Sunday, 26 March 2017

The [Person] Who Watched The World – Mladinsko Gledališče, Ljubljana

[seen 23/03/17]


It opens with the five performers standing on the black stage, silhouetted in front of slide shows from the five projectors next to them – a kind of analogue cross-fade collage of autumn leaves, old family photos, world heritage sites, pictures from the history books...

“I wish I was a dog” says one of the performers, the not-quite-characters. He just wants to be taken care of. To have food and shelter provided. To be loved and to be charming enough that when he makes mistakes he can just hide his nose under his paws and be forgiven. For this he will endure small children shouting in his ears and pulling his fur.

Žiga Divjak’s The [Person] Who Watched The World (Človek, ki je gledal svet) gradually turns out to be a non-stop, two-hour devised miniature-epic of globalisation. In the first scene we meet a Chinese family – a mother and father’s touching memories of how they met, etc, are quickly superseded by descriptions of their daily work routines in a factory sewing clothes, of their concerns for their childrens’ futures, and a description of their return to see their parents and children on their annual holiday, and how their concern over school grades poisons this rare time with the family.

Knowing nothing about the piece except the running time beforehand, you settle quickly into the engaging storytelling mode, and perhaps anticipate two hours about inequities in the lives of Chinese factory workers.

Then, in the next scene, a (I assume) Slovenian woman outlines her dread at her 40th birthday party, freezing the action and talking us back through her adult life; asking, really, when was I supposed to have children during any of this? It’s not showy, or flashy, or overly dramatic. At all. Indeed, its a conversation that feels almost farcically familiar across “Western” Europe too. There’s an admirable lack of self-pity, though. Merely the simple, practical questions of “When?” “With whom?” “Paid for how?” while the concepts of a stable career, or even job, are whittled away to nothing.

In another scene (the next one?), a son sits next to his father and describes the events that lead up to his (the son’s) suicide. They are Indian cotton farmers. They are mis-sold vastly expensive genetically modified crops. They take out loans to pay for the crops. They take out loans to pay for the insecticides that – contrary to the sales pitch – are vital. The crops fail anyway. They take out a further loan to buy more seeds, because these GM crops are sterile. The crops fail again. The son has put his family in so much debt that he kills himself. His neighbours kill themselves. An entire eco-system falls apart. The clear-sighted analysis of precisely what is wrong with this system is horrifying.

In another scene (the next?), we meet a Syrian activist who is online, encouraging his friends to join the revolt of March 2011. It will be like the Egyptian revolution, but better, he tells his friends. The events escalate. The first day, four people are shot dead by the police. The world is watching, they say, surely now they will intervene. On the second day eight people are shot. On the fourth or fifth day, 58 people are shot. By 2016, 470,000 have been killed. Again, it’s so simply stated that your stomach lurches at the sheer horror of it.

And we’re reminded, by being in the theatre, by watching these white European actors, also by hearing stories about the way in which our labour conditions are being abused, by watching actors doubtless wearing jeans ‘made in China’, by being aware that as we watch a play there are people being bombed. It’s not underlined. It’s not histrionic. It’s not preachy, and nor is it condescending. You’re just gradually told a lot of stories, and you know that these are things you already knew, but (if you’re anything like me) you don’t really like to think about and are pretty good at avoiding on a daily basis. As a statement on Western privilege it’s immensely powerful, and, sure, within “The West” (of which I guess Slovenia is now a de facto part) there are also hierarchies, within every country, there’ll be people exploiting other people; but on top of all that, there are demonstrable levels of comfort here that don’t even begin to exist elsewhere. And that these things are interconnected is unarguable. It’s not even contested. So, yeah; as a result, it’s not an easy watch by any means.

Theatrically, it’s very simple and unadorned. For the China scene a table of five sewing machines is wheeled on, for the Indian family, there are just three chairs. For the monologue (mostly) by the childless 40-year-old woman, there’s just a mic stand, and the cast stood around being the rest of her family. The slide-projectors return to the stage a couple of times, for surprisingly effective lo-fi visual theatre interludes, and there’s even an intriguing, one-off scene in which three actors enter the stage clad in white bio-hazard type suits and seem to spray or paint a blossoming tree of some description.

There are more scenes, quite a lot more, but these are the ones that really stayed with me. Overall The [Person] Who Watched The World is a remarkably effective piece about the modern world, about what “globalisation” really means. And what was perhaps most fascinating of all for me (as a soon-to-be-Brexited Briton) was just how much the UK and Slovenia now seem to have in common economically. I mean, think about that for a minute: 27 years ago (or; for the first 14 years of my life) Slovenia was a part of non-aligned Socialist Yugoslavia; now its young people (even middle-aged people) have almost exactly the same work/life issues as their peers in London or New York, and built on the same exploitation of workers in the developing world.


Cast:
Sara Dirnbek
Ivan Godnič
Anja Novak
Gregor Dust
Katarina Stegnar
Matija Vastl

The authors of texts are the creators of the show [or: “devised by the ensemble”]

Director – Žiga Divjak
Dramaturg – Katarina Morano
Set designer – Tina Mohorović
Costume designer – Tina Pavlović
Music – Beno Gec
Language consultant – Mateja Dermelj
Lighting Designer – David Orešič
Sound Designer – Beno Gec Marijan Sajovic
Author and designer of video slideshows – Domen Martinčič
Stage manager – Janez Pavlovčič

Monday, 20 March 2017

A Decade of Postcards: Attempts on Her Life – National Theatre, 2007

[posted 20/03/07]



It is ten years (TEN YEARS!) since my review of Katie Mitchell’s NT production of Attempts on Her Life was posted pre-Postcards, on (the now-defunct) CultureWars.org.

Here it is (just in case CultureWars ever disappears):

Written ten years ago, Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life represents one of the high points of experimental theatre, of any theatre, written in the last quarter-century. As the play’s subtitle – Seventeen Scenarios For Theatre – suggests, Attempts... is not a linear narrative. The ‘scenarios’ take various implied forms, from monologues, adverts and pop lyrics through to numerous negotiations between unnamed speakers in unspecified locations, all trying to pin down the nature of an unseen central character: ‘Anne’. This ‘Anne,’ or Anny, or Anushka, appears variously to be a suicidal singles-holiday hostess, an international terrorist, a porn actress, a suicidal modern artist, a refugee and a make of car, among other things. Like I said, it’s non-linear.

In script form, the play is partly an exercise in examining the way words on a page create the ‘reality’ on the stage and the way that directors and actors assign meaning to dialogue. As Crimp does not allocate specific lines to a particular speaker – indeed the script doesn't even indicate the number of actors in the cast – there is no sense in which any production of the piece can ever be definitive. The writing itself is by turns witty, perceptive, cynical, beautiful and cruel. It is so stylistically accomplished that the play is at once both an open invitation to a director and an entity with a clearly defined aesthetic of its own. It is a perplexing, wide-ranging, inconclusive exploration of seemingly endless concerns; simultaneously very English, comfortably European, necessarily trans-Atlantic and truly global.

Katie Mitchell’s production is a logical next-step from her recent devised piece suggested by Virginia Woolf'’s The Waves, seen in the Cottesloe last year. But, where Waves worked on a human scale, and much of the fun was watching the actors close-up creating video and sound effects being projected onto the screen above the stage, Attempts... is altogether more totalitarian in its aesthetic. The screen here totally dominates the stage, to the extent that occasionally performers are playing direct to camera, with their backs to the audience, in near-darkness. It suits the play perfectly; Attempts... is overwhelmingly concerned with the media image - the power of the screen - and this vast, Orwellian display powerfully demonstrates the hold that the projected image can have. The presence of the actors remains vital, however. This is very much a live performance. The fact that you watch the performers create the images live remains absolutely central throughout.

It is rare to see so many outstanding performances in what is ostensibly an ensemble piece; almost every actor shines. They are, by turns, compelling and charming, playful and terrifying, while the negotiation of their relationship to the text, to the stage, to the screen and to the audience is fascinating. The scene changes, controlled by an abrupt alarm siren, suggest performers suddenly forced to improvise their way through telling each portion of the script. Each scene seems to begin with its first speaker off-camera, lost on the stage having to start unexpectedly, as if caught unawares, but knowing that once started they must continue.

The style of the ‘films’ and images created on the stage and projected live onto the vast screen varies wildly, from scenes reminiscent of David Lynch through daytime television chatshow interviews and news bulletins, to the X-Files and press conferences, with a cop show thrown in for good measure. Elsewhere the postmodernism gets cranked up a notch with a brilliantly funny pastiche of well-known pop videos. There is also pitch-perfect Newsnight Review parody with Liz Kettle offering a hilarious impression of a certain Australian feminist critic. Another scene - ‘The Camera Loves You’ - has been turned into a rock song [see above], complete with brilliantly absurd video in which Paul Ready strikes Hamlet poses, while Zubin Varla slips into a full-on post-punk growl and Claudie Blakely proves an astonishingly good drummer. The moment she sits at the drum kit and kicks off is electrifying. It’s not often you find avant garde theatre that makes you want to stage dive.

The production is unafraid to veer wildly from extremes of parody to genuine horror. The overall effect is like being hit by a force ten gale. It is so concentrated, there is such a media overload, that it is nigh-on impossible to process all the ideas with which you are assaulted.

This is, without a doubt, the best thing currently showing in a theatre in London. It is also the first production in the National’s excellent Travelex £10 ticket season. To reiterate: if you can get a Travelex ticket before they all sell out, the best show in London only costs £10. It is essential viewing. Go.


Re-reading it now, I’m pleasantly surprised that I still stand by pretty much every word (except “Orwellian”. Tsk.) I’m struck by how differently I’d probably write about the show now – probably with more detail and less insistence on its excellence in every single line – but back then I think I was probably still engaged in a project of just trying to write “proper” reviews, but with better opinions in them. Not such a dishonourable project, although I notice that my economic wordcount means there’s less detail than I’d like now.

In my short piece “Martin and Me” (Contemporary Theatre Review, v.24, issue 3), I tried to explain why the production meant so much to me:

“Thanks to the sheer poor taste of Britain’s professional critics in 2007, the National Theatre didn’t have much by way of ‘good notices’ to post on their website, so they led with mine. It was the first time anything I’d ever written had been used for publicity. A few weeks later I was reading Encore Theatre Magazine’s piece about the Dead White Males debacle and there was a comment – written by someone I’d never met – saying that my review was more intelligent and perceptive than the rest of them put together. That was the first time I’d ever had a sense of anyone beyond my friends reading what I wrote, let alone thinking it was good...

“As such, I’ve always felt I owed rather a lot to that performance of Attempts on her Life. It wasn’t that it gave me a bit of confidence in what I was doing; more, it gave me a sense of purpose. Here was the best thing that I’d ever seen in a theatre and Every Single Broadsheet Critic had disliked it. I accept not everyone will love the same things as me, but this was a situation where the views of myself, most of my friends, and clearly a huge number of other theatregoers, were entirely unrepresented by the critics. The situation needed to be changed...”

But, really, it’s not the review that means a lot to me, it’s still the show. Obviously. (What kind of idiot/ego-monster prefers their review to a show they loved?) It still feels, ten years later, like it was the first time I saw a “mainstream” show in England and thought FUCK, YES. THIS IS WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT. I don't think that feeling ever goes away, really.


Saturday, 18 March 2017

City of Glass – HOME, Manchester

[seen 09/03/17]


It’s maybe interesting to reflect sometimes on the sort of review you’d have written about a particular piece of theatre at various earlier stages in one’s life.

First, I’ll be up-front and honest and admit that I didn’t *love* City of Glass. If I had, I’d doubtless be writing exactly the sort of rave I just wrote about Hamlet a week ago, or about Attempts on Her Life a decade ago.

Probably a long time ago, before I knew any of the people involved in making City of Glass, and when I seemed to take every piece of theatre I didn’t like personally, I can imagine an earnest, arch, scathing, attack-review which would have probably held Duncan Macmillan and 59 Productions wholly responsible for destroying all of contemporary British theatre with technology. (Sorry, Complité!) In my defence, back then it wasn’t unreasonable for me to recognise that, in terms of power dynamics, I was nothing, nowhere. Any punching I did would necessarily be upwards.

I can imagine another sort of review a few years later, probably when I was living in Berlin, where I’d have conducted an pretty unfair, largely unsubstantiated, complete character assassination of [in this case, Paul Auster], based largely on my incomplete attempt to once read New York Stories in 1999, and on the story of City of Glass (the first story in that book) as it is presented in this production. It’s true that neither my 1999 self, nor my 2010 self, nor my now-self, especially get on with City of Glass. None of us get on with If On A Winter’s Night, A Traveller by Italo Calvino either, nor with Umberto Eco particularly. And that’s the sort of tricksy (and, we’d say empty) literary postmodernism we’re looking at in the source material. Obviously it’s hugely highly regarded by many people, but taste is a difficult thing, and there we are. At this point, I don’t think I had a great deal more “power” as a reviewer, and punches could be traded on a more-or-less equal basis; which might go some way to explaining the level of savagery, if not fully excusing it.

Another sort of review, a couple of years after that – forged in the surprisingly febrile, post-Three Kingdoms blogosphere world populated by Maddy Costa and Jake Orr’s Dialogue Project, and the genesis of “embedded criticism” – might now be termed “proto-snowflake reviewing”; criticism wrestling with the problem of how to talk about work which, for one reason or another, hadn’t fully worked for the critic. (Sorry, Sam Pritchard! Still, that all worked out in the end, right?) I suppose by that stage, the balance of power was felt to have shifted. That bloggers clearly had some degree of influence, and one had to try to behave with something that faintly resembled responsibility. Or, more than that, there was a desire to be better in our ethics than the mainstream critics. We couldn’t very well accuse them of being cheap and irresponsible if we also were. So there was now also deemed to be a down where we didn’t go punching. Even if there was also still an up... Perhaps the approaches of 2012 still hold sway a bit here. Here I am, five years later, still trying to be mature and responsible which not especially having liked a thing (I mean, it’s fine; I didn’t hate City of Glass or anything...)

Another approach from around that time was the ever so slightly snarky reviewed-in-the-style-of review. Cf. Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information (still possibly the best thing I've ever written by a country mile). In the story, a man receives a phone call for Paul Auster, a private detective. Later the man meets Paul Auster, the writer. Paul Auster, the (necessarily) fictional writer who shares the name of the story’s author, tells the man about a paper he’s written about how Don Quixote is written by Don Quixote’s friends to prove to him that he’s mad. Or not mad. Or something. (Ok, I wasn’t concentrating hard enough.) I considered writing this review as a story in which I was erroneously contacted as Duncan Macmillan, the critic, and ended up writing this review he'd been commissioned to write of City of Glass to see what would happen. Instead, I’ve indulged in an altogether different sort of bibliographical exercise in monstrous self-regard, which possibly also echoes my feelings on Auster’s novella.

Later still – perhaps circa 2014 – I’d maybe have prefaced my review of Duncan’s adaptation by demonstrating exhaustively that I was the only critic in the UK actually equipped to put this piece into the context of Macmillan’s extensive body of adaptations. Sure, everyone saw 1984, but literally no other bugger saw Reise Durch Die Nacht or Wunschloses unglück did they? (and probably people forget that he “wrote” Forbidden Zone and 2071...). I would have argued that without seeing at least Reise... or ...unglück it was impossible to really appreciate how this adaptation could have worked... But, I’ve hopefully matured beyond that sort of point-scoring now.

In the end, we need to get down to facts (or at least, things I definitely thought): I thought it was a valuable experiment for the company.

I think there are still fundamental problems in theatre for the meshing of live actors with fixed, digitally-created video projections. I think this project highlighted those problems more than it solved them. That said, I think it was infinitely more sophisticated and successful in its use of video than A Disappearing Number 10 years ago. I have no doctrinal objections to people trying to get video and liveness integrated. On the other hand, how would I have solved the problems of this production? By getting the actors to work with just the script  and a director for four weeks, and by having the thing performed on an stage that was empty except for a big white square wall in the middle of the blackness, behind which they could disappear when needed.

But I still don’t think the story would have especially appealed to me. Not completely sure why, and groping for rationales tends to make one come out with silly, rather absolutist-sounding statements (probably – in this case – about America, white, male privilege, and all the sordid rest of it). By the end of the review, I’d have probably ended up blaming Auster for Trump. Which would be silly.

In the end, I’d much rather have been Brian Gorman, writing for ReviewsHub, who seems to have absolutely loved City of Glass and writes about with real enthusiasm and verve.  

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Shorts: Much blunted purpose...

[: on Hamlet...]


I meant to write this piece about a week ago, but instead – aptly – I just kept thinking about doing it instead of actually doing it.

The point of this piece is to try to pin down the meaning of the one scene in Rob Icke’s Hamlet that neither I, nor Michael Billington, nor several of my friends, properly understood. It is Act 3, scene iii. Specifically it’s the bit where Hamlet comes across Claudius, essentially talking to himself about having murdered his brother, Hamlet’s father.

Traditionally, the scene is played with the actor playing Claudius probably facing out to the audience (or a bit sideways, if it’s a fourth wall, psychological realism production), with the actor playing Hamlet creeping in somewhere where Claudius obviously can’t see him. Claudius says his bit, and Hamlet tells us, the audience, that he could kill Claudius there and then, but since he’s praying, that’s no kind of revenge, because Claudius killed Old Hamlet before he’d had a chance to confess his sins. Played like this, I’ve always thought Hamlet’s reasoning was pretty sound. But that belief hinges entirely on everything that’s been said to Hamlet being true. Essentially, it hinges on believing – at least in the world of the play – in ghosts.

In Icke’s production (at least on press night – for all I know, the scene may now have undergone a bit of tweaking since I saw it), Claudius and Hamlet play the scene facing each other. And, for the only time in the play, I was unsure who could see whom. I didn’t know what was meant to be real, and what wasn’t. Which I found interesting. Not least because in all other respects, the production is marked by a startling clarity.

It’s not the first time that Icke has brought his own logic, plus his cinema-literate thinking, to bear on a classic text. In his Oresteia, Icke – perhaps irritable with inconsistencies between the position of Electra in the Oresteia, and in the play Electra, and in other versions of the story – seemed to imply that maybe there was no Electra. That Orestes only had one sister, Iphigenia, who had been murdered by their father, Agamemnon. In order to avenge Agamemnon’s subsequent murder by Clytemnestra – Agamemnon’s wife, Orestes’s mother, Iphigenia’s mother – he creates another sister, outraged by the murder of her father, to help him tip the balance of justice and convince himself to murder his own mother in revenge for her murder of his father. We see, on stage, what only Orestes can see in his mind. Here, I wonder if the same device is used, with the purpose and thinking almost exactly reversed.

It was Andrzej Łukowski in his Time Out review, who offered possibly the strongest reading of Icke’s Hamlet from the initial batch of reviews – it is a Hamlet that does not believe Claudius killed Old Hamlet. (I’m also indebted in this piece to the thoroughness and rigour of Florence Bell’s review.) It’s a compelling thesis, and thinking about it certainly opens up ways for thinking about how 3.iii operates.

Consider this: there is no proof that Claudius murders Old Hamlet except that Hamlet is told so by a ghost, and then this confession. Claudius’s exit – across the stage in this production – at The Mousetrap (The Murder of Gonzago) could simply be down to his being royally fucked off with Hamlet’s shit (as Andrzej memorably put it on Twitter). So there are only two real “proofs”.

The Ghost in Icke’s production is ambiguous. Something happens, clearly, because Hamlet isn’t the only person who “sees” it. At least, Horatio, Marcellus, and some guards see a ghost in their machine, but on screen only, and silent. Only Hamlet sees The Ghost on stage. And he can embrace it. Clap his hands on it. Have a loving father-son embrace with it. Should that alert us to the idea that this isn’t how ghosts are meant to exist? Is this ghost a phantasm of Hamlet’s misery; a conjuration of his mind so tangible to him that he can hold it? It’s notable, for example, that this ghost never exhorts the others to swear the oath that Hamlet offers them. As well as no one else ever seeing the “live” (on-stage) ghost, no one else ever hears it either. Is Icke telling us to stop being so silly? That ghosts aren’t real, we damn well know it, and to watch the play like sensible moderns? Or at least, is that one reading he’s now made strongly available to us? It strikes me as plausible.

From this then proceeds a possible answer to what’s happening in 3.iii. This Claudius too, could be a live fragment from Hamlet’s mind. A thinking-through by the Danish prince of what he’d do if he could kill Claudius, who all the while is confessing to his crime.

I even wonder if the fact that the scene does feel unclear when you first see it isn’t ultimately more helpful to audiences than a more signposted, spoonfeedy version would be. It’s this scene, and not knowing how to pin it down, that has made me think harder about what Icke might be saying with his Hamlet than any other scene – most of which I just “enjoyed”. Rather than being a mistake, it feels like it might be a necessary rupture in the whole that forces us to think about what it is we’re watching. The glitch that draws attention to the constructedness of the perfection around it.

Having said all that, I’d still be really fascinated to read Icke (or Scott, or Wright)’s own explanations for what they’re doing in that moment, at some point in the future.


Still listening to this, btw:




*apologies for the horrible visual pun in the cover photo.  

The Suppliant Women – ATC/Lyceum at the Royal Exchange, Manchester

[seen 15/03/17]


Having already seen one version of Aeschylus’s Ἱκέτιδες (Die Schutzbefohlenen) – albeit unrecognisable in its adaptation by Elfriede Jelinek – re-tooled as “The Migrant Crisis Play For Our Times,” I suppose I went in here thinking I knew what to expect; some Ancient Hmming and Greek Hawing that ends up delivering a strong message of compassion and universal love for our fellow humans.

Wrong!

So wrong!

Within moments of Lyceum (Edinburgh) Artistic Director David Greig’s new version of the text starting – a version admittedly crammed with modern usages of “migrant” and “asylum” – we are a) forcibly reminded that this is a play from ancient Greece, and b) that the Ancient Greeks cherished a very different values to us. (If “us” can even still be said to cherish just one set of values.) Yes, there are also similarities of situation, but the basic culture to which they are happening is also immeasurably different to ours in its assumptions. In part it is the differences that make this evening so compelling.

The Story of The Suppliant Women, we are told, is the only surviving play from a trilogy (Wikipedia says Tetralogy, including the Satyr play Amymone). It is the first play. Only one word of the second play remains (some bloke’s name, apparently), and only thirteen lines of the final play, which are read to us. In this first play, a group of women have sailed to Argos from Ägypt, to escape being forcibly married to the sons of Ägyptos, who are also their cousins. Of course, with the news filled with stories of ISIS, Boko Haram – forced “marriages” amounting precisely to rape – and the continuing flight of refugees from those countries, it isn’t much of a stretch to find contemporary resonances here. Which is what makes the rest of the play so surprising.

The second play of the trilogy apparently depicts the complete destruction of Argos by the Egyptians, who appear towards the end of The Suppliant Women, demanding the return of “their women” by the Greeks. This fact, which we are told in the opening moments of the play – a fact which Greek audiences would have known from the get go, as surely we know the ending of Hamlet – informs the entire progress of the play. With our 20:20 hindsight, we watch knowing that the Greek King, Pelagus, is in an impossible situation. The suppliants claim the protection of Zeus – which is probably more effective than making an appeal to the conscience of a male King in a slave-owning “democracy” wherein women cannot vote. But we still hear their pleas with our 21st century ears, and it seems that the ancient king behaves more nobly and humanely than our own dismal leadership. However, we also know that in doing so, he has sealed his city’s fate. But then, we also know that not doing so would have also damaged the city beyond measure (because you don’t fuck around with Zeus). So, what possible lesson can be learned here? What conclusion for our own times can possibly be discerned? There is part of me that would argue that this is a tension also present in the production; between Greig’s compassionate text and Gray’s dispassionate understanding of the Greeks’ original fatalism.

There are other fascinating aspects to the play, too. The woman’s understandable reluctance to marry their violent male cousins turns out to be a wider part of a strange sort of cult of virginity, apparently instituted by their father, Danaos – so when they finally meet their hosts, the Greek citizens, they essentially greet them with a sharp and pre-emptive refusal to marry a single one of them. Danaos – in a fascinating speech – entreats them all to behave mildly and courteously toward their hosts, but instead they stick to their abrasive guns (as is their right, of course).

So, yes. It’s a far more knotty and difficult play than I had been imagining. Certainly there’s no happy take-home here re: “be nice to refugees”. Instead, if The Suppliant Women has “a message” it’s pretty much “hope that no refugees ever turn up in the first place. If they do, you have to take them, and taking them ensures your destruction.” I can imagine certain alt.right politicians taking great comfort from this play. Little surprise, of course, since the alt.right pretty much models itself on Roman fascism, which took its roots from Greek civilisation. Perhaps the real contradiction of the play, then, is not about refugees at all, but in the women’s plea to be saved from “MALE VIOLENCE,” when what they’re really calling for is far superior military violence on the part of their saviours. Have the military strength necessary to uphold your highest principals, might be another uncomfortable (but indisputable) take-home message here. No surprise either, of course; the history of the century in which the play was written is the history of near non-stop military strikes and counter-strikes between the Mediterranean micro-states that have now been ludicrously configured by the Steve Bannons of this world as Orient and Occident.


Almost irrespective of all the above – and perhaps this is another stroke of Ramin Gray’s production’s genius – the performance itself feels somehow at once defiant and celebratory.

The production itself is fascinating. After what has recently felt like a complete capitulation by British Theatre to the Icke and Mitchell approach to The Greeks, Gray here creates a production which while also entirely contemporary, is also almost the exact opposite to those productions. Gone are the detailed naturalistic modern interiors and expensive-looking props and costumes. Here instead is a genius-simple breezeblock parquet floor (Lizze Clachan; top of her game) and colourful rehearsal-room (or Glastonbury) fatigues. Instead of Icke’s painstaking atheist excisions and rewritings into glassy/steely RP, Greig’s text instead sinuously wrangles the ancient Greek (Gods ‘n’ all) into a warm granite of modern British demotic.

Most of all, though, where Mitchell and Icke turn the plays of Aeschylus into modern dramatic theatre, Gray, along with composer John Browne, return to the text something like the ancient music that is thought to have originally accompanied these plays.

(Neither approach is *better*, btw. Both work beautifully. “Yay!” for More Than One Thing Working! Go, contrast!)

The composition of the performing corps is also interesting. As you may know, all but five of the cast are volunteers from the local community. Something like 30 young women, 15 young men, and a further 20 or so people playing the citizens of Argos. I mean, quite apart from anything else, it’s just brilliant to see choruses this size in anything. And, at the Exchange, they fill the stage completely. It vaguely strikes me that far, far more plays should be made like this. The approach also works because these are not mere supernumeraries – the chorus of suppliant women themselves constitute most of the playing time of the piece.

But, most important of all, they are not static. (Not that I mind static choruses.) But, no. Not here. Choreographer Sasha Milavic Davies has created a stunning kinetic sculpture of a thing here. The chorus of suppliant women have an almost endless drilled routine that ranges in reference from modern contemporary dance to Beyoncé’s Lemonade visual album. Cleverly put together so that it can practically be danced by untrained volunteers, it still looks about as impressive as anything you’ll see on the theatre stage by way of movement. (And, most crucially for theatre “movement”, it doesn’t once look like it owes a single thing to the execrable visual daubings of Frantic Assembly. Please – if nothing else – let this be that end of that overlong dependency. It wasn’t even good to begin with, but it’s been fifteen fucking years now...)

The net result of all these elements colliding is remarkable. The production elements: the music, the choreography, the acting (I’ve hardly mentioned the main actors – they are very strong, clear, funny. Sympathetic-and-not-sympathetic at once... Really clever, understated performances), the design, the community/volunteer element... And all this in service of a strange, savage, incomplete, myterious play of uncertain purpose. Perhaps that’s the most exciting thing of all. Unlike so much of what we’re given on stage in Britain, which *hints quite heavily* at what the playwright and/or director might want us to think, here we have a piece of uncertainty for our deeply uncertain times. It’s a production which takes the risk of people drawing “the wrong conclusions”. Audiences could legitimately go away from this piece having had their far-right prejudices confirmed. The challenge it offers to a thinking left-wing audience is what do we do with this difficult piece of humanity’s ancient past?


Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Government attempts to shut down controversial production...

[published 13/03/17]


Written for The Stage.

(I've reinstated the headline I originally suggested for the piece here. But, frankly, having it published the day that Lyn Gardner announces her Theatre Blogs are to be cut by 150 a year rather swallowed up any hope that anyone will have read it, no matter how what the headline was.)

Monday, 13 March 2017

Hansel and Gretel – Opera North at the Lowry Centre, Salford

[seen 08/03/17]


There’s an essay in the programme for Edward Dick’s new production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1893 opera, Hänsel und Gretel, written by musicologist Andrew Mellor, which begins thus: “In a field as full of bristling ideology and argument as 19th-century opera, it’s rare to come across a work that everybody seems to adore. But for some reason, we all love Hansel and Gretel...” Reading it just after watching the piece, I thought: yes, that’s exactly right.

I’m a long way from being an authority on C19th opera, but the rest of this essay also seemed to confirm/make sense of the feelings and/or questions I’d had about the music while watching. Essentially: is this what Wagner would sound like with all the ‘I’m also a massive wanker’ taken out? Yes it is. Apparently Humperdinck and Wagner were mates, and the latter clearly had a musical influence over the former. But Humperhinck was also mates with Richard Strauss (who conducted the world première of the piece in Weimar in 1893) and Gustav Mahler (who conducted the Hamburg première in 1894).

Placed in the Lowry’s Lyric Theatre – its curiously coloured, high-vaulted barn of a room, probably better designed as a postmodern stop-off for wandering West End musicals – perhaps the fine detail of the music suffers slightly. But this was the first time I’d ever heard it, I had nothing to compare it with, and I was still able to think it was incredibly lovely, so, y’know...

The main question I had, coming out of the piece was: WHY HAVE I BEEN ALLOWED TO GET TO THE AGE OF FORTY WITHOUT EVER HAVING HEARD THIS?*

Then there’s the production. And, bloody hell... I came out close to swearing that this is the best staging of an opera I’ve ever seen. I mean, “operas I’ve seen” isn’t such a huge field, but nonetheless, there it is: Ed Dick’s Hansel and Gretel seems, to me, to be certainly one of the most impressive marriage of music, staging, and intellectual content/concept/conceits that I’ve ever seen.

It’s helped by the fact that the music is Very Good Indeed, but nosing around on YouTube afterward so I could listen to it again, I did come across enough videos of other stagings to convince me that it isn’t *just* the music that carries it by a very long chalk.

Apparently the design of the show (Giles Cadle) – at root, a very bog-standard, three-walled room – is common to all three fairy tale-themed pieces in Opera North’s winter season. The highest compliment I can pay to its appearance here is that I would have sworn blind that it was purpose built for this exact show, and I can’t imagine the production having a better set. It’s a rarity in British Opera production, because it doesn’t go out of its way to look expensive. Not even expensively grungy. And into this room, Dick and Cadle (plus pitch-perfect costumes: Christina Cunningham) fling the ruins of Brexit Britain, making this Hansel and Gretel not only contemporary but urgent. There’s no silly attempt at mapping everything onto C19th Germany, just odd, funny, often even ridiculous little tweaks (the brushes that H&G are making are union-flag-emblazoned cheap plastic brooms for Brexit celebrations), which remind us of the world we’re living in, which situate the characters in an all too comprehensible framework, but which In. No. Way. interferes with the immediacy of the story or the music. It’s very well done. (Like Icke’s Hamlet, the contemporaneity helps the thing be more like itself today.)

And then there’s the use of video (Ian William Galloway). Yes, yes. I know. We’ve seen video used before. But then, we’ve seen flats painted to look like the inside of houses before too, so moaning about video qua video is pretty much the dumbest thing imaginable. The question is, how’s it used? And the answer here is: about as intelligently as I’ve seen on the British stage. Actually, scratch British; it’d be intelligent anywhere (just less surprising that this was the case on the mainland). It starts out as a handheld camera that H&G use to film each other, live-projected onto the back wall of the set. It feels realistic enough (although the thought occurs that if that family are quite this poor, they could probably feed themselves for a while off the proceeds from the sale of their state-of-the-art camcorder...), but we can maybe not take it too literally.

In any event, this is just the start of it. When H&G leave their parents’ high rise council flat for a forage in the woods, they create the woods themselves by zooming the camera through tacky Christmas decoration trees that their father evidently stockpiles and sells on (when not flogging Brexit brooms). These xmas decorations, filmed close up, and projected onto the blank walls of the flat, become the forest they’re standing in. And then, for another scene change [sorry, bit spoilery...] to the witch’s house, they simply zoom into a fridge stuffed with sugary snacks and fizzy drinks which – projected onto the walls on the stage – become the interior or the witch’s gingerbread house.

The kitschy, trashy aesthetic seems to me to serve multiple purposes at once. On one hand, it provides a semi- social commentary – although, crucially, not one which judges children who live in council flats and like eating sweets – and at the same time, provides precisely the necessary burst of seductive colour to contrast with the drab life of poverty, and the chilly exterior of the forest. It allows the whole to feel like both German art-house theatre (think Castorf and Pollesch) AND British Panto. AT THE SAME TIME. And, more than this, to function as both simultaneously. With no loss of clarity or compromise to integrity of either. Now, if that’s not a bloody neat trick, I don’t know what is. I can’t remember the last time I saw something function so perfectly on at least two level at once.

(Oh, and I should just put in a note here to remind myself, if no one else, that there was a section of pure video footage that played over an interlude/prelude showing young Hansel and Gretel on holiday at the seaside with their gran, and it was ludicrously moving and powerful. Way beyond what was probably intended, but, yeah. Oof.)

The key to the production’s overall success, I suspect, is the binding agent of Humperhinck’s music. It is both jolly and beautiful. Worthy of both enjoyment and respect. And what Dick’s staging does it allow all the possibilities to exist at the same time – alongside some of the clearest storytelling and acting-in-opera that I’ve ever seen. I mean, how often, really, do you see an opera (performed in English, as here) where you really don’t need to read the surtitles?

So, yes. More like this, please. Lots more.



[Also, respect to the Lowry for having the most diverse audience I’ve ever seen in an English opera. Possibly it’s something to do with the fact that NO TICKETS are prohibitively expensive? Who knew?]

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Hamlet – Almeida, Islington

[seen 28/02/17]


[I’m going to talk about the whole thing; for the benefit of people who won’t get to see it, for posterity, and so I don’t forget anything I loved in the future. There will probably be spoilers]

Robert Icke’s new production of Hamlet for the Almeida is beautiful.

Hildegard Bechtler’s design is simple, minimal, and modern, with maybe a slight hint of those Scandinavian BBC4 box-sets (chiefly The Bridge and Borgen) that have re-awoken the British ability to sit through four hours of something with only a couple of loo breaks. There is a simple corridor of parallel glass walls upstage, and an elegant Nordic-looking corner-sofa downstage right. There is an expensively tasteful floor lamp, and a couple of chairs which come on and off as required. There’s also a CCTV monitoring desk, and panel of large televisions which rise and fall from the flies. Natasha Chivers’s lighting mostly has a cold pale glare to it.

This isn’t just a modern-dress Hamlet. As with his translations of Oresteia and Uncle Vanya, Icke has unshowily cleaned up Shakespeare’s early-modern English; trimming and re-wording where the passage of 400 years has rendered words or phrases obsolete or impenetrable. (So long, “chalice for the nonce.”) The effect is one of complete comprehensibility (even if “fardels” does make the cut). For a four-hour show (inc. two fifteen minute intervals, endearingly spaced thus: 1hr55, 35mins, 55mins), and one which normally features at least two and a half characters whose chief characteristics are wind-baggery and tedium, this feels a remarkably lean Hamlet.


Robert Icke’s Hamlet is also brilliant.

The cast of this Hamlet must be one of the best ever assembled. Still in the afterglow, I’m pretty willing to say this has absolutely the best Ophelia I’ve ever seen (Jessica Brown-Findlay, unrecognisable from Uncle Vanya or Oresteia), the best Polonius (Peter Wight), and definitely the best Claudius by a country-mile (Angus Wright). Juliet Stevenson is a revelation of quiet understatement, reaction and “truthfulness” as Gertrude. Hell, it probably also has the best Guildenstern (Amaka Okafor), the best Reynaldo (Daniel Rabin) and far and away the best Gravedigger (Barry Aird). And even those I’ve not named above have also apparently erased my memories of anyone else I’ve seen ever playing their parts, suc h was the strength of their characterisations.

The chief virtue here is the meticulous unpicking of all the bullshit stage convention baggage that the text has picked up over the centuries. Take Ophelia, for example. You know how she’s almost always a whiny drip with the most insanely irritating voice in the universe? Not here. Brown-Findlay behaves exactly as you’d imagine a posh girl at the beginning of a relationship with the heir to the Danish throne would behave. She’s credible and steely. Nothing is overplayed. The rapid pace of the thing means we never really dwell on what’s happening to her. She’s quickly bundled into this plot to spy on Hamlet by Claudius and her father, Hamlet has his suspicions from the outset, they have a row and her reaction – anger and shame – is etched all over her face. His injustice and her culpability sit irresolvably side-by-side.

Similarly, Peter Wight doesn’t do a single one of Those Polonius Things That Actors Do. He’s like An Actual Person. As if Icke sat down with a red pen and crossed out every last one those agonising Theatre Laughs. The thing you realise, sitting down to write about it, is that all these characters also resist the usual simplistic adjectival filing. You can’t say Wight’s Polonius is “ponderous” or “tedious” nor is he “bluff” or “businesslike” instead. He’s like the man he is. Wight’s not playing a rag-bag of tics and contrivances, he’s a man in a room with a situation to deal with and the way he’s going to deal with it happens to have been written down in 1599. It seems simple when you say it out loud; but if it’s so simple, why does it happen so rarely?

And, again, Angus Wright – I’m pretty sure I have seen Claudiuses who have “downplayed the villainy” before, but this version leaves those others at the understatement starting gate. He’s sympathetic and charismatic; a decisive leader and a loving husband. Wright also has the blessing of an amazing voice and is strangely beautiful – one of the most endlessly watchable and plausible actors there is.

Similarly – Christ! – the way that conventions of scenes are laid to waste... Too numerous to name them all, but, the way the gravedigger scene (for example) is basically played completely straight is just glorious. They say what felt like most of the words, but in ways that I’ve never seen or imagined them played before. The scene isn’t just one of those appalling things you wish they’d cut, but instead this almost completely new idea, fresh insights, quiet, reflective sadness...

[I’m sure some other productions – possibly ones I didn’t see – might have done some of these things before. The above simply reflects how it felt watching it last night.]


Robert Icke’s Hamlet is indescribably sad.

The greatest virtue of Andrew Scott’s Hamlet is – how to put this? – the strength of his character trajectory. Of course his performance is electric. Of course. At first glance it’s more or less precisely what you’d expect when you’re first asked to imagine Andrew Scott as Hamlet. We know his voice, we know how he acts. He’s one of those actors whose cadences feel instantly familiar. And “right”. But there’s so much more going on here than just “Andrew Scott giving his Hamlet”. As you’d expect from a production that rigorously redefines the Hamlet rulebook, there’s an acute psychological through-line here that makes fresh sense of every word in the play.

It is striking to me that the last Hamlet I saw on stage was Katie Mitchell’s in Ophelias zimmer. One of Mitchell’s on-record impetuses for making Ophelias zimmer is her intense concern that Hamlet is a) a misogynist, and b) that this misogynist is allowed to stand as a towering anthemic hero of angry depressed manhood. While I wouldn’t argue that that reading is certainly available, I think Icke and Scott mount a sterling case for the defence against it. Scott’s Hamlet is emphatically not heroic. Gone is the brilliant vulpine swagger of David Tennant’s reading (which I adored too, btw). Here instead is a thoughtful person who in-the-moment is a reactive victim of circumstance. A person who is allowed to be complicated.

What feels different here is that Hamlet isn’t – and isn’t even pretending – to be on top of the situation. If you think of all those Hamlets you’ve seen who are all dashing and courageous and somehow admirable... Scott is instead far more fully immersed in himself and in his situation. His Hamlet is not fronting anything out. He is utterly miserable. When he sees the ghost of his father, his performance cuts through all his talking to the fact that HE’S JUST SEEN THE GHOST OF HIS FATHER AND OMFG. If there is something noble about this Hamlet, it’s that he has the strength not to try to pretend he’s feeling any better than he is. He’s actually a lot more honest. Indeed, his reassurances that he is “mad but north north-west” feel much more like someone trying to weigh up the disparity between still being able to string a sentence together and behave normally and the maelstrom of mental illness that they are also suffering. It feels to me like an incredibly acute portrayal of what being Hamlet might actually really feel like in the C21st.

The saddest moment of all, though, is the point in the wordless duel – beautifully underscored by Dylan’s ‘Not Dark Yet’ – where Stevenson’s Gertrude drinks the poisoned glass of wine. The looks between her and Hamlet, her and Claudius, and Claudius and Hamlet, are where you suddenly see that everyone has lost. Wright’s Claudius looks hollowed out by grief – loses the will to live, let alone “win”. What would be the point now? What would he have won? And Scott’s Hamlet sees all this. And knows, somehow, that his time is also nearly up. Indeed, it looks like the only victory is Gertrude’s. She at least pulls together some agency and decisive dignity in an impossible situation. Even the way the killings happen feels new, intelligent and contemporary. Hamlet barely scratches Claudius, because that’s all he needs to do. It’s not a dramatic finale, it’s a sad, resigned, human moment.


Robert Icke’s Hamlet is full of ideas.

There are Hamlet’s ideas. Obviously. Tonnes of them. Quite a lot of Hamlet is Hamlet telling us his ideas. In Scott’s portrayal they seem to tumble out of his mouth, out of his brain; disordered, unfinished. Works-in-progress, half-ideas. He trails off from unfinished thoughts, turns declamations into throwaways. And the decisions about what is what always feel sharp and accurate.

But there are also our ideas. The process of watching this Hamlet for me felt, in part, like a series of “Ooh! They’ve done That! They’ve stopped doing This like That! Ohh, That’s Very Clever...” For Four Hours. And it does make you think. Mostly about the play, and about the situations in the play. (A couple of nice touches – Guildenstern is now a black woman that Hamlet used to have a thing with. She’s now seeing Rosencrantz. This works beautifully with the text, and adds a few new neatly observed amusing moments. It also makes Claudius’s apparent inability to tell tall, white, beardy, male Rosencranz from short, black, female Guildenstern much funnier than the usual tedious Theatre Laugh gag.)

I didn’t feel any especial contemporary parallels being drawn out. And – unusually for me and Hamlet – I didn’t feel some sort of wild, lurching over-identification with the protagonist (it’s nice to think at 40 I might have grown out of my Hamlet phase). No. This is simply, a very sad story about some people in Denmark. Where this production draws its metaphysical extra dimension from is from a rather dizzying feeling of this living act of theatre connecting you tangentially with 400 years of culture, and the fact of just how good it is. It’s an odd thought, but possibly the things that [the vast majority of] last night’s audience seemed to experience most strongly collectively were pride and gratitude. Which, God knows, have been in especially short supply for the last eight months or so.

For all its contemporaneity, and intelligence, and deft little touches, this is – you could say – something like a very “pure” Hamlet. There’s no grand concept except maybe: “people might have been doing this play wrong for quite a while”. The production doesn’t feel like some monstrous regie-intervention (which would also have been fine with me, btw), but rather an intelligent, astringent clean up job. If this Hamlet feels new, it’s because you can see things in it clearly again, like the whole thing has been scrubbed and exfoliated, or sandblasted, or something.

[I seem to have got through this entire review without mentioning the watches, or that one scene Michael didn’t get (and if I’m honest, I’m not especially sure I came up with a particularly good rationale for how that scene worked myself. It just didn’t bother me much that I hadn’t). They were there. I saw them. I appreciated them. Maybe they’re the thing I won’t spoiler. Maybe the former, and also the penultimate scene with the dead bodies, ascended – aptly enough – to some sort of Wittgenstein Tractatus 7 plane.]

So there we have it: beautiful, brilliant, sad, ideas.

A quietly thrilling, fiercely intelligent Hamlet for the modern world. And maybe also something that we can hang on to and cherish in these horrible times in which we live.


___

Heartbreaking song from show:



Tuesday, 28 February 2017

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Young Vic, London

[seen 27/02/17]


Set on a muddy promontory, Joe Hill-Gibbins’s Midsummer Night’s Dream promises to be, well, wintry. As it turns out, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

I guess it’s one of those We Need To Talk About “Europe” productions, which David Hare warned us about. As we all know, Hill-Gibbins has been to Berlin, and liked what he saw. And we’ve seen the various fruits of his thefts in his Changeling, his Edward II, his Measure For Measure, and now his MSND. I disliked (what felt to me like) the superficial borrowings in Edward II intensely, and adored the immediate regietheater sugar-rush of Measure For Measure. This Midsummer Night’s Dream sits between those two extremes.

The set is by Johannes Schutz who after Polly Findlay’s Ghosts in Manchester I was ready to swear was a complete genius who could do no wrong. His work here is a useful reminder that even geniuses can’t be brilliant *every* time. It is essentially a shallow field of mud in front of a mirror. It’s a fine, evocative set for A Midsummer Night’s Dream; but it’s hard not to wish it were on a bigger stage. Now, if it were on the stage of the Barbican, or even just somewhere like the Lyric, then we might be talking, but this is the smallest and most constricted I remember the Young Vic feeling for years. Of course, *that* might be the point. But, as with much else here, it’s not an enjoyable point in itself, and the making of it isn’t done with so much flair.

So what do we need to say about “Europe”? Simply this: that Britain is finally making something recognisable as contemporary theatre is wonderful, but – just as in “Europe” – some shows will still be better than others.

Moreover, I wouldn’t even say what we have here is “full Europe”. Or maybe it is, but not the bit I find exciting. I mean, it’s pretty much The Play. It’s not even The Play as a comment on anything very much except The Play. I mean, The Play includes much on Gender Relations (and the caprice of fairies) and so The Production. Comments. on Gender Relations. And it doesn’t say awfully much that we haven’t also seen said elsewhere about The Play, to be honest. Much of the same ground was covered in Nick Bagnall’s Liverpool Everyman version a couple of years back, and there’s always the shadow of Filter’s magisterially funny (and intelligent) MSND looming over productions now.

The biggest idea here is contained in the ending, where the insupportable melancholies of the drugged Athenian lovers, the abducted Amazonian bride, and drug-raped Titania bleed into a kind of wild apocalypse, where the membranes between the fairy and human worlds appear to break down altogether and Bottom and Hippolyta seem to somehow re-find each other, as Oberon/Theseus’s patriarchal tyranny is thwarted. Set on this sort of muddy battlefield, it all feels a bit 1960s, in an odd way. A sort of ‘All You Need Is Love’ on the charnal house of the Somme, or something. But, try as I might, I couldn’t quite make it resonate strongly for me in early 2017. I had a good long look at the mud, and tried to get something out of that, maybe mixing in the blue and yellow costumes of the lovers, as pastel stand-ins for the colours of the Ukrainian flag, but nothing doing. If that was the point, it could certainly have been made more strongly. Or perhaps this is simply two hours illustrating a maxim that Pat Benatar managed to sum up in five minutes.

I guess it sounds like I’m being overly harsh here. There are some fine, fine performances: Michael Gould unexpectedly recalls Matt Smith with his mercurial clarity, Anastasia Hille maybe telegraphs her emotions a bit too emphatically, but you can at least see precisely what her Titania and Hippolytas are up to. And the mechanicals play at the end is probably the try-not-to-laugh funniest I’ve seen*, thanks particularly to the efforts of Geoff Aymer (Stout/Wall) and Dougie McMeekin (Snug/Lion), as well as Matthew Steer’s brilliant patronising Eng.Lit. student director, Peter Quince. Leo Bill’s Bottom is unexpected, but – particularly in Ass mode – genuinely unsettling for having discernible emotions as well as animal lusts and physical deformities.

What I did love about this production was its unsentimental urge to destroy the play, though. It clearly shows, repeatedly and almost pedantically, that there is almost nothing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream which is acceptable. I imagine there are puritanical productions that could go further in this mission. This version still allowed the performers to find comic moments. That didn’t seem necessary. And, while cut, it could still have been interfered with far more – although probably not under the original title in England, sadly.

But perhaps this sort of straight-to-the-point moral-lecture production has had its day, at least for the time being. We appear to be living in a period where the insufficiency of lazy binary thinking – re: “morality” and “left” and “right” – appears to have caught right up with us very rapidly indeed. I’m tempted to suggest that a serious course of radical overidentification is called for – Art that, instead of telling us things of which we’re all very well aware, shows us the “hidden reverse” of the state in which we’re now living. I think that potential is already very much present in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its humorous depiction of what is at root a rape-state. Perhaps apparent over-endorsement is the best tool for calling into question the appalling times in which we now live.

(And, no. For the avoidance of doubt, I don’t just mean: Theseus/Oberon needs to be played by someone in a Trump wig until America gets its act together and has the idiot shot.)

*The Mechanicals are tricky, now, aren’t they? I mean, “we” “all” know that for comedy to be funny/acceptable it has to be “punching up”. I don’t know, but perhaps in Shakespeare’s day, weavers, joiners and the like generally held a higher position in society than “ac-tors”, much less “Shakespeare”. To this end, I wonder if productions shouldn’t be presenting the “mechanicals” are posh-boy “artisan” hipsters. That would be the thought that occurred to me. (But, again, this is me looking at the play and trying to make it acceptable to modern audiences. Perhaps this comedy-of-cruelty – deliberately mocking the poor and the learning disabled – is some of that radical over-identification that I was asking for. Perhaps this is why we Brits are so wary of it as a strategy – we simply don’t trust anyone else in an audience to “get it” or to think as hard as we know we will be doing. Of course, that lack of trust is probably why we seem to be increasingly fucked as a society anyway. But, anyway. I seem to have gone right off topic now...)

In conclusion: go and see this production. It’s not an easy watch. I don’t suppose it’s meant to be. But, in writing and thinking about it, I might have started to love it a great deal more than I initially thought I did. This might be a sign that it’s great, or simply a sign that I like thinking more than I like watching things that need thinking about.  Hmm.

___


Anyway, thanks for getting through all that.  Have some music as a reward:






Monday, 27 February 2017

Pygmalion – Headlong at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

[seen 25/02/17]


Sam Pritchard’s new production of creaky old Bernard Shaw’s creaky old Pygmalion sets a new high bar for revivals of “the classics” in England without appearing to even break a sweat. In terms of tone and style... imagine Clem Fandango was a character in a show directed by Thomas Ostermeier or David Marton.

That is to say, Pritchard and his designers have created a Pygmalion that is at once a performance-of-the-text and a critique of said text; it is both modern-dress and original dialogue, with the disparities between then and now allowed to stand and resonate as they will. It’s set in a kind of contemporary London that’s at once pinpoint-accurate and completely made up. But most of all, it effortlessly mines a very contemporary comic sensibility and makes this comedy by Shaw actually funny.

The first thing that happens after the pre-show state – the words: endlessly scrolling across the wooden back-of-the-fourth-wall lowered at the front of the stage – is a kind of cast lip-sync challenge. It sounds like all sorts of people (across age, class, ethnicity and region) read through the original first scene, while members of the cast mime along “in character”. It’s *such* a perfect way of setting out the production’s stall. It doesn’t even feel alienatingly arty, because a) it’s performed with such panache, and b) it’s funny. [You can sell the English any amount of art (or politics, for that matter) as long as it’s got jokes.]

The effect of hearing these myriad voices is manifold. We’re maybe already conscious that original Pygmalion is a comedy based on the premise that different classes talk different, and that in it a posh bloke teaches a “common” flower-girl to speak “proper(ly)”. (And if we’re not, the scene gets us up to speed in an intelligent way.) It also reminds us just how many voices there are in modern Britain. It (and the rest of the production) slyly undermine Shaw’s simplistic false posh/common binary. Rather than allowing Professor Higgins’s opinions to stand as some sort of bon mot-strewn thesis, he’s instead demonstrated to be something of an irrelevant oddball. This isn’t a production that thinks much of either his learning (portrayed more as hipster noodling) or his philanthropy (essentially the grotesque use of money to manipulate and abuse). Conversely, Eliza’s “common-ness” is never allowed to become the joke. I’m not exactly how Pritchard (and Natalie Gavin as Eliza) manage it, but somehow – perhaps through pointed silences and stares – we’re forcibly reminded of the level of poverty in Britain, and that how other people talk isn’t actually funny. (Although swearing in a posh voice at the wrong moment at an upper class party absolutely is.)

I’m afraid I don’t know the play nearly well enough to tell you the extent to which it’s been cut, and/or changed. What I can tell you is that the thing in front of us presented by Headlong is (at least in the first half) a near perfect mixture of reverence and “brutality”. Alex Lowde’s design places most of the action in a small blue cyclorama which also stands in as Higgins’s “real” sound studio. Sound is crucial here, and reputed sound design pioneers Ben and Max Ringham have gone right to town putting it together here – allowing the characters on stage the agency to fiddle with their own radio mics, changing the pitch and tone of their voices, adding reverb, echoes, all sorts. (By Higgins’s sound studio here, we’re perhaps reminded slightly of the Hungarian language lab setting for Marthaler’s Meine Faire Dame – a production that I worried would entirely eclipse this one, but that in the event I didn’t think of once). Similarly, Pritchard has been admirably unsentimental about all the action having to be live. There are some linking scenes, and they’re simply presented as viceos. Eliza getting a cab. Eliza sitting in her grotty bedsit. Eliza listening to My Fair Lady on her bed...

(YES! How often do you see a show that has the sense to acknowledge that in the modern world where it’s set, there’s already a musical of the story we’re watching? It’s like the question: “What is on ITV at [the times and days when Coronation Street is on] for the characters in Coronation Street?” It should absolutely be Coronation Street, right? Thank God generation postmodernism-is-normal have arrived to make that clear...)

Will Duke (projection designer) has done a largely outstanding job. It’s an interesting thing, because it draws us into the piece and allows it to show a sort of “reality” (a more heightened reality at least than that to which theatre can ever hope to aspire (Eliza running down the road past Green Park station, for e.g., makes use of *actual Green Park station and actress-playing-Eliza running past it*)). It’s also nice because it reminds us of telly and cinema, which are also artforms in C21st, and it maybe reminds everyone that those involve acting and stories and etc., so why be weird about theatre, hmm? What I’m clumsily trying to say is: for something that could be understood as “very arty” (and heavily, heavily Europe-infected), it does a pretty bloody good job of feeling as demotic, idiosyncratic and English as Corrie and Toast.

Yes, for me it could have gone further. The invention dries up a little in the second half in what feels like a bit of a mad rush to get the rest of the plot out of the way. And the second half is also where the plot gets a lot less appealing. Pritchard (and no dramaturg credited) does a fine job of de-centring the “emotional motor” of the piece. We see that – for all Shaw’s attempts to make Higgins’s snobbery and condescension charming and somehow egalitarian – in C21st eyes, the play hangs off insupportable premises. Even if Shaw was experimenting with some sort of “knowing” Victorian proto-hipster irony. And, correspondingly, when Eliza leaves the stage for the last time in this production we’re under doubt that she’s about as likely to be back as Nora Helmer. Correspondingly, I’m not sure what Pritchard’s done with the reams of romantic comedy makes particular sense. He’s stopped them being romantic or comic, which is excellent, but he has left them there. Perhaps to examine the expectations that surround the play. And, actually, to that end, it’s about as stern as the thing can get without just cutting/re-writing/swapping the lines. I mean, the more I think about it, the more I like it, but I can’t help wondering if there was an even better thing that could have been done here, given the radical inventions and irreverences of the first half.

Nonetheless, for all these little quibbles, this production announces Pritchard as a major talent, and one with a discerning eye for collaborators. I should also say that the entire cast is first-rate, demonstrating range, playfulness and ease-with-modernity that still feels sadly rare in modern British casts. Alex Beckett as Higgins in particular is outstanding: brilliantly funny, and unafraid to be unsympathetic, while at the same time being one of the most hugely likeable actors we’ve got.
This production should be the benchmark/default-normal for UK productions of the classics. There’s a lot further English theatre can go, but this is a strong starting point for 2017.




Klątwa – Teatr Powszechny

[seen 18/02/17]


[I have already written a short review of Klątwa for The Stage, but I wanted to write a much longer thing about it here.]

My relationship with Teatr Powszechny goes back to November 2015, when they invited me to review their production Roar, China!. As it turns out, the timing was significant. At the start of that review I note that the far-right, Catholic nationalist Law and Justice Party had won an overall majority in the general election just two weeks earlier.

The next time I was in Warsaw was for Barbara Wysocka’s Juliusz Cezar in January, 2016. By that point – two months later – there were near-weekly protests against the Law and Justice Party’s depredations into the freedom of the Polish press, its challenges to personal, political and artistic liberties, and so on.

By the time I saw Powszechny’s production of Jelinek’s Wściekłość – September 2016 – the Law and Justice Party were gearing up to ban all abortions in Poland. Even those medically necessary for the preservation of the pregnant woman’s life.

This is the context in which Klątwa opens. The situation in Poland is Very Bad Indeed.

[I should say, that this review is aimed primarily at my British contemporaries who possibly won’t get to see the show. On this basis, some comparisons I use might seem a bit parochial to mainland readers. It’s honestly not that we’re obsessed with bringing any given subject back to ourselves here in Britain – no matter how much our politicians may make it seem that way – more; simply that we *are* an island (and vassal state of America) and, as such, remarkably ill-served in terms in terms of European international work . As such, saying: “Oh, this Frljić production is quite like Nicholas Stemann’s Die Schutzbefohlenen...” would be functionally useless even if it was true. (Which it isn’t.)]

My relationship to the piece’s director, Oliver Frljić, begins in 2014 when I saw (and loved) his phenomenally successful international hit Damned Be The Traitor in His Homeland at the Sibiu Festival. (Despite my best efforts, it has yet to be seen in UK.)

A year later, at BITEF’15, I saw his piece Ristić Kompleks, and then again at its Mladinsko home, in May 2016. I have yet to see his (previous) latest piece, Our Violence, Your Violence – an adaptation of Peter Weiss’s The Aesthetics of Resistance, which opened in Vienna, Berlin and Ljubljana last autumn.

Frljić is brilliant. I am a huge admirer of his work and his politics. I might even go so far as to suggest that this year he will be the most important director/maker working in Europe. On current showing, he is absolutely the director/maker best equipped to deal with its coming/ongoing crises. It is perhaps no coincidence that he was a Serb-Croat born in Bosnia and was a teenager during the wars in ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s. I imagine that gives him a far better insight into “civilisation” than, for example, yours or mine.

***

As I say in my Stage review, this show is nominally a “production of” Klątwa (The Curse), an 1899 play written by Polish dramatist Stanisław Wyspiański. It is “a production” in the sense that would cause David Hare and the dullard he’s talking to in that interview instant heart-failure. Hopefully.

It begins with the whole cast making a phone call to Bert Brecht (!). It’s played as a pitch-perfect parody of Brechtian productions, and does that vital thing of telling everyone in the audience exactly how the evening is going to pan out. This is not – we can be assured – going to be a “straight production” of The Curse, but it also provides vital context about the original text, and about the current political situation in Poland., along with some amusing self-mockery – both of Poland and of theatre.

At the other end of the phone line – it turns out – is a giant statue of Pope Jean-Paul II with a massive erection. One of the actresses rolls a condom onto the papal cock and proceeds to vigorously fellate him for the next five minutes. As symbolism goes, it’s crude but effective. What’s perhaps most striking, though, is how long it goes on for. As it continues, you are actually forced to think about *why* you’re watching this. The obvious “shock”-value wears off pretty quickly, and you start to actually deconstruct it properly. The numerous readings and problems keep on piling up. Both the outward-pointing metaphorical values and the intrinsic ethical problems with making an actress go down on a plaster knob for five minutes. It also seems to function as a comment on trends in contemporary pornography (doubtless a massive growth industry in Poland) and as a comment/question about what is tolerated and what is not under this new Catholic nationalism to which Poland is being subjected. At the end of the five minutes (I’m guessing), the statue is hanged, with a sign round its neck.

This is followed by an early scene from The Curse itself, with naturalistic action replaced by a kind of grotesque chorus of violence. Then this itself is broken out of by the actress playing the role of the victimised young woman, who delivers an angry speech denouncing Frljić’s “feminism” for still somehow requiring women being shown being assaulted.

On one hand, sure, yes, you could say he’s having his cake and eating it here, by first having the scene and *then* having the denunciation. But, Christ! How absolutely brilliant to have the argument about the ethics of this problem *actually on the stage*. As we know, this is also something of a live issue here in the UK – this problem/question of there being real violence against women, and how does theatre talk about that? Especially if some people would apparently censor the appearance of any simulation of violence on stage. This seems to be a good solution. The actress clearly has her agency. She names and addresses the problem directly. No one could be left with any possibility to vicariously enjoy the sadism.

There is also a sense in which the director and the processes of theatre could be start to function as a metonym(?) for the oppressive mechanisms of the church. Which is a kind of genius move – the church cannot come back at the show for smugly criticising from some kind of artistic ivory tower when the show is as critical of itself and its processes as it is of the church. You kind of wish this sort of Brechtian discursiveness were available in the UK. (Why it isn’t is anyone guess.)

I think it was around this point that I started seriously wondering why English theatre couldn’t be more like this in its treatment of the classics. I mean, sure, it’s not “proper”, but it was also a damn sight less boring. And to having a production actually anticipate and argue about the problems of the production, in the production? Well, it would have solved a lot of the problems of Yerma and/or Hedda, wouldn’t it? [written before I saw Pygmalion, which has partially restored my faith in the English ability to make bold, intelligent main-stage theatre in the C21st]

Moreover, lest this sound like I was just enjoying a very relevant seminar, it’s very hard to convey just how *live* and “electric” (terrible cliché review term, but, it’s the cliché we want here) it was. Really. This wasn’t performed in the whiny, entitled, instant-switch-off, strident student voices you might be imagining. No. This was yer proper theatre-trained, top-of-their-game Polish actors really belting it. I don’t think the UK really has an equivalent form of acting at all.

But the most affecting parts of the show are yet to come.

***

One of the actresses stands up and, bashing a microphone against her stomach to mimic the sound of a baby’s heartbeat, announces that next week she is going to have an abortion. She asks the women in the audience how many of them have had an abortion. She tells us:

“I’ve decided to have an abortion. I’m not going to justify myself. This is my body, my belly, and no one – no country, no church, no politician – will be telling me what to do with it. I have an appointment for a procedure in the Netherlands next week. I’ll spend my hard-earned money on an abortion abroad...”

and sings the Polish national anthem.

***

The cast, dressed as priests, line up – kneeling – along the front of the stage, and each one describes when they were sexually abused by a priest from the Catholic church. It is quiet, avowedly unsensational, and as each story unfolds in four simple lines, your sense of absolute horror grows. Sure, these might not be the true stories of these particular actors (there’s a disclaimer later about how theatre is fiction), but there’s literally no reason to doubt that they are. And if each of these actors was sexually abused by a priest at some point in their lives, what does that say about the statistics of Poland overall? You got the feeling, sitting in the theatre on Saturday night, that there was a terrible, general assent to the truth of the scene. It’s a horrible, shattering indictment of widespread child-abuse on an almost industrial scale. What it says about the culpability of everyone from parents, to authorities, to priests, right the way up to Jean-Paul II himself. It’s little wonder that they hung his effigy with a sign round his neck – “Patron of Paedophiles” – like partisans put on Nazi collaborators.

***

The show skips on again. Actress Barbara Wysocka (she who directed Powszechny’s award-winning Juliusz Cezar at the Gdansk Shakespeare Festival) delivers a monologue about how Frljić is just some international professional provocateur and will be off to Munich or Maribor the day after the première, his hypocrisy in his treatment of the actors, and – more than this – the fact that he’s take a job curating the Malta Festival in Poznań this year, even after they banned a show in 2014.

Elsewhere, an amusing actor, apparently known for his willingness to get his kit off/perform degrading roles (that could be made up in his monologue), puts his bits through a colour-photocopy of Frljic’s face.

An actress takes a chainsaw to the large wooden cross that has loomed over the stage all evening...

***

The whole thing is episodic. All Frljić’s work that I’ve seen is. In UK I can even imagine this being taken (by some) as a flaw. The thing is, I’ve seen a fucktonne of “flawless” work that is boring beyond measure. Work that doesn’t work. Or do anything. Klątwa is never boring. It works perfectly. And clearly it has an intellectual and political reach well beyond the walls of the building in which it is performed. And, really, the choppiness must be deliberate. At one point in the show the actors even announce a two minute break*.

So let’s allow that Frljić, and his enormously accomplished team of dramaturgs, and his actors, have actually thought about what they’re doing. Let’s, instead of reading the episodic structure as “a mistake” let’s read it as a strategy, a device; a device for making the constructedness of the event manifest. Let’s not think of the fact that there’s a bit about two thirds through, after the “confessions” of abuse – where the actors machine-gun the audience with wooden replica guns screwed together from multiple crucifixes to amazing loud music – that would have been a perfect place to end the show on “a visceral high” where the show doesn’t end as “an error”. Let’s honour the fact that Frljić instead steps back from that kind of rabble-rousing, and instead keeps on worrying away at his subject until it’s done to his satisfaction. And all the while, let’s remember that this is “a production of a classic text”.  And that as a piece of theatre it works brilliantly.


*****


Post-script: I am aware that in the week since I saw the show, all sorts of inflammatory lies have been printed in the Polish press, leading to threats of violence against crew, crew, and theatre staff and daily protests outside the building, and a ceaseless campaign of intimidation.

Perhaps, you think, I should address that in this review. The problem is, I can’t. Because the things that are being protested about simply aren’t in the show. The campaign against is – I believe – on the basis that the piece is blasphemous. It isn’t. God isn’t mentioned once in the new material, and only occasionally (and respectfully) in the original script, which has been in circulation since 1899. No “objects of worship” are desecrated in the piece. Personally, I find even that law ridiculous, and wouldn’t mind if they were, BUT. THEY. AREN’T. There is nothing in the show that contravenes even the right-wing, Catholic laws of Poland. It is, what I believe they call here in England, “fair comment”. This is precisely the sort of art that free speech laws were conceived to protect. It is not interfering with or mocking anyone’s beliefs. It isn’t even an attack on Catholicism, per se. It is an attack on man, and the criminals who have turned the Catholic church into the largest child sex abuse ring in the history of humanity, and who seek to exercise control over the bodies of women without consent.

If God is half the Father that Christianity takes him for, it is impossible not to conclude that He would be on Frljić’s side, proudly wearing a “NOT IN MY NAME” badge on His eternal lapel.


Thursday, 23 February 2017

Színház: A BÉNULÁS ELLEN

[in other news]


The Hungarian theatre magazine, Színház, published a translation of my (ironically titled) piece Against Paralysis from just before there became no point whatsoever in having opinions or making arguments for them.

I guess posting this marks my grudging return to trying to see any point whatsoever in continuing to write about something as piffling as theatre while the world appears hell bent on self-annihilation. Frankly, it makes more sense to me to post screenshots of new Pokémon I’ve caught than trying to pretend that theatre in Britain is going to make the slightest bit of difference to the surging waves of deliberate ignorance and thuggery that now constitute the majority of our national discourse. But on we bloody go, I suppose...