Thursday, 16 April 2015

The Twits – Royal Court, London

[seen 16/04/15]


Where does one’s taste come from? It’s a perplexing thing. I’m reasonably happy to imagine that the very first seeds of my implacable modernism and minimalism (Ha! As if!) can be identified in my infant self’s disdain for Roald Dahl. I’m just not all that into silly words or grotesque characters. It’s like Russell T. Davies’s names for things in Dr Who: bloody awful. “Snozzcumber” just isn’t funny, in precisely the same way that “Raxacoricofallapatorius” is a shit name for a planet. I thought Fantastic Mr Fox was alright. That’s about it.

Another writer I’ve never been as into as everyone else is Enda Walsh. Sure, I admired the energy, verve and obvious talent behind Disco Pigs when I saw it back in, what? ‘97? ‘98? (Original production, second cast, Edinburgh fringe). I thought Alex Swift/Ferguson’s Playroom production of Bedbound in Cambridge 2002 (and NSDF 2003) was a superb achievement, but the actual story left me pretty cold. By 2007, when I saw Walworth Farce, I think I’d worked out that the structure that Enda Walsh was exploring – characters forced into a kind of meta-theatrical trap, forced to re-enact the same story over and over again – left me cold. And his much-admir’d use of language, well, it was a matter of taste, and was all a bit snozzcumber to me.

So, *obviously*, even before not being a child, I was already not exactly the target audience for this, but for various reasons I was still looking forward to it. Theatre is, after all, nothing if not a series of weird alchemies; a load of stuff you don’t like gets tumbled together into something you do...

But, suffice it to say, in the event, I didn’t like The Twits at all. What I’m interested in doing in this review is getting past the point where a critic saying “I hated it” is the end of the conversation.

Oddly, the reasons for not liking it have precious little to do with my infant abandonment of Dahl. Walsh’s adaptation of The Twits takes a very short book about two joyous grotesques and, well, it sticks them into an Enda Walsh play (see description above about meta-theatre). Albeit, in this version, it’s an Enda Walsh play which also has a big neon sign saying THE POSH ARE YOUR ENEMY hanging over the metatheatrical Welsh monkeys, forced by the Twits to enact the story of a fairground being nicked off some Northerners from Leeds.

Weirdly, the meta-theatre doesn’t stop there. As well as being an adaptation of The Twits, and an allegory of how the Tories are shitbags who need to be defeated by a coalition of Northerners and the Welsh, it also seems to have been staged as a daring Christmas show take-down of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem; a devastating critique of the most right-wing play that the Court ever produced. There’s an amusing round-the-Christmas-dinner-table scene which might be a pastiche of Martin Crimp’s “Christmas show” (but doubtless isn’t). And, then, it’s got an set which, if it isn’t directly referencing Andreas Kriegenburg’s design for Der Prozess at the end, then I’ll eat my snozzcumber.

I guess, for my money, there were two reasons this Twits didn’t especially appeal to me, though (both personal taste, obvs, but one much more so than the other to my mind). The first thing was the level of cruelty, or the way the characters were positioned/how the narrative unfolded around them. The other was the way in which the piece tried to deploy its politics.

The former fairground owners (a completely new invention/imposition, as far as I understand it) have a really miserable time before the interval. They don’t have such a great time after it either, but I *really* wasn’t especially into just watching them being done down and picked on. Especially with an audience of children. Certainly in the matinee I watched there didn’t feel like there was enough glee to make it seem much different to sitting down and watching Katyn with some under-tens (ok, I exaggerate, but I’m a sensitive soul). Bear with me, though, because it feels like this is intrinsically linked to why the politics of the piece failed for me.

The whole thing bashes one so hard over the head with a big old leftie message that by the end, even as a card-carrying Marxist-Leninist, I was starting to itch to vote Tory just out of spite. A really useful contrast is the Unicorn’s Velveteen Rabbit. On the surface of it, The Twits is the obvious leftie choice: it’s all grungy, gritty and about the overthrow of some (now) posh gits. Velveteen Rabbit, by contrast should be this twee, toothless, fluffy thing. In reality, ...Rabbit, by taking the apparently docile subject, is far and away more rigorous, interrogated and subversive than this, which just spoonfeeds you precisely what to think without even so much as a dialectic. The Twits, you see, are out-and-out evil, really. They’re so unwholesome that the moral here is something that even the Daily Mail could get behind, it’s so clear cut. Sure, there’s the odd joke about not paying the monkey-actors enough and etc., but ultimately this is a play in support of the small business owner (a fairground) against The Evil Establishment. Hell, last time I looked, that was also Nigel Farage’s pitch.

I dunno. It’s weird. You’d think I’d like The Twits to be pressed into service as socialist agit-prop, turning Dahl’s cruel, illiterate, proto-Fred and Rosemary West types from troglodytes into the upper classes. But somehow it feels like a trick more crude than anything the Twits themselves get up to. When at the end, the victorious petit bourgeoisie sing Morning Has Broken together (yes, that really does happen, and I don’t think it’s meant to be ironic either) in a weird sort-of finale evoking *my* school assemblies (God knows what the youth of today will make of it) and the faint suggestion that Yusef Islam might have the answer?  I dunno. Sorry. No, I really just don't know what anyone was thinking there.

"WHAT DO YOU MEAN THEY'VE MADE US FUCKING POSH?"

King Size – Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, London

[seen 15/04/15]


Blimey, I’m having a good week. Not only have I seen a brilliant piece of dance by one of my favourite choreographers and an amazing opera by one of my favourite writers, I’ve now just seen my favourite *thing* by Christoph Marthaler since Meine Faire Dame in 2012.

I’m pretty sure King Size doesn’t need a lot of writing about (well, either it needs very little or a doctoral thesis). It’s billed as a Liederabend (song evening), and that’s precisely what it is. On a faintly ridiculous set (a diagonal half of a very seventies looking hotel room decorated in garish, floral blue), four faintly ridiculous figures sing a pretty ridiculous selection of songs (from Wagner to Münchener Freiheit via Stephen Sondheim, Alban Berg, John Dowland and the Jackson Five). There’s a faint theme of sleeplessness and romantic separation, but to call it a story would be pushing it.

What there really is, though, is *a lot* of incredible silliness. Brilliant, brilliant silliness. I laughed until I cried. At least twice. Marthaler really has a talent for the absurd, and when the absurdity is offset by incredibly beautiful music it’s all the funnier.

In the interests of not spoilering it, I suggest you just get a (cheap) ticket and get yourself along. It’s probably the most uncomplicatedly, lovely, fun hour and a quarter I’ve spent in a theatre in an aeon. It managed to completely bypass the normal “critical commentary” soundtrack that seems to run alongside most things I see. It’s even practically *a musical* (!) for heaven’s sake. But, yes, love.
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Under the below photo, I might describe a couple of things that happen and arrange a few YouTube videos so that a) I can remember the show in future, and b) people who don’t get to it have some idea what we’re talking about...



So, what happens is, a bloke comes into the room, undresses, takes a quick shower, dresses in new clothes, and then goes to the piano. Two hotel attendants enter, separately, make the bed, then unmake the bed, then lie in it. All this while singing (if I recall correctly). While lying in bed singing an older, matronly woman (old enough to be either of their mothers? Perhaps deliberate Freudian symbolism?) inexplicably crosses the room. From hereon in, the action becomes entirely fantastical and improbable. Like a series of dream-sequences, occasionally retiring to the bed again. The older woman at one point sets up a music stand, at another the hotel minibar is discovered in an impossibly high-up wardrobe cupboard. But, better, at another point she just starts inexplicably spooning spaghetti out of her handbag with a back scratcher, or, later, throwing bit of lettuce out of it onto to floor while the hotel maid lies front-down on the floor singing John Dowland’s Come, Heavy Sleep and eating the lettuce off the floor without any hands. And even in the midst of this, it *still* manages to be incredibly touching at points. I have literally no idea how Marthaler comes up with this stuff, but I think it’s a concept that maybe even borders on genius at times, and I’m bloody glad he does do it, and that the ROH have the guts to transfer something so entirely nuts. Brilliant.

___

Some of the music (almost all arranged for a single piano, and often in German, in the show):











The Four Temperaments / Untouchable / Das Lied von der Erde – Royal Opera House, London

[seen 14/04/15]


I know zip about ballet. I’ve seen stuff by Cedar Lake Ballet and Pina Bausch, but I get the impression that doesn’t count. The main reason I went to this mixed programme by the Royal Ballet at the ROH was to see the new Hofesh Shechter piece, Untouchable, but I was also curious to see the other two pieces. George Balanchine is famous enough that I’d heard of him before, and I quite like Mahler, so, yeah, interesting. The new work by Hofesh Shechter (receiving its first five performances) is sandwiched between an antique from 1946 (Georges Balanchine (d. 1983) – now on 20 ROH performances) and a fossil from 1965 (Kenneth Macmillan (d.1992) – 104 ROH perfs).

Untouchable is Shechter’s best work yet. Or rather, the first half of it is his best work yet, and the whole still blows Balanchine’s wit and whimsy off stage and makes the Macmillan look precious and irrelevant. Perhaps it is to do with the framing. The last two Shechter pieces (Political Mother and Sun) were full-length commissions shown at Sadler’s Wells, I had press tickets, disgustingly good seats, and the pieces were playing to legions of adoring fans. Here, in more staid surroundings, viewed from a £20 day seat (C20 in the Stalls Circle: a bloody good seat, occasional restricted view notwithstanding), and with the benefit of a live orchestra, it felt far more powerful, dangerous and incisive playing to potential-sceptics than his work does in front of the usual army of acolytes (indeed, the fat old ladies next to us took the advice of the philistine at the FT and buggered off between intervals one and two. And very welcome the extra space was too).

The work itself is, well, *really* like his other stuff. The same trademark loping movements, closely aligned with the “gaga” style of Batsheva, that use of his dancers as something more like a herd, the diagonal lines, the picking off of individual dancers, an overall look somehow reminiscent of a Native American Jewish Wedding (if you see what I mean). What differentiates it, and to my mind makes it his best piece yet, is partly the concentration of his ideas and themes, music and movement feel condensed here into at least fifteen minutes of sheer intensity (like I say, I was so blindsided by its first half, that I don’t think I properly get the second. Would love a chance to have seen it again). It seems to function on several different levels of stage reality all at the same time, both a representation of some unspecified conflict – past, present and/or future – and at the same time, is like a representation of what the dance from the future commemorating that conflict would look like: a kind of Mr Burns for the Isis generation.

I’ve always had a lot of time for Hofesh Shechter’s music too (written with Nell Catchpole). I mean, sure, the thought that it’s not unlike the music on Spooks used when they only have two minutes left to foil an Islamist bomb plot did cross my mind: it shares the same use of “middle-eastern” chromatic scale combined with a driving Western rock sensibility. But *obviously* it’s better than that. It’s music with real colour, light, shade and intricacy. Vocal samples, static and white noise compete with a stripped-back orchestra and massively enhanced percussion section.

But overall it’s the intelligence, the perspective, the sense of something communicating something that really makes it. I’d say that, thanks to its use of endlessly communicative tropes and legible symbols, this theoretically mute piece of work makes its point incredibly clearly. It’s like a protest at mankind’s endless war with itself, and, as such, is both unanswerable and profoundly dynamic.

Balanchine’s Four Temperaments gets away with being on the same programme largely because it comes first. As such, it gets away with being a perfectly witty, charming starter. Knowing, as I say, zip about ballet, I was pleasantly surprised by the more “modern” moments, which seemed to hint at some continuity from GB to maybe Bob Fosse. (Indeed, the no-costume costumes, plain Bob Wilson blue backdrop and reflective floor made me think of A Chorus Line for probably no discernable reason.) The movement worked well with the music, and the GODAWFUL GENDER ESSENTIALISM OF (some, older) BALLET was only really bad as opposed to unbearable. The ballerinas looked like they’d eaten reasonably recently, so all good. (Having written this, I looked the piece up online, and totally recommend the ROH’s brief context-and-criticism page which mades me retrospectively like the piece a whole lot more. 1946! Christ!).

For me, (and, yeah, I know, who needs my untutored musings – if some shit who’d never once been to a theatre before decided to start reviewing by having a go at Katie Mitchell, I think I’d probably make a point of never reading anything they wrote again, and rightly so – however...) Macmillan’s Song of the Earth – a choreography made for the Mahler piece of the same name – was less successful. For a start it’s fifty years older than the Shetchter piece that precedes it, and it shows (again, the ROH page on its history is invaluable). Worse, though, despite the obvious skill of both dancers and orchestra, it also feels pretty twee. And, yeah, the gender thing feels far more enforced with that mixture of sentimentality and brutality which one kind of expects from old ballet.

I’ll admit, I’m not much of a traditionalist. I’d be with the Green Party on abolishing the Grand National, for example. This “Song of the Earth” now seems as dated as someone talking in 1960s BBC English explaining gender roles. It’s strange to consider that this was made the same year as Edward Bond’s Saved. But, also, the whole “universal” story of death stalking a bloke, taking him away, and leaving the woman all sad; well, I guess it’s touching on an individual level, but since Shechter had just given us the end of humanity or something, putting a relationship drama directly after can’t help but make the latter look somewhat solipsistic.

So, yes, entirely subjective. Really surprised that the Balanchine piece hailed from as a early as 1946, knocked out by the Shechter, and slightly irritated by the Macmillan, probably because I don’t appreciate its significance as a turning point in the the form.

Nevertheless, it was great to see all three pieces, and to finally get round to seeing any ballet at all. And to learn that ballet scores seem to function much more like sheet music than play texts. Now quite interested to learn what extent individual dancers, like actors or musicians, can alter a part within a fixed choreography, but much more excited by the piece which didn’t feel like it belonged in a museum (possibly a museum of gender roles from the last century).


[If you want an alternative view, Clement Crisp in the FT seems to have written pretty much the exact opposite review, albeit as a series of text messages; apparently too grand for full sentences.

His whole consideration of Shetcher is this: “In the middle of the evening, Untouchable, a 30-minute commission, the first for the Royal Ballet from the Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter. Here we watch 20 corps de ballet dancers from within the company clad in fatigues. Design clichés of dry ice to fog the air and beams of light from above. A bare stage. The percussive bombast of a drumming soundtrack from Shechter and Nell Catchpole. Mass angst. Regimented grudge-nursing. Anguish by numbers. Nasty attacks of the sullens; Shechter’s blatancies of means and manner and matter.”

– which, if nothing else, makes me feel a whole lot better about my write-ups of the bits either side. His appreciations of the two “masterpieces” are, if anything, even more unconvincing.]

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Between Worlds – Barbican, London

[seen 11/04/15]

Let's be honest, as soon as you know this is the publicity image, you kind of know how it's going to pan out.

Between Worlds is an opera about 9/11.

I’ll just let that sink in for a minute.

(Yes. The Twin Towers 9/11, that’s right.)

Still sinking in?

Ok, plausibly it’s not an entirely stupid idea. I didn’t go to this world première in the hope that the thing would be bad. I went hoping that it would be brilliant and that my initial feeling of scepticism would be confounded. It wasn’t.

Opera’s quite a complex thing to write about, on the grounds that this is “Tansy Davies’s Opera”, but she only wrote the music. The libretto is by “poet” Nick Drake, whose biog suggests that his main job is hawking around a lot of unproduced scripts. If the action here is anything to go by, the reason that they are unproduced is that they are trite beyond measure (or, to be charitable, so cleverly post-dramatic and ironic that Britain just isn’t ready). It is directed by Deborah Warner, who apparently used to be good at directing in the nineties.

Between Worlds opens on a large, empty-ish stage, above which hang two further floors. On the ground-floor/stage a fair number of assorted office workers are seated. On the next floor up there is a table and a few chairs dotted about. On the highest floor is a bloke sat in a chair. I have to say, at this point it looks pretty hopeful. It’s an attractive, simple set. Stark and minimal but effective and strong. I’m faintly reminded of Benedict Andrews’s Caligula for ENO.

As the music starts... (the music is perfectly good throughout, fwiw. I’d happily have it on in the background while I make dinner, for example. Whether that should be possible with an opera about 9/11 might be a question worth its composer asking themselves at some point, but, without context, it is perfectly pretty music...) As the music starts, various “main characters” (they don’t have names, just age ranges and genders, or jobs – i.e. Younger woman, Older man, Janitor, etc.) leave their homes on an ordinary day. Mother (I presume) crossly says goodbye to her son, who won’t eat his breakfast; younger woman says goodbye to her girlfriend who wishes she could stay in bed longer. You’ve seen disaster movies before, or even episodes of Casualty, so you know how this doubtless-true-but-entirely-grating, emotionally manipulative set-up goes. IT’S POIGNANT BECAUSE THEY ARE ALL ABOUT TO DIE!!! flashes the big neon sign that someone has forgotten to nail to the back wall.

Incredibly stupidly, at the same time as the music starts, a backdrop of hundreds of sheets of A4 paper which looks faintly like the walls of the WTC is hauled up as a backdrop to be video-projected onto. Video-projected backdrops *still* don’t work all that well, especially when there’s light-spill on them. Warner and her team might have had a word with Katie Mitchell or Simon McBurney about how to do this better, because I’ve seen more competent video work than this in student musicals.

The next bit sees five or six people pootling about their work on the floor up from the stage. Their work is dull, because they work in an office. Oh, and one of them is new, so is freaked out by how high up they are. (the neon sign that isn’t there flashes several underlinings) The audience’s mind collectively drifts. And then after about 20 minutes a group of terrorists fly a plane into the first A4 paper backdrop. Or something. Then the video of the first tower smoking is played. Which strikes me as, well, artlessly blunt, without even the benefits of its own bluntness. It’s literally the worst 9/11 staging you’ve ever seen. Really bad. And I don’t think it’s even clever enough to be being bad on purpose.

The people in the tower are all freaked out and shit. And we get to reflect on the minutes between 08.46 when the first plane hit the twin towers and the whole world mourned the most dramatic air accident in living memory, and 09.03, when the second plane hit, and US foreign policy embarked down the long road to ISIS. But we only get to reflect on that because we have memories. The actual dramatic action remains almost aggressively underpowered, silly, tokenistic, etc.

So, yes, the basic thing here is that nothing at all happens. The music plops along slowly and prettily, the libretto spews the sorts of office-chat banalities, turning into disaster movie commonplaces, and the staging at no stage reflects terror, urgency, drama, pathos, or horror.

Watching, I suddenly realised why the ancient Greeks might have devoted so much of their theatrical energy to writing about a war which, if it took place at all, is thought to have predated Athenian drama by a good 750 years. And why it’s still a useful device for when we want to talk about horrific acts or terror or bloodshed today: because acts of war haven’t really changed all that much, or been initiated due to more or less complex reasons since Troy. But, crucially, it’s been an incredibly long time since anyone complained that someone was dishonouring the memory of the Trojan dead; that it was maybe a bit crass to make entertainment or art out of such misery. Etc.

Also: you can grouse all you like about the fact that – to paraphrase Stalin – 3,000 deaths are a tragedy, but they’re a walk in the fucking park compared to the millions upon millions of deaths that the Americans unleashed on the world as a result. And while, yes, you’d have to have no soul to not feel a shred of compassion for the people who died in the towers (and presumably the Pentagon, but no one ever mentions that. Ever), it’s a bit weird that 9/11 is now somehow a British tragedy (Tansy and Drake are both British), more than, say, the thousands who have died in Ukraine since the start of the civil war, or the thousands murdered by Isis, or the thousands killed in the ex-Yugoslavian civil wars. Yes, 9/11 had a sculptural spectacularity to it (and acknowledging precisely this got Stockhausen into terrible trouble at the time), but surely its longevity as An Event ultimately just carries on al Qaeda’s propaganda work, well past their difficult second album period, their decline, and almost disappearance/eclipse by Isis.

So: as a memorial, this opera, and even less this production of it, is spectacularly misjudged; as drama it is negligible; as entertainment it doesn’t even get out of the starting blocks; and as art, well, no one in their right mind is going to confuse this with art.

I’ve only flicked through the programme, but there also seems to be some really horribly misplaced hippy shit going on there too, which I don’t want my mind to be infected by. But I will say that calling the mysterious figure at the top of the “tower” a “shaman” – hailing, as that position does, from the native American tradition – has the consequence of reminding us that the United States is a country built on a near-genocide, and giving the (I’m sure unintended) impression that 9/11 is just what they had coming for a very long time.
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In short: not a patch on this:

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Into the Little Hill – Courtyard Theatre, London

[seen 10/04/15]


Shadwell Opera are in fact presenting a double-bill of musical performances under the title Speech Acts, so before the break we also get a performance of Stravinsky’s musically brilliant, dramatically inert, entirely bonkers and somewhat reactionary L'Histoire du Soldat (The Solider’s Tale, text by Swiss writer C. F. Ramuz), the conclusion of which is:

You must not seek to add
To what you have, what you once had;
You have no right to share
What you are with what you were.

No one can have it all,
That is forbidden.
You must learn to choose between.

One happy thing is every happy thing:
Two, is as if they had never been.

Which is, like, WTF? on any number of levels, and no kind of philosophy at all. That the thing came out the year after the Russian Revolution makes it doubly or triply perplexing. The cast all have at least one demonstrable area of enormous talent, although, while having Soldier played by a dancer makes for some excellent movement sequences, one might wish that he’d also trained as an actor. On a similar level, while Temi Wilkey (the Devil) having a more “performance artist”-based skill set is interesting in itself, it also means that all four players seem to come from more or less mutually exclusive productions. The design is also a bit odd. As far as I can make it it’s directed by Jack Furness, who also directs Little Hill, which is a surprise, as Into the Little Hill is about as crisp, atmospheric, ambitious and realised as you could hope for.

Into the Little Hill is a libretto by Martin Crimp for music by George Benjamin, the team who created the Royal Opera House (and Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, Netherlands Opera Amsterdam, Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse and the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino) hit Written on Skin (dir. Katie Mitchell). Apparently it’s not even remotely new (premièring in 2006, commissioned by Festival d'Automne à Paris: UK première 2009 at ROH), but still feels absolutely box-fresh.

Part of the reason for its “timeless” quality is the fact that Crimp has effectively the tale of the Pied Piper and mixed it with the horrific resonances of Nazi anti-Semitism: there is every doubt here that “the rats” that the townsfolk want rid of are actually rats at all. “That one is holding a suitcase, that one is holding a baby” sings the child of the minister in charge of their extermination. And where, for me, the score of Written on Skin slightly got in the way of the humour of the libretto, here Benjamin’s music is perfectly matched to Crimp’s dark vision: swelling and subsiding with unexpected textures and noises, different instruments suddenly taking the lead, or else the whole band creating atmospheric pulsing or jagged soundscapes. *Obviously* George Benjamin is one of Britain’s foremost composers, so the fact that the music is subtle, resonant and incredibly clever shouldn’t come as a surprise, but this honestly does feel like one of the most successful marriages of music and text in a contemporary opera I’ve heard. The whole achieves a kind of almost claustrophobic intensity of purpose that neither words nor music would manage on their own.

Nonetheless, the piece absolutely still reminds us what a great writer Crimp is. Spare, stark, and with an unerring knack for under-the-skin creepiness. The Pied Piper (what is Pied in this case? Oh, colourfully clothed, according to Wikipedia. Funny the things you don’t question until you’re 39...) is here replaced by “a man with no eyes, and nose nose and no ears” discovered by the minister in his house peering into his child’s cot. The final abduction of the children is rendered as a vision of them all trooping off to burrow into the little hill of the title: “And the deeper we burrow, the brighter his music burns”. Somehow incredibly sad and horrible, but a chillingly brilliant evocation of children possessed.

Furness’s production really is excellently, minimally staged. The piece is only a two-hander, with soprano Emily Vine playing the eyeless man and the minister’s child, with contralto Jess Dandy as the minister (and minister’s wife? – there weren’t surtitles, so occasionally it was a tiny bit hard to follow). They’re stood on a tilted white disc that can only be about three metres across, tops. The small orchestra/band behind them, and, excellently, noise from the bar next door filtering through the rear door (just behind me in the back row) whenever there’s a quiet bit, giving an ambient sense of the whole story taking place in a busy town’s community. Sherry Coenen’s lighting is simple red, white or blue states, mostly aiming into the eyes of the audience over the shoulders of the performers (largely because the ceiling was only about a foot above Dandy’s head, and you can’t blind the musicians, I imagine). But, happily, what sound like factors working against the production actually all contrive to make the whole feel that bit more original, urgent and, well, Fringe-y is still a thing too, and a very good thing at that.

Vine and Dandy (seriously? This isn’t some sort of pun on the part of the production team?) duet beautifully. There’s a thing that sometimes happens with opera when voices are independently lovely, but just seem to mesh very poorly in harmony. Here, the voices work perfectly together. There’s also the useful visual fact that Dandy is a good head taller than Vine – emphasised by Dandy also wearing thick soled shoes, so that the minister towers over the imp-like eyeless man and his own child. The acting rangers from subtle to wildly expressionistic with Dandy’s eyes wide like a silent horror film, against Vine’s sharp inscrutable features.

I only saw the thing last night, and it hasn’t actually struck me forcibly on the political level proposed by the pre-election double-billing with The Soldier’s Tale. Nonetheless, as a despatch from the frontline of where contemporary opera is at, and an incredibly impressive display of fringe opera, it’s hard to imagine better. Last night tonight. Well worth a look.

(also, in scrupulous fairness, there’s a much better, Soldier’s Tale oriented review here – five-starring the whole evening too, no less.) ___ Marvellously, the whole original performance (i.e. not this production) of Into the Little Hill is on YouTube:

The Velveteen Rabbit – Unicorn Theatre, London

[seen 08/04/15]


[contains spoilers. suspect it’s only me who hadn’t already read the book anyway]

It would be trite and uninteresting just to gush about how lovely Purni Morell’s production of The Velveteen Rabbit is. It is lovely. Utterly lovely. But where does that get us? It’s for audiences aged four and over (although the presence of several babies and under-fours enlivened the whole experience no end on Wednesday afternoon), and they’re not really my core readership, so you’re going to want something a bit more, well, rigorous, right? And I have to admit I was feeling a bit stuck. Because, well, when something’s lovely, you don’t always want to go all explainy about it, do you?

Do you know the basic story? I didn’t (well, someone once explained it to me, but I’d never read the (1922, American) original). It’s about a boy who loses his china dog, and is handed the long-overlooked bunny toy as a replacement by his nanny. It’s been explained to bunny that to become real you have to be worn almost to bits and loved by your, well, owner, I guess. Boy and bunny become inseparable until boy catches scarlet fever, bunny sits with him until he’s better, but then, being a toy bunny likely to be carrying traces of the scarlet fever, he’s put out to be burnt along with the rest of the contents of the room. Boy fucks off to seaside to convalesce and bunny escapes fiery fate by means of tears, a magic flower, and a deus ex machina fairy who turns him into a real-real rabbit. (Oh, the whole thing of the story is toys only become “real” when they’re loved very much by their owners. Sounds a bit bleugh, I defy you not to get a bit misty eyed.)

As well as being lovely, there were also plenty of bits of what felt like the original narrative to stick in the throat – from the “needing external individualistic validation” thing, through the character of the adventures which the boy and his bunny play-imagine (all pretty colonial-looking to me), to the “in heaven, every thing is fine” ending. On the other hand, they didn’t stick in the throat so much that I didn’t also (at precisely the same time) find the whole thing completely charming. (I also probably spent an improbable amount of time wondering if children these days even recognise, let alone play at, those tropes of Boy’s Own-style mountaineering and arctic exploration and imperial navy stuff, or if the comprehensive Disneyfication and Technologisation of everything had banished all those bad old Imperialist post-war games to the last century in favour of consequence-free Pirates and anti-state-ownership Dragons. And whateverthefuck Spongebob Squarepants is. Or something).

In terms of style, both direction and design (James Button) feel so stupidly effortless, so perfectly judged, that it’s genuinely difficult to know what to say about it beyond description. The whole thing takes place on a wide apron-y stage with large floorboard drawn on it, and with a surprising number of trap-doors in it, in which are stored most of the props – judiciously assembled, nice-looking, vintage toys, mostly. A big raked bed is wheeled on and off, there are some large (also “hand-drawn”) curtains flown in, and the rabbit is revealed by the lowering of a big sock at the beginning.

Similarly, the cast here is so beautifully put together that it’s surprising to discover they’re the second cast for this show (now on it’s third? fourth? Outing). Christian Roe – familiar from Chris Goode’s Monkey Bars – is a lovely presence as the largely accepting, bemused, benign bunny. Ashley Byam as the boy (did he have a name?) is just the right side of boisterous, but neither of them actually get to say much – they’re mostly tearing around the stage like a kind of live picture book (movement – Wilkie Branson), pitch-perfectly narrated Anthony Weigh (yes, also the playwright! Who knew? Probably everyone except me...) as a kind of everyman authority-figure-in-a-suit, forced by early expediency to reluctantly don the apron and old-style floppy maid’s cap.

And so we hop on to What It All Means. And, well, I had a really interesting conversation with Matt Trueman earlier, who swore blind to me that I was mad for completely missing what he saw as an out-and-out gay subtext. Not even *sub*-text, but a full-on queered performance. It’s not a point he emphasises in his Time Out review, which is partly why I flag it up here, away from small-c conservative parents. And while I’ve found it an appealing reading that I don’t want to dismiss our of hand, I can say, hand-on-heart that it never once occurred to me while I was watching. I mean, yes, sure, there are two handsome young men in their mid-twenties bouncing around on their shared bed together, but, like, ONE OF THEM IS A RABBIT. And that was that as far as I was concerned. Christian tells me he’s a rabbit, then a rabbit he is.

My reading was much more of the, well, the sort of socio-political backdrop, or the psychology of the thing – both then, and how that reads now. For my money it was about as stark a Christian afterlife allegory as C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle. *Obviously* that ending can be repurposed by atheists as much as they like toward something about, oh, I dunno, love or something, but (thanks to my upbringing) I reckon there’s something excellent about a big old hardcore “Yes, there is a glorious supernatural force that’s going to totally sort everything out for you in the great hereafter” ending. So I decided that’s what it was. I mean, as an atheist I also had my problems with telling children that. But then the children possibly hadn’t stopped thinking Christian was anything more than a rabbit, and so had overlooked the indoctrination that almost certainly wasn’t going on anywhere other than in my mind anyway. I also wondered if it was some sort of post-WWI make-better equivalent of the Peter Pan quote about dying that apparently echoed through the senseless slaughter.  Indeed, given Matt’s, mine, and my plus-one’s wildly variant, equally valid readings, I think the main take-home message is that Velveteen Rabbits are especially good at confirming biases. Still, this is gorgeous and you should all go and see it.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Abyss – Arcola, London

[seen 07/04/15]


[On Tuesday I was lucky enough to be invited to chair a pre-show discussion for Abyss before I saw the performance itself. As a result, I went into the show with *some* privileged knowledge, but no more so than anyone else in the audience that night. I’m not going to now try in writing up to ignore stuff I discovered beforehand, but then, if you read this review (or any other), you’ll equally go in with a whole other set of preconceptions. So, yeah, consider the myth of the ideal audience member or the possibility of an “objective” perspective, comprehensively shattered.]

Maria Milisavljevic’s Brandung (Surf? Breaking waves?), here Abyss, winner of the 2013 Kleist Prize, comes to Dalston from Berlin via Toronto. The story (how cliché and anglophone to start by trying to define a story here) ostensibly concerns the disappearance of a girl, Karla. Her ex-boyfriend Vlado, still in love with her friend Martina, and her sister Sofia (named in the script as He, I, and She), try to find her. Martina’s new boyfriend Jan, also played by Vlado-actor. They sort of self-narrate themselves – frenetically, relentlessly, here – round the (German) city where Karla disappeared. Vlado is Serbian, ex-Yugoslavian. His father was Serbian and his mother was Bosnian. Underneath the story of Karla’s disappearance lies a much longer, older story of when Vlado left ex-Yugoslavia, the question of what happened to his parents, and what an old German man found with Karla’s bag means by his story of a man who burnt down his house, and what he sees in Vlado’s eyes, why he passes on the name of the man who gave him Karla’s bag. The police briefly suspect Vlado of the murder itself

In his review of the show, Matt Trueman suggests we imagine Martin Crimp’s The Killing, if that's the game, I’d go with Frantic Assembly’s Twin Peaks. Director Jacqui Honess-Martin has recruited a *very* young cast, all fewer than two years out of drama school and approached the text with a restless physical approach. In the pre-show talk, she talked brilliantly about how the production had avoided the usual pitfalls of bringing a traditional British psychological reading to bear on the text. This is both evident in the production and laudable. A slight potential drawback in the approach – at least to my untrained eye – was that alongside urgency and physicality, there was perhaps a bit too much one-note emphatic volume. So, while avoiding psychology per se, perhaps saw performers fall back onto unconscious default settings. Indeed, watching Blush of Dogs last night, it struck me that if they had done half the voice-work they appeared to have done and donated the other half to Abyss, both productions would have benefitted. Similarly, personally, I’ve have turned down the choreography from 11 to about 3 or 4. But, again, that’s (obviously) just a matter of taste – and what is there is excellently executed – but I’m quite fascinated now by that new(er) school of choreography in which the dancers/non-dancers do stuff that literally anyone *could* do, but with infinitely more precision and muscle memory. This, by contrast, was more along the lines of being out-and-out impressive. But, that all sounds way too critical. They were things that I quibbled with internally a bit/“would have done differently”, but that’s not my job, and no one wants critics to redirect shows that don’t need redirecting.

Where other reviews have focussed on the murder or suicide of the missing Karla, it struck me that really the play was more “about” (ha! No, “about” is wrong) the strange lineages of revenge whether in war or peace that trickle through lives or communities, gradually eroding whole edifices. Set against this, there is the narration of a rather fussy way of killing, skinning, and cooking a rabbit, at once suggestive – at least before the drowned body is found – of Karla’s possible murder, and the atrocities of the civil wars in the Balkans which are forever being hinted at. The disappeared young woman, by contrast, simply becomes a hole in the normal run of things that allows both characters and audience to looking though it and see what’s under the surface.

For me this seemed much more to be, obliquely, a play about the traces left of European history, the ghastly spectre of WWII that haunts Germany, the aftermath and Russian occupation, and the more recent implosion of Yugoslavia, at almost the precise moment of German reunification. I imagine, that watching the piece in Berlin, all these experiences feel infinitely more present in a city that still wears those scars, and is only one day’s train ride to Belgrade. Certainly more present than it feels for Britons, for whom “European” history is something that happens overseas, and infinitely more so than in Canada, I’d imagine.

It is/was interesting to learn that the “English” version of the script forms kind of a halfway house between the more abstract, philosophical, inconclusive German version and the much more explain-y Canadian one. Apparently, Postcards’s favourite German-Canadian, Holger Syme, did a pre-show lecture for the piece at its Tarragon Theatre première, the nutshell version of which was that should be considered totally different plays, both of which are pretty good.

This struck me as a good thing. It was interesting, also that the German world première of this play, this prize winning play, presented only 50 pages of 94 (88 in English – German words are longer). As such, perhaps our idea that we have a “writers’ theatre” is, as I’ve said before, mistaken, insofar as it no more respects a writer’s vision to suggest re-writes, than it does to cut 44 pages. On the other hand, I think, particualrly when it comes to international collaboration, InSite theatre (and Tarragon before them) have uncovered a certain truth about European writers and anglophone theatre. Rather than hoping that we can somehow fill in the gaps in shared local knowledge that get left by an untouched extant script with an outstanding production (as we now try to do with English language theatre’s most successful export: Shakespeare), if writers are still living, we can in fact recruit them to help adapt their work for our unsuspecting audiences.

Perhaps gradually through collaborations like this, such collaborations will become less and less necessary as British audiences get a bit more used to the ineffable “let’s not explain anything at all-ness” of German theatre (characterised by Trueman as “confusion creeping in at the end”). I do wonder, though. Local references are local references, after all, and German theatre comes from a long, intense, intricate 70-year post-war history entirely different to our own. On the other hand, as with the Twin Peaks reference at the start, I reckon anglophone audiences can take more weird than we’re credited for.

Blush of Dogs – Tabard Theatre, London

[seen 08/04/15]


Blush of Dogs by Roland Reynolds, who also directs, is possibly one of the boldest, most original debuts I’ve seen in quite a while. It’s as uneven as hell, there are definitely misfires, and the production doesn’t always pull itself off, but against this, there’s ambition, rawness, and a willingness for excess – and just sheer unremitting intensity – that hasn’t been lost in some sort of endless script development hell.

The basis of ...Dogs is a grimy retelling of Seneca’s Thyestes. Situated in this production between ruined classical columns with Tiresias wearing a WWII-style gas mask, it continually feels both ancient and modern, with startling comic interjections punctuating swathes of grand poetic language. In this it feels like the production’s closest theatrical sibling is Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love, and before that the later, madder plays of Howard Barker. However, unlike Caryl Churchill’s straight translation of Thyestes, Reynolds has done a fair amount of mucking about with the actual plot itself. What I remember (quite plausibly incorrectly) as being largely the point of Thyestes – its Titus Andronicus-style finale – is here jammed quickly into the last fifteen minutes, and with a surprise new pay-off to boot. Preceding that is an hour and fifteen minutes of dense, verbose, poetic text, which may also be claiming some unexpected set of contemporary parallels. The text overall certainly feels redolent of a youthful cynicism regarding expedient trade agreements and the amorality of our leaders.

In a year which is to see three (three!) new versions of Aeschylus’s Orestia, and a raft of other Greek plays continuing on into 2016, it’s rather refreshing to find someone turning to the violent fascistic tragedies of Rome for inspiration. Where the Greeks created conversational, philosophical pieces with the action mostly taking place in the next room, Seneca’s plays read more like uncompromising moral sermons delivered up to their elbows in ever present blood.

The production itself, is, well, like I said, it is uneven. It is performed by an ensemble of three – Ben Alderton, Anna Proctor and Mike Corsale – each takes one of the principal characters Atreus, his wife Aerope and Thyestes respectively, as well as each taking turns as the gas-masked, blind prophet and parts in an endless chorus of barnacle-masked plebians and slaves, squatting on the orange-peel and juice-carton strewn floor, or reasoning with one another on the morality of cooking their master’s children. The two blokes have quite differing acting styles, but the contrast works: Alderton’s Clarkson-like posh ruler offset by his wide-boy brother. Proctor, on the other hand, is – at least for my taste – far too wrapped up in a world of diction and projection hailing from another century: in a pub theatre in which you’re sometimes standing only inches away from your nearest addressee, and can literally only ever get four or five metres away from your farthest, it feels an error to rigorously avoid all eye contact during passages of direct audience address and to bellow with enough volume to reach the back of the Olivier. I say all this with the strict proviso that I know nothing about acting, and that it’s a matter of personal taste, and that was just something that really didn’t work for me. I (think I) know the sort of thing it’s meant to be, but in this instance it doesn’t quite come off. (I’m not saying it *couldn’t*, even if it’s a style that I tend to file under “less-preferred option”.)

Elsewhere, though, there are some properly great physical moments. At the start, while Corsale and Proctor scrabble about on the mucky floor Alderton as Tiresias just stands at the back doing some really bonkers, aggressive dancing. Then, later, there’s a brilliant scene in which, while Aerope screams on and on about either fucking Thyestes or getting raped by him – it’s not entirely clear what she believes and what’s a lie for the benefit of her husband – Atreus and Thyestes, strip down to their pants, oil each other up, and indulge in a big long wrestling match. The effect is both striking and in some way incredibly, bleakly funny. There were quite a few laughs last night, and while it didn’t feel like they were necessarily intentional, it was quite clear that they were both an audience releasing pressure, and also definitely on side, laughing with a production that definitely owned its own sense of the ridiculous, rather than laughing at it. Indeed, it was this heady mixture of intensity and ludicrousness – occasionally nodding at its own preposterous set-up – that made the thing feel all that more plausible and visceral. The really very small auditorium amplifying the tension, rather than feeling as it looked like it might have wanted to be: spread out more on the stage of somewhere like the Almeida or even Lyttleton.

Annoyingly, the script doesn’t seem to have been published (get on it, Oberon), and like so many first (or second, or so?) plays, it's unlikely that it’ll get a revival any time soon. But this feels like a real pity. I’d be really interested to see a load of different productions – a massive one without doubling, a properly deconstructed one, etc. etc. etc. But, as a first outing for the piece, and as a kind of signature piece for Fragen Theatre Company, this seems like the start of a really intriguing proposition.


Sunday, 5 April 2015

Penelope Retold – Lowry, Salford

[seen 03/04/15]


The more you look at it, the more you notice that the basic plots of Greek mythology are a car crash. Granted, making play of this fact has been a staple of drama since its inception, with Euripides using the fall of Troy or the civil strife between Oedipus’s sons as the stick with which to beat his native Athens’s conduct in the Peloponnesian War. Nevertheless, there is still much mileage in interrogating the mad nonsense that is *still* sold to us in childhood as heroism.

Caroline Horton’s (hour-long, one-woman-) show takes the relatively obvious step of giving a voice to “stay-at-home army-wife” Penelope and, largely just by restating all the simple facts we know about her as a personal narrative, demonstrates the ludicrous extent of the things we’re asked to think are probably somehow *okay* when we’re concentrating on her husband’s exploits. Yes, it’s been done before (Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, which was even adapted for stage by RSC back in the mists of time), but this version was specifically commissioned by Derby Playhouse – to balance out their main-stage, WWI-costumed version of Homer’s Odyssey last February (although, adaptor Mike Kenny, being an intelligent chap, seems to have avoided the worst excesses of Boy’s Own jingoism and sexism in his own version too).

Horton’s show has more than enough to recommend it as a stand-alone piece, however. (And it’s interesting to note that is piece was made almost a year *before* her recent, controversial piece Islands, on which the majority of critics fell, outraged that she was doing something different to that which she had previously done. Penelope Retold sees Horton return to what could be superficially characterised as the fluffy, charming, reassuring stage persona previously adopted in Mess. However, as with Mess, it would a spectacular oversight to miss the Beckettian steel behind the winning smile. And, interestingly, as with Mess, we once again meet Horton, Winnie-like, almost buried up to her waist: here in Penelope’s marital bed.

The main problem with writing about ...Retold is that it mostly requires just writing about performing. Which is bloody difficult. Partly because it’s such an intangible thing; then because it’s so subjective (a fact always complicated when it’s a male writer describing a female performer, since *any* physical description *at all* – no matter how bland or fact-based – inevitably looks suspect on some level); and lastly because it usually ends up in the same horrible pile-up of adjectives (“brilliant” and “luminous” tend to be the worst offenders). Horton *is* brilliant, but saying *how* seems somewhere between impossible and too obvious. First of all there’s the liveness and the assurance: as soon as she pops up out of the bed, she makes eye-contact with what feels like the entire audience. We’re not worried about the fact that she’s got to carry the next hour single-handed. And she’s definitely in the same room as us. There isn’t that daft idea that even though we’re only a couple of metres away, she’s going to pretend we aren’t there (although, I think we, the audience, perhaps swap roles more times than Horton, which can be momentarily disconcerting). Then there’s her comic timing. I think more-or-less the first thing Horton does after standing up and looking around is to fall over. Which is very funny (I’m a complete child when it comes to people suddenly falling over). But, time and time again, Horton gives these perfectly judged little looks, which seem to happen so very rarely on stage (God knows why rarely), to us, to herself, whatever the situation requires: so there’s this constant self-aware rapport, which makes the character seem all the more credibly human, alive and relatable. And then there’s Horton’s voice, which is (at least for me – blame my upbringing) resolutely RP-but-not-alienatingly-*posh*, but used with deadly, melodic precision; more instrument than tool (if that distinction makes sense to you).

All of this is pressed into service of an incredibly well-written script (Horton again). Although, if one had to find a criticism (and ‘one’ really doesn’t: none of what follows remotely impacts on “one’s” enjoyment), perhaps the piece keeps too many different ways of viewing the story up in the air throughout, flitting from a satire about army wives conniving at their own oppression, general broken-hearted-ness at betrayal, the central debunking of Odysseus’s “heroism” and feminist critique of the myth, the slightly-less-relatable-in-modern-times idea that 35 is an age at which one is “past it”, as well as the most compelling component: the cold-light-of-day (quite literally in __ __’s lighting design) retelling of the story of a 35-year-old woman waking up to discover that her husband of 20 years – of which he was absent for the last 19 – has returned home and murdered all the men in her house except their son and twelve of her female servants. Which, looked at like that, is pretty difficult to spin as heroic. However, it’s also precisely this multipicity that also adds to the piece’s enormous watchability.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Better Brutality Than Boredom – Antwerp Mansion, Rusholme

[seen 01/04/15]


[Same disclaimer about wide-eyed newness as yesterday, but...]

Ok. This is my second brush with Manchester Fringe theatre, and Christ, it’s turning out to be pretty exciting. As yesterday, the venue isn’t even slightly set up as a theatre (much less so even than yesterday’s, in fact), and as yesterday, this was the last night of a pretty short run (March 29th – 1st April). Antwerp Mansion appears to be a squat primarily aimed at hosting dance parties for young people (I’m not even going to try to pretend I understand). It’s both impressive in scale and vitually rotting in terms of décor. Tonight’s performance was measured by a steady drip from the ceiling onto an improvised metal plate below it (presumably to stop the drip beating its way through the floorboards). In short, it’s a damn sight cooler than anywhere you ever see theatre in London. Hidden in a backstreet off “Curry Mile”, just east of Moss Side, it also has an air of illegality and grimy glamour that public subsidy just can’t buy.

And it turns out to be the perfect venue for Rampant Theatre’s Better Brutality Than Boredom. Three men wake up, piled across one another in what we presume is a room much like the one we’re in – minus the windows. The men are locked in, and have no memory of how they got there. One’s dressed in jeans and a smart-casual shirt, one in a tracksuit, and one in suit trousers, shirt and tie. They wake up, shout at each other, establish that they’re locked in, and very quickly kick off at each other. Then, one by one, they are frozen. One suddenly discovers he cannot move at all. Then the next. etc. The men are understandably alarmed. Next, involuntarily, one throws a punch at another. This pattern also repeats across the three captives. It’s fairly clear to us, the audience, and to the men too, from even the faintest passing familiarity that they’ve been kidnapped by some unseen force which now has the ability to control their bodies. Closer examination by the men discovers that they have some sort of implants buried under their flesh at the base of their necks. Attempts to dig one of these devices out with a nail come to nothing.

[I’ve only just discovered, looking at the (admirably old-school, 2-sided, photocopied, A4) programme this morning, that the piece didn’t have “a writer” at all. It’s got a director (Karl Barnsley), a fight director (Kaitlin Howard), and a producer (David Bamford), and the amusing credit that “Mark Reid might have had something to do with this originally”. But that’s it, apart from the five performers. And, refreshingly, there’s no long mission statement about how the company makes work, or their core beliefs. There’s just the title of the play, cast and crew biogs, and two ads: one for their next show (The Gambit, short tour both sides of the Pennines in July ahead of Edinburgh run) and one calling for submissions to a festival that the company is running (3rd – 6th November).]

And, well, so far so Beckett, right? If Beckett had been more in the business of writing the set-ups for something like the Saw films or perhaps some kind of existential Reservoir Dogs. It has some of that mysterious nowhere-world of Beckett’s longer plays, and the same hints at an apparently arbitrarily cruel universe we see in the Acts Without Words. At the same time, the choices of costume and the way the three men position themselves in relation to one another, are suggestive of some sort of allegory of the class system. That famous That Was The Week That Was sketch as Fight Club. But, even though only about twenty minutes in, the set-up has started to feel limited: perhaps because the men started in on the fighting so quickly, almost inexplicably so; perhaps because we know the men have so little agency, and so their dilemma – externally controlled – seems dramatically limited. Yes, as a picture of modern Britain/British manhood, it’s every bit as grim, miserable and hopeless as the reality, but, crumbs, you think, can I really watch an allegory for an hour? Godot with fist-fighting instead of cod-philosophy.

[next couple of paragraphs will be a bit spoilery, but the run’s over and the programme gives no indication of a return, so...]

Then the men’s captors turn up. Because the programmes are handed out upon leaving (smart), there’s no hint that this might happen, so just this simple introduction of two new characters seems like a real dramatic coup, and like the whole potential of the piece has just expanded hugely. For one thing, one of the two newcomers is a woman, for another, they are holding the remote controls that control the men. They have the ability to double the men up in agony at the touch of a button, or to move them around and make them hit each other. It’s a lot more interesting now we can see them wanting to do it.

For all this newness, the dramatic action continues its low-key relentless sadism. I should say at this point, that if there’s one thing I really can’t watch, it’s relentless violence, so I actually watched quite a lot of this play looking slightly to the left or right of where the action was. As it happens, nothing *too* horrible happens, there’s no stage blood used, it doesn’t have any special effects. But the horror of the situation is enough. Or the bit where the boy with the remote control – the newcomers are young, perhaps only meant to be teenagers (obvs the actors are recent graduate age) – makes one of the men repeatedly stab himself with a nail. Elsewhere there’s sexual humiliation, forcing the men to perform grudging nods to sex acts (no pants come off, but you get the idea). If anyone in the audience managed not to think of the torture by British and American forces in Iraq, then hats off to them for their breathtaking naïveté. (Hats off too to the one bloke in the audience who managed to find something to chuckle at, pretty much throughout. He looked like a PE Teacher who had recently signed a number of pro-Clarkson petitions. You get the idea.) And, for all I might not like watching this sort of thing, and might have wished for a bit more sparky dialogue, or to be comfortingly led by the nose to the precise metaphorical significance as one usually is in British theatre, there was something undeniably compelling and brilliant about just this ongoing, low-level nastiness. Something somehow more true precisely because it wasn’t *writerly* and didn’t tell us why it was doing what it was doing.

In the end, the three men are piled back on top of each other, and left by their captors, and we get the sense that maybe this is what happens every day. There’s no explanation of what possible dystopia allows for this. There are hints in the dialogue of the captors, but everything is left refreshingly unclear. They only talk in the way that two people who both know the score already do, rather than dropping audience friendly expository sentences. Which again feels like a master-stroke.

If I’d seen it, I might find myself comparing Better Brutality... (and I’d cut the title to just that. I reckon the the “...Than Boredom” bit is the most leading information in the entire piece, suggesting as it does a critique of the Kidz of Today all getting a bit violence happy because of smart phones and video games – the men are even controlled by iPhone-looking devices) to Mike Bartlett’s recent Game at the Almeida (brilliantly critiqued by Dan Rebellato under that link). But, what’s great about Better Brutality... is that it doesn’t milk that “implicating the audience” trope. Yes, we’re there, in the same room, watching this very violent play, but it doesn’t insult our intelligence by asking if we’d be better people if we somehow made a stand against the pretending. Of course, there’s a disturbing parallel between watching violence and the behaviour of the men’s captors on stage. Except that clearly this is a play that has some moral centre. As in Sarah Kane, its violence is allegorical not pornographic. And, unless you’re an idiot PE Teacher, then there’s nothing fun about watching it.

So, yes, despite being a pretty tough watch (in a freezing room, accessible only through sheets of rain on a bloody cold night), this was raw, original, intelligent, disturbing theatre.
___

This is Antwerp Mansion, btw:

Foyer

Performance space

Exterior




Wednesday, 1 April 2015

When I Feel Like Crap I Google Kim Kardashian Fat – Gulliver’s, Manchester

[seen 31/03/15]


[Advance apologies for the “I’ve just moved from London” intro. I’m afraid I’m going to be prone to these for a while. I promise the contextualisation is mostly for myself, and not intended to read like *everything has to be compared to bloody London*; it’s just what I know. (I could compare you to the Czech fringe if that’d be better...)]

[The first thing I’ve learnt about Manchester’s Fringe scene is that runs are bloody short. This is the second of two nights for Mighty Heart Theatre Company’s When I Feel Like Crap... here on a whistle-stop tour of the North West (another Manc date in April). The other thing I’ve learnt is that it’s infinitely more mobile than London. Rather than solely featuring a map of pubs with dedicated, year-round, designated “theatre” spaces, here it seems just as likely that companies will find an ordinary room in a pub that’ll have them, and pitch up for a few nights in spaces just as likely to see private parties or bands playing. I also note that tonight’s venue is slap bang in the middle of town, not stuck out in Manchester’s Kenningtons or Caledonian Roads.]

When I Feel Like Crap... is a fizzy, hour-long, TIE-style, verbatim show about women’s bodies and how they shouldn’t feel crap about them. And, much to my surprise, I really rather liked it. Performers Lisa-Marie Hoctor and Samantha Edwards perform with the manic energy of tag-team children’s TV presenters (I mean that as a compliment), mostly upbeat, never letting the pace drop, but able to stop the gales of laughter dead in their tracks with some testimony from a woman suffering from and eating disorder or bowel cancer. They’re pretty good at sincerity too, so you have to keep remembering that what they’re telling you is something someone else has told them – it would tip into very uncomfortable overshare very quickly if these were all actually their own stories (perhaps one or two are, but the format allows us to feel just comfortable enough with the distance and not be able to know which).

In terms of source material, the duo have done an admirable job of getting a large range of “self-identifying women” (good qualification), to talk frankly about everything from their own self-image and eating disorders, through to candid explanations of their make-up routines or how they look at other women. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the show is that it pretty much removes men from the picture altogether. Very few of the interviewees seem especially worried about what men think, much less patriarchal oppression, instead, what we’re given is the lived experience of women who feel entirely oppressed, judged and looked down on (particularly re: their bodies) by other women. “Men don’t really care all that much, really” says one. Being verbatim, and having interviewed “women” on the subject of “being a woman” it’s interesting that neither capital-P Politics nor economics really get much of a look-in. Both underpin the entire structure, and creep in round the edges, but mostly people are defined in rather black and white terms like “good person” or “bad person” (“I’m not a bad person, but...”). This has advantages and disadvantages, on one level, its apolitical stance means that it’s not alienating anyone (except the writers, picture editors, and publishers of women’s magazines). On the other hand, the absence of professional experts to give context – the odd doctor, psychologist, economist, etc. talking about her professional take on the current situation (of course, several of each profession may have answered the questions about their body image) – means that we have to pick our way through an accretion of common sense, and how it seems on the ground. Which, piled up like this, is powerfully depressing, but at the same time, might benefit from a bit of analytical distance as well.

The conclusions are unsurprising: women are bombarded with images of slim women, while naturally slim women feel shamed by Dove’s “real women have curves” campaign. Women feel they are reduced to being a body, and made anxious that they don’t measure up, at the same time as policing precisely this situation by judging other women. There’s also a slightly blasé attitude toward everyone just loving their own bodies, the health risks of anorexia are highlighted, but the non-gendered possibility of eating your way to a massive coronary is blithely skipped over. But, for all these possible caveats, there was definitely more to enjoy than grumble about by a massive margin. It was like a kind of feminist agit-prop cabaret, and I couldn’t stop thinking about John McGrath’s A Good Night Out all the way through. Properly progressive in so many ways. Good.


Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Contemporary Theatre Review: Martin and Me

[written for volume 24, issue three of Contemporary Theatre Review]


It’s March 2007, and it’s the press night for Katie Mitchell’s production of Attempts on Her Life at the National Theatre. I have a press ticket because I write reviews for a little-read online magazine called CultureWars.org (now deceased). I think Attempts... is possibly the best thing I’ve seen in my life. I write a shortish, rather breathless review saying as much.

It’s November 2013, and it’s the press night for the world première of Alles weitere kennen sie aus dem Kino, directed by Katie Mitchell, at Deutsches Schauspielhaus, Hamburg. I have a press ticket because I’ve written for the Guardian, the FT, Time Out, Nachtkritik.de, Frakcija, Kulturpunkt.hr, and been published by Methuen. I write a very long, breathless review saying I think it’s possibly the best thing I’ve seen in my life.

In the intervening years, more or less my entire professional relationship with writing about theatre so far happens. Thanks to the sheer lack of good taste on the part of Britain’s professional critics in 2007, the National Theatre didn’t have much by way of “good notices” to post on their website, so they led with mine. It was the first time anything I’d ever written had been used as publicity. A few weeks later I was reading Encore Theatre Magazine’s excellent piece about the whole Attempts... debacle – this was after NT Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner had dubbed the mainstream critics “Dead White Males” – and there was a comment there, written by someone I’d never met, saying that my review was more intelligent and perceptive than the rest of them. That was the first time I’d ever had a sense that anyone beyond my friends ever read what I wrote, let alone thought it was good. That year I started my blog – Postcards From The Gods – then got invited to write for the Guardian’s new blog, then got invited to review for the FT and Time Out.

As such, I’ve always felt I owed rather a lot to that performance of Attempts on her Life. It wasn’t that it gave me a bit of confidence in what I was doing; it was much more that it gave me a sense of purpose. Here was pretty much my favourite thing that I’d ever seen in a theatre – I wasn’t just grandstanding: I bought another ticket and went to see it again and loved it just as much, maybe even more, the second time – and (as far as I remember) Every Single Broadsheet Critic had disliked it. On one hand, yes, I’m a pluralist. I accept not everyone will love the same things as me. But here was a situation where the views of myself, most of my friends, and clearly a huge number of other theatregoers, had gone entirely unrepresented. So it felt like the situation needed to be changed.

More difficult to explain is what it was about the work of Martin Crimp in particular, and directed by Katie Mitchell in particular, that appealed so much, to my undergraduate self who first read Attempts..., and to the version of me who twenty years later was sat smoking in a Hamburg café reading a rough English translation of Alles weitere... There is, I suppose, something that can be said about the way Crimp uses rhythm. The musicality of his texts. Music either hits us on some gut level or it doesn’t. And so it might also be with words. There are also Crimp’s concerns – the big stuff: wars, genocides, pornography, sexual abuse, but also: spy films, sex, romance... The zipping between “high” and “low” culture... But also that characteristic use of – obviously – use of repetition. And the enigmatic figures simply interjecting, “said ____”. And the unnamed characters where each dash just indicates a new speaker, so that even if the scenes were written with Crimp knowing how many people were speaking and which lines they were ascribed, I’ve now seen maybe a dozen productions of Attempts on Her Life where maybe one performer has never had the same set of lines to speak as another performer.

Since 2007, the face of British criticism has changed, and is still changing. At the same time, the première of Crimp’s latest play was in Hamburg, where the work is given a rapturous welcome. It would be all too easy to paint Crimp as a writer in exile, British theatre as a timid, cowering creature, and British mainstream criticism as a dinosaur badly in need of extinction. The internet has remade the way it is possible to read and write about theatre and audiences are learning new tastes. It feels that really Crimp is a playwright whose greatest successes are still ahead of him.

___


And there is never not a good time to watch this again:

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.