Wednesday, 25 May 2016

4.48 Psychosis – ROH at Lyric, Hammersmith

[seen 24/05/16]

This ROH world première of Philip Venables’s 4.48 Psychosis is a game of two concurrent halves. What? Well, there’s the music and there’s the fucking staging.

The music is interesting; a lot of it is astonishing.

Ted Huffman’s production, on the other hand, is shockingly, shockingly bad. I mean: unbelievably inept. Grossly, offensively terrible. The temptation is to reach for similies – the dramatic work of schoolchildren springs to mind – but, fuck me, that’s insulting to the fine imaginative skills and good faith of schoolchildren. To call it unimaginative would be a wicked understatement. It’s like an imaginative black hole. Not only devoid of imagination, but also sucking imagination out of the surrounding space. You can’t imagine how something so resoundingly dreadful was allowed to happen on the stage, and you stop being able to imagine anything else happening instead; your eyes inexorably drawn back to the aching nothingness...

But hyperbole solves nothing. We need precision. What happens is this:

The orchestra are placed on a raised platform at the rear of the stage. The front half of the stage is bounded by room-height white walls. There are three doors – one in each wall. The door in the rear wall has opaque glass in it. Light sometimes shines through this in between scenes to confusing/little effect. When the other doors are opened, light sometimes shines from them too. Several wooden chairs and a couple of tables are brought out maybe twenty minutes into the piece (90 minutes, no interval). The chairs are left out for a bit, thrown about gently, and then later stacked against the back wall. At another point, some colourful clothes fall from the flies. These sit around on the floor and then they’re put in a pair of cardboard boxes and taken off. (Design: Hannah Clark)

The cast is sort of a chorus, sort of not. There are 6 of them. The one who comes on first (Gweneth-Ann Rand, who is the only BAME cast member. I’m reasonably sure that’s not meant to be significant, which in itself seems very significant), sort of turns out to be the person who stands in for the person who has depression (if it’s one person) in 4.48 Psychosis. The others are variously, supplementary her, sitting in for “the doctor” (if it’s one doctor), and – what? – some people all milling about in a big white room with inadequate lighting, all dressed in the same dark grey slouchy cardigan, light grey slouchy jeans, and a black top.

And apparently there was a movement director! (Movement: Sarah Fahie) FUCK ME! I mean, I’m kind of fine with a meh design and largely catastrophic lighting (D.M. Wood). Both get an “only following orders” pass (I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the same sort of set used stunningly, for e.g.). But MOVEMENT DIRECTOR? Christ. What were her movement directions? “Slouch a bit more”? “Don’t forget to look depressed”? “For this bit, could you all shuffle over there and then throw some sort of a half-assed shape together”?

God knows what any of them were thinking this would look like/feel like/achieve, but I’m hoping it was something more than “destroying any chance of the audience not finding the overall experience entirely hateful.” Up to a point, I’d be willing to forgive on the grounds of insufficient time with director and actors, or just a naïve experiment with staging that was always doomed to fail. (We still believe in the right-to-fail, right?)  As long as Huffman understands that this was a disaster, then that’s at least progress for him as an artist, right? Even if I do bitterly resent having had to sit through it, and his appalling misunderstanding of what a stage is. However...


That’s an actual thing that actually happens in this staging.

I have NO IDEA how *at least that* wasn’t just stopped.

I mean, *really*?

The luckiest man in the whole theatre is conductor Richard Baker (V.G.) who has his back to the stage the whole time.

So, yeah, that’s what it was like to look at; the abstract notions of literalism, nothingness and sheer fucking cluelessness fighting each other in a bland room. If it had tried *anything* and failed I would have hated it less, but it was so goddammed TIMID.

Oh, no, hang on, the video production was actually really good (Pierre Martin). It was only some words, but it’s always nice to see a bit of Helvetica, and these projected words actually displayed a better grasp of timing and style than any “live” element in the staging... :-/


But, there’s another element to talk about here (thank Christ). Two, maybe, since the play was still there – full text – too.

And this is where things perk up *a lot*.

4.48 – the text – is a challenging work. And I’m not sure I necessarily agreed with every single dramaturgical decision that the music made with the script (or, libretto, as I guess it is here), but the good definitely outweighs the not-my-personal-first-choice.

The issue – if you’re not familiar with the text – is that 4.48 is an incredibly “open” play. There are no designated characters, or even a specified number of people who appear on stage. On the page, each new speaker is designated by a dash. So it could be a dialogue all the way through, or – if you had the budget – each line could be said be a new performer. Sometimes the lines seem to resolve into recognisable dialogue. Most legibly, there are a number of sections that that seem to be a snappy back and forth between the/(a?) patient and her doctor. Venables’s solution with these is particularly ingenious – the patient is played by a massive bass drum, while the doctor is played by a succession of other percussive noises, starting off with a high-pitched striking of a metal pole, through the use of a saw, until, in the last-but-one exchange, the doctor herself (her “herself” anyway, at least by implication) is another bass drum. The rhythms of both patient and doctor vary. There are some terrific drum rolls of grandiose self-pity and virtually a beginning of California Über Alles’-worth of combative resistance to analysis. Elsewhere, words or even sentences are represented by a single resonant beat. It’s both witty and respectful. Funny about depression in the same way that the text itself is. The actual words for these exchanges are projected on the boring white walls of the set (while the idiot director has placed two women on chairs facing each other on the stage miming out the sodding exchanges, but that’s easily ignored). The performance of these bits, by the two percussionists, was far and away the best “acting” in the piece too. Stylish, reserved, expressive, cool. Anything and everything that the singers had been prevented from being.

Also fascinating are the sections where parts of text are layered through white noise, or where almost pastiche Nyman-band music is used to underscore the farcical administration of anti-depressants, and their resultant side-effects and failures.

Harder to assess are some of the sequences in which Kane’s more bald, raw, poetic, declamatory style is delivered in modernist soprano+mezzo choruses, sounding a bit like the Flower Duet’and the end of Act 1 of Lohengrin after being chucked into a blender by Ligeti. Hard to assess because *I think* that musically they’re pretty great, but the text itself is difficult to pitch right in English, and while it’s bound up in a staging that is genuinely train-wreck-catastrophic, it’s nigh-on impossible – in-the-moment – to disentangle the elements. Some of it just outright works and some of it needed something very different happening visually (much more or much less, ideally. Or even just something *intelligent*) to help shape it.

Beyond that, though, at its best Venables does precisely what any good dramaturg should do: give both a passionate and coolly analytical shape to the text, and a clear (post)dramatic journey through it. This was – oddly – perhaps the most linear and “narrative” reading of 4.48 I’ve yet seen. Here – thanks to the music – there was an incredibly detailed sense of a precise journey, and a real chance to re-hear/re-understand/re-preceive – as if anew in many cases – the meaning of what Kane wrote.

If I did star-ratings it’d be tempting to give this a 5/1 split. Basically, it’s like listening to something that could well be a work of near-brilliance while watching a slow walk-through of the worst student production of 4.48 Psychosis that you’ve ever had the misfortune to endure.

This is the thing: if you took the music away; *as a piece of theatre*, this would contravene the trades descriptions act. Utterly frustrating. For the love of God, someone take Huffman to see some theatre that makes sense of its etymology: θέατρον (théatron, “a place for viewing”). Either that, or only let him direct operas for the fucking radio.

32 Rue Vandenbranden – HOME, Manchester

[seen 23/05.16]

Written for Exeunt.

Have a couple more photos, though...

Monday, 23 May 2016

Unsent Postcards: Titus Andronicus – Ojunszkij Sakha Theatre, Yakutia

[seen 23/04/16 at MITEM III, Nemzeti Színház, Budapest]

While I was Hungary [12th – 24th April], the main (only?) thing that seemed to be being debated over and over and over in British theatre circles, on the British left, and the rest of my social media echo chamber, was the ongoing failure of inclusion, the lack of diversity and, from certain quarters, an impression of the impossibility of any meaningful interaction between ethnic groups.

Which was all incredibly cheering. Obviously.

It was also the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, of course. And all the forced jollity and jingoism that that entails. So it was ironic to watch an entirely racially homogenous version of one of Shakespeare’s most multi-ethnic texts, being performed by a racial group – Yakuts, from Yakutsk, which is in far eastern Russia; a part of far eastern Russia that is past China, but a lot further north – a racial group that has literally no physical resemblance to *anyone* in the play (Northern Europeans, Southern Europeans, Northern Africans). In terms of colour-blind casting, this was about as perfect (and as far removed from “western” discourse on race) as it gets. No one looked Roman. No one looked Germanic. No one looked “Moorish”. Everyone was a Yakut. And I’m presuming that the ethnic homogeneity of the cast reflected the society/community from which it sprang. You don’t get the impression that many populations emigrate to Yakutsk for fun. It’s near as dammit to Siberia, after all... (I mean, “near” is relative when you get to the vast expanses of Russia. In reality, it’s about as “near” to Siberia as Helsinki is to Cairo, but...). But, yeah, fill in your own guesses about uncharitable steppes here.

[pause. For a month...]

A month on [never apologise, never explain], it’s remarkable how much of the production remains lodged in my head (you might think that’s not all that remarkable, but think about a show you’ve seen in the last month that you’re already forgotten, or at least filed to the back of your mind and have to really work to dredge up...).

Sergey Potapov’s production is strangely familiar. A mix of martial ritual and familiar story. If someone stuck this in front of me at the Young Vic and said it had been directed by Peter Brook, I think I’d be completely happy with that explanation. It’s not quite a formally bare or stripped back as latter-day Brook, but that’s the ball park.

The stage centres around a short raked platform on a revolve. It has numerous trap-doors, to the extent that a whole passage can be opened in the centre. There are a bunch of painted wooden chairs on it, around it, that are moved and slammed down in regimental patterns.

But it’s the costumes that really grab the attention. Ranging from hints at the Roman Empire, right through to curious – and I’m guessing traditional Yakutsk – straw skirts, bodices, even maybe trousers. There are also “Oriental”-looking robes, and make-up. As a set of things intersecting in a production of Titus Andronicus hailing from this geographical cultural intersection it all seemed to make a lot of sense to me. (But, equally, I’m no expert. It might equally have been a really detailed, specific set of production choices to evoke somewhere else entirely, with no trace of the home territory whatsoever – although this seems unlikely given the overall MITEM frame).

And, what else to say? The play’s the play, still. Played here for narrative with symbolic gestures, rather than psychology and photo-real violence, as recent UK productions have maybe preferred.

But, perhaps because of imported Shakespeare-fatigue (fatigue imported by me from England, I should say) and possibly mild homesickness, while it felt kinda awe-inspiring to see people from somewhere so absolutely remote doing Shakespeare (and on the 400th anniversary of his death), I wasn’t rapt.

I’m not going to join in the coming trendy Shakespeare backlash. He’s *really* already a minority interest, just one accorded an extra deal of significance by a vast realm of politicians and teachers parroting what they know they have to. It’s not a great unspeakable truth that Shakespeare isn’t really all that popular. If he was, he’d be an actual national pastime. Like football. Not a pretend one. Like church.

As it is, he’s a landmark of literature, the familiarity of whose works – nationally and internationally – means that English theatre has access to a set of more-or-less universally understood broad references and symbols, and many hundreds of more niche ones. And, he does offer a fascinating baseline from which to take the temperature of any given national theatre culture. Are they reverent or good? being perhaps the best question.


Unsent Postcards: Twelfth Night – Tamási Áron Theatre, St. Gheorge

[seen 23/04/16 at MITEM III, Nemzeti Színház, Budapest]

I’ll be honest. By this point in MITEM I really wasn’t feeling it. I mean, yes, sure, in the current financial climate, saying, “Yeah, I was a bit bored of being put up in a hotel room in Budapest, with really warm weather and endless free tickets to international theatre, with my flights paid for...” Of course it sounds bad. And ungrateful. And not too kind to one’s hosts. But, yeah, as festivals go, MITEM is about as distant and alienating as it gets. I now understand why even my Hungarian critic friends were giving most of the programme a very wide berth, and staying away in droves...

I mean, there’s the political dimension, of course: Hungary is run by a Very Right Wing party, in close collaboration with an actual Far-Right party; one of the things they did in their first term in power was forcing out the artistic director of the National Theatre and replacing him with someone more in line with their own ideological persuasion.

Part (most) of the reason I was interested to come to this festival was to see what an International Theatre Festival looks and feels like in a far right country. How do you square nationalism and ultra-nationalism with internationalism?

Well, one of the interesting features was that *a lot* of the “foreign” directors – at least from Eastern Europe – were “ethnic Hungarians”. In the case of Jovan Sterija Popović’s The Patriots this happened to work to MITEM’s advantage – they happened to land a brilliant show. In the case of Bocsárdi László’s Vízkereszt, vagy amire vágytok (Twelfth Night, or What You Will), not so much.

I mean, this was a *fine* studio production of Twelfth Night. It totally got the story across. It even got a kind-of ersatz “Shakespearean” feel across, what with the odd breastplate on Sir Toby, and the usual copious drinking. Elsewhere, it also had a burnt-out hippy playing guitar over everything and Kati Kovács’ Viola dressing “as a boy” in an electric blue leatherette jumpsuit and massive DM boots. So, y’know. A patchwork. Tonally it was squarely pitched more at the slapstick and vulgarity end of the spectrum. A kind of Grosz-out 12thN., if you will.

But, well, the dynamics didn’t exactly make any of it feel *urgent* or *vital*. And it wasn’t deconstructing the play to any real end. Other than to stage the story. And if you already know the story backwards, what’s actually left? I mean, this would be a pretty sound choice of production to tour schools studying the play. It definitely tells the story clearly and gives robust characterisations.

What was strange – perhaps poignantly, given the celebratory date – was just how easy it is to make Twelfth Night *deeply* unlikeable. I mean, the drunk men of Olivia’s household really are boors of the highest order. This production’s really tapped into that unbearable drunk-men thing. Meanwhile, what’s Olivia, really? Here, she’s vain and self-obsessed without really giving any hint as to why anyone would fall in love with her. Orlando is so self-obsessed and happy to mansplain the world, that it’s literally impossible to believe that Viola falls for him in any way at all. And Viola here doesn’t really even bother to pretend she has. She’s fine as a woman living by her wits in an improbable scenario, hopping from scene to scene with nothing more than self-preservation in mind, but love? Not here. Nuh uh.

And that’s the production, really. It’s got a nice, but under-used (and slightly too small) metal-wall-on-a-revolve, which looks nice and aids some admirably quicky changes, but in this transfer venue seems way too marooned in the middle of the stage to really mean anything, or achieve any sort of an effect.

Hey nonny NO.

Unsent Postcards: The Life of Galileo – Nemzeti Színház, Budapest

[seen 14/04/16 at MITEM III, Nemzeti Színház, Budapest]

Do plays have sizes? I don’t know about you, but for some reason, if anyone mentions Brecht’s Life of Galileo, I always think of it being “an Olivier play” (the Olivier is the brutalist, Greek-amphitheatre-style largest stage in GB’s National Theatre). [Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t some fit of nationalist fervour; I imagine it being a *terrible* production. Probably Simon Russell-Beale fussing around ACTING for three and a half hours...] As such, my first surprise at this production was being taken to a tiny room on the fifth floor of Budapest’s National Theatre (we need to talk about this building some time, remind me) to see the piece.

We’re talking about something the size of one of those studios the BAC used to have. Studio C, it used to be called. Maybe 100 people tops; small, end-on, black box, small audience rostrum. Low-ish ceiling...

Here the small-ish stage is taken up with a cramped black multi-level black and white set (design – Ambrus Mária – we know Hungarian names have the surname first, yes?). It’s a kind of miniature version of the inner yard of a tenement building. Four floors of walkways represented in a set about the size of a spare bedroom, sketched out in white paint and tape on black boards (Designer – Ambrus Mária).

The next surprise is director Sándor Zsótér’s chosen performance style. The most immediate and accurate comparison is to the No99 sections of Three Kingdoms. Four or five young men in shorts and vests burst through various doors and windows and perform athletic feats and acrobatics. They become living sculptures, Renaissance tableaux, and Galileo’s telescope (see above), as well as the myriad characters who appear in the story.

What was also incredibly refreshing was how far from classically Brechtian it was. This felt like a complete embrace of an entirely different aesthetic, which made the play its own. Now, while I know the play a bit, this being a Hungarian production in Hungary, the production was not surtitled, and apparently it also deviates/d quite a bit from the original. I’m not sure how much of this was readily discernible from just the visual aspects. It’s shorter, certainly, than the “full-text” (2hrs here). There was also a woman in a red body-stocking (playing the Pope – which I did guess), and a person (possibly different people at different times) floating about in a space-suit (playing the inquisitor – which I didn’t guess).

The best “intervention”, however, was having old Galileo played by an elderly, and apparently very famous actress. Actually, you could kind of *tell* she was famous, even before the final moments of the production played the final moments of a film she was in years ago as she walked into the projected image of her younger self.

[Something not-fully-related that the piece made me think about was the question of aesthetics in theatre. This piece clearly had a stripped-back, not “Poor Theatre” aesthetic, exactly, but not one that signalled wild opulence either. And it made me think again about the extent to which we’ve become really used to something that we might want to think about calling “Rich Theatre” in Britain. I mean, I bow to no one in my admiration for Cleansed, I thought it was glorious and near-perfect, but, my God, it’s not something to which students – for example – can practically aspire. But, on the other hand, how much more expensive is a set like Cleansed than this one? I’m genuinely fascinated to know (disparities in labour costs and materials between UK and HU. notwithstanding). Isn’t it more the case here, in a show made for the Hungarian National Theatre – albeit admittedly for a smaller room, by a less internationally well-known director, is at least partly to do with choice. This thought becomes more pronounced when you consider that – surely – a lighting design is a lighting design is a lighting design. Like, one gel costs much the same as another, so setting a lot of the lights to a kind of “neutral”, “cold”, deliberately glare-y, artificial lighting effect isn’t *actually* cheaper. It’s just a design decision to make something look cheap. Which is interesting (perhaps only to me, but...).]

Here I hand over to some notes supplied by a Hungarian critic friend largely just to illuminate the remaining details – questions that I could formulate having seen the performance, but not answer:

All the actors played many roles, their function (man of power, student etc) is important to Zsótér, not the character's name

The text is perfectly cut, it was always obvious who we see and when (Dramaturg – Ungár Júlia).

The university students in vest and shorts formed a telescope many times: when G. looked into the telescope, actually he was looking to the eyes of a young man...

About the famous older actress: she is a living legend, but in very bad health. A few years ago she fell into coma and she used to say she already died once. I think all the audience and even the director know that this is her last role on stage. The final video sequence is from a film made by her husband (who died a few years ago), which she starred in with Zsótér, the director of this show. Other members of the cast are also related to each other and to the director. Of course you don’t have to know all this stuff, but you can see that the show is very personal and has an intimate context...

And there we have it, I think. A strange but effective version of a vintage play, re-made here as something altogether more personal and charming, in a way that communicates this well beyond a still absolute language-barrier. Remarkable.

Unsent Postcards: The Public – Teatro de La Abadía and the National Theatre of Catalonia

[seen 13/04/16, at Nemzeti Színház, Budapest]

I went into The Public knowing nothing. Not the name of the play, not who it was by. Nothing. Maybe the nationality of the company performing; that’s it.

Which in many ways was not ideal. But in other ways, it turned out to be strangely perfect.

How do we judge a play? I don’t really mean “Olympian critical judgement”, I mean, how do we understand them? How do we work out what they’re about? How much information do we “need” in the moment? How much information is helpful (and equally, how much is maybe actually unhelpful?)

Teatro de La Abadía and the National Theatre of Catalonia were performing in Spanish, with Hungarian surtitles. And Lorca’s play makes little, if any, literal or linear sense even in English (from what I can gather, I’ve still to track down a copy).

So what did I see?

There’s curtain of foil strips round the small studio stage. It is piled high with wood-chips or gravel. Two chandeliers hang over the front of the audience, and another to the far right of the stage. Musicians mostly hidden behind the curtain play music. Two performers come in with a card and an old cine-reel is projected onto it. Maybe news, maybe Spanish. Some performers come on in uniforms? Three performers – two male, one female – enter fully naked. A bloke comes on in his white y-fronts and a massive Elizabethan ruff on. Another bloke turns up with a massive Elizabethan ruff around his waist. A woman comes on in shorts and bra-top and is all over one of the naked blokes. Two clothed performers have a fight? Two other clothed performers have a relationship-argument, or maybe a passionate declaration of some sort. They have names, too, many of them from Shakespeare.


By the end, I’d decided I really liked it.

It’s clearly “about” theatre. And about relationships between people. And then about theatre some more. And I thought it was a pretty compelling production.

Also: it seems like a REALLY INTERESTING TEXT. I dunno if it would actually turn out to be less interesting if you knew what everyone was saying – apparently it’s *poetic*, which is always harder to really translate, even if you can approximate the meaning, the actual point of it, the poetry, seems to fall apart. But, yes, on this showing, this seems to be a piece we need to rediscover?

[More as and when I finally read the play...]

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Unsent Postcards: The Champion – Katona József Színház, Budapest

[seen 22/04/16]

Ok, so here’s a properly fascinating thing. To review The Champion (A Bajnok) properly, I should first talk about the show I *saw*, and then go back through it adding context and understanding.

The basic news story about The Champion is that one of Hungary’s most celebrated indie writer-directors, Béla Pinter, has written a new libretto for – well, essentially, Puccini’s Il Tabarro, but with ‘Nessun Dorma’ and ‘Un Bel di Vedremo’ et al. also thrown in for greatest hits value. The new libretto concerns a “recent Hungarian tabloid scandal” involving a mayor of some provincial Hungarian town who is a member of the more-or-less entirely disgusting, right-wing, ruling majority party, Fidesz.

The action of the play is as follows: Bloke (Mayor) wins election, comes home, has a drink, can’t be arsed with TV interviewers, TV interviewers also get pissed, everyone goes off. Mayor’s wife seems to be having an affair. Now, without the language (I read a bit of the script before, but most after), it seemed ambiguous to me whether she was having this affair with a man played by a woman (cf. Nero in Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, perhaps just because of the way that the libretto from the Puccini had been reworked, right?) or a woman playing a (rather unconvincing) female love interest for the mayor’s wife (Adél Jordán does *seem* to have been instructed to do some pretty macho acting...).

The design/set is minimal, a teeny bit arty (there are a thousand twinkling fairy-light stars), and incredibly functional. There’s a revolve on which a sofa and armchair turn round and round, and around this is a green astroturf garden, with some garden furniture downstage right (and the pianist accompanying the piece – who is outstanding – d/s left). The performances are strong, if occasionally broad. The singing, likewise, is tuneful if not always “fine”. (But, y’know, Puccini, right?) It is a strong show. It is a comedy. The audience are laughing lots. The reception is incredibly warm. Even by the absurd standards of Eastern European applause (generally about five minutes) this seemed particularly enthusiastic.

And, y’know, it does have some genuinely funny bits. There’s a recurring motif of a bear wandering on, as the mayor watches a nature programme on TV, and, once he’s taken cocaine (the mayor not the bear), the bear’s activity becomes markedly more frenetic, bashing a plastic salmon on a plastic rock in an imaginary stream. So, yeah. Job done. Happy punters, happy Western theatre critic. This is an amazing, anti-governmental, popular success, *AND IT’S NOMINALLY AN OPERA TOO*! Trebles all round! This is precisely the sort of thing that Richard Bean could/should knock up for Nick Hytner’s New Not-The-NT. (I think just to compound this sense of a massive popular political satire, I saw the thing only a couple of days after the NT’s The Suicide opened in GB, to *some consternation*).

Which is where this review would end without context. However, some *actual facts* rather get in the way of it being such an open and shut case. As it turns out, the reason for the tabloid “scandal” around this small-town mayor is that his wife had an affair with a woman. Now, obviously this is splendid if you count it as one in the eye for a member of a party that is about as homophobic as it can be without crossing an EU guidelines. What’s less good is treating the entire idea of same-sex relationships as inherently comic. Which I’m not sure the production avoids (even if it’s not deliberate). But this appeared to be a nuance with which the audience didn’t seem especially concerned.

Occasionally I get told off for importing “Western Values” into Eastern Europe in my assessment of the work. But, well, homophobia is homophobia is homophobia. Allowing your production to actively court it for comic effect is inexcusable. I completely understand that making art in an ex-totalitarian, now ultra-conservative, and very right-wing country must be intensely difficult. And that the compromises that artists have to make must be huge. But, if you’re already making a work that’s had the theatre threatened with lawsuits and funding withdrawal, why then allow such a crass element to exist alongside in the same troublesome and subversive work? (But perhaps I’m over-reading this. The relationship wasn’t “funny”, per se; but neither was it credible...)

Once again, this does also make me acutely aware of the extent to which the British model of criticism does/can often function as its own kind of political censor: that we criticise work hardest for failing to meet progressive standards. And I do find this tendency absolutely fascinating. But I don’t think I disagree with it. I think it’s a vital part of the conversation we (critics and audiences) have with the work and with its makers.

Moreover, in this instance, it hands an obvious weapon to the right. This paragraph below is from a column offering scattergun criticism of the piece, but the argument they make here is striking:

“Also, what’s up with the careless homophobia towards the lesbian Olympic champion? Did the required tolerance of the liberals suddenly disappear? Is it now ok to use homosexuality as a political weapon? What is considered a pride for the left must be the shame of the right? It is kind of a suicidal tactic, isn’t it?”

Well, yes. Too right it’s a suicidal tactic. And if it takes a right-wing, pro-Fidesz columnist to point it out... Well, you do the maths. Of course, hypocrisy is a brilliant tool to take down this government, but I’m not fully sure that a right-wing politian’s *wife*’s affair (rumoured) actually makes the husband a hypocrite. One might uncharitably enjoy his discomfort, but, that’s hardly scoring the much-needed political points. Make operas and dramas about their actual corruption, and their godawful policies. Leave the state of their marriages in the tabloids where they belong.

Exeunt: Theatre2016

[written 13/05/16]

Click here

MG+MSUM – Ljubljana Museum of Contemporary Art 3

[seen 10/05/16]

This last set of pictures are of some of my favourite things in the museum. I’ve included the curatorial notes, largely because in most instances it is the rationale behind the things that particularly appealed...

[starting with the piece about the above...]

Our Miracle

Workers, 2014

Covers I-III

[To the museum website, immediately!]

MG+MSUM – Ljubljana Museum of Contemporary Art 2

[seen 10/05/16]

This is the outside of the museum (which I loved)...

This is the entrance lobby...

And, on the ground floor, they have a fair bit of art the relates most directly to the recent past, independent Slovenia, and the ex-Yugoslav/NATO wars of the 90s...

[Yes! Show me more of this museum...]

MG+MSUM – Ljubljana Museum of Contemporary Art 1

[seen 10/05/16]

Rather than attempting anything like “art criticism”, since I went to this museum, and found it really inspiring, this is a bit of ultra-low-budget curation, in keeping with the current way the museum is laid out – with stuff from their permanent collection arranged across three floors under the banner ‘Low-Budget Utopias’. As with seemingly everything else I saw in Ljubljana, it’s shot through with this amazing political awareness and constant self-deconstruction, but deconstruction that actually *creates* something.

Very early on in the exhibition there’s a room dedicated to Slovenia’s punk rock scene of the late-seventies and eighties. It consists of a wall of fanzines...

...three tv screens showing documentary footage...

...a projector showing stills of what might be one night in one punk club or every photo ever taken of Slovenia’s punk scene...

...and another projector cycling through what Slovenia’s philosophers of the day had to say about it.

And, I think that was it. Having all this stuff put in a dedicated room in a musuem – a room that was fully conscious of the irony of museum-ising punk – somehow managed to communicate both how small-scale, and how important it was. It was really moving, and really charming. Should punk be “moving” and “charming”? No. But it was. Probably at the time, and definitely now. Moreover, they were still playing the music, and the music was still really good. So.

[Yes! Show me more of this museum...]

Laibach – Cankerjev Dom, Ljubljana

[seen 09/05/16]

[EARWORM WARNING – although not as much as it is live]

“All art is subject to political manipulation, except for that which speak the language of this same manipulation”
Laibach, 1982

I wrote a *pretty comprehensive* introduction to Laibach for Exeunt when they played Tate Modern in 2012. What’s interesting, re-reading that piece now is how different this concert felt to the Tate Modern performance. Cankerjev Dom is a proper concert hall. A lovely modern/ist one, like the Royal Festival Hall, or the Barbican, or Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. Imagine going to see Laibach at the Bridgewater Hall. Seated! And then, even better, imagine that the whole audience is a *completely normal* audience. From, like, 7 or 8 to 70 or 80. And just wearing regular clothes. I mean, sure, there were a couple of “fans” too, but in the main, this was just a regular cross-section of Ljubljana’s population going to see a concert. This amazed me. And it was *really lovely*. I mean, you know, Laibach are *quite extreme* musically. There were some moments of properly avant garde composer/industrial noise, along with the more poppy material.

Another big draw for this concert was thst they were also playing sections of the Sound of Music concert that they played in North Korea. You heard about this, right? Laibach – the art-rock-protest-subversive musical-wing-of-Slovenian-art-terrorists-NSK – were the first “Western” Rock Band ever to play in North Korea. And what they played was their versions of songs from The Sound of Music...

You’ve really got to love Laibach.

For this concert they offered a really great spread of material. Old stuff, new stuff (see top and bottom, from their magically-named 2015 album ‘Spectre’), The Sound of Music songs, and even an interlude where a guest vocalist performed tributes to David Bowie (‘This is Not America’) and Prince (‘When Doves Cry’), before helping out on another number from The Sound of Music, and buggering off.

If you’re a regular reader, then you might remember my musing about what would it feel like if you put the violent, caged energy of the Fat White Family in the National Theatre’s Dorfman space as Cleansed was. This wasn’t *quite* the answer. That Slovenian Iliad I loved so much at BITEF’15 also plays here, it’s not an entirely untheatrical space, and Laibach aren’t quite the same loping, lean, threatening presence as FWF any more. But, Christ, the music was properly loud. What you mostly feel like here is Pete Murphy off of Bauhaus in that Maxell advert.

Moreover, like Republika Slovenija, it’s joyously, angrily, mordantly capital-p Political. And Political on a global scale.

And it’s bloody glorious, frankly.

I should also add that it was sheer chance I happened to see this concert. We’d flown over a day early for the Mladinsko showcase because flights on Friday were too expensive, and were flying back on the Tuesday because Monday flights were also well over €100 dearer. We were sitting in the hotel when we arrived, looking at the Ljubljana guidebook and it had an advert in it. And there were two seats next to each other right slap bang in the middle of the stalls (for considerably less than a seat in the middle of the stalls at the NT, I should add.) Sometimes serendipity just happens, I guess.

And, yes, it’s possibly the best gig I’ve ever been to.

I know this isn’t really a review. It’s too late for it to be useful, and not quite distant or thought-about properly to really coalesce into a theoretical position.

Still, that’s the nice thing about blogs. You can just do this sometimes; put in “reviews” of things you just went to so you can remember them.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Republika Slovenija – Mladinsko, Ljublana

[seen 08/05/16]

[pretty impressive trailer. do have a watch]

Two cars drive toward each other at high speed. When it becomes clear that neither will swerve, the drivers slam on the brakes and the cars screech to a halt only metre apart. Men with guns jump out of one car and begin yelling at the driver of the other. A jeep screeches up behind the car containing the two armed men. Armed masked soldiers jump out with machine guns. Still yelling at him, they smash the windscreen of the other car, trying to drag the man inside out. He is bleeding from the face. They are still smashing his windows and hitting him with fists and rifle butts when the police arrive. One of the armed men goes over to the nearest police officer, shows him identification, perhaps they already know each other, they mutter a conversation about procedure. The man from the car is dragged into the back of the jeep and driven off. One of the armed men drops a sheaf of papers into the passenger seat of the smashed-up car, gets back into his own car, and drives off.

The scene stops, the lights come up, the hangar-like showroom where we’re watching this smells of burnt motor oil.

A performer explains that this is the first account of the arrest of Milan Smolnikar in Depala Vas on 20 March, 1994, given at a subsequent trial in 2003.

This is the third Act of Republika Slovenija, Mladinsko Theatre’s anonymous, “verbatim theatre” piece marking the declaration of Slovenian independence 25 years ago.

To go back to the beginning, in Act one a former member of the Slovenian security services talks about how one afternoon, as he was working in the offices [of the secret police?] a higher-ranking colleague needed help counting out something like €17 million (in today’s money). The scene starts off with the chap (the entire programme is anonymised: “All the authors of the performance will remain anonymous. In this context, the individual isn’t important. What is important is the state.” – so apologies for lack of names here) painting a picture of the room, projected via live-feed throughout. Occasionally during his story he’ll point to a cupboard or chair in the on-screen picture. You get a real sense of place from his evocative little watercolour. And there’s something charmingly incongruous about the idea of the secret policeman who also paints. His story, which is summarised in surtitles, is still very funny, and the details are all captured. One afternoon vast, vast sum of money, kept in used notes of every imaginable currency, was put into suitcases in the offices of the security services and just taken away. The retired officer estimated there was at least as much again left, stuffed into the cupboard.
“Weren’t you sworn to secrecy?” he is asked, deadpan, at one point. “Well, secrets only last so long” he laughs. The audience laughs too.
He’s a tough-looking, unphased guy. He looks exactly what ex-secret service people look like. He’s probably seen some things. And he seems really nice. An unlikely whistleblower. And you don’t really worry if he’s going to be *ok*. So that’s something.

Act two is most like the sort of verbatim theatre we’re used in back in Britain. Six men, mostly wearing grey suits, played by actors – indeed, the most Slovenian moment in this act is where this concept is painstakingly introduced as a convention, with a surprising number of caveats about how the men they are playing are also playing the roles of themselves and their office. The script they are performing is a declassified transcript of a meeting that took place between six very high-ranking Slovenian officials only a short way into the establishment of the Republic of Slovenia. Milan Kučan, the then president, is there; on stage, in the meeting. And on the night I saw it, perhaps only the piece’s second or third performance ever, he was also in the audience, and interviewed by television cameras outside afterwards. Which seemed incredible to me. Also portrayed is Janez Janša, then the defence minister and subsequently twice prime minister. (Familiar to art fans from The Janez Janšas, the performance trio who all changed their names to Janez Janša.) The subject of this meeting is the fact that Slovenia is deeply involved with the illegal supply of arms to both Bosnia and Croatia. Since Slovenia has recently declared independence, and then even more recently signed up to a raft of UN Resolutions, it has to extricate itself from the arms trade, stop training soldiers from these countries, and somehow not offend its neighbours. It is essentially established, that everything should be deniable, and maybe they won’t look very hard. It also seems quite clear that prime minister-to-be Janez Janša is *a bit of a shark*, to put it mildly. You’re basically left in doubt that the then defence minister of the newly independent Slovenia was party to, and profited massively from, an illegal arms trade to Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina during the civil war*.

And then, we’re moved to the kind of showroom/warehouse opposite the theatre. It’s got a surprisingly large seating rostrum to accommodate the audience who have just emptied out of the theatre. (Also, can we just take a minute to admire how seamless a transition this was. Essentially an interval, and then we all return to different seats in a different room. So simple it’s brilliant. Never seen it done before. (The nearest you get is with that funny Castellucci/Hölderlin thing at the Schaubühne.))

After the sequence I described at the opening the stage is reset and the action is played out again, this time according to the version of events given in the testimony of one of the secret servicemen. Still the five cars on stage, still the machine guns and pistols, and shouting, but this time in strict accordance with the law, and with the “suspect” definitely in possession of the papers he claimed were planted on him.

The sequence plays again, according to another witness.

The meaning of what we’re actually watching kind of warps. At the same time, you feel that you get closer to the truth of the matter, but at the same time, feel the meaninglessness of the court proceedings where the truth of these competing realities – magicked into actual stage realities for us – can really only be guessed at. I mean, it’s pretty obvious, really. But, as this representation of these farcical proceedings, you also get a sense of the slippery process of justice here. In fact, it resembled nothing so much as a couple of series of the excellent British police corruption serial Line of Duty. And, like, can you imagine how that would feel? And, I don’t think I’ve oversold the sheer visceral fact that THERE WERE FIVE FUCKING CARS ON STAGE. And SHOUTING MEN WITH GUNS. And BRIGHT LIGHTS AND LOUD MUSIC. It’s quite important to convey that you leave this piece have seen a fucking good show. And really pumped. A kind of sense of injustice; adrenalised.

Now I’ve spent far too long sitting on this review, when really it should have been done overnight.

But, Jesus, yes! This! This is how you do political theatre. This is how you make a MASSIVE GESTURE as a state theatre. Forensic, explosive, and using a live unresolved legal issue about the country. And making it as your piece to “celebrate” 25 years of independence. Crucially, there is no feelgood resolution here; even while the piece itself is a joy, what it’s saying is just left hanging, a vital sense that as a country, we need be better. The state is/should be an expression of the people’s will. If we are the state, then we need to hold it to account far better.

As a Briton watching this, I have to say, even though this is Slovenia beating itself up, it’s incredibly inspiring. You take away more hope from Republika Slovenija than any number of tribunal plays at the Tricycle, and corrosive satires in the West End. Similarly, seeing the actual former president there gives some idea as to why. This is a country small enough to hold its politicians to account. There isn’t quite such an overdeveloped carapace of police and press between the politicians and the people.

I mean, yes, I’ve fallen a bit in love with Slovenia, and maybe I’m seeing the glass-half-full interpretation, but even so, the evidence suggests that it’s not just the infatuation talking here...

The Janez Janšas’ Mount Triglav on Mount Triglav (still from film projected on wall in MG+MSUM)

[CORRECTION: moved up from below-the-line. The pic above is not the Janez Janšas, who did recreate the Mount Triglav performance in 2007, but the “original” performers of the living sculpture, members of the neoavantgarde movement OHO – David Nez, Milenko Matanović and Drago Dellabernardina. The performance took place in Kongresni trg, Ljubljana in 1968.]

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Drame Princes – Mladinsko, Ljublana

[seen 07/05/16]

I’m not sure I’ve fully got to grips with what to do with the work of Elfriede Jelinek. Or, rather, I’m totally sure I haven’t. It’s problematic work. We know that. It’s “problematic” even if you’re a fluent German speaker and are fully theatre-literate. I’m not even slightly that. And here, with Prinzessinnendramen: Der Tod und das Mädchen I–V, we have the extra problem that I’m watching English surtitles over a production in Slovenian by the Polish director Michał Borczuch. The five pieces are essentially postdramatic monologues alluding to Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ingeborg Bachmann, Jacqueline Onassis, and Sylvia Plath – dense reflections on their mythologies and identities as critiques of Austrian patriarchal capitalism.

So it’s heavy going. Which is fine. Indeed, regular readers might assume I’d adore it. But, well, ultimately, one can only disavow one’s in-bred national tendencies so much. That very English desire to know “what’s it for?” “what am I meant to think?” becomes irrepressible sometimes. And this is probably exacerbated by the fact that reading the dense text in English, which is not even meant – really – to be translatable at all, let alone the fact that the strategies it uses would probably necessitate weeks if not months of study, when they feel like they should be second nature. Added to this, is the fact that Borczuch’s staging tends toward the stark, near empty stage, or else minimalise live-feed action, or other strategies of distantiation.

Imagine reading a third-generation translation of, I dunno, JH Pyrnne while women speak in a foreign language, their movements alienated from their words’ meanings. That’s where we are here.

Then there’s the fact that [when translated as just meaning] Jelinek text is just so relentlessly bleak and abrasive. Which, again, I should be up for, but there, on that day, at least, it just seemed so overdone. The relentlessness, the miserablism, the endless, endless sarcasm, irony, and not-even-definitely-real attacks on, oh, everything. The only element that really stuck for me in this production was when they played Sylvia Plath’s reading of her own poem Daddy (which is in English, tellingly), which, in the context of Jelinek’s prose, and being in real central Europe, suddenly feels a bit callow evoking Dachau, Auschwitz and Belsen like they were fairy tale places like Camelot. Plath’s drawly, arch delivery doesn’t help much either.

I mean, it’s still fascinating. I’m glad I saw it. I’d want to see a performance again of it again. But perhaps in English, next time, and with live commentary on it. Do I think having staged footnotes would be bad? No. Quite the reverse, I think they’d be excellent. I wonder, in fact, if the ideal UK solution to staging Jelinek is as a symposium or choreographed panel discussion.

It’s worth stating, however, that Damjana Černe as Jackie has won a national award for her performance, and was indeed strikingly good.

I really wish I’d liked the whole more, but somehow something didn’t click for me.  Trust me, I’m as annoyed about this as you are.  I don’t like not liking things and the most articulate reason to hand being that they’re too cynical. That doesn’t even sound like me. It sounds like Charles Spencer, FFS.

Anyway.  Enough.


Ristić Kompleks – Mladinsko Theatre, Ljubljana

[seen 06/05/16]

It’s fascinating how much ground can shift between a first and second viewing of a show. The first time I saw The Ristić Complex (at BITEF‘15) I remember watching it *incredibly closely*. Really concentrating on it, working at it; trying to dig out meaning, and interpret “accurately”. In one way, this was something of a fool’s errand; without an incredibly detailed knowledge of Ljubiša Ristić’s body of work – which stretches back to the Yugoslavian sixties or seventies – there’s an iconography at work here that is simply unavailable at its primary level. If you want an easy comparison, imagine watching a piece about, say, David Bowie, in which his life and times are obliquely critiqued but almost all the symbolism is taken from his album covers and videos etc. Simply asking “what does the Pierrot mean?” is the wrong question. On one level, it maybe meant *something* specific in its original context, but without knowing that there even is an original context, you’d have no idea why it had cropped up in the [hypothetical Bowie-]piece. And so it is here. Most of the most striking images are adaptations or bastardisations or references-to scenes from the plays and films he directed, reworked into reflections on his own life and strange political trajectory; from an “art terrorist” director at Mladinsko in Yugoslavia to Milošević’s Minister of Culture during the ex-Yugoslavian civil wars.

So, that all sounds quite hopeless, yes? Wrong. Watching again, having had the dramaturgy really fully explained, instead of “getting it” better, I actually just watched in a more relaxed way. Watched it just as a piece of theatre, without worrying at all about specifics-of-meaning, or a “proper reading”. And the revelation was, if anything it worked even better just watched as an expression of abstract art. That’s not to say it suddenly felt like some sort of floaty free-for-all (as if anything ever does). But instead, watching trajectories and tendencies of scenes and exchanges rather than details and interpretations made the whole seem far more fluid. You could be impressed by the commitment and physicality of the performers rather than the intellectual rigour of the dramaturgs, for instance.

What was also interesting was how the piece *felt* different. Yes, I was sitting in as wildly different a vantage point, in a different building, with a different view (pretty much eye-level some way back in Mladinsko’s main space rather than an almost bird’s-eye-view from the balcony of the BITEF theatre), but that doesn’t even begin to account for it. Perhaps there was the total different in audience too – a smallish crowd of locals, rather than a rammed International Festival première. There was also maybe something more comfortable than confrontational in this performance. The dynamics for watching were probably more friendly across-the-board, and I wonder if that even feed back from the company on stage; like they were presenting Art here and not A Fight. I honestly don’t know. Perhaps they’d be entirely surprised by this assessment, perhaps not at all. The “gender politics” of the casting also felt far less problematic this time round – maybe due in part to being paired with Jelinek’s Drame Princes (five women, one (somewhat perfunctory) bloke).

But, yes. While feeling less *intense* – the upside of that concentration that I’d brought to the piece the first time round – this time it struck me almost as this incredibly vivid, moving almost dance-like meditation on cycles of entropy and collapse. Motifs from art repeatedly collapsing into the horrific carnage of civil war.

Butnskala – Prešernovem gledališču, Kranj

[seen 06/05/16]

By way of direct contrast [see previous review], the next piece in the Mladinsko repertoire showcase, was a co-production with the Prešernovem theatre in Kranj. Now, Ljubljana is probably the quietest, prettiest, most unspoilt capital city in Europe, but the little town of Kranj, about twenty-five minutes outside Ljubljana is something else entirely. We arrived early into what looked reliably like the town centre. There was, after all, the theatre, a massive church, and some sort of square. All heart-breakingly lovely, and all almost completely empty and quiet. Look, I took photos.

So that’s where we are. Now, believe it or not, all this formed an ideal backdrop to *getting* Butnskala. Emil Filipčič and Marko Derganc's Butnskala started life as a radio play in 1979(?). It has subsequently – much more recently – been turned into a graphic novel. And now it’s on stage, directed by Vito Taufer.

This information about it starting life as a radio play also felt crucial to finally “getting” the thing. And we didn’t learn it until the interval. Up to that point, I’d definitely been *enjoying myself*; the allegorical story is easily entertaining enough just to keep you engaged, but I had previously been quite surprised by the entirely *straight* treatment. Much more like something you’d see Michael Grandage do with Shakespeare (but not boring) than the overtly art theatre I was more used to seeing in Slovenia.

But, no. When you get that it’s an adaptation of a late seventies radio series (and graphic novel), then it all falls into place. The Pythonesque/Goon Show/Hitchhiker's Guide... humour, the dialogue, the incredibly unlikely antics... (I mean, bear in mind until the interval, I’d been watching not even knowing when it had been written, whether it was an updated production of a classic, anything...)

So, the basic plot of Butnskala is that a musician, Ervin Kralj (Matija Vastl), down on his luck and contemplating suicide. A professor (Blaž Šef) advises him to go up the mountain and chat to the people up there. (I think?) Either way, Kralj meets the people up the mountain. They’re a large community and they meet up their to run fast, head-first, into a special boulder they’ve got up there...

I mean, it’s such a simple allegory it’s brilliant. The group are pretty hardline, or fundamentalist, about running headlong into a rock. They have a spiritual leader, who leads them in appreciations of the joys of slamming head first into a massive stone (and who remains noticeably free from running into anything hard himself). In fact, the first parallel I thought, before I knew it was a radio play from late-seventies Yugoslavia of was with People, Places & Things. There was something oddly similar about the set-up of misfit amongst fanatics (fanatics trying to help themselves, at that). Here, however, the allegory is that bit more on-the-nose. I mean, it’s about people trying to achieve peace and subsequent dominance by bashing their heads against a rock. It couldn’t spell it out any more, could it?

After this set-up, the narrative gets a lot more specific. There’s a rise to power, a rival faction, suspected double-agents/spies, and ultimately a violent power-grab but the head-against-rock gang. Without ever specifically saying which period, or which country, the story speaks pretty clearly to almost any cynical view of revolutionary and post-revolutionary politics. Think also: the relevant strand of Chris Thorpe’s There Has Possibly Been An Incident. Of course, being *a comedy* the brutality is massively underplayed – but still omnipresent. Not knowing the genre or what might happen *at all* is really exciting. As it turns out, the violence never gets amped-up to make a point, but even feeling it could is effective.

After the interval, there’s a *really long* extended skit on State Entertainment, which *I think* includes some very fine pastiches of Slovenian counter-culture from the seventies. There’s a punk band (one of the best-sounding ones I’ve ever seen in theatre), and an incredibly good take-off of Scipion Nasice Sisters (the theatre bit of NSK), and some other stuff I couldn’t begin to tell you was satire or just fun. But, again (as with ÜberŠkrip before it) it’s primarily great just because of the lovely relation established between music, performance, satire and the main narrative. I love the idea of taking twenty minutes out of a show just to hold a mini- satirical – concert/gig.

So, yes. I won’t wring out the rest of the plot details, suffice it to say that the story has a pleasingly familiar shape to it, and you get all the satisfactions of a “proper story” from it, with added bite, and historical interest. What was most interesting to me, though, watching this deeply strange, absurdist play in a tiny town in Slovenia was getting the faintest hint of what it must have been like hearing it in somewhere like Kranj on the radio back in 70s Yugoslavia. To be fair, Slovenia hardly wanted for subversion – indeed, the only art I know about from pre-independence Slovenia is the subversive stuff, and there’s a lot of it – but, even so, Butnskala feels like a powerful reminder that art isn’t just useful when it’s trying to change things, it’s also incredibly good at just being a beacon for discontent and cynicism. And that the value of something silly and snarky cheering everybody up when things aren’t great is fondly remembered. Even when it first happened nearly 40 years ago.  That the piece still resonates astonishingly clearly today also suggests that  Filipčič and Derganc may have also tapped some far more enduring truths about how societies malfunction.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

ÜberŠkrip – Mladinsko Theatre, Ljubljana

[seen 06/05/16]

Right. So. As I understand it, ÜberŠkrip is a *kind of* remake of the show that made the Mladinsko theatre’s name when it premièred in 1975. Up until that point, Mladinsko had been more officially a youth theatre (indeed, Mladinsko means “youth”). However, thanks to tightening of official restrictions in Yugoslavia, in the wake of the 1968 student protests, most subversive and/or avant garde and political theatremakers were effectively blacklisted by any main, “adult” theatres. As such, anyone with any real ambitions would seem to turn up at Mladinsko, making work with and for young people, which effectively passed beneath the government radar – not considered worth a censor’s time, I guess.

[As an aside: what a fascinating situation. Of course, it’s important to recognise that as a country of only 2 million inhabitants, and with only maybe 250,000 living in Ljubljana itself – even when it was a part of Yugoslavia, it apparently felt incredibly federalised and remote from the concerns of Belgrade – there is not much that can necessarily be directly transposed to UK with it’s 63 million in habitants and capital city with four times the population of this entire country. But maybe it’s worth thinking about a bit...]

So, what the original thing was was a piece called “[NAME?]” and was a kind of devised piece incorporating critiques of fashion, the Vietnam War, and Yugoslavia’s own (near-)foundation stories of the anti-fascist partisans in WWII.

None of that would be immediately obvious if you came to this piece blind. (But then, how much contextual information ever is? What actual sense does any event make without its immediate and historical artistic and social contexts? Yes, even British ones.)

The form of the piece is largely musical. Indeed, in a different venue, or without seating, you could maybe even claim it as “concert-theatre”. (Yes, all the music is actually pre-recorded, but since Sleaford Mods, I reckon even that distinction is up-for-grabs...) The thing the piece is most influenced by is pretty transparently the work of Slovenian band extraordinaire Laibach. Not just the music, but the incredible video-projection onslaught.  I mean, it is *really* full-on. Like watching a strobe light for an hour, but with pictures.  And pictures superimposed over the performers/performance so that everything feels part of the same machine.  

A Slovenian colleague said this aspect of the piece caused him most intellectual distress. This onslaught of very modern, new video technology being used to evoke/re-create a much art movement’s aesthetic, to unearth an even older theatre piece, and to explore even older conditions of warfare and economics.

Oh, yes, the piece is basically about “the military industrial complex”, in case you were wondering.

“Songs” (or *scenes*) include: an incredibly comprehensive list of wars, listing all the antagonists (and, my God, the British Empire features in a shameful number of them); something that’s maybe a cut-up of different speeches and slogans by politicians that’s the best one of those I’ve seen; and some industrial music made essentially by slamming bits of the metal framed set around.

If I’m blunt/honest, I could probably tell you that I’d seen a fair few of these devices before, sometimes even in indifferent student devised work. However, that would be grossly unfair. This is a powerful bit of work that also manages the neat trick of being enormous fun at the same time (as long as you like industrial music). It reminded me most powerfully that we in Britain tend to relegate music in theatre to “atmosphere” and scene changes (Mitchell’s Cleansed notwithstanding). Or, perhaps: we rarely foreground anything that sounds like this in “musical theatre”. Imagine if we had “musicals” that sounded more like post-punk than easy listening...

 As you can probably see, I’ve fallen a bit in love with the Slovenian way of doing things...

The Stage: Should theatre critics need an ‘intellectual background’?

[written for The Stage]

In which I say you don’t need an intellectual background to be a critic, and then quote Slavoj Žižek to prove it.

[cover image from Ion Grigorescu’s Boksar, 1977, about which there’s a nice short film here. Essentially, the artist has filmed himself twice, throwing punches and receiving them, and superimposed the two films. As a bleak image of futile self-conflict, it seemed apt, somehow.]

Friday, 22 April 2016

The Seagull – Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne

[seen 21/04/16 at MITEM III, Nemzeti Színház, Budapest]

It has maybe become a bit too de rigeur to knock Thomas Ostermeier. As (still) the UK’s only regular German import, I’ve certainly become more than a little impatient that The Barbican – and now EIF, FFS – move beyond this default Germany = Ostermeier programming and maybe get out a bit more. Deutschland ist größer als Ostermeier, ja? But that’s hardly fair on the man, or his work, is it?

This new production of Chekhov’s The Seagull provides a perfect opportunity to reconsider the man and his work, as the production itself is not from the Schaubühne, and is performed in French. As such, it feels like the director might have been taken sufficiently away from his comfort zone, or his default settings to make a difference.

And, the opening scene of this Seagull is possibly the best I’ve ever seen (of not as many as I’d have liked – didn’t see the Mitchell NT one for a start, goddammit). But, I mean, no, fuck it, it’s one of the best opening twenty minutes or half hours of anything I’ve seen in a theatre for an aeon. It’s properly, properly beautiful.

It starts with the cast ranged round the walls of designer Jan Pappelbaum’s massive grey box (it’s basically a Bruno Schultz set by someone else). At the back wall the performers who turn out to be Dorn (Sébastien Pouderoux) and Nina (Mélodie Richard) play David Bowie’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’. A painter – Marine Dillard – armed with a big sponge on a stick, begins to etch *something* on the back wall. Now, a) we’d all just discovered Prince had died, and b) I’m evidently a sucker for Bowie in Chekhov, but, FUCK, it really was incredibly moving. I don’t think it’s going to stop being for a while. (It’s interesting to think how that’s changed since Volksfiend,)  And, well, the song doesn’t not fit the play, does it? Good old Konstantin and his Todestrieb... So, yeah. Kicking off with a now-even-more-loaded anthem for doomed youth seemed like a master stroke. It’s a beautiful arrangement, too. Played on one guitar, they just leave pauses for *all the other instrumentation*. And your head does fill it in. And Dillard continues to paint the back wall, eventually sketching out the picturesque outline of a mountain... Yes, in a way it’s unashamedly sentimental (although, y’know, fuck it. Why not?), but also astringent enough not to feel soupy or soapy. It’s good. It’s textured. It’s layered. It’s modern and atavistic. It’s Bowie and a painter in a grey box. What, frankly, is not to like?

And the first scene – Masha and her black clothes and why – is INCREDIBLY FUNNY. Cédric Eeckhout’s Semyon wearing a yellow cardigan almost twists it inside out talking to Masha (Bénédicte Cerutti) about his Welt-Angst. This sequence is brilliant supplmented by the addition of a live translator from French into Hungarian, as Semyon worries about the global situation, with Syrian refugees, and everything else. It’s *so good*. Incredibly funny characterisation, and, well, y’know, *urgently contemporary*. It’s knocking spots off all the other Chekhov that thinks its modern... And then Konstantin (Matthieu Sampeur) comes in, and his both beautiful and brilliant, and also incredibly funnily earnest. I love this Konstanin most of all of them. They have to get the translator back on for Konstantin to explain his(very funny, very satirical) vision of A New Theatre. (*Of course* we love Konstantin at this point in the play, bless his earnest experimental socks).

After this, the inventions calm down a bit. Arkardina (Valérie Dréville) and Trigorin (François Loriquet) are both pretty normal. A. is interesting because she mostly manages to do away, or at least underplay, all the normal stage-trappings that come with the character, and Trigorin looks particularly un-prepossessing – oddly reminiscent of Richard Herring, in fact (leading to some really having to believe *very hard* in talent-crushes later on). But, y’know, fine.

THEN!!!! Then there’s Konstantin’s “New Theatre Piece”! And, HA! How brilliant it is! My guess is that the tension for translators and directors here is how much credit you give Konstantin for his efforts. What you put on stage to represent his attempts to invent a new symbolist theatre. The compromise here struck me as generous and perfect. On one level, K. is kind og hung out to dry for his gender politics, putting Nina in a see-through slip, and tying her – Jeanne d’Arc-style – to a stake, while an upside-down live-feed is projected on her as she is covered in blood while speaking into an effects-riddled microphone, as Konstantin suspends a deer carcass high above the stage, cuts its throat, and lets the blood pour over him. I mean, it’s so on-the-money. It’s twenty-year-old boy-theatre at its best and worst. You’d see this show at the Edinburgh Fringe and both love it and hate it. It’s a motorway pile-up of clichés, but *really great* clichés. It’s one Throbbing Gristle/Cabaret Voltaire soundtrack short of *exactly* why I should never be a director. (No, okay, I’d be better on Gender, but, come on, he’s twenty and it’s 1895 or something, live-feed notwithstanding...) So, yes. It’s all awesome. When A. takes the piss, K. stomps off and listens to ‘People Are Strange’ by The Doors in his room... Ha!

Then Act Two. Where suddenly everything just gets significantly more normal. From being this elegant multi-level circus of invention – if mostly very text-based invention – it suddenly flatlines. What’s left of the invention is the occasional musical interludes – now mostly Doors songs, and one Hendrix – and the painter. Which is fine. I promise it’s fine. You concentrate a bit more on the performances. Except that isn’t always a good thing. If I’m brutally honest, I wasn’t really at all sure about Nina, Arkadina, or Trigorin. There was a kind of nothingy-ness about the situations. Like, no one much cared about the lines they were saying, or the things that were theoretically happening “to them”. Or to their characters, if that’s the remove at which the actors were from the action. And I couldn’t quite work out what sort of performance style it was. That said, it didn’t not work. The story moves along. The relationships develop. Occasionally, at moments of great intensity, A Lot Of Acting kicked in. But, more generally, it drifted past while I watched the painter, who was easily the most live, present and consequent thing happening on the stage. I mean, watching someone paint on this scale is awesome. And Ostermeier must have known that this would be the commanding visual motif of the piece, so let’s give credit for that, and think our way into wondering what it means. I think actually *a lot* of how the show did work, and I do think it worked. It was compelling on a load of levels, not all of them immediate, and maybe not all of them aimed at me...

So, yes. Something I did find strange was the motif of The Doors and this one Jimi Hendrix song. For me, that’s my record collection in 1990. At least, the “vintage” bit. Is this a lament for the sixties, or a lament for the lament for the sixties that constituted Oliver Stone’s The Doors? Is it instead my generation’s feeling of lateness-to-the-party? [I should expand this, taking into account The Beach Boys in Hedda, the Bowie in VF, and, what others?]

Certainly the next huge, crucial visual/sonic moment is almost canonical music history writ large. Dorn/Pouderoux plays Venus in Furs (with Nina/Richard on Moe Tucker duties) and Dillard TOTALLY OBLITERATES HER PAINTING. It’s genuinely upsetting. The painting was *really good*! And she just paints black over it (yes, shades (again) of Ein Volksfiend). The black is brilliant, though. It’s necessary for the next scene – a dark night outside with snow falling visibly against it, rather than a daylight pastoral scene – but even so... And, more than that, it feels like The Death of The Sixties(!) Aw! Poor Sixties! All that Peace and Love for nothing. Oh well. We’ve probably all read the version of music history that has the Velvet Underground symbolise White Western Rock giving up on Peace ‘N’ Love, right? (It the version where it’s not Altamont, or The Stooges, or MC5, or all the other things/people...) But, yeah, it’s weirdly compelling and *readable* anyway. If also The Most Hackneyed Version of Music History Ever. But this seems to be a production unafraid to deal in big dumb symbols. And I’m not sure it’s a problem that it does.

And, the last scenes – Act Four – *are* gripping (bleugh. Who says “gripping”?). No, really. They’re properly good and properly, properly sad. But, no, it doesn’t help that Nina’s not really been given much by way of an interior life. Can she ever really claw one out of the stage time she’s allotted? I mean, you can’t not watch this ending through the lens of both People, Places & Things, and Ophelias zimmer, and wish that feminism had already caught up with the production. I mean, yeah, fuck, it’s sad about Konstantin, but there are some *other tragedies* going on here too, y’know? It’s awfully hard not to think Nina is just being punished by Chekhov for letting Konstantin down, even though she never particularly asked for his shit in the first place. Maybe, in other productions, Chekhov gets let off a bit more for simply observing that shit does tend to happen to people in general, but this feels like a Boys’ Own production where the sentimentality and romance conspire to make it look like the secondary meaning of the play – after “boys are misunderstood heroes” – is “aren’t women just the worst?”. *Maybe* – big leap – it’s this sort of creepy, weepy, sentimental, male self-justifying that the production is ultimately critiquing, but, YET AGAIN, White, Male, Western Culture, it does so by mostly focussing in the men. So, GAH.

So, yeah. Some good bits, some great bits. And then this awful unresolved feminism fail.