Monday, 20 March 2017

A Decade of Postcards: Attempts on Her Life – National Theatre, 2007

[posted 20/03/07]

It is ten years (TEN YEARS!) since my review of Katie Mitchell’s NT production of Attempts on Her Life was posted pre-Postcards, on (the now-defunct)

Here it is (just in case CultureWars ever disappears):

Written ten years ago, Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life represents one of the high points of experimental theatre, of any theatre, written in the last quarter-century. As the play’s subtitle – Seventeen Scenarios For Theatre – suggests, Attempts... is not a linear narrative. The ‘scenarios’ take various implied forms, from monologues, adverts and pop lyrics through to numerous negotiations between unnamed speakers in unspecified locations, all trying to pin down the nature of an unseen central character: ‘Anne’. This ‘Anne,’ or Anny, or Anushka, appears variously to be a suicidal singles-holiday hostess, an international terrorist, a porn actress, a suicidal modern artist, a refugee and a make of car, among other things. Like I said, it’s non-linear.

In script form, the play is partly an exercise in examining the way words on a page create the ‘reality’ on the stage and the way that directors and actors assign meaning to dialogue. As Crimp does not allocate specific lines to a particular speaker – indeed the script doesn't even indicate the number of actors in the cast – there is no sense in which any production of the piece can ever be definitive. The writing itself is by turns witty, perceptive, cynical, beautiful and cruel. It is so stylistically accomplished that the play is at once both an open invitation to a director and an entity with a clearly defined aesthetic of its own. It is a perplexing, wide-ranging, inconclusive exploration of seemingly endless concerns; simultaneously very English, comfortably European, necessarily trans-Atlantic and truly global.

Katie Mitchell’s production is a logical next-step from her recent devised piece suggested by Virginia Woolf'’s The Waves, seen in the Cottesloe last year. But, where Waves worked on a human scale, and much of the fun was watching the actors close-up creating video and sound effects being projected onto the screen above the stage, Attempts... is altogether more totalitarian in its aesthetic. The screen here totally dominates the stage, to the extent that occasionally performers are playing direct to camera, with their backs to the audience, in near-darkness. It suits the play perfectly; Attempts... is overwhelmingly concerned with the media image - the power of the screen - and this vast, Orwellian display powerfully demonstrates the hold that the projected image can have. The presence of the actors remains vital, however. This is very much a live performance. The fact that you watch the performers create the images live remains absolutely central throughout.

It is rare to see so many outstanding performances in what is ostensibly an ensemble piece; almost every actor shines. They are, by turns, compelling and charming, playful and terrifying, while the negotiation of their relationship to the text, to the stage, to the screen and to the audience is fascinating. The scene changes, controlled by an abrupt alarm siren, suggest performers suddenly forced to improvise their way through telling each portion of the script. Each scene seems to begin with its first speaker off-camera, lost on the stage having to start unexpectedly, as if caught unawares, but knowing that once started they must continue.

The style of the ‘films’ and images created on the stage and projected live onto the vast screen varies wildly, from scenes reminiscent of David Lynch through daytime television chatshow interviews and news bulletins, to the X-Files and press conferences, with a cop show thrown in for good measure. Elsewhere the postmodernism gets cranked up a notch with a brilliantly funny pastiche of well-known pop videos. There is also pitch-perfect Newsnight Review parody with Liz Kettle offering a hilarious impression of a certain Australian feminist critic. Another scene - ‘The Camera Loves You’ - has been turned into a rock song [see above], complete with brilliantly absurd video in which Paul Ready strikes Hamlet poses, while Zubin Varla slips into a full-on post-punk growl and Claudie Blakely proves an astonishingly good drummer. The moment she sits at the drum kit and kicks off is electrifying. It’s not often you find avant garde theatre that makes you want to stage dive.

The production is unafraid to veer wildly from extremes of parody to genuine horror. The overall effect is like being hit by a force ten gale. It is so concentrated, there is such a media overload, that it is nigh-on impossible to process all the ideas with which you are assaulted.

This is, without a doubt, the best thing currently showing in a theatre in London. It is also the first production in the National’s excellent Travelex £10 ticket season. To reiterate: if you can get a Travelex ticket before they all sell out, the best show in London only costs £10. It is essential viewing. Go.

Re-reading it now, I’m pleasantly surprised that I still stand by pretty much every word (except “Orwellian”. Tsk.) I’m struck by how differently I’d probably write about the show now – probably with more detail and less insistence on its excellence in every single line – but back then I think I was probably still engaged in a project of just trying to write “proper” reviews, but with better opinions in them. Not such a dishonourable project, although I notice that my economic wordcount means there’s less detail than I’d like now.

In my short piece “Martin and Me” (Contemporary Theatre Review, v.24, issue 3), I tried to explain why the production meant so much to me:

“Thanks to the sheer poor taste of Britain’s professional critics in 2007, the National Theatre didn’t have much by way of ‘good notices’ to post on their website, so they led with mine. It was the first time anything I’d ever written had been used for publicity. A few weeks later I was reading Encore Theatre Magazine’s piece about the Dead White Males debacle and there was a comment – written by someone I’d never met – saying that my review was more intelligent and perceptive than the rest of them put together. That was the first time I’d ever had a sense of anyone beyond my friends reading what I wrote, let alone thinking it was good...

“As such, I’ve always felt I owed rather a lot to that performance of Attempts on her Life. It wasn’t that it gave me a bit of confidence in what I was doing; more, it gave me a sense of purpose. Here was the best thing that I’d ever seen in a theatre and Every Single Broadsheet Critic had disliked it. I accept not everyone will love the same things as me, but this was a situation where the views of myself, most of my friends, and clearly a huge number of other theatregoers, were entirely unrepresented by the critics. The situation needed to be changed...”

But, really, it’s not the review that means a lot to me, it’s still the show. Obviously. (What kind of idiot/ego-monster prefers their review to a show they loved?) It still feels, ten years later, like it was the first time I saw a “mainstream” show in England and thought FUCK, YES. THIS IS WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT. I don't think that feeling ever goes away, really.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

City of Glass – HOME, Manchester

[seen 09/03/17]

It’s maybe interesting to reflect sometimes on the sort of review you’d have written about a particular piece of theatre at various earlier stages in one’s life.

First, I’ll be up-front and honest and admit that I didn’t *love* City of Glass. If I had, I’d doubtless be writing exactly the sort of rave I just wrote about Hamlet a week ago, or about Attempts on Her Life a decade ago.

Probably a long time ago, before I knew any of the people involved in making City of Glass, and when I seemed to take every piece of theatre I didn’t like personally, I can imagine an earnest, arch, scathing, attack-review which would have probably held Duncan Macmillan and 59 Productions wholly responsible for destroying all of contemporary British theatre with technology. (Sorry, Complité!) In my defence, back then it wasn’t unreasonable for me to recognise that, in terms of power dynamics, I was nothing, nowhere. Any punching I did would necessarily be upwards.

I can imagine another sort of review a few years later, probably when I was living in Berlin, where I’d have conducted an pretty unfair, largely unsubstantiated, complete character assassination of [in this case, Paul Auster], based largely on my incomplete attempt to once read New York Stories in 1999, and on the story of City of Glass (the first story in that book) as it is presented in this production. It’s true that neither my 1999 self, nor my 2010 self, nor my now-self, especially get on with City of Glass. None of us get on with If On A Winter’s Night, A Traveller by Italo Calvino either, nor with Umberto Eco particularly. And that’s the sort of tricksy (and, we’d say empty) literary postmodernism we’re looking at in the source material. Obviously it’s hugely highly regarded by many people, but taste is a difficult thing, and there we are. At this point, I don’t think I had a great deal more “power” as a reviewer, and punches could be traded on a more-or-less equal basis; which might go some way to explaining the level of savagery, if not fully excusing it.

Another sort of review, a couple of years after that – forged in the surprisingly febrile, post-Three Kingdoms blogosphere world populated by Maddy Costa and Jake Orr’s Dialogue Project, and the genesis of “embedded criticism” – might now be termed “proto-snowflake reviewing”; criticism wrestling with the problem of how to talk about work which, for one reason or another, hadn’t fully worked for the critic. (Sorry, Sam Pritchard! Still, that all worked out in the end, right?) I suppose by that stage, the balance of power was felt to have shifted. That bloggers clearly had some degree of influence, and one had to try to behave with something that faintly resembled responsibility. Or, more than that, there was a desire to be better in our ethics than the mainstream critics. We couldn’t very well accuse them of being cheap and irresponsible if we also were. So there was now also deemed to be a down where we didn’t go punching. Even if there was also still an up... Perhaps the approaches of 2012 still hold sway a bit here. Here I am, five years later, still trying to be mature and responsible which not especially having liked a thing (I mean, it’s fine; I didn’t hate City of Glass or anything...)

Another approach from around that time was the ever so slightly snarky reviewed-in-the-style-of review. Cf. Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information (still possibly the best thing I've ever written by a country mile). In the story, a man receives a phone call for Paul Auster, a private detective. Later the man meets Paul Auster, the writer. Paul Auster, the (necessarily) fictional writer who shares the name of the story’s author, tells the man about a paper he’s written about how Don Quixote is written by Don Quixote’s friends to prove to him that he’s mad. Or not mad. Or something. (Ok, I wasn’t concentrating hard enough.) I considered writing this review as a story in which I was erroneously contacted as Duncan Macmillan, the critic, and ended up writing this review he'd been commissioned to write of City of Glass to see what would happen. Instead, I’ve indulged in an altogether different sort of bibliographical exercise in monstrous self-regard, which possibly also echoes my feelings on Auster’s novella.

Later still – perhaps circa 2014 – I’d maybe have prefaced my review of Duncan’s adaptation by demonstrating exhaustively that I was the only critic in the UK actually equipped to put this piece into the context of Macmillan’s extensive body of adaptations. Sure, everyone saw 1984, but literally no other bugger saw Reise Durch Die Nacht or Wunschloses unglück did they? (and probably people forget that he “wrote” Forbidden Zone and 2071...). I would have argued that without seeing at least Reise... or ...unglück it was impossible to really appreciate how this adaptation could have worked... But, I’ve hopefully matured beyond that sort of point-scoring now.

In the end, we need to get down to facts (or at least, things I definitely thought): I thought it was a valuable experiment for the company.

I think there are still fundamental problems in theatre for the meshing of live actors with fixed, digitally-created video projections. I think this project highlighted those problems more than it solved them. That said, I think it was infinitely more sophisticated and successful in its use of video than A Disappearing Number 10 years ago. I have no doctrinal objections to people trying to get video and liveness integrated. On the other hand, how would I have solved the problems of this production? By getting the actors to work with just the script  and a director for four weeks, and by having the thing performed on an stage that was empty except for a big white square wall in the middle of the blackness, behind which they could disappear when needed.

But I still don’t think the story would have especially appealed to me. Not completely sure why, and groping for rationales tends to make one come out with silly, rather absolutist-sounding statements (probably – in this case – about America, white, male privilege, and all the sordid rest of it). By the end of the review, I’d have probably ended up blaming Auster for Trump. Which would be silly.

In the end, I’d much rather have been Brian Gorman, writing for ReviewsHub, who seems to have absolutely loved City of Glass and writes about with real enthusiasm and verve.  

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Shorts: Much blunted purpose...

[: on Hamlet...]

I meant to write this piece about a week ago, but instead – aptly – I just kept thinking about doing it instead of actually doing it.

The point of this piece is to try to pin down the meaning of the one scene in Rob Icke’s Hamlet that neither I, nor Michael Billington, nor several of my friends, properly understood. It is Act 3, scene iii. Specifically it’s the bit where Hamlet comes across Claudius, essentially talking to himself about having murdered his brother, Hamlet’s father.

Traditionally, the scene is played with the actor playing Claudius probably facing out to the audience (or a bit sideways, if it’s a fourth wall, psychological realism production), with the actor playing Hamlet creeping in somewhere where Claudius obviously can’t see him. Claudius says his bit, and Hamlet tells us, the audience, that he could kill Claudius there and then, but since he’s praying, that’s no kind of revenge, because Claudius killed Old Hamlet before he’d had a chance to confess his sins. Played like this, I’ve always thought Hamlet’s reasoning was pretty sound. But that belief hinges entirely on everything that’s been said to Hamlet being true. Essentially, it hinges on believing – at least in the world of the play – in ghosts.

In Icke’s production (at least on press night – for all I know, the scene may now have undergone a bit of tweaking since I saw it), Claudius and Hamlet play the scene facing each other. And, for the only time in the play, I was unsure who could see whom. I didn’t know what was meant to be real, and what wasn’t. Which I found interesting. Not least because in all other respects, the production is marked by a startling clarity.

It’s not the first time that Icke has brought his own logic, plus his cinema-literate thinking, to bear on a classic text. In his Oresteia, Icke – perhaps irritable with inconsistencies between the position of Electra in the Oresteia, and in the play Electra, and in other versions of the story – seemed to imply that maybe there was no Electra. That Orestes only had one sister, Iphigenia, who had been murdered by their father, Agamemnon. In order to avenge Agamemnon’s subsequent murder by Clytemnestra – Agamemnon’s wife, Orestes’s mother, Iphigenia’s mother – he creates another sister, outraged by the murder of her father, to help him tip the balance of justice and convince himself to murder his own mother in revenge for her murder of his father. We see, on stage, what only Orestes can see in his mind. Here, I wonder if the same device is used, with the purpose and thinking almost exactly reversed.

It was Andrzej Łukowski in his Time Out review, who offered possibly the strongest reading of Icke’s Hamlet from the initial batch of reviews – it is a Hamlet that does not believe Claudius killed Old Hamlet. (I’m also indebted in this piece to the thoroughness and rigour of Florence Bell’s review.) It’s a compelling thesis, and thinking about it certainly opens up ways for thinking about how 3.iii operates.

Consider this: there is no proof that Claudius murders Old Hamlet except that Hamlet is told so by a ghost, and then this confession. Claudius’s exit – across the stage in this production – at The Mousetrap (The Murder of Gonzago) could simply be down to his being royally fucked off with Hamlet’s shit (as Andrzej memorably put it on Twitter). So there are only two real “proofs”.

The Ghost in Icke’s production is ambiguous. Something happens, clearly, because Hamlet isn’t the only person who “sees” it. At least, Horatio, Marcellus, and some guards see a ghost in their machine, but on screen only, and silent. Only Hamlet sees The Ghost on stage. And he can embrace it. Clap his hands on it. Have a loving father-son embrace with it. Should that alert us to the idea that this isn’t how ghosts are meant to exist? Is this ghost a phantasm of Hamlet’s misery; a conjuration of his mind so tangible to him that he can hold it? It’s notable, for example, that this ghost never exhorts the others to swear the oath that Hamlet offers them. As well as no one else ever seeing the “live” (on-stage) ghost, no one else ever hears it either. Is Icke telling us to stop being so silly? That ghosts aren’t real, we damn well know it, and to watch the play like sensible moderns? Or at least, is that one reading he’s now made strongly available to us? It strikes me as plausible.

From this then proceeds a possible answer to what’s happening in 3.iii. This Claudius too, could be a live fragment from Hamlet’s mind. A thinking-through by the Danish prince of what he’d do if he could kill Claudius, who all the while is confessing to his crime.

I even wonder if the fact that the scene does feel unclear when you first see it isn’t ultimately more helpful to audiences than a more signposted, spoonfeedy version would be. It’s this scene, and not knowing how to pin it down, that has made me think harder about what Icke might be saying with his Hamlet than any other scene – most of which I just “enjoyed”. Rather than being a mistake, it feels like it might be a necessary rupture in the whole that forces us to think about what it is we’re watching. The glitch that draws attention to the constructedness of the perfection around it.

Having said all that, I’d still be really fascinated to read Icke (or Scott, or Wright)’s own explanations for what they’re doing in that moment, at some point in the future.

Still listening to this, btw:

*apologies for the horrible visual pun in the cover photo.  

The Suppliant Women – ATC/Lyceum at the Royal Exchange, Manchester

[seen 15/03/17]

Having already seen one version of Aeschylus’s Ἱκέτιδες (Die Schutzbefohlenen) – albeit unrecognisable in its adaptation by Elfriede Jelinek – re-tooled as “The Migrant Crisis Play For Our Times,” I suppose I went in here thinking I knew what to expect; some Ancient Hmming and Greek Hawing that ends up delivering a strong message of compassion and universal love for our fellow humans.


So wrong!

Within moments of Lyceum (Edinburgh) Artistic Director David Greig’s new version of the text starting – a version admittedly crammed with modern usages of “migrant” and “asylum” – we are a) forcibly reminded that this is a play from ancient Greece, and b) that the Ancient Greeks cherished a very different values to us. (If “us” can even still be said to cherish just one set of values.) Yes, there are also similarities of situation, but the basic culture to which they are happening is also immeasurably different to ours in its assumptions. In part it is the differences that make this evening so compelling.

The Story of The Suppliant Women, we are told, is the only surviving play from a trilogy (Wikipedia says Tetralogy, including the Satyr play Amymone). It is the first play. Only one word of the second play remains (some bloke’s name, apparently), and only thirteen lines of the final play, which are read to us. In this first play, a group of women have sailed to Argos from Ägypt, to escape being forcibly married to the sons of Ägyptos, who are also their cousins. Of course, with the news filled with stories of ISIS, Boko Haram – forced “marriages” amounting precisely to rape – and the continuing flight of refugees from those countries, it isn’t much of a stretch to find contemporary resonances here. Which is what makes the rest of the play so surprising.

The second play of the trilogy apparently depicts the complete destruction of Argos by the Egyptians, who appear towards the end of The Suppliant Women, demanding the return of “their women” by the Greeks. This fact, which we are told in the opening moments of the play – a fact which Greek audiences would have known from the get go, as surely we know the ending of Hamlet – informs the entire progress of the play. With our 20:20 hindsight, we watch knowing that the Greek King, Pelagus, is in an impossible situation. The suppliants claim the protection of Zeus – which is probably more effective than making an appeal to the conscience of a male King in a slave-owning “democracy” wherein women cannot vote. But we still hear their pleas with our 21st century ears, and it seems that the ancient king behaves more nobly and humanely than our own dismal leadership. However, we also know that in doing so, he has sealed his city’s fate. But then, we also know that not doing so would have also damaged the city beyond measure (because you don’t fuck around with Zeus). So, what possible lesson can be learned here? What conclusion for our own times can possibly be discerned? There is part of me that would argue that this is a tension also present in the production; between Greig’s compassionate text and Gray’s dispassionate understanding of the Greeks’ original fatalism.

There are other fascinating aspects to the play, too. The woman’s understandable reluctance to marry their violent male cousins turns out to be a wider part of a strange sort of cult of virginity, apparently instituted by their father, Danaos – so when they finally meet their hosts, the Greek citizens, they essentially greet them with a sharp and pre-emptive refusal to marry a single one of them. Danaos – in a fascinating speech – entreats them all to behave mildly and courteously toward their hosts, but instead they stick to their abrasive guns (as is their right, of course).

So, yes. It’s a far more knotty and difficult play than I had been imagining. Certainly there’s no happy take-home here re: “be nice to refugees”. Instead, if The Suppliant Women has “a message” it’s pretty much “hope that no refugees ever turn up in the first place. If they do, you have to take them, and taking them ensures your destruction.” I can imagine certain alt.right politicians taking great comfort from this play. Little surprise, of course, since the alt.right pretty much models itself on Roman fascism, which took its roots from Greek civilisation. Perhaps the real contradiction of the play, then, is not about refugees at all, but in the women’s plea to be saved from “MALE VIOLENCE,” when what they’re really calling for is far superior military violence on the part of their saviours. Have the military strength necessary to uphold your highest principals, might be another uncomfortable (but indisputable) take-home message here. No surprise either, of course; the history of the century in which the play was written is the history of near non-stop military strikes and counter-strikes between the Mediterranean micro-states that have now been ludicrously configured by the Steve Bannons of this world as Orient and Occident.

Almost irrespective of all the above – and perhaps this is another stroke of Ramin Gray’s production’s genius – the performance itself feels somehow at once defiant and celebratory.

The production itself is fascinating. After what has recently felt like a complete capitulation by British Theatre to the Icke and Mitchell approach to The Greeks, Gray here creates a production which while also entirely contemporary, is also almost the exact opposite to those productions. Gone are the detailed naturalistic modern interiors and expensive-looking props and costumes. Here instead is a genius-simple breezeblock parquet floor (Lizze Clachan; top of her game) and colourful rehearsal-room (or Glastonbury) fatigues. Instead of Icke’s painstaking atheist excisions and rewritings into glassy/steely RP, Greig’s text instead sinuously wrangles the ancient Greek (Gods ‘n’ all) into a warm granite of modern British demotic.

Most of all, though, where Mitchell and Icke turn the plays of Aeschylus into modern dramatic theatre, Gray, along with composer John Browne, return to the text something like the ancient music that is thought to have originally accompanied these plays.

(Neither approach is *better*, btw. Both work beautifully. “Yay!” for More Than One Thing Working! Go, contrast!)

The composition of the performing corps is also interesting. As you may know, all but five of the cast are volunteers from the local community. Something like 30 young women, 15 young men, and a further 20 or so people playing the citizens of Argos. I mean, quite apart from anything else, it’s just brilliant to see choruses this size in anything. And, at the Exchange, they fill the stage completely. It vaguely strikes me that far, far more plays should be made like this. The approach also works because these are not mere supernumeraries – the chorus of suppliant women themselves constitute most of the playing time of the piece.

But, most important of all, they are not static. (Not that I mind static choruses.) But, no. Not here. Choreographer Sasha Milavic Davies has created a stunning kinetic sculpture of a thing here. The chorus of suppliant women have an almost endless drilled routine that ranges in reference from modern contemporary dance to Beyoncé’s Lemonade visual album. Cleverly put together so that it can practically be danced by untrained volunteers, it still looks about as impressive as anything you’ll see on the theatre stage by way of movement. (And, most crucially for theatre “movement”, it doesn’t once look like it owes a single thing to the execrable visual daubings of Frantic Assembly. Please – if nothing else – let this be that end of that overlong dependency. It wasn’t even good to begin with, but it’s been fifteen fucking years now...)

The net result of all these elements colliding is remarkable. The production elements: the music, the choreography, the acting (I’ve hardly mentioned the main actors – they are very strong, clear, funny. Sympathetic-and-not-sympathetic at once... Really clever, understated performances), the design, the community/volunteer element... And all this in service of a strange, savage, incomplete, myterious play of uncertain purpose. Perhaps that’s the most exciting thing of all. Unlike so much of what we’re given on stage in Britain, which *hints quite heavily* at what the playwright and/or director might want us to think, here we have a piece of uncertainty for our deeply uncertain times. It’s a production which takes the risk of people drawing “the wrong conclusions”. Audiences could legitimately go away from this piece having had their far-right prejudices confirmed. The challenge it offers to a thinking left-wing audience is what do we do with this difficult piece of humanity’s ancient past?

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Government attempts to shut down controversial production...

[published 13/03/17]

Written for The Stage.

(I've reinstated the headline I originally suggested for the piece here. But, frankly, having it published the day that Lyn Gardner announces her Theatre Blogs are to be cut by 150 a year rather swallowed up any hope that anyone will have read it, no matter how what the headline was.)

Monday, 13 March 2017

Hansel and Gretel – Opera North at the Lowry Centre, Salford

[seen 08/03/17]

There’s an essay in the programme for Edward Dick’s new production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1893 opera, Hänsel und Gretel, written by musicologist Andrew Mellor, which begins thus: “In a field as full of bristling ideology and argument as 19th-century opera, it’s rare to come across a work that everybody seems to adore. But for some reason, we all love Hansel and Gretel...” Reading it just after watching the piece, I thought: yes, that’s exactly right.

I’m a long way from being an authority on C19th opera, but the rest of this essay also seemed to confirm/make sense of the feelings and/or questions I’d had about the music while watching. Essentially: is this what Wagner would sound like with all the ‘I’m also a massive wanker’ taken out? Yes it is. Apparently Humperdinck and Wagner were mates, and the latter clearly had a musical influence over the former. But Humperhinck was also mates with Richard Strauss (who conducted the world première of the piece in Weimar in 1893) and Gustav Mahler (who conducted the Hamburg première in 1894).

Placed in the Lowry’s Lyric Theatre – its curiously coloured, high-vaulted barn of a room, probably better designed as a postmodern stop-off for wandering West End musicals – perhaps the fine detail of the music suffers slightly. But this was the first time I’d ever heard it, I had nothing to compare it with, and I was still able to think it was incredibly lovely, so, y’know...

The main question I had, coming out of the piece was: WHY HAVE I BEEN ALLOWED TO GET TO THE AGE OF FORTY WITHOUT EVER HAVING HEARD THIS?*

Then there’s the production. And, bloody hell... I came out close to swearing that this is the best staging of an opera I’ve ever seen. I mean, “operas I’ve seen” isn’t such a huge field, but nonetheless, there it is: Ed Dick’s Hansel and Gretel seems, to me, to be certainly one of the most impressive marriage of music, staging, and intellectual content/concept/conceits that I’ve ever seen.

It’s helped by the fact that the music is Very Good Indeed, but nosing around on YouTube afterward so I could listen to it again, I did come across enough videos of other stagings to convince me that it isn’t *just* the music that carries it by a very long chalk.

Apparently the design of the show (Giles Cadle) – at root, a very bog-standard, three-walled room – is common to all three fairy tale-themed pieces in Opera North’s winter season. The highest compliment I can pay to its appearance here is that I would have sworn blind that it was purpose built for this exact show, and I can’t imagine the production having a better set. It’s a rarity in British Opera production, because it doesn’t go out of its way to look expensive. Not even expensively grungy. And into this room, Dick and Cadle (plus pitch-perfect costumes: Christina Cunningham) fling the ruins of Brexit Britain, making this Hansel and Gretel not only contemporary but urgent. There’s no silly attempt at mapping everything onto C19th Germany, just odd, funny, often even ridiculous little tweaks (the brushes that H&G are making are union-flag-emblazoned cheap plastic brooms for Brexit celebrations), which remind us of the world we’re living in, which situate the characters in an all too comprehensible framework, but which In. No. Way. interferes with the immediacy of the story or the music. It’s very well done. (Like Icke’s Hamlet, the contemporaneity helps the thing be more like itself today.)

And then there’s the use of video (Ian William Galloway). Yes, yes. I know. We’ve seen video used before. But then, we’ve seen flats painted to look like the inside of houses before too, so moaning about video qua video is pretty much the dumbest thing imaginable. The question is, how’s it used? And the answer here is: about as intelligently as I’ve seen on the British stage. Actually, scratch British; it’d be intelligent anywhere (just less surprising that this was the case on the mainland). It starts out as a handheld camera that H&G use to film each other, live-projected onto the back wall of the set. It feels realistic enough (although the thought occurs that if that family are quite this poor, they could probably feed themselves for a while off the proceeds from the sale of their state-of-the-art camcorder...), but we can maybe not take it too literally.

In any event, this is just the start of it. When H&G leave their parents’ high rise council flat for a forage in the woods, they create the woods themselves by zooming the camera through tacky Christmas decoration trees that their father evidently stockpiles and sells on (when not flogging Brexit brooms). These xmas decorations, filmed close up, and projected onto the blank walls of the flat, become the forest they’re standing in. And then, for another scene change [sorry, bit spoilery...] to the witch’s house, they simply zoom into a fridge stuffed with sugary snacks and fizzy drinks which – projected onto the walls on the stage – become the interior or the witch’s gingerbread house.

The kitschy, trashy aesthetic seems to me to serve multiple purposes at once. On one hand, it provides a semi- social commentary – although, crucially, not one which judges children who live in council flats and like eating sweets – and at the same time, provides precisely the necessary burst of seductive colour to contrast with the drab life of poverty, and the chilly exterior of the forest. It allows the whole to feel like both German art-house theatre (think Castorf and Pollesch) AND British Panto. AT THE SAME TIME. And, more than this, to function as both simultaneously. With no loss of clarity or compromise to integrity of either. Now, if that’s not a bloody neat trick, I don’t know what is. I can’t remember the last time I saw something function so perfectly on at least two level at once.

(Oh, and I should just put in a note here to remind myself, if no one else, that there was a section of pure video footage that played over an interlude/prelude showing young Hansel and Gretel on holiday at the seaside with their gran, and it was ludicrously moving and powerful. Way beyond what was probably intended, but, yeah. Oof.)

The key to the production’s overall success, I suspect, is the binding agent of Humperhinck’s music. It is both jolly and beautiful. Worthy of both enjoyment and respect. And what Dick’s staging does it allow all the possibilities to exist at the same time – alongside some of the clearest storytelling and acting-in-opera that I’ve ever seen. I mean, how often, really, do you see an opera (performed in English, as here) where you really don’t need to read the surtitles?

So, yes. More like this, please. Lots more.

[Also, respect to the Lowry for having the most diverse audience I’ve ever seen in an English opera. Possibly it’s something to do with the fact that NO TICKETS are prohibitively expensive? Who knew?]

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Hamlet – Almeida, Islington

[seen 28/02/17]

[I’m going to talk about the whole thing; for the benefit of people who won’t get to see it, for posterity, and so I don’t forget anything I loved in the future. There will probably be spoilers]

Robert Icke’s new production of Hamlet for the Almeida is beautiful.

Hildegard Bechtler’s design is simple, minimal, and modern, with maybe a slight hint of those Scandinavian BBC4 box-sets (chiefly The Bridge and Borgen) that have re-awoken the British ability to sit through four hours of something with only a couple of loo breaks. There is a simple corridor of parallel glass walls upstage, and an elegant Nordic-looking corner-sofa downstage right. There is an expensively tasteful floor lamp, and a couple of chairs which come on and off as required. There’s also a CCTV monitoring desk, and panel of large televisions which rise and fall from the flies. Natasha Chivers’s lighting mostly has a cold pale glare to it.

This isn’t just a modern-dress Hamlet. As with his translations of Oresteia and Uncle Vanya, Icke has unshowily cleaned up Shakespeare’s early-modern English; trimming and re-wording where the passage of 400 years has rendered words or phrases obsolete or impenetrable. (So long, “chalice for the nonce.”) The effect is one of complete comprehensibility (even if “fardels” does make the cut). For a four-hour show (inc. two fifteen minute intervals, endearingly spaced thus: 1hr55, 35mins, 55mins), and one which normally features at least two and a half characters whose chief characteristics are wind-baggery and tedium, this feels a remarkably lean Hamlet.

Robert Icke’s Hamlet is also brilliant.

The cast of this Hamlet must be one of the best ever assembled. Still in the afterglow, I’m pretty willing to say this has absolutely the best Ophelia I’ve ever seen (Jessica Brown-Findlay, unrecognisable from Uncle Vanya or Oresteia), the best Polonius (Peter Wight), and definitely the best Claudius by a country-mile (Angus Wright). Juliet Stevenson is a revelation of quiet understatement, reaction and “truthfulness” as Gertrude. Hell, it probably also has the best Guildenstern (Amaka Okafor), the best Reynaldo (Daniel Rabin) and far and away the best Gravedigger (Barry Aird). And even those I’ve not named above have also apparently erased my memories of anyone else I’ve seen ever playing their parts, suc h was the strength of their characterisations.

The chief virtue here is the meticulous unpicking of all the bullshit stage convention baggage that the text has picked up over the centuries. Take Ophelia, for example. You know how she’s almost always a whiny drip with the most insanely irritating voice in the universe? Not here. Brown-Findlay behaves exactly as you’d imagine a posh girl at the beginning of a relationship with the heir to the Danish throne would behave. She’s credible and steely. Nothing is overplayed. The rapid pace of the thing means we never really dwell on what’s happening to her. She’s quickly bundled into this plot to spy on Hamlet by Claudius and her father, Hamlet has his suspicions from the outset, they have a row and her reaction – anger and shame – is etched all over her face. His injustice and her culpability sit irresolvably side-by-side.

Similarly, Peter Wight doesn’t do a single one of Those Polonius Things That Actors Do. He’s like An Actual Person. As if Icke sat down with a red pen and crossed out every last one those agonising Theatre Laughs. The thing you realise, sitting down to write about it, is that all these characters also resist the usual simplistic adjectival filing. You can’t say Wight’s Polonius is “ponderous” or “tedious” nor is he “bluff” or “businesslike” instead. He’s like the man he is. Wight’s not playing a rag-bag of tics and contrivances, he’s a man in a room with a situation to deal with and the way he’s going to deal with it happens to have been written down in 1599. It seems simple when you say it out loud; but if it’s so simple, why does it happen so rarely?

And, again, Angus Wright – I’m pretty sure I have seen Claudiuses who have “downplayed the villainy” before, but this version leaves those others at the understatement starting gate. He’s sympathetic and charismatic; a decisive leader and a loving husband. Wright also has the blessing of an amazing voice and is strangely beautiful – one of the most endlessly watchable and plausible actors there is.

Similarly – Christ! – the way that conventions of scenes are laid to waste... Too numerous to name them all, but, the way the gravedigger scene (for example) is basically played completely straight is just glorious. They say what felt like most of the words, but in ways that I’ve never seen or imagined them played before. The scene isn’t just one of those appalling things you wish they’d cut, but instead this almost completely new idea, fresh insights, quiet, reflective sadness...

[I’m sure some other productions – possibly ones I didn’t see – might have done some of these things before. The above simply reflects how it felt watching it last night.]

Robert Icke’s Hamlet is indescribably sad.

The greatest virtue of Andrew Scott’s Hamlet is – how to put this? – the strength of his character trajectory. Of course his performance is electric. Of course. At first glance it’s more or less precisely what you’d expect when you’re first asked to imagine Andrew Scott as Hamlet. We know his voice, we know how he acts. He’s one of those actors whose cadences feel instantly familiar. And “right”. But there’s so much more going on here than just “Andrew Scott giving his Hamlet”. As you’d expect from a production that rigorously redefines the Hamlet rulebook, there’s an acute psychological through-line here that makes fresh sense of every word in the play.

It is striking to me that the last Hamlet I saw on stage was Katie Mitchell’s in Ophelias zimmer. One of Mitchell’s on-record impetuses for making Ophelias zimmer is her intense concern that Hamlet is a) a misogynist, and b) that this misogynist is allowed to stand as a towering anthemic hero of angry depressed manhood. While I wouldn’t argue that that reading is certainly available, I think Icke and Scott mount a sterling case for the defence against it. Scott’s Hamlet is emphatically not heroic. Gone is the brilliant vulpine swagger of David Tennant’s reading (which I adored too, btw). Here instead is a thoughtful person who in-the-moment is a reactive victim of circumstance. A person who is allowed to be complicated.

What feels different here is that Hamlet isn’t – and isn’t even pretending – to be on top of the situation. If you think of all those Hamlets you’ve seen who are all dashing and courageous and somehow admirable... Scott is instead far more fully immersed in himself and in his situation. His Hamlet is not fronting anything out. He is utterly miserable. When he sees the ghost of his father, his performance cuts through all his talking to the fact that HE’S JUST SEEN THE GHOST OF HIS FATHER AND OMFG. If there is something noble about this Hamlet, it’s that he has the strength not to try to pretend he’s feeling any better than he is. He’s actually a lot more honest. Indeed, his reassurances that he is “mad but north north-west” feel much more like someone trying to weigh up the disparity between still being able to string a sentence together and behave normally and the maelstrom of mental illness that they are also suffering. It feels to me like an incredibly acute portrayal of what being Hamlet might actually really feel like in the C21st.

The saddest moment of all, though, is the point in the wordless duel – beautifully underscored by Dylan’s ‘Not Dark Yet’ – where Stevenson’s Gertrude drinks the poisoned glass of wine. The looks between her and Hamlet, her and Claudius, and Claudius and Hamlet, are where you suddenly see that everyone has lost. Wright’s Claudius looks hollowed out by grief – loses the will to live, let alone “win”. What would be the point now? What would he have won? And Scott’s Hamlet sees all this. And knows, somehow, that his time is also nearly up. Indeed, it looks like the only victory is Gertrude’s. She at least pulls together some agency and decisive dignity in an impossible situation. Even the way the killings happen feels new, intelligent and contemporary. Hamlet barely scratches Claudius, because that’s all he needs to do. It’s not a dramatic finale, it’s a sad, resigned, human moment.

Robert Icke’s Hamlet is full of ideas.

There are Hamlet’s ideas. Obviously. Tonnes of them. Quite a lot of Hamlet is Hamlet telling us his ideas. In Scott’s portrayal they seem to tumble out of his mouth, out of his brain; disordered, unfinished. Works-in-progress, half-ideas. He trails off from unfinished thoughts, turns declamations into throwaways. And the decisions about what is what always feel sharp and accurate.

But there are also our ideas. The process of watching this Hamlet for me felt, in part, like a series of “Ooh! They’ve done That! They’ve stopped doing This like That! Ohh, That’s Very Clever...” For Four Hours. And it does make you think. Mostly about the play, and about the situations in the play. (A couple of nice touches – Guildenstern is now a black woman that Hamlet used to have a thing with. She’s now seeing Rosencrantz. This works beautifully with the text, and adds a few new neatly observed amusing moments. It also makes Claudius’s apparent inability to tell tall, white, beardy, male Rosencranz from short, black, female Guildenstern much funnier than the usual tedious Theatre Laugh gag.)

I didn’t feel any especial contemporary parallels being drawn out. And – unusually for me and Hamlet – I didn’t feel some sort of wild, lurching over-identification with the protagonist (it’s nice to think at 40 I might have grown out of my Hamlet phase). No. This is simply, a very sad story about some people in Denmark. Where this production draws its metaphysical extra dimension from is from a rather dizzying feeling of this living act of theatre connecting you tangentially with 400 years of culture, and the fact of just how good it is. It’s an odd thought, but possibly the things that [the vast majority of] last night’s audience seemed to experience most strongly collectively were pride and gratitude. Which, God knows, have been in especially short supply for the last eight months or so.

For all its contemporaneity, and intelligence, and deft little touches, this is – you could say – something like a very “pure” Hamlet. There’s no grand concept except maybe: “people might have been doing this play wrong for quite a while”. The production doesn’t feel like some monstrous regie-intervention (which would also have been fine with me, btw), but rather an intelligent, astringent clean up job. If this Hamlet feels new, it’s because you can see things in it clearly again, like the whole thing has been scrubbed and exfoliated, or sandblasted, or something.

[I seem to have got through this entire review without mentioning the watches, or that one scene Michael didn’t get (and if I’m honest, I’m not especially sure I came up with a particularly good rationale for how that scene worked myself. It just didn’t bother me much that I hadn’t). They were there. I saw them. I appreciated them. Maybe they’re the thing I won’t spoiler. Maybe the former, and also the penultimate scene with the dead bodies, ascended – aptly enough – to some sort of Wittgenstein Tractatus 7 plane.]

So there we have it: beautiful, brilliant, sad, ideas.

A quietly thrilling, fiercely intelligent Hamlet for the modern world. And maybe also something that we can hang on to and cherish in these horrible times in which we live.


Heartbreaking song from show: