Friday, 1 August 2014

A Streetcar Named Desire – Young Vic

[seen 29/07/14]
Do reviews/plays need trigger warnings? If so, this is probably one of them


My expectations for Benedict Andrews’s version of A Streetcar Named Desire were unreasonably high. Those expectations were based more of less solely on his production of Three Sisters, with maybe a bit of Schaubühne-backstory thrown in for good measure. However, sadly, as with Medea the day before, this Streetcar left me cold.

And, like Medea, I have to say, I’m really not at all sure about Streetcar as a play. Last year I spent several months in the rehearsal rooms of the Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre Company as they were creating their own version of the piece. A production, incidentally, that it turns out Benedict Andrews would have been well-advised to have been to see, since he (I’m sure unwittingly) makes a lot of the same decisions in his production, so everyone who saw the ST production is left with a weird déjà vu of diminishing returns.

I should flag up that *at the time*, I was way less keen on the Secret Theatre version of Streetcar as I was on the production of Woyzeck with which it played in rep. Streetcar, for my money, felt a) like they’d left the play alone too much, and hadn’t eviscerated the text in the way that such a godawful, creaky, hysterical, florid old mess desperately needs (I *really* don’t like the play one bit, do I?), but also b) like the directorial decisions that Sean [Holmes] had made, made the thing even more cruel and unpleasant. On mature reflection, I think (b) was an important step. And I did think the ST production was immensely powerful. Granted, it was the somewhat short-circuit-y power to make the viewer intensely depressed, but, that’s still real power. And, thanks to the totally missing-the-point furore about *Secrecy*, most of the real value about “Show Two”’s radicalism – just the casting alone, not to mention the do-it-in-their-own-accents thing – was completely overlooked. Although part of me does think it would have been better if all that genius radicalism had been applied to a better, shorter, less intensely woman-hating play than Streetcar.

Woman-hating? Really? Well, yes. Surely. Over the weekend – off the back of my review of (the script of) The Nether – I got into an ‘interesting’ discussion (again) about the perceived misogyny in the plays of Simon Stephens. I don’t really want to re-hash it here too much (key article here, which I think exhibits some astonishing confirmation bias). The basic premise for the people who say it’s a thing is this: that his plays show women suffering at the hands of men. Now, in the plays where this happens (and, clearly that’s nowhere near all the plays Simon’s written), I would say there’s a demonstrable intent that the play condemns this situation of women suffering at the hands of men. And, well, look, they’re real things that he’s writing about: Simon didn’t invent human trafficking or psychotic blokes or misogyny. I’m aware of the counter-argument – brilliantly articulated by Doon McKichan recently here: that protraying violence against women a) perpetuates it, and b) is a kind of violence against women in itself. At the same time, I wonder how it works when BAME actors are arguing for greater representation, why feminists are arguing for less representation of one of the most pressing issues. Of course, there’s representation and representation. And that, I guess, is where we get back to Streetcar...

On one hand, Blanche Dubois is a whacking great part which a tonne of actresses are clearly dying to play. Indeed, the seeds for the genesis of this Young Vic production seems to lie with its star Gillian Anderson. (And, y’know, props to her: rather than going to the West End and doing a boring *normal* version, she’s come to the Young Vic and done a version directed by Benedict Andrews, which is only boring by accident.) On the other hand, the entire play exists to allow us to watch an alcoholic woman with severe mental health issues gradually unravel, then get raped, then be institutionalised. The whole piece plays like a power-struggle, and it’s one where – given it’s classic status – we already know who’s going to win, and still come along to watch it anyway. And I’m not sure what watching it actually gives us.

Actually, this version gives us very little indeed.

Andrews’s production is set on a small constantly revolving platform which represents the Kowalskis’ flat. The kitchen is a single unit against one (not-present) wall, the “living room” bleeds into the the bedroom, with only a flimsy curtain to separate them, and the bathroom is through a door at the far end. Magda Willi’s set offers a metal frame to describe the room’s dimensions, and real doors. Outside the front door there’s one of those outside metal fire exits which run up the side of American buildings. It’s an interestingly standard “Schaubühne/Ostermeier” set, from the designer who once hung a grand piano over a classroom of Turkish students for Ballhaus Naunynstraße’s Verrücktes Blut.

The stage’s state of continual revolution is interesting. I’m pretty sure it’s just bad luck, but I think I saw Gillian Anderson’s actual face maybe three times in the whole evening. The back of her head is fine, but not very expressive. But, yeah; we need to talk about Gillian Anderson. On a very basic level, she’s quite strange casting for a natural-ish-tic production. The things we learn about Blanche is that she “looks old”. And hates it. And I guess is meant to be less attractive than she was. And, well, without wanting to be all Charles Spencer about it, Anderson doesn’t exactly look like she’s spent the last few months-shading-into-years falling apart, drinking herself insensible, and turning tricks for cash in a cheap motel. But, that’s all fine. It’s acting. It’s theatre. I’d be happy to ignore all that – although the fact that every time something disparaging about her appearance is said onstage there is an audible ripple of amused snorting round the audience (ditto to the suggestion that Vanessa Kirby’s notably slender Stella has “put on weight”). No, the real problem with Anderson’s Blanche (for me, at least – and, again, worth mentioning a tonne of people effing loved it) was the strange combination of accent, voice-work/diction, breathing, and a weird sort-of hermetic-ness about her performance. *Every line* feels like it’s been pre-prepared and is then delivered, accent-perfect, but a bit *outside-the-moment*. On top of this it felt like about half her lines got swallowed up halfway out of her mouth lost in a tangle of accent, back-to-my-half-of-the-audience, and other physical factors of theatre.

By contrast (contrast mostly with Secret Theatre), Ben Foster’s Stanley was really interestingly different to Sergo Vares’s. Where Anderson’s Stella feels pretty much template-standard, the contrast between Foster and Vares is fascinating: for me, Sergo made complete sense of Stanley as someone who started chippy, violent and intimidating and just escalated. Foster, on the other hand, has Stanley as someone largely unassuming with a bit of a temper when pissed. Someone who gets wound up by Blanche, rather than someone openly hostile to her from the get-go. In a way, it’s a much more sympathetic portrayal and, as a consequence, feels that bit more disturbing whenever he turns out to be a violent, wife-beating thug or, ultimately, a rapist. The scene in which Stanley rapes Blanche also feels slightly fluffed. At the start it looks like Blanche is about to kiss Stanley back and then she passes out. As such, the rape itself mostly involves Stanley riffling through the frou-fru layers of Blanche’s pink taffeta prom dress (oh, count the symbolisms yourself), rather than the violent or silent struggle and staring horrified eyes more usually deployed. The result is – appallingly – much less difficult to watch (although still horrifying).

Corey Johnson’s Mitch is pretty much exactly as a the script demands, physically he seems spot-on and Johnson has a real facility for inhabiting Mitch’s no-man’s-land between judgemental, reactionary sexual politics and compassionate humanity. Similarly, Vanessa Kirby – as with Adele Leonce’s in ST – is a thoroughly modern Stella. I read some preview or something that said this sort of fighty, steadfast, give-as-good-as-you-get dynamic is quite new. I have no idea how the play could even be bearable without it. Did Stella used to be a dowdy punchbag? Jesus. Re: staging – there’s an interesting bit where Stan‘n’Stell are getting down to some make-up sex after he’s smacked her in the face (which is, well, actually it’s pretty sodding horrific. There’s a strong strain of “you don’t know what goes on in other people’s r/ships and if they’re fine with it then it’s fine” philosophy running through the plays. We’re not really invited to condemn Stanley for his DV any more than we’re required to feel sorry for Stella. She doesn’t seem brutalised. And this in itself is pretty horrifying, isn’t it? Or problematic? Not that you really think any of these things at the time, because you’re mostly too reoccupied trying to hear what Blanche is saying and being irritated by her self-performing, but also at Anderson’s performance of her self-performance) where Stanley leaves the room and Stella continues writhing on the bed in the throes of sexual ecstasy. It’s not immediately clear if he’s still meant to be in the bed *really*, and the shade of him that Blanche watches leave the rom and leer at her is a kind of phantasmal foreshadowing of things to come. I hope so, because that would be nice. It’d have been nice if there had been more touches like this.

Finally, once again, I’m left completely perplexed by the response of the mainstream media, which, without exception, has praised this production to the skies. This accords with roughly only 30% of my actual friends who have seen it, where after a maybe agnostic 50% were 50% pretty much dismayed and wondering what happened to Andrews’s mojo after Three Sisters. Now, maybe it was my seat (although there shouldn’t be a bad seat in the house with a revolving stage, right?), and my seat for AVFTB was in a far weirder place, and I couldn’t have loved that more.

So, yeah, odd. My view isn’t a minority one, although it seems to be minimally represented among critics. Not really sure what to make of that in this instance. Nothing, probably. Kind of most interested in why we think Streetcar is an alright thing to keep staging. For me it seems almost entirely pessimistic and abusive. Discuss.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Medea – National Theatre

[seen 28/07/14]


If theatre is as “tribal” as it suits some people to make out, then my glowing five-star review of Medea should have been a foregone conclusion. In theory it’s got everything I could possibly wish for: Tom Scutt’s set echoes Alex Eales’s design for Katie Mitchell’s Alles Weitere... in Hamburg – a widescreen, two-storey, peeling and decaying mansion, here updated from timeless European splendour to a muted seventies feel. It even throws in the forest from This is How You Will Disappear as the trees-inside-the-room thing that was also seen in Mitchell’s production of Written on Skin (which I’m fairly sure is an instance of cultural energy swirling around rather than actual “inspired-by”-ness). Choreographer Lucy Guerin’s work with the chorus conjures the same Haitian Voodoo dances as Sebastian Nübling’s production of Morning (which, again, I doubt she’s seen), or, if you want to know what it looks like: the video for this awesome cover of She’s Lost Control by Spoek Mathambo. And, at the opening, Michaela Coel’s presentation of Ben Power’s prologue (after Euripides) suggests a reasonably astute, modern, demotic-but-still-majestic-and-a-bit-poetic take on the text. And, yet, for some reason, for me it just didn’t work at all. (Sorry, no, that’s not true: I think within the 90-ish minute running time there are possibly three minutes which are really great and several which are entirely passable, but as an aggregate: not so much.)

I should say at this juncture, it possibly “didn’t work” at the level of *exacting, theatre-nerd reasons*, and anyone normal is probably going to be fine watching this. I reckon they might experience that weird sensation of slippage between how good they think it’s meant to be and how much they’re actually feeling it, but they’ll probably be fine overall. But that’s why they don’t let normal people review theatre. I should also note that seemingly without exception, *all* the mainstream critics seemed to 4-star it (I haven’t read any of their reviews, there’s just a long list of 4-stars and newspaper titles on the NT’s Medea page, from which I’m getting the cast and creative info... But as I remarked about something else, post-Weekus Mirabilis MSM approval really can’t be held up as shorthand for hopelessly reactionary, wrong opinion. And besides, it’s nice that they all liked it, right?)

So what’s gone wrong? Well, the basic problem here is that the show feels like it’s pulling in a million different directions at once: more spider-diagram or brainstorming session than the finished product. And, yes, there are instances where that kind of feeling can be deliberate and yield great results. Here it feels too diffuse. Rather than prompting different thoughts which each unlock new ideas about the text, the thing instead seems to cancel itself out or contradict itself.

At the centre of this big old mess is Helen McCrory. As I’ve said, given the track record of Carrie (Birdland, A Doll’s House) Cracknell, Tom (Mr Burns, Charles III) Scutt, and Ben (Faustus, Six Characters...) Power, one not unreasonably expects – and visually and sonically gets – the best of new young British theatre, inspired by the likes of Katie Mitchell, Thomas Ostermeier, Rupert Goold and and Pina Bausch. All of which counts for very little if the actor at the centre of whole thing is going to turn in a performance that hails from the School of Generalised British Acting. It’s hard to know for definite what’s failure of nerve and a desire to crowd-please to the largest number possible in the Olivier, and what’s a result of an actor’s “I know best” attitude, but from seat M4 in the stalls, McCrory communicates next to nothing save for some moves that look a lot like a generalised idea of what acting should look like. At no point does she convince on either a human or a mythic level. Which is kind of a pity. If you catch yourself thinking “well, this is my fault for sitting so far back...” something’s gone wrong, right? But then, Christ, I’ve seen Simon Russell-Beale from the back of the *circle* in the Olivier and felt what he was doing as vividly as if he were a foot away. And, actually, I bought this ticket and it’s come to something when you think: “well, I guess you can’t expect much for £25. I should have gone to press night and let myself be put in a decent seat if I wanted to give this a fair hearing...” That said, at least McCrory is doing *something*. Even if it is A Lot Of Acting, it’s a damn sight better than Danny Sapini, who, in trying to dignify his Jason as a stoic, noble, kingly warrior somehow winds up as an emotional void, arriving from the death of his wife by means of a poisoned cloak with all the terror and agony of someone who wonders if his ex-wife has accidentally-on-purpose taken the spare car keys.

There was much fanfare about the music which has been written by _ _ and _ _ of Goldfrapp. Annoyingly, Goldfrapp are famous for sounding like this, but, perhaps because they’ve been asked to write music for a theatre, most of the music they’ve written sounds like totally bog-standard theatre music, some which is even played live of fiddles and accordions. (Fiddles? Accordions? Goldfrapp? What?) Admittedly, the fiddles and accordion bits of the music make a sort of sense alongside the vaguely modern Greek/Balkans bits of the the look of the thing (are we meant to think about the Greek dictatorship of the seventies? We could do that), which obviously makes several kinds of sense in the abstract, although on balance I’d have probably been more interested by a sleazy goth-disco T-Rex-soundalike version of Medea than this one.

Contrasting with this Greek/Balkans thing is a kind of Haitian voodoo dancing, the climax of which, shortly before the the child murder [SPOILER!], is probably all three of the good minutes of the show. This mash-up/collision also kind of illustrates the weird spatial-geographic-problem of postmodernism in the show. Basically, it’s all fine. It’s fine that the costumes are modern. It’s fine that the house is really seventies. It’s fine that there’s a wood in the living room. It’s fine that the wedding in another place a long way away is upstairs. It’s fine that the dancers, who are the Greek (-ish. Wherever) women are Haitian voodoo dancers evoking Medea’s Colchis-based witchy-ness, it’s all fine. But not one of these things really relates to any of the others. And, as I say, most of them seem pretty intent on cancelling one another out.

Medea is a difficult play to make emotionally engaging, but also, curiously, one which no one has really managed to figure out a way of making say anything *useful* about *society*, so it’s a really strange thing to keep seeing. Because, at root, isn’t it just a fairly piece of pretty anti-woman propaganda, saying that they’re well nuts and a more than a bit witchy? As such, it’s strange to see Carrie “Blurred Lines” Cracknell trying to reanimate this mad, misogynist, old corpse with a bit of voodoo dancing.

 

Sunday, 27 July 2014

The Nether – by Jennifer Haley [text review]

[postmodernism]


In 1997 Patrick Marber wrote ten minutes of stage-time which anticipated one of the biggest problems which was to face theatre in the years that followed. It is scene three of Closer. In it, two men meet in an internet chat room. One of them is pretending to be a woman. However, because neither man can see the other, the man who is “being himself” allows himself to believe that he has indeed met a woman looking for casual sex online and arranges to meet her in real life (IRL, as subsequent internet jargon has it). The scene is written and played for comic effect, although it’s essentially a technological update of the bed-trick or transvestive disguise on which Shakespeare and his predecessors capitalised for centuries.

Fast forward nearly twenty years and Jennifer Haley’s 2012 play The Nether (now receiving its European première at the Royal Court) deals with almost precisely the same online misunderstanding. And this time it’s serious.

This week, I’ve been out of town, writing the introduction to Peter Boenisch’s forthcoming book Regie: Directing Scenes and Senses in European Theatre, and so I’ve been unable to see Jeremy Herrin and Es Devlin’s production. I have, however, been very interested to read the script, the reviews, and experience some of what the play is.

It seems apt then, given that The Nether is a play about the disparity between the proposition and the actual, that I instead review this “virtual” experience of the play. After all, on the surface of it, the play appears to propose some level of moral equivalence between a simulation (text and photographs) and “reality”.

Oh, and it’s going to be WELL SPOILERY, so don’t read if you’re going to go and mind about “twists” and “surprises” (Hint: as always, I think that the “ooh!” factor is totally over-rated, and actually knowing what’s going to happen is a much better way of watching any sort of content if you want to come out of with an intelligent opinion about it.)

***

The plot of The Nether is important, because it’s where a lot of the play’s ethical questions take shape; indeed, the script initially reads much more like a film than a piece of theatre. A film where everyone talks a surprising amount, but a film nonetheless. Reading it, rather than watching it, you are plunged into a windowless, featureless grey cell. Across a blank, slightly futuristic table a female detective (Morris) confronts a man. Sims: a name that, presumably on purpose, recalls one of the earliest online “second life” games). Sims is the inventor and proprietor of “The Hideaway”, a “realm” in “the Nether”. Haley’s proposition is “the Nether was called the Internet” in the past (p.27). A “realm” (a brilliant choice of the most irritating word imaginable for “website”, suggesting that internet technology in the future is still mostly in the hands of Tolkien addicts) is where people go, virtually, to do stuff on/in “the Nether”. Most universities and workplaces are now on/in “the Nether”, we learn. How people do stuff is never really discussed, but there’s an implication of full bodily and sensory immersion. Perhaps with special suits and hats or something.

The Hideaway is apparently the best designed “realm” in “the Nether”. It is a labour of love. Unfortunately, that love is a product of Sims’s sexual desire for children. On the surface, therefore, it feels as if this should be “a play about paedophilia”. Haley definitely underlines this point early on. At the end of the third scene (p.11) Sims gives up dialogue and lapses into underlining:
“Look, Detective, I am sick. I am sick and have always been sick and there is no cure. No amount of cognitive behavioral therapy or relapse determent or even chemical castration will sway me from my urges toward children. I am sick and no matter how much I loved him or her I would make my own child sick and I see this I see this - not all of us see this - but I have been cursed with both compulsion and insight. I have taken responsibility for my sickness. I am protecting my neighbor’s children and my brother’s children and the children I won’t allow myself to have, and the only way I can do this is because I’ve created a place where I can be my fucking self!”
The implications of “the fucking self” are left sadly under-explored.

But, yes, that’s the end of the third scene, a continuation of the first. In between there’s been another interrogation scene, this time between Morris and Doyle, a man who has been using “The Hideaway”. This scene is all pretty standard: threats of exposure (he is 65, married, a teacher, a churchgoer) are mingled with more exposition so that we, the audience, can get to grips with what this “Nether” thing is.

Then we go into the Nether for the first time (p.12-15). Papa (Sims) is talking to Iris: “a little girl” (Haley’s only character-description for Iris). It is an innocent, even grating conversation between some Shirley Temple-type and this avuncular Papa. Because we know that she’s a virtual child-prositute and he’s a self-confessed compulsive molester of children, I guess we read it slightly differently. Still, in the abstract, it’s all perfectly above board, and fine for a child to perform. Which is what happens in this production, as we can see from the production photographs. At the end of the scene a “guest”, Woodnut, enters.

Anyway, the story arc continues along these tracks, pinging between the alternate interrogations of Sims and Doyle by Morris, and Papa, Iris and Woodnut hanging out in various configurations in The Hideaway.

The twist – the two twists, in fact – should be pretty guessable by this point. In her interrogations of Doyle and Sims, Morris refers to a detective who had entered The Hideaway under cover as “a guest”: Woodnut, we rightly assume. Morris reads from “Woodnut”’s report, about the terrible things he thinks, feels, sees... And, in two moments of sudden revelation, we learn that Morris was Woodnut and Doyle was Iris. “But didn’t they...?” as Blackadder might have put it. Why, yes: yes they apparently did. Female detective Morris, does apparently fall in love and have sex with Doyle while she is Nether-disguised as a chap, and the 65-year-old man is disguised as “a little girl”.

To complicate matters yet further, “Iris”/Doyle is “in love with” “Papa”/Sims. And Sims/“Papa” is pretty into “Iris”. Most interesting of all is that Doyle has wound up playing “Iris” because he was formerly a “guest” who ran out of money, and came to this arrangement with Papa so that he could remain in The Hideaway.

Several reviews have suggested that the play explores questions about images of child sex abuse and the internet. And, with Sims’s above-quoted confession, this might be one fleeting aim of the playwright. But for my money, it seems to obscure the most interesting things that the play actually does.

For one, we have this character – Doyle – whose desires don’t actually seem to be focussed on children or child abuse at all. He enters The Hideaway as a guest and presumably does do those things, but ultimately it turns out he is addicted to the place itself, declares his love for the patently older, male Sims, and also forms an attachment to Woodnut. There’s even a sense that Doyle enjoys playing the part of a child who is repeatedly violated and then murdered with an axe (always an axe, apparently). Doyle can even choose how much of any of this he “feels” (again, no explanation as to how, but that’s probably for the best). If this is really meant to be a play about paedophilia, what would we be supposed to learn from Doyle? Mercifully, I don’t think that is what the play is trying to do.

We then have to negotiate the complexities of Morris, who, in the guise of Woodnut, “falls in love” with “Iris”. And then there’s Sims, who while claiming to “love” “Iris”, is, at root, most attached to designing and refining the details of his realm, and exerting control over those within it, dictating their appearance, and maintaining his rules.

This is a fantasia on and exploration of a much stranger set of desires than any review I’ve so far read seems to credit. It is already much less “about” discovering a capacity within ourselves for darkness than Tim Crouch’s The Author was five years ago. And, rather than being a play about images of child sexual abuse online, it struck me that it’s much more a play about theatre and love. Indeed, the character Doyle most reminds me of – especially once you know everything Iris says is also him – is Blanche Dubois from A Streetcar Named Desire: everything from the repeated attraction to the wrong men to her refusal to be seen in plain sunlight.

Of the nominal question, Herrin’s production effectively already answers that conundrum for its audiences by casting “a little girl” as “a little girl”. After all, the child playing Iris on stage is more “real” than “Iris” ever is, and certainly isn’t actually controlled an adult. The script invites the audience, almost causes them, to envisage this particular child being raped and then murdered by two of the men on the stage. By putting an actual child in our eyeline, the production tells you precisely what “little girl” to imagine. And that actually does happen. And isn’t legally culpable in away way. So the question of what it’s ok to look at that isn’t actually real seems like it’s been dubiously resolved, because the audience has already looked at it in their minds eye. Or, rather, this production perhaps raises more questions than it answers by offering this staging.

After all, in the script, the moral dilemma seems, incorrectly, to hang off this question of whether by doing something online, to a picture of a child which is being animated by a 65-year-old science teacher, means you’re actually a paedophile. In many ways, it feels like the question relates more closely to the periodic grumbling about games like Grand Theft Auto, where your avatar can apparently rape and murder prostitutes and gun down whole arcades of people. Does doing so in an environment where you know it’s not real make you a rapist and a psychopath, or merely someone who understands that’s what the game’s offer is? Because otherwise, I’m not sure what volunteering to watch the play means. The Author seemed to confront that question much more directly.

This is part of what I mean when I say that the play raises questions about theatre and about how theatre operates. It perhaps recalls the controversy about Three Kingdoms, or Chris Goode’s ongoing argument that theatre “makes real things”. Separately, the play also recalls Nicolas Ridout’s suggestion in Theatre & Ethics (usefully paraphrased here by Maddy Costa):
‘Theatre isn't at its most ethical, Ridout posits, when “what the work says or does matches our own sense of what we would like it to say or do, corresponds with our own sense of how we would like the world to be”. For theatre to be ethical, it “would have to confront its spectators or participants with something radically other, something that could not be assimilated by their existing understanding of the ethical”. Such work requires “a labour of critical thought for its ethical potential to be realised”, requires a critic to approach it “with uncertainty, with a view to the possibility of surprise, challenge or affront”.’
The last line of the play is: “The world is still the place we have to learn to be. You are free to go, Mr. Sims. You are free.” The play also talks about God a surprising amount. This, then, could be seen as a play about free will, and one which ultimately asserts some pretty conventional moralities: that you should look after your children not hook yourself up to the internet the whole time (‘become “a shade”’ in the parlance of the piece); and that you should recognise your bad desires and just not act on them. Simples. If this were a piece of theatre with a “moral line” then it would be a dismal catastrophe. Happily, because of how plays work, that last line of the play (before the epilogue, anyway) is just a statement of belief – perhaps not even a true one – by one character, and not “the moral line”. That said, the last scene proper is a bit of a car-crash attempt to shackle what is frequently a fascinating, imaginative work to the kind of black and white morality to which the American mainstream still seems troublingly addicted.

Apparently, in the printed script version of the play that accompanies this production Haley makes the helpful suggestion: “A young actress also adds warmth, which is critical to the chemistry of the play”. To which I would reply, “*a version of* the play.” (And also: “funny ideas about warmth you have, Jen.”) Reading the script, you get a sense of infinite possibilities for staging it. Not just in terms of the look of the thing – it’s easy to imagine story-telling by just the three real people, all in virtual-reality suits, suspended in some sort of Matrix thing, like a kind of Drowned World in stasis. But the actual texture of it. Imagining the Idomeneus approach, with the contested storytelling spilling out of a multi-voiced chorus. Or the Adler and Gibb version, where the use of a child on stage is dealt with intelligently and brilliantly as a question about ethics and about the stage, rather than as the location for edgy discomfort. One thinks of Tom Scutt’s fierce, bright vision of a post-electric apocalypse, echoed in Haley’s nearly treeless reality. The accretion of mess and the encoaching sludge of personal ruin in Ian McNeil and Carrie Cracknell’s Birdland, or just the fuck it, the rest of us might all as well go home and stage every play like this, brilliance of Ivo van Hove and Jan Versweyveld’s A View From The Bridge. And that’s without even getting onto things like the distillation of fear, tension and fantasy in Gisele Vienne’s This Is How You Will Disappear.

One wonders how it might be if Iris were played by Annie Firbank, or even, as per “the reality” by Doyle all along. Or a chorus effect of the two of them. One wonders what having actors play characters of different genders to their own might have. One wonders what a vicious, brash drag-show version starring the David Hoyle and Christeene (NSFW) might be like.

Obviously I haven’t seen the production, so it might have been any of these. The hope is, of course, that what people who did see the production did see was something that they couldn’t have imagined if they’d just sat at home and read the script.




p.s. I had to go online to find the above photos and Charles Spencer uses the word “beautiful” three times in his review; twice to describe a ten-year-old girl.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Full text: Simon Stephens

[on adaptation: A Doll’s House]

Simon Stephens by Mark Haddon

Ahead of the West End Run of Carrie Cracknell and Ian McNeil’s production of A Doll’s House, the Young Vic were kind enough to ask me to contribute an interview with Simon Stephens for their programme. When the run ended, I posted the programme text on here with the promise that I’d upload the full text sometime. Recently, I was emailed by a PhD student who wondered if I was ever going to put the full text online. So here it is:


AH: Whose idea was it do A Doll’s House? Where did it come from?

SS: Well it was an idea that was brought to me. The genesis came from Carrie Cracknell, the director, who was and remains fascinated by he sexual politics surrounding Nora [the original title of A Dolls House. I'm slightly guessing which use is intended in each instance here] and representations of Nora and the meaning of her narrative now 120-odd years after its writing. But it was brought to me by David Lan who was excited not only by Carrie’s enthusiasm for it, but also by the thoughts of Jon Fosse on the way Ibsen was being represented in England.

So this came after your adaptation of I Am The Wind?

It came around the same time. I was approached in rehearsals, I got on well with Jon and he was very happy with what I’d done. Although I Am The Wind didn’t really succeed in the Young Vic, it was a big hit throughout Europe and [the director] Patrice Chéreau was very happy with it – it was a co-production with lots of different theatres –Théâtre de la Ville, Paris and the Grec Festival in Barcelona – and it was fascinating seeing how the different way it was received in Théâtre de la Ville compared with the way it was received at the Young Vic. People in the Young Vic were largely perplexed and unsettled by the whole thing and in Paris received it like it was the most euphoric poem every written. Going out with Tom Brooke and Jack Laskey afterwards; it was like they were rock stars. They were stopped in the street, you know, a mile away from the theatre by people who were in awe of their performance, which is kind of an amazing thing to witness.

Anyway, Fosse had a take on Nora which really excited David Lan and he talked to me about it, which was really this idea that the play as received in Norway – according to Jon – was not a celebration of the importance of female emancipation at all. Now, and in the history of productions in Norway. And I think the kind of notion that I’m familiar with is represented by Michael Meyer in in his seminal study of Ibsen called, imaginatively, ‘Ibsen’ is that actually it was the early British or Irish response to Ibsen in London at the end of the 19th Century – the start of the 1900s – that gave a very particular refraction to the representations of Nora, specifically the response of George Bernard Shaw who held her up at a time when he and Harley Granville-Barker were running the Royal Court theatre and were celebrating the work of Githa Sowerby, who wrote Rutherford and Son, and really engaged in the sexual politics of emancipation at the time they found in Nora a kind of flag bearer for women’s rights. And this was something that sat at odds with Ibsen’s intentions. He never intended her to represent – in the letters and in the lectures and in the journals he kept he talks of his frustration with people who represent Nora as being symbolic of female emancipation. Because for him she never was.

Instead she’s representing...?

Well, I think what Fosse would argue, I think when I read Ibsen’s letters at the time, what strikes me is that he was wrestling an awful lot with his own sense of his authenticity and the extent to which he’d been received in a particular way by the literary cultures of Norway, not just within Norway – he was in Italy for a lot of the time when he wrote the play – and was held up as emblematic of Norwegian literature, but became objectified and commodified and was received in a way that sat at odds with the way he felt. And I think this kind of theme recurs again and again in his letters and his journals and his essays at the time – a frustration with how he is being perceived by other people. And how that perception sits at odds with how he really feels.

Is this something to which you can relate with your second play about to go into the West End?

[laughs] Er. That’s a bit of a blindsiding question. I don’t know, because I’ve got no idea how I’m perceived at all actually. I’ve no idea how people... I don’t think writers have the same... I don’t think playwrights have the same cultural currency as...

You were on a Hot List in Grazia, weren’t you?

I was on the List of Lust, I think you’ll find it’s called, in Grazia, but that’s entirely accidental and related to going out once with Polly Vernon who edits that list. Not going-out dating, but going out drinking. But I don’t think playwrights have anything like the same cultural currency that they did 130 years ago, so I can imagine it’s the kind of thing that an actor might relate to, or a y’know, kind of a football player might relate to but but I think playwrights are ignored largely by most people. And that’s exactly how I like it to be. It’s really good. It makes me very happy. And most people who do know who I am normally have some level of serious commitment to and engagement with contemporary playwriting. And they’re quite interesting people. Quite nice people. So that’s alright.

But, yeah, for Ibsen, Nora was emblematic of... I think I do think it’s true to a real extent that all characters that playwrights write are in some way carved out of themselves. And, well, clearly he’s not here to talk about this, but reading the journals and his letters at the time that was what I extrapolated, that Nora wasn’t emblematic of female emancipation, but she was emblematic of him. And feeling [word inaudible] and contained and trapped in ways that he perceived as limiting and wanting to rail against that.

That’s really interesting.

It might be bollocks, but it also accords with what Fosse was talking about. Because what he talked about was that in Norwegian productions she’s much more represented as being cruel and selfish and egocentric and destructive which is often edited – not edited, but not engaged with in Britain and that was what really drew me to it.

And was Carrie doing that? Because my impression was that if Carrie was doing that, no one sent Hattie the memo – would have been my take on that, because - to my eyes - Hattie was playing a sympathetic character...

Really?

Yeah.

I never saw her as that in rehearsal.

That’s really interesting.

I think the way she treats Doctor Rank is unbelievably cruel. I think the way she treats Mrs Lind is just unbelievably selfish and unthinking, her capacity for savagery in the way that she lashes out at the servants is consistently high-handed and her treatment of Krogstat in the end is ungenerous and unthinking and lacks empathy.

If Nora is nothing but an emblem for female emancipation she’s not a human being therefore and I think she’s much more interesting than that, so my impulse was to try to reclaim that. And part of reclaiming that humanity involved dramatising that selfishness and thoughtlessness as honestly as her capacity for clarity and bravery and I think that might be the stuff that Shaw shied away from

Presumably you’ve had conversations with Hattie about this. What’s her take on it?

I think she would agree with me on it. Nora is unquestionably cruel towards Mrs Lind

I guess the way I, and probably generations of Nora-apologists and/or those making the argument for female emancipation, would justify or rationalise that is that it could equally be symptomatic of somebody panicking. She’s in such a fix that all her behaviour could be boiled down to not that she’s irrationally cruel, she’s backed into a corner.

That’s fair. But I think that there are times when she’s irrationally cruel. No hold on, do I think that?

But these things are all present in... I mean, you haven’t changed the script...

No, because the thing is as well is that the last time I saw A Doll’s House I kind of thought I’d made a tremendously English version. I might have started off with the intention of writing something more born out of Scandinavia but watching it I think it would be idiotic to say that’s what I’d done. And I think that’s kind of fine, I think starting with the intention of doing something and achieving something other is something that happens in the creation of all art. And when I saw it in the revival this year I was struck by how English the sensibility of it was and you know...

What do you mean by English?

I think there are some linguistic flourishes that I added to make lines sing more happily out of my mouth and I think those flourishes anglicised the energy of the lines. So a lot of “My dear Mrs Helmer” or “You can’t possibly know what...” – the use of adverbs, embellishing lines with adverbs, and just qualifiers, because the English being a fundamentally polite nation will qualify their language constantly. And I think if the production was successful – and it was a successful production – I wonder if partly it’s because the text is more is more anglicised than I’d anticipated making it.

How close did you get to the Scandinavian?

I’ve never seen it in Scandinavian, I’ve never seen it in Norway.

Presumably you were sent a literal translation and...

I was sent the original as well, Swedish. He wrote in Swedish.

How close did you get to the rhythms, or was it just sense that you were dealing with?  I don’t know how people do translations... Is there a “correct” or an ethical...  Is there a consensus? Do people go to conferences on this?

Yeah, they really do.

But do playwrights go to those conferences? Do you all hang out and talk about this?

I don’t know if we hang out and talk about this, but there’s certainly debate about what the role of the playwright should be in the making of a version. David Eldridge, who’s a friend of mine, has done three Ibsens. Very successfully. So I certainly talked to him about it, before I started work, and listened carefully to what he was talking about. Like with everything, the range of opinions on that question is extremely broad. So someone like Gregory Motton who does a lot of translations, but tends to write from the original, to translate from languages he can read. He’s quite savage about the culture of “versions” and is really unforgiving. It’s a fascinating read it’s in the introduction to Strindberg Plays Two he writes exactly about this issue of doing versions and is completely damning about it and is really hostile in terms of his sense that if you’re doing a “version” then there will always be this instinct to anglicise the language which will always betray the original author and that will always come from a position to assume idiocy on the part of the audience. So that’s one extreme and then I guess someone like David Eldridge might be on the other extreme. That there’s a directness and an openness to the way he writes his versions that while born out of the original text shouldn’t necessarily feel completely beholden to honouring the original syntax, the original rhythm of language.

I read the literal out loud and aspired to get a sniff of that original rhythm and language not just in terms of... I don’t think I’d have had it in my imagination to fucking write anything down – to actually write any words – if I felt too beholden to the original syntax and language. And actually, I think Motton’s underestimating the extent to which all things are fundamentally a version of a version of a version. That’s what theatre is. I think the notion of staging the writer’s original intention is specious. It can’t actually sit with what theatre is or with what theatre is for. Or what theatre is as an artform. People talk about getting into the writer’s head but that’s bollocks. You don’t get into the writer’s head. The only people who will ever get into a writer’s heads are brain surgeons in the unfortunate event of a writer needing brain surgery. The rest of us deal with collaboration all the time.

The more I think about it the more vehemently I feel this, that there is no archetypal platonic form of what a play should be and actually if there was, if Ibsen had directed his own world première in conditions that he dreamt of with actors that he adored it would still be a version. It not that you’re getting inside Ibsen’s head... much I might have wanted... for me this is where theatre’s really interesting, because much as I might have wanted to honour the Scandinavian tradition of portraying Nora as somebody who’s not emblematic of female emancipation and much as I might have wanted to make something more Scandinavian, I didn’t, because I’m not necessarily in cogent control of everything I do as an artist.

Also do you think there’s also a thing that because the audience have their knowledge of the British history of the play...

Yeah. Exactly. I was going to pursue that idea. If one were able to go into a time machine and take that original Ibsen production and transpose it to the National Theatre now or to the Young Vic or to the Lyric or to any theatre in London it would be a different cultural phenomena precisely because all the audiences know the play before they go in. because the play has been mediated by learning it at school or by studying it at university or by other productions of it. And also we’re not – if we saw the original Ibsen production we wouldn’t understand it – most of us wouldn’t understand a fucking word of it, because it’s Swedish

Its what you were talking about on the Guardian website about John Donnelly’s production of The Seagull. All that swearing and all those English words [annoyingly, I can't find this now]. I went to see The Seagull and really enjoyed it, really enjoyed myself and thought John did a super job on it and bought a copy of the book at the interval, and then in the second half I put it on the floor by my seat and in the second half in that old Matcham theatre in Richmond it slipped between the gap between my seat and the seat in front of me, so at the end of the play I had to ask the woman in the seat in front of me if she could pass me my book and they made a joke about me being able to find time to read during watching the play and I said, oh, no, it’s a copy of the play and they asked a really interesting question which was: “is it this play or is it the original?” And they were really enjoying it, they had had a good night, they weren’t being pejorative, but I thought their question was really indicative of lots of different assumptions that we sit on when we go to the theatre. If it had been the original, it would have been in Russian. And a particular old form of Russian that Chekhov would have written in, in the way that Ibsen wrote in Swedish in a particular way. For their contemporaries was not perceived as being old-fashioned or creaky; the play was perceived as being radical. I don’t know if there were actually riots, but what happened in Germany is that a leading actress refused to play the end of the play as it stood, so got Ibsen, and he agreed to do this, got Ibsen to rewrite the ending so that Nora stayed with Torvald and the children. And he did that happily.

Well, her walking out is a decision which could go either way, isn’t it?

What happens in the whole structure of that remarkable third act is that there are a whole load of twists and turns – really quite astonishing gear changes. One of my favourite things about doing the version was writing from Ibsen’s perspective and imagining myself as a dramatist and imagining the things that he’d imagined and the moments that I found hardest to imagine were those moments throughout the third act where he invited characters to go on remarkable shifts of psychological state in tiny spaces of time. So it kicks off with Mrs Lind and Krogstat reconciling, Lind persuading him to drop the debt, them agreeing to be together, which is pretty melodramatic. And one of the hardest things about writing the play was writing that in such a way that it felt to my ears to my brain as being psychologically compelling. That was pretty hard to write that in a way that left me feeling yes if I was him I would say yes to her offer, if I was her I would make this offer. So that’s a slight recalibration of some of the energies. largely cutting actually. I mean, most of the stuff that I did was cutting. I cut 1,000 words from the literal. I think there’s something like 30,000 words, so cutting 1,000 is a 25th lets say, so it’s not tiny...

The Ibsen literal was to an extent actable so it was just about refining and refocussing.

Apart from the technical challenges, and the urge to repoint the British sympathies toward Nora, what was the most interesting aspect of it for you. I mean, does it change you as a playwright?

Yes. I think so. I think if I’d done more of Ibsen it would really fundamentally change me. I think there’s a level of dramaturgical daring in his plays that I find really inspiring. So he rally tries stuff that I wouldn’t try and doing a version I imagine wht it would be like to be him thinking “I am going to make the decision to try this”.

It was a hugely original play for its time...

What was interesting was that it took popular melodrama forms and just operated within the confines of the melodrama. I was just [reading?] an essay this morning about The Third Man by Carol Reed, which was written by Graham Greene and talking about the astonishing achievement of that. I think it’s one of the greatest screenplays and it’s one of Green’s greatest works but the different tension by which it both adheres to noir structure and then sits at odds with it, so there is a kind of femme fatale figure, there are confrontations in cafés with strangers, there are phone calls with nobody on the other end of the line, there’s a big culminating meeting between the hunter and the hunted. It’s all classic kind of noir set pieces but Greene operates within those and structures them to make it a very profound consideration of the morality of the world of post-war black market.

And I think Ibsen does a very similar thing, I think he takes so many moments that in a lesser writer’s hands could be archetypal melodrama, you know? There’s lots of letters never sent, lots of secrets from the past, there’s lots of lovers coincidentally bumping into one another after years of separation, all of this is the meat and drink of melodrama but he uses this convention and writes against it I find that really fascinating. I think like, that third act, I go again and again back to that third act when writing the version thinking “this isn’t going to work. This isn’t possibly going to work. The gear change from him finding the first letter from Krogstat and then effectively banishing Nora from her children and promising to keep her prisoner within her own home to then getting the second letter from Krogstat and in the throes of euphoria and relief he forgives her.” I remember working on that and thinking “this is where we loose the audience”. They’re not going to believe that any fucking sentient human would do this. And so there were two decisions made about that, one was the introduction of the possibility that Torvald’s illness, which is very vague and unspecific in the literal very probably was a kind of mental breakdown so there’s a character with a backstory of erratic psychological behaviour and the other thing was to really amp up the amount of booze he’d had.

And considerations of madness and alcoholism are really central to my writing. Alcoholism and madness return again and again in my plays. Herons, On The Shore of the Wide World, Country Music, there’s stuff about drinking in Pornography, the bottle of gin that runs through Morning as a kind of emblem, The amount of boozing in Three Kingdoms – there’s *a lot* of drinking in Three Kingdoms... There’s a lot of drinking and madness in my plays.

Why?

Because I think they’re kind of things that fascinate me. I come from a family of alcoholics. My dad died when he was 59 of alcohol-related illness. And so as a writer you do return to those things that haunt you. I mean, it’s a long time ago. It’s twelve years ago that he died, but actually the death was nowhere near as definitive to my sense of self as the last ten years of his life, which were all about hiding booze and and drinking at 11 o’clock in the morning. Really brutal. So as a writer that’s something you’re going to return to and obsess about.

I think I’ve tried to be as articulate as I can in my defence of writing versions because I think all literature is built on a process of making versions of versions of versions so I don’t have any truck with the arguments of Gregory Motton who posits, however compellingly and seductively and angrily – and he does and they’re a great read – but I just think he’s wrong.

I think every version of the play is indicative of the things that writers are conscious of when they make a version but also emblematic of the things that they’re unconscious of. And I think that would be the argument of this academic that even writers who would consider themselves to be left-wing, who consider themselves to be feminist, are operating in cultures they can’t control and so it may not be surprising that they write versions that sympathise more with Torvald and which cut Nora’s voice more than they would realise they were doing. And she’s quite interested in statistical analysis although I think she underestimates the power of not speaking.

But I would say, the other thing, and so it’s not surprising that in my version themes that have haunted me like compassionate consideration of mental illness and an interrogation of alcoholism and the presence of alcoholism in our culture that have fascinated me from [his first two plays] Duke and Good Rockin’ Tonight [here he points to the posters on the wall of his office.] right up to Morning and Blindsided, I think. And even Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, actually, those things should be underlined and revealed in my version. It’s amazing rehearsing A Doll’s House at the same time as rehearsing Curious Incident now these are two pieces by two different writers that I’m just doing an adapation of, generated by Mark Haddon and Henrick Ibsen yet being I remember one morning really clearly very vividly having a realisation that the same line appeared in both plays. Which is the line: I could never spend the night in a stranger’s house. Which is something that Christpher Boone says to Mrs Alexandra, his neighbour, and something which Nora says to her husband.

So another consideration of mine which is really central to both these plays is “What is home?” “Is it possible to leave home?” and “Is it ever possibly to return home?” Really simple questions, but they sit in my plays from Bluebird onwards so it’s not surprising that that fascination or revelation should underpin my versions as well.

And the other thing is a consideration of psychological catastrophe of anatomised culture, which is a multisyllabic way of asking the question “Is there such a thing as society?” Have we lost sight of the fact that there is such a thing as society? Because the notion of society carries with it responsibilities as well as rights and in that sense is Nora’s argument to try to justify her departure in my version does she become does she articulate quite post-Thatcherite ideas in the literal version the line that I really think pinged out is a version of the line “There’s no such thing as society”. And there’s part of me that thinks actually Torvald’s got a point. He’s not got a point about Christianity I don’t believe in his argument on Christian grounds, I don’t believe in his argument on grounds of obligations to a husband, but I think sometimes we’re better when we take responsibility for our own actions and commit to the possibility of a shared action and I would as somebody who’s always been kind of social democratic if not socialist in his thinking and certainly would as someone for whom the central architecture of of my life is my family and my responsibilities to my family so it’s not surprising that I don’t see Nora as being an icon of female emancipation. I think she does things which are pretty questionable.

I also think she’s really drunk when she leaves...

Do you think she’s be back the next day?

[Laughs] Yeah, yeah! It’s really interesting because I really hate that question, you know, when people ask me that question of my own plays, I get really pissed off, but actually the two things I am fascinated by are Curious Incident and Doll’s House. Maybe because I didn’t generate them, there’s part of me that is absolutely convinced that Ed and Judy, Christopher Boone’s parents are definitely going to get back together. And really, I don’t know what the hell is going to happen to Nora, but it’s a fascinating question and there’s part of me that thinks she’s going to go back the next day really hung over and apologetic [laughs]. But that might just be indicative of my upbringing [still laughing].

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Paisagem Desconhecida – Teatro Nacional D. Maria II

[seen 17/07/14]


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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 18 July 2014

Alemanha – Fórum Romeu Correia

[seen 17/07/14]


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Íon – Teatro Municipal Joachim Benite

[seen 15/07/14]


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Shorts: Melody Maker and “European” Theatre

[a thought]


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ubu Roi – Escola D. António Da Costa

[seen 15/07/14]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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