Sunday, 20 July 2014

Paisagem Desconhecida – Teatro Nacional D. Maria II

[seen 17/07/14]

Hallelujah! Let joy be unconfined. The Almada Festival programmed some contemporary dance. “No text!” the festival director beamed at me, as I entered Lisbon’s National Theatre. “Well, of course everything is a text, really...” I refrained from replying.

Before getting onto the thing itself, I should just say a few words in praise of Teatro Nacional D. Maria II (feel free to skip down to below the photo). It really is an absolute Rolls Royce of a National Theatre. Built in that European National Theatre style, it is far and away the most functional and comfortable example of that style I’ve ever been in. The seats alone would make a West End theatre weep with envy (of course they would, they’re there as a matter of state pride, not ceiling-ignoring profiteering): wide, spacious, and actually comfy. But it’s the auditorium which makes it. Usually this sort of chocolate-boxy kind of affair feels deeply weird, and not-quite right, be it Deutsches Theater, Schauspielhaus Hamburg, the national theatre in Prague, or any of the countless others following that barely-raked many-layered design. Somehow, this one does. The auditorium is more drum shaped than most – it’s a bit like being given a hug in a tin of Quality Street. The stage itself, however, is resolutely modern – like Sadler’s Wells or the Schaubühne. A bit like a vision of the Royal Court if there was elbow room. And the chintz – there’s always chintz, right – is at least kept to a moderate level. *And* they’ve currently go a Tim Etchells neon outside (see bottom).

And so to __’s Paisagem Desconhecida (). This really is work in a different league. The piece starts with a slow, silent, scratchy video projection of something that looks like a blurry moon, it’s an animation of some chalk-dusk or flour, I think, and it is flickering and resolving itself repeatedly anew into childish faces or skulls.

Lights gradually reveal a stage set with two percussionists on the right and two men in suits-but-not-shirts with stockings over their heads on the right. The percussionist do their thing and the men do movement. That’s the hour, really. The attempt here for the critic is communicate just how far the company exceed this brief and how.

There were repeated points in Paisagem Desconhecida where I would think to myself: “imagine Charlie Spencer watching this.” And, I’d be filled with a sort of glee. Not just because he deserves the torture, but because, on one level, this is literally a dictionary definition of “wanky”. Preposterously, marvellously so. This is the sort of thing that, were a stray Tory to discover it in the UK, could end arts funding at a single stroke. Because, on one level – more than one level – it does feel obtuse. Wilfully so. Aesthetically it feels like it *could* have been almost mathematically calculated to be difficult. A-rhythmic drumming, sudden bursts of screechy, squawky, honking saxophone. Miked steel bedframes. Amplification set at that level where bass notes actually vibrate inside your ribcage. Oh, yes. On some levels this feels like “difficulty” incarnate...

Similarly, the movement is intriguingly opaque. As with contemporary opera, contemporary dance is pretty hard to describe in terms of things other than itself. There are two men. They rarely touch or connect. They move in tandem, angular and spider like around the stage. Jerking and twitching more than flowing or sashaying. You can imagine, I’m sure. The piece seems split into distinct sections in which discernible variant styles are deployed. The first is like thuggish mod music hall in its movements, the second more like some sort of drunk fight in a Friday night chip shop. The stockings over their heads lend the thing both an air of genuine menace and a comic-book bank robbery. A tin bathtub is dragged around the stage, sounding for all the world like a Wagnerian horn section. But from behind the tub emerges a black tree stump and the men in black masks. One daubs his obscured face with white greaspaint, creating an effective skull mask. He also produces an enormous axe. The tree stump, far from being the Beckettian prop it originally suggested in the presence of these two trampy figures, suddenly becomes executioners block and eventually a reed in the mouth of the non-axe-weilder is sacrificed to appease whatever obscure deity has put these creatures here. After, sat in front of a small black flat, the men throw rice over their shoulders, then more chalk-dust at the board, forming a kind of Tony Hart-style seascape. Eventually the men lay themselves to rest over the now smoking bathtub like two shrimps on a barbeque.

Possibly this birth-to-death cycle is the story. Perhaps “narrative” per se isn’t meant to be an issue. The thing has commanded attention throughout, and been executed with virtuosity. That, along with its uncompromising relentlessness seems like more than enough. That it resists any easy analysis just seems part of its charm.

A message I think we can all get behind...

Friday, 18 July 2014

Alemanha – Fórum Romeu Correia

[seen 17/07/14]

Might as well get the obvious jokes out of the way first. This is a play called “Germany” being performed by a company from Argentina. Actually, I’m not sure what the actual joke would be. Possibly, given the production, something to do with evidence of the latter party being sore losers...

In terms of the actual play, “Germany” here seems to occupy the same sort of geographical irrelevance as Alaska does for Pinter. Or rather, it’s less a place and more a state of mind. The programme suggests: “Germany appears as a remote place, inaccessible to this family living their last days stagnating in a single place, like an organism that grows unmoveable over water on some forgotten bucket in some remote patio. Habitat-room, bed-aquarium where – it is fair to say – the whole work takes place. A place from where the father unexpectedly returns after his wife’s suicide, to which he will refer as his place for true happiness. There in Germany, one can live in peace, it all happens orderly, unsurprisingly.” [all sic]

Reading that, you might expect a rather sombre, indeed Pinteresque, piece: all peeling paintwork and endless pauses. You would be wrong. The tone of Alemanha is remarkably upbeat and the setting – a large, bright-red-carpeted bedroom – lit in such a way that the whole thing looks remarkably like an American daytime soap opera from the eighties.

The plot – obscured once more by delivery in Spanish, with Portuguese surtitles – concerns an older, bald bloke in a bed; his son(?) and his son’s wife and their son, Fred. And, well, it might as well be about how his whole family goes mad when his magic shoes lose their powers.

I did spend as long as humanly possible concentrating on trying to watch this sensibly. I really did. But, well, broadly speaking it’s a naturalistic comedy played out on one of this carpeted squares with no walls but all the furniture slap bang in the middle of a black stage (but lit so brightly that the glow off the carpet illuminates the faces of the back row of the stalls perfectly). I tried to get an idea of the plot: nope. I had a stab an wondering what the central conflicts were: not a dicky bird. I vaguely tried to work out what any given character’s deal was: nada. Even having scrutinised the programme notes I had literally no way in and nothing to look at by way of compensation. My fault for not knowing Portuguese, granted; although I’d be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t record that a good dozen (at least) Portuguese people left throughout the show.

I will say that the acting seemed pretty good, although the same strange “relaxed” atmosphere on stage prevailed. If I’ve learnt anything a this festival it’s that we British (and most other more northern and eastern European countries) are *really intense* about things like *energy* and *focus*, and that even if “acting convincingly” as this cast seemed to be, the idea of “commanding attention” is hard-wired into our theatre so much that it looks like a terrible category error when it’s missing.

Obviously I can tell you nothing about the text’s success or the prodctions fitness-or-otherwise to the task of bringing it to stage. I can say that the thing it most reminded me of was Peter Hall’s revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce in Richmond. There, of course, the seventies-look of the thing was deliberate. And maybe it was here too. But I do think, an Argentinian without a word of English would have been able to follow (and even enjoy, if Bedroom Farce was her sort of thing) that production a lot more closely than I was able to follow this.

I am finding this question of what you can and can’t watch/get anything from in another language increasingly fascinating as this Festival of the largely incomprehensible draws on. Because, as I said before, I can do watching theatre in languages I don’t speak. I wonder, then, if the difference is between watching theatre and watching plays.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Íon – Teatro Municipal Joachim Benite

[seen 15/07/14]

We need to have a talk about the Greeks, don’t we? I’ve just had a look at the plot of Euripedies’s Ion (Íων) on Wikipedia because I didn’t know the play before. Having read the plot, I now maybe see why I haven’t seen the play as many times as relatively unproblematic classic texts about incest (Oedipus) or child-murder (Medea). A weird rape-based, recognition-comedy, foundation-myth is always going to be a bit of a hard sell, right?

Wrong! Last night’s performance of Íon at Teatro Municipal Joachim Benite was totally sold out, with additional guests being crammed into the aisles. But this has a lot more to do with the production than the play. As I mentioned in my first Portugal piece: “Every year the Almada festival is dedicated as a kind of lifetime achievement award to a leading Portuguese theatre artist, and this year it’s Luis Miguel Cintra”. And Íon is his show.

It’s been interesting for the past week finding out context about this festival. This is the 31st edition and, until his death in 2012, the festival was run by its founder Joachim Benite. It’s now been taken over by his long-groomed successor, but, what with the naming of Almada’s main theatre after him, Benite is clearly still casting a long shadow.

Hearteningly, before founding the festival, Benite was a Marxist theatre critic (yup, that’s a theatre named after a critic that they’ve got there). And, most interestingly in this context, when Cintra formed his company, Teatro da Cornucópia, in 1973 (the year before the revolution) the Marxist Benite reviewed their first performance – something by Molière – damning it for its deviation from accepted, Marxist-standard, Brechtian practice. That said, it’s been fascinating the amount of respect and love for Cintra’s work that I’ve encountered at the festival. No one seems to have a bad word to say about him. Imagine a cross between Rylance and Olivier, that’s the sort of level of indisputable we’re talking about here. And his company is also spoken of in terms of its importance. That said, while Cintra does briefly appear in Íon, he’s mostly the director here.

But what about the actual performance/production we here to see? Leaving aside ancient Greece’s abysmal dramatic treatment of women – which I inadvertently did throughout last night’s performance, as I forgot to read a synopsis of the play *before* seeing it, and obviously the entire thing was in Portuguese, so I had no idea – what to say about the production?

Well, the aesthetic is an interesting one. The pre-show stage – which lasts for 25 minutes after the advertised start time of 21.00, prompting one elderly gentleman to completely lose his shit after about twenty minutes and start loudly demanding that the show begin, in such a theatrical fashion that I thought it just had – is obscured by two short flats in the red and green of the Portuguese flag. The shallow “orchestra” before the stage is bisected by a short promontory and one each side is a simple table with a few scripts, props and lamps on this. At these tables sit Cintra and men who look to be his contemporaries – young revolutionaries in 1974, now 60/70-something year old men.

One of these is the chorus/prologue. He speaks commandingly once the thing finally kicks off, and the flag-flats are raised to reveal a curiously “un-designed”, largely empty stage with a few simple elements variously positioned around it: here, some bowls; there, a sort of incense burner thingy; a raised dais covered in laurel leaves; etc..

The dramatic action seems to have enjoyed a similarly laissez-faire approach as the design. Everyone comes on and does their acting in much the sort of way that I imagine “un-directed” British. rep productions of Chekhov or Shakespeare might have been achieved in the 1950s. That is to say, to look at, it seems servicable and nothing more. Coupled with how tired I am (it starts at half nine. It is two hours long without interval. I think I was up at six. First world problems, I know, but nonetheless, not ideal conditions for watching a play in a big, dark, cosy room after a swelteringly hot day), I suspect I’m already not the ideal audience member, even without taking into account my lack of the language.

I do know from a colleague that the show isn’t *just* Ion. There are also bits of direct audience address by Cintra of both things he’s written himself, and of a reading of something written by Pasolini. And, at the end, this song of revolutionary Portugal is played. Now, obviously this might all contrive to create a really strong impression in the viewers most fully alive to all the cultural specificity. However, for everyone else – Italians, Spaniards, Argentinians, me – I think the effect is greatly diminished. I should also record that none of the *young* Portuguese thought much of the staging either. They like the revolutionary song – even if they post-date the revolution. But, there seems to be a strong generational gap between young and old on the matter of staging.

This young/old division – there are curiously few “middle-aged” people at this festival – seems to be an overarching theme of the 31st Fest. The young people, making their shows like Circle Mirror Transformation, and being excited, not only by the Slovenians, but also the perfection and precision of Cheek by Jowl, seem left cold by other work, mostly notably this, not to mention things like . And, talking to Portuguese theatre types even further outside the Festival, it does feel like there is a raft of other work made by companies like Mala Vodora and __ __ which is set completely apart.

Of course, we’ve similar ecological divides in Britain, and even my “alternative theatre” mates quite like the access that the Almada Festival sometimes gives them to a completely different, and unique audience (and yes, it does seem to be largely one audience of the Almada Fesitval faithful). On the other hand, it also seems crucial for me to recognise that the Almada Festival is perhaps best at representing the Almada Fesitval – an aesthetic and *thing* all of its own. As such, as neither explicitly a Portuguese “national showcase” nor a truly/fully *international* Festival – at least this year – the almost exclusive focus is on Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, and Argentina, with Ivica Buljan and Declan Donnellan (the latter already working with French actors and the former making one of his shows with Portuguese). Which, ok, *is* international, but much less so than, say, Sibiu (which included: Russia, China, Japan, and USA, alongside Austria, Poland, Italy, Czech, Croatia and the UK). And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of that too. I’m rather enjoying this one-stop-shop chance to see so much southern European work in one place. At the same time, it feels increasingly crucial to recogise that while most of the work is Southern European, it doesn’t represent all of Southern European work.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Shorts: Melody Maker and “European” Theatre

[a thought]

The other afternoon, I happened to read this article in The Quietus. However, it’s not the review that interests me so much as the introduction. You should really just click through and read the whole thing, but here’s the relevant bit:

“In my mid-teens, I had Swans down as a byword for extremity without having ever heard them. Every week, the front matter of the NME would contain half-page ‘looking back’ feature, tellingly positioned adjacent to the new bands interview, in which a writer would pick an act, usually critically acclaimed but not publicly so, who would help the paper’s younger readership make sense of – build a historical narrative about – their obsessions du jour. ...if you strung the pieces together in a scrapbook it would look like the minutes of a brainstorming session for a Death In Vegas record. I remember reading about Suicide first in here, trying to figure out how an eleven-minute drone composition about a man killing his family would actually sound... My idealised auditory image of this music made it sensational, world-altering, and this was never more the case than in that of Swans.”

I suspect Joe Kennedy is a bit younger than me, and I was a Melody Maker reader not an NME reader (which, funnily, used to be quite *a thing*), but the most important thing for me here still holds: the idea of *reading reviews* being the *only* access to the music. Because *obviously*, being a teenager in the 90s there was no access to YouTube or Google: they didn’t exist. There were three main ways to hear the music that I was reading about – buying it (unlikely: buying it involved a) money, and b) somewhere to buy it from), hearing it on the radio (unlikely: it wasn’t exactly radio friendly, most of it), or, c) hearing it at a club, or seeing it played live (Club: unlikely, DJs at “alternative” clubs tended to favour the same floor-fillers week-in, week-out – they were places for dancing, not checking out new albums; and, Live: well, standing up while people dive at your head from the stage is not a good way of *listening*). And that was it. No instant anything. No way of wondering if something was good and just finding it on your phone and listening to it (Your phone, for Christ’s sake!).

Now, I don’t want to be Buzzfeed’s 31 Things Kids Today Will Never Understand (V.G., btw), and – Jesus – I really do hope this isn’t an early manifestation of some sort of horrifying Nick Hornby-style mid-life-crisis phase in my writing (although, I guess the money from the movie rights for that wouldn’t kill me). But.

But, the more I think about it, the more I think this early brush with criticism – reading not writing it, and never once really feeling remotely drawn to writing it either – had a real bearing on both how I see the function of criticism and how I relate to it now.

It definitely explains why, now I’m “a critic” (for want of a less-pompous sounding word), I think there’s any earthly purpose in my going and seeing, and writing at length about all these plays in Germany and Romania and Portugal. Because not actually being able to hear the music or see the bands didn’t really deter me from buying and reading Melody Maker every week. And, moreover, me and my mates didn’t stop at just *reading* Melody Maker. We also formed bands (terrible bands) based on the music we read about. I’m pretty sure I was in at least two bands inspired by Throbbing Gristle before I heard a single thing they’d ever recorded. Because the idea of them, the idea that this other thing existed, just seemed absolutely crucial to me. Then and now, I guess.

The other reason is advocacy. If no one had been writing about all that music then it may as well have not existed as far as I was concerned. But, thanks to some people just about putting the idea of it within reach, it gave me something to look forward to, or something to try to find, or just a huge bunch of information about it – written with people with such an obvious, unrestrained, unembarrassed passion for and knowledge of this stuff that it was a pleasure in itself. Which is about as much as anyone writing about something can ever hope to aspire to, I think.

Or, as one of the characters in Dan Rebellatos Static has it: “Music isn’t just music, it’s also everything else.”

Ubu Roi – Escola D. António Da Costa

[seen 15/07/14]

Harry Potter and the Bourgeois Parents of Death
-- photo (untouched by me) by Johan Persson

Obviously I’m miles behind on this one. Seen at Warwick Arts Centre in January ‘13, Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod’s Cheek by Jowl production of Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play Ubu Roi has been round the block a few times now.

I have to confess, I’d been deliberately sitting Cheek by Jowl productions out for a few years after their frankly godawful 2008 Troilus and Cressida (“Shakespeare is robust enough to withstand a few dim design ideas. What the play cannot take is virtually inaudible dialogue and characters who display no sign that anything that they are doing matters to them in the slightest”), but I was already tempted by this, even before I knew the cast was French (a plus, in my view).

The day before I saw it, I did happen to catch Donnellan being interviewed at the Festival Club, however (open air, miked, amplified, not much option to miss it if you wanted to eat), and several things he said I found quite arresting: “I am bourgeois and I have no problem with that” was one, “Jarry said he wrote this about a teacher, but if you look at the names... I think it’s about his parents”, “Nick and I were staying at this very expensive apartment in Paris which had loads of signs everywhere saying what you couldn’t touch and etc.” (you get that I’m paraphrasing, right?), and “I find it fascinating [or was it frightening?] how fast ‘civilisation’ can fall apart [– although the first example he then gave was of the extremely wealthy side of his family losing it’s money. I can’t remember if it was him who mentioned the Polish villages who ‘only had to hear the Nazis were coming to start murdering all their Jews’ or if that was something else.]”

I had a quick flick through the Brit reviews this morning – I was curious, because my impression had been overwhelming positivity, but Love in Exeunt only three-starred it. Anyway, Michael Billington’s review does precisely what the production wants: he spots precisely what it’s doing, and then broadly agrees with every decision made. And he astutely pins down the added element of Oedipal desire (interesting, since it’s *British* translations which usually opt for “Ubu Rex”), which seems both central and extraneous here. [Aha! It was Hutton who called it “masterful”.]

This is very much a production of two halves (running concurrently, vertically); on one hand there’s the undeniable verve and style in the realisation of the piece. In this it is nigh-on flawless (last night’s technical hitch notwithstanding – starting a 1hr50 show with a start time of 22.00 twenty minutes late didn’t endear it to me at the time, or aid my concentration much). On the other hand, I did have some big questions about the overall concept.

My main point of comparison was Simon Stephens and Katie Mitchell’s The Trial of Ubu at the Hampstead in 2012. Granted that is, to all intents and purposes – apart from the first 20 minutes – a different play. But there’s something about the intent that maps onto this production: Donnellan’s production takes Jarry’s text and plays the playwright behind it rather than the world now. As such, in a strange way it feels like a psychoanalytic telling-off of the playwright.

Donnellan’s concept is to play Ubu Roi as the fantasies of a bourgeois teenager (as Jarry was when he wrote the play). He and his parents inhabit an elegant Parisian flat, and he wanders around with his (live-feed-projected onto the back wall) video camera, almost stalking them as if in Psycho. As the parents assemble three of their friends for a dinner party, the boy’s imagination of them as figures in Jarry’s text takes over. Mostly under green lights, so that we – the audience – can readily grasp WTF is going on. This has two possible effects: one is that we “see the violence lurking inside/under-the-surface-of society”; the other is that everything in the play is reduced to the violent fantasies of a teenager.

Of course, particularly in the wake of the Elliot Rodger murders, the violent revenge fantasies of the spoiled, privileged, bourgeois teenager are not to be taken lightly. And the coda here of the family and their guests being gunned down by a teenager (whose mind’s eye, replete with video-game targets super-imposed over family members, is shown projected), seems to confirm this.

On the other hand, virtually *everything else* about this concept takes the violence, tyranny, and madness in the play that so eloquently describes the century leading up to 1896, and even more graphically anticipates the century that lay ahead of it, and reduces it to a comic charade. It’s ironic that Mitchell managed to evoke more pity with the suggestion of some simple puppets being fed into a wood-chipper than Donnellan does with several on-stage or on-screen/back-stage/live-feed murders. Where Stephens gave us a dictator who evoked Milosevic, Hussein, or Karimov, Donnellan gives us someone bad-mouthing their dad.

Ultimately, though, it’s a matter of taste. This production is absolutely first-rate in terms of realising its ideas, and it would be completely churlish not to acknowledge the virtuosity there. And indeed, that it’s a fine concept, and one which completely holds the attention throughout. I guess for me, it was just a matter of importance: by turning the piece inward rather than outward Donnellan’s dramaturgical conception runs the risk of being as pleased-with-itself and bourgeois as the apartment and teenage fantasies that it’s critiquing.

Os Negros e os Deuses do Norte – Sala Experimental

[seen 14/07/14]

publicity shot - perf pix if/when available

CIA/JGM’s Os Negros e os Deuses do Norte is *experimental theatre*. I was told this by a Portuguese fellow writer as we sat down, when I asked him if he’d translate the odd bit for me. “I think it will be impossible” he suggested. In the event, translation was largely unnecessary, as, in this instance, *experimental theatre* turned out to mean *three-piece Patti Smith gig*.

It starts worryingly. Two blokes are noodling away on guitar and violin, a rack of effects pedals each, and it’s all a bit Gypsy Pink Floyd. Then a light comes up on a small gold lamé covered mattress with performer Sara Ribero face-down, topless and writhing around. Oh crap, I thought, remembering that one of the many excellent rules-of-thumb for spotting appalling sexism in performance is: clothed men, topless woman. In the event, this rule feels about as relevant as it would telling Janice Joplin or Patti Smith that what they have chosen to wear is inappropriate in the view of modern feminism. That is to say, toplessness it is, exploitative or sexual it clearly ain’t.

Indeed, the spectre of the seventies (the UK/US musical seventies, not the revolutionary Marxist Portuguese seventies, annoyingly) looms large and hangs over the proceedings. Which is basically a bunch of Patti Smith-sounding numbers. Even a bunch of the lyrics are in English with phrases nicked wholesale from the Doors “All the children are insane” and Smith herself: “n-word, n-word, n-word, n-word / n-word, n-word, n-word, n-word”.

So, yeah, rather than sexism, what it turns out we end up needing to discuss are the “racial politics” of the piece. Around which I have yet to fully get my head. Scare quotes for “racial politics” since on one or more levels, calling what’s on stage here “racial politics” seems like critiquing a Wendy house with postmodernist architectural theory. i.e. you *could*, but really, why would you? Well, because “Wendy houses” are probably all sorts of normative and sexist, so...

The ethnic make up of the group is approximately (visually): one balding black bloke on guitar, one seriously built “hispanic” type on violin/vocals/various-other-things (is hispanic a thing if we’re in Portugal? IDK, anyway), and one topless, ostensibly “white” Portuguese woman (scare quotes for “white” because, well, Portuguese people aren’t as white as, say, Polish people, are they?).

She seems to be singing a song about “Bringing black back” (in which the Patti Smith quote recurs numerous times. I think in several languages). This is a frequent refrain throughout the show.

Watching, my main thought was: “Well, Christ; you wouldn’t get away with this at BAC; even if your guitarist is black”. This in turn made me think, I wonder why not? I mean, it was plainly well-meaning. Texto is by João Garcia Miguel (who also did Direcção and Encenação). For all I know, he’s the guitarist (the programme seems a bit vague on identifying the musicians). In which case I guess everything gets a bit less “edgy”. But otherwise, we have got this *well-meaning* show liberally laced with the n-word and generally thrashing about in the shallows of the drug-addled seventies trying to “bring black back”. From where to where is never made clear, at least, not in English. There’s also a fair bit of decrying religion, which manages to elicit the first walk-out after only about fifteen minutes or so.

Of course, I’m writing about this with literally all the attempt to understand another culture that Charles Spencer usually deploys. I think, looked at charitably I could dismount this very high horse, duties discharged, and say that probably this isn’t actually as problematic here as it might be in Britain (let alone the States). It’s weird, really. We Brits think we’ve got a *really good handle* on, y’know, racial politics – at least enough to think we’re in a position to lecture anyone else. And yet, well, Britain’s still a terrifyingly racist country. (Want a good example? Try the comments section from this Daily Mail article published today/yesterday. See? We’re still basically in the fucking dark ages. So why shouldn’t the Portuguese have an upbeat Patti Smith tribute act singing about “bringing black back”. Maybe that’ll work better than white, liberal British uptightness, claiming to be deeply concerned, doing nothing, and having a crazy racist underbelly which turns out to be most of the body politic).

As theatre it’s basically not. It’s much more an arty gig that happens to play in a theatre and be watched by a seated audience. But let’s not open that “what is/isn’t theatre” can of worms on top of everything else. Sure, if it wants to be theatre then it is. I reckon it might want to do a bit more self-interrogation, but, y’know, I wasn’t bored. It passed the time. The home crowd seemed to love it. I dunno.

Monday, 14 July 2014

L’Architecture de la Paix – São Luiz Theatro Municipal, Lisbon

[seen 11/07/14]

As is perhaps obvious from the last few posts/reviews, I’ve been struggling a bit, basically trying to work out where my opinions are coming from; or rather, what’s me and what’s the work. Is it my fault when I don’t (or do) like something; because I haven't worked hard enough at it? How to recognise when it's a case of me not having sufficient cultural knowledge to find a way and what really is not-very-good work? (And, yes, beyond all that, the fact it’s always going to be a matter of taste anyway...)

Anyway, happily, here, we can dispense with all that concern as L’Architecture de la Paix is a pure, copper-bottomed turkey. I have literally no idea why anyone would make this, much less voluntarily select it for inclusion in a fondly regarded international festival.

To describe: it opens promisingly enough before one of those huge walls that seem to be a mainstay of International Festival circuit shows (the number I’ve seen at the Edinburgh International Festival alone can’t be counted on fingers and toes, I wouldn’t have thought). The cast are dressed in light-coloured, loose-fitting, floaty garments, which, outside of naturalistic plays about gits, seem to be a surefire warning signal of impending artistic catastrophe.

They come on and, well, they do a bit of *movement* and say some things. In French. Oddly, after having had a really clear understanding of the Joël Pommerat piece (also French), this I didn’t get so much from. Talking to my friends afterwards, I realise this is because they were saying things than literally no one ever says: “I want to build a house with feathers”, “my eyes are covered in silky threads” and so on. The sort of things that, even if you were French, you’d probably doubt someone had actually just said.

There’s also a musician. He happens to be darker skinned than the rest of the cast, and, as a result, given the pseudo-ethnic backdrop and the floaty clothes, the whole enterprise starts to look like a really dodgy exercise in exoticism and “my mid-life, gap-year crisis”. Apparently the whole thing is about re-building something after a catastrophe or rupture. As far as we can make out, this catastrophe is a middle-aged couple’s son leaving home to live with a Portuguese lass; occasioning more *movement*, and some more preposterously foregrounded Orientalist noises – everything from a marimba to a didgeridoo. To be fair, at least the musician is talented. If you’d stuck him on stage at the Festival club, I could have happily whiled away an hour listening to him do his thing. As it is, as accompaniment to some painful, bourgeois, *movement* family drama (or whatever it thinks it is), you just feel terrible for the guy.

The single most infuriating thing that happens in the entire piece comes at the end, where they suddenly do a speeded up run-through of the previous hour in two minutes. At which point you realise just how little has happened for the last hour, how slowly it was done, and how the entire show didn’t need to be any longer than two minutes. They do this twice. Presumably to ensure the twin bases of insult and injury are each firmly covered. Still, the struggle for “single most infuriating thing” is a hard-fought contest here. When my friends and I were spat back out onto the street, we mostly just stared at each other agog, bemused into wordless pantomimes of rage.

Having recently seen The Valley of Astonishment, it stuck me that this is the dark side to Peter Brook’s legacy. He might make it charming and get away with it, however, it appears that he has spawned a legion of imitators who have entirely misdiagnosed what is good about his work. Let me tell them now, it is not this.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Fauna – Centro Cultural de Belém, Lisbon

[seen 12/07/14]

What a difference a day makes. Yesterday I posted my review of Argentine writer-director Romina Paula’s O Tempo Todo Inteiro, and attached to it a fairly stream-of-consciousness monolgue about my worries that thanks to my taste in theatre I was turning into some sort of unarmed Anders Brevik-style Northern European supremacist.

After posting it I went to meet a Portuguese theatre friend unconnected to the Festival. It turned out to be an incredibly useful way of spending the time for me, as he’d read all the stuff I’d posted and was able to fill in a lot of context and tell me where my suspicions and feelings had been correct and where I could have done with a bit more insight. If nothing else, it felt like a real vindication of what appears to be my current policy of saying as honestly as possible whatever it is I’m thinking and letting that be the start of a conversation rather than the end. (My intractable views on L’Architecture de la Paix [forthcoming] notwithstanding.) Perhaps naturally, the piece we ended up discussing most was the review of O Tempo Todo Inteiro. Not least because it was the first show by Romina Paula, whose secosnd show we were going to see after having our coffee. The contextual stuff he explained about “Argentinian Theatre” (scare quotes, because obviously it’s actually pretty diverse) was especially helpful. Yes, he conceded, it might look like dull naturalism (and that’s not his thing either), but what doesn’t come across in just looking at it is the special sort of minimalism, that the Argentinians have developed. Like, super-pared-back naturalism. Ultra-minimalism. Lorca without the poetry, just stripped down to bare essentials. Paula had taken the Williams text and carved it down to just one event. Put like that, it sounds a lot more exciting. So I was refreshed and quite up for having another stab at *getting* Paula’s work.

As it happened, I’d already accidentally had a look at the publicity photos for the piece (I’ve been trying to go in blind on that score) and, as you can see above and below, they’re pretty promising, right? (“Yes, Andrew, they do look a bit German...” “Fuck off.” “Rightio.”), but it was reading the intro-cum-director’s note in the programme before the show started that really got me interested. It’s worth reproducing in full:

Fauna is the third work by the Argentine company El Silencio, formed in 2006. When comparing El Tiempo Todo Entero, the second play from the company’s original repertoire (which is also being performed in this year’s Festival), Romina Paula acknowledges that “Fauna is less simple, has more layers and is more literary. I don’t know how far it can get.” Where did it come from is something that author and stage director also cannot tell: “I do not know where Fauna came from. I remember having asked for the name of a street: Conceptión Arenal. A street that I had gotten use to refer without thing that it was the name of someone with enough credit to have a street named after her. I started searching on Conceptión Arenal and realized that she was a feminist writer of the late nineteenth century who, among other things, dressed as a man to be able to attend university and poetry circles, so as to access public cultural life. This image moves me, the presence of this unknown woman among men opens a door to many others like her. How many of these men and boys were in fact women pretending?

Fauna is born out of this will to blur the boundaries between genres, a mythical character, a woman both strong and vulnerable, wild and erudite, who finds in male attire an entry to a world she cannot enter. An actress and a film director go on a search for her with the intention to make a film about her. But how do you tell a life story? Specially about someone who’s gone and whose true story intersects in many instances with the fiction that was built upon her? In this sense, Fauna also corresponds to the meta-theatrical reflection that focuses on the problems of representation – rehearsing a play within another – and of truth – thus showing a big, little or no concern at all with the biography of the depicted figure. It also sets out to meet the words of authors like Rilke or Calderón de la Barca, motivated by Romina Paula’s love of literature and a deliberate attempt through quoting to “animate the words of others and give them back a body.”

And I was thinking: blimey, that’s some synchronicity. This is basically Argentinian Adler and Gibb, right? In the event, at least to look at, it’s not half so meta-. But, blimey, from the get-go I was a whole lot more into it than O Tempo... Sure, this could ultimately be down to any number of extraneous factors (nice day, good food, good conversation, decent travel – getting a boat, rather than taking a car over the bridge, etc.) but I think mostly it was down to the design, conception, and even subject of the show.

This piece is played on a large wooden stage-on-a-stage. The rough boards seem to suggest a landscape, rather than an indoors, or if indoors, then perhaps vast, hangar-like studios, rather than a suburban domestic interior. (Having just met the Scottish critic and Howard Barker expert, Mark Brown, who was here until Thursday, I was reminded of one of the many things Barker said that made me love him as a playwright when I first came across him: that at a certain point in his career he vowed he was never going to write another scene set indoors, or, if indoors, never in a normal room.)

And, yes, there is something transformational that happens to the stage when rough wooden boards are perhaps being asked to play a vast open plain or industrial size interior. The whole auditorium suddenly feels charged with this more exploratory, speculative atmosphere. That idea that suddenly anything *is* possible. (As the recent piece in the Sydney Morning Herald on The Motion of Light in Water has it: “We’re always being told that theatre is this amazingly malleable form where you can do anything, become anything, the only limit is your imagination – and then you go to see another play about a white middle-class family”.)

Now, all this is essentially a big preamble to me still not having the fainting fucking idea what anyone was actually saying on the stage [I’ll ask over dinner tonight], or at least not much. It opens with (I presume) the actress playing the actress playing Conceptión Arenal reciting Rilke. And later there’s a discussion of Shakespeare. But, I suspect this might be a play worth getting a rough translation made of and sharpish. I don’t *know* – obviously – but clearly, thematically it seems to occupy a weirdly contemporary/synchronic position, and, hell, how much contemporary Argentinian theatre do we ever get on see on mainstream UK stages? (Apols in advance if the script turns out not to have legs.) But, yeah, on this showing, can I imagine Lucy Ellinson or Denise Gough leading a production at the Gate next year? Está certo.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

La Réunification des Deux Corées – Teatro Municipal Joaquim Benite

[seen 10/07/14]

Having exorcised, or at least confessed, a load of my worries about my fit-for-purpose-ness in terms of me covering this festival yesterday, it was a relief to come across a show where none of those misgiving were really remotely relevant.

This is the first thing I’ve seen by Joël Pommerat, but the fleeting presence of Young Vic artistic director, David Lan, at the festival – just to see this show – gives you some idea of the sort of level of European/international talent we’re talking about here. And I also thought it was pretty good.

La Réunification... is played on a very long, narrow, black traverse stage – here constructed on the stage of Teatro Municipal Joaquim Benite’s main house (like Blackwatch at the Barbican, but thinner). And, my God, Éric Soyer (both lighting and set, interestingly) could teach everyone who’s ever lit a British show in traverse a thing or too. You could barely see the opposite bank of audience despite the fact that they were only a few metres away. The whole piece is played in striking levels of darkness – the blackouts themselves really are black, brief, and whole sofas, large armchairs, and even beds silently appear and disppear within seconds. (Apparently the company made night-vision films of themselves doing the scene changes to learn how thy could get them faster and now they’re pretty much just muscle memory. Ordinarily I think blackouts – especially furniture-moving blackouts – are the worst thing since traverse staging: here they acquire the interest of a conjuring trick.) So, yes, the look of the thing is essentially stark, slick, modern, and often involves a few chic pieces of Heals-looking furniture magically turning up.

Onto this stage spill successive, unrelated scenes. In fact, it’s like nothing so much as a very French Love and Information, albeit with longer scenes and fewer of them. Even the milieu feels similar – largely middle class couples playing out stock scenes from romantic comedies or tragedies (a bride in her wedding dress gradually discovers that her husband-to-be has been intimate with pretty much her entire family; a sex-worker offers not to charge a man for sex, then does; a teacher argues with two parents that nothing happened when he shared a bed with their child, and so on...). Of course, the accretion of such scenes creates a feeling of investigation, or deconstruction. By and large, I understood what was happening in each scene and what everyone was saying (my French is much better than I thought it was. Phew). What my French doesn’t run to is spotting the literary merit and the moments within the show where suddenly the register would shift and in the midst of the trite truisms and stock phrases of courtship or break-up something – according to one of my Portuguese colleagues – shining, breathtaking and true would suddenly turn up and flatten everything.

This information certainly allayed my main reservation while watching the piece: that it might all be a bit middle class. And I do wonder, if the emphasis is so much more on “love” than, well, ideology, I suppose, whether I mightn’t still have had a tiny reservation about it. But, without it being in English (I’m not sure if even surtitles would have done the job here), then it’s impossible to say. It might contain those critiques too. [edit: another Portuguese colleague who saw it last night just expressed a lot of reservations about how “manipulative” he thought the show potentially was, in terms of it’s use of music and situation to create a kind of tear-jerk effect. I’m not sure I fully believe that either, but it’s interesting to hear such a contrasting perspective.]

In terms of plotting the piece on the international scene, it seemed to me to be like how you might imagine a particularly stylish, French, auteurial take on Attempts on her Life could feel. It has “international festival circuit” written all over it, and is absolutely no worse for it. Indeed, there was something hugely reassuring about the brio with which bold choices had been confidently made.

The acting is good, too. Although, basically just really raw, truthful accounts of often heightened emotions. So: French, basically; perhaps. More striking, although perhaps already something of a visual cliché, is the kind-of androgynous Elvis figure who sings, unaccompanied, in a couple of inter-scene breaks. I have no idea off-hand if s/he was played by a man or a woman, or the costume was used by more than one performer. The first “song” is deep, haunting, like a pitch-shifted Anthony and the Johnsons, perhaps. Another more alto, but similarly husky and tortured. (These bits, btw, if they had words, I didn’t pick up on them).

Although hard work without surtitles, this is imaginative, intriguing work. You could totally imagine it turning up a the Barbican (it’s quite new, so probably in about five years or something, given the Barbican’s current ability to effect up-to-date programming) and everyone quite liking it. Beyond “quite liking” and recognition of an undeniable level of quality I think it’ll be down to individual tastes how much beyond that the appreciation goes. One thing I will say, though, as far as theatre goes, Žižek’s characterisations of European nations according to toilet-design and philosophy seems to be totally off- as far as French theatre goes. Perhaps there is a certain statement-led violence about the language that I’m missing, but on the whole this feels far more cool and contemplative than violent and revolutionary.

Would be interested to hear just how wrong (or right) these perceptions are. Hmm.

O Tempo Todo Inteiro – Centro Cultural de Belém, Lisbon

[seen 09/07/14 also: On National Styles II]

Argentine writer-director Romina Paula’s O Tempo Todo Inteiro is the auteur’s “dialogues with” Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. The rationale for creating it is apparently because, at least in part, “copyrights are expensive”. Which strikes me in equal parts as brilliant, hilarious and foolhardy: massive hubris as a cost-cutting exercise. In the event, my Portuguese-speaking colleagues tell me that it was actually a pretty awesome script/play. However, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, THERE’S NO WAY I CAN POSSIBLY KNOW THIS WITHOUT SURTITLES.

To look at, O Tempo Todo Inteiro is about as purgatorial a thing as you could wish not to see, however. To keep myself amused, after the first twenty minutes or so I started keeping a note of every single visually interesting thing that happened on the stage. There were literally five. The piece was an hour an a half long.

Alicia Leoutre and Matías Sendón’s set did the production’s visual appeal no favours. Basically playing on a poor man’s Thomas Ostermeier set – a big living room delineated by a large metal frame describing the side and back walls, a door, and a cupboard – it also suffered here from playing on the stage of a large concert hall, replete with a lovely warm-coloured wooden wall. As such, the “intended” effect – certainly the effect in all the press photos provided to the festival which show it bleak on a black box stage – was supplanted by something altogether cosier and more reassuring.

On one level, it feels like a crying shame to be reviewing an apparently beautiful play – delicately saying something about everything; about the point of life, or lack of it, with everything submerged beneath surface conversations – by just talking about what I could see. On the other hand, I think my Portuguese interlocutors might be a bit (a lot) less hardline than me about regie and the visual (great band name). This was naturalism gone mad and limp. People who looked like the people they were play standing in a room filled with the furniture that room would be filled with, talking to each other like people do. Obviously that’s fine. Obviously. But none of it looked even remotely interesting. Really. I’ve seen David Hare plays with more visual interest and incident. It really was spectacularly uneventful, even by the often stultifying visual standards of naturalism. (But of course, I have no way of really knowing how I’d deal with this in a British context. What, for example would I really have made of Wastwater if I hadn’t understood a word. A lot more, I think, but it’s hard to know for sure.)

So, yeah. Not really much I can do with this. Apparently it’s a really careful, subtle play. I’d say it’s a catastrophically dull staging, even if you do know what’s going on, but on its own terms the acting seems good, committed, even watchable to a point (a point curtailed by the compounded pointlessness of watching without comprehension).

A rare moment of visual interest in O Tiempo...

As a result of this, and not having anything to distract me during the play, I did find myself having a bit of a think about other things I’d seen without surtitles in languages I didn’t understand. This includes all the stuff I saw early on in Germany and a whole edition of the year’s best Polish theatre at Warsaw Theatre Meetings (crucially, a national showcase, never billed a “international”). And I was stuck by the fact that, going by those pieces, I actually liked (even loved in some instances) watching theatre in a language I didn’t speak. (Another reason, other than assuming there would be surtitles, that I accept this commission.) And yet here none of the Portuguese or Argentinian work I’ve seen so far has made anything like the same impression. (Granted, I found Circle Mirror Transformation fascinating, but...)

I’ve found this interesting. And I’m having a hard think about it.

I think it’s fair to say that both German and Polish theatre is very different from the majority of Portuguese/Spanish-language theatre being presented here (which I emphatically won’t presume to be representative of *all* Spanish- or Portuguese-language theatre). The former tends to have whole extra dimensions beyond the text. The staging and performing have a significant dramaturgical impact on the whole. In the case of several productions here (including a few I shan’t be writing about), there’s a real sense that all that’s been thought about is the most literal way to present the script. Actors who “look like the characters” in rooms that “look like the room” saying the words in the script “convincingly”. And, in the worst cases, without even a decent stage-design in evidence.

Back when I went to the Swedish Theatre Meetings festival in 2008, I wrote an “ask the stupidest question you can think of” piece for the Guardian wondering about the extent to which an entire country’s theatrical output might not appeal to a specific individual (me). I was pretty convinced at the time, at least on the showing of that festival, that Sweden had nothing of interest to offer me. I now wonder if that might not have been more sensibly framed as being a problem of the tastes of the selection panel combined with their own dumb insistence on pieces being “nationally representative”. After all, the next thing I saw in Sweden (Ingenting av Mig, five years later) was awesome.

But, despite it’s curious social structures and superficial lack of conflict, Sweden is at least a Northern European country. And, in my head, in some weird thumbnail-sketch way, I feel like I like Northern and Eastern Europe. On some stupid level, it feels like I at least slightly *get* them. I get the landscapes. I love the sound of the languages. The whole thing feels like *home* on some inexplicable level. I admit that, on the same thumbnail-sketch level, feel almost entirely the opposite about South-Western Europe (Southern France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal), let alone South America. I *really* don’t get the climate and I wonder if that has a bearing on a the culture.

It was my desire to confront this idea, which feels like a ridiculous prejudice, is most of the reason I’m here. And I’m willing myself to be won round. And, finding out more and more about the country’s history and culture are certainly helping me understand more about the place. But history, culture and politics haven’t signalled a shift in aesthetic appreciation yet. While everything’s been *fine* at the level of design, *nothing* South-Western European or South American has yet really connected with me on the gut level of say a bare-stage, modern-dress Polish Three Sisters or Andreas Kriegenburg’s Der Prozess. My favourite aesthetic experience so far has been Ivica Buljan’s Macbeth, a Slovenian show on a bare stage with some LX tape on the floor.

Lisbon is obviously absolutely gorgeous, and the more I find out about Portugal’s history – the strange “in Europe but not *in Europe*” narrative: a right-wing dictatorship from the 1930s, sitting out the war, and finally being overthrown and losing its empire in 1974 – the more I find to relate to, and yet the actual plays, so far, that I happen to have seen, seem strangely too naturalistic and *too relaxed*. Of course, all this keeps coming with the massive health warning that reads “I NEED SURTITLES BEFORE I CAN REALLY SAY FOR SURE” (even a synopsis would help), but in terms of the purely visual, and listening only at the level of sound-rather-than-comprehension, I find myself missing the total dramaturgy of Northern and Eastern European theatre, where, even if totally lost, I find myself continually astonished and enthralled rather than irritable and dismissive.


Exercise: basically, reconcile


Argentinia's A Verdade, which won't be getting a review...

Shorts: In praise of... Synonyms For Churlish


Is this it? Is this what we meant two years ago? Two years ago, when we were drunk on Three Kingdoms, doodling Sebastian Nübling’s name all over our jotters. Is this the beginning of the future that we imagined Three Kingdoms had started for us?”

“...You can imagine them, can’t you - on some critics’ away day, methodically recording Scrabble scores in a long-abandoned tournament while everyone else uses the letters to spell out TITWANK and CUMSHOT...


I’ve been thinking about Hepworth’s 1971 thing a fair bit during the last couple of days, because it’s dawned on me that when I’m 60 (in, ahem, 40-45 years or thereabouts…) I’m going to be sitting on my front step in a panama hat, shouting at passers-by that June 2014 was the best, the most consistent, the most visually and intellectually interesting 30 days of theatre London has ever seen... [And that’s] not including the panel discussion at the ICA in which Matt Trueman flew the flag for a generation of theatre critics that make my heart expand and pupils dilate and tears of love and excitement well up in my eyes.


My god. MY GOD.

Christopher Brett Bailey is Allan Ginsberg and Hunter S Thompson and Saul Williams and that big red-lipped mouth from Beckett’s Not I. He’s Josef K and Gregor Samsa. He’s Christian Slater in Heathers, he’s Tim Roth in Pulp Fiction, he’s Woody Harrelson in Natural Born Killers. He’s cinematic drugs like mescaline and peyote. He’s cigarettes. He’s the taste of cigarettes on a kiss. He’s the revolution that will not be televised. He’s your most fucked-up dream where it turns out the guy you’re fucking is made out of cold tapas meats. He’s Godspeed You Black Emperor. He’s Nine Inch Nails. He’s Aphex Twin in a bikini. He’s everything ever released on Sonic Cathedral. He’s a circular saw, blood spatter, crumbling teeth. He’s diabetes and a thyroid problem. He’s the sound of breaking bones.

He’s written a show about dying, in which he sits at a desk and talks for an hour, and which is absolutely positively what dying actually must really be like.

And let me tell you it is fucking incredible.


I could keep quoting for some time. Those are just the recent ones. Her Three Kingdoms review deserves the same status as Tynan’s Look Back in Anger. Higher, actually, since it’s also fun to read.

And, not that theatre criticism’s a competition or anything, but if it was, I think Megan Vaughan would have us all beat. Sure, the rest of us might offer a bit more by way of penetrating analysis, but how many reviews actually give you an impression of the adrenaline rush of actually falling fucking in love with a piece of theatre? Moreover, recently she’s started to become far and away the best chronicler of what’s turning into an extraordinary year for British theatre. I don’t always agree with her, but, Christ, it’s vital stuff.

So, yeah, voice of a generation, I reckon.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Círculo de Transformação em Espelho – Sala Experimental, Teatro Muncial Joaquim Benite

[seen 09/07/14]

Publicity image -- will swap for production photo is any materialise

More or less exactly this time last year (13/07/13) Britain was in the grip of a heat-wave, the Royal Court had just got a new artistic director, and I was writing 2963 words about why I didn’t really like James MacDonald and Chloe Lamford’s production of Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, which I had watched in matinee at the Royal Court’s not-even-remotely-air-conditioned off-site space in Haggerston.

Fast forward a year and I’m sat in the Almada Festival’s tented club having just watched a semi-immersive, 1hr45, Portuguese-language version of the same play (and the temperatures outdoors here make Britain’s “heat-wave” feel like a Berlin winter. Mercifully, though, there’s air-con indoors). And finding myself more or less infinitely more charmed here than I was by the British première.

Two things stick out for me in that original review about what’s changed here. In my original review I noted:

“The level of textual fidelity here is quite remarkable. The author’s note, addressed ‘To anyone interested in putting on a production of this play’ is normally the sort of thing I find compellingly hideous. However, Baker’s note seems to come from almost exactly the opposite direction [to a comparable row featuring Bruce Norris]. Where Norris says ‘don’t question my play’, Baker’s note is more like a plea for people to understand her good faith.”

And: “the acting here really is very good. But it is still acting. Even quite demonstrative acting at times...”

I really loved seeing a production that *wasn’t* textually faithful. Firstly, I think it must have been cut. Secondly, while the pauses that Baker was imploring directors not to cut have probably pretty much disappeared, in this context, that’s good. Those pauses in the British version, I now realise, felt like horribly sign-posted emotional blackmail in a broad comedy. Baker writes it funny, writes pathetic characters (at least as the British version had it), and then tells us that we must, at all costs, be precious with them. No one in the audience is really laughing at anyone here. But I suspect that in translation, the odd cruelties that the text does to the characters have been erased. It’s probably too much to suggest that Portuguese is a more sincere, innocent language than English, but that’s sure how it felt. Everyone in this version of CMT seemed really on the level and would say the stuff about themselves that the script demands with complete sincerity and it was taken as such. But, as I say (often at the moment), I don’t speak Portuguese, so I also don’t know how much has been cut.

Other textual infidelities are as follows: I think the company presenting this must be some sort of young company. I don’t think anyone in that production was even as old as me (38), which, for a production where the oldest character is 60 and the youngest is 16, was kind of interesting. Annoyingly, I can’t tell if they were still playing the characters as those ages, just without “old person acting”, or whether we were expected to believe that these bright young things had had children and divorces, or, indeed, whether those details had been cut [I’ll ask]. (And, yes, bloody hell, once again English surtitles would have been useful.)

Semi-immersion! Yup. Rather than watching the play from a raked auditorium, we watched sat round the – alternately blackboard and mirrored-panelled – walls. On garden chairs (again!) or cushions/beanbags. *And* we could join in with *some* of the exercises. Again, thanks to the lack of any handle on the language (– don’t blame me, they invited me. Romania (and every other International Festival I’ve ever been to) has had English surtitles. I thought I’d be fine. Portuguese just isn’t a European language I speak. Understanding what felt like 85% of She She Pop’s show in German has at least stopped me feeling like a monolingual English thug –) I have no idea how this affected the painstakingly crafted original text, but I think we’ve established now that this production was way more robust, and less precious, than either the script or the British première. And, for my money, the “immersion” really worked. Or at least, it made the whole thing really interesting and different. It did also rebound badly on the actors, however. If they hadn’t used real people *as well* in the exercises, I think I’d have come away from this performance saying it was *really* well acted. As soon as you put people being real on the stage with the actors (shades of Tim Crouch’s Adler and Gibb. Again.) you suddenly see what laboured tricks and heavy underlining passes for credible acting. Oddly, it made me think more about the contrast with the British première (“...still acting. Quite demonstrative...”), with the thought, a) Jesus, our naturalism is *really* unnatural and overdone, and, b) Christ, could our casting have been any more signposty? On that score, even overlooking the fact that the cast were radically the “wrong” ages, they did at least just look like some people who had turned up rather than radiating the feeling of being deliberately hand-picked oddballs.

I guess the last thing that endeared this production to me more than the Brit.Prem. was the fact I couldn’t actually understand the small gripes about their lives that the characters spend their time letting slip. I think there was a sense in which the Portuguese cast also took the problems on board at a really different level to the one adopted by their British counterparts. Perhaps it’s cultural, but rather than being studies in embarrassment and crapness, the Portuguese characters seemed like straight-forward people who might actually be invested in their feelings without any ironic detachment. It made the whole thing feel infinitely less like an elaborate exercise in being told not to laugh at characters who have been written as comic caricatures. It’s interesting, by virtue of the translation, Baker’s script achieves the sincerity that it doesn’t actually contain in English.

Al Pantalone – Escola d. António da Costa

[seen 08/07/14]

At what other programmed/curated Festival can you go from seeing a genius Slovenian production of Heiner Müller to a pure museum piece of Commedia dell’Arte? As I type this, the director of the piece (I think/assume) is behind me in the open air Festival club talking at some length about the political import behind the piece. I think. (Obviously he’s doing it in Portuguese, so your guess is as good as mine, but the words “political” and “theatre” are coming up at a right old rate.) On the political import of the piece, I have this observation to make: at one point, someone said the word “Capitalism!” and rubbed their hands together. Another observation I can make is that my French and German colleagues here snuck out of the production early.

As it goes, I was actually reasonably charmed. Al Pantalone was tightly performed and executed with ease by a clearly talented ensemble. It was also nicely designed, and communicated surprisingly well from the large, outdoor stage where it played. I’m surprised that the director is pontificating so hard over there, though. It struck me as an enjoyable piece of fluff, with some less enjoyable crappy gender essentialism thrown in because tradition. I obviously failed to notice whatever the hell it was doing that was political.

Regular readers will have recently re-familiarised themselves with what I think about clowns. And, on one hand, I’d happily see all commedia dell’arte wiped from the face of the world; on the other hand, though, this is variously the genre that succeeds Plautus [and Shakespeare?], and inspires Goldoni, Moliere, The Magic Flute, and probably some other things that are nearly worth hanging on to (halfway through that sentence, I realise I’m also not mad keen on the Magic Flute or Goldoni, but you get my point: it’s a big old tradition thing, and is at the very least ripe for subversion, critique, and appropriation, so seeing quite a reverential is at least of interest to theatre trainspotters).

In this instance, if it was being subverted, then the subversion was very much at the level of the text, rather than any observable changes to the visual proceedings which saw two older men, one young man, and only one (young) woman, charging slowly about playing what seemed like a pretty standard “rom-com” about a young woman being molested by old blokes and falling in love with a young idiot. Still, the characterisation of the old blokes was quite funny. Zanni set my teeth on edge like nothing else, and the woman’s part amounted to: “Love-interest in low-cut top. Simpers”.

Not sure there’s much else I can usefully say about it really. I liked it, but found it politically objectionable. I’d be interested to know how it was politcal to the director, because, without words, it looked like a sexist car-crash. I wonder if that’s a new Best Acid Test for sexism – one which defeats the “we were being ironic” defence in a single stroke.

No. Just no. Teeth-on-edge infuriating.

Chap on left oddly reminiscent of N. Farage, I thought...

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Macbeth after Shakespeare – Incrível de Almadense

[seen 08/07/14]

Novo Kazalište, Zagreb and Cankarjev dom, Ljubljana’s co-production of Heiner Müller’s “adaptation” of Macbeth is something of a puzzle. And the puzzle is this: the reason that this is Müller’s “adaptation” or *version* of Macbeth doesn’t come from the playwright’s 30-year-obsession with the play and “desire to destroy it”, as it does with Hamletmaschine. It simply comes from the fact that the play is written in English and Müller was directing it in German. To this end, he simply made a translation and several edits. Edits of much the same sort that any British director doing the play might make. Müller’s big thing is apparently the de-witchification of the play. He worried that the witches spell pre-determinism, and wanted his version of Macbeth to reflect instead the endless cycle of violence begetting violence, and how this is initiated by a ruling class, mostly at the expense of the lives of their working class soldiers. “The piece offers no utopian belief in a revolution that might change the world” the programme concludes. I think I’m right in saying that he has also wordlessly inserted a final moment at the end, where, having killed Macbeth, McDuff hails Malcolm as King, and Malcolm promptly has him killed; echoes of Stalin’s way of periodically killing off all those who in his inner circle who had got closest to him, as they presented the clearest successional challenge to his absolute authority. It’s a sharp point and a nice invention, but not more so, really, than Sam Mendes’s idea of having Lear batter his Fool to death in his recent NT production. The puzzle, then, is why a Slovenian company, working almost two decades after Müller’s death, would choose to stage (faithfully, I assume) a version of a German translation of an English play, rather than simply translate the play for themselves and make exactly the version they need/want. Ivica Buljan’s production makes an incredibly strong and clear case for the reasons.

What’s most fascinating about this staging (and, I have to say, because it was in Slovenian, I have no idea of the extent to which Müller “adapted” Shakespeare’s actual lines) is the way in which, just as Müller de-Shakespeared Shakespeare, Buljan re-Shakespeares Müller. Or at least, the text is played the least like any staging of Heiner Müller I have ever seen, and at the same time makes a pretty recognisable Macbeth. Of course, part of this comes from the fact that the text is no longer in German. Even when translated into English, Müller’s poetry retains a certain chilly rigidity. Rendered into Slovenian, it gains a violence and heat that I’ve never heard in his work before. As with Damned Be The Traitor of His Homeland (also Slovenians directed by a Croatian, interestingly) you notice the capacity for the Slovenian language to sustain violent outbursts, or prolonged shouting, in ways that English (or Portuguese, I’d say) simply doesn’t. Added to this is – again, particularly noticeable in the wake of Damned... – the enviable physicality of the performers.

It’s also fascinating to see this production of Buljan’s *after* the arguably unsuccessful experiment of having him transpose his working methods onto a Portuguese cast. Here, with a comparatively local cast (sorry, I honestly don’t know enough about the differences in performance styles between ex-Yugoslav countries to be able to make any useful comparison between Croatian and Slovenian actors), his aesthetic really flies. The piece is played in-the-round, a format which I pretty much detest. Here, “the round” is made up of white plastic beach/garden chairs, forming a relatively small square stage in the middle of Incrível de Almadense’s much larger auditorium (one which, ordinarily, would be dominated by the large pros. arch stage that I’ve got my back to). The two tiers of balconies and the stage are all made use of, raced round, stamped on, climbed up and sung from, but the real meat of the relentless, kinetic action takes place on the floor right in front of us – “off-stage” for the cast are several front row chairs with “reserved” signs sellotaped to them; they even do their costume changes sat there. And I loved it.

This is the most violent, physical, pounding Macbeth I’ve ever seen (and the third foreign one I’ve seen in a row – previously: Poland and Germany – Rupert Goold’s “proper” Stalin-era West End one with Patrick Stewart seems but a distant memory now). It opens with the whole cast (minus Lady Macbeth – Milena Zupančič, 67) in combat trousers and vests (an old aesthetic, but one seldom pulled off as convincingly as here – if anything this company looks more credible as fighting unit of irregulars than of actors; not the skinny, pampered, vain thing you usually see when British companies try it) basically fighting each other. Like, really. (Apparently after this performance one actor actually was hospitalised. I’m not really surprised. None of the fighting is fake, or even choreographed as far as I could see). It’s established that Macbeth has won, Duncan is pleased, and the scene shifts into a stage bathed in red light and the men all kinda getting it on. As with Macbeth’s wife being played by an actress old enough to be his mother (just about), I have literally no idea what this homo-erotica intended to signify. Most likely a kind of Spartan/Athenian warrior society where men have wives, but also seem pretty comfy with bloke-to-bloke action. Other tropes are more legible. Like Damned... it has a sequence in which corpses dressed only in their pants are dragged by their arms into a line, like a line of so many ribcages, recalling not only photos from Auschwitz, but also of those mass graves, or not-even-graves, in ex-Yugoslavia. Similarly, the point where Macbeth seems to be graphically gang-raped by soldiers also feels horribly familiar from stories coming from the ex-Yugoslav conflicts. The banquet at which Banquo’s ghost appears (oh yes, they’ve de-witched, but there are still ghosts), has turned into a violent turbo-folk charged vodka or slivovec (or is it šljivovica?) party.

I’m not entirely sure what (Shakespeare) scene it is, but, post-rape, Macbeth gets a long solo spot on stage (originally: “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow...”, perhaps?), during which Marko Mandić (Macbeth. Stunning) works himself into an actual frenzy and is, by then end of the scene, naked, pumped, and covered in sweat. He lies still for a minute and then goes round the audience front row offering his armpits to them to smell. The other quite brilliant bit of audience interaction is when a soldier has just been killed another soldier turns to a woman in the audience and abruptly commands: “This is your part. He is your husband. Scream.”

So, without ever feeling like it’s labouring a point, Buljan’s production here feels like it at once presents as effective a Macbeth as you’re ever likely to see, and at the same time drags it, horrifyingly into the recent present conjuring the ghosts and still-present horrors of the ex-Yugoslavian conflicts. And, at once honours both Shakespeare and his interpreter and theoirst, Müller. I imagine some of my ex-Yugoslavian and Eastern-European friends might find/have found this production a little “normal”. And, without wanting to disparage British Shakespeare – which is pretty much an entirely different creature – if this was our baseline for “a bit ordinary” that would be no bad thing either.

Impalpável – Fórum Romeu Correia

[seen 07/07/14]

Argentinian company Cine-Teatro Constantino Nery’s Impalpável (translated in the programme as “impalpable”), is as fascinating an experience (for me) of cross-cultural incomprehension and otherwise as it’s possible to imagine.

Based on the works of Manuel Puig (of which I’m dimly aware at best; he wrote Kiss of the Spider Woman, right?), it’s described in the Festival programme as a “hidden gem of alternative theatre”. And, having seen it, I can kind of see what they’re driving at. The piece is squarely situated in “devised, fringe-theatre -land”. What’s interesting is to see such a show – imagine anything with a single-wallpapered-flat-with-two-doors-in-it-as-back-wall (anything from the Old Red Lion will do) – put in the centre of the stage in the Lyttleton (ok, the main house at Fórum Romeu Correia is slightly smaller than the Lyttleton, but you get the picture). So, I have to start by saying straight-up congratulations to the company for not just getting lost in the space with a show that I can only presume is used to playing venues roughly an 8th of this size. Credit then to performers Elisa Bressán, Malena Schnitzer, and Paula Manzone.

Just before the show, I happened to have been reading Doon MacKichan’s violent Hay Festival lecture on feminism in the New Statesman, so I was in a bit of a funny mood. I was also thinking a lot about the representation of women on stage (and screen). As such, three women coming on stage dressed in the costumes of archetypal fifties housewives sat oddly with how I was feeling. That the piece is directed by two men (Ignacio de Santis and Sergio Calvo), based on the writing of a third man, initially did precious little to offset this unease. On the other hand, the programme seems to gloss over Puig’s homosexuality in terms so euphemistic (“Puig said he took refuge in the cinema to escape from a reality that was not suitable for him... judgements made by others about his way of life”), that you could almost miss the fact that it’s probably the point of the stories, if not this use of them.

So we end up in this weird place where heavily encoded stories by a dissident gay Argentinian writer are used by a group of three women (directed by two men), to make a piece which seems merely to celebrate the actual narratives of the stories – ideas of escapism from conformist fifties housewife-dom, either by actually going off and living the dream of trying to become a film star, or by watching films in between a load of domestic chores. A lot of the stage time is taken up with two of the women, competitively rolling out dough, greasing baking tins, a whole load of domestic stuff.

Tbh, without surtitles, it was impossible to get more out of it than that. The company performed with sufficient charisma to make the hour pass without too much discomfort, even if they were employing a stage-language of such resolute literal-mindedness, it’d have looked staid at the Old Vic. I dunno. Ultimately it *looked* more reactionary than not. But then they could have been reciting Das Kapital while doing it as far as I know, so...