Monday, 27 February 2017

Pygmalion – Headlong at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

[seen 25/02/17]

Sam Pritchard’s new production of creaky old Bernard Shaw’s creaky old Pygmalion sets a new high bar for revivals of “the classics” in England without appearing to even break a sweat. In terms of tone and style... imagine Clem Fandango was a character in a show directed by Thomas Ostermeier or David Marton.

That is to say, Pritchard and his designers have created a Pygmalion that is at once a performance-of-the-text and a critique of said text; it is both modern-dress and original dialogue, with the disparities between then and now allowed to stand and resonate as they will. It’s set in a kind of contemporary London that’s at once pinpoint-accurate and completely made up. But most of all, it effortlessly mines a very contemporary comic sensibility and makes this comedy by Shaw actually funny.

The first thing that happens after the pre-show state – the words: endlessly scrolling across the wooden back-of-the-fourth-wall lowered at the front of the stage – is a kind of cast lip-sync challenge. It sounds like all sorts of people (across age, class, ethnicity and region) read through the original first scene, while members of the cast mime along “in character”. It’s *such* a perfect way of setting out the production’s stall. It doesn’t even feel alienatingly arty, because a) it’s performed with such panache, and b) it’s funny. [You can sell the English any amount of art (or politics, for that matter) as long as it’s got jokes.]

The effect of hearing these myriad voices is manifold. We’re maybe already conscious that original Pygmalion is a comedy based on the premise that different classes talk different, and that in it a posh bloke teaches a “common” flower-girl to speak “proper(ly)”. (And if we’re not, the scene gets us up to speed in an intelligent way.) It also reminds us just how many voices there are in modern Britain. It (and the rest of the production) slyly undermine Shaw’s simplistic false posh/common binary. Rather than allowing Professor Higgins’s opinions to stand as some sort of bon mot-strewn thesis, he’s instead demonstrated to be something of an irrelevant oddball. This isn’t a production that thinks much of either his learning (portrayed more as hipster noodling) or his philanthropy (essentially the grotesque use of money to manipulate and abuse). Conversely, Eliza’s “common-ness” is never allowed to become the joke. I’m not exactly how Pritchard (and Natalie Gavin as Eliza) manage it, but somehow – perhaps through pointed silences and stares – we’re forcibly reminded of the level of poverty in Britain, and that how other people talk isn’t actually funny. (Although swearing in a posh voice at the wrong moment at an upper class party absolutely is.)

I’m afraid I don’t know the play nearly well enough to tell you the extent to which it’s been cut, and/or changed. What I can tell you is that the thing in front of us presented by Headlong is (at least in the first half) a near perfect mixture of reverence and “brutality”. Alex Lowde’s design places most of the action in a small blue cyclorama which also stands in as Higgins’s “real” sound studio. Sound is crucial here, and reputed sound design pioneers Ben and Max Ringham have gone right to town putting it together here – allowing the characters on stage the agency to fiddle with their own radio mics, changing the pitch and tone of their voices, adding reverb, echoes, all sorts. (By Higgins’s sound studio here, we’re perhaps reminded slightly of the Hungarian language lab setting for Marthaler’s Meine Faire Dame – a production that I worried would entirely eclipse this one, but that in the event I didn’t think of once). Similarly, Pritchard has been admirably unsentimental about all the action having to be live. There are some linking scenes, and they’re simply presented as viceos. Eliza getting a cab. Eliza sitting in her grotty bedsit. Eliza listening to My Fair Lady on her bed...

(YES! How often do you see a show that has the sense to acknowledge that in the modern world where it’s set, there’s already a musical of the story we’re watching? It’s like the question: “What is on ITV at [the times and days when Coronation Street is on] for the characters in Coronation Street?” It should absolutely be Coronation Street, right? Thank God generation postmodernism-is-normal have arrived to make that clear...)

Will Duke (projection designer) has done a largely outstanding job. It’s an interesting thing, because it draws us into the piece and allows it to show a sort of “reality” (a more heightened reality at least than that to which theatre can ever hope to aspire (Eliza running down the road past Green Park station, for e.g., makes use of *actual Green Park station and actress-playing-Eliza running past it*)). It’s also nice because it reminds us of telly and cinema, which are also artforms in C21st, and it maybe reminds everyone that those involve acting and stories and etc., so why be weird about theatre, hmm? What I’m clumsily trying to say is: for something that could be understood as “very arty” (and heavily, heavily Europe-infected), it does a pretty bloody good job of feeling as demotic, idiosyncratic and English as Corrie and Toast.

Yes, for me it could have gone further. The invention dries up a little in the second half in what feels like a bit of a mad rush to get the rest of the plot out of the way. And the second half is also where the plot gets a lot less appealing. Pritchard (and no dramaturg credited) does a fine job of de-centring the “emotional motor” of the piece. We see that – for all Shaw’s attempts to make Higgins’s snobbery and condescension charming and somehow egalitarian – in C21st eyes, the play hangs off insupportable premises. Even if Shaw was experimenting with some sort of “knowing” Victorian proto-hipster irony. And, correspondingly, when Eliza leaves the stage for the last time in this production we’re under doubt that she’s about as likely to be back as Nora Helmer. Correspondingly, I’m not sure what Pritchard’s done with the reams of romantic comedy makes particular sense. He’s stopped them being romantic or comic, which is excellent, but he has left them there. Perhaps to examine the expectations that surround the play. And, actually, to that end, it’s about as stern as the thing can get without just cutting/re-writing/swapping the lines. I mean, the more I think about it, the more I like it, but I can’t help wondering if there was an even better thing that could have been done here, given the radical inventions and irreverences of the first half.

Nonetheless, for all these little quibbles, this production announces Pritchard as a major talent, and one with a discerning eye for collaborators. I should also say that the entire cast is first-rate, demonstrating range, playfulness and ease-with-modernity that still feels sadly rare in modern British casts. Alex Beckett as Higgins in particular is outstanding: brilliantly funny, and unafraid to be unsympathetic, while at the same time being one of the most hugely likeable actors we’ve got.
This production should be the benchmark/default-normal for UK productions of the classics. There’s a lot further English theatre can go, but this is a strong starting point for 2017.

Klątwa – Teatr Powszechny

[seen 18/02/17]

[I have already written a short review of Klątwa for The Stage, but I wanted to write a much longer thing about it here.]

My relationship with Teatr Powszechny goes back to November 2015, when they invited me to review their production Roar, China!. As it turns out, the timing was significant. At the start of that review I note that the far-right, Catholic nationalist Law and Justice Party had won an overall majority in the general election just two weeks earlier.

The next time I was in Warsaw was for Barbara Wysocka’s Juliusz Cezar in January, 2016. By that point – two months later – there were near-weekly protests against the Law and Justice Party’s depredations into the freedom of the Polish press, its challenges to personal, political and artistic liberties, and so on.

By the time I saw Powszechny’s production of Jelinek’s Wściekłość – September 2016 – the Law and Justice Party were gearing up to ban all abortions in Poland. Even those medically necessary for the preservation of the pregnant woman’s life.

This is the context in which Klątwa opens. The situation in Poland is Very Bad Indeed.

[I should say, that this review is aimed primarily at my British contemporaries who possibly won’t get to see the show. On this basis, some comparisons I use might seem a bit parochial to mainland readers. It’s honestly not that we’re obsessed with bringing any given subject back to ourselves here in Britain – no matter how much our politicians may make it seem that way – more; simply that we *are* an island (and vassal state of America) and, as such, remarkably ill-served in terms in terms of European international work . As such, saying: “Oh, this Frljić production is quite like Nicholas Stemann’s Die Schutzbefohlenen...” would be functionally useless even if it was true. (Which it isn’t.)]

My relationship to the piece’s director, Oliver Frljić, begins in 2014 when I saw (and loved) his phenomenally successful international hit Damned Be The Traitor in His Homeland at the Sibiu Festival. (Despite my best efforts, it has yet to be seen in UK.)

A year later, at BITEF’15, I saw his piece Ristić Kompleks, and then again at its Mladinsko home, in May 2016. I have yet to see his (previous) latest piece, Our Violence, Your Violence – an adaptation of Peter Weiss’s The Aesthetics of Resistance, which opened in Vienna, Berlin and Ljubljana last autumn.

Frljić is brilliant. I am a huge admirer of his work and his politics. I might even go so far as to suggest that this year he will be the most important director/maker working in Europe. On current showing, he is absolutely the director/maker best equipped to deal with its coming/ongoing crises. It is perhaps no coincidence that he was a Serb-Croat born in Bosnia and was a teenager during the wars in ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s. I imagine that gives him a far better insight into “civilisation” than, for example, yours or mine.


As I say in my Stage review, this show is nominally a “production of” Klątwa (The Curse), an 1899 play written by Polish dramatist Stanisław Wyspiański. It is “a production” in the sense that would cause David Hare and the dullard he’s talking to in that interview instant heart-failure. Hopefully.

It begins with the whole cast making a phone call to Bert Brecht (!). It’s played as a pitch-perfect parody of Brechtian productions, and does that vital thing of telling everyone in the audience exactly how the evening is going to pan out. This is not – we can be assured – going to be a “straight production” of The Curse, but it also provides vital context about the original text, and about the current political situation in Poland., along with some amusing self-mockery – both of Poland and of theatre.

At the other end of the phone line – it turns out – is a giant statue of Pope Jean-Paul II with a massive erection. One of the actresses rolls a condom onto the papal cock and proceeds to vigorously fellate him for the next five minutes. As symbolism goes, it’s crude but effective. What’s perhaps most striking, though, is how long it goes on for. As it continues, you are actually forced to think about *why* you’re watching this. The obvious “shock”-value wears off pretty quickly, and you start to actually deconstruct it properly. The numerous readings and problems keep on piling up. Both the outward-pointing metaphorical values and the intrinsic ethical problems with making an actress go down on a plaster knob for five minutes. It also seems to function as a comment on trends in contemporary pornography (doubtless a massive growth industry in Poland) and as a comment/question about what is tolerated and what is not under this new Catholic nationalism to which Poland is being subjected. At the end of the five minutes (I’m guessing), the statue is hanged, with a sign round its neck.

This is followed by an early scene from The Curse itself, with naturalistic action replaced by a kind of grotesque chorus of violence. Then this itself is broken out of by the actress playing the role of the victimised young woman, who delivers an angry speech denouncing Frljić’s “feminism” for still somehow requiring women being shown being assaulted.

On one hand, sure, yes, you could say he’s having his cake and eating it here, by first having the scene and *then* having the denunciation. But, Christ! How absolutely brilliant to have the argument about the ethics of this problem *actually on the stage*. As we know, this is also something of a live issue here in the UK – this problem/question of there being real violence against women, and how does theatre talk about that? Especially if some people would apparently censor the appearance of any simulation of violence on stage. This seems to be a good solution. The actress clearly has her agency. She names and addresses the problem directly. No one could be left with any possibility to vicariously enjoy the sadism.

There is also a sense in which the director and the processes of theatre could be start to function as a metonym(?) for the oppressive mechanisms of the church. Which is a kind of genius move – the church cannot come back at the show for smugly criticising from some kind of artistic ivory tower when the show is as critical of itself and its processes as it is of the church. You kind of wish this sort of Brechtian discursiveness were available in the UK. (Why it isn’t is anyone guess.)

I think it was around this point that I started seriously wondering why English theatre couldn’t be more like this in its treatment of the classics. I mean, sure, it’s not “proper”, but it was also a damn sight less boring. And to having a production actually anticipate and argue about the problems of the production, in the production? Well, it would have solved a lot of the problems of Yerma and/or Hedda, wouldn’t it? [written before I saw Pygmalion, which has partially restored my faith in the English ability to make bold, intelligent main-stage theatre in the C21st]

Moreover, lest this sound like I was just enjoying a very relevant seminar, it’s very hard to convey just how *live* and “electric” (terrible cliché review term, but, it’s the cliché we want here) it was. Really. This wasn’t performed in the whiny, entitled, instant-switch-off, strident student voices you might be imagining. No. This was yer proper theatre-trained, top-of-their-game Polish actors really belting it. I don’t think the UK really has an equivalent form of acting at all.

But the most affecting parts of the show are yet to come.


One of the actresses stands up and, bashing a microphone against her stomach to mimic the sound of a baby’s heartbeat, announces that next week she is going to have an abortion. She asks the women in the audience how many of them have had an abortion. She tells us:

“I’ve decided to have an abortion. I’m not going to justify myself. This is my body, my belly, and no one – no country, no church, no politician – will be telling me what to do with it. I have an appointment for a procedure in the Netherlands next week. I’ll spend my hard-earned money on an abortion abroad...”

and sings the Polish national anthem.


The cast, dressed as priests, line up – kneeling – along the front of the stage, and each one describes when they were sexually abused by a priest from the Catholic church. It is quiet, avowedly unsensational, and as each story unfolds in four simple lines, your sense of absolute horror grows. Sure, these might not be the true stories of these particular actors (there’s a disclaimer later about how theatre is fiction), but there’s literally no reason to doubt that they are. And if each of these actors was sexually abused by a priest at some point in their lives, what does that say about the statistics of Poland overall? You got the feeling, sitting in the theatre on Saturday night, that there was a terrible, general assent to the truth of the scene. It’s a horrible, shattering indictment of widespread child-abuse on an almost industrial scale. What it says about the culpability of everyone from parents, to authorities, to priests, right the way up to Jean-Paul II himself. It’s little wonder that they hung his effigy with a sign round his neck – “Patron of Paedophiles” – like partisans put on Nazi collaborators.


The show skips on again. Actress Barbara Wysocka (she who directed Powszechny’s award-winning Juliusz Cezar at the Gdansk Shakespeare Festival) delivers a monologue about how Frljić is just some international professional provocateur and will be off to Munich or Maribor the day after the première, his hypocrisy in his treatment of the actors, and – more than this – the fact that he’s take a job curating the Malta Festival in Poznań this year, even after they banned a show in 2014.

Elsewhere, an amusing actor, apparently known for his willingness to get his kit off/perform degrading roles (that could be made up in his monologue), puts his bits through a colour-photocopy of Frljic’s face.

An actress takes a chainsaw to the large wooden cross that has loomed over the stage all evening...


The whole thing is episodic. All Frljić’s work that I’ve seen is. In UK I can even imagine this being taken (by some) as a flaw. The thing is, I’ve seen a fucktonne of “flawless” work that is boring beyond measure. Work that doesn’t work. Or do anything. Klątwa is never boring. It works perfectly. And clearly it has an intellectual and political reach well beyond the walls of the building in which it is performed. And, really, the choppiness must be deliberate. At one point in the show the actors even announce a two minute break*.

So let’s allow that Frljić, and his enormously accomplished team of dramaturgs, and his actors, have actually thought about what they’re doing. Let’s, instead of reading the episodic structure as “a mistake” let’s read it as a strategy, a device; a device for making the constructedness of the event manifest. Let’s not think of the fact that there’s a bit about two thirds through, after the “confessions” of abuse – where the actors machine-gun the audience with wooden replica guns screwed together from multiple crucifixes to amazing loud music – that would have been a perfect place to end the show on “a visceral high” where the show doesn’t end as “an error”. Let’s honour the fact that Frljić instead steps back from that kind of rabble-rousing, and instead keeps on worrying away at his subject until it’s done to his satisfaction. And all the while, let’s remember that this is “a production of a classic text”.  And that as a piece of theatre it works brilliantly.


Post-script: I am aware that in the week since I saw the show, all sorts of inflammatory lies have been printed in the Polish press, leading to threats of violence against crew, crew, and theatre staff and daily protests outside the building, and a ceaseless campaign of intimidation.

Perhaps, you think, I should address that in this review. The problem is, I can’t. Because the things that are being protested about simply aren’t in the show. The campaign against is – I believe – on the basis that the piece is blasphemous. It isn’t. God isn’t mentioned once in the new material, and only occasionally (and respectfully) in the original script, which has been in circulation since 1899. No “objects of worship” are desecrated in the piece. Personally, I find even that law ridiculous, and wouldn’t mind if they were, BUT. THEY. AREN’T. There is nothing in the show that contravenes even the right-wing, Catholic laws of Poland. It is, what I believe they call here in England, “fair comment”. This is precisely the sort of art that free speech laws were conceived to protect. It is not interfering with or mocking anyone’s beliefs. It isn’t even an attack on Catholicism, per se. It is an attack on man, and the criminals who have turned the Catholic church into the largest child sex abuse ring in the history of humanity, and who seek to exercise control over the bodies of women without consent.

If God is half the Father that Christianity takes him for, it is impossible not to conclude that He would be on Frljić’s side, proudly wearing a “NOT IN MY NAME” badge on His eternal lapel.

Thursday, 23 February 2017


[in other news]

The Hungarian theatre magazine, Színház, published a translation of my (ironically titled) piece Against Paralysis from just before there became no point whatsoever in having opinions or making arguments for them.

I guess posting this marks my grudging return to trying to see any point whatsoever in continuing to write about something as piffling as theatre while the world appears hell bent on self-annihilation. Frankly, it makes more sense to me to post screenshots of new Pokémon I’ve caught than trying to pretend that theatre in Britain is going to make the slightest bit of difference to the surging waves of deliberate ignorance and thuggery that now constitute the majority of our national discourse. But on we bloody go, I suppose... 

Postcards plugs – Contemporary Adaptations of Greek Tragedy


I have a chapter about Katie Mitchell’s productions of Greek Tragedies in Contemporary Adaptations of Greek Tragedy: Auteurship and Directorial Visions edited by George Rodosthenous.

None of us will get a penny from sales of this book, so, again, I suggest you steal a copy from a chain store.


[in other news]

The Hungarian theatre magazine, Színház, published a translation of my piece Wir sind alle weißen Männer from back when there was any point at all in having opinions and making arguments for them.

Postcards plugs – Theatre Criticism: Changing Landscapes


I have a chapter about the short history of theatre criticism online in Theatre Criticism: Changing Landscapes edited by Duška Radosavljević.

None of us will get a penny from sales of this book, so I suggest you steal a copy from a chain store.

The Stage: How the decline of criticism led to the rise of Trump

Saturday, 31 December 2016


Songs from the shows!


[Imagine blurb here]

Suicide – ‘Ghost Rider’ from Cleansed

Riton – ‘Rinse and Repeat’ from quite the best news in some considerable time

Gorgoroth – ‘Carving a Giant’ from 99 Words For Void

Death in Rome – ‘Wrecking Ball’ from Chekhov’s First Play [ok, they used the original, but this one is by people pretending to be Nazis, so that’s more fun, right?]

The Royal Court – ‘The Light Disappears’ from Unreachable

Red Army Choir – ‘Polyushka Poliya’ from Us/Them

Cigarettes After Sex – ‘Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You, Baby’ from Tank

Luna - ‘Red Bull’ from The Oath [I really can’t recommend the video, but the song is magical]

Bonus track: Laibach – ‘The Whistleblowers’

Actually, quite possibly the best live thing I saw all year.

Second Bonus Track, obviously:

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Against paralysis

[a manifesto for post-Trump theatre]

“[W]hat theatre in general also needs to do is to change the way it is accessed by both audiences and artists, how it is structured, how it is resourced and what kinds of work are resourced or not resourced, valued and not valued. That may well require facing up to some unpalatable truths about how theatre is perceived by the vast majority of people...”

I disagree.

Well, I do and I don’t.

This year, seems to have been a year of victories for the-further-right-than-normal. So much so, that no one even understands the labels “left” and “right” any more.

In the summer, in Britain, there was a massive popular vote to award the National Health Service £350 million a week. This has somehow been interpreted as a victory for neo-Nazis and NHS Privatisation.

In the autumn, in the USA, there was an overwhelming vote against neoliberal complacency, which has somehow been interpreted as a victory for neo-Nazism. We (on “the left”) are nothing if not addicted to The Threat of Nazisim. Just as “the right” is addicted to its fear of “Socialism” and/or “Communism”.

In both votes, the actual views of the voters – the compromises they made with the bits they didn’t like – continue unknown. All we know is the result. And in each case the actual result itself remains confused. “Brexit” doesn’t know what it is, or how it’s meant to happen. And much the same seems to be true of Donald Trump; a man who seems to have promised almost everything to everyone, and who seems vaguely convinced that this is a thing that it’s possible to deliver.

Here, “on the left,” the weird accusation that has gained most currency in recent months is that “we live in an echo chamber”.

This is – respectfully – utter bollocks.

I’ve already written about this once, but I’m going to keep repeating it until people stop saying it:


What we do is disagree.

It seems to me that “the left” (which is by no means all the people who disagree) is particularly prone to agonising about its failings. Seeing evidence of this on “the right” is a lot more rare. I mean, for Christ’s sake, they’re a party of millionaires cutting benefits to the poorest in society because their ideology tells them it’s the right thing to do. And yet apparently all they have to do is toss off a casually worded accusation about our being rigid ideologues in an echo chamber and we’ll break off from challenging them for several weeks to sink into an ecstasy of navel-gazing.

How about we remember that actually: a) we do know what their arguments are, and b) We’ve. Rejected. Their. Arguments. Because They. Are. Wrong.

So, to return to Lyn’s piece;
“[Theatre...] may well require facing up to some unpalatable truths about how theatre is perceived by the vast majority of people...”

Well, sure. It’s easy enough to imagine worlds where “theatre” is seen as:


But then, it’s also possible to envisage it being seen as:

culturally Marxist,

And none of this seems to stop anyone wanting to go and see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. [Things that might actually stop people seeing it are: it’s in London; it costs money; it’s only playing to 2,000 people a night and there are 65,111,143 people in UK (not including tourists).]

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assert that most theatre in the UK is pretty much squarely in the middle of both lists of accusations. Too left-wing for the extreme right, too right-wing for the proper left. And far too remote (physically) for far too many fucking people. (As someone “on the left”, I think it could certainly do with starting to be all the things that “the right” accuses it of, but it’s nowhere bloody near them at the moment.)

My list of reasons not to go to the theatre in England is as follows; it’s:


Obviously, #NotAllTheatre. But I bet you all know what I mean, right?  < dog-whistle >

And all this assumes that you even have a theatre within reasonable reach...

Also obviously, some theatre just doesn’t work out. Promising ideas fail to realise their potential. Performances don’t come off. Bold production ideas just don’t work. But that’s fine. Failure isn’t the fucking problem. I mean, don’t expect good reviews for it, but, Jesus, I’d still rather see a year’s worth of failed ambition than successful safety.

You’ll notice I’ve stopped talking about “politics”. That’s because this is theatre.

I think Political Theatre in Britain is (largely) fucked.

Or at least, it’s fucked when it (largely) consists of someone reading a story in the Daily Mail and writing a play aimed at changing everyone’s mind about it through a series of laborious scenes where characters argue about it.

[No rules, though: Now I’ve described it, I can totally imagine someone doing just that and it being the most thrilling thing we see next year.]

In short, the idea of theatre is only off-putting if we let it be.

The best way of avoiding that is not to make theatre that conforms to what we’re told it is, or that sets out with someone else’s definition to disprove. Politics return to theatre most strongly when theatre stops addressing a particular news cycle directly (because to address the news cycle is to adopt the agenda, to accept the premises of a pre-ordained worldview.  I often think the thing I’d most like to see is people putting on any random (maybe ideally historical/canonical) play, and just saying that it’s “about immigration/racism/the rise of the far-right/the financial crisis/etc.” in all their blurb. The play doesn’t have to be “about” those things at all).

Sure, the word “theatre” is fucked. It’s been around for too long, and it conjures unreliable images in the heads of anyone who hears it. It can be an exercise in negative association a million times before it means something positive. Probably best to avoid using it in your promotional literature, and if you’re lucky/unlucky enough to be working in a building that is actually called a theatre, just for Christ’s sake don’t make what you think you’re expected to make in there.

I still believe that most people are better than we suspect or imagine them of being. No, sure, not everyone likes the same things – not everyone even agrees that Cleansed was the best thing since Alles weitere kennen sie aus dem Kino, for example – but at the moment there are still quite a lot of theatres (and many, many more empty warehouses, back-rooms of pubs, and, hell, each others’ flats and houses...), and no one’s saying it all has to be the same.

I mean, yes, Cleansed was one of the best things I saw this year and it had a lot of resources, but another was Three Sisters, in Maribor, performed in the cluttered room above a café using natural light and a guitar amp/iPod. You hardly need resources to be utterly brilliant, but resources aren’t necessarily deadening or awful either. Anything can be a positive virtue if used intelligently.

From my perspective, the last thing we want to be doing is making art to please right-wingers, though. They don’t like it? Good. If there’s a challenge, it’s making art that’s so good that people feel they have to change themselves in order to be able to appreciate it better; not pretend-“art” that bends itself to what people already think that they think. Try assuming that people might be interested in hearing new ideas instead.  Try having new ideas.

Challenge yourselves, challenge your audiences, bin the binaries, and be better.

[conciliatory anthem for any bruised artistic directors reading]

[Cover photo: detail from Rite of Spring (2013) by Idris Khan]

Thursday, 3 November 2016

The Stage: nothing right or left, but claiming makes it so?

[written for The Stage]

Wrote a piece for The Stage looking at Ed Vaizey's use of the "left"/"right" binary in a recent speech, which happened to accord with some stuff I've been thinking about.

If you're lucky, I might stick up the first draft at some point, which was written in response to just the reported News version of the lecture (i.e. three or four lines quoted out of context), which is *very* different.

(Oh, and in the subbing-process, my description of Munira Mirza as a "contrarian Marxist" and link to her CultureWars review of The Globe's 2005 Tempest as evidence got lost (rightly, they made the sentence unfeasibly ungainly) so consider those a bonus for reading here. :-) )

[N.B. I've "improved" the original Stage headline in the above, "cover-photo" screen-cap.]

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Eve of Retirement – SNG, Maribor

[seen 21/10/16]

Thomas Bernhard’s Eve of Retirement is a FANTASTIC play. It is toxic and abrasive in ways that I can’t remember any other play that I’ve ever seen being. And it has more to be abrasive about than most. Written in 1979, it is a kind of vicious outpouring of hate about and from Austria’s unadmitted, uninterrogated, unprocessed Nazi past.

It opens with Clara and Vera sitting in their living room. Clara is talking, Vera is sitting in her wheelchair and is described by Clara as deaf and mute. Vera appears to both hear Clara and answer her. It is unclear whether this is really happening, or whether the play is – well – a play. (There is later the apparent option that Vera is “playing a part” – but again, it is ambiguous whether this means actually, or, now *really* deaf and mute in-the-world-of-the-play symbolically in their lives) They are discussing Rudolf Höller (Borut Veselko). It rapidly becomes clear that Höller is an unrepentant former concentration camp commandant who tonight celebrates Himmler’s birthday, an exercise that includes his wearing his full SS uniform.

As with Kroetz’s 1971 play, Wunschkonzert, at the other end of the Festival, there is a certain extent to which the play now feels, in part, like a historical document. It must have felt like dynamite in 1979 when there genuinely were such people, perhaps even sitting next to you in the theatre watching its première.

What is fascinating, depressing, and disturbing, is that in this revival – even with its stylised seventies haircut wigs and wallpaper – it still resonates loud and hard against the growing, ever more loud resurgence of far-right parties across Europe. You sit here, in the middle of Maribor, in the middle of Slovenia, just nestling next to the Austrian border, and you know (even as an Englishman) that there’s no distance that you can put between yourself and these crimes. And the play knows it too. The entire thing, really, is calling out precisely the atmosphere of contemporary post-Brexit Britain, every bit as much as it’s calling out Austria or Germany. I disagree with the theory that historical costumes and/or different countries “let you off the hook”. Indeed, if anything, without wishing to go all Godwin’s Law, if you can appreciate a comparison between where your country is at now and ex-Nazis in Austria, then it’s the exact reverse of feeling “let off the hook”. This is the most urgent and contemporary play I’ve seen all year.

It also helps that Mateja Koležnikz’s production is a kind of perfection. On one hand, a sort of Robert-Wilson-esque barrage of tics and stylised twitching, and at the same time, a clarity and directness of real violence. [Now, I’m told that all her other productions look and behave the same, but a) I’ve never seen one before, b) I don’t mind a director having a style, so at the moment, she gets full credit for what seems to me to be one of the most astonishingly well-realised pieces in Slovenia.] Mojca Kocbek Vimos’s design – a sawn-off room-corner somehow looming off the small (Royal Court-like) SNG stage is also brilliant, complimented perfectly with both Alan Hranitelj’s costumes and Bojan Hudernik’s lighting (mostly a single massive floodlight pointed straight at the room from the right hand side of the stalls – brilliant).

The play doesn’t provide a moving or cathartic resolution. It more dumps a heap of shit into your lap and makes you think about it. It is a play that would fit beautifully – I think – into the new regime Gate Theatre (and, Christ, this production would fit beautifully into HOME, nudge, nudge), but, yes. Possibly I’ve ground some of the edges and nuances off the piece in my enthusiasm, but this is the first Bernhard piece I’ve really *got*, and I now I want everyone to see it.

Prešeren Theatre, Kranj
Première: 26. 9. 2015, Prešeren Theatre Kranj
Running time 1 hour 45 minutes. No interval.

Original title Vor dem Ruhestand

Translator Lučka Jenčič
Director Mateja Koležnik
Dramaturgs Amelia Kraigher, Nika Leskovšek
Set designer Mojca Kocbek Vimos
Costume designer Alan Hranitelj
Choreographer Magdalena Reiter
Author of video Andrej Intihar
Language consultant Barbara Rogelj
Make-up designer Matej Pajntar
Lighting designer Bojan Hudernik

Rudolf Höller – Borut Veselko
Clara – Darja Reichman
Vera – Vesna Jevnikar

Metamorphoses 3º: Retorika – SNG, Maribor

[seen 21/10/16]

It turns out that my last day at  Borštnikovo contained almost all the shows that I actually liked. About half an hour after the revelatory Three Sisters there was the fascinating Metamorphoses 3º: Retorika.

Now, my response to this piece was slightly (unfairly) coloured by some critic-colleagues all complaining that it was “utter bullshit” (or words to that effect) afterwards. As such, rather than getting to just write a nice review saying I liked it, I feel I have to justify my position more, and perhaps even acknowledge that I was letting a few things go unchallenged because it was enjoyable. [And, yes, I could instead write my original review and cover those aspects, but I’d rather record that this is the process.]

What Metamorphoses 3º: Retorika is, is a kind of light and sound installation, for the most part more operated than performed by its human components. They do get to perform as people saying words into microphones too, but for the most part, they’re not “characters” I don’t think.

The first part of the piece – for almost twenty minutes, at a guess – is actually a film. It talks about a Slovenian woman who trained as a lawyer and dressed as a man in the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s and beyond. It was quite interesting as a film in itself, but even more interesting for having been shown *as cinema* during a piece of theatre (never seen that before. Tick). What follows was characterised by one of my dissenting colleagues as “someone who’s never had all that stuff to play with before in a theatre” – vast piles of mattresses were stacked, restacked, thrown around the stage, and thrown off the stage. Smoke machines billowed. Fake Marshall stack amps were moved around the stage, used to play different soundtracks, and ultimately stacked in a corner. A massive bust (Karl Marx?), was toppled from its pillar and smasked across the stage. Dozens of microphones were positioned and re-positioned. Narrative spilled out, analysis spilled out. Beethoven’s European Anthem (as it now is) played over and over, but never all the way through. Lights shone down in thick beams, traced through the smoke, like columns from the ceiling. Other lights cast long shadows across the stage.

Then, at the end, the actress from the film came on, sang an aria, and exited by the giant iron safety curtain rising to reveal the vast main auditorium of the Slovenian National Theatre’s largest space (imagine basically watching all this sitting at the back of the Olivier stage, albeit one that’s about twice as deep).

I KNOW, I KNOW. That’s just a list of stuff. It just looked nice. It was (too?) episodic (even for me). The fragments of text and where they and the images pointed to was nothing terribly new or original. And many of the images weren’t perhaps in themselves all that new or original either.

BUT. I honestly don’t think *everything* has to be (or even can be) *new*, Every Single Effing Time. I know it’s a walking definition of reactionary, but sometimes it’s genuinely quite nice to see something that amounts to a Visual Theatre’s Greatest Hits album. That the fragments of text didn’t fully add up doesn’t mean that they weren’t offering *anything*. There was feminism, history, the EU, neoliberalism, the clash of ideologies, and etc... I mean, Christ, I hate to harp on about it, but even in this imperfectly realised if hugely enjoyable piece there was a fuck of a lot more going on than in *so much* mainstream UK New Writing (even if less by way of an easy take-home).

To be honest, though, the thing this most resembled was – on some very abstract plain – recent gigs by the Sisters of Mercy. It’s mostly lights and smoke; the material is kinda sludge; but out of sentimental affection for an aesthetic, it’s still somehow quite nice that it’s there. And I ge nuinely enjoy it. As I’ve said many times before, there’s not much you can do about taste, really. [Except lie.] It’s like being taken hostage...

Kud Samosvoj in coproduction with Kino Šiška Centre for Urban Culture, Kud Pozitiv, Plesna Izba Maribor and cooperation with M.I.K.K. Murska Sobota, Zavod DrMr, KC Mostovna

Premiere: 10. 9. 2015, Katedrala, Kino Šiška Centre for Urban Culture, Ljubljana, Slovenia
International Premiere: 18. 5. 2016, 53. Theatertreffen, Berliner Festspiele, Berlin

Running time 1 hour 30 minutes. No interval.

Author of concept and realization: Bara Kolenc and Atej Tutta
Performers: Sanja Nešković Peršin, Bara Kolenc, Rebeka Radovan, Jošt Pengov-Taraniš, Matej Markovič
Dramaturg: Pia Brezavšček
Lighting designers: Peter Pivar, Gregor Smrdelj
Sound designers: Jernej Černalogar, Jure Vlahovič
Author of the Rumours Song: Matevž Kolenc
Make-up designer: Anja Cojhter
Technical support: Radovan Jaušovec
Executive producers: Bara Kolenc, Julia Danila
PR: Mojca Zupanič, Rok Avbar

Three Sisters – Salon Uporabnih Umetnosti

[seen 21/10/16]

This. Is. *It*. This is why I spend a stupid amount of time in Europe watching plays. Because, just occasionally, you see something that you couldn’t have seen anywhere else, and it’s amazing.

This production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters isn’t even included in the official competition programme of the Borštnikovo festival. It’s apparently work made with students and was presented here in the apparently abandoned upstairs rooms of what is now the Institute of Applied Arts(?) (or is that just the name of the bar downstairs?). It’s an old, elegant building, just on the corner of one of Maribor’s bigger streets and the old bridge across the Drava. It had served as a casino in the sixties and seventies, and had then been abandoned and left empty until relatively recently. It’s harder to imagine a better found-space for this production. It’s not painstakingly naturalistic, it’s not *just like their house would be*. Instead it’s just a place that captures the essence of what’s needed for this production.

As soon as you walk in the difference of approach and rightness of setting really hits you. The audience are very much *in the same space and time* as the performers. When the performers smoke (constantly, and real cigarettes too, thank fuck) we breathe their smoke. When they boil a saucepan of coffee, they share the spare cups with the audience. They both are and clearly are not their characters. The theatrical transaction itself couldn’t be handled with more simplicity. The surtitles are projected willy-nilly onto whatever wallspace they can find and the performers move the projector about to sort them out. The costumes are modern dress, and are absolutely spot-on.

The casting, too, is perfect. Even though all the actors (bar one) are too young to be their characters – instead, as with the setting, you can imagine them as the early-twentysomething versions of the characters of the play, perhaps playing out what will become of them in some sort of imaginary limbo. Whatever rationale you invent for yourself, it makes the fairly obvious point that all theatre is an act of imagination anyway, and actually the ruptures here are no more or less intrusive than the velvet arm of a chair under your arm as you gaze at a painstakingly naturalistic replica of a Russian cottage populated with actors who are all the *right* age (gender, ethnicity, whatever) which has been rebuilt inside a vast concrete hangar and where everyone is speaking English.

There’s also a freshness to the acting. Almost a kind of fly-on-the-wall documentary style and candour to it. But more than that, perhaps the most exciting thing here is that the actors all talk over each other. It happens so rarely in theatre (but so constantly in life). Also, scenes take place at the same time, when two different conversations take place in the same room – one after the other in the script – they both happen at the same time here. And the surtitles overlay them, too, ensuring we readers have just as difficult a time picking out what anyone is saying.

And then there’s also all the extraneous stuff. The music, the little additional touches and props. The music especially is awesome. And near constant. Whether it’s one of the performers playing the guitar, or the iPhone popped into an empty glass (to amplify the sound) playing an MP3, or another iPhone plugged into a guitar amp, and sung/screamed along to... You’re reminded of the rules of Dogme 95 – and again with all the natural light flooding into the space from the large windows around the room...

And, yes, you *know* that it *is* all contrived too, and so do they, but that doesn’t stop it feeling electrifying to be in the space and watching the play. There’s a feeling of relaxation and freedom even in being an audience member here. The space having not *quite* enough chairs forces actual conversation and negotiation (although I’m sure that hasn’t been planned), so that everyone watching is actually behaving with a degree of responsibility toward everyone else, rather than slotting into allotted seats with numbers and pretending to be part of a society, when in reality you can happily ignore everyone else entirely. And the quiet is negotiated, not enforced too.

There’s also a bit toward the end, where a violin and a piano are used – sort of underscoring a particularly painful point in the play, but also because it feels like those characters/performers are doing it as something they need to do. The music is allowed to nearly drown out the speaking, the speaking becomes shouting, and *doesn’t feel rubbish for being shouting*. There’s even a somehow-tangible sense that the grief that the characters feel really is something that the performers also feel in some indefinable way. Whether identification-with- or sympathy for-, or what, there’s no way of telling, and that doesn’t feel like the point. The point is, this feels like the most remarkably raw, avant-garde, but original, and honest, and text-serving – even while cutting the text, supplementing it, and making it “real” and “relevant” in some way in the C21st without bothering with a load of hideous signposting and freighting with *relevant issues*.

It doesn’t mean I stopped admiring Benedict Andrews’s YV Three Sisters (for instance), with is glacial cool and its clarity, but, in the moment, I could feel my understanding of the play (indeed Theatre) being completely rewired. It takes those tiresome English binaries of “1) how to do classics right (now/period) and 2) whether directors are artists or servants” and exposes them as completely meaningless.

In many ways, this is one of the best pieces of theatre I have ever experienced.

This is a trailer for the production, albeit filmed somewhere other than where I saw it:

Margareta Schwarzwald Institute and UL AGRFT
Première: 30. 9. 2015, Cona 3, Ljubljana
Running time 1 hour 30 minutes. No interval.

Authors of translation and adaptation Maruša Kink and the team
Director Maruša Kink
Dramaturg Nika Leskovšek
Set designers Tina Bonča, Maruša Kink and the team
Costume designer Tina Bonča

Matija Vastl
Daša Doberšek
Lucija Tratnik
Danijel Bogataj
Aja Kobe
Jure Kopušar

izr. prof. mag. Tomislav Janežič

Set design
doc. mag. Jasna Vastl

Peer Gynt – SNG, Maribor

[seen 20/10/16]

Peer Unbelievably-Boring, more like.

Nah. I got nothing for you with this one. It is one of the most excruciatingly boring things I have ever sat through in my life. I quite liked the set (a dual-level grey concrete cyclorama), but even for someone who loves grey concrete, in this context it really didn’t help.

Actually, that’s a lie, it was quite textured; I spent quite a lot of time looking at it, admiring how it had been weathered, wondering what material it was actually made out of, and how much a set like that would cost. Or weigh. And whether it would be more interesting if it wasn’t such a small cyclorama. I wondered about how it would work if it was flat instead of curved. In fact, I think I thought more about the grey back wall of the set and spent more time looking at it and enjoying its visual properties than I did about any of the people wandering about in front of it speaking.

I think this is another of those shows where they’d thrown out the original text and replaced it with some other text. Which, as an approach, I find terrific and exciting. On principle. You don’t especially need to see Ibsen’s words translated into Slovenian and then surtitled in English to enjoy Hitler’s favourite play; I’m just as happy to see what someone else wants to bring to the table. In this instance, what they brought to the table, however, was just a lot of undergraduate musing on the nature of individuality (on which subject I got more from one page of the new Lehmann than hours of this).

It’s striking, writing this back in England the day after the moronic Emma Rice storm, that even this most plodding and pedestrian of Slovenian productions contained more revolutionary ideas than anything discussed or proposed yesterday. I mean, as far as I understand it, they did take the entire text and plot of Ibsen’s play and bin it. And still called the production Peer Gynt, without apology. Sure, the replacement contents and staging weren’t super *in this instance*, but the principle remains energising. [There’s a chance that they *didn’t* bin Ibsen’s text, of course, and just did a production of it that was so stultifyingly dull, you couldn’t even recognise it – although, in a way, this is maybe the most radical path of all... :-) ]

Ljubljana City Theatre and Slovene Permanent Theatre in Trieste
Première: 8. 10. 2015, Ljubljana City Theatre; 6. 11. 2015, Slovene Permanent Theatre in Trieste
Running time 2 hours 30 minutes. One interval.
Translator: Milan Jesih
Director and music selector: Eduard Miler
Author of adaptation and dramaturg: Žanina Mirčevska
Set designer: Branko Hojnik
Costume designer: Jelena Proković
Language consultant: Maja Cerar
Lighting designer: Andrej Hajdinjak
Assistant to costume designer: Barbara Vrbančič

Peer Gynt Matej Puc
Aase/Solveig/Troll-witch/Oriental Dancer/Hussein/Woman in Black Iva Krajnc
Aslak/Dovre-Master/A Voice in the Darkness/Oriental Dancer/Begriffenfeldt/Strange Passenger/ Button-Moulder Primož Pirnat
Mother/Ingrid/Woman in Green/Anitra/Huhu/Sailor 2 Nina Rakovec
Bridegroom/Young Troll/Ugly Child/Monsieur Ballon/Oriental Dancer/Lunatic/Cook/Thin Man Domen Valič
Wedding Guest/Troll-courtier/Mr. Cotton/Oriental Dancer/Lunatic Mummy/Sailor 1 Jure Kopušar as guest
Father/Troll-oldest courtier/Herr Trumpeterstraale/Oriental Dancer/Fellah/Captain Vladimir Jurc

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – SNG, Maribor

[seen 20/10/16]

In comparison to the week I’d been having thus far, this Who’s Afraid... was at least a polite, well-managed, nice-to-look-at, and inoffensive. No one blacked-up; no one commented on any pressing contemporary issue; what toplessness/near-nudity there was was so tasteful and normal as to ordinarily escape comment; no one *tried* to outrage me or bore me. And of course, like a pervert with Stockholm Syndrome, I immediately missed it. How predictable and safe it all was.

In ordinary terms, Martin Kušej’s production, from the Residenztheater, Munich, is – well – ordinary. Ordinary German, so – sure – the stage was a wide white narrow platform and wall suspended in a black void over a stage floor covered in shattered glass – glass which is added to, across the course of the play, as characters throw glass after glass out of their world and out onto the stage.

And the performances were good too. I wasn’t riveted by any means, but you could see that they were performances of style and quality. Even if I wasn’t going for the style, and was being left cold by the quality. They really resembled pretty much exactly what you’d expect English actors to do in the same play, but with less attempt to be funny or trying to make the audience like them. (With the simple result that we didn’t.)

However, the big problem here, as with Cleansed, is that I’m at a massive disadvantage with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Except, whereas with Cleansed I saw the imagination-haunting production this year, with ...Woolf, I saw it in 2001. So, yes, Khalid Abdalla’s Cambridge University ADC production (starring then students Rebecca Hall and Cressida Trew) still remains definitive* for me. It didn’t hurt that that production opened the week after 9/11 and contained the line “no one ever attacked New York” which dropped silence onto an already silent room like you only hear happen maybe once a decade. But even without that sudden, echoing topicality, that production had a fineness, an energy and an assurance that means that I could sit 1,001.7 miles from where first I saw it, thirteen years later, and remember precise positions, movements and inflections, as well as the overall emotional resonance (I mean, it is probably one of the ten most memorable things I’ve ever seen in my life, so...)

Here, the resonances play very differently. The talk of Science professor Nick being involved in some sort of post-Nazi eugenics reads very differently when he’s saying it in German, for example. And I am also a lot older now. Where once I saw George and Martha as some terrible warning about adult relationships, I’ve maybe got a bit more of a nuanced appreciation of them as a pair, now. Perhaps they’re not *just* trapped in some sort of Beckettian alcoholic hell, perhaps they’re also not pissing about or being fatalistic when they talk about loving each other. Perhaps they’re just doing what they need to do to get on with things. There’s a very real sense in which the entire play can be read not as a glimpse into George and Martha’s unremitting personal hell, but simply as the performance of their self-medication and the effective coping strategies that love might entail.

Indeed, without a production bringing in all the bells and whistles of emotional devastation, the audience is afforded the opportunity to sit back and coolly reflect on what Albee has written, how it functions, and what he might be trying to say with it. What I was most interested by, in this respect, what how much it reminded me of the mid-career work of Harold Pinter, albeit set in a more recognisable world, with more understandable characters. But the creeping strangeness of George and Martha’s games with their guests has a dramaturgy all of its own, which goes way beyond the naturalistic ramblings of two childless alcoholics. Albee’s titles for each act are projected on the wall in the blackout which precedes it – in lurid letters for much too long – which on one level felt like an amusing sabotage of Albee’s apparent fondness for insisting that the letter of his script be followed (it isn’t here, it’s been cut to bits – there’s a chance it’s a staging of the film script?) but also points up the overall structure he has in mind.

So, yes. As always, when watching one performance superimposed over another, a strange, inconclusive experience in terms of observing the production at hand; but a fascinating experience of a play over decades, and across cultures.

*No, of course I don’t mean “definitive” really.  I just loved it, and still remembered and thought about that production through the many stillnesses and spaces in this one.

Residenztheater München, Germany
Première: 18. 9. 2014, Residenztheater München, Germany
Running time approximately 2 hours. No interval

Director: Martin Kušej
Set & costume designer: Jessica Rockstroh
Lighting designer: Tobias Löffler
Dramaturg: Andrea Koschwitz

Performers [interesting choice of word]
Martha: Bibiana Beglau
George: Norman Hacker
Nick: Johannes Zirner
Honey: Nora Buzalka

Monday, 24 October 2016

Ubu Roi – SNT, Maribor

[seen 19/10/16]

This production of Ubu Roi contains blackface. Not ironic blackface. Not deconstructed blackface. Just a white actor wearing brown greasepaint to play “Negro” (see cast list).


No further review possible.

SNT Drama Ljubljana
Première: 30. 1. 2016, SNT Drama Ljubljana
Running time 2 hours 40 minutes. One interval.

Director Jernej Lorenci
Dramaturg Matic Starina
Set designer Branko Hojnik
Costume designer Belinda Radulović
Composer and quotations selector Branko Rožman
Lighting designer Pascal Mérat
Choreographer Gregor Luštek
Language consultant Tatjana Stanič
Assistant to dramaturg Katja Markič

Papa Ubu Jernej Šugman
Mama Ubu Nina Valič
Capetain Bordure Bojan Emeršič
Big Priest Jurij Zrnec
Klemen Slakonja Klemen Slakonja
Minister Sabina Kogovšek
Financier Boris Mihalj
Judge / The Big One Gregor Zorc as guest
Negro / The Little One Žan Perko as guest

This is Not a Love Story – Lutkovno Gledališče, Maribor

[seen 19/10/16]

Thank fuck for choreography, frankly. This was, like, the millionth piece I saw at the Borštnikovo festival and – having missed seeing the brilliant Republika Slovenija again because of a timetable clash – the festival was proving *somewhat low on highlights* by this point. [This wasn’t just my opinion, btw. The usual crew of international critics and curators were all looking *a bit grumpy* by Wednesday.] Meanwhile, I was trying to pioneer a new descriptive-not-prescriptive approach to the work, after most of my previous reviews were more tellings offs than reviews. Difficult critical question, that. [See: blogs and trolls, passim.]

I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was interesting – really interesting – to see the work, and to observe possible “national tendencies” (nothing conclusive); however, *at the time* when *the actual shows* are often *very boring to sit through* one’s patience *does begin to fray*. So, an hour of very gentle, very wry, very deadpan, very perfectly realised hipster stand-up-choreography was the unexpected answer to exactly what you’d like to see. As a mode, I guess it’s familiar from people like Ivana Müller and Jerome Bel, or maybe imagine a super-chilled Sleepwalk Collective.

In This is Not a Love Story, the two performers basically stand on stage, ask each other questions, walk about in perfect sync a bit, and occasionally do a couple of steps of *actual dance* (the reactionaries!).

It’s nice at the time. And, I think – outside of a festival context; having less to write about, think about, concentrate on – I bet one could dig right into it, and probably come up with a brilliant Trueman-esque reading of what it’s *really* about. (Probably Matt could have done that here too, maybe I’m just lazy.) But as it was, I just let it wash over me. There’s an amusing bit about whales, for example, where the woman interrogates the man about how much he likes them. He opts for b) (of a–c), which boils down to quite liking them, being happy to watch a documentary about them, perhaps, but maybe not going so far as to set a video recorder so he can watch the programme again. This is the attitude the show gives off about itself too. And the one it gets back in return. In this context, even with added gratitude, it’s hardly the stuff out of which life-changing commitments are made.

I refuse to link this response to the show's title in a punning sign-off, though.

Première: 11. 5. 2011, Dansens Hus Stockholm, Sweden
Running time 1 hour. No interval.

Director and author of concept Gunilla Heilborn
Choreograpers and authors of text Gunilla Heilborn, Johan Thelander, Kristiina Viiala
Set and costume designer Katarina Wiklund
Lighting designer Miriam Helleday
Author of music Kim Hiorthoy
Sound designer Johan Adling
Technical coordinator Axel Norén
Managing director Asa Edgren/Loco World

Johan Thelander, Kristiina Viiala

Ondine – SNG, Maribor

[seen 18/10/16]

Blimey. Have you ever seen Jean Giradoux’s 1938 play Ondine? It’s actually quite funny and quite good. I admit I am also massively relieved to discover that it is from 1938, and so all the (text) things I wondered about a bit while watching this production probably were deliberately ironic and/or arch (as I hoped/suspected), rather than just clanging awfulness from the C19th, or something.

The plot is based on a C19th German novel, which itself is based on a medieval German fairy tale. One that’s pretty much exactly the same as The Little Mermaid. As such, *obviously* the entire thing is a clanging mess of chauvinist gender essentialism, but I’m choosing to believe that Giradoux knew what he was doing when adapting it. Indeed, if anything, it’s Janusz Kica’s staging that gets in the way of the C21st here. That is to say, the betrothed of ridiculous knight Hans von Wittenstein (Nejc Cijan Garlatti), Bertha (Urška Taufer), appears throughout wearing a tight, black, see-through dress, while transformed-fish-lady Ondine (Arna Hadžialjević) wears a series of light, wafty chiffon dresses which are also *somewhat see-through*. So, yeah, the costuming looks like it’s come out of the bad-old-days of the UK’s post-censorship, pre-women’s lib. Mainstream (think: a racier theatrical version of Pan’s People or something) ((days from which we’re yet to equitably emerge, if the work of Telegraph critic Dominic Cavendish it anything to go by)).

As a result of having seen ...Goga, and more so of having seen ...Molière... previously, I guess I was at the end of my tether for crap being chucked at women on stage. I mean, seriously. It’s the 21st century. Can we stop with the objectification already? (This also applies to UK. I’m not saying Slovenia’s record is significantly worse, although directors might be a bit more used to their decisions going unremarked here...)

Aside from that, it’s a weirdly enjoyable show [yes, sometimes when watching a play, I choose to blot out questionable costuming decisions at the time when I've got 2hrs30 of a play to deal with]. The (English) surtitles were a rather witty and enjoyable translation of the play, I’m not entirely sure how well they related to the Slovenian translation of this French play. I think I got to laugh at more jokes than the native audience, for example. Although maybe that’s just a cultural thing [the English (myself included) do tend to laugh first and think later]. Although the performances did seem to support the comic reading of the scenes where that was relevant (the play itself really switches genres from Wildean humour, to, well, Wildean sentimental pathos really). It’s a very broad, mainstream play, but one that feels entirely tailored to the theatre. It’s got a whole play-within-a-play structure, which seems to emanate from the original text – a text that here *seems* (to me) to have been pretty much followed to the letter (albeit in stylised-modern costumes, and on a fairly 1980s German opera set).

So, yes. Not much to say about it beyond that, really. Quite an enjoyable play, especially if you want to feel like you’ve spent an evening at the theatre in the C19th (the Old Hall of Slovenian National Theatre, Maribor adds to this sensation with its Austro-Hungarian chocolate box auditorium). Basically, I think the play’s totally revive-able, even if I suspect that Katie Mitchell (for e.g.) would probably have to do something pretty severe to it, before she thought it was worth touching. I dunno. What do we do when the whole of history and art up to and including this point in time is just really sexist (and racist)?   I guess binning history and not being sentimental about old plays is probably the only real way forward...

SNT Nova Gorica
Première: 12. 5. 2016, SNT Nova Gorica
Running time 2 hours 30 minutes. One interval.

Director Janusz Kica
Dramaturgs Ana Kržišnik Blažica, Martina Mrhar
Language consultant Srečko Fišer
Set designer Marko Japelj
Costume designer Bjanka Adžić Ursulov
Composerj Arturo Annecchino
Lighting designer Samo Oblokar
Assistant to director Daniel Day Škufca
Assistant to language consultant Laura Brataševec
Assistant to set designer Valentin Tribušon

Ondine Arna Hadžialjević
Knight Hans Nejc Cijan Garlatti
Bertha Urška Taufer
Poet Bertram Matija Rupel
Queen Yseult Helena Peršuh
King Hercule Jože Hrovat
Chamberlain Blaž Valič
Intendant, First Judge Kristijan Guček
Actor, Second Judge Žiga Udir
Eugenie Ana Facchini
Auguste Ivo Barišič as guest
King of Ondinas Radoš Bolčina
Queen of Ondinas Marjuta Slamič
Ondins Medea Novak, Andrijana Boškoska Batič as guest, Andrej Zalesjak

Staging a play: The Glass Menagerie – SNG, Maribor

[seen 18/10/16]

[supplemented notes:]

Staging a Play: The Glass Menagerie turns out to be one of the things that I’ve wanted to see for *ages*. Namely, a performance of a play on which all the text has been muted/interpreted as contemporary dance.

Set on the deep wide stage of the SNG (with the audience also sat on it, in a low deep rake – my God it’s a big stage), the piece has a white off-White floor, a light grey back wall, and in the centre, more brightly lit, a white outline of s room, with the walls rising to about a foot high all the way around, except where there would be doors. The performers are dressed in rehearsal blacks, with their hair tied back as if ready for wigs.

And it’s completely fascinating to watch. On one hand, there’s the radicalism, and possibly even the violence of the gesture *against* Williams’s script. But then there’s also the result, which is evidently gentle, earnest, nuanced and sincere. (And the script/text clearly remains undamaged at the end, as you can see from these copies on Amazon.)

At the same time, it’s not so fascinating to watch, that I haven’t taken out my phone to write these notes [it’s fine, Theatre Police, it’s pretty light in the audience anyway, there’s no one behind me, and the nearest person on my row is about 20 seats away. And looks like they might be asleep.]

The most interesting thing is the way that the piece both creates meaning and relies on pre-existing knowledge. For example, before coming to the theatre, I’d simply picked up my ticket from desk in my hotel room and hurried over to the theatre. I hadn't remembered what the full title of the show was. Just “Staging a Play...” Once the piece had started, after about ten minutes, I furtively and frantically Googled the title to see WHAT PLAY. And suddenly I was in a different critical universe. Because, I’ve seen The Glass Menagerie. I Have Opinions About Tennessee Williams.

Suddenly, also, the set made complete sense to me. At the same time, it gave me a whole unwelcome extra set of tools with which to assess the performance...

[At this point in making notes, there was AN INTERVAL - which was very funny. The entire show is only 1hr30, so we didn’t get to leave, instead we sat and watched a performance of an interval. This consisted of the dancers/performers flopping about a bit round the “offstage” table, and printing out new pages of text. Which is genius. I can’t believe In 20 years of theatregoing I’ve never seen someone print off their script on stage before (although, remembering the printers of my youth, perhaps I do see why this is only just happening now)]

...because, without the knowledge, the contemporary dance – curiously – didn’t make all that much sense as contemporary dance. But with the knowledge of what the script is, one could immediately bring too much interpretation to bear. It’s fascinating though, that they are dancing what at times even feels like the full script. (inc. interval!)

There are voiceovers between the scenes, which offer cute-accented deadpan takes on “being a performer” and/or “making performances”.

The music is very nice.

The lighting is very nice.

The performances are very good.

The atmosphere is very relaxed.

After everything else I’d seen so far this week, nothing could have been more welcome. And, in a way, this is a perfect Festival Show. Fascinating, open, sorbet-like. In theory, the dances here could have been anything, and certainly could have demanded infinitely more attention; but there was something wonderful about the laissez-faire gentle quality. I think you’d have a harder time selling this as a piece of work to all but the most hardcore dance fans if this was shown in the usual one-show-in-the-evening-after-a-hard-day-at-work way. So, is it elitist? No; it’s just the rest of the way we’ve allowed society to be structured that sucks. [But, yeah, the people who work hardest for least money might think you’re taking the piss a bit if you stuck this on at (say) the Liverpool Everyman instead of Ellen McDougall’s version. Even if only a dedicated philistine could deny that it was an interesting experiment.]

After the “interval” – about an hour into the performance – the performers return to the “set” (after performing an intricate outside-of-*set* group choreography) and do the scene where Tom’s mate comes round(?). Now they’re dancing around with the scripts in their hands. And it’s funny because *even the dancing* feels like they’re being *a bit literal*.

But then, with a dazzling change of pace, the scene between Jim & Laura comes out of a blackout and is genuinely lovely. Totally legible, almost fully acted, and just incredibly touching. Attention completely grabbed.

I think this set a new standard and blueprint for what “experimental theatre” can look and feel like (for me).

“I don’t remember if we locked the door. Do you?”

Emanat Institute and Matija Ferlin with partners: Bunker, Ljubljana / The Old Power Station – Elektro Ljubljana, Mediterranean Dance Center - San Vincenti, Croatia, Pre-School Education and Grammar School Ljubljana
Première: 10. 12. 2015, Old Power Station Ljubljana
Running time 1 hour 25 minutes. No interval.

Author of concept and director Matija Ferlin
Performers and choreographers Loup Abramovici, Anja Bornšek, Maja Delak, Matija Ferlin, Žigan Krajnčan
Dramaturg Goran Ferčec
Set designer Mauricio Ferlin
Author of music Luka Prinčič
Costume designer Matija Ferlin
Creator of make-up and hair styling Tinka Pobalinka
Lighting and technical director Saša Fistrić
Designer Tina Ivezić
Photographer Nada Žgank
Organizator Nina Janež
Executive producer Sabina Potočki