Friday, 27 March 2015

Anna Karenina – Royal Exchange, Manchester

[seen 26/03/15]


The new adaptation of Anna Karenina at the Royal Exchange is outstanding. Jo Clifford’s script feels so effortless that you forget that someone’s only just finished writing it*. [edit: apparently it's not new after all.]  Ellen McDougall’s production inhabits the Exchange’s in-the-round space with fluidity, grace and precision. Joanna Scotcher’s design is contemporary, intelligent and elegant. Lizzie Powell’s lighting: again effortless; again contemporary and stylish. Even Tom Gibbons’s sound design (that’s even the sound design, not even Tom Gibbons) is repeatedly noticeably doing really excellent things. And, blimey, what a great cast too. Across the two hour (-ish, plus interval) running time, they quietly convincingly put across these incredibly realised, changing, evolving, original versions of well-worn, pre-known characters that feel every bit as complex, human and readable as you could wish.

[Indeed, it’s tempting to note that the only weak link here is your critic, who is not the Tolstoy expert some might wish for. As such, I’m going to be considering this production pretty much as an original, albeit one that I know happens to be based on a story written by Russian man over 137 years ago (the date of final publication given by Wikipedia).]

With this much goodnness going on, it is difficult to know where to start, so perhaps the most logical place is the first thing you see, which is the poster:


The observant amongst you will notice that Ony Uhiara, who plays Anna, is black. It’s worth noting that in fact in the last two nights I’ve seen more black actresses in leading roles (Titania and Puck in the Everyman’s MSND the night before) than I remember seeing on main stages of principle playhouses in London. Ever. And to think that people worried that I was going to find The North theatrically conservative. So far it’s making London look very backward indeed. So, yes, that’s a first unabashed good. And it sort of demonstrates how the production as a whole operates: It’s taken a pretty traditional, reppy choice of text-for-adaptation to get one lot of punters along, and then made damn sure its as far from comfortable, chocolate-boxy, period drama as possible to get the other lot of theatregoers interested. Politically, this seems about as astute as it gets.

That said, there’s nothing in this production to actually upset all but the most uptight (or racist) traditionalist. It’s not spitting bile and fury at traditional theatre. It doesn’t feel confrontational at all, in fact: it’s just like this incredibly well-oiled index of quality that is letting us know that it’s the 21st century and this is how we can do things now, if we like.

Scotcher’s design feels absolutely central to this. Across the stage, (straight left-to-right from my seat), run two metal train tracks. Those familiar with the novel will straightaway grasp the significance of these. On the tracks two adaptable metal-wheeled carts can roll in and out, sometimes dressed with a simple white tablecloth to stand in for tables, beds, etc, sometimes without as unspecified chunks of industry. At the very centre of the stage, between the tracks, is a patch of raw earth. (Which, weirdly, echoes the sandpit and the pool in the two previous productions by McDougall I saw. AK also makes use of McDougall’s now-traditional balloon motif, although here the balloons are only playing balloons).

This motif of mud at the centre of a clean modern stage works *so well* though. On one level it symbolises the whole problem central to the narrative – the dirt just below the surface of civilisation, the mucky problem of desire, “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart” as Yeats has it. It also speaks eloquently to the character Levin’s concerns that his (landed gentry) strata of society has lost touch with the very soil they own. And then, just on simple aesthetic grounds, the fact of having something in which characters’ clothes get dirty; mud that gets tramped around the stage; feels incredibly necessary to combat the often antiseptic sets in which theatrical worlds sometimes find themselves trapped. Initially all but the smallest rectangle of this dirt is covered, but towards the end of the first half there’s a neat design coup which, very simply, edges toward the theatrical power of *that ending* in *that* A View From the Bridge.

But, Jesus; so far I’ve just reviewed the whole thing as if it was a clever installation with a poster. There are actors. And a plot. And writing. Pretty much every actor in the show deserves a whole review of their own for the myriad subtleties that they bring to it. Ryan Early as the spivvy misogynist Oblonsky (Anna’s brother) invests the part with a terrific nervous energy which he also projects outwards, serving as the audience’s unsavoury way in to the story, and contrasting with the handsome but almost unreadable Vronsky (Robert Gilbert), whose perspective on events seems tightly reigned in. This contrasts again with Jonathan Keeble’s Karenin, who manages the neat trick of losing all our sympathy by going from incredibly-dull-but-reasonable-enough kind of bloke who gets royally fucked over to someone who having submerged all their grief and disappointment in religion and Conservatism, turns into an utter git. Gillian Saker manages to invest a credible heart into the potentially thankless part of Katy (I think Clifford has turned all patronymics into British equivalent name-shortenings. Smart) – one of those women in literature-by-men (and Jane Austen) who would otherwise mostly be defined by how she’s a bit silly and in love with someone (see also: Helena, yesterday). Perhaps most tragic and touching is the bald, bearded John Cummins as Levin, whose whole physicality achieves an almost sculptural noble disappointment in human form. (I say noble: obviously, as a landowner, his apparent haplessness in the face of all the misery he causes, and his blindness to that fact, is more bitter irony than cause-for-sympathy – that Cummins so successfully humanises Levin’s suffering is subtle indeed). Clare Brown, Anthony Barclay and Donna Berlin as “Dolly” (Oblonsky’s wife), Prince Scherbatsky (Katy’s dad) and a peasant (two peasants?) and (Vronsky’s mum) are all also great in their smaller roles.

It is perhaps Anna (Ony Uhiara) who is the biggest puzzle here, though. Uhiara is excellent at inhabiting Anna with a thoroughly modern and 3D sensibility, while at the same time never severing the historical specificity in which Anna’s problems are grounded (a husband who won’t divorce her, a society scandalised by affairs, etc.). However, perhaps partly because of this very modern-feeling production (and maybe because everything feels so contemporary, the attitudes become all the more shocking and alien), Anna’s tragedy does seem as much one of selfishness or arrogrance (think Coriolanus) as much as one of her tragic misunderstandings and the appalling society by which she is surrounded. (This would be where it might have been helpful to read the book – although I’m firmly of the view that if you haven’t ever read the source text before (ideally about five or more years before), reading it just ahead of seeing the adaptation is *far* worse than not having read it at all).

By the end Anna appears to have driven herself mad by fucking her hormones with repeated abortions (if I understood the euphemisms correctly) in the mistaken belief that Vronsky would prefer her childless – even as he despairs of his lack of an heir. In this, it feels perhaps more to do with the Russian love of dramatic irony and a worldview that seems unable to conceive of anything than everything ending in utter desolation more than *gender*. But that Anna is a woman invented by a male author does make this ultimate doom seem like a gendered question. Yes, she’s a strong female central character, but then she is ultimately destroyed by the male novelist who created her, and possibly in a move that could easily be read as either punishment or “an inevitability”. So, yes, tricky, that, and not, I don’t think, a problem entirely addressed here. Although, the production is admirably unequivocal about the fact that the men surrounding Anna are terrible, and often so lost in self-pity that they are incapable of even beginning to see their own privilege. But, yeah, Russian literature: rarely cheery.

Nevertheless, lack of a heart-warming ending notwithstanding, this is one of the best new things I’ve seen in the UK this year so far. If you live in Manchester (or nearby) then definitely come and see it. If you live further afield, then maybe start looking into cheap advance train tickets right now. Superlative work.



*What a weird sentiment, but you know what I mean, right? New Writing usually tends to feel a bit like new anything else – like it needs a bit of time for the crackly crispness to wear off before it’s comfortable, yes?

Thursday, 26 March 2015

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Everyman, Liverpool

[25/03/15]


On one level, Everyman associate director Nick Bagnall’s MSND is a model of textual clarity, albeit one occasionally let down by some unforgivable shouting (mostly the Titania and Oberon scenes). To look at, however, it’s one of the strangest Shakespeares I’ve ever seen.

It opens ordinarily enough, with four short, square plinths breaking up the Everyman’s square thrust stage. The black, (fake) back wall has chalk graffiti about the lovers (and an amusing “Puck” with the round bit of the P half-scrubbed-out – so: “Fuck”), a large door in it and a big clock on it. Then the cast come out. Theseus and his Amazonian bride Hippolyta are dressed as a kind of junta from the 25th century – spangly white military-style jackets – while the lovers seem to have just stumbled out of Narnia or Harry Potter in 1950s public school uniforms. So that’s all pretty weird. The working class am-dramatists are all clad in orange overalls (because that’s what weavers and joiners wear in fascist 2415). Oberon and Titania are dressed like refugees from a late 70s disco video (while Peaseblossom and co. are genuinely clad head to foot in black like so many ninjas. I shit you not, and know not why). The forest, when revealed, has a mirrored back wall and is mostly composed of strewn crumpled white paper (oh, and a blue lighting state for the fairies and a nice warm glowy one for the humans – stark contrast to Athens’s never-knowingly-understated Very Cold Lighting because The Scary Future). So, yeah, it’s pretty *eighties*. Studio 54 meets Captain Zep at a roadworks on the A57.

"I shall have you sent to the disintegration chamber!"

It’s a shame the design is so scattergun (and often ugly), because at root there is actually some really intelligent text work going on here. Bagnall seems to be offering what feels like a pretty full-text version – the thing runs 3 hours (3 HOURS. JESUS.) with only a fifteen minute interval – and is most interested in highlighting just how problematic the treatment of women (and the predicament of all the lovers) is. The masterstroke here is that Demitrius (Matt Whitchurch) is revealed to be an utter prick of the first water. His public schoolboy-isms make him the opposite of endearing, but once he starts with the threats of rape and beating women, he crosses the line from petulant prefect to something much, much worse. Are these bits usually cut? Do other directors interpret them differently? Because they sounded pretty unequivocally, straightforwardly vile to me. In light of this the fairies seem particularly callous, or rather, they would if they seemed anything more than shouty, aimless and adrift. It’s especially odd, since Sharon Duncan-Brewster and Garry Cooper also play Hippolyta and Theseus too, and really rather well,

The other index of a MSND tends to be how funny the mechanicals are. Here, in the main, they’re pretty funny. And, as only notably Liverpudlian-(or even vaguely northern)-accented cast members, there’s a warmth to the reception of their scenes where you glimpse that sense of civic pride that maybe sets the Everyman apart from a lot of other English theatres. Dean Nolan does particulary sterling work as Nick B – staggeringly nimble for a big chap, he cavorts, flirts, and somersaults his way about the stage like it was a one man show all about him. Which is pretty right for Bottom’s bumptious approach to scene stealing. It could grate like Jack Black invariably does, but Nolan – replete with enormous beard – is channelling so many Brian Blesseds that it’s a surprise his Pyramus costume breast-plate doesn’t have wings on the back. Elsewhere in the cast, Emma Curtis’s Helena is possibly the most characterful reading I’ve yet seen of a character who usually amounts to a collection of simpers. Curtis invests her with a kind of wide-eyed, kooky psychopathy that transforms her endless love for Demetrius from something inexplicable and twee into a rather monomaniacal stalking campaign.

Overall, then, the production is like a slow strobe between delight and despondence. Taking the whole at a leisurely pace, some scenes quickly lose the attention and appear to drag on into infinity, while others completely restore your confidence in the enterprise, have you leaning forward in your seat, laughing or wincing as appropriate. There are some very fine musical numbers – the fairy ninjas doubling up as a kind of slow electric skiffle band – and overall it’s a reading of the play I was glad to have seen and which added a bunch of intelligent ideas to the text’s performance history.

That said, I don’t half wish I could get to Dublin to see this remarkable-looking (Marthaler-influenced?) version of the play currently on at the Abbey Theatre.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Lippy – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh and The Lowry, Salford

[seen 06/08/14 and 24/03/15]


Christ, Lippy is good. Seriously good. Great, in fact.

I agree, italicised Haydon-from-the-past, I saw it again last night. Which, after a gap of seven and a half months, was a really interesting experience.

It’s a show that unfolds with surprise upon surprise. And there’s basically no way to talk about it without describing those surprises and saying what effects they have. It’s properly astonishing, and possibly the most stylish directorial Traverse début I’ve ever seen, married to a remarkable piece of new writing, but the rest of this review feels a bit spoilery.


[You can probably forget it before February (!), but if you have an exceptional memory and prefer surprises, stop here. Rest of review below photo]

That said, more or less everyone has probably seen it by now, still, photo:



Lippy is a great example of why it’s probably better never to read blurb and instead attend theatre on the basis of the creative team involved. It’s blurb rattles off some stuff about four rural Irish sisters who mutually agreed to starve themselves to death in a suicide pact in the year 2000. I have a blind-spot for “Irish theatre” about as wide as Ireland, especially when it’s rural. I just plain don’t like it. All that naturalism. All that accent work. All those little farm-house sets. Pretty much the diametric opposite of Things I Love. Lippy, on the other hand, is like a Things I Do Love checklist.

Exactly. The whole comes on like David Lynch directing an examination of the uncanny in the work of Romeo Castellucci

However, it starts, properly funnily, with Bush Moukarzel – also credited as the sole author on the spine of the Oberon Books text of Lippy, and “with cameo-playwright Mark O’Halloran” inside the front cover – coming on stage and greeting us with the words:

“Hello everyone. Thanks for staying behind. You don’t always get many people for these post-show talks..."

It’s a really good theatre-joke, and Moukarzel’s delivery of it, and his subsequent post-show interview of “ Lip reader” (that’s the character name in the text) is conducted with a really likeable wryness and self-conscious awareness of both the actual liveness and the world-of-play liveness and the slippage between the two. In the world-of-the-play Moukarzel *isn’t* the writer, but he’s “worked with the director Ben Kidd before”.

The subject of their post-show chat is how the company got interested in making a piece about these sisters who killed themselves, and to an extent, the company’s devising process. Lip reader shows Bush a bunch of the YouTube videos (here projected onto the screen directly behind them) that the company watched to research the piece. The links are even included in the script (let’s hope YouTube stays online forever now. Imagine if Shakespeare had put hyperlinks in his quartos...).

Occasionally, little odd things happen. At one point, instead of the intended YouTube clip, a large silent close-up video of a pair of lips speaking appears on the screen. At several points there are unnaturally long pauses. After a while, there’s a section where Lip Reader is doing some lip-reading off the screen into a microphone and – and I didn’t notice when, or perhaps I did immediately – his lips stop moving and the speech continues through the speakers. It’s genuinely eerie for a few seconds, until your mind kicks back in and you remember that you know how it’s been done. But for those few seconds the piece somehow inhabits that unsettling place where David Lynch films also live.

At some point, this first section stops, fades out, and we realise that the “screen” we were watching the videos on has become see-through and we’re staring into a real room on the stage. What follows is a long wordless sequence. I was going to say, this is where Lippy really got my attention, but it’s not true. The first bit is funny, engaging and inventive. What you now realise is that it also serves a very clever practical purpose: it teaches us how to think about the piece of theatre that carries on after it.

But, what’s stunning about it [what was *most* surprising about it in Edinburgh, but still surprising on touring] is just how *foreign* it seems. I know “European” has become worse than a cliché and entirely meaningless as a description, but it still feels like A Thing. And this is that Thing. It fits so much better into the world of Castellucci’s vivid, surreal excavations of the subconscious and Katie Mitchell’s camera shows on the mainland than into any kind of “New Writing” tradition. That said, it has a a script, a fascinating, playful, intelligent script (perhaps another reason why it doesn’t feel like “New Writing”). In short, it is the thing it is so much better than that thing usually is, that it doesn’t feel like an example of the specie. Like Not I doesn’t feel like “a monologue”.

Indeed, in terms of literary ancestors, Beckett oeuvre feels very much like the nearest living relative. The Irishness helps, perhaps. That sense of suffocating rural Catholicism – a world where the idea of God is still real and present enough to cause trauma and borderline psychosis in a small family, and which papers over the cracks of possible/probable abuse even unto the present day. An idea of God that even impinges on a contemporary consciousness. Perhaps this is also why Castellucci – particularly his Purgatorio – feels so relevant. Obviously, coming from a hardcore British protestantism background (probably borderline Calvinist in places), it’s a set of ideas and references that I find as exotic and inexplicable as Slovenian satire.

However, there’s more to it than that. Lippy revels in the unheimlich (as Freud had it). The one thing I really missed on the second watch was the genuine sense of unease that the first viewing had engendered. There’s not much I find frightening – especially in terms of “the supernatural” – but Lippy manages to pull that neat trick that David Lynch also does, of making something so inexplicable, so on another plane of experience (often with similar movements and slowed down or backwards voices), that it appears to tap into something primally unsettling. The first time you see it, it’s as much as you can do to keep rolling with the surprises and try to piece together any kind of meaning at all. Annoyingly, on second viewing, the primary impulse it to try to catch all the tricks being done before they make you wince or shudder. Which is maybe a silly use of your time.

On second viewing, though, I did also notice far more how concerned symbolically it is with women. Indeed, you could present the piece in the frame of a festival of feminist work, and I think it would make it feel far more direct and pointed. Plainly on many levels Lippy (itself even slang for lipstick, right? possibly relevant given the focus on lip movement) could be taken to be about the subjugation of women in Catholicism, and even possible parental abuse by a father. Of course, it spirals outawards from that to be as much about identity and communication, but it seems that incomprehension of a particular, specific society is at the heart of what drives this bold and imaginative work.


Sunday, 22 March 2015

Identity.Move! Bazaar – Studio Alta, Prague

[21/03/15]


Ok, the Identity.Move! Bazaar wants a bit of explaining/contextualising as an event. And almost certainly doesn’t want “reviewing” in any conventional sense.

On which subject, have you read Meg Vaughan’s (entirely unrelated) review of The Privileged? Christ, it’s clever and good. And totally revolutionises the online theatre review.

Identity.Move! is the name of this 18-moth/two year project that’s taken 24 artists from across the “Eastern European Belt” – from Latvia to Greece, through... as far West as Germany and as far East as Bulgaria (if my geography is right). This Festival is essentially its culmination. And, as an idea for a festival, I think it’s kind of brilliant: a programme of great talks and provocations, a proper range of different shows, and all built around this apparently huge, amorphous R&D project *with no “final” pieces*, more like scratches, showings, interim reports and so on. The sort of thing Chris Goode has been telling us is the future of theatre for years. The artists have meet up and working in their pairs in a series of workshops in Germany(?), Poland and Greece, and now are putting the work in front of each other and small audiences before a final day (today, Sunday, 22nd) of – I guess – feedback.

Interestingly, although no British artists are involved (again! our whole *being an island* deal really needs a rethink, I think), the format for Bazaar, thrashed out by the excellent Polish Theatremaker Wojtek Ziemilski, owes, he told me, a certain amount to Stoke Newington International Airport’s seminal, short-lived, Live Art Speed-Dating nights. And to Forest Fringe. Which, in the midst of all this Eastern European-ness, did, I’ll admit, make me feel a slight sense of national pride: we occasionally have ideas mainland Europeans actually want to nick! Who knew?

As a result, the atmosphere of Studio Alta’s almost entirely brand new “Living Room” space – a large warehouse-y affair with sofas, heating, a mezzanine level and a bunch of side rooms – is one of amiable chaos as festival guests wander around trying to get their bearings and see as man y of the works-in-progress / showings going on. Obviously, with 24 artists ininter-disciplinary pairings, some of the showings are more coherent than others, and some more apt to be written about than others. As such, rather than giving thumb-nail sketches of everything I saw, I’m going to have a stab at describing three pieces in more detail, which between them also somehow seem to summarise/tap into the looming sense of the shape of things to come which has been hanging over both this festival and DunaPart in Budapest.

The first is a piece entitled The Film and the Praxis by Latvians Krišjānis Sants and Andis Geste. It essentially comprises being herded into a small room by two big blokes in miliarty uniform (the artists Sants and Geste themselves, with newly shaved heads), and watching a film while gthe two men stand stock still against the walls.

The film is a fascinating lo-fi cut-up of, well, other bits of film they’ve shot. The whole, in terms of aesthetic and maybe strategy/ethos is reminiscent in equal parts of: Death in June, Laibach, and some live military-themed gay porn shoot they had as part of Visions of Excess at the Shunt Vaults in 2008. (Does anyone else ever read back over neutral descriptions of things they’ve seen at work and wonder how they came to find these things run of the mill?) and the films David Lynch. (There’s no actual porn in this one, I hasten to add, but the whole butch-but-sensitive men in uniform thing definitely communicates something of the sort...)

The film itself shows the pair marching about in the nature, possible some earlier, longer showing of their R&D, and footage of speeding over painted road signs offering words like “Obey” and “Peace”. The grainy, over-exposed footage shatres enough in common with possible home made videos of sickening violence that the whole thing feels faintly threatening throughout, even while the actual content remains entirely benign. I guess having two big uniformed men in the space with you will do that to a thing.

And, oddly, it’s that which perhaps communicates the biggest national/imternational preoccupation of both piece and festival. Apparently Latvia reintroduced compulsory national service three days ago. And the reason is not that they worry about youth discipline or how to massage the unemployment figures, but because there’s an ever more firm belief that before the year’s out they will be at war with Russia. I shit you not. I think we in the UK maybe feel a bit hazy on the details of the whole Ukraine thing, but in former Soviet bloc countries, they really don’t. And in former states of the the Soviet Union, that feeling is amplified a hundredfold. Under everything happening here, there is the fear of a catastrophic war waiting to happen. I imagine Europe in 1914 might have felt rather similar in the summer.

By contrast, the second piece I want to talk about – Si Conflufión, by the special-character-tastically named Halka Třešňáková – is non-stop laugh-out-loud hilarious. It’s essentially a one woman stand-up routine performed in an entirely made-up language that, thanks to liberal adaptation of numerous European languages, manages to sound both plausible and vaguely comprehensible as well as being consistently very funny. It’s not unlike those Scorchio sketches from The Fast Show, in fact, but *way* funnier.

It *might* be about some future for Europe and the world in which global warming has reduced habitable areas of the planet to the maybe three regions which she is pointing to with a comically long stick in a power-point presentation. The regions themselves are represented here by close-up photos of sections of missing paint or plaster from old walls, treated like state of the art cartography. There seems to be information about demographics, populations, regional delicacies, and local conflicts. AND THEN THERE’S A Q&A! In a language nobody speaks! And some audience members with minds more nimble than my own actually manage to ask questions in something that sounds like a plausible approximation of the same made-up language. Enough that Třešňáková is put on the back foot, having to improvise both what she’s been asked and a satisfactory answer. Which she does with aplomb. And suddenly the whole has been turned into a kind of Olympic-standard game of Mornington Crescent (nice, easily understood, internationally recognised, not at all *way too niche* comparison there...). But, yeah, as well as being incredibly funny it managed to be rather touching and somehow worryingly plausible and apocalyptic as well.

The last showing I want to talk about was Teja and Leja’s I.M! On the Sofa, from Slovenia. Perhaps one waty to explain this is to reproduce their programme blurb and offer a translation:

“The performance I.M! on the Sofa is a context-specific event. Contexts are themselves posited unities that undergo temporal changes and expose their essential disunity. The show starts with taking over different identities of known and famous people, continues with the deconstruction of the self in and of itself, to fall apart at the seams; the resulting split, paradoxically, functions as a space where an event could happen. Power seems to be more than an exchange between subjects or a relation of constant inversion between subject and the Other, indeed power appears to operate in the production of of that very binary frame for thinking about identity. This performance is a parodic practice that disrupts the categories of identity, and occasion their subversive resignation and proliferation beyond the binary frame. Any kind of ‘natural indisposition’ becomes a laughable term and laughter in the face of serious categories is indispensable for any kind of serious thought.”

So, yes, first off it’s tempting to note that when the artists have an infinitely more developed critical vocabulary than the critic, then it’s perhaps tempting for the critic to run away. Mercifully I went into ...on the Sofa not having read the blurb, so I can at least describe what it looked like to the naïve spectator.

Essentially, the small audience enters a little attic room at the top of Studio Alta to be greeted by Teja and Leja seated on a nice-looking antique-y settee, dressed in fur coats and high heals. T&L introduce themselves, repeatedly, as various famous women and occasionally men – Madonna, Gertrude Stein, Michael Jackson, Angela Merkel, etc. – and laugh violently at each name. There’s a sense that it’s a kind of game, or bitchy competition (“bitchy” is definitely a trope being looked at, y’know. I’m not just saying some gendered shit here; they know what they’re doing with their postmodernism). “I am Marina Abramovich!” declares one. “I am *young* Marina Abramovich!” counters the other. And so on. Over the course of the next fifteen (?) minutes, with just introductions, statements, and two-part gags, the two women seem to delineate a kind of political and artistic map of contemporary and historical Europe. The murder of the Jews, the economic crisis (“We’re all Germans now!”), and again the looming conflict with Russia (“How do young German soldiers want to die?” “Protecting Estonia or protecting Latvia?”), not to mention attacking other productions in the festival (“Victory Day?” “Terrible night!”). (At least, this is how it seemed to me.)

If it wasn’t totally stupid to embark on some broad brush characterisation of a national theatre culture (ha!), then I would say I really like Slovenia’s way of approaching art: there seems to be a basic requirement that the ground is completely unstable from the very outset. I mean, it’s not like we doing have “character comedy” or “satire” in Britain (Al Murray’s Pub Landlord is a good example), but what we also have alongside that is a triple-underlining that it’s all alright really. This is the one thing they seem at pains to subtract in Slovenia. From Laibach’s famous interview on state TV in 80s Yugoslavia, when they refused to say it was all a joke, onwards, it seems Slovenia is the home of the discomforting satire that refuses to say “We’re only joking”. Maybe not even “we’re also joking”. And I think it’s that uncanny gap that makes the stuff said work that bit harder. The not knowing exactly where you stand that makes you interrogate your own ethical responses, instead of allowing yourself to be fed comfortable piss-taking. And, yes, ultimately, I think T&L completely fulfil their above blurb with no small amount of élan.

So, yeah. That was the Bazaar. Brilliant artists, their penetrating analysis, and an overwhelming sense of gloom that we’ll all be at war with Russia by Christmas.

What maniac was it that said art was good for the soul?

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Guest post: Strategies for Problematizing Identity in the Eastern European Arts – Identity.Move!, Prague

[at the Identity.Move! Festival, alongside the shows there were a series of short papers/talks/presentations. I discuss Karol Radziszewski’s Why I don’t Like the Rainbow here. This one is by Una Bauer. I thought it was brilliant, and she’s kindly let me republish it here, essentially saving me the trouble of having to just say everything that happened in it]

"in the case of future rebellions and revolutions" 
from Studies on Greylag Goose


Your first sentence is: “There is no end.” You are making a transcript of sound recordings preserved on magnetic tapes. The tapes don’t exist. Your transcript is a copy of what didn’t exist in the first place. Bits of your sentences, or rather the transcript of the voices and sounds, are interspersed with notes in brackets that state where the non-existent tapes have, nevertheless, been damaged. “Five second silence.” “Four centimeters damaged tape.” “Inarticulate.” You seem to be writing about or writing through an experience of a woman caught in a space-between or in a world-between, as if that which she perceives, and that which her perception is made of, resonates on another frequency, that you sometimes catch a glimpse of, or rather, a sound of. Yet she is not the only voice in your book. In fact, she is the one listening. You mention astrobiology, as if that is an already established discipline. You hint at a catastrophe that happened six years ago. It seems there is now only your sister and you in this dusty eternal summer that you seem to be living through. Yet there is no tension of anticipation, seductive dynamics of revelation of this other world. There are only bits and pieces of something that, occasionally, seems familiar. You write about forgetting the astronomy lessons you took in Osijek, a city in the eastern Croatian region of Slavonia, while Osijek was still there. You seem to know Osijek well, it looks like you’ve lived there. Your writing is bubbling with detailed and precise descriptions, yet they are as detailed as they are discontinuous. You write as if you are entering into an unknown, dark basement with a flashlight that keeps turning off. Yet you are, obsessively, trying to complete a task of describing this space, for someone who was never there. So you describe the bits you can see when the light is on, but somehow you keep losing yourself, and every time the flashlight is back on, you start from a different place with your laborious rendition. At some point, you mention transitional time, before the riots, when the rumours of the collapse of the West started growing stronger and stronger. It seemed that the entire European Union looked like Siberia, and bottles of milk and packages of sugar held warning messages: “These products may contain traces of European origin.” But you never tell us what was it that happened, although you do mention cow encephalophatia, pig plague and emerging xenophobic political options. They seem to be announcing the catastrophe, however, rather than being the catastrophe itself. You seem to be living in a permanent state of mobilization, pursuing a particular goal that never reveals itself. Two thirds of your novel are written in one continuous sentence. You are Luka Bekavac, and your novel is called Viljevo. You are Dorotea, Eliza’s sister, who escaped from Osijek that never looked like what you so obsessively describe it to be. You are Josip Marković and you wrote the last part of the novel Viljevo which is a quasi-scientific study on the phenomenon of radio transmisions from the same space, yet another world.

You are a choreographer. You are choreographing movement which neither attempts to conquer the space, nor does it close itself on its own imaginary internality. You seemed to have turned the space inside out, reshaped the empty air around you into a solid block of thick matter. Conversely, your body appears as the empty space, a cut out, a hole. With fast, yet restricted motions of your upper body, you bring the space around you into existence, forcing it to appear in its materiality. You seem to be carving your movement into the thick mass of the space around your. It is a pleasure to watch your moving, as you, unlike so many dance performances, are not invading the space and trying to show your virtuosic dominance over it, by suppressing its materiality, negating its resistance. You are insisting precisely on this resistances. Yet you are not doing this by any obvious means such as by slowing down of your movement or by intensive emphasize on the strain of your movement. You are standing firmly in your position, wearing heavy shoes, locked in your security and safety, yet at the same time, with your upper body you invite, demand, produce this firmness as instability, performing movements which almost suggest that your body is hanging on a thin thread, that it is shaking uncontrollably back and forth. Yet there is nothing of pantomime in what you are doing. Your strategy produces certain dis-embodiment or doubling, a certain de-personalization of your body, its transformation into an object. You emphasize contingency as the basic mechanism of every living organism but what is interesting is that you produce this contingency in the performance, rather than using it as a ready-made. You are choreographing your body as unstable, introducing insecurity and fragility as dramaturgically and choreographically created and chosen. You are Vesna Mačković, dancer and choreographer from Zagreb. You are a dancer with disability. You are Vedran Hleb, director and dramaturg. Your piece is called Intensities.

You are making a performance which, by exploring the strategy of subversive affirmation or over-identification, articulates the thesis that the conflict between the oppressed and the opressors is a conflict between different (human, animal) species which have been, to an extent, deprived of communication amongst themselves because the initial axioms of their existence are so different that one species cannot access the truth of the discourse of the other, as it, to draw from Foucault, refuses methodological principles which condition the entrance into the truth of the other. The aesthetic and political strategy of your performance is built primarily on a certain hypertrophy of the theme of «civilization» or rather on an exaggeration, or forcing into absurdity various semantic streams of this basic idea. The problem that you are engaged with, is that those different species, their material existence doesn’t carry the same weight – in the language of the performance – you are either the louse or the elephant. Or, to quote from The Mothman Prophecies (2002), an American blockbuster starring Richard Gere: “I think we may assume that these entities are more advanced than us. Why don’t they simply come and tell us what is on their minds? – You are more advanced than a cockroach, have you ever tried explaining yourself to one of them?” Cockroaches might survive nuclear war, however a man can destroy a cockroach much easier than the other way around. You frame this line in your story with another one – with an introductory story about a graylag goose which, due to imprinting and other forms of habit creation as explored by Konrad Lorenz, always continuously re-establishes and re-affirms its habit, enforced by fear. The habit becomes the norm, something unquestionable and unquestioned, something good, something which helps us conquer fear. Arbitrarity or contingency turns into absolute fairness – teleologically speaking – if you are poor, you deserved to be poor, because the world cannot but be precisely what it should be – just and fair. Even more so, there is no need to change this just world, we only need to make sure that we continue the way we did so far, and to defend it from those who want to question hidden political origins of inequality. You are Aleksandar Nikolić, director and dramaturg from Belgrade. You are Nataša Antulov, dramaturg and director of the performance Studies on Greylag Goose. You live in Rijeka, Croatia.

from Intensities

Parallel (& Why I Don’t Like The Rainbow) – Studio Alta, Prague

[seen 20/03/15]


The day before the Identity.Move project’s Bazaar Festival showed Parallel, Polish theorist Karol Radziszewski gave a brilliant short talk entitled Why I don’t Like the Rainbow. It outlined his growing research into pre-1989 and even pre-WWII queer history in his native Poland, in the Czech Republic (& former Czechoslovakia), and further afield into Eastern Europe, and then pitted this history against the Westernisation of all things LBGTQ (and someone this week used LBGTQIA – presumably adding intersex and asexual?) post-’89. His reasonably stated contention was that, as in so many other fields, from economics to art, the West has tactlessly piled in, possibly with much enthusiasm and the best of intentions, or possibly with a staggering capitalism-driven cynicism, and imposed its own pre-set versions of How Things Work onto the newly ex-communist bloc. In the case of LBGTQ politics and the field of gay rights, Radziszewski wryly noted that it is now common for Poles and Czechs interested in gay rights to be more familiar with the dissident struggles in New York in the 1970s than their own history, just as Eastern European schoolkids run the risk of being more familiar with the Equal Rights movement of 1960s USA than their own country’s struggles during that decade. (Hell, that’s even true of UK schools.)

Radziszewski’s theory continues: in the west the gay rights revolution happened in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s moving from the alternative to the mainstream. But, moving into Eastern Europe after the ‘80s, no one wanted to export (or import) the “alternative” bit. In 2010, Euro-Pride was held in Warsaw. Radziszewski terms it “Rainbow Colonialism”: a Western symbol, imposed on Eastern Europe: too late and as a failure. Warsaw, 2010 featured largely parties for gay *men* with VIP tickets. Images of *nice*, *young*, gays” and a lot of talk about the value of the pink-złoty. All the money for the festival came from Germany and the Netherlands who were *teaching them* to “fight for their rights” (in much the same way as Germany has “helped” Greece with its economy, no doubt). As a result, Radziszewski and his friends organised anti-Euro-pride swhich involved no money, a DIY aesthetic, and where all the logos, materials, promo stuff, etc., were in black and white as a deliberate statement against the *Rainbow*.

I mention all this by way of part-explantion as to why I’m precisely the wrong White, Male, Straightish Westerner to even begin to review Parallel.

Parallel is a Romanian dance-theatre piece that deals with feminism, lesbianism, misogyny and marginalisation in a direct, confrontational style. According to Romanian friends, it is pretty groundbreaking in this respect. And also quite a brave statement for the artists, who also have neither context not Romanian vocabulary for what they’re talking about. (The show is *always* performed in English, apparently, not just because it was showing at an international festival.)

What happens, briefly: the two performers (I was going to say “both women”, but as there’s a fair bit of gender-questioning in the piece, maybe that’s not how one, other or either performer choses to self-identify) start off doing exercises to one of those video workouts, then the music changes and they do a pretty hardcore weights, skipping, push-ups and on-the-spot jogging routine (which would literally kill me to attempt). After this, they retreat up stage, which is divided by a tiled bathroom/changing room wall, strip off to their pants, and perform a bunch of football-related exercises, from playing keepy-uppy to throwing penalty save shapes. After this, one dresses in conventionally heteronormative blokes clothes (shabby suit and tie), and the other dresses in a back- and front- crotchless PVC outfit spikes “her” hair, and glues on a bunch of sideburn. Suit then sits on a chair and tells a non-stop stream of anti-lesbian jokes while PVC gets a ukulele and sings songs about cocks and women. I will say, that at this point so many points seemed to be being made at such a speed that it was difficult to keep a neat track of whether these were consistent characters, who they were, what they meant, etc. But I’m pretty sure that’s a UK theatre-thinking problem more than anything at fault on stage. Gradually, suit starts saying some things that sounded (if I remember rightly) more like they were anti-misogyny, and then there is a rather nice bit of more reflective poetry/lyrical speaking at the end.

Yes, its theatre/dance/dance-theatre, but it almost steps beyond the need to assess it in artistic terms because the content is so important for its context and its performers. Or, looked at another way, not coming from that context, it’s impossible for me to assess it, even artistically. I can understand/appreciate the importance of the context, but that’s not enough to actually re-wire my brain, or change the direction from which I approach it.

There’s a fine tradition of British critics (step forward Michael Billington, Charlie Spencer in particular) assessing all theatre as if it were British theatre, albeit British theatre which had somehow forgotten “the rules” (as if we all even agreed those rules in “Britain”, or even in “England”). Well, it’s a tradition I am more than happy to try to play a small part in putting a stop to.

I don’t really come to these festivals to pass judgement, but to learn. And if there’s a huge lesson to here in both Parallel and Why I don’t Like the Rainbow it’s that context is bloody important and that steamrollering over everything in the firm belief that a (even well-meaning, leftie) Western viewpoint is neutral, superior and correct can be as damaging as outright misogyny and every bit as bigoted. Also: since has The West resolved its own homophobia or misogyny anyway? It’s not like we’re some sort of equal opportunities wonderland [insert topical links of your choice here].

Friday, 20 March 2015

Work – Alfred ve Dvore, Prague

[seen 19/03/15]


The start of Lithuanian dance artist Andrius Katinas’s Work involves the artist walking onto the stage and nonchalantly swinging a plastic bag slowly round and round with his right arm. He does this for long enough that you start to work through the concern that this might be all he plans to do for the next forty five minutes and actually start taking a real interest in it. In the way the bag moves, how it responds to the air, how his arm must feel, and so on.

I guess this is a very particular thing that (some) contemporary dance requires of its viewer: a willingness to really *think* or *invest* in repeated movements that, on the surface, could be considered a) banal in the extreme, b) tedious/repetitive, c) movements that “anyone could do”. Contemporary dance might be said, then, to engender a different quality of attention. Something perhaps related to that excellent passage at the end of Nick Ridout’s Theatre & Ethics (last quoted by me in May 2013, here), about what that quality of attention might mean for us as audience members.

But, just as we’ve made our peace with this lo-fi version *that bit* from American Beauty, Katinas begins to recite Mladen Stilinović of NSK’s In Praise of Laziness. I have to admit, I didn’t know it was written by someone else at the time, or that the person who wrote it was from NSK (the Slovenian art collective who most famously brought us the band Laibach). Not that this particularly matters, maybe, since Katinas appears to inhabit the preposterous pseudo-serious claims made in this manifesto (example: “Art cannot exist in the West any more. Why...? Artists in the West are not lazy.”) in deadly earnest. And, still twirling his plastic bag. Perhaps the manifesto has been repurposed as a proposed truth.

Just as we’ve eased ourselves into a peace with this new didacticism, Katinas unceremoniously dumps the bag and does a bunch of stamping around. Then, as suddenly as he started, he stops again (the effect of this is unaccountably very funny), picks up one of four rolls of brown paper and takes it to the far side of the stage. He carefully unrolls and lays the paper flat on the ground. He returns to the corner where the rolls are and repeats the process. Three more times. Until there is a large brown paper square on the floor. He tapes it together, and then lifts one corner. Gradually, he drags the paper over himself and into a corner.

There now follows a, what? ten or fifteen minute sequence, during which all that happens is that we watch an amorphous (if that’s the word) brown paper shape slip, rustle, slide and crunch across and around the stage. Variously it is sculptural, balletic, funny, troubling, hilarious, uncanny, and occasionally irresistibly similar to about 50% of the monsters on Dr Who in the 1970s. (It’s also curious to note that the second to last piece of Lithuanian dance I saw also involved the solo dancer wrapping themselves in a bunch of paper.) I was reminded of something (to which I’m sure I’ve referred a hundred times since) that Mike Alfred’s said at NSDF2000: that theatre was ultimately always about the human form at its most basic. I have since loved anything which disproved this, and this felt, in every way, more basic than even the simple human form. It wasn’t even human-shaped, it was *more basic* than that. A kind of pre-human, almost rock formation thing. Not even fluid, but crackling, jagged and brittle. A kind of creature that would pre-date humanity (were it ever to have existed) by some hundreds of thousands of evolutionary years. The sort of thing that might live in volcanoes or on the bottom of the sea.

At the end of this remarkable sequence, a hand emerges from the paper, slowly maybe clawing its way out of this hideous shell. Then a foot. Improbably far away from the hand. And it is revealed that (SPOILER!) at some point in the last sequence, Katinas has snuck another person under the paper with him, making more sense of some of the things that he appeared to manage to make the paper do by himself.

The next section – and there’s really no apology about how distinct these sections are, even as they do recontextualise and modify our understanding of them – sees Katinas performing the most “dance-like” section, his body hard and taut one moment, then with limbs drooping from their sockets, like those of figures in some mediaeval etching about sin. Like a cross between the Royal Ballet and Hogarth’s Gin Lane.

He then goes and gets a plastic bag of objects and tips them onto the floor. And turns out all the lights. Pitch darkness. In the darkness, he turns to the objects around him, and it transpires that they are little lights, activated, landmine-like, by being stepped on.

The lights turned on all around him, he shoves them off across the stage like so many stars in an expanding universe while gorgeous music by Lithuanian composer Onuté Narbutaité plays (some below, although pretty sure it wasn’t specifically what’s below, but it gives an idea of the kind of thing). It all feels kind of grandiose, cosmic, and kind of God-like – almost like a Creation myth (not un-apt, given the music is from three symphonies for the Mother of God). Once this constellation has been unfolded, Katinas goes offstage, through a door into an unceremoniously lit room, before stomping about the stage stamping the stars out again. We listen to the end of the music in pitch darkness.

Annd that’s pretty much it, in terms of what happened. It’s not really enough to leave “the reivew” as *a description*, but I hope I’ve added enough detail along the way to give at least a hint of how somehow life-affirming and warm the entire thing felt.

Talking to a few Hungarian colleagues after the show, I discovered that my warm and fuzzy regard for the thing was not a feeling universally shared across the assembled throng. But, well, to hell with them. I liked it very much indeed. Perhaps, yes, it did sacrifice knowing irony for a Quixotic sense of romance, and possibly even religiosity (tho’ that might well have been just me bringing that reading), on the other hand, I found it genuinely warm, funny, and strange in the best ways possible, even while coming over all arch and superior. Katinas is clearly a talented dancer, and I think, more crucially, quite the dramaturgical talent too. This was a small, fragile intimate work that achieved an near-unprecedented sense of the epic. I loved its total disregard for ideas of what sort of scale you can achieve on a relatively little stage. More of this sort of thing, please.
___

[same symphony, different bit, I think]

Victory Day – Studio Alta, Prague

[seen 19/03/15]


Review inspired both by Miriam Ella’s We Go To The Gallery and the show itself, between which there seemed to be something in common...


The lady does exercises. She shows us her muscles.
The man runs onto the stage. He is happy.
He is happy because there is a revolution.
The man pretends to sing into a microphone.
The man asks us all to stand up and raise our right arms.
“Put your hands on your hearts,” says the man.
“Swear that you won’t say what happens in this room” says the man.
The reviewer does not stand up.
The reviewer does not swear.

A woman walks onto the stage.
The lady keeps doing her exercises.
The woman brings the smoke machine.
The woman and the man play with the remote controlled police car and helicopter in the smoke.
The banner says The Victory Day.
The man and the woman are standing.
The lady does her exercises.

The dog behind the reviewer drinks loudly from his bowl

The man stands the plinth.
“Der Kapitalismus...” says the man.
The man is Bulgarian.
The man pretends to be the Marxist-Leninist Statue.
The man waves the red flags.
The woman looks politely bored.
The woman stands up and points at the flags like in statues.
The Bulgarian synth music plays. The man Bob Dylans through a load of slogans written on cardboard.

The dog wakes up and makes noises

The man says the list of revolutions.
The woman is bored.
The lady is bored.
We are all bored.
The woman repeats the revolutions.

Man hands out cards to audience and does not say the name of the revolution.
The woman still repeats them.
The man and the woman talk to the lady.
The reviewer is pleased that audience is so well lit that taking notes his phone is unobtrusive.
“This review is writing itself” he thinks.

The tomatoes are rolled across the stage from the left.
“Perhaps this is also symbolic,” think the reviewers.
Perhaps the red fruit will get squished, thinks the audience.
It is funny to watch the man and the woman rolling the tomatoes.

The man and the woman walk around the stage.
The man or the woman stands on a tomato by mistake.
The tomato is the first casualty of the revolution.
You can't have a revolution without a few tomatoes getting squished.

The man and the woman throw tomatoes into the audience.
The Lithuanian eats the Bulgarians’ tomato.
The Lithuanian is having his own revolution.

The dog is asleep.

The lady stands on the small plinth and pretends to speak.
The lady dances with the flags.
The lady is better at movement than the man and the woman.
The lady is very droll.

The lady walks around. She does not step on the tomatoes.
The lady pretends to be the dying swan.
The dying swan reminds us that this is a “dance piece”.
The lady walks around more. She does not step on the tomatoes.
The lady walks around with her hands up.
Oh dear, the lady has stepped on a tomato.

The woman gets a big stereo.
The music is loud.
The lights begin to fade.
The dog is still asleep.
It is not the end.

The man and the woman have found two chairs.
They sit down on the chairs.
The music is drum and bass.
They have microphones.
The lady has gone back to her spot and her exercises

The woman talks to Willy Prager, the man:
“You were concentrated to the question: ‘How is possible to make a revolution on the stage?’” she says.
The audience listens.
“Are revolutions, to you, only an artform?” asks the woman.
Willy freezes with a silly face.

Repeat.

“With so many tomatoes on the stage, are you proposing (this is) a tomato revotution?” asks the woman.

Repeat.

“These red flags, are they related to your traumatic childhood in the communist regime?” asks the woman.

The lady laughs.

“Do you think having two women and only one man in this piece makes it more revolutionary?” asks the woman.

“Does art = Revolution?” asks the woman.

“Do you think having this interview will help the audience?” asks the woman.
Willy replies in Bulgarian.
This bit is very funny if you speak Bulgarian.

Willy and the woman stand at the front of stage with microphones.
The music plays.
Willy, the man, speaks Bulgarian.
The woman translates
“This is victory day” he said.

The dog is still asleep.


[I'm not kidding about the dog, btw]


Marcin Masecki & Polonezy – Divadlo Ponec, Prague

[seen 18/03/15]



The above video describes far more eloquently the second performance I saw on Wednesday night than I’m going to be able to. Further to the above video, there were also fast ones. As Polish musician Marcin Masecki explained: the Polonaise is Poland’s national dance form – much as we might associate the waltz with Austro-Hungary, for example. But more so. Marcin went on to observe that no one in Poland is actually *doing* anything with the form any more, however, so he formed the ten-piece band Polonezy to change all that. “Polonaise is a French word.” he concluded, with no small amount of le ironie.

And modern the thing is, the programme copy suggests Chopin played by Thelonius Monk accompanied by a self-ironic [sic] swinging military band. I’d have gone with one of those big bands that get used in Tarantino films playing a version of Shostakovich rewritten by serialists, there are bits of everything from John Adams or Philip Glass back to those early 20th century innovators like Bartok or Schnitke, while their relation to this dance form is kinda like that of those famous Glenn Gould jazz recordings of Bach.

But, yeah, I’m hardly a music critic, so maybe just Google around and enjoy.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Old Chaos/New Order – Divadlo Ponec, Prague

[seen 18/03/15]


Oleg Soulimenko and Andrei Andrianov’s Old Chaos/New Order is conceptually a really neat idea. It’s a contemporary dance piece which has been made by inviting five different artists of various stripes to write the Vienna-based Russian duo “letters” from which they’ve made their performance. We don’t see the letters, but it is plausible that they variously took the form of dialogue, suggestions, impulses, or perhaps were genuine letter-like letters from which the performers simply extracted the five episodic pieces that we see across the course of the hour.

Accordingly, the first “scene” or “episode” (or, precisely, letter) – from Markus Schinwald – is entirely dialogue, which the pair apparently discussing how to make their piece in the dressing room in the Ponec Theatre. They obsess about their being Russian, about having to speak in English in the context of making *International* work, about Stanislavski, about whether they should just “get naked and fuck each other” on stage, and so on. They do not once, make an entrance.

By my reckoning, they only come on for the second letter. This is a far more word-free, movement-based bit of work after all the talking of part one. They come on, Soulimenko in fur coat, unbuttoned frilly short and tight jeans, Andrianov in an even more floral version of the same in a hat. They do movement. Andrianov making fluid movements radiating outwards from his right hand, his whole body eventually mimicking water were it to have been portrayed by Nijinsky: Soulimenko, by contrast, trying to stop his own right hand even beginning to move. Halfway through this bit they swap these roles.

The third letter is written by one of the Janez Janšas (if you don’t know this story, after Yugoslavia fell apart, the prime minister of Slovenia for a while was a right-winger called Janez Janša – he comes out of the 90s BBC documentary The Death of Yugoslavia rather well, but was less popular among leftie artists in his homeland. Anyway, a performance artist, and tow of his friends decided to also change their names to Janez Janša, and formed a collective, I think, called Janez Janša. This really annoyed Janez Janša. This may or may not have had to do with the principle of radicial overidentification.) Anyway, Janez Janša’s letter is far and away the most *conceptual* thing yet, including, presumably, instructions (“he pours the ice into a bucket”) which are not precisely followed (there is no bucket. The ice spills across the floor) which may or may not have been in the letter (we don’t know, we don’t see the letters). There are also videos of Janez Janšas from all over the world offering messages of encouragement or discouragement to Oleg and Andrei.

The fourth letter – from Berlin-based American choreographer Meg Stuart – is, well, whatever the letter’s like (and I’ve just discovered that the letters and the scripts or whatever else that came with them are actually included in an extended programme we were given last night...) the performance that comes out of it feels like the weakest section of the show, a kind of limp drift after the high-concept fun of the Janez Janšas.

The fifth part – by which point, a mild feeling of overkill has set in – is actually quite fun, in that it seems to instruct the pair to built a little raft (a process during which last night, the slot-together sections took it uponm themselves to entertainingly misbehave) and then push or drag it around the stage a bit by means of long thin “Chinese red” sticks. On the platform is an “object of contention” in the form of a little model mountain. At the end smoke comes out of the mountain and the lights go off.

As is becoming traditional with first shows at Eastern European Festivals, I saw this piece while absolutely buggered by tiredness, and consequently, at present, I can offer precisely zero analysis. Some of my colleagues with shorter journeys and later waking hours committed as far as non-plussedness. I was quite amused by the whole, and it was nice, after what feels like an aeon of mostly theatre, and a bit of the more trad. end of contemporary dance, to see something that was so concept dependent. Perhaps I’ll manage something a bit more useful when I’ve caught up with my sleep.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Lúzer – Trafó, Budapest

[seen 08/03/15]

Couldn't find a whole-stage photo, with the bamd and lighting. Anyone?

After all my grumbling about Hungary’s lack of feminism in theatre yesterday, Krétakör’s Lúzer, (Loser, unsurprisingly) directed by Árpád Schilling comes along and, to a greater or lesser extent, demonstrates that the exact opposite is also happening.

Lúzer opens with Schilling himself standing in the middle of the large, empty main-stage at Trafó (where Dementia played on Thursday, with its huge, detailed set), telling us about the political situation in Hungary (awful), and the state of arts funding (worse), and about the time he burnt his government funding contract outside the culture ministry, videoed it, and put it on YouTube. He invites his wife, Lilla Sárosdi, on stage to tell us about how stupid she thought this action was (it reminds her of the old communist joke about the bunny who goes to borrow the bear’s lawnmower, who gets so wound-up on the way over to the bear’s house that her first sentence to the bear is: “fuck you, you stupid bear, and fuck your lawnmower too”).

He then strips off all his clothes and stands before us as a “Statue of the Intellectuals”, inviting us to go up and write graffiti about the intellectuals over him. Which, after a short pause a thin tickle of people do, with comments ranging from “Organise. Resist” on his arm and leg, to “It’s not the people who are the problem, it is the Roma” on his arse. (I suspect/hope that this latter comment (and its positioning) was planned, and executed by a plant in the audience, in order to generate precisely the discomfort it did: Hungary’s neo-Nazi party made alarming gains in the last election). By the time an actor-colleague in the audience begins to harangue him, we’ve been looking at this naked, out-of-shape director for a good ten minutes. It’s worth noting that these ten minutes aren’t calculated to make him look good. At all.

Schilling and the actor who has attacked him (Tamás Ördög, AD of Dollardaddy, unexpectedly) exit stage left, and Sárosdi talks to us instead. As she does so, a “cast” materialise and start setting up both band equipment upstage and a sofa and rug in the foreground. One of the wife’s friends is in the audience, and they begin a conversation. The friend comes down to the stage. She’s been living in Berlin, and is working with this band, and she and her partner have got a baby (plastic), which she breastfeeds while sitting on the newly acquired on-stage sofa.

On one level, this could all feel slightly postmodernism by numbers, a bit like every “invention” you’ve ever seen in student theatre. But magically it just doesn’t. I think partly because it’s galvanised by such anger and acuity about the political situation in Hungary. It’s also got female characters witrh demonstrable agency, ideas of their own, and credible, rounded characters. It is also interesting, in the light of what I’ve been saying about feminism this week, that the wife’s friend character (no names in the programme, only the names of the ensemble without the slightest hint as to who’s who) says she feels a tonne more relaxed about her own body in Berlin than she ever did in Hungary. At the same time, you get the sense that there’s no small amount or ironising of these Hungarians who are all too prepared to fuck off to Berlin and abandon their own rotting country. And if it isn’t also the finest deliberate satire of a Thomas Ostermeier staging going (particularly Volksfiend), then Schilling should certainly claim it is deliberate at the earliest possible opportunity.

The female friend is working with an actress for a video for the rock band, and wants her to be naked. “You’re an actress, it’s expected,” she says (rather suggesting I’m not the only person who finds the level of female nudity in Hungarian theatre faintly silly/sinister). The actress (also the daughter/sister from HOME) *REFUSES*! (cue near cheering from me) demands her money, and stalks off. The best friend then suggests that Sárosdi does the nudity instead. She duly strips off and stands naked before us.

Now, if naked actresses are problematic, then describing naked actresses (esp. if one’s a male critic) is a high-speed trainwreck of a proposition. But here I think the character of this specific actress’s particular body is important to how and why it rerad differently. She’s probably between thirty and forty and has a totally normal thirtysomething woman’s body: not skinny, but wide-hipped, etc. (And yes, I do think it is ok to say this – although interested if ppl think it isn’t. It’s disinterested, accurate, won’t come as news to the performer, and not intended nastily at all.) If elsewhere the (usually young) female body has been objectified and sexualised, this feels like the complete reverse: a woman taking complete ownership of her own naked body on stage. It feels much more like a confrontation with the audience, similar to Schilling’s own a few minutes earlier. Here is an actual body, an actual woman, it seems to say.

Sárosdi and her mate who lives in Berlin go through a range of ideas for the video while the band tune up, red wine is poured over the wife’s head, feathers from a pillow are sprinkled over her – sticking to the wine, and causing a passing resemblance to a bloodied, half-plucked chicken. And, crucially, it all feels like it is taking the piss out of a range of things which clearly are ripe for mockery. Indeed, the UK thing it feels most like at this point is that brilliant final scene with the male director in Carrie Cracknell’s Blurred Lines – although, not really knowing much about Hungarian theatre or culture, what precisely is being satirised I don’t know. But even just as a pisstake of a broad mileau, it makes perfect sense.

After wanking off two of the band members (“It’s alright, this is only acting” she brightly informs us) Sárosdi is eventually dressed up in a big spangly red dress and the band break into what sounds like Bauhaus and Portishead having a stab at making a Shirley Bassey Bond theme (which is obviously an *excellent* idea anyway). The stage is filled with smoke, the band are picked out in low blue lighting. And, postmodern or otherwise, it’s pretty bloody good.

From here (and I realise this has gotten a bit blow-by-blow) the piece develops around Schilling’s ongoing refusenik-ness. He seems to have holed up with the naked-refusenik actress, while his wife has been seduced by Evil Capitalist Guy (another one!) and is going to be in movies. Sárosdi and his new girlfriend(?) have a chat and decide that Schilling needs to be given an award to give him back his sense of self-worth, and Evil Capitalist Guy duly delivers one. Schilling is pleased and takes the supermarket carrier bag off his head and they all have a big party.

Essentially, it’s exactly the same ending as Howard Barker’s Scenes From an Execution: the poor-but-integrity-driven artists find it within themselves to compromise their principles and kow tow to the state in order to survive. It’s an incredibly bitter conclusion.

Perhaps – apart from the sheer energy and look of the thing, and what I’m presuming is a very funny pastiche of Berlin theatre – what really impressed me about the piece, what completely rescued it from that horrible school of postmodern banging-head-repeatedly-against the problem, and continual retrenching of position in order to remain ironic and detached, was that a) it seemed to acknowledge those problems of its form, and even undermine those tendencies – to the extent that it could almost be its own *dramatic* version of The Enemy of the People (apt, since that play is also Ibsen’s “Oh, fuck off” play about the initial reception of Ghosts, right?); and b) it wasn’t detached or *not saying anything*. It said a lot, and for all that it deployed irony, it wasn’t so much that school of hipster irony – finding things cute or funny – so much as the just endless understanding of how fucked a situation was being dealt with through every available means.

There is an elephant in the room, re: gender – at least insofar as this *is* still a play which still pretty much puts this male director at the heart of his own piece, playing his own Dr Stockmann, so on one level it’s still very much a “bloke play”, albeit, in this case, a bloke who seems intelligent, passionate, involved, and political in the best possible way. And crucially, the women in it seemed to me to be fully credited with also being intelligent, 3D, complex actors in their own lives. Perhaps there is a degree of egomania involved, but then, theatre is a Quixotic enterprise at the best of times, and in Hungary, particularly outside the state sector, it seems more akin at times to guerilla warfare with an added vow of poverty. So, yes, I think Lúzer is a very fine piece of work indeed. I rather hope it comes over – it could definitely fill the Barbican – at least in terms of sound and fury (signifying plenty) and the resonances between it and the recently seen Ostermeier might give all us Brits pause for thought.
___

Trailer for (now closed) attempt at crowdfunding on Indiegogo (approx 15% of target achieved, depressingly):

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Forgotten Song – Artus, Budapest

[seen 07/03/15]


Dear Hungary,

I’ve been staying in your beautiful capital for four days now and I like it very much. Very much indeed. And I think DunaPart is a really brilliant festival. I really like the mixture of emerging and established artists, and the evidently careful curation, and love knowing that I could stay twice as long and still only see half the excellent work here... But, I do think we need to have a bit of a chat about feminism in theatre. I know, I know, I’m hardly the person to talk to about feminism. I don’t want to speak on behalf of women; and God knows I don’t want to behave like some condescending Westerner. And, no, it’s not like UK theatre is a shining beacon of equality in any way at all. Nevertheless, I think you have a bit of a problem when it comes to the objectification of women.

I guess I’ve been giving you the benefit of the doubt. Sure, the female nudity in Dementia was gratuitous, but you seemed to balance it out with some equally gratuitous male nudity, so I let it go. Similarly, that bit where Krisztina Urbanovits, playing the mother in HOME, was suddenly topless: I thought, ok, there’s some textual argument for that happening. And, because The Notebook was so good overall, I figured I’d let all the toplessness in that go, not least because all the blokes were also topless throughout, and most of the time the women got to wear clothes, right? I don’t know how it’s been on the dance side of things – my brief experiences yesterday afternoon suggested that women in dance maybe get to keep their clothes on? And, ironically, for all it’s appalling 2D, objectified women and seven-year-old sex objects, there wasn’t any actual nudity in Our Secrets.

But I think in Forgotten Songs you might just have jumped the naked shark. Are you doing it because you think it’s edgy? Because I promise you, it’s really not “edgy” for a bloke to transgress some decency taboo by treating someone else as a sex object. And surely the female nudity here was just mad, wasn’t it? The overall presentation of women in the piece? Entirely decorative as opposed to the entirely task-driven, functional men: doing their hair and make-up, or else just being filmed close-up in a live-feed *as a landscape* while being squirted with water so that some little origami boats can sail over their buttocks and eventually gather in a little pool in their lap? It’s not good, is it? I don’t foresee that excellent proponent of live-feed video, Katie Mitchell, reading this description and kicking herself for not having thought of that first. I don’t imagine it becoming a regular motif in the work of, say, Carrie Cracknell or Maria Aberg or Gianina Cărbunariu . Indeed, crap tho’ we in the UK undoubtedly still are at gender stuff, I couldn’t really see *anyone* thinking they could get away with this. Not when it’s an entirely open-ended bit of whimsy, where the fact that it “just happens” to be a women doesn’t cut it as an excuse. And, tnly naked man is a 15 inch high puppet. I’m not sure this naughty homunculus really redresses the balance.

And it’s a shame it was there at all, because elsewhere in this mad little thing you’ve made, I was completely charmed by the whole bonkers set-up, and the sort of late 19th century, mechanical toys kind of entertainment.

For British readers: Forgotten Song is essentially one of those “Eastern European” shows that used to turn up at Aurora Nova, think Russia’s Akhe, or maybe the more fanciful end of Derevo’s repetoire. In my travels, I had often found it quite strange that I hardly ever saw work that looked like that almost clichéd imagined version of what “Eastern European theatre” looks like (as if the various countries aren’t distinct). Here, at last, was some of that sort of work being celebrated in its own land. And rightly so, for the most part. Leaving aside the questionable female nudity, and perhaps troublingly secondary role that women seem to play in this production (and, to be strictly fair, it’s not like the men really have much more by way of interior lives in this piece, it’s more like everyone’s a gender-essentialist automaton, and blokes just do heavy lifting rather than decorative nakedness, which hardly means they have more agency), it’s a a frequently clever set of games, or vignettes – almost like clockwork wind-up toys doing their thing. A woman nails her wig to her head and a heart to her dress, a bloke and a woman stretch a miked wire which is played with a violin bow by a second bloke, shredding the fragile horsehair in the floodlight. Songs sounding like a cross between the Tiger Lillies and Vic Reeves’s singing in the club style are sung. Indeed, for theatre-au-fait Englanders, imagine if Little Bulb got trapped in the late Austro-Hungarian Empire: this is pretty much that show. But with added sexism.

I was surprised in a discussion earlier today to hear a German festival guest on the panel suggest that this sort of “soft eroticisation” was a positive in view of the number of “sexual abuses” committed against women on stage over the course of this week (before I arrived, both Othello and a Gogol initiated this week-long theme, apparently – I didn’t bring this question up, a Scandanavian visitor did). It showed a different side to women, this German man claimed. “Hmm” I thought to myself, entirely unconvinced. I mean, *maybe* I’m being over-sensitive about this, but it’s kind of hard to come from a country which is experiencing its biggest feminist movement in well over a decade, and not be swayed by the movement’s arguments. Even as a bloke, you’re capable of reading and taking on board the fact that maybe female performers, not to mention women in the audience, are a bit tired of seeing themselves and women like them through a male gaze, entirely objectified and rarely given anything like an interior life.

Do I think the “soft eroticising” of women is a positive step against constant portrayals of sexual violence? No, I think it’s pretty much the starting point and the endgame of exactly the same thing, and I am mystified how anyone can think differently. At least, that’s how the current prevalent trend in Anglophone feminism has it, and what kind of position am I in to know better? As the American woman on this morning’s panel diplomatically suggested, once there are more female directors working at a high level in Hungary’s free scene, then maybe this blanket male gaze will be lifted. Until then, would it kill the blokes to maybe try thinking their way around their libidinous mise-en-scene?

So, yes, if this had happened to be the first piece I’d seen at the festival, or had been the first bit of female nudity in a piece directed by a bloke, then I might have just thought, well, that’s pretty silly, but whatevs, no one’s got a gun to anyone’s head. But since it was the most gratuitous example after a string of others it is Forgotten Song that’s getting it in the neck, rather than, say, Dementia.  And, yes, actually it is starting to feel like maybe there are metaphorical guns being pointed at female performers by male directors. Again, maybe this feels like a distraction from the main event of the show, but is it? I mean, maybe the point of criticism, especially international criticism, isn’t to transport your own cultural apparatus to a different location and then use it to pick on indigenous work. And maybe some people feel that the work of the critic isn’t to police gender politics (again, especially in other countries). I guess I just think that it’s something worth mentioning. After all, why open your national work up in an international context if you don’t want to learn what (I promise) a likely mainstream reaction from those other countries is?

Sorry to be a grump, but I really do think this is really important.  And I think it's an attitude that can be relatively easily remedied.  After all, it's not a matter of funding or finance, it's just a simple shift in attitudes.  And you're a clever lot, you can easily do that.  So go on, do it.

Happy International Women's Day.

Emese & Emil – Jurányi, Budapest

[seen 07/03/15]


An interesting thing I find when writing about contemporary dance is that mentally I write the same ludicrous preamble every damn time. Normally I have the sense to cut it down, or altogether, but here it is again, being written.

This preamble tends to take the form of a disclaimer. Something about how I don’t really know anything about dance, and so how all my observations should be taken with at least a pinch of salt, if not the whole family-size, Waitrose sea salt refill pack. And, on some level I think that is true – if not necessarily worth reiterating every time. The amount of dance I actually see means that I am with dance now, about where I was with theatre in roughly 1999, i.e. I’ve seen *some*, and written about it. I’ve also had conversations with dancers, choreographers, and dance critics. And most of them assure me that there’s a lot less mystery than I suppose there is.

But maybe that’s the big problem with dance – especially contemporary dance – as an artform. It *looks* ineffable, mysterious, obscure in purpose. It’s also quite often “about itself”. That is to say, the easiest way of writing and thinking about dance is in relation to other dance. (Just as contemporary theatre – to use a meaningless phrase – can often be most usefully explained with reference to other contemporary theatre. Even if this is a cardinal sin of general-public-facing criticism: “not every poor blighter watches as much theatre as you. Never forget” is the ever-necessary legend over the desk.)

Something else I wonder: if you’re not likely to be reviewing a piece of dance, what do you think about while you’re watching it? I mean, it’s not exactly like my mind is solidly on The Job, but I do tend to think of sentences that might appear in a review while I’m watching dance, especially dance like Emese & Emil, which had only the gentlest of scores when there was any music at all, and, as a constant duet, offered very little by way of “narrative” or “progression?”. I even find myself having quite involved debates about the problems of the male gaze (mine), and the ethics of how to describe dance performers of either gender. Because, after all, in the absence of a plot, or politics, and with music criticism scarcely being the point, what the point is, is largely the bodies of the performers in front of you. Which tend to be the bodies of dancers. Which tend to look a certain way – or a set of certain ways, all of which generally involve extreme levels of athleticism and fitness.

Zoltán Mizsei’s music for E&E sounds a bit like Nick Cave/Bad Seeds instrumentals, or maybe Tom Waits. It’s great. I’d totally buy the soundtrack.

Re: the performers – well, the curator’s essay for the Fest programme says: “Emese (Cuhorka) is ethereal even in her physicality, while Emil (Bordás) looks like a playful goblin”. Which is more blunt than I’d have ever been, but I can totally see where Lívia Fuchs is coming from. Goblin! Brilliant. “Ethereal” is plainly diplomatic dance-slang for slender, pretty, and very tall – especially compared to one’s Goblin sidekick.

Another interesting problem in watching/thinking about dance is that of gender relations. For a little bit, I did wonder if I was going to have to write another of my pompous tracts about sexism in lieu of a review – to start off with, the bloke spent a lot more time standing up, and the woman a lot more time lying or scrabbling on the floor. Which never looks like a particularly equal power-balance. But this got resolved. And indeed, because the woman was a whole head taller than the man – at several points she rests her chin on the top of his head – it felt like the power-balance was then shifted very much in her favour. (Which, of course, is precisely what feminism is all about, right? Who’s tallest, yeah?)

The nature of the dancing itself – quite a lot of it post-Bausch, contact-impro-looking stuff, with some neato bits where the two pull one another up by shifting their weight and standing on one another’s feet, using their own body-weights – feels like it has to be watched in a similarly gender-aware way. Perhaps more a condition of how the two here seem to be consciously performing their genders, rather than an absolute rule, but... Not that the piece really seems to be saying anything particular about gender. There are bits where the two might be a couple – they blow raspberries on each others bodies, kiss tops of heads, etc. – but by this token they could equally be siblings, mother and child, even short father and tall daugher, perhaps. If there’s a “power balance” at all, then it seems to shift ephemerally.

And that’s about the size of it. Which is where lack of experience again kicks in: is there more to it than I’ve discerned? Or is it largely virtuoso exercise, and the content is largely the form? If so: to what end, if any? Somehow, it didn’t feel to me quite virtuousic enough to justify that as an approach, although the dancers are clearly incredibly talented and the choreographer, László Fülöp plainly has some good ideas, but in this instance thdey didn’t quite add up to anything whose structure or dramaturgy had an extra reach. But I imagine that’s fine. Annoyingly, I’ve not discussed the piece with anyone else yet, so I have no idea how excited people who know about such things were. But for me, it felt like a well done thing that didn’t really make me think or feel anything in particular (other than maybe anxious about writing it up).

As a final thought, in reviewing form often follows form, so to speak, and oddly, this sort of meta- level, reviewing-reviewing is a pretty accurate map of what was going on in my head as the piece progressed.

Anyone with better insights, do please use the comment boxes below.