems as much like a force for good as a theme-park owning, self-merchandising singer in the genre of white supremacist music can do, but... y’know, it’s still “Country and Western,” isn’t it? Essentially: music for lynchings. (Don’t get me started on my “all folk music is essentially fascist” thing, we’ll be here all day.) It feels like a strange year for self-ironising, big-haired blondes anyway, right? Trump seems to spring from the same school of turn-self-into-brand; so is Parton basically the prolonged period of shelling before Trump’s over-the-top assault? In some sort of cultural studies meltdown, I’d say she probably is. Never mind that her Imagination Library apparently gives books to 35,000+ registered UK children; until relatively recently, we had actual libraries in the UK. Sure, books paid for by an American country singer’s private philanthropy are better than no books at all, but equally, it’s not exactly socialism either...

So, yes; I had quite a few thoughts during Dolly Would, most of them probably unrelated directly to what was going on in front of me, and a lot more related to the terrible catastrophe that is the world today. (There you go, Sh!t Theatre; you can put whatever you want on stage, I’m still going to see a depressing version.)

So, it’s not scientific, what I was thinking, and it was probably a somewhat overdone train of thought for a piece that seeks (on the surface at least) to be no more than eccentric, likeable entertainment. But that idea that you can’t switch off ideology is an annoyingly persistent one. And, while Parton herself might be Capital at its most benign and charitable, Dollywood seems to me to be a horribly prescient vision of Trumpland...

[Would end by quoting something out of that Sontag essay on kitsch if I had a copy to hand, but I’ve got a vague feeling she’s not nearly as hardline as I’d need her to be anyway.]

Give Me Your Love – Summerhall, Edinburgh

[seen 15/08/17]


When we were about 17, my mate Alan and I used to write ridiculous (and terrible) “plays.” What strikes me as interesting now, is that there was basically Pinter, Beckett, and Orton for inspiration and precedent. That’s all the “contemporary theatre” there was in 1993 in Birmingham. All there was, it seemed, was grimy men in grimy rooms, indulging in faintly amusing, mostly disconcerting, entirely inconsequential dialogue.

You can see where this is going, right?

What’s strange and disconcerting about Give Me Your Love – devised into a buyable playscript by Ridiculusmus – is that all the material around it concentrates on the company’s research into presenting mental health issues on stage. Strange and disconcerting, because it is more or less entirely impossible to discern any difference between this piece, and the plays that Alan and I wrote 25 years ago.

What happens in GMYL is that __ (_ _), a war veteran with PTSD, stands in a room yelling at his front door, behind which various visitors stand (alll voiced by _ _). From inside a cardboard box. _ _ doesn’t get out of the cardboard box until the curtain call. _ _ (in any of his many voice guises) never enters the room.

Pure Beckett.

But also, indistinguishable from a comic play by two adolescent boys who just found mad people really funny. So, my point is this: if it’s impossible to tell the difference between a play that proudly wears its research into mental health on its sleeve, and one which has done exactly no research at all, isn’t it a bit of a problem?

It seems harsh to suggest it, but without a hand-picked audience who know the company, know how to make all the right noises, and have done all the background reading etc., this could easily be construed as somewhere between nonsense and deeply offensive/problematic, etc. “But it’s not! It’s the product of research!” defenders will argue. Sure. Fine. But theatre itself isn’t a good format in which to present the findings of research, is it? I mean, a lecture theatre is, but this wasn’t a lecture, was it? It was a comic and surreal (non-)narrative drama. It was pretty much 4th Wall naturalism, in fact. Even the walls of the set were realistically begrimed. There was all sorts of attention to realist details. And to what end? To display comic Welsh accents (I guess at some point audiences outside of Wales will stop finding the Welsh accent funny, and start finding their laughter racist, but not today, apparently), and a bloke stood in a box for an hour. Which also made the audience laugh.

I get that laughter *can* enhance the poignancy and humanity of a person’s suffering. We can feel the cruelty of a situation all the more keenly through the absurdity...  Except here we really don’t. (Or at least, it really, really didn’t work for me.) It’s a shame, because you can completely see what’s been/being aimed at, but I reckon it’s occasionally worth noting when a thing really hasn’t come off. And this, for me, really didn’t. 

How To Act – Summerhall, Edinburgh

[seen 18/08/17]


How To Act does one thing, and it does that one thing in two or three successive ways. Ultimately, they are all the same way, but with increasingly levels of transparency. The thing it is doing is essentially pointing out white/Western/colonialist attitudes can exist even within the best of intentions.

Does anyone fancy disagreeing with that?

Thought not.

The piece might be stronger were it to also attempt to mount some sort of defence, but then there probably isn’t one. At which point, we enter the realm of stating the bleeding obvious to the converted.

What happens in phase one is that a Peter Brook-ish director is giving one of those masterclasses that they used to have on telly at the end of the seventies. (For younger readers, here’s a young Gandalf explaining Macbeth, and then Fry and Laurie taking the piss out of these sorts of programmes.) In fact, the director is so Peter Brook-ish that I reckon, with a half decent lawyer, Brook could probably win a legal case against NTS. I mean, who wants to face the possibility that Brook’s Mahabharata (for example) might be the most misguided exercise in cultural appropriation ever? (Actually, I’d be fine with that. Fuck him and his empty space. Seems a bit much though, non?)

Phase one is quite good. It’s good because it’s relatively subtle. The discerning audience member can see that there is a very uncomfortable imbalance of power between the director and his volunteer actor, who happens to be a much younger, mixed-race woman.

Phase two makes sure that everyone else in the audience, who might have been happy taking phase one at face value – as a workshop situation in which we might not bother considering the power relations between (older, white, male) director and (younger, mixed-race, female) actor – is brought up to speed. Phase two is consequently a bit tiring for everyone who got it during phase one.

Phase three amps up the entire thing by revealing – in a plot twist that brighter audience members will have seen coming a mile off – that older white male director is younger mixed-race female actor’s father. Then, when she reveals this to him, he smacks her in the face, or something. Phase three can basically fuck off altogether.

Now, y’know, I’m a good leftie, so I tend to agree with the overall message – that imperialism and exploitation are naughty. But I knew that when I walked in. Having it reiterated to me at some length – with no credible new information or analysis – does nothing for me, I’m afraid. Indeed, I’m enough of a leftie to actually quite fancy a bit of a dialectic. Or something that at least offers my default anti-imperialism a thoughtful critique. What I don’t particularly need to watch is a kangaroo court on behalf of my beliefs which is so one-sided that it almost embarrasses me out of holding them.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Secret Life of Humans – Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh

[seen 18/08/17]


I’ll start with my only real grumble: “[Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari,] being a non-fiction book, with no characters or plot... the creative team and ensemble...” made some up. I mean, Secret Life of Humans is a pretty good play, very much in the Complicité (circa Mnemonic and Disappearing Number) mode of “how to devise a play about a big subject around a smaller human story.” My grumble is just the implication that it’s impossible to do it differently. I absolutely don’t mind that this was the choice taken, I just wish people would recognise and admit that there were/are choices.

So, yeah. Secret Life of Humans – written by David Byrne, directed by David Byrne and Kate Stanley, devised by the company (no, I’ve no idea how that works/what that really means, but that’s fine) – is basically a Complicité show of a Richard Curtis film. On stage. About the origin of the species. Or: it’s essentially a detective story about what Jacob “The Ascent of Man” Bronowski did in WWII [spoiler: he essentially devised the mathematical formula that made the firebombing of Dresden and Hamburg so horrifyingly effective]. In it, his grandson, Jamie (made up?), meets up with Ava, a researcher in the same field, on the world’s most coincidental Tinder date (definitely made up, right?). He takes her back to his (dead) folk’s place, for a one-night-stand, and a quick look into his grandfather’s locked and alarmed room in which he keeps all his secret papers related to this source of great personal horror and anxiety. Suddenly, the patrician BBC documentary-maker with an inaccurately upbeat prognosis for human progress is a lot more complicated. We see episodes from his life in flashback, intercut with his grandson’s coming to terms with what it all means, and talking about the big theories of evolution, etc.

What’s fascinating, watching Secret Life... for all its undoubted theatrical achievements (for a Fringe show, it really does have a couple of remarkable special effects, as well as a decent set and excellent video projections, etc.) is the extent to which it also seems hell bent on coming up with an optimistic ending. I have to say, I found that about as convincing as Bronowski’s “Ascent” thesis. Much more interesting is the pessimistic underbelly: that Homo Sapiens started life as an uncontrollably vicious, genocidal species – apparently the world is littered with the mass graves of Neanderthals, our nearest biological cousins, suggesting that the human race systematically slaughtered every last one of them to achieve our current position of global superiority.

Standing, as we now do, on the brink of certain environmental catastrophe, accompanied by a likely succession of international and civil wars, fought along every conceivable division imaginable (east against west, white against black, Islam against Christianity, men against women, etc. etc. etc.), it’s pretty difficult to get excited about any possibility of the human race’s survival. Or, really, why anyone would want it to. Sure, there are some nice people, but there’ll probably be some really lovely talking cockroaches soon enough.

Conclusion: if you want people to care about your characters, don’t remind us that they’re human, much less what “human” really means.

The Marriage of Kim K – C Venues (Central), Edinburgh

[seen 18/08/17]


Like Sasquatch, Mercer & Hyde’s The Marriage of Kim K feels like the sort of improbable insanity that the Fringe was designed to accommodate. I mean, who actually felt that what their life was missing was a rom-com mash-up of Kim Kardashian’s 72-day marriage to basketball player Kris Humphries – as told by camp TV series Keeping Up With The Kardashians (and possibly Sam Riviere) – and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro?

In the very small Cons corner, if I’m brutally honest, I could have lived without the audience-hand-holding bridging-device-between-two-worlds: a put-upon composer and his new qualified lawyer wife, bickering over what to watch on the television (Keeping Up... or Mozart, natch), even unto near-marital breakdown. That said, it’s this element that also makes the thing feel democratic and accessible (even if most couples aren’t composers and lawyers). And, y’know, most people probably relate more to squabbling couples than to comparative studies of high and low culture and their unexpected intersections. Also, the staging is kinda terrible, but in a likeably shambolic, Fringe-y way.

But, yeah, the Pros side here is huge. The six-strong singing cast – particularly the two opera singers – are a marvel, and the (sadly invisible/hidden) band + string quartet are excellent. There is always something so much more exciting about hearing all the music played and sung live. And then there’s the script/book/lyrics/libretto. In an early witty touch, the couple on the sofa watching Mozart put the subtitles on, and the Mozart singers switch from Italian to English. And this translation (slight adaptation?) of Figaro seems to me to be world-beating, what there is of it (I would happily watch the whole thing at ENO). And then there’s the Kardashian bits. Now, it’ll surprise none of you at all, that I haven’t watched a single minute of Keeping Up With... until I sat down to write this review, but it’s my guess that the lyrics for the musical Kardashian bits are quite plausibly lifted wholesale from the show, maybe it even includes “famous” quotes, combined with the rigours of writing rhyming musical theatre songs. (Do I suspect that Hamilton might be the defining influence here? Probably, but as we also know, I’m not *as* enamoured of (the recorded version of) that musical as everyone else on the planet seems to be – I mean, it’s clever an’ all, but there’s still just a bit too much fondness for musical theatre songs to let me actually love it.)

So, on several levels, I’m maybe exactly the wrong person to be reviewing this, being perhaps one of a handful of people who prefers opera to reality TV. What’s actually rather nice, though, is that while I suspect that the piece’s main concern is trying to de-fang Mozart for scaredy-proles, it also works just as well the other way round, and sells the idea of Keeping Up With The Kardashians as a completely riveting bit of modern tragedy on a par with Euripides or Seneca. So, yeah, (mostly) excellent work all round; although if Mercer and Hyde could now put down the soupy musical theatre stuff from here on in, and concentrate on the witty, musically intelligent side of their arsenal, that’d be perfect.

The Class Project – Summerhall, Edinburgh

[seen 18/08/17]


Rebecca Atkinson-Lord’s début solo-show is the only thing I’ve seen at the Fringe so far (or at all, it turned out) that connects Edinburgh to the biggest question being examined at the Manchester International Festival this year (well, by two shows, anyway); the question of “class betrayal”.

Like both Eribon and Stephens (et al.), Atkinson-Lord takes herself as the main example, and extrapolates outwards. A-L, those of us who have ever met her before are surprised to discover, is in fact from the West Midlands. She sings us a neato historical folk song about the bread and butter riots of 1766, and talks to us in her “native” accent. An accent I confess I’d never particularly noticed she had before.

Moving between three clearly demarcated sections of the stage (which probably represented something, but I was too woolly-brained to work out what), she changes clothes, writes on a chalk board, and – most engagingly – delivers a pretty faultless, three-character, headphones-on, verbatim theatre section of a car journey she took with her parents. Through these various sections, she gives a pretty good potted account of English history, her own accent and how she’s basically ditched the one she grew up with in favour of a “posh” one, and, well, the curse of the English class system.

It’s very striking, I think, that of the three shows – Returning to Reims, Fatherland, and The Class Project – it’s the only one that deals with “accent”. Stephens, as we probably know, has pretty much retained some version of his Stockport accent, and accent just doesn’t seem to be a factor with real class connotations in Germany in the same way (there are regional accents, but lacking a centralised point of resentment (i.e. upper-middle-class London), none of them seem particularly privileged above the others?), so if it was a thing in Eribon’s (French) memoir, it certainly didn’t become a major factor in Ostermeier’s German-thought, English-performed production (a factor clearly further complicated by the fact that Nina Hoss as the narrator was a German speaking in English, so her accent was “German” – a totally classless proposition as far as an English audience is concerned; “foreigners” always seeming “a bit posh.” At least, until they’re “immigrants,” right?).

I mean, I probably have *some thoughts* about accents myself, but they’re pretty unformed and imprecise, so I won’t go on about them here. Instead, let’s note that – while not “perfect” (whatever “perfect” means) – The Class Project is an interesting, intelligent, engaging hour, picking over and reopening what is pretty much an evergreen subject for the English, but a subject that, nevertheless, No One Else At All seemed to be talking about this Fringe. (That I saw.) (With the exception of All We Ever Wanted...).

Our Carnal Hearts – Summerhall

[seen 18/08/17]


Playing at 11a.m., on a day that I was prepared to swear blind was a Sunday, Rachel Mars’s Our Carnal Hearts is basically church. (Yes, I am just going to read this whole thing through my gentile filter*. Because that’s what everyone does anyway, right? And changing my filters would be more ethically dubious (and unsuccessful) than just carrying on as normal, so.) It’s got a choir (music by Louise Mothersole, heavily influenced by Philip Glass?). It’s got hymns (well, Spandau Ballet’s ‘Gold’). And it’s got a sermon. Of sorts.

What’s interesting is what the sermon actually is. There are basically two ways you can read the show: one) taking basic message at face value; that greed, envy, avarice, etc. are basic human traits; and we should let ourselves off and not beat ourselves up too much for feeling those things; and that we should even celebrate them, maybe. Essentially the Church of Satan approach, if you will. Two) taking the show to be a slightly scattergun satire on all of the above, and seeing all politics as the politics of envy, each revolution as the product of selfishness and jealousy, and maybe even every genocide rooted in thinking someone else always seems to be better off than yourself.

It’s hard to get a real fix on which of these two messages – if either – the show ultimately believes. Perhaps the show is ultimately a piece in praise of the postmodern paradox of knowing too much to commit to either option in a binary; having strong feelings and no particularly clear outlet for them. Or, to put it another way, I’m reasonably hopeful that I didn’t just see a show in which my mate Rachel seriously suggested that we lock everyone we’re jealous of in a wooden barn and set fire to it.

I should say at this point that the show itself is also very funny, Rachel Mars is a brilliant performer, the music is lovely, and this is a delightful way to spend an hour.

But, IDK, now we live in Trumpworld, where a bunch of Charlottesville Nazis give in to their feelings of envy (all Supremacist ideologies are rooted in their adherents’ feelings of powerlessness, envy at those who they perceive to be more powerful than them, and comforting nonsense about how they are in fact “superior” to whichever group they’ve decided is more powerful than them), and where America is presided over by the most hysterically jealous and venal person it is possible to imagine, letting ourselves off for the root of our Trumpian feelings – however natural they may be – seems like it might the wrong call to me. But, as I say, that’s probably also part of what the show’s saying; by denying it’s saying it.

It’s clearly got to that point in the Fringe where I can’t deal with moral ambiguity any more. Just give me nice straightforward answers to easy questions, please.





* As it happens, I chatted to Rachel about this, after writing the above, and she told me that the structure of the piece had indeed been influenced by an evangelical order-of-service found in New York(?) when she was making the show. So, phew. Good to know my intuitions aren’t entirely religio-colonialist.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

From The Ground Up – Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

[seen 16/08/17]


This new piece from the Almeida Theatre’s Young Company is surprisingly sophisticated. Surprising until you see that the “writer” responsible for it is Joeri Smet, of Ontrorend Goed fame. Indeed, in many ways this feels like it is an O.G. Show in all but name, and specifically a follow-up to 2013’s Fight Night.

Where Fight Night explored the frustrations of the political landscape with a series of anonymous votes that led to a bunch of candidates that no one really wanted being whittled down to a winner/leader who no one in their right mind would have chosen (prescient, non?), From The Ground Up seems to focus on the construction of people’s “political identities” or “sense of self”.

Now, I don’t know if the Almeida Young Company or Joeri Smet had a definitive plan for the overarching dramaturgy/architecture of the piece to tell the real story here, but that was certainly my take-home. Essentially, we’re told that we can only answer yes or no to a series of questions. They are “only interested in black and white. There’s not room for grey here.” (Which, as I go ever more grey, and racial politics seem ever more disastrously polarised, seems a horrible acute stand-alone obseervation anyway...). Of course, the way that the questions are phrased leaves a hell of a lot of mental wriggle-room, but the interesting idea here is confronting the sense that ultimately you can only agree or disagree. We maybe spend a lot of time in this life not really committing to any sort of opinion or action but instead spend a lot of time finessing the questions. So in that sense, it is a useful exercise. But then, many of the questions are phrased in such a way as to elicit knee-jerk responses, and there’s very little time to think.

The object of all this is to gradually corral the small audience – here huddled together into a low-ceiled room in a church crypt with whitewashed walls – into a selection of “political parties”: maybe more points on a political compass (old ideas of libertarian left, authoritarian left, libertarian right and so on... feel very present). Old binaries such as “family-loyalty or self-actualisation” rub up against more contemporary sounding questions relating to our opinions on whether sexuality is fixed or mutable (what is the progressive answer to that? Really? What if it was phased differently?)

The piece doesn’t really make points of its own (Ok: there’s a nice enough take-home about nuance being a good thing, I think), but instead mostly leaves us in this room – each audience member feeling incredibly isolated, I think – thinking furiously about what we actually do think, about a dizzying range of subjects. If anything, for me it made me reflect on the deeply unhelpful ways in which certain affiliations being traditionally allied to particular political (i.e. economic) positions has recently flipped, and made modern politics almost incomprehensible with a few astutely volte-faces. (Like, since when was “right wing” the first choice for “free speech,” FFS?)

If I’ve got an issue with From The Ground Up, I expect most of that issue isn’t with the piece itself, but with modern politics, which are, by-and-large, a disgusting farce. (A view I probably share with Steve Bannon. Eye roll.) Lacking any sort of didactic message, ultimately the piece serves partly as an exercise in confirmation bias, and partly as a study in futility: giving us all-too-familiar binary choices from the modern world, and asking us to exercise our meaningless “democratic” choices between two options that we had no say in formulating (and then seeing people whose “party” we’ve inadvertently joined making a mockery of that support. Hello Leave/Remain).

So, yeah.  Loads of fun, until it reminds you how bleak everything in the world is, basically.



Team Viking – Paines Plough Roundabout, Edinburgh

[seen 16/08/17]


It’s worth saying at the outset: Team Viking is one of the best things I’ve ever seen. Period.

And, annoyingly for me, it basically doesn’t fit in with a single one of the things that I tend to think I love about theatre, but there we go; brilliance doesn’t have to fit in. Annoyingly for you, last night’s performance was a one-off this year. But I think Team Viking has a hell of a lot of life left in it yet.

It’s basically a long story. Told in first person by James Rowland, who also “wrote” it. [I happened to chat to him afterwards and I don’t think he’d choose “wrote” as the most honest description of how it came into being – more improvised storytelling, transcription, editing, re-editing, re-telling etc. Director Dan Goldman also deserves much credit here, possibly more for a role as chief dramaturg, than for “blocking” but, y’know, whatever it takes, right?]

I’m loathe to give away a single detail of the thing, suffice it to say that it’s about friendship, love and loss, and it’s got more properly brilliant jokes and comic scenarios than it has any right to. It’s your full-on “I laughed, I cried” (I didn’t actually cry, but it’s definitely good for several wellings-up). It’s certainly the best story I’ve heard since Every Brilliant Thing, and – not that stories should ever be a competition – I might even have loved it more than that.

Traditionally, I tend to put in disclaimers round about this point in a review, where I suggest it’s only my opinion, but here it isn’t. It’s objective fact. It is scientifically impossible to not love Team Viking. It should be prescribed on the NHS, it should be put on the curriculum, it should be shown nightly on television (and radio). And it should be dropped on the United States of America as a matter of extreme urgency.

Team Viking really is that good.

The End.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria – EIF, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

[seen 15/08/17]


Ever since I saw David Marton’s wildly deconstructed version of Monteverdi’s proto-opera, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, at the Schaubühne in 2011(?), I’ve been kind of fascinated by it. Not least because I quite wanted to see *everything else*. [Sure. I’ve got old. I sometimes like to see “properly” as well now. Sue me. (tbf, Marton’s version had removed 95% of the music, and I didn’t want to see historical costumes or anything, so I think my former-self can relax)]

This version performed by the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and directed (brillantly) in a semi-staged concert setting by Elsa Rooke is nigh on perfect. [The cheap seats round the side of the Upper Circle, however, are some of the most uncomfortable I’ve ever experienced, however. Brutally uncomfortable, with no leg-room, to the point of absurdity.] And what a strange piece it is. The first half (1hr35) is pretty much entirely made up of new characters being introduced. The “plot,” such as it is, barely moves forward at all. I think we get maybe one or two returns to *really* central characters, but mostly it’s just “Hey, let’s meet *this* new guy now!” Bizarrely, this completely suicidal (not least because of cost) dramatic structure is actually pretty entertaining. Or at least, quite funny. And not unsuccessful. You do get repeatedly drawn in, wondering who all these people are, and whether the plot will ever really kick off. And the music is pretty relentlessly gorgeous, so there’s that too.

Given how old this opera is (1640-ish), and how much it played a part in inventing the form, I was weirdly reminded of Middle Child’s new forays into gig theatre. Indeed, aside from the complete opposite-ends-of-the-musical-spectrum approaches, there is something astonishing about sitting in a hall in Edinburgh watching what is essentially a (largely context free) recreation of the invention of opera and it feeling similarly exciting and inventive now. The instruments used here seem to be largely authentic, early-modern/Renaissance ones, rather than a re-orchestration of Monteverdi’s score, but rather than feeling like this being museum-y for the sake of it, their very tones and unfamiliarity actually act to make the music feel more strange, rather than “more traditional” (Globe modernisers, take note).

In this original-form, you can maybe hear influences from more unexpected sources (maybe a hint of Arabic and perhaps even Balkan/Bulgarian) as well as the more “traditional” “Western” styles that it itself went on to extert influence over. (Geographically, historically, politically, this all makes a lot of sense – and maybe with current events raging so loudly outside/on-our-minds/etc. it’s particularly good to be forcibly reminded that the crucible of “Western” civilisation in the Mediterranean was (x2; both in classical times and during the Renaissance) not just some monolith of “whiteness” (whatever the fuck that’s meant to mean anyway) but a crossroads of cultures, all appropriating each others’ better ideas with nary a thought to political correctness).

So, yeah. What an incredibly rich experience on several different levels. One might wish that, for all its insides are *evocative*, the good people of Edinburgh might consent to having the seating in the Usher Hall made fit for the C21st, and one might also wish that this concert hadn’t been a one-off [although a) it wasn’t full, and b) it still probably sold more tickets than it’s possible for, say, Barrel Organ to sell for their entire run...]. Nevertheless, a far more convincing example of what the International Festival is for than The Divide, by all accounts.

Anyone’s Guess How We Got Here – ZOO, Edinburgh

[seen 15/08/17]


Barrel Organ’s third show is a slight departure-from/reshuffle-of the familiar elements in this unruly, horizonally-organised theatre company. Written by Jack Perkins, directed by Joe Boylan and Dan Hutton, and performed by Bryony Davies and Rosie Gray, with Ali Pidsley on dramaturgy duties, it still somehow manages to feel entirely like a logical next step for this exciting company...

Jack Perkins’s Anyone’s Guess How We Got Here – directed by Joe Boylan and Dan Hutton – is as impressive a New Writing debut as you could hope to see on the Fringe...

Getting the beginning right is a right bugger. In the manner of Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life, Anyone’s Guess How We Got Here allows itself several stabs at a beginning...

Davies and Gray stand on the empty stage and tell us how they’re in a car, tell us how they know each other (several possibilities, is one ever marked out as definitive?), tell us about Robin Hood, tell us about the ending of Thelma and Louise...

Have you been watching the new series of Twin Peaks? For me, it’s been making almost all the theatre I’ve seen since it started seem wilfully, timidly linear. Like, if you haven’t seen and taken on board Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, what’s even the point... Like, if your characters are still basically the same person (i.e. played by the same actor) at the end as they were at the beginning... Like, if you’re not prepared to spin out a shaggy dog story for more or less ever, and then interrupt it halfway through with the most insane, hallucinogenic interventions, then how can you call yourself an artist?

Anyone’s Guess... admirably picks up that Lynch-challenge ball and runs with it well over the touchline. This is a kind of kaleidoscopic, spiralling, fever-dream of a piece. A haunted house story about household debt. A play that manages to conjure an atmosphere of tension and suspense, and then press it into service as an exploration of he human story at the heart of a socio-economic problem. What’s astonishing about the piece is the way that it manages to work on so many levels at once and, by-and-large, make all of them feel satisfying in and of themselves.

As this is Edinburgh (and presumably touring for an age thereafter), I’m loathe to spell out precisely all the things I got from the piece while it’s still such early days. Suffice it to say, that – oddly – over the course of the “credit crunch” and beyond, I don’t remember seeing all that many stories about the actual human cost of household debt (Dennis Kelly’s Love and Money remains an outlier, unless I’m forgetting lots of somethings), and Anyone’s Guess... feels like an important corrective. At the same time, it fits perfectly into Barrel Organ’s oeuvre – proving (yucky word, but) that they really do have an identity *as a collective* which can withstand changes of both writer and director, which feels valuable and exciting in and of itself. It also fits excitingly into the world of contemporary New Writing – easily standing comparison with the work of Alice Birch or Ali McDowall. Similarly, Hutton and Boylan’s direction is fresh and inventive (enhanced brilliantly by Lucy Adams’s lighting and (once again) Kieran Lucas’s superlative sound design). Davies and Gray are also brilliant (and, as per usual with actors, I have no useful adjectives).

But, yeah; if it’s not already clear: Very Much Recommended. Go And See This.