Saturday, 23 May 2015

Guardian: Going Deutsch

[written for the Guardian]


I wrote a short-ish piece for a Guardian about the differences and similarities between German and British theatre.  I already want to write about five more about thoughts I've had since.

The Ghost Train – Royal Exchange, Manchester

[seen 19/05/15]


There’s *another* fun maxim in theatre criticism that you should “judge work on its own terms”. [I wrote about it before here.] The thinking goes, that there’s not much point lambasting an innocent, fun, family show for failing to serve up sublime beauty, adrenaline-fuelled fury, or something theatrically-epoch-making. Critics should also allow for modest ambition.

None of which is to say that Paul Hunter’s attempt to revive the remains of Arnold Ridley’s The Ghost Train is modest in its ambitions. Far from it. Indeed, were it not a revival of a light-hearted 1923 supernatural adventure spoof, the scale and scope of the dramaturgical reinvention here would look positively Teutonic. In fact, oddly, the first film of the play was indeed more than half-German, and I think this staging owes something to that film too. In fact, for the first scene, Hunter even wheels on a foley table, and you get a snapshot of what might have been, had there been infinitely more time to rehearse, greater budgets, more cast members, etc. (Honestly, that section is probably the funniest five minutes of the whole thing.)

But, after this, the special effects are stripped back, or become more to do with absurd physical comedy – if you’ve not seen any Told By An Idiot before, their nearest theatrical neighbour are Kneehigh at their daftest – and indeed there is quite a lot of crossover in terms of personnel between the two companies. (Usually Hayley Carmichael.) They’re quite funny. Uproariously so if you like that sort of thing. But, on Tuesday night, even with the best will in the world, some sections felt a bit on the flat side – like they hadn’t quite found the internal motor for that particular bit, yet.

Do you want to know about the story? I promise it doesn’t matter. It’s set in the 20s. Passengers on a steam train have missed their connection and are stuck at a country railway station miles from anywhere in Cornwall. An elderly station master tells them the legend of the ghost train that passes through the station and the previous station master who died of fear from seeing it. There are a pair of married couples, a elderly woman and her parrot (played by Joanna Holden), and an annoying Woosterish upper-class-twit chap. A lot of plot happens, but very quickly, and mostly at the end. The rest of it, well, some bits are funny and some bits will probably get funnier.

In terms of socio-political import, well, you could make some up if you felt like it, but it would look odd trying. In short, it’s a decent stab, in a particular style, at a fun family show. And I think it will probably get better as the run goes on, and the mechanics of the routines become even more second-nature to the talented and game cast.

Friday, 22 May 2015

The Funfair – HOME, Manchester

[seen 21/05/15]


Funny thing about Art: what you want and what you need can be very different things.

The opening of HOME yesterday was lovely. At five they had drummers, music, leader of Manchester City Council who said some excellent things about why wouldn’t you invest in culture during austerity? “Who the hell wants to live in a city which has no arts and culture?” he asked. Which was lovely. And there was Danny Boyle! Welcome HOME, indeed. And, you know, it did feel pretty bloody special.

Then there was HOME’s first home-grown production. Directed by HOME’s artistic director Walter Meierjohann and adapted by Stockport’s most famous inhabitant of Hackney, Simon Stephens, from Croatia-born Austro-Hungarian Ödön von Horváth’s Kasimir und Karoline.

On the face of it, it’s a funny choice of a play to open a new theatre. After all the celebrations, you get this 2hr15 (inc. interval) really quite depressing tale of the inevitability of abandonment and/or heartbreak in a recession, and the fickleness/meaninglessness of young love; how workers are exploited by the bourgeoisie, and the wafer-thin veneer of civilisation over violence, crime, rioting and the inevitability of death. This is a play whose constant refrain is „Sterben müssen wir alle!“ (we all have to die). “Get Happy!” it ain’t.

So, that’s the first thing. It was just plain weird to come off the back of all the lovely, slightly giddy meet‘n’greet and catching up with old friends in the blazing sunshine and be ushered into the darkness to face down the sea of troubles.

The second thing is, well, pretty much exactly while all that was going on the Guardian posted my latest ode to Anglo-German joy. So, given that the Funfair is a British adaptation of an ostensibly German play (written in German, originally set in Munich), directed by the UK’s first (Amsterdam-born) German artistic director, in a version by Britain’s biggest theatrical export to Deutschland since Sarah Kane or Shakespeare (there wasn’t a lot in between), I think whatever this had been like, it probably couldn’t have been quite as much as I’d want it to be. And, as Meierjohann makes clear in this brilliant interview with Catherine Love, he’s thrilled to be able to abandon German theatre’s insistence on “a concept”, when I guess I’m equally thrilled when British directors start adopting it. Ah, Otherness, such an annoyingly two-way street. So, yes, if I’m being honest there are a couple of recent German productions (Köln at Theatertreffen in 2010, or Castorf in München 2011), whose designs I *much* prefer (though, God knows, I was grateful not to be sitting through something of Castorf length and rigour last night). So, y’know, I’m probably not about to offer the most objective view on the production.

So, having got all that waffle out of the way, shall we talk about The Funfair itself?

HOME Theatre 1 is a rather beautiful auditorium. Narrow, intimate and high. I watched the first half of the show in stalls row F, which, given the way the stage had been extended was pretty damn near the front. I watched the second half from the upper circle (I think it’s called, second/top balcony, anyway). Sitting in the stalls, because of the relative narrowness, the proscenium feels like it towers over you, and even near the back of the theatre high-up, you still feel pretty close to the action, and with a better birds eye view down onto the movement on stage.

The piece opens with James Lusted, a Welsh actor, probably under 4ft, wandering onto the stage in spangly jacket and top hat and announcing the scene. Around him is a (fake) concrete cyclorama (like Saal C at the Schaubühne) with high doors outlined in light bulbs, and on one side, in a window set into the wall, a band, led by guitarist Joseph Runham, whose plecturm arm ends at the elbow. So far, so brilliant, right? I mean, yes, by German standards Ti Green’s set is impossibly neat and contrived. The garishness hits that precise English compromise between over-the-top and stark minimalism. If John Lewis made tasteless fairgrounds this would be it. That said, for all its not-quite-ugly-enough-ugliness, it’s kind of great at the same time...

Cash and Caroline (more usually Caz), burst onto the stage and pretty much immediately split up. Ostensibly because he’s lost his job, and losing his job has made him aggressive and argumentative. The costumes, outside of the band (basically dressed as the Tigerlilies) and Lusted’s Tiny/Narrator, are contemporary but schematic. Caroline (Katie Moore) is obliged to wear a curious white fishnet dress with period features, while Cash (Ben Batt) and his Scouse mate Frankie (Michael Ryan) wear vintage seventies leather jackets. Caroline goes off in search of funfair funtimes with shop-worker John Chase (Rhodri Meilir) (whose costume, incidentally, is a ludicrous green-pastel jacket with yellow shirt). Later, there are two straw-target, cigar-smoking bourgeois shop owners in and a freak-show of enormous-headed, grey-faced mask-wearers.

From what I can make out, Stephens’s script runs remarkably closely to von Horváth’s original. Yes, language, as well as being translated, has also been updated, and place names altered so we are mostly, specifically, in Manchester. In terms of when it’s set, however, the excitement at seeing a Blimp/Zeppelin feels as much to do with the 1929 original as now. And similarly, the freak-show section of the piece – so many shades of Secret Theatre’s Woyzeck – remains intact.

The way that the play operates is, in that German tradition, of one thing happening after another. It doesn’t feel so much plotted as allowed-to-transpire. The encounters, though pregnant with symbolism, at the same time have a curious sort of inconsequentiality to them, or rather, they do have consequences, as they would in real life, but as in Woyzeck, Baal, and maybe Glaube, Liebe, Hoffnung, the things that happen, their symbolism, and their consequences feel way more random than in anything English I can think of (although maybe Stephens does get closest to it in things like Harper Regan and Motortown). And, here again, we get back to that “what you want and what’s good for you” question. I mean, I’d have quite liked something a bit more defiant and hopeful, but von Horváth is pitiless and analytical. In this story, characters – about whom we’re never really allowed to feel very much, and none of whom feel very friendly – confirm worst case scenarios. In fact, it’s more like a stage adaptation of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”. This *is* a world in which men knock women about. In which couples break up because of economic pressures. In which the poor stay poor, the rich get rich. British theatre, I think, tends to dramatise stories of hope, or at least romanticise the despair. This just gives it straight.

At the same time, and perhaps strangely, given what I’ve said about the design, there are actually some really great moments and stage-pictures. I’m not sure any production has every come together more in a single moment than when the house band suddenly play Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger”. Elsewhere, when the red circular curtain that’s loomed over the stage throughout finally descends for a scene in which Caroline rides round a tent on a horse, the effect is almost a direct lift from something you’d expect to see in the Black Lodge, as is the projected red curtain that “falls” for the interval. Similarly, the largely fifties soundtrack, augmented by Nick Cave’s “Push the Sky Away” and “The Passenger”, is gorgeously curated.

Fans of finding fault with Stephens for the sexual politics of plays from 1920s Germany, the costume choices of female designers, and representations of the violence against women that is still a daily fact worldwide will doubtless be delighted to find more to grumble inconsistently about here. Yes, von Horváth’s play is pretty bleak in its outlook and Stephens’s version does nothing to mitigate that. None of the characters come out of it well, and neither Caroline’s blank acceptance of John Chase, nor Cash’s similar union-of-failure with Frankie’s depressed girlfriend Esther really paint any picture of authorial (or auteurial) blessing.

It’s hard to know what to conclude. “Like” or “dislike” aren’t the question here. Nor, really is “agree” or “disagree”. This is art. You don’t even have to like it for it to trouble you, and for that troubling to be the point. I think I’m definitely going to keep thinking about it. And, in a way, I think what both von Horváth and Stephens have written, and what Meierjohann has produced, are provocations. Provocations for us not to accept the world as it seems to be at the moment. Not to accept the way it’s heading. And, I think this depressing outlook from 1929 Germany, this anaylsis of where a seemingly civilised-and-quiet-if-sometimes-fractious might be headed, is one that we can’t simply ignore. Even while they are building us nice new theatres. However much we might wish it weren’t so.


Push the Sky Away:



The Passenger (live at Manchester Apollo, 1977):







Wednesday, 20 May 2015

He Had Hairy Hands – Lowry, Salford

[seen 15/0515]


There’s a fun maxim in theatre criticism that you should “report the event”. The thinking, I guess, being that the crackle of stage electricity needs to be reported, rather than just a precis of plot and checklist of cast and scenery that’ll hold good from night to night, and even from venue to venue. On the whole, I think we critics tend to flunk this challenge, not least because the events upon which we are invited to attended are press nights, which, at least in London, tend to be gala affairs where twenty or thirty press are deliberately outnumbered by anything up to 1,500 papered house seats occupied by friends, family, and as much as glitter as the theatre can muster.

But, let the records show that just over a year since Stewart Pringle lavished a bunch of praise on Kill The Beast’s first London outing, at the 80-seat New Diorama, last Friday they played a triumphant homecoming gig to over 300 in the Lowry’s second space, and absolutely knocked it out of the park.

It seems weird to dwell so much on the event (in fact, you will be better off reading Pringle’s review for details of *what actually happens in the show*), but after Eclipsed, Rites, Iphigenia... and Mother Courage, He Had Hairy Hands was the first show I’d seen since the General Election that actually made me feel better. Humankind cannot bear very much reality, indeed. Generally speaking, I don’t tend to go in for wild escapism, or even seem to see that much stage comedy these days (blame Germany. And the fact that it is perishingly difficult to write about), but HHHH turned out to be exactly the right show at the right time.

In general terms, the piece is a pastiche monster mash-up of seventies horror films and cop shows. Their Victoriana is the Victoriana of the late seventies, and so on. Of course one *could* read onto the show’s current success a synchronicity between that recession and this, but doing so would rightly get you thrown out of Pseud’s Corner for being too po-faced. But, actually, it reminded me much more of those old Edinburgh Fringe shows like Garth Marenghi’s Fright Knight and Alice Lowe’s Moon Journey. Even the League of Gents’ ‘97 Perrier-winning, stage incarnation. So maybe the enjoyable nostalgic glow cast by HHHH was nostalgia more to earlier pastiches rather than all the way back to the originals.

Something else that’s nice about the piece is, well, the sort of uncontested Englishness of the whole thing. Yes, it would be nice, when saying that, if the company were maybe more diverse, since I’m absolutely not saying that what Englishness is all about is five white performers with impeccable RP. But it was cheering, after all that miserable bullshit in the run up to the election, to sit in a theatre in Salford with a huge audience of all ages, races, and I dare say classes (maybe no one actually upper-class, but nevermind, eh?) and all have a good laugh together before having to put up with the next five years.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Rites – Contact, Manchester

[seen 15/05/15]


Rites presents an interesting problem to me as *a reviewer*: I’m privileged, middle-aged, middle-class, able-bodied, white-British, male. (“Critic” or “blogger” hardly matters after that lot.)  The piece’s subject is FGM – Female Genital Mutilation. Or “Female circumcision” – even the terminology is contested.

The show, made by Yusra Warsama and Cora Bissett is mostly a verbatim piece on the subject, and we see the m-strong company (sorry, I didn’t get a programme) take on the roles of the numerous interviewees. There are also [what seem to be] re-enactments of videoed interviews [from America?], panel events, and even a kind of ongoing narrative thread in which one woman makes phone calls to other friends – who are also portrayed on stage – and there’s a song at the end (which, not being London Road style, stretches the credibility of the claim that all the words on stage were spoken by interviewees – if that claim is actually made, I’m not sure now).

It is very well acted indeed. There are some appropriately uncomfortable digital video graphics (Kim Beveridge). But visually, for the most part the staging is purely functional. And this is the first hurdle I came to: it wasn’t immediately obvious why this was a piece *of theatre* [four days later it feels like I might have got there]. I understand that the issue is both important, and that the myriad, often surprising sides to the argument around FGM need to be heard. I will even admit that sticking me in a darkened room and making me watch the whole piece on pain of being-thought-rude is probably the only way I’d have managed to sit through it. (Not because I’m not interested, but because it’s both so depressing and so angry.) TVs are just too easily switched off. Hell, they’re easily not even switched on in the first place. At the same time, it seems strange to me that something that is plainly of social utility and enormous educative value like this has to be presented only to a paying audience who have to self-select to attend. It is a testament to the enormous popularity of theatre in Manchester (yes, fuck right off, Rupert Christiansen), that last night’s performance was so well attended (and with a demographic reach that the retired colonels reading the Telegraph couldn’t begin to imagine).

I mean, I learnt a lot. There is a question of whether FGM is good or bad. There is (at least) one woman in America who has had it done voluntarily as an adult to feel more a part of her community (who is given the name Karamoh Bangura but whose arguments echo those of the anthropologist Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, co-founder of African Women Are Free to Choose. H/T Mark Fisher). There are four different types or styles of the operation. There is a strong feeling that (White) Western “concern” over the practice is racist, condescending, none of our business and so on. There are women who didn’t even realise they’d had it done.

I did already know that it was largely carried out by women, on women (or female children), with the help of other women. I knew that there is nothing in Islam (the piece doesn’t address Christian FGM, although it touches on historical white, Western applications of the practice – “to cure lesbianism” apparently, God forgive them).

Against this there are plenty of (non-white) voices who deeply oppose the practice – both men and women. And the inevitable white-British voices who are also against it. Like UKIP, who bend over backwards to support anti-FGM groups – because it makes foreigners and immigrants look backward and “savage”.

It’s all very difficult and depressing viewing. All the more so for knowing that your male, white, western perspective is mear-as-dammit part of the the problem. Or in no way positioned to allow you to be helpful. I chatted to a friend (same demographic as me) who saw it the night before me, and they made some fascinating points. First that this was essentially popular postdramatic theatre, and secondly, that it was proper high-quality information that was being returned for the ticket price (if we have to reduce it to base commerce). Contact has an incredibly loyal, enviable local, working class, black audience. And they are getting hardcore, relevant, activist stuff on stage. And that is all an unabashed good.

It is probably also good for me as a privileged, middle-aged, middle-class, able-bodied, white-British, male to go and see some theatre in which my opinion is the least right or relevant thing in the room.

So, yes.  A *very* hard watch.  But absolutely worth it.  

Friday, 15 May 2015

Iphigenia in Splott – Sherman Cymru, Cardiff

[seen 12/05/15]


Written for the Guardian.

Mother Courage and Her Children – Merthyr Tydfil Labour Club

[seen 11/05/15]


Written for the Guardian.

Eclipsed – Gate, London

[seen 08/05/15]


[The first 500 words of this were written immediately after seeing it, the following 500 or so the day after, it is now a week later and I’m finishing it...]

As far as I’m dimly aware, everyone else in the world loves Eclipsed. And, let’s be honest, it’s a brilliantly acted, superbly designed production; a script fizzing with sparky dialogue: funny, moving, and stuffed full of painstaking research on subjects about which we should definitely care. And, in terms of what the production represents in terms of London’s theatre ecology: yes, it’s excellent that there are five excellent parts for five excellent black actresses, and that the play is written by a young black woman and also directed by a woman, and that consequently last night’s audience looked more like the people with whom I got the tube to the theatre, than say Ascot, circa 1900. All great. No question.

At which point, my white, male, privileged opinion on any of it can just fuck right off anyway. Definitely. As Michael Billington recently observed in Matt Trueman’s interview with him, “criticism is not about the verdict. It’s about trying to write a sort of essay... about the work you’ve seen”. (Although that is a slightly disingenuous construction, if it’s an essay with a big ole star-rating.) It’s also worth saying that it’s incredibly hard to emerge from relentlessly depressing theatre – theatre which, in a full-on realist setting, presents depictions and descriptions of relentless rape, cruelty and violence without hope – and say “Yes! Result!”

And yesterday we just got landed with five more years of the Tory party: I’m not sure, even if I liked theatre that was *fun*, it would have helped last night. But deadly serious theatre about people whose lives are infinitely worse than our own didn’t help either.

But I really don’t know what we as an audience are meant to do with Eclipsed.

Here’s the plot: in a paramiliary compound “wife” number one and “wife” number three of a rebel general in the Liberian Liberation Army fighting Charles Taylor in 2003 are discussing their situation. A third, a fifteen-year-old girl, hides under a tin bath in the floor. This is a play in which repeated rape such a basic fact that it hardly warrants mention. Their situation is entirely hopeless, they keep as upbeat as possible, but basically it’s just awful. Number three is pregnant. Number two, we learn, is off out. She’s joined the soldiers. She reckons she has more power this way. That power is at the expense of her humanity. She makes a fine case for the uselessness of one’s humanity when placed in a situation where either you get raped or you find someone else to take your place. Men, all the men – the men entirely physically absent from the stage, but who hang over it in every other way – are brutal and brutalised monsters. So, yes, it’s good to see a play that does absent the men fighting the war from the stage entirely in order to examine the plight of the women. And it’s bloody fucking fantastic to see a play about Africa without a single westerner (white or otherwise) being used as a convenient dramatic “way in”.

Well, that’s partly true. The American side of playwright Danai Gurira’s heritage manifests itself in an abandoned biography of Bill Clinton. *Of course* America, as the then single largest interventionist power in the world, feels present in Liberia. (I know Africa’s not my specialist subject, by I’ve seen the statues to the guy on Bill Clinton Avenue in Prishtina, so I know it’s not just the Americans imagining things...). And, as Andrew Eldritch put it in 1990 defending the new Sisters album against accusations that it was “a bit American”: “American politics is global politics now...” (paraphrased).

This entry-level American-interest angle obviously bespeaks the play’s (originally) intended audience: Americans (and, sure enough, the play has won an armful of American awards). But, I think it also suggests what the play is really about. *Of course* the situation in Liberia is real, and all the research that the play contains rings true, as – within the usual limitations of naturalism and theatre, and the need for a “satisfying dramatic structure”/”story” – do the actions of the stage. However, the biggest truism about the theatrical stage is that whatever you put on it is a metaphor. Outwardly this play contains precious few metaphors. Yes, the women in the play are synecdoche(s?) for The Women of Liberia, and the tidy dialectic-without-synthesis in which they participate could certainly be seen as a micro picture of macro-Liberia. But this is a play that is actually about American political thinking. The central conflict is between a kind of Essential Ayn Rand (selfishness is all, altruism is evil) and impotent liberal do-gooding.

Interestingly, however, the British director, Caroline Byrne, has completely altered the playwright’s final image (yes, it’s one of those American scripts where every single minute of stage-time is dictated to the director by the writer). In Gurira’s script the youngest “wife”, who has become a soldier (simply The Girl in the published text), stands rooted to the spot with indecision. (American, Clinton) book in one hand, (Russian-designed) semi-automatic in the other, “random gunshots can be heard in the distance”. In Byrne’s production the entire back wall of the theatre lights up, and The Girl is silhouetted against a sudden picture – hitherto unseen – of African plains, and recorded music is played over this beautifully realised stage picture. And it feels kind of hopeful and epic, a bit like The Lion King or something. Where that hope comes from, I honestly couldn’t tell you. And to me it seems at odds with what the playwright implies. But really I wonder if what I really found hopeless in the play was what I’ll characterise as the “American non-choice”. Two failed ideologies in competition: “All You Need is Love” versus Atlas Shrugged. Perhaps additional feelings of impotence for this Western audience can be derived from our ongoing questions about what, if anything, we can/could/should do in terms of “international aid”.

It’s fascinating, even in the dramatic-ironic understanding of Bill Clinton’s narrative as the “big man” in America, applied through the characters’ first-hand understanding of how politics work in Liberia, describes a kind of futility. The small, new failed state looking at the vast, old, deeply failed States and hoping it might hold any kind of a solution. I can’t decide whether this is a play/production that sees America as representing something better, in which case I disagree with its analysis – apart from on the most obvious levels – or that sees in 2003 Liberia a picture of humanity, and American society in particular, writ large/in its most essential form: which is almost too bleak to contemplate.

Liberia’s president is now a woman who was educated in economics at Harvard and used to work at the World Bank and subsidiaries of HSBC. Its flag remains the star and stripes.  I still don't think capitalism is good.  

Friday, 8 May 2015

Product – Arcola, London

[seen 07/05/15]


Do you remember The War on Terror? In this brave new austerity world, it has been quietly dropped as *a thing*. Mark Ravenhill’s monologue, Product, is now a decade old.

[A DECADE. JESUS. YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW OLD THIS MAKES ME FEEL. AND SHOPPING AND FUCKING IS TWO DECADES OLD. TWENTY YEARS, FFS.]

I remember liking it fine at the time. Ravenhill played the original version himself, in Trav 2, during the Edinburgh Fringe, opening just under a month after 7/7. Terrorism was very now, then.

The plot of product, is: film executive pitches ludicrous film to famous actress. So, the majority of Product’s plot is the plot of this film. It’s a simple device, but a strangely satisfying one that allows Ravenhill both to have cake and to eat cake. And it’s a play that – remarkably – has gotten way better with age, I think. You’d think all that post-9/11 “political theatre” would have evaporated once their nominal subject had been de-written, but in fact Product feels all the more savage a satire now, with the benefit of the ten year hindsight. Targets that might once have felt flimsy, too easy, or maybe unnecessary have been vindicated by time.

If I remember rightly, while I liked it at the time, nothing, no single piece of theatre, was ever going to say everything that needed saying about the events exploding about our ears, but at the same time there was no end of the things.

Now, seen in isolation, on election night, after a week in Berlin thinking about totally different things (people bumped into including: Ravenhill, Mark), Product feels like savage lesson in (recent) history and the value of cynicism. (How quick some people have been to forgive a decade of illegal war, removal of civil liberties, imprisonment without trial, and torture).

The plot of the film-within-the-play, “Mohammed and Me” (!), is a kind of action rom-com: basically, imagine a man from al Qaeda filling the gap in Bridget Jones’s life that shopping just can’t reach.

Where Ravenhill’s performance was eerie, sarcastic, ironic and sinister (all in a good way), Olivia Poulet’s runs a real gamut – acting out more bits of the film, script always in hand; where Ravenhill’s film executive was sardonic, Poulet’s is needy, desperate, pleading. When Ravenhill *said* he really needed Famous Actress to be in the project, you got the impression that this was just him unnecessarily blowing smoke up her ass. Poulet’s version *really* needs it. Where Ravenhill’s production became about male power over women – the film script’s insistence on the sexuality of the leading actress in that context was overwhelmingly troubling – in Poulet’s hands it becomes more interestingly about one woman, who has bought into an anti-woman system, trying to sell that system to another woman. A woman who, here, plainly doesn’t need or want it.

Olivia Poulet’s performance is understated – well, she understatedly sells us a Very Overstated Performance by the film exec with brilliant comic intelligence (Poulet’s not the disastrously unaware exec.). Robert Shaw’s production intelligently lets performance and script do the work (Gillian Argo’s simple design of coloured carpet tiles, green hanging blinds and chair, are more than enough).

Running at fifty minutes, it feels silly saying this, but it’s a really *enjoyable* way of spending a night at the theatre. Punchy and provocative enough to still make you wince while you laugh, and intelligent enough to offer a finely sketched overview of how Western Ideology infects far beyond the political into every aspect of the personal, there are much worse ways you could spend time/money. And that’s what we really want to know in a consumer society.
Sex and the City 2 LINK

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Die Unverheiratete – Haus Der Berliner Festspiele

[seen 06/05/15]


[experimental review format. This weekend I’m doing a workshop on criticism for young critics. Next week I’ve got to do two 330-word reviews. Today I’ve got to think a bit about how I write...]

[burbling intro. Useful mostly for me. Cut: I first came across Ewald Palmetshofer at Neue Stücke aus Europa in Wiesbaden, 2008. Actually, Felicitas Brucker’s production of hamlet ist tot. keine schwerkraft probably marks the very begining of my love affair with German theatre – ironic, given that it was for Schauspielhaus Wien. On this occasion it was everything to do with the staging and barely anything to do with the play. Back then Palmetstofer’s shtick was taking out either the auxiliary or main verbs of his sentences. The result was essentially untranslatable, to the extent that the simultaneous translator in Wiesbaden point-blank refused to read out the “translation”. So, to watch Hamlet is Dead..., we foreigners sat with a photocopied script in our laps trying to work out what the fuck was happening on the stage. Fast forward seven years (SEVEN YEARS!) and Palmetshofer has dialled down his shtick slightly. And the translators of Theatretreffen have brought their A-Game [since when did I say A-Game? And why does it look like a sort of Greek love? Agamè! Anyway...].]


The programme for Ewald Palmetshofer’s new play, Die Unverheiratete (The Unmarried), contains the full text of his play. It also – suggestively – contains an extract from Heiner Müller’s Electra. It turns out this additional text isn’t just included as a kind of literary mood board: at the height of Robert Borgmann’s production, it is delivered by the mother (die Mittlere – Christiane von Poelnitz) who’s sat on a mound of raw earth, covered in a bucket’s worth of blood, and thousand-yard-staring out into the audience, fairly spitting the words of theatre’s most famous mother-murdering daughter.

As a play, Die Unverheiratete is nominally about a crime committed by a grandmother (die Alte – Elisabeth Orth) in the dying days of World War Two – for which she was imprisoned; possibly for as long as twenty years – learnt about by her granddaughter (die Junge – Stefanie Reinsperger) from a notebook she kept. Her crime, it turns out, feels relatively minor – the betrayal, accidental or otherwise, of a deserting Nazi soldier – given the crimes taking place all around her. And the play feels like a kind of low-grade “Ibsen’s The Reader”. More striking and shocking is the grandmother’s unrepentant anti-Semitism – she dismisses the judge at her trial as “a Jew”; spitting the single word as if it were insult enough.

It is Borgmann’s production (which he also designed) that lifts the text [ – which, although surtitled, is impossible to really assess for literary merits; you get that it *is* literary in English, just not how, or how successfully – ] however. Twelve fresh burial mounds are sheltered under a hanger-like arrangement of strip lights, like in his Onkel Wanja at Schauspiel Stuttgart from last year’s Theatertreffen, but more so. On one grave, a huge block of ice – chest-high, shoulder-wide – melts, like in Nekrosius’s Hamlet.


[word-count approx 280. 50 words left for a conclusion somewhere...]


The literary fragments and visual echoes of Borgmann’s production – along with the miniature chorus of “four sisters”, dressed in everything from Bo Peep style shepherdess outfits to [Austrian? Nazi?] military uniforms – elevate Palmetshofer’s tricksy and elliptical modern family narrative into something like the grand fatalistic tragedies of ancient Greece. A visual treat, if not an entirely satisfying story.


[it feels glib, but I guess I could work on it if I didn’t have so much more space here... And, Jesus, I’ll have to give it a star-rating. 4.5 for the set, 3 for the play. rounded down to three because UK audiences (generally/inc. me) go to the theatre to see stories, not philosophical installations? (and the philosophy isn’t so shit hot anyway.) Get me and my consumer guidance.]

[thought: ultimately you write the review you’re paid (or not) to write. The choice is whether to accept the money. Once you have, the skill is to acquit the task to the best of your ability within the constraints you’ve been paid to accept. Discuss. Although, Matt Trueman’s recent review of the Michael Frayn at the Hampstead for Time Out suggests that there’s a bit of latitude for expressing irritation once you’ve got your feet firmly under the table – i.e. I don’t suppose, if that had been his first review for Time Out, Andrzej or readers would have been very impressed? Maybe they would, though. Discuss.]

[Anyway, enough of the meta-criticism. Stuff I couldn’t quite countenance putting in a proper review includes:

This is pretty much the best set I’ve seen *in ages*. It seems that Robert Borgmann is my new favourite go-to point of reference for the best of how German theatre looks. I’ve sort-of described the general thing above – what I didn;t find space for is the rather beautiful visual conceit of two red curtains, one at the front, one at the back, rising and falling as if connected over the top like a too-short tablecloth. Except you can see that the one at the back is simply attached to a pole and is only maybe three metres high – flown in as a backdrop when required. There are also two half-transparent plastic sheet curtains which are drawn between two different sections of the hanger of strip-lights, creating shadowy depths in this shed of blinding light.

There’s also a dance break! Featuring DAF’s Tanz der Mussolini, with Mussolini’s name replaced by Thomas Bernhard. Ha!

After seven years, I *still* don’t really get how chucking in random songs really works, or is allowed. But I definitely love it. Perhaps that’s why they (the Germans/Austrians) do it. Because it’s a totally awesome thing to do.

The interactions with the ice-block also deserve a mention. The daughter – particularly in an episode in which she explains her promiscuity to us – jumps on it a fair bit, lies on it, almost mimes sex with it. And all the while you’re thinking “that must be bloody cold/painful”.

And, yes! The daughter’s promiscuity! Christ. It’s incidental in the overall arc of the “story”, but my God, it’s kind of crucial. The piece opens with the daughter looking through the phone of a man she’s just slept with. Taking a photo of him on her bed with her right breast out of focus in the foreground – an echo of the photos of mountains already in his phone’s photo album, she says.

In the middle, she comes on in short skirt and leopardskin print coat (“nothing says ‘unhinged ho’ like leopardskin, right?”) and talks about how many other blokes she’s slept with since. And she’s been sending naked photos of them to the first guy.

At the end, first guy comes back and beats her up. This *maybe* ties up with her grandmother’s imprisonment and why her mother’s mother was twenty years old than all the other mothers (having been in prison and ashamed in her village etc.).

Is this difficult and a bit patronising to women? Oh, hell yes. But then it’s more a literary device than a study of how anyone anywhere ever actually acts. (Including men who have had a one night stand?) Still, I don’t suppose Ewald P. will be on Everyday Sexism’s Christmas card list, even if every part in this show is explicitly for a woman, and they’re all *interesting* at least. “Why didn’t you get a man sooner, after the war?” asks die Mittlere at one point. “Because there weren’t any. They were all cripples.” replies die Alte testily.

Die Junge also has a lot to say about postmodernism. This, for me, tapped into an interesting conversation about the whole Austrian literary style/thing about langugae, which my friend says maybe stems from Wittgenstein and has to do with genuine, profound mistrust of words really meaning anything, or achieving their meanings adequately. I’d love to quote a bit, but the text is only in German, sadly.

Positioning the production in terms of “Germany”, Theatertreffen, and the UK, weirdly, I think a straight transfer of this play, *in English* with all the Austrian/German performers swapped for British counterparts, but in exactly the same production, would actually seem completely fine in the Lyttleton. It would be visually superior to most British theatre (IMHO) (even though we are shit hot more and more often), but while the play would make as much sense to Brits as it does to Berliners (*some*), and the style wouldn’t feel so removed from something Michael Frayn or David Hare could write (not least the film of The Reader), there’s no especial reason for us to do *this play*. Much more interesting to get Robert Borgmann over to direct the première of the new Duncan Macmillan or something...

Wordcount now 1,500. Time to stop and post before nine am UK time...]

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Deutsche American Freundshaft!

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Warum Läuft Herr R. Amok? – Deutsches Theater, Berlin

[seen 04/05/15]


Warum Läuft Herr R. Amok? is one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen in a theatre. And I have absolutely no idea how to explain how or why. Even to myself.

The cumulative effect by the end is a real visceral sense of, what? Rage? Release? Catharsis? You’ve essentially been tipped into the head of a man who loses his mind and murders his wife, child and neighbour. And, in a really worrying way, you’re kind of right there with him when he does it.

To get to this point, you’ve been sitting in the theatre for the last two hours watching what in theory is some of the most deadpan-to-the-point-of-tedious theatre you’ve ever seen. So much so, that it’s even quite funny for a while. But you soon stop laughing. Some of the catharsis of the end is simply relief that the play has stopped making you watch it.

The show opens in a slightly false perspective light wooden room. There’s a counter with a pile of CDs on it, two bored looking women, and a bloke. All the performers are wearing see-thru plastic masks and very acrylic wigs. All their clothes look brand new: ironed jeans, box fresh trainers, uncreased sweaters. They look – and move – like human showroom dummies. Some interminable lift music is playing, maybe. Everything looks too bright. Kitschy. Maybe late seventies or early eighties. It’s not overdone. It doesn’t quite grate. It’s just bland to the point of cheerful nothingness, with the added uncanny effect of the plastic masks.

A man is asking the saleswomen is they know a song that he heard on the radio last week. He can’t remember the title. He can’t remember much about it, to be honest. The information he offers is comically useless. In over-precise terms he describes what could be almost any pop song ever. But it’s also like a nightmare. You know that sensation when you can’t stop hearing a song, but all you can explain is a tuneless “Deee, dah dah”. That. Perfectly.

Oh, and the dialogue is mimed. It’s delivered in the most toneless, deadpan voices imaginable, and just played over the scene (I presume it’s recorded, although it could be done live backstage and we’d never know). At times the pauses between lines seem almost eternal, and sometimes a line will be repeated by a character over and over again just to hammer home more mind-numbing tedium. Again, it teeters between hilarious and agonising. For the whole play. It’s like making a whole piece from the dialogue bits in porno. Porno where no one is ever going to get to have sex. Ever.

On one level it’s like the whole piece is daring us to keep watching at all. On another level, though, it’s genuinely fascinating (and funny, and entertaining and compellingly watchable). I don’t think until this show I’ve ever really got what anyone might mean by “alienation technique” (bad translation of V-effekt, I know) or how it would work. But, well, this is pretty alienating, and it really does have a brilliant effect on how you watch and think about what you’re watching.

In between each scene a screen lowers and we see a video of another room, almost identical to the one facing the auditorium, in which usually nothing happens at all. Sometimes the music/ambient noise of the previous scene will continue, sometimes not. Sometimes new music or ambient noise will be introduced. Sometimes that will carry over into the next “live” scene. Sometimes not. Sometimes a person – always a senior citizen – will walk into the videoed room. These sections end with the location of the next scene in eighties computer writing projected onto the screen.

The question of the title is pretty easily answered: because capitalism. Or, more precisely: because everything in the life of Herr R. (pronounced in German “R” is “air”, so it rhymes with Herr) seems designed to be grating, irritating to the point where he snaps. If anything, the real question of the piece isn’t: why does Herr R go mad? But: why isn’t everybody going mad?

The piece is based on the script of a film by Rainer Maria Fassbinder, and it’s not without its problems. While Herr R. is obviously a blank and a bit of a bore, his wife and female neighbour are pretty much cartoon harpies of social climbing, and one could wonder about how much of that is to do with hating capitalism, and how much just to do with hating women. Similarly, there’s a scene with his son, whose main crime against Herr R. seems to be having a speech defect (unable to say “sch” without whistling). Here the sympathy of the audience’s laughter is ambiguous. There’s also a sense that the piece might indulge that problematic “artist’s version” of “everyday life”, which never quite resolves that line between concern and condescension – that sense of: “how do ‘ordinary people’ put up with it all?” All that said, I don’t think there’s much here in the day to day exchanges that won’t be familiar to everyone. Small exchanges where someone else aims to demonstrate their superiority to you, perhaps based on value systems about which you don’t even care, small set-backs, failed attempts at camaraderie, feeling betrayed by a partner’s social climbing. In a way it’s an achingly slow, German, art-house The Office, or an anti-capitalism American Beauty.

Herr R.’s attempt to buy this record that’s become an earworm is a recurring motif throughout the piece. At one stage a looped intro to Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head plays throughout one scene for what also feels like an eternity. As the piece progresses Herr R. gets closer to finding out what the song is. It turns out (here) to be Let it Grow by Eric Clapton. Albeit, for a really long time, just a loop of the few bars starting roughly at 2.00 and cutting out before the vocals happen. It’s a brilliant use of music. Everything from its era, its stirring-but-bullshit hippy promises, even the melodic structure of mounting force and somehow sense-of-yearning. It paints a completely plausible picture of the inside of Herr R.’s mind. And the way that all we hear for just ages is a loop echoes both the nature of an ohrwurm and the cyclical, recursive life Herr R. is living.

Just after (or just before?) Herr R. snaps, and does his family in by smashing their heads in with a garden gnome (brilliant! The pathos!), we have a scene where we actually do hear at least half the full song (I reckon from 2.00 onwards). One of the senior women from the room-on-video comes into the audience-facing-room and does a ludicrously sexy dance along with it. Then, in the next(?) scene the familiar plastic-faced cast in the office setting have been replaced by the senior citizens from the video room. The hideous plastic-faced dream-logic of the whole thing thus far is abruptly shattered. Maybe they even speak with their real voices. Weirdly (perhaps because of surtitles already putting me at one remove?) I didn’t notice/don’t remember.

But, yes. Somehow it’s impossible to communicate precisely how much a rush the end of the show gives you. I mean, I think it is to do with the way that you’re relieved that it’s over. But also it’s amazement at the completeness and beautiful realisation of such a completely alien aesthetic.

For me, this felt like about the most unequivocal attack on capitalism/Western life that I can think of. Without ever doing more than, well, than demonstrating alienated labour by showing us the most distorted, alienated, alienating vision of it imaginable. And its effect on people writ large.

It’s cleverer than I’ve just made it sound. And harder to watch. And more satisfying. And more mad, inexplicable, and visceral. Yeah. I don’t really have the words, but, blimey. Warum Läuft Herr R. Amok? is stunning.

___

Listen (from 2.00) until you can’t dislodge from your mind:

Oh, and YouTube has the original film! (Italian subtitles, unhelpfully):

  

Hen Zek

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Monday, 4 May 2015

Richard III – Schaubühne, Berlin

[seen 03/05/15]


The opening of Thomas Ostermeier’s Richard III is one of the most exciting things I’ve seen on stage in recent times. For this production the Schaubühne has completely reconfigured Saal C. Usually a regular, raked audience facing its shallow semi-circular concrete stage; now the audience is seated in a dark wood and steel suggestion of Shakespeare’s Globe bolted to the curved concrete walls, with a new thrust stage pushing into it and immediately behind that, a high rough plaster wall, with almost-black wooden gantries criss-crossing it like wounds, suggesting medieval castles, ramparts, walkways and gallows. The players explode onto the stage in a volley of live percussion, loud music and hand-held glitter cannons. Glorious summer indeed.

Ostermeier’s House of York is younger than usual too. Less stately. More like Bullingdon Club bullies than House of Lords. It all feels terribly fresh and exciting. And then there’s the fact of Lars Eidinger – *that* Hamlet – fêted, in Britain at least, as Germany’s most exciting actor. And he does feel exciting. Understated but urgent. “Jetzt...” has never sounded more *now*, kinda thing.

But, this is still Richard III. Two hours and forty long minutes of it. (Sometimes, Shakespeare’s history plays make it seem like the monarch in question only ruled for the space of an evening. Not tonight.) As I understand it, Germany hardly ever does any of Shakespeare’s history plays* so the plot of Richard III – easily Shakespeare’s funnest (and least historical) history play – is a draw here. Perhaps as a result, Ostermeier’s *take* on the play, is essentially *just doing the play*. Perhaps pretty radical for Germany, and welcome if they just want to know what the plot is – and what the plot is, here, is a lot of blokes with the names of English counties shouting and running hither and yon – but pretty standard if you’ve ever been to the Globe. Also, I quite missed having a sense of drive, or any of the relationships between characters. Richard’s relationship with Clarence is well realised, and Clarence’s murder – stabbed to death, naked; blood soaking into the sand of the thrust – is suitably horrible. Much of what follows is far more muddied.

There are inventions: the two doomed princes are presented as shiny-faced, life-sized puppets; Richard throws a fair bit of food around, eventually daubing his whole face white with some sort of emulsion porridge; Laurie Anderson’s O, Superman turns up at (irritating, as always) length; hanging above the stage is an ever-present internally-lit old-fashioned mic, which also has a live-feed camera in it; and straps, from which Richard swings, and is eventually hung, upside-down, dead. [SPOILER, DEUTSCHLAND!].

Perhaps the most intriguing bit of staging, though, is that Richard’s final climactic battle is fought solo. Indeed, the small ensemble of nine or ten, already mostly playing two or more parts, never even show us Richmond. Once lords from Richard’s side defect, they simply disappear. Indeed, watching in a concrete bunker, in Berlin, listening to Richard rant and rave at his betrayal in German, it is hard not to think of a certain scene from a certain film popularised on the internet. But here, there’s almost a suggestion that the paranoia goes further still – not only is Richard battling real enemies, but invisible demons who eventually do him in unseen. Perhaps.

However, for all this, quite a lot of how this production unfolds is pretty bog-standard, and a long way from the most compelling reading of the part along the way. (Watching this RIII, I realised just how much of an effect Ian McKellan’s film of the play has had on my understanding/memories of it. Glib though the setting arguably is, its clarity and style is undeniable.) Essentially it’s a fine account of the play, perhaps dramaturgically streamlined a bit too much toward narrative at the expense of the incidental details and relationships that make the story matter in the first place, but without replacing these with either politics or metaphor. Similarly, while Eidinger’s performance of disability is rather superbly realised – the design of his hump, just a small, black cushion strapped to his shoulder is a particularly fine touch – the entire problem of Shakespeare effectively equating physical disability with a predisposition toward evil feels particularly untouched here. Indeed, my biggest thought last night was suddenly *really* wanting to see Graeae blow the whole mad, early-modern thing out of the water giving us both the rompy plot, *and* all the problems that it entails exposed at the same time.
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Actually, you can see all the good bits here and save yourself 2hrs38.30:




*(Fair enough, really; why would they? Richard II has been surpassed by almost every play about a sad bloke in a room since, 1 & 2 Henry IV are wildly overrated, Henry V must be pretty irritating for anyone who didn’t win Agincourt, 1, 2 & 3 Henry VI are a hotch-potch at best... Ok, I’m taking the piss, but only just)

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Onkel Wanja – Maxim Gorki Theater, Berlin

[seen 02/05/15]


There’s a beautiful moment in Nurkan Erpulat’s new production of Uncle Vanya where Falilou Seck as Professor Serebryakov is left alone on stage. From the carefully constructed domed sky above the stage, a single spotlight slowly descends, gently smashing any pretence of illusion. Seck walks to the back of the stage, still talking, and opens a door in the cyclorama depicting the forest surrounding the stage. There is a bright light shining from behind the door, and smoke drifts out across the stage into the beam of the hanging spotlight. Stood half in, half out of the doorway, Serebryakov gives a little shrug. For some reason it’s one of the saddest images I’ve ever seen on stage. It turns out that he’s talking about how returning home doesn’t feel quite right somehow. Not as comforting as he’d hoped; not as homely.

I confess that up until that point I’d been beating myself up a bit during this production. Before seeing the show I did an interview with the artistic directors of the Gorki. And they’re brilliant: so politically switched-on and alive to the possibilities of theatre as a full-blooded instrument of real political change (link/s forthcoming). We probably talked a lot more about politics, history and “identity” than about, y’know, actual plays. So I really wanted to like the production too. And I was doing. The reason I was beating myself up slightly is that I was finding it a bit *normal* for Germany. Not normal-German; normal-British. I mean, I checked myself, and, no, even before the spotlight/door intervention it would still have been considered *a bit avant garde* in the UK. The effortless way in which the cast is multicultural, the modern dress, the small departures from *what Chekhov wrote*. Oh yes, there was still more than enough “intemperate excitement” to concern certain British critics. But no more so than you’d find in, say, Rupert Goold’s work. On one level, *of course* Rupert’s work is outstanding, and I should have just been relaxing and enjoying it, but since I was in Germany, I found myself – unfairly – wanting more upending of my expectations. And there I was watching a staging with the painted backdrop of a forest and the cast sitting in chairs and acting with recognisable, psychological realism (!).

It’s interesting, though. In theory, not *much* changed after the spotlight/door moment. The spotlight withdraw back out of view. Serebryakov closed the door and continued his soliloquy under the changing projected sky. Yes, more *things* did start to happen; but really it was the explicable sense of having been so moved that really shook things up at first. I think I also relaxed into the style of Erpulat’s production.

For some reason, I didn’t really tune in to the German last night (and, perhaps for the best, there weren’t any surtitles), and yet this production – running at two hours twenty(?) without interval – completely held my attention throughout. As opposed to the violence of a Castorf, or, say, the abrasive junkyard chic of last year’s Theatertreffen Vanja, the mood here feels mellow and buccolic, tinged with sadness and weirdness – shortly after the spotlight/door thing there’s another brilliant moment where Maria (Sema Poyraz) simply opens a tablecloth ready to drape it over a table and a projection of an owl in flight flashes across it in a blink-and-you-miss-it moment. Indeed, I think I did blink for half of it, and was really surprised to briefly catch this Lynchian omen suddenly part of the stage picture.

But, perhaps the best thing last night was the chickens. Man, am I a sucker for funny animals. But then, I think last night *everyone* was a sucker for funny animals. They’d been on stage for Act One, but they’d stayed pretty much huddled against the back wall. So much so that I didn’t notice them for about half an hour. Later, though, they’re returned to the stage and plonked down squarely in the middle. And join in a bit. Perhaps the absolute best moment last night is when Vanja (Tim Porath) performs a soliloquy of his own, essentially to one of the chickens. By this point, the revolve – not quite in the centre of the stage – has started to turn (at one point causing Astrov’s books to disappear though another door in the forest as he puts them down on this shifting ground). Vanja is laid out next to a cardboard box one of the chickens is sitting contentedly in. Vanja bemoans his fate, the chicken clucks sympathetically at him, with what appears to be perfect timing, while just poking its head over the lip of the box to stare at the audience and reflect on what a weird position this is for a chicken to find itself in. The mixture of extreme pathos and hilarity somehow feels like it realises the Chekhovian predicaments of the characters perfectly.

Overall, the work that the Gorki is doing tends to be more macro-political than this, and definitely less whimsical. For all that, this felt like a perfect addition to their repertoire. The building’s commitment to exploring “post-migrant” Berlin (their term) finds a perfect reflection in the personal-political level of Chekhov’s story about someone returning to their home after a long period abroad (reflecting the other side of the familiar family-left-behind story common to all countries experiencing significant levels of migration). But, more to the point, even without any knowledge of the building, its programme, or its politics, this is an intelligent, funny, sad, deeply moving production of a beautiful Chekhov play. And a brilliant way to spend a Saturday night.

Theatertreffen-blog podcast

[audio!]


Exeunt’s Annegret Märten is working for the Theatertreffen Blog. After Die Schutzbefohlenen she recorded herself, me, Meg Vaughan and Theresa Gindlstrasser talking about it.
 

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Die Schutzbefohlenen – Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Berlin

[seen 01/05/2015]


[In an irony that I suspect Germany will appreciate, the UK-based American playwright Anders Lustgarten recently accused German theatre of being “very arch, with an arctic chilly distance to it. And that’s exactly the product of what happens when you are destroying people not very far away and you don’t wanna think about it.” Leaving aside the sheer idiocy/Olympian condescension of trying to characterise an entire country’s theatrical output with three adjectives, the occasion of this interview was Lustgarten’s play Lampedusa (“Lustgarten’s writing is just awful.” – WhatsOnStage), his stab at British consciences re: the ongoing humanitarian crisis of drowned immigrants in the Mediterranean...  The first play at this year’s Theatertreffen – the Berlin-based showcase of the ten best plays in German-language theatre over the last year – is Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek’s response to the exact same subject. Nevertheless, Lustgarten’s choice of adjectives – “arch”, “artic”, “chilly” – is worth tackling, even if his rationale for thinking why (all of!) German theatre might be like that is immediately blown clean out of the water by this play staring hard into the heart of precisely the same problem as his own.]

Jelinek’s new text is a response to immigration: immigration to Austria, immigration to Germany (the number one destination in Europe, Britain is only number four, understandably), the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean, all of it. Both her text and Nicholas Stemann’s staging of it are also concerned with the problem of theatre in a predominantly white, Western country trying to stage such a response. In a move that feels almost inevitable, being German-language theatre, the way it does this is to take Aeschylus’s 2,500-year-old play, The Suppliants as a starting point.

The piece opens with a stage full of refugees. Quite literally. Hamburg’s Thalia Theater has recruited a 40(?)-strong chorus of actual illegal immigrants/refugee activists for this production. The first image when the piece starts is them lined up across the front of the stage with the opening lines of Jelinek’s text echoing around the room. It is gradually revealed that the lines are being spoken by three middle-aged, white men at the back with microphones. The chorus disperses and the first, what? half-an-hour? consists of these men continuing with this poetic, punning, probably-classical-tragedy-derived chorus. When they are joined by an actor of non-white heritage they imagine that there are communication problems, despite his being an actor from Hamburg now based in Berlin, “Phone my agent” he suggests. Blank looks. Examinations of the surtitles (in English) projected onto the theatre walls to find out what he’s saying. Etc. A giant wooden crucifix and church windows descend from the flies. Etc.

During this first hour or so, my sympathies pinged back and forth on an almost minute-to-minute basis. Is this good? I wondered. Is this useful? Are they tackling racism or actually being massively racist? At one point after the black actor has joined them on stage, one of the white chorus goes off and returns half-heartedly blacked-up, as per many German stage productions. The look the black actor gives him is so brilliantly withering as to be worth the price of admission alone. Trope after trope is exploded. Two of the white actors at one point turn up dressed in false beard on one and headscarf on the other. The sheer silliness of this simultaneous failed-attempt-at-representation, satire, and affront somehow even recalls the problem of Charlie Hebdo (as – on another level – does the Wir Sind Lampedusa cardboard placard, nailing not only the problems of that sort of crass identification, but also CH’s own perceived racism).

What’s surprising (for Germany) is the level of directness here. Yes, on one level the whole thing is deeply ironic – about itself, about everything else, especially about the futility of what it’s doing – but at the same time, it’s very direct about what it’s being ironic about. Problem after problem is named. The problem of a white Austrian woman authoring a text about immigrants, the problem of a white director trying to achieve authenticity by employing black actors and a chorus of real-life refugees. The problem of condescension. The lot. As such, at times it’s quite difficult to watch. A process of infinite recursions, rather than *drama*(Drama!).

Ultimately, whether you find this good or bad (ha! Such categories!) might depend on your national training. Because this absolutely isn’t what the British version of this same thing would look like. I suspect most British productions on this subject would choose to start by ignoring all the elephants in the room. For at least the first hour Die Schutzbefohlenen stages little more than just the elephants. Rather than seeking to make a digestible play that looks at the problems faced by refugees through the prism of a satisfying fictional narrative (see, well, most British plays on the subject really), for most of the evening we’re pretty much in the theatre watching the problems of the theatre on the stage. And indeed we’re playing the part of the equally problematic white, middle-class, privileged, Western audience while we do so. At which point, the very idea of ever watching something which ignores these problems (Lampedusa, anyone?) feels like a far greater affront to human dignity than actually facing these problems of representation head-on. Of course, theatre about the failure of theatre can be immensely frustrating, but here theatre also stands in for white, Western civilisation at large, and theatre’s failures become observably the failures of society at large.

At the same time there are points, when the refugees return to the stage and speak for themselves (again, staggeringly direct in my experience of German theatre), where the irony is binned in favour of simple, moving testimony – the names of the chorus members who have been deported since the production began, the name of the chorus member who was murdered while sleeping rough, the stories of the refugees in the chorus, why they had to leave their home countries, etc.

The overall effect of the piece is hard to immediately assess. As the final lights faded to black, there was one of those long audience-pauses before the applause, where everyone watching just gathered themselves. And, yes, it did feel like we’d been through the wringer. The piece makes no apologies for pointing the finger at its audience and calling them out for their complacency, privilege, and their continuing to do nothing to solve the world’s seemingly insoluble problems. In this it was, if anything, even more successful than Wallace Shawn’s The Fever because, though less pointed and ferocious in its accusations, it made them in precisely the place we’re most accustomed to being: the theatre. This wasn’t a J’Accuse hurled in a hotel room that I’d otherwise have never entered, but in a totally familiar theatre space that I’ve visited on numerous occasions (the same would have been true in Hamburg).

On one level this is difficult, intellectually challenging theatre. It doesn’t give us an easy ride. It doesn’t offer the consolations of narrative, or pat us on the back for at least turning up. It relentlessly prods and pokes at its audience, often even at the level of its own content. On another level, though, this is completely accessible (though, more so to German-speakers, obvs). While intellectual and philosophical, the problems it presents and the way it tackles them could be grasped by a bright seven-year-old. I don’t think you need to have a keen appreciation of its classical allusions (on top of The Suppliants, at another stage Europa makes a(nother) appearance riding on her bull, draped in the flag of the EU) to get the point. Sure, the more stuff you happen to know, the more levels reveal themselves, but that’s true of everything. Doubtless there was a load of stuff I didn’t get. But, difficult watch though it was, it was an incredibly effective and affecting piece of theatre.

[So, to address the bracketed introduction directly: hardly chilly-ly distant, hardly not wanna-ing to think about destroying people. And arch? Well, only in service of its own relentless self-reproach. Which I found admirable. Now, I’m a pluralist; I completely see the value of myriad other theatrical approaches to tackling vast impossible subjects. However, I don’t think the charges against (the whole of!) German theatre even remotely begin to stack up if they can be this easily disproved after one random example. Danke und gute nacht.]

Friday, 1 May 2015

On criticism: after the end, part one

[a response to Meg Vaughan and Mark Shenton’s recent Stage pieces]


Meg Vaughan has written a Very Exciting Thing. For The Stage. I should briefly say, I cannot begin to tell you how chuffed I am that The Stage has started publishing stuff like this. The new editor Alistair Smith has completely turned the paper around from being almost entirely ignored to rapidly becoming required reading. (Although I still think they should put their entire contents online as soon as they get them) And, oddly, it might be the host venue that makes Meg’s piece feel as exciting as it does. Which reflects on its contents in a very interesting way indeed.

If you’ve not read it (and you should), the piece – “The long tail of theatre criticism” – covers a number of things. It starts off looking at the predictions of gloom and doom for theatre criticism, goes on to propose an alternative way of thinking about online criticism, and then casts a disparaging eye over the new My Theatre Mates initiative floated by Stage associate editor Mark Shenton and wrongfully-dismissed former WhatsOnStage editor, Terri Paddock.

I’ve already grumbled about the dismissal of “online criticism” or “bloggers” both for Nachtkritik and here at Postcards (more than once), and don’t intend to rehash those rebuttals here. Not least because that narrative is done now. It used to be fun, back in the mid-2000s, to see “the internet” as the bright young thing challenging the dead hand of conservative taste and old white men. But that was almost a decade ago. Now “professional” IN NO WAY means “printed in a newspaper”. The existence of numerous reputable, and sometimes even salaried websites (WhatsOnStage, Exeunt, The Arts Desk), the expansion of online-only content at newspapers and magazines (the Guardian, the Stage, Time Out etc.), and the writing at these of many former print critics, means that the old demarcations have been entirely erased. The impetus behind Vaughan’s blog, then, is in part irritation at the way that she sees these dead problems being propped up and still trotted out, and then given a new lease of life by My Theatre Mates.

The most interesting part of her piece is where she discusses Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson’s economic model of online music sales – a graph showing a big spike with a long tail – and proposes that this is how we could now see criticism. It’s a creative way of imagining the situation. “Creative” not least because it completely up-ends the conventional wisdom of how and why people read accounts of pieces of theatre. In many ways, I think by adopting that model of readership Vaughan is partly describing the relationship of readers to individual writers. But much more, I think she’s also excavated something interesting about when, how, and why people read “reviews”. As such, it makes me think that the real questions in theatre criticism now are ones of purpose, function, intent and audience.

The traditional, newspaper-based model of a review is, after all, exactly as the first bit of that graph describes. It was produced for a single edition of a daily newspaper, and if people didn’t buy that edition of that newspaper on the particular day the review was published it immediately became rather difficult to ever get hold of again. Yes, theatres would paste up quotes or even the whole review outside (if the review was positive), but that was it. A sense of “hit” or “flop” would maybe hang in the air, and bits of the review might be imperfectly remembered and repeated, but until the mid/late-2000s no one could *get their phone out of their pocket and look it up*. (I mean, really, that sentence! Imagine if someone had told you in 2000 that that’s what you’d be doing in 2015.) As Mark Shenton has literally just pointed out, these sorts of reviews could be construed as a kind of Which? “consumer guide”. I am a little surprised that Mark will go so far as to argue that this is what “critics are, first and foremost”, but it’s certainly one use some people might have for a review.

[an aside: if a critic is really “first and foremost a consumer guide”, if all the tickets to a show sell out in advance, as with, say, the forthcoming Cumberbatch Hamlet, can we assume that no critics will need to attend?]

It’s worth bearing in mind that in the olden days, newspapers would carry, what? One? Two? Three reviews a day? Theoretically from across the country (depending on the number of regional editions, etc.), and so for a majority of most newspaper readers, any given review was less likely to be useful consumer advice (because they were in Watford and the play was in Leeds, frinstance) than an interesting account of something taking part in their nation’s culture, woven into the fabric of a much wider account of the planet on that particular day (so, no, not “first” or “foremost”). But this is still the review at the short fat end of the graph. The point in a review’s life where it is either an urgent marketing tool, or a piece of breaking news in a country’s cultural life. And it is also the reviews audience at its most general. Still a self-selecting section (people who read a theatre review), within a self-selecting section (people who buy that newspaper), but in theory, at this stage, people with no specific interest.

This is where that model of the internet/long-tail gets interesting. Because one of the things that the internet has definitely done is change the shelf-life of a review. Before, all the reviews used to be collected in the pages of Theatre Record, copies of which could be accessed from, well, the libraries of University theatre studies departments or the British Library. Or maybe in the archives of particular theatres. But, yes, not much of a readership for them after day one. Now, reviews go online and stay online. Apparently “forever”. Although who knows how long the internet is going to last once the planet heats up, the population explodes, or the oil runs out.

And it is to this changed use that I think online criticism has best responded. Researching my chapter on Katie Mitchell’s productions of Greek plays recently, I had to get the sets of reviews for her Trojan Women (1991), her Phoenician Women (1995/96), her Oresteia (2000) and her Iphigenia at Aulis (2004) from Theatre Record (before both my own experience and the internet both kicked in with 2007’s Women of Troy). Even across that quarter of a century, it was fascinating to watch the on-paper critical landscape shrink. The magazines City Limits and What’s On (no relation) disappeared, word counts in the broadsheets contracted, and, over the years, you could almost read certain critics just getting tired. The worst year is undoubtedly 2004, though, where it feels as if almost every critic is writing to a template, and so the theoretical “diversity” of voices is in fact what? Ten? Twenty? people (and let’s not even begin to look at questions of *actual diversity*) all writing pretty much the exact same thing, all for different places. Which is OF COURSE the point of a newpaper critic. People only bought one newspaper, so their critic had to write a “proper review” for them. It’s a skill, and there’s nothing wrong with it. However, if you read a few of them back to back they do all read remarkably similarly. Sure, they have different assessments of whether a thing is good or bad, but actually, that information is the least salient in any review. I’ve suggested before that the main difference between what say Quentin Letts writes, and what I’d write, is that after the list of things seen/heard/experienced, he says “so; obviously terrible” and I’d say “so: obviously brilliant”.

But does it make sense for online to function in the same way? Serving mostly the interests at the thick, fat bit of the graph? Let’s be honest, it’s still early days, and I think online criticism is very much still evolving. However, already I think we can see that it’s starting to be used in different ways. I know, for example, that people probably don’t use my reviews as a consumer guide. I think ppl might sometimes use my Twitter feed or Facebook status updates as a consumer guide, and they might back that choice up by reading the review, but apparently just as often readers will leave a review until afterwards to find out what other people made of it. A kind of written version of chatting to your friends in the pub about a show after you’ve all been.

[Similarly, I don’t think I know many other critics who either read other reviewers *before* seeing a show, much less use them as a consumer guide. I mean, it used to be a pretty strict rule that one didn’t even discuss the elephant in the room during the interval of said elephant. On the other hand, one of the older Sunday papers reviews of a Katie Mitchell Greek play *did* make oblique reference to what some of the overnight critics had written, largely to disagree, which was interesting. I think that happens much more rarely now. But, again, this is all a matter of either botched convention or personal choice.]

So, knowing this about how people use my own reviews, and knowing that I have readers overseas who almost certainly won’t see a production, but might read or produce a play I write about; or having British readers when I’m abroad; or London readers when I’m in Manchester, and so on... It makes me write differently. And, again, pretty much the last thing on my mind is “consumer guidance”. Does this tie in to the Long-tail? I think it does. Because another thing of which you become aware when you have your own blog is what articles get revisited; which reviews get re-used, re-referred to. For example, I could sometimes probably even tell you when some plays have been added to a university course (especially if a lecturer has been kind enough to put me on the reading list) and which week they’re being studied (Or: “Why are 25 people suddenly all reading about Wastwater this morning?”). Because that’s another function of a review, surely: that buzzing first draft of history thing. The best, most detailed first-hand account possible, right? People who weren’t even there at the time wanting to read about what a thing was like. The internet has definitely made those readers feel much nearer, I think.

Another of those maxims that get bandied about in theatre criticism workshops is the idea that our first duty is to our readers. I’m not sure I fully buy that 100%, not least because we don’t know who they are or what they want, but perhaps, at least online, by being idiosyncratically ourselves our ideal readers find us, and thanks to a bit of extra fellow-feeling, might be interested in whatever self-curated programme of performances we take ourselves off to...

[I think I should stop here today, but I think from this piece hangs another one about what work we choose to see as independent critics...]

Das Kalkwerk – Schaubühne, Berlin

[seen 30/04/15]


To be honest, I didn’t do a lot of research before booking to see this production of Thomas Bernhard’s 1970 novel (yes: novel, not play) The Lime Works (“works” in the sense of “factory”). If I had, I might have counted the number of cast members (one) and concluded that my re-introduction to Deutsch Theater might be better served by something a bit more active than a monologue. On balance, I think I’m glad I didn’t do any research.

Thomas Bernhard is a difficult bastard. Here’s the synopsis of the novel on the Schaubühne’s publicity: “For years, Konrad has longed to write a unique treatise on hearing. To finally give himself the time and opportunity, he buys a house in a remote lime works. In this seclusion, far from the disturbing influence of society’s hustle and bustle, he begins work on his masterpiece. His sick, paralysed wife serves as his guinea-pig: for days, weeks and months he experiments with the effect of various consonants, vowels and vocal-groups upon her. But Konrad is unable to put his thoughts down on paper. When he has a dream in which his wife can move, the truth suddenly hits him. She lacks both the discipline and the respect to help him with his experiments. Konrad can see only one way out: he must kill her. What happens when someone fails to live up to their own expectations and life is thus rendered pointless?”

Bernhard’s novel itself is “told through a hypnotic wave of voices – the people of the small Austrian town nearby” (Wikipedia). On stage, it seems that the single performer, Felix Römer, is more embodying the scientist Konrad himself, although he begins dressed in what could be taken to be the nightie and red Dorothy shoes of the wife. Let’s be honest, he’s a middle aged bloke sat in a massive three-sided reflective cube, I don’t think we’re meant to think that’s what Konrad’s wife *actually* wears. But, y’know, in terms of where it’s going allegorically, it seems more like Römer’s inhabiting Konrad while also sometimes hinting at the wife. Perhaps with a fuller grasp on the text, it’s more apparent that he’s being lots of other people, or perhaps the Bernhard have been shaved so that the impression is more of these two subjects (the programme – unusually for Germany – credits Austrian director Philipp Preuss with an adaptation).

For the first forty five minutes, if I had any feeling other than generally watching, listening, and taking in the meaning as best I could, it was a vague sense of concern that I really couldn’t get a grip on where the director (or Bernhard for that matter) was with what is, after all, surely a really problematic text – even in synopsis. I think I’ve remarked before that Bernard usually only escapes the charge of misogyny by virtue of how hard he also hates men. And how mostly he hates Austria most of all. (And what Austrian artist doesn’t?) Nevertheless, I was all at sea for a good long while with what I thought this piece was achieving.

Then there’s a moment. The two motifs of the performance beyond the “costume changes” have been Römer sitting in the sole chair on set contorting under a bright white light in the manner of a pope in a Francis Bacon painting and the playing of Viennese waltz type music. At about one hour in, Römer leaves the cube and comes back with two buckets, water and flour. He pours the water over himself and goes off to fetch two more buckets. He tips the flour over himself. The other two buckets turn out to be egg yolks and schnitzel breadcrumbs. He tips the other two buckets on the floor next to the remains of the flour. If you’ve ever prepared your own schnitzel the line up is totally familiar. And this is what Römer does, to the strains of the most familiar Viennese Waltz after the Blue Danube, he proceeds to cover himself next in beaten egg, then breadcrumbs. It’s a brilliant, appalling-to-look-at visual statement of hatred against Austria. (At least, that’s how I read it.) All at once, a clear directorial take on the text is revealed. And it’s worth the wait. Preuss, himself, an Austrian, has, I think, very firmly decided that a plausible main thrust of this weird, horrible story is a kind of condemnation of Austria – at least, the Austria of the 1970s, which, given the glacial rate of change in Austria, is probably still relatively true now, give or take living Nazis in positions of power.

It’s an interesting thing to note in passing that Britain has never really produced this kind of novelist, or if we have, we don’t/won’t like them much. Maybe Martin Amis gets closest by virtue of his intense dislike of, well, increasingly everything except his own ever-worsening prose. But on the mainland Bernhard and now Jelinek and Houellebecq seem to command ever more respect the more they despair and dislike things. The gloomier their analysis, the more their mainland fans hold them up as paragons of analysis. I’m not sure how I feel about it, really. It’s the sort of thinking that gets dismissed as “teenage” in the UK, but the UK’s done pretty well out of its teenagers over the years, from the Sex Pistols outwards. So, yes, on one level there’s a sense of an incredibly strange and probably depressing (to me) story told here both to amuse and to make-think-widely (something else we seem not to do so much in UK – the thought we tend to want provoked tends to be quite directed), while also being used as an attack on its very foundations. As a re-entry point for German-speaking Europe, it feels apt, somehow.