Thursday, 31 October 2013

Sun – Sadler’s Wells

[an edited version of this piece was written for]

When Hofesh Shechter’s new choreography, Sun, opened at the Melbourne Festival recently, I posted my friend Jana Perkovic’s review for the Guardian on Twitter, hailing it as excellent. There followed an interesting exchange with Shechter’s lighting designer Lee Curran, who was annoyed by the way that the review “spoilered” various bits of the show.

I mention this because I ended up watching the show with half a mind on this idea of “spoiler-ing” dance moments and what one can write instead. I think I’ve concluded that I am going to spoiler the hell out the piece, but thought I would flag it up first.

For anyone who doesn’t want to know any of the stuff that happens, but does want some sort of indication of what I thought before I go off and intellectualise it to bits (the “consumer guide bit”, if you will), then I’d say go if you can. The piece is 1hr13 long, tickets are available for as little as £12 [at time of writing], and if you’ve never seen any of Shechter’s work before, a) this gives a pretty good impression what it’s like, and b) I think there’s a lot of it that is really great. Saying why it’s great (and the few bits with which I took issue), much less saying what it does and what I think it’s “about”; well, for that I think I need to explain what happens and to discuss it with concrete examples. So this review continues under the next picture...

Ironically, given the above, Sun opens with a spoiler. Over the blacked out stage, a (cute-accented, foreign, male) voice comes over the theatre’s PA welcoming us to the show and telling us that, so we can enjoy the rest of the show without worrying, they’re going to show us a bit from the end first, so we know it’s all going to be ok in the end. Which they then duly do.

The cleverness of this is that, as well as being quite funny, it immediately makes us think about the idea that whatever happens from the “real” beginning until this point at the end is going to perhaps involve some sort of situation snowballing out of control.

“Oh, and no animals were hurt in the making of this piece.” The voice ominously adds.

So we’ve already had a brief burst of the dancers – clad in light, colonial-looking clothing, with a couple of them maybe dressed as Pierrots. They look almost exactly like the cast of a production of The Tempest set in maybe 18th or 19th century Italy (a production which I’m pretty sure I must have seen at some point, though off-hand I can’t think where or when. But you know the sort of thing I mean, right?). They are dancing to the Arrival of the Guests at Wartburg from Wagner’s Tannhauser. We see maybe thirty seconds to a minute of this.

There is a black out (the first of several. And while I don’t hate them when they’re part of a complex lighting plan and choreography which really makes them work, they do still sap pace slightly).

When the lights return, there is a single large cardboard cut-out of a sheep centre stage. Slowly, gradually it is joined by other cardboard cut-out sheep. This sequence is repeated a few times across the show, so I couldn’t say with any certainty which time it is that the cardboard cut-out wolf first appears. A woman seated in the front row of the audience stands up and screams, pointing at the wolf cut-out.

Later, this sequence is repeated with a life-size card-board cut-out drawing of a native African (or possibly an aborigine – is that still a word we use? It sounds a bit racist now). The “wolf” to this “sheep” is a cardboard cut-out drawing of a typical white Victorian colonist.

Much later, a lone “hoodie” (looking like a cardboard cut-out by Banksy) makes an appearance, but this thought is not followed up. Similarly, close to the end, a lone banker on a mobile appears. We do not know if he is the natural predator of the hoodie or vice versa.

These faintly humorous sequences are interspersed with a lot more of the main event – namely the dancing. Shechter’s famous signature style is a kind of three-way collision between Jewish folk dancing, the more classical structures and shapes of ballet, and the sort of dancing to dance music that was popular when I was about fifteen – a sort of professional version of an SL2 video or old Prodigy videos (or maybe Hear The Drummer Get Wicked). It’s also reminiscent of the sort of dancing you maybe saw native Americans doing in some old and probably racist cowboys and “Indians” films.

The soundtrack to this tends to be new, original music by Shechter himself. The choreographer originally trained as a percussionist before switching to dance, which is immediately apparent from the enormous reliance placed on rhythm in the music (here, recorded, rather than live as it was in Political Mother). Both strings and guitars are pretty much also used as additional percussive, rhythmic elements much more than for their properties as vehicles for melody. In my (still as yet unpublished) review of Political Mother, I suggested that a vast majority of this music sounded a bit like a middle-eastern inflected version of Rage Against The Machine. Here, the use of the riff from RATM’s Bomb Track seems to confirm this diagnosis.

As suggested by the costumes and the cardboard cut-out pictures (even before the aborigine turns up 27 minutes in), the theme of the piece seems clearly to be that of colonialism. The cluster of dancers seems to variously take the roles of natives and then split to also enact invaders. There is a sense throughout of a growing history: a sense of the inexorable tide of colonialism. This is lent poignancy by the make-up of Shechter’s company being so remarkably international. Without this colonialism, we might reflect, would there ever have been such a diverse dance company. On the other hand, should we really view it as inevitable just because it did take place? The thesis being presented here (insofar as any dance really “presents a thesis” any more than it simply reflects a viewer’s prejudices or preoccupations) seemed to me to be suggesting that conquest and subjugation are (or at least were) a fairly essential and basic human condition. There is the thought that just as the native exercises dominion over the sheep that they find, then the colonialist whites simply applied the same policy to the indigenous peoples they “discovered”. That this is played out underscored by music played at real volume suggest that we should view this as a catastrophe (which, for the avoidance of doubt, I did anyway).

On a simplistic level, the fact that this apparent “march of history” culminates in the troupe goose-stepping (though possibly more Greek than German) and then the final reel, after a merry-go-round of sheeps, wolf, natives, colonials, hoodie and banker, dancing with apparent happiness to some Wagner... Well, you can infer what you like. There’s a darker moment before this where one of the dancers breaks off and screams into the auditorium “It’s behind you!” and then, “The wolf is behind you!”. Now, you could choose to interpret this as saying either that these bad old days are behind us. Or that it’s all just coiled like a spring and ready to pounce on us – that history is already ready to bite us again.

For my money, it reads as if Shechter is suggesting that while we all dance about in a slightly fluffy “post-ideological age”, his reassurance at the beginning, that it all ends fine was the heavily ironic statement I suspected from the get-go.

I should say that I was much more convinced by Sun than I was by the bombastic enormity of Political Mother, which I took to perhaps be saying a similar variety of things, but perhaps in a more non-commital way, and with more telegraphing. Where the name of a piece is “Political Mother” a choreographer perhaps wants to bring a bit more moral or ideological philosophy to the table than what felt like a sort of Russell Brand-y plague on all their houses. Here it felt like we the audience were expected to do a bit more “reading” to identify what it was that is being proposed. That said, I’m not entirely sure Shechter’s politics and my own entirely meet. If I were to try to explain the divergence, I might say it feels (and only *feels* and only to me) that he takes a slightly more detached, amused, ironic view of humanity and history – although the crimes perpetrated against the Jewish peoples dignifies that standpoint with a non-transferable depth and weight, so perhaps it’s not my place to judge it.

Less satisfactory, however, is a small blip of what Nicholas Ridout (talking about an entirely different dance piece by a totally separate choreographer) aptly described as “hateful gender essentialism”. That is to say, in Sun, there is a short sequence in which there are only women. And it is the only section where anyone removes any clothes. And it is the only section to feature any overt sexuality/sexualisation. I mean, the clothes the three women strip down to are functional pants and sports bras, and the sexuality exuded may just as well be their own as something dreamt in the mind of a male choreographer. But since there’s no comparable sequence with men or male sexuality it seems a point worth drawing attention to. Also, I had no idea how it fitted into the wider narrative. “There’s history, now, let’s see how the women are doing” it appeared to briefly suggest.

Against this perhaps nit-picking at the dramaturgy or “story”, I should offer a word about Lee Curran’s lighting. I should start by saying, occasional short Twitter conversations notwithstanding, I don’t know him at all; so no interest to declare.

One of the other reasons I never really got around to writing-up Political Mother (I will at some point now, I hope), was that I felt vaguely uneasy about the way I’d pretty much come out whistling the lighting design, as it were. I reckon Curran’s designs for both that and Sun rank in my top five favourite lighting designs ever. There’s a school of thought that says if an audience member notices the lighting then it has failed. Subscribers to that school of thought are, in short, dicks. It’s the same Mamet-y, Wesker-y sort of meglomaniacal thinking that says that anything at all on stage that “distracts” from The Writer’s “vision” must be eliminated. Wordy though they may be, one suspects they have all the visual sense of a Bee-Bat-Mole hybrid, and the talent for art appreciation of a traffic cone.

Here the stage is deliberately shrouded in haze. The haze gives form to every beam of light. This is lighting design made structural. And what a structure. Hung from the flies are 72 lightbulbs (twelve across, six deep) and above those ranks upon ranks of lanterns pointing straight down. Beyond these there are perhaps three bright spots at the front to illuminate faces downstage and perhaps some (maybe as few as two) lights at the side in a greenish colour to give body to the fog at various moments, but mostly the light is made of these straight down columns. Close to the end, there is also an effect not unlike Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project at the Tate Modern.

What’s interesting here, however, is how the lighting functions not only as a kind of second set – describing and creating new spaces and new ways of perceiving the stage and looking at the people on it. At times early on, you feel almost as if the dancers and the clothes they are wearing might be there largely to show off the lighting, to give the design a change to better accentuate new and different folds in cloth and textures of skin and hair. I am pretty sure I don’t really have the vocabulary or imagination yet to describe a “dramaturgy of lighting”, but it feels like such a thing, such a discssuion, is as central and crucial to the overall meaning of the piece as the movement of the dancers.


Richard Wagner – Tannhauser: Arrival of the Guests at Wartburg

Sigur Rós – Sigur 1 (a.k.a. Vaka)

Rage Against the Machine – Bombtrack

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

In Absentia – Gebläsehalle, Landsparkshaft, Duisberg-Nord

[seen: 22/09/13]

It’s really is about time I just stuck up whatever stuff I have hanging about from the rest of my Ruhr Triennale visit if only to clear my desktop slightly, and so I can link back to it when I inevitably start boring on about it in other reviews.

As with everything else I saw at the Ruhr Triennale, this wasn’t theatre. I don’t say that as some sort of stuffy English critic who refuses to recognise anything outside a narrow band of stage-bound naturalism as theatre. This was a screening of a film, a string quartet playing, and then the string quartet playing the music to accompany a second film. It wasn’t asking to be categorised as theatre. So, like the perverse fool that I am, that’s precisely how I watched it. (Well, ok, not the film. That was definitely just a film.)

But there is something compellingly theatrical about watching music played live. And in this case – a string quartet almost marooned in the centre of a vast stage, loomed-over by a huge screen – it seemed more theatrical than mere chance. After all, with an orchestra, even in a purpose-built concert hall, there seems slightly too much going on to be able to watch the thing as theatre. With a string quartet it feels more manageable.

Something else I found again – as I’d previously found with Sasha Waltz’s Continu and even, perversely, with the Robert Wilson directed staging of Helmut Lachenmann’s Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern – was that if someone just sits me down in front of a piece of “difficult” modern music and gives me something to look at while I’m doing so, then I tend to really engage with the music in a way that, left to listen to it on my own, I’d probably never quite manage. As such, it strikes me that we all need to see much more of this sort of work live. If the case that theatre makes for itself is its liveness, then I think this goes more than double for contemporary orchestral and chamber music.

Another interesting theatrical invocation was the fact that the third piece – the new Quay Brothers film/animation, a response to Witold Lutosławski’s String Quartet only string quartet, is subtitled “a paraphrase on the Hour When We Knew Nothing of Each Other”, the wordless Peter Handke play from 1992 (which was staged – badly, the more I think about it – by James MacDonald at the NT in 2008).

I’m afraid I don’t really have much by way of reflection or conclusion about these three pieces. Again, the venue in which we watched them was ridiculously beautiful. I loved watching the music. I thought the films were interesting and well made. And I was fascinated to be seeing something which was so “high-art”, with genuinely no discernible “function” whatsoever. You really couldn’t say this performed any of those stupid things that the Arts Council is always using as an excuse for why the arts should be funded. And yet, at the same time, the very fact that it was there, and it was made with public money seemed to justify both the art and the expenditure. It made me think a lot more about “difficulty” and “beauty” and “strangeness” and “awe” as ends in themselves. Ends which deserve public funding.

The programme:

In Absentia (music by Karlheinz Stockhausen: Two Couples and Kwartet Smyczkovy)

Alban Berg – Lyrische Suite

Witold Lutosławski – String Quartet

Crisis, what crisis?

[written for]

This entry serves simply to provide a link to the article I wrote about the alleged “crisis in British theatre criticism” for the brilliant German theatre news and reviews website – which, I should add, is well worth bookmarking if you’ve either got Google Translate on your browser or can read German.

I dare say there’ll be more about criticism both on Postcards and on Nachtkritik soon...

“Cover photo” is one of Gerhard Richter’s Elbe pictures from 1957. Apparently the earliest pictures he allows as part of his oeuvre.

Monday, 28 October 2013

1984 – Headlong, Richmond Theatre

[seen 25/10/13]

How do you adapt an appendix? This seems to be the chief question at the heart of the new adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four *created by* Rob Icke and Duncan Macmillan.

I emphasise “created by” since I think it is vital to recognise at the outset that although Icke’s prior credits are primarily those of “director”, and Macmillan’s more usually “playwright”, that is not the stated relationship here.

In a foreword of fierce intelligence, Icke and Macmillan set out their rationale thus:
The ending of George Orwell’s final novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is notoriously bleak. ‘If you want a picture of the future’, Winston has been told, ‘imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’ Sitting in a café, defeated, drunk and waiting for a bullet, he loves his oppressor. Winston loves Big Brother. As we all know, that’s the end of the story. 
Except it isn’t. 
After ‘THE END’, there is an Appendix. ‘The Principles of Newspeak’, that many of the novel’s readers miss altogether...
Icke and Macmillan go on to point out that this appendix – so vital to the book as a whole, that Orwell refused to allow an American publisher the rights to publish his text without it – is written from a fictional vantage point *beyond* the end of the story. It refers to Newspeak in the past tense and even makes a single glancing reference to Winston Smith. What Orwell says with this fictional appendix is that Big Brother too will fall. The year 2050 is given as the date by which the Party imagines that Newspeak will have been finally adopted: “The final word of the Appendix (and of the novel) is ‘2050’.” And, in a rather neat touch, the foreword ends: “R.I. And D.M. September 2050”.

So, one of the things that Icke and Macmillan are exploring with their new and, let’s be honest, penetrating analysis of the text is what we do with a novel *called* Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in 1948, in 2013. (Happily it has just been announced that it will transfer to The Almeida for Feb 2014 – just in time to hit the West End for a bright cold day in April, one may cynically infer.) Moreover, what do we do with this novel; a novel that has at once given us a vocabulary through which we now partly explain the world (“Orwellian”, “Big Brother”, etc.) and, at the same time, analysis which seems to be all but ignored.

What Icke and Macmillan’s create about as excellent a solution to the problem as I can imagine. They open the piece in a reading group in 2050. It is a popular cliché that “difficult” theatre should teach you how to watch it. This isn’t “difficult theatre”, but here it does present one of the clearest user-guides to how a piece of theatre wants to be read I’ve ever seen. By at once appearing to discuss Winston Smith’s diary, the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four and indeed Headlong’s 1984 characters explain:
“This is a text which is directly, forcefully attempting to speak to us. Its author imagines a future – imagines us – and asks us to listen” 
“This document occupies a unique place in our collective subconsciousness – even if you’ve never read it.” 
“You’re seeing yourself reflected in it because it’s opaque. It’s a mirror. Every age sees itself reflected.”
Icke and Macmillan are conducting an exercise in historicism, of adaptation and of adoption. One of the most striking things about their adaptation – which, after this opening scene, is actually a pretty straight walk-through of the main plot points as they happen in the book (or at least, as I remember it – which is perhaps another cleverness of their adaptation: that they’ve adapted the memory of the book as much as the book itself) – is the extent to which they’ve happily modernised certain crucial fragments. Where the reading group talks about “Austerity, unpopular politics, perpetual war, uncertainty // oppression, torture, uprisings, revolution” they evoke precisely the world we have been reading about in the newspapers on the train to Richmond. Elsewhere, they completely strike the p-word (“proles”) and in doing so dismantle one of Winston Smith’s most famous lines rather than allowing the shift in our understanding of that word now to unbalance our viewing of their piece. Refusing to let themselves present *1948* through laziness. Although this refusal of a Marxist vocabulary does also re-trench the piece’s politics somewhat.


If this first part of my review reads slightly as literary criticism, rather than performance criticism, then consider it primarily an example of form following form. An age-old criticism of British theatre is that our rehearsal rooms all too often resemble the English Literature seminar. Here, that seminar has been taken out of the rehearsal room and has been plonked squarely in the centre of the stage, and I would argue that it makes for a fairly vital night out, intellectually.

However, while it’s a long way from “talk, talk, talk”, I was slightly (and I do mean only slightly) less convinced by the stage-craft. The set (Chloe Lamford) is attractive and serviceable, occupying an exact mid-point between Marthaler’s Glaube, Liebe Hoffnung , Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz, and Katie Mitchell’s Reise Durch die Nacht (on which Macmillan also worked) – which as a checklist certainly gets a big thumbs-up from me. I suspect it also looks a lot better when one is not placed half way back in the circle. And designing for touring to myriad different-sized stages must be a nightmare. But the wood-panelled 1950s-looking room (possible hints of East German bureaucracy chic) where the majority of the piece was played didn’t quite do it for me. From where I was sitting. Even though it probably should have.

The Elevator Repair Service observation, by the way, is Trueman’s [edit: although young Hutton got there nine days before us], and I think he’s onto something there. There was certainly a faint hint of Gatziness about the way that the performers’ transition between notional times and spaces, being at once reading group in 2050 and inhabitants of 1984. The piece also made great, unfussy use of the hidden live-video-feed room (cf. Edward II, Gob Squad, Pollesch, Castorf, sort-of Mitchell, et al), although like the top half of the stage-picture being a giant Katie Mitchell video screen, it felt like there was possibly something a bit wonky with the semiotics of its use. Or rather, the videoed room backstage made perfect sense – although I wonder how many of the audience would have just assumed that it was pre-shot footage? Perhaps that assumption was the intention, since there is an excellent theatrical coup later involving the room’s discovery. I suppose I was slightly more perturbed by the way the giant screen was worked into the fabric of the room rather than being allowed to just be a screen. Of course, again, it makes a sort of sense and is possibly just two different, opposing arguments/schools-of-thought, I’m just not sure I fully bought its cunning inclusion personally – by making the screen part of the room when it fizzed to life, it seemed to implicate “2050” as much as “1984”. Had the screen just been a screen, we could have perhaps fitted it however we liked to where it “really” “existed” in relation to the stage instead of being told.

The most interesting performance motif is a repeated sequence of Ministry life in 1984 where the days are demonstrated to be stultifyingly the same, even when people are being disappeared. And when someone is even prepared to sit down at a table which isn’t there, rather than admit anything has changed. Watching this on stage, of course, you take a minute or two longer to catch up to this as a facet of double-think, since that’s what theatre has been asking us all to do since we first started going. Which, of course, makes the arguments about double-think all the more interestingly weird and compelling. Because we’re all sat in this theatre pretending that what’s happening on stage is somehow happening in a different reality, but that it’s really happening all the same.

At the same time, this unreality feedback loop is finely tuned to get us thinking about precisely how this book – these books if you include Smith’s diary – this story, these words resonate today. You’d have to be a sleepwalking idiot to have got through the piece and not thought once about Edward Snowden, the NSA, and Angela Merkel’s phone. In terms of surveillance Nineteen Eighty-Four has got our number. But actually, the most crucial thing about Orwell’s book isn’t really about the surveillance. It never was. The crucial thing is the concept of Thoughtcrime. The real battle the Party is fighting is with ideological dissent. Newspeak has been invented with the aim of making counter-revolutionary thought impossible.

What’s strange about Headlong’s production is the way that by pursuing all these thoughts to their logical end, and capturing them brilliantly on stage, albeit shorn of a lot of Orwell’s almost pedantic precision in matters ideological, what you are left with in the climatic episode of torture – the whole rats-on-face bit – is the realisation of how strange it is (here at least) for a socialist party’s (IngSoc are, after all, a parody of Stalin’s Russia, anticipating all the worst paranoid excesses of Soviet era eastern Europe) solution to dissent is to make Smith into the ultimate Rand-ian superman. In the end he rejects everything and everyone except himself. (“JULIA. JULIA. DO IT TO JULIA...” etc,). The idea that “Winston Smith loves Big Brother” has been toned right down. So, actually, this final scene feels strangely contradictory.

It strikes me that Icke and Macmillan may have bought a bit too hard into what strikes me as Orwell’s least useful suggestion: that love is somehow the ultimate tool of resistance. In this, as in his prediction of an “anti-sex league”, I think Orwell barks up precisely the wrong tree. Perhaps not the wrong tree for satirising Stalinism, but certainly the wrong tree for England and resonance today (in these respects, the hopelessness of Huxley’s Brave New World feels far more attuned). Here, we are reminded (again) of Pollesche’s maxim (I really must find out where he said it and what precisely he said) about wanting to talk to the capitalists about money and them only wanting to talk about love. There’s an interesting counter-example in yesterday’s Guardian where Steve Coogan, a bit like Orwell before him, asserts: “I had this notion that the most radical, avant-garde thing I could do was to talk about love. There's nothing that will make an intellectual's buttocks clench more than to talk about love.” Because obviously “intellectuals” are the real problem. And in no way is he basically picking up precisely the most mainstream, reactionary torch imaginable and running with it in spouting this sort of nonsense. But that’s kind of a whole other argument in itself.

So, to recap, this is – for the most part – an incredibly intelligent appropriation and exploration of the novel, and a first-rate answer about how to adapt it. Watching it, I was slightly surprised by the degree of radicalism that had been claimed for it in other quarters. In the main it struck me visually and acting-wise as quite safe, middle-of-the-road fare; well executed, and with plenty of room to let you consider the intellectual aspects, but rarely spectacular to look at. But, the more I’ve thought about it since watching it, the more the cleverness has stayed with me, and my surprise at the lack of sci-fi stageingness* has faded.

*re: “sci-fi” – it’s the term I’ve been using in my head more and more to describe/categorise/bunch-together the sort of theatre that I most love. I’m thinking of stuff like Katie Mitchell’s Attempts On Her Life, Ramin Gray’s The Ugly One, or Over There, or Illusions, Nübling’s Pornographie and Three Kingdoms, Karin Beier’s Trojan Women, Vicky Featherstone’s The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas; even things like Chris Haydon’s Grounded or Chris Goode’s Hippo World Guest Book.
 It’s not a good term. I should come up with something a bit better.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Henry the Fifth – Unicorn Theatre

[seen 20/10/13]

Coming late to Ellen McDougall’s new production of Ignace Cornelissen’s Henry the Fifth for the Unicorn Theatre, I find the the wind taken out of my critical sails by Matt Trueman’s pitch-perfect review of it. But then, it was also Trueman who recently proposed the idea of ‘reviewing as team-game’. And, if we’re serious about developing criticism beyond nine nigh-on identical reviews all coming out the morning after press night with 350 words apiece and a star rating, then it’s an idea worth thinking about.

What Trueman’s review does, I think, is pin down reasons to celebrate McDougall’s production, christening it ‘regietheater for children’ (on Twitter), and offering an intelligent appreciation of the precision with which the symbolism of her production lands.

So, on one hand, if only Trueman’s review existed, this production would already have been amply served, critically. On the other hand, I’m not Trueman, and I don’t think he and I actually watch theatre in the same way, so perhaps what excited me about Henry the Fifth was different to what excited him and this multiplication of voices will helpfully refract a fuller picture of the show.

So, first things first, what is Henry the Fifth? Well, it’s a re-write of the Shakespeare play in Belgian (Flemish? IDK) for children by Ignace Cornelisson – who also wrote last year’s hugely enjoyable version of A Winter’s Tale (which ended with the statue *not* coming back to life, because that doesn’t happen and children apparently need to know that?!). It’s been translated by Unicorn artistic director Purni Morell (fluent in Belgian (amongst other languages) and one hell of a writer (and director), too. Sickening, really).

Cornelisson/Morell writes with a brilliant fluency, to the point where the whole feel of this piece is more like improv or a devised piece than scripted drama. I mean this quite literally, there is mock-improvisation – I think – and ad-libbery galore *written into* the fabric of the piece, but it all feels like it is really happening in the moment. Credit for this must obviously also go to McDougall and her four-strong cast (Hannah Boyde (Katherine), Rhys Rusbatch (Distant Cousin) Abdul Salis (Narrator) and Shane Zaza (Henry)) – one of those small ensembles without a weak link amongst them, all differently brilliant, and really sparking off one another with an ease and playfulness that makes other theatre suddenly seem leaden, effortful and impossibly mannered.

What’s also brilliant about the text is that it absolutely guts Shakespeare’s Henry V and guts it in such a simple, unassuming way, that you do wonder why everyone doesn’t do this every time they stage a classic (yes, yes; like the Germans do, without even getting “a writer” on board). By putting the narrator centre-stage – an updated version of Shakespeare’s own Prologue of “Muse of Fire” fame, who deals out-loud with the paradox of being on stage and yet not being a character – Cornelisson gives himself licence to just tell us stuff that he thinks. Through this new dramatic licence, he sets about eviscerating even the slightest notion that anything in Henry V might be celebrated as noble or laudable.

Now, I don’t like preachy plays. What’s fascinating here is that this doesn’t come across as “preachy”. It is just direct. It’s a challenge and a confrontation. To the play, the the play’s history and to the audience (which, given that its intended audience is mostly eight-year-olds, is pretty cool, I think). Rather than slyly demonstrating or confirming the author’s thesis or bias with events and outcome, instead the piece just keeps on asking questions as the narrative progresses – having the actual narrator asking the actual characters what on earth they think they’re doing. It also features a neat and totally charming meta-theatrical trick whereby the French Princess, Katherine (you know, Emma Thompson from the film version), sick of her role as simpering second fiddle simply refuses her destiny, tricks the narrator out of his job, and re-tells her own role and fate. In an outstanding cast, it seems unfair to single Boyde out for praise (so I’ll get round to the others), but her combination of strangely comforting actor-voice (she really does have one of those early NT/RSC female lead voices, like a young Maggie Smith or someone) and totally modern feminist not-fucking-about is pretty damn inspiring. (And, yes, I reckon having female characters on stage who just say “no” to their medieval roles is the way forward with history plays for eight-year-olds.)

Having the male pro- and an-tagonists fluidly and fluently inhabit their roles as if they were badly behaved boy-children – all petulance, sulking and sudden violence – both gives the audience a completely relatable way in (including for this 37-year-old child) and makes an excellent commentary on the way that medieval politics were conducted. That it resonates so clearly with modern politics – that “France” (the country) is played by a sand-pit doesn’t exactly stop us from drawing parallels with some of Britain’s more recent armed tantrums. What’s brilliant about Zaza and Rusbatch is that as well as playing petulant, they are both still also remarkably charming and funny. Similarly, Salis’s narrator does a brilliant job of bridging the potential gap between the young audience and the – when you think about it – deeply odd story they’re being asked to imagine their way into.

McDougall and her designer James Button (and “Wardrobe” – Tereas Pocas – no idea who that means designed the costumes)’s staging of the thing is also just awesome. Empty stage. Then a massive sand-pit on something like a giant blue snooker table on rollers is pushed in as “France”. There’s also a big old sign hanging down from the flies which says “FRANCE”. When Henry goes back to England, ENGLAND is played by a huge St George flag, spattered across the bottom with mud. And it manages with this one visual image to perfectly evoke muddy old England, those Nike adverts featuring Wayne Rooney that there were during the last World Cup, the tribalism, the bloodshed, all captured essentially by abstract art. This also feeds into the excellence of the costume design which modernise the medieval militaria to a kind of off-beat All Saints collection, with Henry in a deep red leather jacket and France in slightly more old-school blue robes.

Both armies are played by red and blue helium balloons, tethered to man-height bits of string attached to mini-sandbags. This is very funny, then strangely touching, and then gives way to some properly nasty violence at the end. *Every* balloon is stabbed, popped, slit or otherwise murdered in the climactic battle (my possible only niggle (out of the whole production, in fact) is that, given that the final battle is Agincourt, it would have been quite fun to see Henry take out all the French balloons with a little bow and arrows, but that just possibly might have taken longer and made less of a point). As The Horror of War On Stage goes, it’s very possibly the best I’ve seen. Just two blokes descending into childish bloodlust and popping a load of balloons who we’d come to understand as thinking, feeling human beings. It’s kinda genius really.

As Trueman said, what’s remarkable about the production is how straight-forward and not-especially-radical all these actually-quite-complex semiotics and radical gestures feel. It’s quite perplexing to consider that as theatre-for-children this doesn’t even being to frighten the horses, whereas if this exact production were placed on the Olivier stage at the NT, you imagine there’d be all sorts of complaints.

My step-further proposal is that far more Shakespeare and other classic texts (and new plays for that matter) should be treated with this degree of fluid liveness as a matter of course. In the mean time, the Unicorn is pretty much where the real action is at for up-to-the-minute thinking on theatre.

A Doll’s House – programme interview with Simon Stephens

[Ages ago the Young Vic asked me to do an interview with Simon Stephens for the programme of their West End transfer of his hugely successful version of A Doll’s House. Since that finished its run last night, I figure posting it here now so you can all read it isn’t going to cost them any programme sales (as if it ever would have). Hopefully at some point I’ll get round to posting a much fuller version – the whole interview runs to about 4,500 words. This is just 1,000 with all the questions cut to a bare minimum and no preamble...]

Watercolour of SS by Mark Haddon - saved off Twitter. Hope that's ok.

[second thought: something that really annoys the hell out of me about interviews is the way that often it's not clear under what circumstances they took place. Especially when laid out like the below. This was a face-to-face interview in Simon's office which I recorded, transcribed, and then edited to pieces. My own questions have been largely pared down to as little as possible in order to allow the bulk of the wordcount to be Simon. Hope that helps.]

Why A Doll’s House?

Carrie Cracknell was fascinated by the sexual politics surrounding Nora and the meaning her narrative has now, 120 years after it was written. When the play was first performed in England, George Bernard Shaw held up Nora as symbolic of female emancipation. But this was at odds with Ibsen’s intention. In his letters and in the journals he kept, Ibsen talks of his frustration with people who see Nora as a flag-bearer for women’s rights.

Instead she represents...?

When I read Ibsen’s letters what struck me was that he was wrestling an awful lot with his sense of his own authenticity. He was held up as emblematic of Norwegian literature. This theme recurs again and again in his letters and journals and his essays at the time – a frustration with how he is perceived.

And you can relate to this with your second show about to go into the West End?

[laughs] I don’t know, I have no idea how I’m perceived. Playwrights don’t have anything like the cultural currency they had 120 years ago. I can imagine it’s the kind of thing an actor might relate to. Playwrights are ignored by most people. And that’s how I like it.

I do think it’s true that the characters playwrights create are carved out of themselves. And - well, Ibsen’s not here to talk about this but, reading his journals and letters, what I realised was that Nora isn’t emblematic of female emancipation, she’s emblematic of him and his feeling of being trapped in ways that he perceived as limiting. He was railing against that.

This is “a version but you haven’t changed the script...?

No. But the last time I saw this production I did think I’d made a tremendously English version. I might have started off with the intention of writing something born out of Scandinavia but I think it would be idiotic to say that that’s what I’ve done.

What do you mean by “English”?

There are some linguistic flourishes that I added to make lines sing more happily out of my mouth and those flourishes Anglicised the energy of the lines. So there’s a lot of: “You can’t possibly know what...” – embellishing lines with adverbs and qualifiers because we English, being a fundamentally polite nation, qualify our language constantly.

Is there a consensus on how to approach doing “a version” of a foreign play?

There’s a broad range of opinions on this. Gregory Motton, who does many translations usually from the original, is quite savage about the culture of “versions”. His idea is that if you’re doing a “version” there will always be an instinct to Anglicise the language which will betray the author and assume idiocy on the part of the audience. I guess David Eldridge is at the other end: that while born out of the original text, you shouldn’t feel beholden to the original syntax, the original rhythm of language.

All things are a version of a version of a version. That’s what theatre is. The notion of staging the writer’s original intention is specious. People talk about getting entirely into the writer’s head. I’d say that’s bollocks. We all deal in collaboration.

Does working through another playwright’s eyes also change you as an artist?

I think so. I think if I did more Ibsen it would change me fundamentally. There’s a level of dramaturgical daring in his plays I find inspiring. He tries stuff I wouldn’t dare.

When writing this version, I went back again and again back to that third act, thinking: “This isn’t possibly going to work”. The gear changes from Torvald finding the first letter from Krogstad and banishing Nora from her children and promising to keep her prisoner within her own home, to getting the second letter from Krogstad and, in the throes of euphoria and relief, forgiving her. I remember thinking: “This is where we lose the audience. They won’t believe any sentient human would do this.”

How did you solve that?

There were two decisions we made: one was the introduction of the possibility that Torvald’s illness, which is vague in the original, was probably a mental breakdown, so there’s a character with a backstory of erratic psychological behaviour. The other was to amp up the amount of booze he’d had. But then considerations of madness and alcoholism are central to my writing. There’s a lot of drinking and madness in my plays.

Why drinking and madness?

They fascinate me. I come from a family of alcoholics. My dad died when he was 59 of alcohol-related illness. As a writer you return to what haunts you. I mean, it’s a long time ago, it’s twelve years ago now that he died. But his death was nowhere near as definitive to my sense of self as the last 10 years of his life which were all about hiding booze and drinking at 11 o’clock in the morning. Brutal.

So what else of you do you think has bled into this version?

As somebody who is social-democratic if not socialist in his thinking – and certainly as someone for whom the central architecture of my life is my family and my responsibilities to my family – it’s not surprising that I don’t see Nora as an icon of female emancipation. What she does is pretty questionable. I think she’s really drunk when she leaves...

So you think she’ll be back the next day?

[Laughs] Yeah! I get really pissed off when people ask: “What happens to the characters next?” about my own plays. But I’m fascinated by it in A Doll’s House. I don’t know what the hell is going to happen to Nora but there’s part of me that thinks she’s going to go back next day, hung over and apologetic [laughs]. But that might just be my upbringing [still laughing].

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Europa – Birmingham Rep

[Seen 16/10/13]

Collaboration is the most important topic in theatre today. All the most progressive work being done either on-stage or off- is dealing with the question. It is the question of how to talk about and discuss collaboration lies at the heart of Duška Radosavljević’s seminal book Theatre-Making. It is the core of Catherine Love’s forthcoming ICA lecture , and it was the question that fuelled the gulf of total incomprehension of (some) New Writers at both New Work and regietheater. It is both the spectre that haunts the fearful old age of David Edgar and Edward Albee and the driver of the most forward-thinking, fertile Shakespeare scholarship.

Europa is a collaboration. It is a collaboration between four EU member states: Croatia, Germany, Poland, and UK, or rather between four cities: Birmingham, Bydgoszcz, Dresden and Zagreb. Or rather, four companies/buildings based in those cities. It is a collaboration between four writers: Lutz Hübner, Małgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk, Tena Štivičić and Steve Waters (all presumably chosen for their outstandingly national-sounding names). It is directed by the Polish director Janusz Kica, Dramaturged by a Brit, Caroline Jester, and has a design credited to “Ivana Jonke”, which I assume means Sven Jonke and Ivana Radenovic, the Austro-Croatian design team from Dresden. The acting company is also composed of two actors from each participant country.

From entering the Rep’s (I think totally new) Studio space nestled inside Birmingham’s new, swanky, perplexingly-over-designed library, which is now bolted onto the refurbed Rep., and seeing the open, white-box-like set; the title “Four Kingdoms?” was difficult to put from one’s mind.

And so it sort-of proved to be. Except where Three Kingdoms made the most elegant case imaginable for prolonged, sustainable, continuing pan-European collaboration, Europa had the feel of something which had been put together by a committee in a hurry and wasn’t quite finished yet. (3K trainspotters would have been amused to note the inclusion of La Paloma, the song so ubiquitous throughout 3K as a theme for sex-trafficking, and the use of the Beatles’ song 'Blackbird', almost certainly *not* intended to echo both the character of the White Bird or the use of 'Rocky Raccoon' in 3K.)

In manifestly collaborative pieces such as this, the game of “who did what?” is as tempting as it is precarious. So, I will stick my neck out and imagine that it was quite easy to spot the main frames of each writers’ contribution: Hübner writes, in German (and English?), about the original classical-mythological figure of Europa herself, Štivičić creates some (very funny) scenes about various artists applying for EU money for an artistic project, including some lacerating commentary on her native Croatia’s national self-mythologising as an eternally pacifist country, Sikorska-Miszczuk’s main contribution appears to be a weirdly folksy hallucinatory tale of the leaders of the four EU countries involved all picking pictures of animals on cards from some deck of animal-picture-cards and reflecting on how this animals might reflect on their countries, which didn’t seem to tie in to much to do with either anything else that was going on, or anything beyond Sikorska-Miszczuk’s ideas of what these four countries are like (for which, read: I was more intrigued by her version of David Cameron and Britain than I was convinced). And Steve Waters, well, I imagine Steve Waters’s bits were the bits about sceptical UK immigration officials nearly sending a blameless Croatian-and-Pakistani muslim couple into extraordinary rendition. Waters’s hand might also have been involved in some of Hübner’s tale about Europa turning out to be Phoenician and Phoenica’s location being the modern-day Lebanon. And, y’know, the irony of that.

The pieces are intercut – and frequently surtitled – so there’s also a fair amount of discombobulation to contend with; while Kica’s European-by-numbers direction – painting the walls through the play, *not-Live* video feed, bit of stage mess (I’ve seen other stuff by Teatr Polski Bydgoszcz, and it was *a lot* better than this) – neither helps the piece to cohere, nor grapples with it in a way that suggests an interesting take on the text.

None of these points, by the way, should be taken as out-and-out markers of why the piece doesn’t quite succeed. Nor should they be read as objectives standards which have not been reached. I can imagine a mish-mash of different texts being similarly curated and directed working beautifully. I don’t even think the manifest lack of a common goal need especially be regarded as the issue here. But, nonetheless, while the evening is watchable and competent, it is little more.

That said, I did wonder if I was the ideal audience member for Europa. Being English, having lived in Germany, having visited Zagreb and Poland, and having read quite a bit about the histories and current issues in these countries, while it was a pleasure to be reminded of all that research, and all the theatre I’d seen in those countries, I don’t think this piece was the eye-opener that it might have been for someone who’d never really especially thought about the relationship of Germany to Croatia or Poland and England before. Since I seem to spend my time doing little else, I might have wanted a bit too much.

But what was perhaps most striking was what felt like a singular *lack* of *collaboration* on show here. Instead, it felt as if the four constituent countries were all (probably even unconsciously) making a kind of case for their own brands of national identities (the classically-pointing Germans, the angrily ironic Croatians, the more wearily, almost traditionally/resignedly ironic Poles and the obliviously dialogue-heavy, insular Britons) and these fierce upholdings of national patterns was being barely held together in a little box slowly being painted in the colours of the EU flag. Of course, one could suggest that that’s a perfect metaphor for modern Europe (although it’s perhaps amusing to note that of the four participating countries only one has the Euro, and that’s the Germans, for whom the Euro seems to be the national currency, albeit inconveniently shared with southern Europe). Except that the rest of the play did, at times, and in its conclusion, seem to be interested in investigating the fact that, by virtue of shared DNA, we can observe that someone who might have started out as a Phoenician in pre-biblical times now shares their DNA with people living all across Europe and far beyond. So, where does that get us? On one hand we’re all closer than we think, and on the other hand, national boundaries, new, old, and shifted, still seem to play a disproportionate part in our thinking.

So, yes. Collaboration is important. Probably the most important thing to acknowledge when writing about theatre. But perhaps we still have some way to go before our present collaborations reach the same level as Shakespeare’s.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Twilightofthefreakinggods – A.E. Harris Building, Birmingham

[seen 10/10/13]

Stan’s Cafe are one of those hugely influential, well-regarded, experimental theatre companies whose work I have never actually managed to get round to seeing. Their most famous piece being All The People In The World, in which tonnes of rice are used to represent people and are then put in various piles representing – depending the size of the show/commission – from national populations through people killed in various wars, atrocities and genocides to whimsical numbers of holders of particular titles or records (this is my rough understanding). And apparently there’s a live version of that, and an installation version. The company have their base in the A.E. Harris building, which is a little, disused warehouse in an easily overlooked quarter of Birmingham.

Twilightofthefreakinggods is the company’s way of saying goodbye to the building in its current, open-plan, unstructured configuration as (, effectively, still) a warehouse. In January it re-opens as a (I presume, slightly more structured, fixed) 50-seater venue. I have no idea of why this decision has been taken, nor why it feels so permanent to the company (perhaps they’re going to build some actual walls, put some insulation in, and do a bit of painting). [edit: "what's happening with AE Harris is that the large space that you were in is being reclaimed by the owners so that they can once again do manufacturing in there, so the company are having to move out of the space that has been the major base for pretty much the whole time they've been there, into a much smaller studio-sized space elsewhere in the factory complex that they have used primarily as a prop store up to now. So this is very much the end of one era and the beginning of the next and it was not a decision of their making." - Andy Field on my FB wall.]

As farewells go, it’s an admirably egotistical gesture. By calling Götterdämmerung the company is, after all, invoking Wagner’s version of the destruction of Valhalla. One gets that they’re being tongue in cheek about their level of self-mythologising, but part of me can’t help wishing they weren’t being. Keine Ironie is not a bad motto.

It’s worth also noting the programme note which begins: “Twilightofthefreakingods runs without rehearsal, from a strict timetable with improvision filling in the gaps. It is Wagner’s Götterdämmerung without the music or libretto. It is also our second ‘austerity production’ with many props and costumes recycled from other shows...”

All this is pretty abundantly clear from the outset. As I noted on Twitter, thanks to the freedom in the room (not pitch-darkness, no requirement to stay in your seat), I quickly went online (iPhone – curse and blessing of the modern theatregoer) to look up the plot of the opera on Wikipedia. From this moment on, it seem pretty clear to me that I was reading from precisely the same source material as the company. Everything unfolded before me just as Wikipedia said it would. Albeit, Very Slowly Indeed. I believe the company were doing the action at a speed that meant it was exactly the same length as – well, at least one recording of the piece.

The problem for me – and I will admit I was almost certainly alone in this being a problem – was that the event was also very much configured as a social event. Which is fine if you are with friends, or possibly even if you’re feeling sociable. Sadly, I was neither. I was on the third day of a cold (which I still have. Pity me) and, though grateful for the fact I could go outside to smoke, cough, blow my nose, whatever, I could also have done with something a bit more involving or evolved to have been watching in the interim. Without Wikipedia-plot-cheating (or, y’know, actual knowledge), I have *no idea* what I’d have made of it. With it, I think I was slightly irritable about the fact that they were just miming out the synopsis with little or no hint of *anything* else.

Which, I concede, is a fine enough experiment. I believe it was a free event. No one had the slightest hint of gun-to-our-head to even stay once we’d arrived, the atmosphere was pleasant (if insanely cold), but at the same time, I can’t help feeling that a bit of rehearsal, or more ambition *towards* something bigger would have almost certainly yielded much more exciting results.

I should also admit that I only stayed for two hours of the possible four (needed to catch a train – otherwise I would have probably stuck with it), so it might have all kicked off as soon as I left. On the other hand, they’d already had two hours.

Ultimately, it feels ridiculous to really offer this either as a review or analysis. And so, I suppose it exists only as a statement of personal preferences. That we Brits didn’t rejoice quite so much in linear thinking.

Stan’s Cafe were also unfortunate in that only a week previously in Berlin, I’d happened to have been invited to The Opera Group’s open rehearsal which was also completely improvised, and completely unrehearsed. And had been mesmerised by the level of concentration and talent available in their room. They had amassed some of the most fascinating performers I’d ever seen, and I was just sat in an ostensibly empty, sunny room watching them negotiate their performances into tantalisingly *readable* manifestations of narrative, non-narrative, collaboration and difference.

Intro and preamble:

Well, I just had a stab at “Storify-ing” the LiveTweeting I did while watching this, and it’s only come up as a list of click-through links to the tweets I wrote, so anyone who can teach me how to use Storify is very welcome. In the mean time, this means I’m going to have to have a stab at writing the damn thing up properly.

In the series of things I’m currently writing, I feel like I’m basically clearing the decks; writing up a load of stuff I’ve seen recently which has made me think about various aspects of theatre and writing about it without necessarily naming those aspects. Or with the things I’m most interested in getting lost amidst a welter of (crappy-)photo -journalism.

I think my vague plan, once I’m through writing, is to go back and re-name the various posts as the thing I was thinking about. This review, if the re-titling goes ahead, will become either: Experimentation and The Right To Fail or Context Is All.

As you can see, it photographed pretty well, though.  Maybe on the right night I'd have thought it was awesome...

Tuesday, 22 October 2013


[Seen 21/09/2013]

Ok. So these Ruhr Triennale reports are now starting to get filed over a month after I saw the work in question. This is actually something which really interests me: the difference between the way we experience work at the time and the way we experience it as a memory. I don’t know about you, but there’s a moment I get after watching something *really bad* in a theatre, when I come out of the theatre and the relief is so palpable, that unless it has made me actually angry, I already like it about fifty per cent more than when I had been in the room with it two minutes earlier. (These productions tend to be the ones I forget I’ve even seen until leafing through a pile of old programmes or my blog archives.)

EmscherKunst wasn’t even a part of the Ruhr Triennale. It is a totally separate project being funded by the North Rhine Westphalia Kultur people who were sponsoring our trip. And it impressed the hell out of me. What it EmscherKunst is is thirty artworks placed along the banks of the Emscher river.

It’s part of a wider, ecological project to completely reclaim this river. Basically, the Emscher (and I’m repeating an exhaustively detailed five hour walking tour’s worth of lecture here a month down the line, so forgive any errors) started off as a pretty standard river in the 18th century. During the industrialisation of the Ruhr – Germany’s coal and steel industries were based here until being shut down at the end of the eighties; fans of The Dambusters will remember it was the Ruhr valley that gets flooded at the end of the film – the river got repurposed and divided into a vast, straight canal and a second tributary which as far as I can make out flowed alongside as an open sewer. Our guide – roughly my age – told us that when he was growing up in the area that certain areas of the river were just no-go areas, stinking, unhygienic, the works. It sounds incredible that this could still be the case in the late eighties.

The point of the wider ecological project is to de-toxify the river completely. New beds are being planned and all manner of clever scientific things, the details of which I didn’t follow one bit, are being done to return the river to a state of pre-industrial nature. At least as far as is possible while a massive autobahn runs down one side and numerous train tracks down the other.

The point of the art in all this is to reconcile the communities living nearby with the once no-go areas. I do try not to use Germany as a stick with which to beat Britain, but can you imagine our government even beginning to bother? The selection of the art is also impressive. It’s predominantly by international rather than local artists (local artists did get a selection of those containers in which to make smaller projects). Artists of some standing, I’m given to understand. Granted some of the works are better (or more to my taste than others), but there’s a wide spread, and, more than this, they run the gamut from stern and forbidding to playful and interactive. I also happened to see something that is possibly my favourite piece of public art I’ve ever seen.

I’ll whack in a few photos and try to explain a bit of context. For the record, there are thirty pieces commissioned by EmscherKunst, and it’s a project with funding that I think was €30 or €40 million. Which isn’t bad, right? We only saw a small fraction of them over a five hour afternoon, which also included some serious walking (and this was after Douglas Gordon and rAndom International in the morning. I don’t remember the last time I’ve been so worn out by art).

These two pictures are just shots of information boards showing, well, obviously, an ariel view and a map of the area (click to enlarge, as with everything).

The below four shots are all at the place from where we started our tour. This is the remnants of the original Emscher, now basically a pond, cut off from it's source.

I think this bridge (below) also counted as an artwork, although it might just have been a particularly showily engineered bridge.

Below are a selection of shots of the kunst by local artists, housed on a site near the above bridge.  You probably know the kind of thing. Bit conceptual, bit texty. Nothing especially grabbed me, although I did like the flowers and the typefaces.

We then left that site and walked over to the banks of the Emscher (or it's canal counterpart)...

It's a pretty flat, spacious landscape.  The overcast day with the clouds gave the whole thing an added sense of depth. And, not that you can see it well in this photo, that gas storage tower on the left bank in the distance was wrapped *on the inside* by Christo (you know the guy, right?) recently, but had now closed.

Below is the first bit of actual EmscherKunst art we saw...

It's called>Zauberlehrling
(The Sorcerer's Apprentice, after the Goethe tale) and is made by the Berlin group Inges Idee.  I kind of loved how well it worked with its title -- you can completely see where they're coming from. And making it out of a pylon -- there seemed to be nothing but pylons down the sides of this river.  Oh, I dunno.  It just struck me as a fun intervention in the landscape.  The uncanny alongside the playful. Making you look twice at the familiar. All that stuff art's meant to do, right?

The next thing we saw (of which I have any decent photos at least), was a complete about-face in terms of concept.  This was>Osbervatorium
's Waiting For The River.  It's basically a set of wooden rooms on  stilts, in the middle of a field, about half a mile from the river's current course.  At some point, I think it is mooted that the river is going to have its course changed, or will perhaps flood, at which point the stilts will come in handy.  At the moment, it's just an invitation to live and contemplate the landscape, the river, and, frankly, the lifestyle porn:

Indeed, it might be *the* most Northern European thing I've ever seen in my life. Kind of a distilled essence of Borgen and Ikea.  And apparently it wasn't cheap either (rooms were available for €90 per night).

And if we're going to get distracted by ideas of identifiable national identities in art, then I have to admit that hearing, Apolonija Šušteršič, the creator of the half-finished (it really is just half finished, that's not the art- bit) Play_Land was Slovenian.  There seemed to be something fitting about the use of large sections of sewer-piping to create a children's play area to replace one being destroyed by the rebuilding of a sewer that seems to fit with the nationa philosophy/sense-of-humour that also gave the world Slavoj Žižek and Neue Slowenische Kunst.

Also dotted around EmscherKunst was Jeppe Hein's Connecting Views, which is a series of those metal telescope/viewfinder things.  There were several of these each with a different quirk which prevented the viewer actually looking through the thing -- one had a photograph of the pre-WWII industrial site that used to be in the place the thing was pointing at. Another turned the landscape before it upside-down.  This one just went round and round and round, and I found it rather funny and touching...

And then there was the best piece of art I've seen in an absolute age...

It was this incredible little model village-on-stilts built on a small artificial pond, which was just stood in this field, about five-hundred yards from the real river. The houses were all painted grey, and it had a very obviously non-naturalistic backdrop.  They were kind of like little medieval, European houses, but also a bit like actual stuff you find in Vietnam or Bangladesh. Part of the reason I loved it so much was because one of the earliest things I wanted to do when I was little was make models like that (I guess for special effects on TV or film -- this was before CGI when people did still actually make things and this was a real job that actual people had), so I guess I am always destined to be quite moved by really intricate model-making, but, hell, I think it's moving anyway.

But then there was also the fact of its delicacy just standing there in the middle of a pond, in the middle of a field, in more or less the middle of nowhere.  And the fact it is in the middle of an incredibly economically depressed area and hadn't even been vandalised.

Then there was the way that it looked like a theatre set.  And the interesting fact that because it was miniature (although pretty big, but maybe quarter of "real" size), and painted a uniform grey, it was totally non-naturalistic, but also still using "realism" at the same time as "fantasy" and "make-believe" -- which somehow made it all the more effective, and potent, and made you want to imagine things about it.  And consider it as a metaphor.  And everything.

And as I was standing looking at it, my iPhone died, so I don't have a single photograph of it.

Which I think I might even be quite pleased about.

It's called The Settlement  and it's by an artist called Hans op de Beeck, so you can Google image search it if you want, but I've just looked, and, as I suspected, there's nothing that a photo can really do to convey what it was like standing there at six in the evening, at dusk, in front of this incredibly touching, poignant little thing.

Ok, so I photo-searched it for you a bit... (see top as well.)

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Oh My Irma – Hill Street, Edinburgh / Theater Discounter, Berlin

[seen 5/8/13 & 5/10/13]

A 20-year-old young women arrives at the flat of an older man. She has identified him from the initials on the collar of a dress-shirt into which her mother (it is eventually confirmed it was her mother) has just bled to death on the landing outside their apartment. And she wants to know who he is, and why her mother would choose to bleed, from a self-inflicted neck-wound, to death into his shirt.

If I say Haley McGee’s Oh My Irma reminds me of David Lynch, which I intend as a compliment, I suppose it is partly down to the accent and the oddness of it. What is incredible about Oh My Irma is the way that the atmosphere of the piece works. The protagonist, our host, “Mission Bird” (we never really find out if that’s her birth-name or just something that she calls herself), is partly a nervous wreck and partly this completely charming, playful creature. Half the time she seems more than completely in control. The other half she is falling over her words, back-tracking, nervously correcting herself and experiencing involuntary tics.

And what she’s talking about... And how she talks about it... Jesus. She’s working her way back to us here in the present by relating a recent series of shocks and trauma. The story, in lesser hands, could have become a very heavy handed research-drama about the damage that self-harming single-mothers do to their offspring. This is nothing of the sort. Here the protagonist’s mother’s intentional self-wounding is almost glided over with poetic imagery in a way that makes it all the more harrowing for the listener. Mission Bird, the literary creation, sits on a perfectly judged gulf where she has both normalised everything in her life, but is still, possibly to her even unaccountably, troubled by it all. ‘This is what happens, this is what my mother does’ she seems to be saying, at the same time as ‘Oh. My. God. What is happening? Why are you doing this, mother?’ There is matter-of-factness about appalling anecdotes, and a strange exhilaration in the telling of some really very normal conversations.

Bird gains entry to the flat of the man – initials P.P., according to his shirt – and meets his fat dog. She is disgusted by his fat dog. The fat dog’s name is Irma. Bird is appalled. Why has this man, so inextricably tied up with the death of her mother, named his fat dog after her?

– Something interesting about being able to see this show twice is the effect of going in the second time already knowing all the answers to this puzzle-box of the script. The first time, having foregone reading any pre-publicity material whatsoever, I couldn’t have even told you for a long time whether I imagined the protagonist was meant to be a boy or a girl, or how old they were. This information does gradually arrive, but it was fascinating watching the second time with a real sense of clarity and focus on how the outcome is reached; where, during the first sitting, you claw avidly at any fact dropping out of the narrative for a better purchase on the universe being related. Neither way of watching or outcome is *better* –

I loved seeing a piece that used the imaginative latitude which theatre can provide against audience complacency. For example, *obviously* McGee is a women, but on stage, in a short wig and androgynous, genderless clothes, she could have been *meant* to be a boy or a girl or even kind of *neither* – which actually feels about closet to a gender which Mission Bird might inhabit. McGee has even suggested that Bird might actually thinks she sort of *is* a bird. So, not knowing what she is *meant* to be, we end up watching and listening far more closely for clues to her identity. Similarly, Bird’s language is so stylised that she could be theoretically, at least until some crucial details turn up half-way through, anything from six to twenty-six. Maybe even beyond; although there’s a level of naïvety signalled which I think would have to be played differently is the character were meant to be any older.

There is something glorious about the spark and fizz of the writing itself too. As we’ve established, Mission Bird is a pretty singular creation. I think even in the world of the play, and in her own mind, Mission Bird is a creation of herself – a product of rampant creativity, imagination and neglect. And the language of the text completely crystallises this into a near-tangible sonic form. Watching, you get the appalling sense of someone who has either been outwardly-mute and talking in their head incessantly to themselves for twenty years or else someone who speaks very quietly, quickly and untutored to themself. It’s a half-eloquence which is heartbreaking.

Similarly, Bird’s physicality – presumably a collaboration between performer McGee and the piece’s original director Alisa Palmer – is a beautiful creation. Seeing it more than once allows you to notice that it is as regimented as ballet, while feeling as free and coincidental as an afternoon stroll. Work is done. Marks are hit. Precision happens. There’s an extent to which, watching the movement, you briefly realise you could even take away the words (which would be stupid) but still have a hell of a show left to watch, so total is the language of gesture. None of this strikes you at the time. It all feels kind of normal. Like everything is this good all the time. Like theatre is just like this. There’s something inbuilt about how disarming the show is. The creation of the character is so complete that you totally forget in-the-moment to be impressed by how well it’s been achieved.

Much the same is true of the piece’s story arc. Light and dark all at once; jagged, vivid – impossible to listen to comfortably, impossible to look away from – like a series of car crashes watched in a thunderstorm. There’s a neat dramatic irony too which to explain will require a [SPOILER WARNING] – Bird has gone out in search of the male absence responsible for the death of her mother, Irma, and ends up becoming a very present, very female, almost avenging angel figure who leaves a cowardly but ultimately lonely and pre-broken man’s life in tatters, murdering his dog, Irma, and smashing a statue that was precious to him. [END SPOILERS]

It’s an incredibly brutal conclusion to the piece. Brutal and somehow all the more satisfying for it. Unlike about 99% of theatre – especially one-person-shows – ...Irma doesn’t shy away from the conclusion that everything might not really turn out all right. That some damage is too hard to shift straight away. That people do break things. Perhaps not on purpose, perhaps just because of panic. But that those things which get broken might just stay broken.

And yet, even in all this, even at the height of these bleak conclusions, there’s something redemptive about the fact of hearing the story at all. About Mission Bird’s determination to even tell us. Some element that speaks to the fact that by sitting in a theatre watching this story, we’re somehow doing something helpful about the way the world is, and about how the world might be made a bit better.