Saturday, 25 June 2016

Opera for the Unknown Woman – Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield

[seen 22/06/16]


Primarily, it should be stated that neither the opinions nor the “objective” observations of this male critic have any real place in an assessment of this work. Even as a feminist – one influenced by Butler, and with great scepticism toward binaries and gender essentialism – this holds true.

As such, I commend you to the views of Maddy Costa ahead of my own.

Now, I’m not just saying all this because “I didn’t like it”. It is important that those disclaimers go first, because in many ways Opera for the Unknown Woman felt as culturally alien and unfamiliar to me as anything I’ve seen at the Volksbühne. And I would say that, in part, that’s down to me being a bloke.

It’s initially difficult to pin down *what* it is that feels so unfamiliar about the work. I mean, I’ve seen modern operas before. I’ve seen science fiction before. I’ve, y’know, read works of feminist thought before, and I’ve seen Katie Mitchell’s two Environment Lecture shows (I won’t claim to be much better informed than that in matters ecological). I might not be an authority on any of these things, but they are a part of my everyday landscape. (perhaps #everydaylandscape). What’s different here, I think, is firstly such an apparent level of sincerity that you (I) scarcely know where to put yourself (myself), and secondly, that there is an almost complete lack of any dialectic whatsoever. Or, rather, the thesis is Everything Outside The Theatre, and the show seems to stand for both antithesis and synthesis, since it is wholly revolutionary and therefore unable to resolve the problems of the thesis/the world without overturning the world.

I think that’s what this is.

I put this analysis before a description, because, in basic terms, simply, starkly describing what actually happens on stage, or the plot, has the potential to sound A Bit Silly otherwise. And there’s something fascinating about that. I mean, Sci-Fi *is* always faintly silly, and it kind of always has to be serious about itself. I wonder if this is why it’s so rarely seen on stage as such. Because on film you’re let off the hook of having to process your response to its self-seriousness in real time breathing the same air as the performers.

So, rough plot outline: at the beginning, some inter-planetary elders (all women), appear projected on the cyclorama curtain around the rear of the stage, and talk about saving the last inhabited planet, as interplanetary elders often do. I think to this end they sort of send a traveller back in time, who symbolises and becomes (?) the daughter of ten women on the stage who probably represent all the women on the planet. There are parts of libretto about violence against women, and bits of the time-traveller’s (?) narrative about enviromental catastrophe. They’re not really dramatised, or part of a conventional dramatic situation; instead they exist more as kind of lyrical, almost liturgical refusals of the status quo.

The music (co-composed by Wilson and Katarina Glowicka) is frequently very beautiful. It is a mixture of electronic, recorded and live – percussion, violin and ‘cello. I notice myself coming up against the same knee-jerk reaction that I have to Sleaford Mods (as per ÜberŠkrip), that if the sounds aren’t made LIVE, I sort of worry about it.

Similarly, the staging here feels more indicative than actual (if that makes sense – what I mean is, I imagine, given more money and a larger space, it would look correspondingly different, if following the same sort of lines).

But, ultimately, I suppose it’s the message that I find difficult. Specifically, its entirely non-specific call to non-violent action regarding male violence and environmental catastrophe.

Reading Costa’s postscript this morning was helpful, largely because in pinpointing her own anxieties about violence she absolutely locates my own opposite concern about the left’s complete refusal of it. She approvingly cites Audre Lorde’s lecture title, The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, and while, as a man, I’m in no position to comment on having my house taken down, I will note as a leftist that in general terms the best way to dismantle most structures is with the use of more or less precisely the same tools as those with which they were assembled. One just needs to be organised about how you use them (houses, in fact, being a radical exception, since using a cement mixer to take apart cement simply won’t work; but look at anything that’s simply been screwed together, and you’ll probably agree that using a screwdriver isn’t the worst suggestion for taking it down. And so it may prove to be with neoliberalism and armed resistance).

The narrative of the past fortnight, in crude terms, has been: Orlando, Jo Cox, Brexit. And the corresponding emotional trajectory has been something like: left-liberal anguish at the proliferation of guns in the USA (with a side order of British complacency) giving way to shock and outright surprise that we turn out to have an armed far-right of our own. For the first time, perhaps ever, I kind of understood why an American might be so keen to have a gun of one’s own. And started wondered when and why The Left had become so anti-armament. (I’m blaming the false equivalence of the idiot hippies.) After all – lest we forget – in Germany in the 1930s (the period most frequently, if inaccurately, held up as analogous with our own troubled times), there was an organised, armed Communist Left opposing Hitler’s violent street thugs. No, they didn’t prevent Hitler’s leg-up to power from the ruling Conservative elite, but they did at least resist it in the strongest terms possible. It is their struggle, and not the peaceful protests of the liberal left, who were not murdered in the first concentration camps and so sat passively by as the Third Reich murdered 6,000,000 European citizens, that is of eternal credit to Germany.

Of course, the narrative above is entirely Anglo-centric. The struggles of oppressed peoples around the world – oppressed, as often as not, with tacit aid from the prevailing power structures that also oppress the British working class, and which have surrounded “Brexit” from the get-go, rendering the choice wholly meaningless – have been entirely absent from our news cycle.

And, of course, of course, it’s less than a parlour game to sit in a nice flat in Manchester on a rainy Saturday morning in June arguing for armed revolution in a theatre review. But such is Opera for the Unknown Woman, and such are the questions it raises.

***

The most inspiring thing I’ve read in the last week is Lenin’s postscript to the first edition of State and Revolution*:

This pamphlet was written in August and September, 1917. I had already drawn up plans for the next, the seventh chapter, on the “Experience of the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917.” But, outside of the title, I did not succeed in writing a single line of the chapter; what “interfered” was the political crisis – the eve of the October Revolution of 1917. Such “interference” can only be welcomed. However, the second part of the pamphlet (devoted to “Experience of the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917,”) will probably have to be put off for a long time. It is more pleasant and useful to go through the “experience of the revolution” than to write about it. 
THE AUTHOR 
Petrograd, 13 December, 1917.

Bird – Royal Exchange (Studio), Manchester

 [seen 21/06/16]


Katherine Chandler’s Bruntwood'13 play, Bird, feels like a useful companion piece to several shows which opened subsequent to its winning that award. Staged now, in a co-production with Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre, it feels – in disparate ways – like a companion piece to Leo Butler’s Boy, an individual, feminine mirror-image of Ali McDowall’s Pomona, as well as being the “difficult second album” follow-up to Iphigenia in Splott. All these comparisons are desperately unfair.

This is a well-written play given a good, theatrical, touring/studio presentation. Yes, there are elements of the text which feel a bit like writing-competion writing, and there are small aspects of Rachel O’Riordan’s production which veer a teeny bit close to feeling like “sticking in a bit of ‘physical theatre-lite’ because you should”, but anyone can find things to quibble about. Ultimately the production is incredibly effective, the script desolate and moving.

The piece is a fractured assemblage of fragments of scenes from the life of Ava (Georgia Henshaw) a young woman who – when we meet her – is turning sixteen and leaving the social care home in which she’s been living. We see her talking to her estranged mother, Claire (Siwan Morris), some random young man in a park (Dan – Connor Allen), her friend Tash (Rosie Sheehy), and an older cab driver (?) called Lee (Guy Rhys).

[plot spoilers from here on]

We quickly discern from her conversation with her mum that the reason she’s no longer living at home, and the reason she was taken into social care, is that something went badly, badly wrong at home. Little hints and words crop up enough for us to first suspect and then know that it’s sexual abuse by her step-father. A real difficulty here is that for a long while the mother is in denial. Viciously so. So much so, that, in the absence of any actual evidence, we don’t have any information at all. After all, it’s not a matter of our privileging the man’s version of events, he’s not in the play at all. This is simply one woman’s version of events against another’s. I mean, I think a left-liberal audience well-versed in the prevailing mood of Twitter regarding victim-blaming will automatically instinctively side with the daughter’s version of events from the get go. And, ultimately, her mother also comes round to accepting her accusation and leaves the boyfriend in question. And I don’t suppose it would be remotely helpful of anyone to write a play in which someone alleges sexual abuse and turns out to be lying, but, my God, Siwan Morris’s Claire (Ava’s mother) is so angry that you honestly don’t know where to put yourself.

The way that other scenes play out, and gradually tie together (or don’t quite) is highly accomplished. Although – again uncomfortably – there’s something in our role as audience of the forensic psychologist, piecing together aspects of behaviour, and ultimately sitting in judgement over what this story is and what it means. I suppose that’s often an audience’s job, but in this case, I kind of wish there hadn’t been a scintilla of floaty imprecision. On the other hand, not being shown the evidence does save us from the awfulness of staged attempts to portray child sex abuse.

The casting is admirably diverse, although the way it breaks down does – I’m sure coincidentally – make all the women – the victims – white; and both men – abusers – mixed race, couple this with the fact that the show is playing here in Manchester only 17 minutes on the train from Rochdale, and one does briefly wonder if that implication couldn’t have been avoided. But I’m nit-picking (albeit important ones that can’t be let slide).

In the main, this is a very well-constructed fragile piece that captures brilliantly the effects of abuse, and the sheer horror of broken trust it causes, set against the backdrop of a pitiful and pitiless social system which lacks both compassion and moral authority. This is the worst of all possible worlds, and frankly, the fact it is a daily reality for thousands should demand immediate political attention

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Götterdämmerung – Lowry (Lyric), Salford

[seen 18/06/16]



Review forthcoming.


All I Want is One Night – Royal Exchange, Manchester

[seen 17/06/16]


The press office of the Royal Exchange have designated these five performances of All I Want is One Night as “work in progress” and my press ticket was issued on this understanding. They could have said it was a finished product and I’d have been totally satisfied, though. That is to say, it is already a fully realised something.

As it stands, the piece is a cabaret/drama (dramaret?) depicting the life of Suzy Solidor, a famous Parisian nightclub owner, lesbian, and Nazi collaborator, who rejoiced in being The Most Painted Woman in The World in the 1930s, posing for everyone from Picasso and Braque to – most famously – Tamara de Lempicka (below).


The piece is written and performed by the mezzo soprano Jessica Walker (musical direction by Joseph Atkins, direction-direction by RX AD Sarah Frankcom and design by Amanda Stoodley, with Rachel Austin as Solidor’s apparently interchangable partners and Alexandra Mathie as a variety of women, men, Nazis, and transvestite performers.)

It’s this sort of music:



Or, rather, it’s that sort of music slightly rearranged for Walker’s higher, more sprightly, classical voice. The lyrics have also been translated. This is both good and interesting. It’s good, because hardly anyone speaks French anymore (in England), and *impenetrability* isn’t the point of the show. However, while you can translate a language you can’t translate a mindset, as anyone who just smirked at “impenetrability” will shamefacedly realise. What might come across as erotica in French, generally comes across as smut in English, so the tone here wobbles between Carry On Suzy and something altogether more sophisticated. Which is perfectly likeable, but maybe not very Parisian (we can vote to stay in Europe, but it won’t make us any less childish as a nation).

Walker has clearly done her research, and as a result we do get a good insight into Solidor’s life. Thanks to the framing device – Solidor near her death, sitting for her last portrait, downstairs in her antiques shop, before the audience is whisked upstairs to the RX’s Old Boardroom to her wood-panelled memories, before whizzing back downstairs to rejoin her old age – it has a bleak old trajectory, though. This is inevitable. Everyone gets old and dies, and if you’re a cantankerous, abusive alcoholic, then ultimately that old age will be lonelier and sadder, than if you settle down to something more companionable but less dramatic. (Given that most of the show covers up to 1945 or thereabouts – Solidor was born in 1900 – she could have had a perfectly happy rest of life and still been assured of a place in history, but she didn’t. Tant pis.)

As the narrative is presented through her eyes, the collaboration with the Nazis is portrayed as pragmatic, and her subsequent conviction as a collaborator by the Épuration légale is somewhat skirted over, and we’re instead given the impression instead that she was spying for the resistance. I don’t know more than what we’re presented with here to make a judgement call on whether this is fair enough or gross apologism. Given the resurgence of neo-fascism, in the comfy glow of a Friday night cabaret show, it maybe becomes tempting to view this kind of old-fashioned ‘Allo ‘Allo-style Nazi occupation through an almost nostalgic sepia lens. Lovely old vintage Nazis, with their nice uniforms and fun-loving, laissez faire attitude to smutty fun, we may accidentally think; immersed as we are, perhaps too completely, in Solidor’s denial?

There are also bits where you want to remonstrate with the singer. I mean, she’s painted by Francis Bacon and isn’t flattered by the result (below). “Well, duh!” it’s hard not to say out loud. That is what his paintings tend to look like.


But her concerns are fuelled by something else, and a show about the life of someone who’s not happy about ageing, when the show shows them doing just that, isn’t going to be a bed of roses. As she puts her narcissism above the destruction of Europe, sympathy for her is difficult to muster. However, this proto-, Parisian Blanche DuBois makes for fascinating, uncomfortable viewing, and Jessica Walker performs it wonderfully.


Photo (top) by Jonathan Keenan: Rachel Austin as Daisy, Jessica Walker as Suzy Solidor

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Siegfried – Lyric (Lowry), Salford

[seen 16/06/16]


On Thursday 16 June, the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered. She was shot and stabbed at 12.53pm and she was pronounced dead at 1.48pm. She was attacked by a British fascist who in court gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”

In the light of this, watching the work of Richard Wagner was rendered more or less impossible for me, much less seeing it clearly, fairly or objectively (if such a result would even be preferable).

The problem is this: we know Wagner was rabidly anti-Semitic. Not criticism-of-Israel “anti-Semitism” but the real deal; proper the-Jews-are-subhuman anti-Semitism. Of course there’s an argument that you can separate the views of an artist from their work. And to an extent this is true. But the acid test for wanting to do so should surely be the work itself. And the work here is part three of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

Siegfried opens with the nibelung, Mime, trying to re-forge a broken sword in the forest. Mime’s back-story is that he’s the brother of Alberich, the nibelung who steals the Rhine gold in the first part of the story and forges it into the titular ring of power.

It is fairly clear – and certainly it is well argued historically – that the Nibelungs have been deliberately imbued with stereotypical anti-Semitic traits. As such, the first scene of Siegfried is our titular “hero” – as this is a concert performance, we perhaps imagine him as all the more Aryan (see picture) for the lack of costumes and a set, and the dissociation between the performer and the performed – basically telling this anti-Semitic stereotype how awful he (Mime, the anti-Semitic stereotype) is.

Sure, on a different day one could probably banish this interpretation from your mind. After all, (it hardly needs saying that) the unpleasant characteristics that Wagner ascribed to Jewish people and reality is nil. In other circumstances it’s easy enough to see Mime as a comically malignant gnome, because that’s all he is. But on Thursday 16 June, it was impossible not to see him as the product of the proto-Fascist mind.

Which made watching incredibly difficult.

(See also: Miriam Gillinson’s beautiful review of Thursday’s press performance of Richard III at the Almeida, for an example of how hard it was to deal with evil last week.)

The Ring Cycle is undoubtedly a monument to nationalism and national self-mythologising, and pretty unarguably it’s a nationalism that exists at the expense of an Other. On other days, it could be treated as a historical curiosity, and perhaps I could have appreciated its other qualities. Last Thursday – thanks to appalling timing – this simply wasn’t possible.


[picture: Siegfried and Mime by Arthur Rackham]

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

YOUARENOWHERE – LIFT at Shoreditch Town Hall, London

[seen 14/06/16]


[SPOILER WARNING: THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS – BEST FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVE ALREADY SEEN THE PIECE OR ARE NEVER GOING TO... WHICH, LET’S FACE IT, IS EVENTUALLY GOING TO BE MORE OR LESS EVERYBODY...]

Just to give you time to look away, the press people have asked that we make sure we credit the producers of the show properly; I am more than happy to oblige:

Presented by Shoreditch Town Hall, Gate Theatre, Notting Hill and LIFT. Part of LIFT 2016.

There we go.

In case some unwary parties are still letting their eyes dart all over the page, here’s my favourite ever clip of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, here explaining why love is evil. Do watch, it’s only short and it becomes directly relevant later.



Ok, let’s go.

What is YOUARENOWHERE? Well, it’s seemingly a one-man show from New York. We, the audience, file into a smallish upstairs studio at Shoreditch Town Hall and tightly pack into the seven or eight rows of nicely presented raked seating.

The stage is quite small, quite shallow, bounded by blackout curtains on all sides with a white projection screen hung over the back wall and a small-ish rectangular metal frame hung at about head height in the middle of the space.

The lights drop to full backout. And flash back on again. And out again. Next time they come up there is a man standing in the space, on the stage. Violent white noises play. Or static noises. Or horribly amplified sounds of electrics shorting. The lights go on, go off, go on. Once we see two bodies in the space, the standing man, and another on the floor. The loud noises cover their coming and going. Sometimes when the lights come up the man is there. Sometimes not.

The guy – I’m guessing he’s Andrew Schneider, although he may or may not be playing “himself” in tonight’s show, either way; this guy – shirtless, black jeans, gelled down hair – says ‘hi’ to us. He goes through motions of behaving like this is maybe the start of a stand-up routine, or a rehearsal, or an audition. We get the general idea. The lights and sounds continue to torment his attempts. He has a few more stabs at saying a few more things.

I will say at this point, the lighting design and operation here is incredibly tight. Some of the best I’ve seen. Ditto the sound design, which isn’t just a matter of playing loud noises, there are also an awful lot of filters on the microphone. Schneider’s voice echoes around, delays, loops, and even at one stage appears to be recorded speaking backwards and is then played back forwards, if you see what I mean. The same technique that David Lynch used for the voice of “the little man from another place” in Twin Peaks. Staying in Lynchland, Schneider also lip-syncs all the way through [song title - 50s, like 'Blue Velvet' but not], drenched in blue light, kind of like a hairy Isabella Rossolini.

He gabbles at us, faster than we can really hope to keep up with, about quantum physics and Einstein’s special theory of relativity. About how if lightning strikes two ends of a speeding train simultaneously, only someone outside the train will be able to witness it as simultaneity. Someone on the train will experience one strike before the other. But will they get together? This man outside the train and the woman on the train... Will he leave a “Missed Connections” on Craigslist. Will she check Craigslist for the first time in an aeon and find the ad that relates to her?

Cue the recitation of the text from the Žižek clip above. Making me wonder what the sources are for everything else that Schneider has thus-far been saying. I’m guessing (I haven’t looked at the programme yet, maybe it includes full credits) that it’s all a tissue of quotation strung together with his own original material necessary to make the thing cohere – cohere in the sense of “artfully appear to fall apart at the speed of his choosing”. I suppose, being a qualified admirer of the old Marxist-Lacanian, I did wonder about the extent to which Schneider understood or agreed with what he was actually saying. How much of the text and texture of the show was in fact cool-sounding soundbites? What, if anything, were we meant to come away believing in? Probably not actual Marxism. In the best-case analysis, Žižek’s thoughts are included as part of measures to set up a reverse position to what Schneider actually believes in – love, apparently; and parallel universes. In this respect, YOUARENOWHERE is the ultimate reactionary art: in the same way that Tom Stoppard’s plays display such dexterity with wit and science to paper over the fact that he has nothing to say.

There are, however, two brilliant rug-pull moments in the show. And yet even these manage to trouble me. [These really are the SPOILERS] In the first rug-pull, the seemingly reliable back wall suddenly drops away to reveal another whole audience opposite us, watching a similar, identically dressed man, on the other side of the curtain. Not a new effect, but definitely the best execution of it I’ve seen. Has this been going on all the way through the show? It certainly feels possible. The two men enter into a (somewhat tedious, folksy) conversation/non-conversation where either they’re the same person or two different people with identical lives and tastes. Speaking in chorus, they, like poor mediums, list facts about themselves, so many of which are general truisms they can’t help but strike chords with the audience. Then the two audiences swap sides. We’re now sitting in the identical seats on the other side of the curtain. The dropped curtain has been reattached, and is gradually winched back up. We are perhaps inside the mirror: through the looking glass, as it were. We are the sheeple that have woken up. We’ve eaten the red pill. Or something.

There is a bit more filler, and then the second coup happens. The curtain drops again, and there is nothing on the other side. No performer, no audience, just empty seats. And, again, it’s kind of magic. At the same time, it’s magic for about as long as it takes to work out that the other side of the curtain must have been staffed entirely by volunteers [which, having had a think about, I'm actually fine with].

It’s interesting though, that this sort of visual theatre – and it is visual theatre, despite all the talking – really only ever offers a mirror to the critic. Or a kind of hopeless Rorschach kaleidoscope, into which you stare at the reflected tumbling pieces, but can only really make out shapes created by your own mind. As such, inevitably the sequence that resonated most with me was the sight of two topless men dancing to disco music under flashing rainbow coloured lights, two days after the Orlando shootings. Obviously, given that the show was first seen in January, this is pure coincidence; or perhaps – according to the logic of the show – was always destined to happen in some universe or other (and how this very fact makes me dislike the pointless logic of the show). At another point, we see the two men dancing about in an electronic maelstrom of jagged flashing lights in a symphony of white noise and static – almost a de facto ground zero of apocalypse culture signifiers. And we’re (I’m) reminded that it’s not even quite fifteen years since 9/11 traumatised America’s collective imagination irreversibly as surely as Hiroshima and Nagasaki did to Japan’s.

So, yes; I’ve been ungenerous, if scrupulously honest, about what the show’s synapse-frying modus operandi threw up for me. If I found it wanting in communism, humility, and a bit more than simple jaw-dropping fireworks, I’m at least prepared to concede that that’s entirely my fault for wanting them, rather than the show’s fault for not providing them. Sometimes one can just go to the wrong show for one’s temperament or particular mood.

In another universe I really loved it, and it was just what I was looking for. But the woman who was sitting on the train that I was only observing loved it. So not to worry.


Tuesday, 14 June 2016

quite the best news in some considerable time (rinse and repeat version) – Arts 2, QMU, L

[seen 11/06/16]



Seen as a chance double-bill with Chris Thorpe’s The Milk of Human Kindness, quite the best news in some considerable time (rinse and repeat version) unwittingly forms a near-perfect dialectic with six hours of Daily Mail/Daily Express readers’ comments about immigration.

The form of quite/time is difficult to describe satisfactorily, which is to say, it’s actually incredibly original, and doesn’t slot neatly into a pre-understood category. It’s partly like a live version of a virtual performance (like those, for example that Ant Hampton and Tim Etchells curated for the ICA in 2009), while its set maybe looks like notes toward a Bert Naumann design for the Volksbühne on Rosa Luxumberg Platz, Berlin.

Lights come up on two empty chairs. Two distinct voices – voices that we perhaps subconsciously assume belong to the two people who would be sitting on the chairs – describe the opening mise-en-scene of a performance. It is not this performance. There are mirrors on castors in the corner of this other room. A copy of Ibsen’s plays on a table. Two tiger masks hung off a white board. The two chairs obscured by another whiteboard so that only the performers’ feet are visible to the audience.

Neither of the voices mention the spangly, reflective curtain/fly-blind half hiding a small raised stage with a small table covered in a red cloth on it, and a blonde(-wigged) woman behind it (Eirini Kartsaki) which is actually in front of us, beyond the two chairs which are facing it.

Nicholas Ridout and Lindsay Goss come out onto the stage. The piece is “by” them (see programme), and so I assume it is them, as themselves, who come out onto the stage. They explain that they are actors, however. They then begin to describe a performance that they made last year called quite the best news in some considerable time in which they wanted to answer a question: “what is the role of the intellectual in the revolutionary struggle?”

“We thought (and think) that perhaps we might answer the question by making theatre. This might seem an inappropriate or even frivolous approach.

They explain that they didn’t invent the question, but “found it by way of a translation into English of the Portuguese subtitles for a French film called Letter to Jane: An Investigation about a Still. The film was directed by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, collaborating as the Dziga Vertov Group in 1972.”

They explain that their thinking about the question has been informed by the recent political victory of Syriza in the Greek parliamentary elections held on January 25th. They play the soundtrack of Greeks singing the Italian Partisan song Ciao, Bella!




They talk about how, on stage, “characters speaking in their own present are readily understood by the audience to live and speak in the past”. We understand then that they are playing the versions of themselves from their past script, which is perhaps quoted in this script. They talk about Ibsen. They talk about Morecambe and Wise (“They might be, we said, the kind of intellectual we have in mind, but, we clarified, we have no evidence that they participated in any revolutionary struggle.”)




They talk about Yanis Varoufakis and Paul Mason. They describe a performance that they considered making, in which they restaged an interview between these two men. They describe a performance that they considered making, in which they played members of Syriza. They describe the process that led them to abandon that piece. They discuss “cool” and sincerity and embarrassment. They make eye-contact with the audience, which cannot be embarrassing, because they are in the past. They talk about their desire to avoid “left melancholy”. They talk about joy. They talk about destroying Greece’s oligarchy. They talk about John Lee Hooker’s Shake It Baby and Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande Á Part.

And, then, in one of the most remarkable bits of writing for the stage I’ve ever seen, they co-opt the song Rinse and Repeat as a kind of demonstration of and call for a revolution in the most elegant and reasonable fashion imaginable.

When we said “it is not the role of the intellectual in the revolutionary struggle to talk,” we sounded as though we were simply repeating the militant cliché that too much thinking makes it impossible to act. 
This is not what we meant then.

And it’s not what we say now. 
Because, as Lenin teaches us, the role of the intellectual in the revolutionary struggle always depends upon specific historical and material circumstances.

In other words, there is a time to act and a time to think.

So before we end the show, we have to work out which time we are in now. 
And which time we were in then. 
The hit single released on February 26, 2016, “Rinse and Repeat” by Riton with Kah Lo presents its listeners with two different times.

There is a time to make the club go up and there is a time to shut the club down.

What is strange is that the second time seems to follow immediately upon the first, leaving no time for the club to be up before it is shut down.

No time, that is, for the song itself to happen. 
And yet, the song happens.

It just goes on.

This suggests that because there had been a time for the club to be up, the song will always have been able to happen in that time, even if that time has been replaced by the time that comes after the club has been shut down.

The fact that the club has been shut down does not mean that the song cannot have happened during the time in which the club was up.

On the one hand there is no time for the song to happen because the club is taken down as soon as it taken up.

On the other hand, it is quite clear that the song happens. 
What about now? Is the club up or is the club down? 
Here we are now. This is the present.




Which, in many ways, is where my (arguably cheap, but undeniably revolutionary) internal dramaturg would have put the ending of the show. It isn’t where the show ends, and it can’t be where my review ends.

Because, in reviewing terms, all I’ve done is said what happens, quoted extensively from the text, and failed to reiterate all these things through the lens of the fact that I really loved them, and why on Saturday night – after hearing six hours of reasons why Britain was soon likely to be pulled out of the European Union, and that apparently more people in Britain hate the idea of immigrants and immigration than the ideas of compassion or change, let alone the revolutionary struggle – I was actually left feeling optimistic about the future:
The Greek government failed to resist the austerity measures demanded by the Troika with devastating consequences for millions of Greek citizens, a majority of whom voted against those measures in the referendum of July 4, 2016.

This failure has led to many people feeling that Syriza’s victory is no longer quite the best news in some considerable time. 
[…] 
They allow the future of the past (which is to say, the present, now) to change how they ought to have felt in the past, about events happening in the present, then.

We see it differently.

We still feel, in the past, that this is quite the best news in some considerable time.

We feel this in the present.

We feel the club is still up even if the club’s been shut down...

Sunday, 12 June 2016

The Milk of Human Kindness – On The Move/LIFT/Royal Court, London

[seen 11/06/16]


Last week, I had to read the 78 application forms submitted by emerging artists proposing projects for the Hodgkiss Award (shortlist here; very proud of it). I mention this here, because there was one section where the applicants had to write briefly about the work of another artist who they admired or were influenced by. The number who put Chris Thorpe far outweighed any other single artist. Thorpe is the kind of writer/performer that people joke they would happily watch read the telephone directory.

On the face of it, The Milk of Human Kindness isn’t far off. Instead of the benign “telephone directory” (do young people even know what these are? In the olden days, British Telecom used to print a book of the names, addresses and phone numbers of everyone who lived in your area. I know. Seems quite mad now, but there you go) Thorpe is instead here reading the top-rated online comments from Daily Mail, Daily Express and occasionally Sun stories about immigration, “the migrant crisis”, etc. For six hours. I think I probably watched at least four hours’ worth, taking occasional fag breaks, and a little lunch break, but, yeah. Pretty much from 12 noon until 5.30.

The show works brilliantly on several very different levels. First off there’s the piece as a durational event. It’s six hours long. In the time I was in the room, Thorpe never once left the stage (nor did he recreate his legendary Leeds Uni graduation piece by peeing on it. Not that I saw, anyway). It’s clearly no mean feat to read out loud for six hours. And read pretty much non-stop right-wing comments at that... The tiredness, the exhaustion, the occasional flickers of exasperation or personal feeling all felt a vital, inextricable component of the whole. Similarly, watching is tough. Obviously not as tough as doing it, but a different sort of difficulty. You maybe find yourself slipping into a drowsy sort of torpor. More worrying is also having to remind yourself that you’re not there to have your mind changed by the opinions of the most popular comments on Daily Mail stories about immigration. There’s an interesting sort of physical condition for watching durational theatre, I think. Instead of the kind of wired tension with which you watch a short piece like, say, Cleansed, you instead relax into just sitting, knowing that everything will likely unfold more slowly. Absolute strict attention isn’t possible, and once dispensed with, it almost feels like you actually watch better. The fact that everyone in the auditorium is also relaxed also helps. No one tuts if you go to the loo. Rustling is allowed. Even occasional phone-checking doesn’t feel like a capital crime to be concealed from everyone else. Slouching happens. You have to be quite alert to stop yourself – in familiar surroundings and watching a familiar performer – just defaulting to agreeing with whatever’s being said on stage...

Which leads to the next aspect of the performance: the predictable fact that quite a lot of it is very funny. I mean, it’s not. It’s really not funny that people think some of the things that we were laughing at yet. Laughter felt, at times, like an important physical part of resisting what was being said: rather; what had been written and was now being read out. Other times, occasionally, there were some really perfectly structured moments of comic pathos. The best involved a white man in his mid thirties complaining about the political correctness that meant there was no special time set aside for him at his local swimming pool and his list of groups that were catered for*. In this instance, it was the coincidence of Thorpe’s delivery and the groups included in “political correctness gone mad” that made it so funny. There were quite a few moments, more and more as it got later into the performance, that had Thorpe corpsing and the audience crying with laughter. If the durational aspect of the piece reminds us of Forced Entertainment and Tim Etchells, the humour also felt like it owed a debt to Stewart Lee. Something about the relentlessness and remorselessness, and the no-comment sardonic tone of voice there almost sets this piece up *as comedy*. In strict fairness to Thorpe, that isn’t the intention. Thorpe doesn’t editorialise. Thorpe doesn’t argue back. He simply reads what these people have said. I mean, given some of the rhetoric that flies around in these comments, it is, on one (arguably farcical) level, Thorpe is even indeed giving a voice to the voiceless. You know those questions that get tossed about in panel discussions about “whose stories aren’t being told?”? Well, these. Yes, of course the (largely, I would imagine) culturally left-wing audience of this show would counter that these voices already have several newspapers telling their stories, and informing their opinions, but, let’s be honest, they *don’t* have a voice on the English stage, so there’s also that.

Which brings us to the next thing that the piece does: it actually does open up a space for considering, and trying to understand, and measuring your own opinions and knowledge against those of people with whom you disagree (or maybe agree with. I don’t actually know who was there, or for what reasons). (In view of the above, I was reminded of Stewart Lee’s description of Al Murray fans missing the irony and laughing through bared teeth. Except here it’s us lefties who are running the risk of becoming the snarling dogs.)  I mean, yes, there’s an obvious antagonism between the worldviews of “leftie, luvvie theatregoers” and the writers of the most popular comments on Daily Mail and Daily Express and Sun stories about migrants, and refugees. These views even come into direct conflict with stories about “the Bard [being] dragged into refugee row: BBC accused of using Shakespeare celebrations to push ‘Left-wing, pro-immigration agenda’” and “Dome tent erected to give migrants ‘safe place’ to have fun in squalid camp / Set up by British playwrights and is backed by West End theatre producer”. Predictably, there’s a fair bit of mud-slinging from the comment writers in the direction of theatre types. There’s also a fair bit of quoting, in relation to the former story, of John of Gaunt’s ‘Sceptr’d Isle’ speech from RII. Which I’ve now seen Chris Thorpe do on stage at the Royal Court. Twice. So, ner to everyone who missed that.

According to my worldview, there is a certain extent to which this afternoon of theatre is like staring into a sewer. But, actually, it is important to distinguish between the views of comments which sound like they’re been copied and pasted from Stormfront or Mein Kampf and those which offer an entirely transparent window into the attitudes of the 12.6% who voted UKIP in the last election and those who constitute a reported 10 point lead for Brexit (12/06/16). Indeed, it’s telling that in a piece ostensibly about attitudes to refugees fleeing war-torn non-EU states, how much of the piece seems to repeatedly return to the question of EU membership with so many posts ending with some variation of “VOTE LEAVE” as their final sign-off. It’s also striking the number of posts that posit Cameron as “a traitor” (the language throughout owes much more than it realises to the translated rhetoric of Adolf Hitler). (Yet more striking, are the moments where they rage that the Daily Mail itself is part of the politically correct conspiracy against them!)  Indeed, you’d think that Britain joining Europe was somehow akin to the Treaty of Versailles, and this is certainly the timbre of much of the argumentation. Much of the demagoguery is entirely emotive, but where it falls back on logic, it does sometimes hit on questions that the Left won’t necessarily have a good answer for either. And elsewhere, while disagreeing on the causes, there’s a lot of shared ground over symptoms. More than one commentator almost goes full-Marxist when it comes to the NHS. And this is another unaddressed issue (obviously, the way the piece is constructed isn’t designed to address it, this is a criticism of the piece), that at once, we hear the less nuanced end of our own rhetoric reflected here too – demonstrating both the internet’s endless licence of hyperbole, and stark truths upon which no one particularly intends to act. Indeed, much of the analysis here, although predictably filtered through a National Socialist filter of conspiracy and racial blame, isn’t just far-fetched. There are basic understandings in many of the posts that Europe’s future does indeed appear to have been signed off by the interests of capital, whose benevolence towards actual populations only extends so far. Indeed, ironically, if these posters are even a fraction as angry as they say they are, the conditions for a Leninist revolution – albeit one, peopled by those who self-identify as “Conservative” – might only by a few weeks away.

At the same time, it’s fascinating to hear from the people on the “other side” who also passionately believe that the BBC and various other liberal establishments are grossly biased against them. From my little actual work in theatre, I’d be happy to say that’s absolutely correct. There is no way in the world that any theatre I know of is going to put on a play that actually propounds these views staged this afternoon (except, uh, it just has). And, yes, yes we are actively interested in soliciting the views of minority artists and women before those of yet more white men (although, it’s fascinating how, in spite of this alleged bias, white-man-blindness somehow still seems to see more of them get through, both numerically and proportionally, than anyone else... See: the main stage of the Royal Court yesterday afternoon for a start, this review for seconds...) Equally, I’d say that the BBC and Guardian *are* also disgracefully biased against Corbyn, and the complaints of some of this grubby little genocidal malcontents under the line at the Express (Richard Desmond’s Express does (ironically but unsurprisingly) seem to attract the most virulently racist comments) are so far right that nothing but Der Stürmer is really going to satisfy their demand for “unbiased” coverage, while it’s very easy to prove that the official line on where the “centre” of British politics is has definitively shifted during my lifetime.

Thorpe’s performance – as those familiar with him might have already guessed – is brilliant. It comes across as incredibly casual and unpolished, and like he’s just lucky to have more compelling charisma in a throwaway gesture than some actors achieve in a whole play. I’d like to hope that there’s more labour involved than this. The “top comments” have after all been copied and pasted into script form, and I assume an order has been decided on, or at least dictated by chronology and noted. Today, a day after I saw it, I’m prepared to say that Milk of Human Kindness is easily as good as Confirmation (difficult to actually compare the two, and no slight intended to Chris’s writing; but as part of a continuation of ostensibly the same project, it feels like Milk... goes further and is more difficult...). I definitely hope that it plays again [EDIT: it IS playing again. Next Saturday (18th) at the Moor Deli in Sheffield]. Perhaps this particular incarnation will be done, an anachronism, in two weeks (for better or for worse). But it’s a mobile, live format that will bear further incarnations. After all, if nothing else, there is seemingly an inexhausible fount of material out there every time a newspaper with a comments section publishes a story. I mean, Christ, these people are real, and what they’re saying is “most popular”. It is, at times during the performance, hard to resist the idea that the printed script of Milk... will be dug up after some sort of terrible apocalypse has extinguished human life and the internet forever, and those future super-evolved cockroach** archaeologists, who have learned to read old human languages, will have found their answer to “what the fuck happened?”

So, yes. Genuinely one of the best things I’ve seen on stage this year. A gruelling intellectual workout and, at the same time, incredibly, blackly funny.


* “This has been happening in the UK for years. A few years ago I tried to go swimming regularly to help a back problem but found it difficult to get many convenient sessions at the council run leisure centre as there was usually a session taking place that I was not allowed into: women only, pensioners only, disabled only, ethnic minorities only, children only. I asked the manager why there wasn’t a session specifically for my peer group (mid-thirties, able bodied, white male) I was told there was no demand for it.

** I actually mean the little insects. I’m not Katie Hopkins.

Phaedra(s) – LIFT at Barbican, London

[seen 10/06/16]


Director Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Phaedra(s), hailing from Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe, is an intriguing proposition; promising to bring together texts by Wajdi Mouawad, Sarah Kane and JM Coetzee, and starring French actress Isabelle Huppert in the central role of each. It runs for roughly 3hrs40 (inc. interval).

The set of the thing is one of those large, blank, three-walled rooms with a bit of added texture that we’re maybe a bit bored of now. The texture here is a back wall hinting at tiles, and two side walls made of glass – the right hand side wall of which turns out to be a large moveable room which glides to the centre of the stage to house most of the scenes from Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love.

Phaedra(s) kicks off with Mouawad’s reflections on Phaedra and Aphrodite – it soon becomes clear that this collage of authors isn’t going to be transformed by a miracle of dramaturgy into one continuous, fractured narrative; instead we’re basically getting three one-hour-ten-minute pieces in rapid succession, and with one fewer interval than would have been nice.

To get things going, a guitarist stands toward the front of the stage, and a scantily clad dancer leans on the back wall. Isabelle H. comes on and does some speaking. The non-French-speakers amongst us do some reading-of-surtitles, and maybe a bit of head-scratching at the most flagrant display of on-stage chauvinism (in the form of the dancer) since probably the last century. Not to mention to ludicrous Orientalism. For the first hour or so of Phaedra(s), I honestly didn’t think about much except a difference of approach that allows anyone to think that cod-Arabic music and an exotic dancer is a clever setting for this piece. I mean, that it didn’t work for me should be clear enough, that’s fine; that’s subjectivity. But I genuinely don’t think any British theatre director would even begin to think this was an ok way to make work. Or an ok thing to show. Or an ok way to treat a female performer. Or the idea of an ethnic identity. But then I worry that perhaps UK theatre has got so used to second-guessing what might offend people, that we have now become terrified into the entirely anodyne. I mean, I don’t think we have, but it’s an idea worth examining when your chief thought when looking at a piece of French/Polish theatre by internationally respected artists is “You wouldn’t get away with that here.” (Ironically, it’s only my respect for their cultural difference that stops me machine-gunning the whole sorry enterprise right here. So: challengingly “international” – yes, but perhaps not in quite the way LIFT hopes.)

Then it all perks up a bit. Largely because part two is a fairly large amount of Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love and there are jokes in Sarah Kane’s work. Jokes and Swearing. The way it’s being performed isn’t especially funny. Or especially good, really (another Cleansed this absolutely isn’t). But, then, we’re just reading the surtitles, aren’t we? And the French and French-speaking Polish actors can’t fuck up our reading of the lines – even if they are making a right meal of their own delivery – so we’re all good. The mood in the room improves dramatically. And it’s nice to see Phaedra’s Love on such a large stage, even if only being given the most cursory of productions.

 What’s best about seeing PL now, post-4.48 Psychosis (the opera), and post-Cleansed, is appreciating how many of the seeds and themes – especially of 4.48 – are there in this earlier work. The moment where a doctor asks Phaedra about her friends – why she has friends – is almost impossibly sad in the context of the opening of 4.48. It becomes so starkly clear – even in, or perhaps partly because of, this stark, misfiring production – that Kane’s read on Phaedra is as a blackly comic love story between two people with the worst depression/mental illness imaginable; trying to negotiate the fact that their happiness depends on each other. Or rather, it’s love with the possibility of happiness removed from the equation altogether. Critics often situate Phaedra’s Love as Kane’s “weakest” play. Here at least we get to see they do this because they’re thinking about it wrong.

The theme of love in extremis is continued by JM Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, in which this fictional female author wryly meditates, within the frame of an awkward stage-interview, on the theme of what relations being humans and gods must be like. It proposes that humans must at least offer *something* that Gods want, at the same time as pondering how the human body might withstand divine intercourse, and why it’s a shame no one really talks about it. In the frame of this talk, we’re even shown clips of films – Pasolini’s evocative Teorema – Silvana Mangano effortlessly dominates the stage (as she also does in Alles Weitere...). Coupled with Janet Leigh’s repeated murder shown over and over again on the TV screen in Hippolytus’s bedroom in Phaedra’s Love, this maybe all adds up to something, but again feels so vague as to be almost immaterial. It certainly feels hackneyed to the point of ennui.

This final piece almost edges towards a kind of conclusion. And is doubtless the most succesfully performed of the three. (And there are more jokes, without even the mordancy of Kane, so the auditorium perks up even more...)

But, oh, God, that scantily clad dancer makes another appearance between the end of the Kane and the beginning of the Coetzee... I mean, we all know there’s nothing wrong with nudity/near-nudity *per se*, but you can still spot unreconstructed, unconsidered sexism from a mile off. Why this is being held up as outstanding international work is beyond me.

So, yes, although I’ve tried my best to be scrupulously fair to this piece, and think about it on its own terms, as far as those terms don’t cross non-negotiable ethical boundaries. It’s not one of the best piece of theatre made in the world since the last LIFT, or even in Europe, or in France or Poland, and it’s difficult to resist the idea that it was accepted sight-unseen on the basis of the names attached. And it’s a shame it doesn’t really pan out. I do think there’s probably some interesting thought buried deep, deep inside the work, but I would humbly submit that 90% of people will find it as slapdash and alienating as I did: cleaned-up dumbed-down Castorf-lite, right down to the signature spiky high-heels.

Tristan and Isolde – ENO, Coliseum

[seen 09/06/16]


Daniel Kramer’s new production of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde – his first production for ENO since being named its new artistic director – is not good. It’s not terrible. It’s not a hilariously, godawfully bad staging. But it’s really not good either. The sort of not-goodness it is is the choppy sort. The Orchestra, conducted by Edward Garner, is outstanding. Really beautiful. The lushness and lyricism of the music retains a kind of crisp exterior, rather than collapsing into the always-possible syrupy mess. And, actually, Tristan, sung by Stuart Skelton is very fine. So, if the music is – on the whole – pretty damn good, what’s the problem?

It seems pretty safe to say the main problem can be summarised in two words: Anish Kapoor. This production has been designed by the famous artist, who, sadly, designs sets like a famous artist and not like a talented stage designer. (A fact of which that anyone who saw Akram Khan’s in-i at the NT in 2008 was already aware.) Sculptural shapes are plonked onto the stage and everything else has to just deal with them. As an audience member, one does gamely does one’s best to try to think about what Kapoor might mean with these shapes...

The “set”, or rather, the structure built for Act 1 is intriguing at least. The stage is divided up by massive triangular buttresses sweeping out from an unseen central core. It’s silly, sure, and it has zip to do with the opera, the action, what’s actually happening, or where, or to whom. But that’s all fine. That needn’t be a bar to anything. The problem (it feels to me) is that this isn’t just abstraction, it’s the imposition of a schema entirely unrelated to where it’s going to turn up – this could be a design for *literally anything* – and a schema without much concept of how bodies in space work. Or of how the stage relates to the auditorium. Or how sound works in an opera house...

Then there are the costumes (Christina Cunningham – who, judging by the eminently sane rest-of-her-CV, was ‘only following orders’ here). These are a whole new world of pain and confusion. Cornish knight Tristan is here rendered as a cartoon samurai from the 80s, inexplicably crossed with a teletubbie (he really does seem to have a little shiny screen in his tummy!). The Irish princess Isolde, looks like maybe a refugee from the Mikado, but one who’s been somehow entrapped in a scratch performance of Marie Antoinette. To this end, during Act 1 she straps on two of those crinoline things to support a giant bustle-y skirt jutting out miles on either side of her. So much so, that it looks like she’s riding a little hippo draped in a spangly cloth side-saddle by the time she’s finished. Their servants appear to have also been sipping Les Kool-Aid Dangereuses, but during a singalonga performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. None of this *need* be a problem, but it all sits there, in front of the silly set, looking absurd and communicating absolutely nothing about itself. Still, if you ever wanted to know what a watered down version of Robert Wilson’s Rocky Horror Show set before the French Revolution would be like, it’s pretty much this.

In act two/three the set changes, to a MASSIVE revolve-able globe. For Act 2, it’s hollowed side hosts the lovers’ meeting. For Act 3, the globe’s reverse, rounded side lours over their discovery – leaving approximately one metre of stage at the front to perform. Which can be a cool effect, but here looked strained and uncomfortable.

Having had A BIG TRIANGLE for Act 1 and then A BIG CIRCLE for Acts 2&3, I made a bet with myself that Act 4 would have A BIG SQUARE. And I was basically right. There’s a large flat screen – also pushing all the action into a corridor along the front of the stage. A video projection provides most of the white light thrown onto the wall – a wall with a massive Freudian fissure in its centre. Tristan spills a lot of pixelated video-effect blood up and across the walls. Kapoor’s analyst would doubtless have a field day...

But I should stop being sniffy. Act 4 is actually quite interesting, design-wise. The idea of setting the end of Tristan and Isolde in a kind of Beckett-land, with both Tristan and his servant now done up like post-apocalyptic tramps isn’t *the absolute worst*. (*Actually*, given the tatters of their Les Liasons Dangereuses costumes, this is more Heiner Müller’s Quartett than Waiting For Isolde.) But again, rather than feeling exciting or revelatory as design, thinking and direction, it simply feels random. I should re-state that none of these criticisms are “in principle”; I’m not one of the anti-regietheater brigade by any stretch of the imagination, but, like anything, there can be atrocious examples of the species, and this is one. The main problem in Act 4 is that the set actually conspires to make the singing in last bit of music, the most famous bit of music in Tristan and Isolde, *actually inaudible*. Which is, y’know, an issue.

Not the most promising start to Kramer’s artistic directorship, which has generally been welcomed by the right sort of people. I’ve somehow contrived to miss every single example of his previous work, and this example doesn’t greatly encourage me to see more, but it does at least set a very low bar to achieve an upward trajectory for the rest of his tenure.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Minefield – LIFT at Royal Court, London

[seen 08/06/16]


The basic concept of Minefield is remarkably, deceptively simple. On stage are six veterans from The Falklands War/Guerra de las Malvinas. Three Argentinians, and three men who fought for Britain (including one Gurkha, originally from Nepal). It’s like next-step verbatim theatre, and this is far and away the most successful example I’ve ever seen.

I first came across the work of Lola Arias at the SpielArt festival in Munich nine years ago, where she and Stefan Kaegi – of Rimini Protokoll – had created a show called Soko Sao Paulo (fourth show down in that linked round-up). When I saw that in 2007 it completely blew my mind: Verbatim Theatre that had cut out the middle persons of writer and actor, and instead just used the actual people as the performers! Imagine! Over the following years, I saw *a lot* more Rimini Protokoll shows, so that aspect of their work stopped surprising me. (I also saw some *actual plays* written by Arias at the Thalia in Hamburg once, but I digress...)

So, on a lot of levels, I’m just really jealous of a lot of people for whom this was their first encounter with this sort of work. I will add, though, that this is an exceptional piece even within the genre. I think the combination of subject matter, the chosen participants, and the intrinsic “minefield” of putting soldiers from formerly opposing armies on the same stage to collaborate to make a piece of postdramatic theatre (yes! This is definitely some of that) is always going to result in a much more satisfying, dramatic piece than, say, if they all had some connection to the oil industry in Kazakhstan. [Reading back through that review, it was also really interesting to reflect on how being placed on the Royal Court’s stage, which fair towers over its stalls audience compared to the almost-informal end-on space in HAU 2, confers a different kind of “authority” on the performance, which the piece negotiates and diffuses beautifully. Although *why?*, when the stage itself is no different to a music hall, is also interesting to consider. Perhaps music hall design did actually confer much-needed crowd-control authority on performers...]

What is striking, though, is just how well the familiar dramaturgical strategies work here. Arias (and/or Kaegi)’s method seems to be: first identify the main topic that will be discussed – here, the 74-day war in the Malvinas/Falklands in 1982. (“We took longer making this piece!”)  But then the second thing they do is find participants who have a very definite second *thing*. A counterpoint to the first subject. In veterans of a war now fought 34 years ago (odd to think WWII had only been over for 37 years when the Falklands War started) these other aspects of their characters range from their jobs – one has retrained as a psychologist, one as a special needs teacher – to their hobbies: one of the Argentinians is the (really very good) drummer for a Beatles tribute band (!).

The way that all these aspects are tied together, in short almost presentational little scenes, is a kind of genius accumulation of narrative, counter-narrative, digression, and detail. We hear about how people came to join the army – the stark differences between outright conscription in a military dictatorship and de facto conscription in a dictatorship of capitalism – but also of the relative youth and lack of training of the Argentines. We hear about takes on the other country and the other country’s soldiers. In one astonishing sequence we see a 57-year-old man giving a performance as a young marine doing a drag striptease to a heavy metal cover of 80s classic ‘Don’t You Want Me, Baby?’, which was apparently how the Royal Marine task force amused themselves during the long voyage out to the South Atlantic. The use of live music throughout is incredibly effective and affecting.

But, obviously, the main meat of the thing is six men’s experience of war. Not, as one of them points out, “modern warfare”, but the last “old-fashioned war” (“old-fashioned” circa 1914 – 1982) where men with guns hid in trenches, and planes were flown by people sat inside them, not sat in Utah. There’s video footage from an old-ish documentary in which one of the (British) soldiers now on stage in front of us breaks down in tears telling a story about an Argentinian soldier dying in his arms. He’s told the same story maybe fifteen minutes earlier without flinching. The piece shows us the passage of time, the past and present both right in front of our very eyes. One of the Argentinian soldiers – notably muscular and sporty now – talks about a past of drug addiction and uncontrollable anger. War, we reflect, even in short doses, does seem to leave people in a good way. The piece, perhaps mercifully, doesn’t give us a moment to reflect on just how much trauma this must mean the human race has had to process and endure throughout history. Not at the time, anywhere, although it’s kind of present and implied throughout. It feels like Minefield manages this sort of field of implication brilliantly. There’s a choppy rhythm to the dramaturgy that feels like a refusal to give in to the consolations of an uplifting ending, or dramatic high-points. There are those, definitely, but there’s also a workmanlike way the piece has of just dismantling a set-piece when it’s finished, and moving on to the next thing. A sense of inexorability (which felt familiar from other pieces), that here feels like it reflects an ethos behind soldiering.

This is a vital, valuable, heroic, necessary piece of theatre. I desperately want to avoid saying out loud all the commonplaces that the piece so neatly side-steps, but, yes, it does remind us that soldiers (on each side – I think we routinely dehumanise both, now) are not only people (who knew?), but also that they continue to be people long after they’ve ceased to be soliders. And that wars tend to be fought by very young men – in their teens or early twenties. And, if you avoid getting killed in the war, that’s a long time to live with the after effects. Hell, it says *a lot*, and says it powerfully, beautifully and brilliantly.


Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Parade – Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester

[seen 07/06/16]


I’m starting to think the condition of successful theatre criticism is the equitable balancing of two completely opposite feelings in any given piece of writing. I came out of James Baker’s superlative production of Parade feeling ridiculously happy; bowled over by the vitality and talent of the production, just the sheer noise of the thing. At the same time, I knew that, if I wanted to, I could have kvetched endlessly about the *actual ethics* of the original musical (music and lyrics Jason Robert Brown, book Alfred Uhry, co-conceiver and original director Hal Prince, 1999).

So what to do? I absolutely don’t want to detract from the glorious success of the production. This is proper top-of-game musical theatre. Quite by chance, I happened to see the show the same night as The Stage’s Mark Shenton. A critic with whom I’m hardly known for agreeing, but who has seen pretty much every production of Parade ever made (Broadway, Donmar, Broadway revival, Thom Sutherland Southwark Playhouse revival), so for once I was more than happy to defer to his expertise. And – without wanting to steal his thunder – he seemed pretty damn impressed too. Subjectively, I thought it seemed pretty amazing, but I don’t know all that much about musicals – maybe they’re all this bloody impressive and I’ve been in the wrong game/in denial forever. But, no. This is indeed impressive, even to an expert.

The large (15-strong) cast – probably more local than not – contains at least five or six absolutely knock-out singers and the musical direction (Tom Chester) of the nine-piece band (2 keyboards, reeds, horn, string quartet and drums) is first-rate. The whole thing is miked to the extent that the chorus numbers achieve a kind of Wagnerian intensity and grandeur. So much so that the (relatively) little Hope Mill Theatre (a long low room, here playing lengthways) felt like it might burst with a combination of the noise and the sweltering heat.

But, as I say, two opposite opinions. So, alongside all this exploding vitality and talent there’s also the material that they’re performing (kind of the reverse of the 4.48 problem). Now, the first thing to say is that music theatre isn’t my natural territory. The fact I even liked this production at all speaks volumes about just how well it was doing. And, to be fair, there’s a lot in the music and the orchestration that appeals. It struck me (in my inexpertise) as having borrowed most heavily from the craft of Bernstein; echoing that mid-century mixture of new American forms, like jazz and the blues, and, as a much-needed counter-measure, the astringency of post-war European orchestral modernism. Of course, there are also syrupy, sentimental torch-songs, but one holds one’s nose and gets on with it. And, to be fair, even these torch-songs are at least deployed here with mordant dramatic irony for maximum devastation, and are quite sweet in and of themselves.

So, yes, the plot. The plot is based on the historical case of Leo Frank, who... can you spoiler history from 1913-1915? Well, I’m going to, so look away if you want to come to the plot fresh...  Basically, the musical tells the story of a kangaroo court, and an anti-Semitic lynching. Leo Frank is accused of the murder of 13-year-old factory worker Mary Phagan (“Fagin?” he asks, improbably, when she tells him her name, cleverly reminding us of older, literary anti-Semitism) who works at the factory of which he is a director. Now, because the piece is historical, it does have one massive dramaturgical problem – we never find out who actually kills the child. Moreover, a young woman gets murdered, and we are never once asked to care about her. Similarly, the casual racism of the whole of Georgia’s white population is taken as read, but there’s also an uncomfortable irony that in amongst the murder of thousands of black workers, it’s only the story of the white factory owner that gets its own musical. The #BlackLivesMatter movement would not be fans. Yes, that situation is noted in the song at the top of the second half (‘A Rumblin’ and A Rollin’’), but both that and ‘Blues: Feel The Rain Fall’, with their “Negro music” pastiches, sail pretty close to outright minstrelsy – albeit, delivered with such outright barnstorming, knowing conviction by Matt Mills (duetting with Shekinah McFarlene in the former) that you maybe forgive the possible solecism on the part of the writer.

I daresay a Marxist-Leninist, would find it hard not to think there should be a Brechtian re-write that stops at the end of the trial where the factory owner who “employs” child sweatshop-labourers is sentenced to death. Wrong reason; right result. Now, that would be a morally complex piece of work.
(But – disclaimer – unless the citizens of Atlanta had then gone on to lynch every other factory owner, irrespective of race or religion, and foment America’s long-overdue communist revolution, then yeah, it’s just racism. So, no dice.)
(That we’re also sitting watching this in a former cotton mill, probably not dissimilar to the ones owned by Engels, also here in Manchester, complicates this no-nonsense Marxist approach so much further, it almost makes you dizzy.)

So, yes, perhaps it’s best not to think about unpicking the material too hard. The production hasn’t gone full-Marthaler on it, and so it seems safer to go back to celebrating the great evening out and the massive amounts of talent on display here. From Aidan Banyard’s belting opening number The Red Hills of Home – think Barrowman crossed with Domingo, Banyard has a *serious voice*, through the gently nuanced performances of Tom Lloyd as Leo Frank and Laura Harrison as his “plucky, resourceful” wife Lucille (yes, the gender politics of the piece are roughly *progressive for the period in which the musical is set*), to the aforementioned gorgeous voices of Matt Mills and Shekinah McFarlene (both of whom I’d now pay good money to hear sing more or less *anything*), this really is a show jam-packed with talent. Moreover, on a humid Tuesday night, in a week’s extension to the originally-planned run, the theatre was also absolutely packed, and saw the most spontaneous standing ovation at the conclusion that I’ve seen since Iliada in Belgrade.

This is the Hope Mill Theatre’s first in-house production, and if this is what we can expect regularly, Manchester has just got about as lucky as it’s possible to get.

Exciting times.

Works Ahead 2 – Contact, Manchester

[seen 03/06/16]


This was the first pair of two pairs of scratch performances that I saw last Friday, and I need to have a bit of a chat with the producers/makers of the pieces before writing anything, since all the pieces were in fairly emerging stages, and the last thing I want to do is write anything discouraging, unhelpful, or seemingly gargantuan or permanent about them, or commit anything that looks like A Review, before they formally open, thereby disbarring them from eligibility for n number of Edinburgh or other Festival prizes.

But I was there. So there you are.

Works Ahead 1 – Contact, Manchester

[seen 03/06/16]


This was the first pair of two pairs of scratch performances that I saw last Friday, and I need to have a bit of a chat with the producers/makers of the pieces before writing anything, since all the pieces were in fairly emerging stages, and the last thing I want to do is write anything discouraging, unhelpful, or seemingly gargantuan or permanent about them, or commit anything that looks like A Review, before they formally open, thereby disbarring them from eligibility for n number of Edinburgh or other Festival prizes.

But I was there. So there you are.

Night Watch – Royal Exchange, Manchester

[seen 27/05/16]


Avid followers of the theatre press (and literally no one else), will have noticed a recent tendency for senior Guardian critic, Michael Billington, to voice his concern that the theatre produced in Britain’s “regions” (i.e. anywhere outside London) is “timid”.

And, of course, the correct response to this is to disagree: Michael doesn’t see enough to know what he’s talking about; Michael doesn’t even go to most of the non-timid stuff *in* London, etc. etc.

But even that disagreement contains a certain amount of doublethink. It is possible to know exactly what he’s talking about and to shout him down all at the same time. (“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function” says F. Scott Fitzgerald. “The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them... To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth” says Orwell.)

Which brings us to The Night Watch. It is simultaneously the most timid thing and the least timid thing imaginable. At once. It is even both “good” and “bad” (meaningless, taste-based, subjective value-judgements by me) at the same time. Neat trick, no?

On one hand, it’s a lesbian love story, which, crucially, doesn’t end in suicide, or all (or any) of the women going “back” to men. And it’s theoretically “really theatrical”. On the other hand, it feels as wholesome, cosy, and unchallenging as your average episode of Midsomer Murders (unless you’re an actual bigot, or a fourth-wall fundamentalist).

Looking harder at The Night Watch, outside of the production at the circumstances of production, we see a somewhat troubled history of retrenchment, rejigging, and last minute changes of designer and director. On this basis, we might charitably conclude that we should all just be thankful that *something* – and something perfectly respectable-looking – has turned up at all.

The piece tells the story of Kay Langrish (Jodie McNee – brilliant, and kinda like David Tennant’s Dr Who in her best moments, which I mean as a massive compliment) – moping about London post-war, and then, in a time-hop backwards at the interval, fighting fires and rescuing damsels in distress during the Blitz. By running the time-frame backwards, it allows us, the audience, to understand not only a fuller picture of the Chekhovian cruelties being heaped onto Langrish, but also a full knowledge of how it all pans out. And, Christ, all that could do with some sort of pre-warning, frankly: THIS IS AN EFFING SAD STORY, WATCH OUT! Or similar.

And, yes, by the end, despite a particularly silly, clunky bit of set-business in the second half, I was pretty much totally with the narrative by the end (I’d never read the book).

Which brings us back to doublethink. Could I plausibly come out and say “Yes! This is super!”? Yes. Of course. There’s plenty to pick out for praise here. Would I actually recommend seeing it to a good friend? Not *really*. I mean, I wouldn’t say “don’t”. It would maybe depend on their relationship to time and money. If they were wealthy and frequently given to affect boredom – not unlike a couple of the characters here – I’d probably say it’s worth seeing to pass the time. If they don’t have that much spare cash, and we’re talking about their one or two nights off a week, I’d say there were better ways to spend both.

So, timid? Who knows? I mean, Christ, as a white heterosexual man, I’m hardly strapped for “representations of myself” (I should add that I’m not remotely interested in seeing them either, although this is an arguably concomitant result of their mass, ready availability) and besides, I could identify just fine with Langrish – anyone who’s ever fallen in love someone they shouldn’t have fallen in love with could, even despite the fact she’s meant to be a raging posho (both she and Julia Standing (Lucy Briggs-Owen) were “at Roedean together” according to something someone says in the script). So, once again, I’m a) not ideally placed to critique any of this – except on class grounds, and, yes, I did find the insistence on Splendid Public-School-Educated leads As Grating As It Always Is. And b) I’m probably not the target audience.

I will say, from a purely theatrical point of view, it felt dated. Not horribly dated, but 90s Shared Experience dated. Which is to say, respectable enough, but hardly cutting edge. Which does feel like a pity. But not cause for galloping concern. Do some nineties retro-theatre vibes constitute timidity? Probably not of the sort Michael means. He’d probably find this bracingly modern. But then, along with doublethink, there’s also the matter of subjectivity with which to contend. “Never mind”, as they used to say in the Blitz. And the nineties.


Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Forbidden Zone – Barbican, London

[seen 26/05/16]


It is just six months shy of a decade since Katie Mitchell’s Virginia Woolf adaptation, Waves, opened at the National Theatre, and changed my idea of what was possible in the theatre irrevocably.

Waves was a kind of improvised “camera show”. An intriguing attempt to make something that looked like a film of Woolf’s The Waves using video live-feeds, lots of foley, and a stage full of props and fragments of set.

Mitchell’s camera shows evolved. Attempts on Her Life (2007) and Some Trace of Her (2009) at the NT, Die Wellen (Waves rebooted in German, 2011) and Die Ringe des Saturn (2012) at Schauspiel Köln, all remained within the context of the “improvised” aesthetic. However, for After Dido at the Young Vic (2009) the on-screen characters appeared in fully realised sets for the first time. But it was Fräulein Julie at the Schaubühne (2010) that really proved the game-changer. Set across several fully detailed, fully naturalistic rooms, and creating a kind of Ophelias zimmer-like counter-narrative based on Katrin, the maid from Strindberg’s play. This production subsequently reached Britain three years later in 2013, but by that point (or soon after) the mainland also had Reise durch die Nacht (Köln, 2012 – Duncan Macmillan and Lyndsey Turner after Mayröcker), Die gelbe Tapete (Berlin, 2013 – Turner after Perkins Gilman), and Wunschloses unglück (Wien, 2014 – Macmillan after Handke).

As such, it seems strange to now be confronted with a piece from August, 2014 (commissioned specifically to mark the centenary of the outbreak of WWI), following on a week after the piece from December 2015, and Mitchell’s entirely new Cleansed (NT, Feb, 2016). (Not to mention Lucia, which I bloody well missed). Which are all completely different. At least anyone trying to pin down “The Katie Mitchell Style” will be pretty much entirely thwarted by the extent of the aesthetic disparities between Cleansed, Ophelias zimmer and Forbidden Zone. (Writing this also makes me realise just how much of her work over the last few years *hasn’t* been seen in Britain, and what a loss that feels like...) As far as I’m aware*, Forbidden Zone remains the most recent of Mitchell’s camera shows, and her third most recent collaboration with Macmillan (2071 and a film currently in post-production since).

What’s interesting to me about the camera shows, is how the form relates to the content. It’s interesting to note that with the exception of only one opera (the “text” of After Dido was Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas) and one “play” (Fräulein Julie), all the other camera shows have been adaptations of novels. Until Forbidden Zone, which is essentially an adaptation of history. This is perhaps significant, insofar as, with the novels (or at least literary biographical texts), you have a sense of an already mediated text to be translated onto stage. In Forbidden Zone – created by Macmillan from texts by Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Mary Borden, Emma Goldman and Virginia Woolf – this seems/feels to be less strongly the case. Here it is a form/format that just works being applied to something written/created specifically for that form, rather than an adaptation per se.

What this means is that on one hand we have an absolutely virtuosic display of the form in full flight, and on the other hand, the opening for some critics to wonder what the form itself means now, or what it’s for. I find that the form makes a wholly strong case for itself, here as much as anywhere. Of course, there will be “liveness” zealots, who just don’t like things projected on screens, and can’t see the point. And that’s their privilege, I guess. Similarly, there’ll be people who haven’t seen much since Waves, who quite miss it being that. Which I can’t tell them not to do.

My own reaction to Forbidden Zone was mostly a kind of adrenalised excitement at the sheer velocity of the event. Watching from the fifth row, with the screen looming high above you, and with a fairly close up view of the actors and technicians scurrying around on stage in the myriad rooms (designed by Lizzie Clachan), the whole thing feels kind of overwhelming. Even facts like it having a video designer (Finn Ross and 59 Productions), two sound designers (Gareth Fry and Melanie Wilson), and even a lighting designer (Jack Knowles) seemed to pass me by in the moment. The thing seemed to have such a completeness and a logic to it, that even as you looked at the myriad component parts, it seemed like they had some sort of eternal or inevitable quality – that they had always been just so. The idea of people actually putting this edifice together was too brain-frazzling to contemplate, even as you were made completely aware that that’s precisely what was happening right in front of your eyes.

As such, I’m quite envious of Maddy Costa’s take on it for Exeunt, where she argues that “there is a metaphorical function to the filming that says so much about how history is constructed ,” which was very much a part of how I thought about Wunschloses unglück, and perhaps consequently didn’t feel quite so much here.  [Although – on the matter of how history is constructed and by whom – while loosely researching the facts behind the (real) lives depicted in the piece, I was startled by an article noting that Clara Immerwahr actually died in her son’s arms, not alone, floating in a garden pond like John Millais’s Ophelia, ironically.]

The story of Forbidden Zone is summarised as follows: “Clara Immerwahr, wife of the famed chemist Fritz Haber, is profoundly disturbed when her husband’s research leads to the development of chlorine gas during the First World War. Over 30 years later, her granddaughter, a scientist committed to finding a poison gas antidote, faces similar despair.”

It’s at once powerful and maybe a bit too neat (and see above, as to whether it’s been made yet neater still). But it is powerful. I mean, we could all sit about and quibble about whether we’d rather it were three hours long, or had a bigger cast, or more dialogue, or different arguments or perspectives. What’s in front of us presents us with (in my case) hitherto unknown facts, and an effective, chilling reminder about not the horrific realities of war, but – if anything – the even more chilling unrealities, the hypothetical calculations and reports executed in nice suburban interiors, and warm, clean laboratories. It also, obviously, looks at the subject from a female perspective.

Now, it’d be disingenuous of me to ignore the fact that when a (female, German) friend saw this in 2014, she sent me the message: “I’d love to tell you what I thought of The Forbidden Zone, but unfortunately I am a woman, and so I have killed myself instead,” into which one could read a certain resistance to the idea that a focus on suicide would necessarily be everybody’s first choice as a means by which to examine and/or resist (ostensibly “male”) warfare. Although, I was perhaps reminded more of a kind of existential, tragic Lysistrata – with life rather than sex being withdrawn. Or, yet more bluntly, the same exchange of life for “fuck” in the radical feminist Crass formulation in ‘Women’. Suicide is here, as elsewhere in Mitchell’s work, positioned more (at least partly) as a moral choice in response to patriarchal structures (see also: Ophelias zimmer, Lucia di Lammermore, Wunschloses unglück, and perhaps further back to Wunschkonzert and before). I’m not as against the piece as that (or at all, in fact), but I do also see how others might be. But this gets into such a difficult argument about how we wish Art to function, that this review would turn into the beginning of a book without an end.

Hopefully it doesn’t look cowardly for me to a draw to a close here (about 1,400 words in already) with something that’s a bit platitude-y. On the level of reviews-as-reflection-of-emotional-experience, I really loved Forbidden Zone, but possibly couldn’t articulate why immediately. I was also maybe slightly troubled by the fact that the serious subject had basically been steamrollered by the exceptional execution. And, beyond that, that it would probably be possible to nit-pick about the content and why each moment had been chosen, and whether it presented too fait an accompli (for my tastes), or whether there was a different meditation on/approach to what was presented that hadn’t occurred to me.

So, yeah, I really loved it, but couldn’t put together an ironclad intellectual case that I agreed with as to why. Or, maybe it could, but perhaps since Slovenia (or even Belgrade), I’ve been maybe feeling a bit alienated by Anglo-political theatre. Of course, this is ultimately much more to do with just hating England, and particularly London; as pretty much everyone I can think of does now. Unless they’re “trying to look on the bright side” and mostly concerntrating on sunny says and whiskers on kittens, etc. The gradual, creeping sense that massive political changes have happened all around us, and haven’t really been fully explained; the general sense that the whole model of UK culture has been changed, cleverly, so that expectations are being lined up to sit alongside the US model of capitalism, and far further from the European model. And that Europe itself is being changed too... That and the ongoing shadows of the wars that we’re currently involved with and the spectres of the wars that we’re about to become involved in...

Maybe my overall reaction is basically down to an unwillingness to do the empathetic work involved in really feeling the depression of the subject matter, or possibly, the form (at least for me. In this instance. But not in the case of Wunschloses unglück) got between me and the content/thinking-about-it. Dunno. Still, I did actually *really love* this show. And I’m still thinking about it...

[and without wanting to get back into that thing about “all online reviews being about reviewing”, I find it fascinating that this is absolutely not the review I’d have written if I’d had 4/500 words and a star-rating on the night. And that one wouldn’t have been “wrong”, but at the same time this one feels much more true “going forward” (as the awful corporate phrase has it...)]