Saturday, 28 December 2013

2013

[life goes on]


UK (in order of appearance)

Illusions

Quizoola

The Seagull

There Has Possibly Been An Incident

Fleabag (review by Matt Trueman)

Dust // In The Valley // Commonwealth

Grounded

The Events

Oh My Irma

The Future Show

#ShowOne (review by Dan Hutton)

Gorge Mastromas

Henry the Fifth


Outside UK (also in order of appearance)

Die Troerinnen

Quartet with Microphone

Ruhr Triennale

Capitalista, Baby!

Oh My Irma

Schwarze Augen, Maria

Die Brüder Karamasow

Orlando

Alles weitere kennen sie aus dem kino

Die Gelbe Tapete

Atmen

Trojanski Kolektiv (review forthcoming)


Other stuff

Art: The Settlement – I don’t know why, but I totally fell in love with this piece; part of the EmscherKunst initiative

Film: In Eldersfield chapter two
– do you know, I don’t think I actually saw a single new film this year. Even so, I like to think this short, art-house offering from Kings of England would have won even if I had.

Book: Theatre-making: interplay between text and performance in the 21st century by Duška Radosavljevic. History and theory are pretty much the biggest battlegrounds in any culture war. While barely acknowledging that there’s “an enemy” at all, Duška’s book effortlessly hands recent theatre history to the good guys.

Building: Any and all the venues at the Ruhr Triennale. Just as I would be hard-pressed to name a specific event at the Ruhr Triennale as *best*, it wasn’t so much one particular building as the fact of *all of them* that made the Ruhr so exciting. Also, a phenomenal endorsement of public funding of the arts.

Music: Lohengrin – from Meine Faire Dame in 2012, through Nick Gill’s reworked version for In Eldersfield II through to it turning in Glanz und Elend... it felt like Wagner enjoying a weird sort of renaissance in alt.theatre circles.

Deaths: Patrice Chéreau, Dimeter Gotscheff. There’s no way I can possibly hope to improve on David Lan’s piece on Patrice Chéreau for the Guardian, which is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing about theatre I read all year.


Thoughts:

On the face of it, 2013 wasn’t exactly a vintage year for theatre. At least, not in the UK. But, I feel kind of strange saying that. I spent the first month of the year in Köln. And I was out of London for another at least another four-plus months in Scarborough, Zagreb, Edinburgh, Bucharest, the Ruhr valley, Berlin, Hamburg, Berlin again and Zagreb again.

And yet, London didn’t really seem to grab me much this year. Granted I also missed some stuff. Regretfully: Say It With Flowers downstairs at the Hampstead; This House and Othello at the NT; but that’s about all I can think of.

Mostly it felt like things were ticking along fine, but when I go back and look at the list for 2012... Well, not every year can catch fire like last year, I suppose.

I also spent the longest amount of time since university actually *inside* rehearsal rooms, and in April even directed a rehearsed reading of Hamletmaschine at Theatre 503, the second night of which was pretty excellent, I thought (and I can say that with total modesty since my input was minimal-to-non-existent in the event).

Then I look at the list(s) we have got here, and suddenly I remember that while the overall shape of the year feels fragmented, and the year might have felt like it took more than usually long to warm up, and while Edinburgh felt comparatively flat artistically, this year did actually get better and better.

However, if we look at this list, we also see evidence of what the Conservative Party’s cuts to Britain’s already laughable arts spending are doing. Fewer than half the UK shows really had a design which went beyond: chair, microphone (sure, they did that nicely, but it doesn’t feel as if it was a choice made in the face of several thousand pounds to play with if they’d decided on something else). While the writing, direction, and performances aren’t touched, when you compare these productions to the Outside UK list... That said, of course I might have just missed or not liked many of the domestic Big Production Values shows I saw this year...

It is also interesting that for the first time, several of my favourite shows this year are ones I didn’t even see live. Possibly the best UK thing I saw all year was Forced Entertainment’s Quizoola, which I watched from the comfort of my room in parent’s house in Shrewsbury. I could smoke, go to the loo whenever, eat and drink as I pleased, talk to my friends about what we were watching as we watched on Twitter. It was altogether much nicer than being in a theatre, which is a worry.

I was very struck by Dan Hutton’s sign-off on the Exeunt round-up of the year, however:

“In a year when we’ve had countless ‘regime’ changes at theatrical organisations – from Michael Brazier’s first outing as director of NSDF to the appointment of Rufus Norris as AD of the NT – this is an idea which feels particularly apt. Those little changes in mindset and practice will add up to something far more palpable in output over the following year. In all honesty, I’ve not seen anything that’s truly blown me away in 2013, but the general feeling of a swelling tide has been invigorating. This may be my youthful naivety talking here, but I’ve a feeling we’ll look back on 2013 as the year Things Started To Happen.”

I think I’ll always have that year pencilled into my own account as 2012, and as my own drastic revision of 2000-2009 in the face of Rewriting the Nation and State of the Nation shows, I also have a pretty soft spot for 2006/7-2009. But, Hutton’s right, and I should stop moping. For all that 2013 has felt like a pretty long slog at times, it’s a slog in the right direction, and there’s been much to celebrate. Perhaps history will be kinder to it in the long term...

Cover photo from this, which is just brilliant.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

American Psycho – Almeida

[over 3000 words of anxiety and torture for you, dear reader]


The first half of this new musical of American Psycho provokes non-stop anxieties in all the wrong ways. It’s weird, I don’t remember the last time I sat in a theatre worrying about what I thought something thought it was doing so much.

[Let’s get this straight: this is going to be a pretty tough review, but it’s a tough review starting from the following position: *at last* we’re starting to see theatre in the UK which looks like it might belong to the same century as the one in which we live. Sitting with outgone Almeida artistic director Michael Attenborough behind me, I was reminded that whatever I thought of this flagship production from new AD Rupert Goold, I actually wanted to be there and whatever it was it was sure as hell blowing the cobwebs out of the fucking place. And not before time. Reviewing theatre is a dumb thing. Anything less than all out adoration reads badly. Caveats and reservations seem to loom more damningly than they are ever meant to. But, blimey, celebrations for joining the current millennium aside, there are plenty of causes for reservation here.]

It’s interesting to think back and remember quite what an impact Bret Easton Ellis's novel American Psycho had when it was first published in 1991. It was one of about three novels Melody Maker *ever* reviewed. It was a book that achieved a startling level of cultural penetration. Possibly not because anyone actually *got it*, but because, even without *getting it*, there was something persistent and unsettling about it that people couldn’t just dismiss. American Psycho made people sit up and take notice primarily with its spectacular level of violence, and the deadpan, pedantic detail with which it described it. A matter-of-fact account of a broken bottle and dead rat shoved up someone’s cunt tended to be the bit everyone mentioned at the time. They don’t do that bit at the Almeida.

The reason American Psycho got further than the horror section of bookshops was what surrounded the horror – a non-stop, chippy, “inadvertently” camp commentary, listing in anal detail what he, the narrator, Patrick Bateman, was wearing. What everyone around him was wearing. *Where* they were eating. What their business cards looked like. The detail is dead-eyed, brand-led and relentless. Bateman sounds like a man who has memorised and endlessly regurgitates catalogue details, or the brittle prose of fashion magazines.

There are also (italicised? Can’t remember. It’s been a while) about three or four sections where Bateman offers lengthy (a page or two) disquisitions on his favourite music. The two most memorable ones are about Phil Collins and Huey Lewis and the News. He (Bateman) is totally serious. He discusses the highlights of Phil Collins’s oeuvre like it was Mozart. (Also, do I remember wrongly, or does he also do The Beatles at one point? That would have been very canny if it happens). These bits in the book are inspired. The fashion bits might also be bloody clever and funny if you happened to know all about fashion. Bateman might be absolutely correct, or he might be as laughably off-kilter with his taste in facewash and shirts as he is in music, but no one worth knowing would know – the point, I always hoped, is that name-checking *any* luxury brand approvingly makes you sound like a total cunt with no taste whatsoever.

By virtue of its one-note, relentless, dead, *boring* prose, the book manages to become literature by being so precisely the opposite. It’s art. You have to work at it. It’s not entertainment. It makes no effort to charm. And its point is buried within its pointlessness.

Adapting such a book obviously poses a number of problems; adapting it as *a musical* triply so. At the basic, conceptual level, there’s the problem that it just sounds like “a terrific wheeze”. “American Psycho – The Musical! Ha ha, brilliant!” people say. And, yeah, just the concept has whizzy, postmodern, showbiz chutzpah written all over it. In *ironic* day-glo, probably.

But then, what *are* we meant to be making of it? Sure, on one level it might boil back to that crude binary which I most recently saw raised in Michael Blakemore’s new memoir, Stage Blood: “[The Germans] seemed uneasy with what I regarded as the English-speaking theatre’s greatest strength – its refusal to draw a line between what was entertainment and what was art.” The other way this can be phrased is as the questions asked of the English by mainlanders: “Why are you so keen to pander to the audience?” “Why behave like prostitutes the whole time?” Or even, “why do you always have to make jokes? The people were listening anyway.”

Usually it’s a dichotomy I prefer to ignore (mostly by only ever watching German art theatre. ha ha), but American Psycho – The Musical is so unabashedly “entertainment”-first, that it seems worth inspecting. Except, *is it*? Is it *really* entertainment, or is it “art” *about* entertainment – a fractured sculpture of a musical rather than an actual musical? And if it was, how would you tell?

This is the first of the anxieties thrown up by the first half. You (well, *I*; but not only *I*) spend quite a lot of time worrying what it is you’re even watching. And why. A couple of reasons for this: the “musical” style is not the strange genre of its own that is exactly “musicals music”. Instead it’s mostly pastiche 80s synth pop. Except, actually, it *is* musicals music, just slightly disguised as pastiches of (mostly) Depeche Mode and the like. But then there’s the actual *action*. Light on plot in the first half, the piece mostly takes the form of an extended round of introductions. Bateman is introduced. His voracious consumerist colleagues at work (on Wall Street) are introduced. A bunch of ladies are introduced, who turn out to be mostly defined either by their relationship to Patrick Bateman, or one of his friends. Or by the way that men look at them.

[And, mother of God: God knows presenting a society objectifying women is tricky on stage, but I’m not sure AP–TM has found the solution. At. All. The slight defence for Goold is that a) he plainly knows he’s doing it and flags it up as “problematic” – mostly by doing it some more, and then over-doing it – and also, it’s a pretty equal-opportunities objectification free-for-all, with Matt Smith clearly leading the field (yeah, Matt Smith has his shirt off a whole lot. And Matt Smith looks pretty fucking awesome with his shirt off. (get me and my objectification)).]

The thing settles into a pattern of scene, song; scene, song; etc. pretty quickly. Then, once people have been introduced, it does feel a bit like they then start painstakingly introducing Themes, and Motifs. That the book contains so many “classic bits”, and that the book is now 22 years old, and so what it is also kinda *about* now is “hilarious” retro- fashion and technology (and, sure, iPods make Sony Walkmans look pretty funny *right now*, but...), also feels like a problem addressed but not solved.

But we should talk some more about the music. Leafing through the programme last night, I think I noticed that the writer of the music (Duncan Sheik) thought he was a big fan of Depeche Mode and Tears for Fears. Well, they had a lot of fans, and fandom plainly doesn’t translate into either understanding what makes their music good or how it works. This is yet Another (first half) Anxiety. You really can’t tell at what level you are supposed to be appreciating the music. Is it meant to be ironic? How ironic? Is it meant to actually be good? Suffice it to say, if the original music is aiming for “good” then it gets as far as “passable”/“competent”, but certainly nowhere near “memorable”. Quite a feat, given that it’s meant to be a pastiche of Depeche Mode. Surely the best thing to do would be to write songs with the same insistent, instant-ear-worm qualities, then you’d win both ways. But there’s that question of whether the music is actually meant to be cleverly reflecting the bland, godawful, corporate exterior of capitalism.

However, mercifully, there’s another strand to the music – the cast performing slightly re-orchestrated/new arrangements of popular eighties pop songs. These struck me as much cleverer and more excellent. Turning some Phil Collins into something that sounded more like impassioned soul music feels like a much better “ironic” trick. It also feels like an elegant way of dealing with the fact that this is a musical about someone whose musical tastes are fundamentally fucking awful, and, if they weren’t also a banker, a serial killer, a misogynist and a shit boyfriend, would be categorically the worst thing about them apart from their clothes. But, yes; making whatever Phil Collins (for example) song it is sound better – more “authentic” perhaps – than the original makes for a much more satisfying problematisation of the era, the musicals format, and the novel. Sometimes they also just play the original songs too. Fine. Whatevs.

What’s perhaps most fascinating about the adaptation is the extent and ways in which it conforms to – and differs from – the novel, the film. And expectation. My (dim) recollection of the book, is predominantly the relentlessness of the tone. Like this snide, American voice carping on in your head non-stop. (I imagine a younger Kevin Spacey would have done the perfect audiobook version.) What I don’t remember is it having any sort of a coherent plot, as such. Incidents would happen, sure, but it felt like they only really happened to give Bateman something to talk about. And much of the time, he would either just be telling us about *things*, or else cataloguing his fitful, ongoing murdering and torturing. The first half is a bit like this, but a strange thing happens to the sense of (un)balance. In the book you feel like Bateman is the only present being. Everyone else is only a fleeting impression on his pathological mind. Here, because that’s obviously a tricky impression to give on stage (tho’ I sort of wish they’d tried. Gotscheff’s Ivanov is, I think, the best example ever, although I don’t suggest they should just copy that). Here, *everyone* is as technicolor and *real* as Matt Smith, even if he is most famous (and it’s interesting, while his face is instantly recognisable, and while he remains the astonishing young actor I saw in That Face all those years ago, he’s not actually so very *other-worldly*. I’m reminded that “a bit strange-looking” (cf. all other reviews) though he may be, he’s a great actor precisely because he feels so relatable. It makes him an unusually compassionate Bateman. This might be a problem.).

Also, because of the way this adaptation has been made/written/structured, it feels increasingly like there is a credible plot struggling to emerge in the first half. Possibly a plot involving a 27-year-old investment banker trying to avoid getting married to his girlfriend of whom he’s evidently not all that fond. Perhaps that’s actually true of the book too if you’re a better reader than me, but my impression was of this fog of details with all the other people in it being reduced to yet another list, all so much the same, all so fogged in the pedantic details by which Bateman values things, all *dehumanised* so completely, that you, the reader, end up not seeing them as people either.

It’s a brilliant effect in the novel, but obviously one that’s much harder to reproduce in the theatre, when, as I say, we in the audience – not being psychopaths, and also not being *inside* Matt Smith’s mind as he pretends to be one as our cipher – see everyone as equally real. There’s also that problem of the lead character being unsympathetic and everyone else unsympathetic by virtue of the prose with which they’ve been drawn.

*Of course* Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has tried to negotiate a way out of this, and in the second half I think gets bloody close to succeeding. In the second half there actually is a plot of sorts. The focus shifts slightly and widens to include the crush Bateman’s secretary Jean (Cassandra Compton) has on him. In this storyline, I think Aguirre-Sacasa gets to riff much more successfully with a few tropes of his own. We’re suddenly in recognisable rom-com land, a territory much more recognisable for a musical too, and so Jean gets her torch song, and Bateman gets to have a scene where he lets her leave his apartment without killing her. This is much more interesting, because playing with clichés like these means it’s us in the audience who suddenly start wondering about ourselves (“What am I doing rooting for the guy who crucified a woman with a nail-gun?”). This is a much more profitable line of enquiry than the blunt declarations about capitalism and superficiality delivered in the first half. At last it feels like “The Musical” has swung into its own and is starting to make sense of why it’s there. Then there’s the Three Kingdoms/David Lynchian aspect to the tale, where we’re suddenly not even sure what is “Real” any more (tho’ not in the Lacanian sense, sadly), and it feels even more promising. To be honest, I could have happily taken two second halves (even if the final number is an absolutely perplexing honest-to-God trainwreck of a triple-underline. Irony or no irony. Or both.)

Oh, God. What haven’t I covered yet? More or less everything, it feels. The set, by Es “Chimerica” Devlin is a largev white room with slight false perspective potential, horizontal blinds at the back, two revolving bits of floor while let tables and chairs hove in and out of scenes with minimal(ist) fuss. The ceiling of this room *could be* like looking up at or down on the Twin Towers. But, sadly, I don’t think that’s what it’s aiming for. Unless it’s just a joke for design nerds. Onto this is frequently projected Finn Ross’s not-especially-wonderful video designs.

The cast look like English actors claiming to be “hardbody” rich Americans. They act, sing and dance well enough – in some cases excellently, but in an ensemble it’d be unfair to name names, right? (Holly James is best by a country mile. Then Cassandra Compton is also excellent.) In a piece about superficiality but playing in a theatre, it’s always difficult to know what to do with/say about how people look. Looking at the photos of Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus, I was struck by the idea that he might have made a better Bateman, after all, he has his movie-star good looks confirmed by virtue of actually being an actual good-looking movie star. But, y’know, I’m all for making up the shortfall in actuality with imagination. That’s what theatre’s all about, right? Except that here it just makes everything feel that extra bit too cosy. You kind of *want* to feel more angered and terrified by the internal logic of these people’s world. You kind of want the cast to feel like they’re people as vile and superficial in those in the book. They sort of need to look like the Almeida couldn't really afford them. Instead, this feels, well, nice. Friendly. I know it’s only make believe, but this didn’t make me believe it.

Rupert Goold has been really interesting about the show, post press night, on Twitter. He says:
Surprised by some of the reviews of #americanpsycho wanting more gore, for me the story is far more Hamlet than Titus Andronicus.
And:
#Americanpsycho dwells on the artist's inevitable inability to assimilate within society, their perpetual anxiety about presence. Not rats.
The thing about Hamlet is fascinating. Calling Bateman “an artist” even more so. To be honest, I’ve thought more about these two tweets than the entire production. It’s a shame as I used to feel like I quite *got* where Goold’s sensibility was coming from, *from the production*. Now I’m getting it off Twitter post-fact. Perhaps I’m making the mistake of coming to the production with more preconceptions about the source text than I used to go into his Shakespeares with. But then, perhaps Goold was also trying to direct a vision of the novel onto a book and music which didn’t/doesn’t wholly contain them. Still, Hamlet? An artist? In the abstract these are elegant ideas indeed. But related to Bateman? This is about as radical appropriation of a novel’s text as an attempt to sell Howard Roark as a misunderstood lefty hipster. And, as a thesis, while I think it could be made to fly with spectacular results, I don’t think there’s enough time or clarity available here – I think it’d take an hour just to clear all the baggage we all came in with – to process this thought and make us see or feel it. The idea of a “perpetual anxiety about presence”, while more discernible, I would say is a seriously perverse reading of status anxiety.

What’s fascinating about American Psycho is that it explores one of the strangest fault-lines in American culture, the one that runs jaggedly between “authenticity”, “cool”, and “success”. Bateman’s brother, Sean, is dropped in as a try-hard (and therefore not-cool) spokesperson for authenticity. While Bateman himself is, in one sense, stuck in a world where conspicuous trying-hard (gym, keeping up, fashion, etc.) is prized above all else, and yet, where the supposed prize is “being cool”. Jazz musicians at the birth of cool used to take heroin to appear more relaxed, more effortless; Bateman and co. take coke. Their battle is lost before they even start fighting, would they but know it. Depeche Mode, despite their hilarious name, were never cool, and by never being cool, are pretty cool.

I have no idea whatsoever what American Psycho – The Musical is.



[Depeche Mode’s own searing analysis of free market economics below]

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Trout Stanley – Southwark Playhouse

[seen 02/12/13]


Having recently used Stewart Pringle’s excellent review of Satyagraha to offset the effects of my own much more picky review, for Trout Stanley my real spur to writing is Matt Trueman’s strikingly negative review.

In the spirit of full-disclosure, I should say that I was dead excited to see Trout Stanley as soon as I got back from Germany for a number of reasons. Firstly, the excellent Canadian writer Haley McGee, of Oh My Irma fame, had already told me that reading Trout Stanley when she was 20 was pretty much the reason she wrote ...Irma. Which I loved. Secondly, its excellent Canadian director Matt Steinberg was the assistant on the Lyric Hammersmith’s #ShowOne and #ShowTwo – so a) we’d spent a lot of time hanging out, and b) I really rate him as a theatre-brain and was really intrigued to see what he was going to do. Third: I also think Sinéad Matthews is one of the best, most interesting actors we’ve got working in Britain today. Thought so in Women of Troy, thought so in Lulu and thought so again here (I missed a lot of other things due to living in Berlin). I also know her. (Although didn’t when she was in those first two things.)

So, you might argue I was “a bit too invested” in liking this production. But I think that makes for a really interesting relationship to watching a play. Possibly one much more akin to that of the non-“professional theatregoer”. And, in the case of Trout Stanley it was absolutely the right relationship for me to have watching it.

[actually, I’m not sure these qualifiers really make sense, though. After all, I’d also been told Let The Right One In was great by people I like and trust, and I know Jack, John and Steven to varying extents, so...]

However, even while disagreeing, I can understand where Trueman is coming from. There’s something so disconcertingly alien about Trout Stanley that I imagine my default response could also have been to switch off and be annoyed by it. Lucky for me, then, that I had a bunch of reasons to stick with it and work at it. Because I reckon working at this strikingly original piece of writing is the only real solution.

The reason, I think, that Trout Stanley might be construed as “difficult” here (here being London, England), is partly the range of words that we’ve got available with which to misdiagnose its style. Looking across other reviews, words like “kooky” and “zany” abound. They’re reductive words, and I don’t think they’re accurate either. However, for me, what was difficult, was realising that the play operates something much more alien – an unwavering streak of total sincerity. This is difficult for any Englishman to understand. There’s something in the style of the writing that makes us expect it to be being “ironic”. In fact, I don’t think it’s being ironic at all. As such, the default British understanding of what the play might be setting out to achieve is already all at sea. I think we start out looking at it wrong, and then, given that we’re an irritable lot, might just get cross at it for not even delivering what we (wrongly) think it’s set out to deliver.

None of this is, I think, the fault of the production. In fact, I think what might have further made reading the play and tone tricky for reviewers (people with a much more urgent need to pin a thing down than the “casual observer” – as if any theatregoer is really casual – so, rather, the sympathetic reader) is that Steinberg and cast have gotten the tone of the thing so absolutely right. And in getting it right – in playing it totally straight, and inhabiting the characters with every ounce of conviction in their bodies – they make this audacious lack of irony potentially even more unseeable.

What Canadian playwright Claudia Dey’s play does, then, is to show us these two women, the surviving twins of triplets, on the eve of their thirtieth birthday, whose whole world and relationship are a study in finely crafted, totally idiosyncrasy. The scale of linguistic invention here – as with Oh My Irma – is kinda mind-blowing. Rather than leave any sentence, or rather, line of dialogue, to the crude machinations of “how people speak”, Dey has pretty much spiked and polished every carefully chosen word until the whole fairly glistens. Played at some pace by Steinberg’s cast, you find yourself hanging on for dear life as wit and wordplay whizz past your ears with such a speed that daring to laugh will surely rob you of a follow-up piece of brilliance. But there’s something almost loving about this degree of embellishment: like a sort of non-stop banquet that you’ve unwittingly entered. Plays really aren’t normally like this, after all. (cf. that recent Guardian article arguing that operas (and later, plays) need boring bits.) Which is another reason to watch all the harder. There’s also the fact of the imagination at work here. If we get rid of annoying pigeonholes like “kooky”, then actually what you’re looking at is a staggering level of imagination and playfulness. cracked, gothic and grandiose – all intended as compliments.

And then there’s the cast: Matthews, Vinette Robinson and Dylan Smith are – put bluntly – about the sexiest cast on the London stage. That wants *a lot* of qualification. Can we just understand that I’m not talking about “magazine sexy”, but actual, credible sexy-in-the-world-of-the-play?  Thanks.  When the ridiculously named titular hero burst into the sisters’ lives – or, rather, interrupts the heart-breaking suicide attempt of the younger twin, Sugar – and immediately falls flat-out in love with her, there is a violence to the passion between them that is totally, ludicrously tangible.

Steinberg’s production is also genius. And the sort of genius that also takes working out. On the face of it, Shizuka Hariu’s set is kinda plain, but then you notice that it is at once perfectly detailed where it needs to be (the light comes on in the fringe, the sink unit is perfectly populated), but at the same time, this impressionist blank-walled wooden expanse that allows our imaginations to wander as the characters detail the fantastical landscapes of their minds.

There’s a remarkable interview with Dey, which I put off reading until getting this far in the review – I daresay her public persona would already be common knowledge in Canada much as, say, Caryl Churchill’s politics are here – but in a way in this seven-year-old preview of the play’s première sheds about as much useful light on the thinking behind it as I could usefully guess or report from looking at it:
“Before I started writing this play, I was in this period in my life where I’d go to the Vienna Home Bakery, and the man would say, ‘Have a good day,’ and I'd say, ‘You too.’ And honestly what was going through my mind was, ‘I love you.’ This kept creeping up, strangers in different situations. I was going through this world like this little lighted creature, and that was the beginning of Sugar. 
“Life ruptures and reconfigures itself, and often in a much more truthful form,” she says. “That’s the life I'm interested in. It’s that world of unpredictability, where you just see someone and you're blown away. I think that only happens if you're awake to it’.”
It’s about the least British way of thinking imaginable, but there’s something quite startling and spectacular about it, and, if you look hard enough, I think you can see it shining out of this play, and this astonishing production too.

[Edit: after posting this, it occurred to me what the biggest thing that wrong-foots about the play is: effectively, it’s a genre piece in which the man comes to the house where the two sisters live after they hear that a murderer is on the loose. And what happens is, he turns out not to be the murderer. The “twist” is that there is no twist. The twist is that he’s completely honest. 

 It also occurred to me that this play overturns that conventional British wisdom that “to die will be an awfully big adventure”. Here it’s love that is an awfully big adventure. And it’s kind of glorious to see a play say that.]

Let The Right One In – Royal Court

[basically a lot of soul-searching about why I didn’t like I as much as everyone else]


Oskar is trapped between two women with drinking problems. His mother (Susan Vidler) is apparently drunk in every scene she appears in. His only other option (literally the only other woman on stage in a cast of nine) is an old woman in the body of a young girl, who is addicted to drinking blood.

Sadly, because he’s being bullied in school and out by Jonny (Graeme Dalling) and Micke (Cristian Ortega), and his dad (my God, Paul Thomas Hickey is playing dads now. God I feel old) has moved out – possibly because he’s started a relationship with a man, it’s hard to say; that bit is as coy as if portraying homosexuality were still illegal – Oskar (Martin Quinn, definitely not 12 years old. Hard to say how old he is meant to be) decides to go with option (b) rather than wait to see if there are Any Other Options At All. Ever.

In line with Matt Trueman’s recent thesis about reviewing now being a “team sport” after watching LTROI I had a read of all the other reviews, but, surprisingly, didn’t come across one which actually reflected how I felt about it. How I felt about it, for what very little it is worth, was: mostly very unhappy in the first half and much more convinced in the pacey, shock-scattered second.

As is fast becoming my habit, I should flag up Stewart Pringle and Andrzej Lukowski’s five star raves for Exeunt and Time Out, and here add supporting four-star evidence from Shuttleworth of the FT and Hitchings of the Standard. I don’t think I can really disagree with a single word that any of them have written, since they’re all plainly just reflecting their own simple enjoyment of the thing, quite without agenda. And they’re pretty much the majority.

And I should include Susannah Clapp’s review (also a “five-star rave”, now that the Observer has capitulated to the ravages of being fucking stupid and having star-ratings, much against the wishes of the anything-but-stupid Clapp). Not least because, thanks to the recent cessation of the Independent on Sunday having any critic at all (formerly Kate Bassett), and the Times’s replacement of Libby Purves with Dominic Maxwell, (and because Time Out happened to use Andrzej and Exeunt Pringle) she’s the only woman who’s written about it. Clapp is also interesting as she’s also the only critic who also saw the production in its original home at Dundee Rep as a National Theatre of Scotland production.

As a result of feeling a bit grumpy in the first half, you might expect me to naturally find Michael Billington’s three-star grumble in the Guardian and Patrick Marmion’s two-star hrumph in the Daily Mail (Patrick Marmion is all right, you know. Not AT ALL like his cynically right-wing co-critic Quentin Letts. Patrick actually likes (some) theatre and even writes plays) more conducive reading. Well, it’s hard to identify with Patrick’s position, since his two main objections are a) that it’s an adaptation at all (a stupid objection) and b) it’s not as good as the film (I haven’t seen the film, and it’s basically a subset of a) anyway).

Michael’s objections are, inevitably, about social context. And much though I might have ribbed him over the years about this recurrent bugbear of his, it’s a bit like the stopped clock: occasionally it’s right. And here I do think there’s something to be said for wanting a return of some of the social information. Look, for example, at how Pringle asserts: “Resetting the Swedish tale in some remote Scottish community is a brilliant move from Thorne, retaining the isolated otherworldliness that director Tomas Alfredson captured so perfectly in the first film version.” Given that the characters all had Swedish names, I’d assumed it was probably just Scottish actors “playing Swedes”, but Pringle’s assumption seems perfectly reasonable. There’s also the interesting thing that, not being Scottish or Swedish, suddenly the class identities of the characters became more or less illegible to me. And in realism – which this ostensibly is (explanation forthcoming) – class is an unavoidable dimension.

It is also from Billington’s review that I learn the original novel (John Ajvide Lindqvist) was set in 1981. This fact suddenly makes total sense of the Rubik’s Cube which Oskar gives to his new vampire girlfriend. But since Rubik’s Cubes still exist, that fact alone wasn’t really enough to make me think “Aha, it’s 1981. It’s Sweden! I wonder if I should be thinking more about synth-pop and impending nuclear holocaust?” Also, Sweden in 1981 is probably about the last time and place you could set something morbidly concerned with blood without it being one long AIDS metaphor. (One hopes to God that the whole dad-story isn’t a clumsy Swedish way of suggesting that dimension.)

But enough about them. Were my annoyances as inevitably guessable as Billington’s?

Everyone in chorus: Was it not German enough for you, Andrew?

Surprisingly, it wasn’t that at all.

This wasn’t about me wanting it to be something it wasn’t trying to be. My basic problems in the first half were much more boring. Firstly, I didn’t really think much of the acting was very good (director: John Tiffany). Secondly, I didn’t think the script was working (writer: Jack Thorne). And thirdly, I’m not quite as much of a fan of the particular movement sequences (movement: Steven Hoggett) deployed in the first half (boys practising stabbing moves in chorus, mother and son tossing and turning in the same bed through the night) as it would have be useful to be. And, yes, the transfer from Dundee’s wide stage to the Royal Court’s narrow one could be felt a bit in the squashed up stage picture. (I’m not saying the names in brackets are responsible, and this opinion does change in the second half. I’m just getting the info in...)

I should qualify the thing about the acting and the script. What I found most weird about the script – because I also started with Stewart’s understanding that it’d been transposed to Scotland (you hear “Oscar” rather than “Oskar”, for a long while) – was that everything that makes Thorne a great writer usually (and he usually is a really great writer) was absent. The way with words, the knack for vernacular, and most of all the non-stop joking that makes his characters so totally credibly, well, British. Here instead there was an attempt to have them speaking in the more stark, functional sentences of Northern Europe. Except, I’m not sue that worked. And much of the delivery sounded oddly forced, perhaps as a result.

The one glorious exception to this is Rebecca Benson as Eli, the vampire. Her lines work, and her performance of them, as if dragging her voice from her breathless body was perfect. Properly disconcerting and unearthly.

There was also the structure. Stewart tells me it’s pretty much – scene-by-scene – the film. Which is fine for films, but here it felt frustrating that scenes stopped when they were getting interesting, with cuts breaking momentum rather than building it as they do in films. It definitely felt filmic, without making any comment on this.

As a result of it not working (in my, largely isolated, view) I did spend a lot of time wondering what I wanted instead. The piece reminded me of Gisele Vienne’s incredibly more stylish This Is How You Will Disappear. If you want to know how to do dance, music, forests at night-time, teenagers and buckets of blood, then that is how. The design here is fine (Christine Jones: a bunch of trees on stage is always going to be quite an attractive proposition. I could have lived with many, many more. No one else will probably bother to note that they have been arranged in quite a specific arc. Oh and there’s a whizzy climbing frame which cleverly fills with water to double up as a swimming pool at the end). The lighting (Chahine Yavroyan), to my mind, was an utter catastrophe, but I don’t like kitsch, and this pretty much lit up the forest like a disco, and bathed the vampire in cold white light sometimes. Oh, don’t get me started on the lights. They’re a matter of taste and they irked my taste all the way through.

I did also spend a lot of time reflecting on what I wanted to be different about the dance. Motifs to which I kept returning were the purity and abstraction of Alain Platel and Pina Bausch, but also the twitching stillness of Sebastian Matthias. The movement work of Frantic Assembly/Steve Hoggart is increasingly pursuing a path of illustrative realism (see my similar objection in my Curious Incident review) and I’ve never really liked it: as far back as Hymns (1999). Actually, I really want to see Sell-Out (‘98) again, now.

I also wondered a bit about whether it wouldn’t have been interesting to see a version of this using the, ahem, German method of adapting a novel, cf. the recent productions of The Brothers Karamazov and Orlando. Well, no, I didn’t wonder, I definitely thought it would have been interesting. However, I repeat, I’d have been just as happy with an English version which had been working for me. Despite the total poverty of intellectual aspiration that might entail, I’m very happy with big, dumb story and shock as a substitute for thinking (which it isn’t here. There’s definitely some stuff about relationships to think about).

Which is perhaps why I did both the central “love” story and especially the second half of the second half a lot more. Maybe I’m just impatient and actually waiting for it the finale, and the constant interruption of the love story was what made them good. But I’m not sure I totally subscribe to the “there have to be annoying/dull bits” thesis. Because the love story was great – although I did kind of wonder what sort of philosophy it had subscribed to. But, y’know, as long as it wasn’t actually misogynist (plausible, but I don’t think it was), I don’t mind bleak (the story opens with Eli essentially breaking up with her former lover because he’s got to about fifty and she hasn’t aged a day. In his fate, we see Oskar’s inevitable future. If this is a blueprint for how Lindqvist thinks of romantic attachments, it perhaps goes some way to explaining Sweden’s suicide rate). Then, in the final few sequences where things kick off and get bloody it is also great. The movement and music came completely into their own. And you just wished that there could have been more moments like this.

What makes me sad about the whole, is that it felt to me that it was largely pandering to what the creators think people will accept. It doesn’t feel like a product of rigour, but of market forces and second-guessed expectations.

What was interesting (and much more depressing), watching in a sold out (I believe) Royal Court last night, is that, by having not made off-putting, “difficult” art, the production had attracting an audience, several of whom were quite happy to chat to each other as they might in a cinema, and who giggled because the spectacle of someone pretending to be a vampire on stage actually needs quite a bit of buying-into. And they weren’t really up for even putting in that much effort. Maybe that’s a misread, but that’s how it felt. I mean, obviously theatre is “a bit silly”. There’s absolutely no way of bullet-proofing it against that fact. But I don’t think there’s anything more wretched than a couple of half-cut Sloanies dropping that realisation onto an entire theatreful of people who are all trying to keep up their half of the pact between stage and audience.

So, yes. A pretty mixed experience. One, which, thanks to the final twenty minutes or so, sent me into the night with my nerves jangled and my adrenaline going. But it felt like it’d been a long time getting there.

Monday, 9 December 2013

The Magic Flute – ENO

[seen 03/12/13]


Reviewing Nicholas Hytner’s outgoing, long-running, 25-years-old, ENO Magic Flute last year, I rather viciously concluded it was an “opulent Tory meringue” well past its sell-by date.

And, yes, Simon McBurney’s replacement production does at the very least have the advantage of looking like 21st century theatre. Unexpectedly, the theatre of the 21st century turns out to be a kind of whizzy blend of Katie Mitchell and, less surprisingly, Complicité.

It starts beautifully. The large black stage, empty save for a kind of suspended platform, is suddenly obscured by a large, lowering cinema screen. Onto this is projected a live feed of a small blackboard, the “real” version of which we can see to the side of the stage. All that happens during the overture is that a hand writes the name of the opera, the name of the composer, and the year it was composed on the board, rubbing each out before starting on the next. But he does this more or less in time with the music. And slightly hesitantly. The effect is, well, delightful and funny, actually. Not maybe the world’s most brilliant joke, but it feels like precisely the sort of level of wit and modernity to makes perfect sense of Mozart’s own skittish intro. It’s also strangely reminiscent of the title sequence from Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract.

If only there could have been more lightnesses of touch like this.

As soon as the opera starts, so does a good deal more clodhopping. Ok, I’m being tough. There is still an infinite amount to be grateful for here. From the unfussy use of modern dress (and: another nice touch – the three lady attendants to the Queen of the Night, who rescue Tamino from the video of a snake, take cell-phone snaps of his prone form) to the agile use of a near empty stage supplemented only with live-feed video backdrops and the raising and lowering of the platform, it confirms – as with Master and Margarita – that “Complicite” have got a lot better at technology again, post-A Disappointing Number.

It’s interesting coming back to opera after being in Germany and seeing David Marton’s Das Schottenstück. Konzert für Macbeth, which in turn reminded me of his Heimkehr des Odysseus. It made me think about how, when watching the work of theatre directors doing opera, what you can be struck by is what feels like their relative powerlessness.

On one hand, McBurney has been brilliant by raising the orchestra up out of its pit so that they’re a fully functional and visible part of proceedings. This is excellent. He also gets the lead flautist out of her seat and on stage to play the flute parts a couple of times. Such a better solution than having her stuck invisibly in the pit with on-stage Tamino miming like a dick. At the same time, while the score remains the same and while the orchestration stays inflexible, there is an inexorability about the unfolding of the drama that McBurney struggles with and ultimately loses against.

The main problem might be the plot. It’s so flimsy yet reactionary. Having singers even just walking about and representing the characters is just hell really. And then there’s the misogyny. It was bad enough (a lot worse, actually) in Hytner’s production, which pretty much played it to the gallery as comedy. But trying to ignore it, gloss over it, and pretending it isn’t there really doesn’t work either. I honestly don’t know what one does with the fact that a load of the “great men of artistic history” degrade women in their work. Banning it outright seems extreme, but pretending it’s fine plainly doesn’t work. The Mitchell solution of hardcore feminist interventions and reinterpretations seems ever more like the best possible course of action currently being created, and I’m sure there must be other possibilities, but just “serving the chauvinist text” really should be shot down every time someone does it until it stops.

[“Comedy northern accents” such as Papageno’s (for all I know it’s also Roland Wood’s real accent, and he’s an allegedly comic character, so fair enough, but...) might also want to be phased out. TBH, it was actually quite nice to hear a northern accent on stage at the ENO, it was just the character’s rapid descent into clowning and oafishness which rather let it down. Oh, and, re: putting the Queen of the Night in a wheelchair? Um. I think there’s a big old argument that says NO to that... (No, I don’t think Cornelia Götz needs it as she gets out of it several times and walks around. It does just *seem* to be a prop. Sincere apologies if this isn’t the case)]

It’s strange: if I had been told *this* was ENO’s 25-year-old production about to retire I wouldn’t have actually been surprised (apart from the live-feed video stuff. That would have been beyond impressive for 1989); and I’d have thought it was a shame that such a lovely production which had pretty much stood the test of time was being retired. This is how mainstream theatre should have been looking for well over two decades now. That this is the *new* production is a bit of a pity. It’s good, it’s well made, but it really lacks any sense of a progressive dramaturgy. There’s precious little energy and no critique of anything. That also means the weirdly dangerous masonic hymn to the enlightenment – in which you can virtually hear the train tracks to Auschwitz being begun – just gets played straight by a bunch of men in sober grey suits. Which feels pretty chilling.

Stephen Jeffreys’s translation of both sing and spiel oddly opts to bring out as many parallels with The Tempest as humanly possible, to the extent that Sarastro evens comes out with: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine” at one point. (Hang on, do you want me to explain the plot? In short, it’s a bit like the Tempest, but not really at all.) And rather than Jeremy Sams’s light, witty English version (far and away the best thing in Hytner’s production), Jeffreys aims mainly for a translation in which repetition of key elemental words such as “steel” perhaps aim for a darker version of the text. I’m not convinced it fully works, but the legible attempt is there and clearly thoughtful.

Overall, then: this is a solid production. One which I’d very much have liked to love a lot more than I did. It seems to owe a vast debt to Katie Mitchell’s pioneering work, both visually and sonically (the other artists credited in the production reads like a round-up of past Mitchell collaborators with Finn Ross (Die Ringe des Saturn, Köln) on video, Gareth Fry (oh, lots) on Sound design and even Ruth“-in-the-booth” Sullivan (Die Gelbe Tapete) doing foley), but where Mitchell also offers feminist rigour, McBurney has, it feels, substituted a slightly woolly technological romanticism. I imagine for a lot of people it will feel perfectly, bracingly modern, and maybe I’m just an old grump, but I want the feminism and rigour back too.

But, as I say, it does look nice...


(this is a chalk drawing live-feed-projected onto a screen in front of two performers floating mid-air on wires in front of a recorded-video backdrop. Pretty.)

Katie Mitchell interview

My interview with Katie Mitchell for Exeunt is now online here.


In the absence of anything more to say about it than that at the moment, here's a nice big picture of her production of the opera Written on Skin.

(photo by Steven Cumminsky)






Sunday, 8 December 2013

Satyagraha – ENO

[seen 04/12/13]


“Philip Glass’s undulating, ecstatic opera in the key of resistance returns to ENO for a third time, and it’s an honest to the gods near-spiritual experience of sharp, hot beauty and political provocation. Director Phelim McDermott’s production well deserves the acclaim that’s been heaped upon it in the six years since its premiere: its balancing of eye-widening spectacle and delicate intimacy is unrivalled, and despite the stately ritualism of its pacing, its message cuts deep and fierce.”

 So said my colleague Stewart Pringle, reviewing this run of Satygraha’s press performance for Exeunt a fortnight ago. I open with his magnificent first paragraph largely to flag up the fact that another viewpoint, expressed by a near-contemporary, whose views I totally respect, is possible.

I haven’t read on in Stewart’s piece, because I want to work out *why* I disagree for myself rather than get embroiled in a point-by-point, “ah, but!”-style disagreement. At the end of the first third (the show has three fifty-minute sections, coupled by generous interval allowances) I was kind of rapt. I had, granted, arrived fifteen minutes late (I was at ENO the night before for a three hour Magic Flute which started at half seven, this is a 3hr10 opera, so it starts at seven, silly me), but given the pace that the thing is moving at, and its general level of penetrability, I don’t think I missed a big old magical opening and all the exposition.

The actual scheme of Satyagraha is rather appealing: what Glass and his librettist, Constance De Jong, have done is construct a piece which nominally/fleetingly tells the story of Gandhi’s life with a text composed from excerpts from the Bhagavada Gita. As such, unusually for ENO (whose main remit is to stage operas in English), it is through-sung in Sanskrit. I presume this is because it was created by an English-speaker, and therefore all the foreign words are therefore allowable. If only Mozart and Wagner had had the foresight to be actually English-speakers. Then no one would have to translate their gorgeous German libretti at ENO either (see: here). Occasionally, but by no means comprehensively, bits of what they are singing are projected in English onto associate director Julian Crouch’s cardboard-as-corrugated-iron cyclorama set.

Improbable’s design for Satyagraha spends a lot of time in the realm of the deliberately ugly. The corrugated iron walls (which eventually part at the finale to reveal blue skies) perform well in their allotted function as an oppressive prison-like setting. However, they are also covered in doors and windows. So people can stick their heads in, the (very occasional) puppet can appear, and the enormous cast of chorus and extras can walk in and out. So not much of a prison, actually. But the sense of oppression remains. It is perhaps significant that the costumes are designed by someone else (Kevin Pollard), the videos are by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer, and the puppets – not credited with a sole designer – have been knocked up by just about everyone Improbable have met, by the looks of the programme.

Re: the puppets – pretty much every photo I’ve seen of the production includes them. They are on stage for a possible grand total of five minutes. So that’s quite a weird disjuncture. When they appear you think, aha! Now we’re getting to it. But no, all the huge ones with human faces just appear in a fraction of the short bit when Gandhi is in South Africa (of which, topically, more later).

On the costumes: they seem to cause a number of different problems. One is that the production never seems quite stable in terms of tone. Gandhi (sung by the resolutely white and not-at-all-Indian Alan Oke) is dressed precisely as Gandhi is seen dressed in photos. Now, I don’t have a problem with a white person playing India’s most famous anti-British-rule campaigner. I’m sure even Gandhi would chuckle at the irony. But to have said white guy dressed exactly as Gandhi feels like a misstep. Sure, he’s white; it’s non-naturalistic... apart from the entirely naturalistic costume. You see what I mean? This problem is compounded by elsewhere the costumes, notably of the British rulers and army in India, being highly colourful comic-book-like creations.

It’s a style of “alternative theatre” that I think was at its height in roughly 1996 (coincidentally the year Improbable formed). It isn’t my favourite aesthetic in the world, but it’s worked better than it does here. But now it also has to contend with feeling a bit like a museum piece. Much the same goes for the style of “movement” deployed. I’ve never been a big fan of it as a genre, but there can be beautiful, arresting examples. But this isn’t one of them.

However, I suspect that the reason I spent so much time dwelling on nit-picky elements of the design and dramaturgical thinking was because, well, because there’s not so much else to think about. What Stewart calls “undulating” and “ecstatic” or politely glosses as “stately ritualism” I think I might get perilously close to calling “boring”. It’s strange. I used to listen to a lot of Philip Glass at university, and I remember thinking he was dead good. And I think I still have quite a soft spot for Koyaanisqatsi and his take on Bowie’s Low album. But, somewhere along the line either he changed or I did.

I didn’t see Einstein on the Beach last year, and I really wish I had, because that does sound amazing. It also sounds infinitely more challenging in terms of its staging. Here what is a fiercely abstract text and concept is perhaps given a frustratingly literal form. Even if it is in the best style of “alternative theatre” we notice that it is actually plugged into some of the worst excesses of British mimesis.

But then, I also managed to get into being quite annoyed by the thrust of Glass’s “argument”. The piece has three parts. The schema links each to a different figure: Tolstoy – who wrote to Gandhi and inspired him, Gandhi himself, and then it concludes with Martin Luther King. I found this last part the difficult bit to take. It was as if Gandhi’s own life and achievements somehow weren’t quite enough, and could only be perfected by application to an American version. This isn’t the fault of the production at all. This is just sheer irritation at American self-celebration. Nothing happens unless it’s about America, it seems. That this was made in 1980 of course means Glass was unable to anticipate Barack Obama, and I think even this production pre-dates his election, but the recent news has rather served to explain the sense of discomfort that I experienced in the theatre (the night before Mandela died). There is a curious triumphalism about the martyrdoms here of Gandhi and King. As if, in America in 1980, they had anything to be complacent or celebratory about, apart from maybe their baby steps toward becoming some sort of mildly less racist society.

I should say, amongst all this griping there were some moments in the stagecraft which were very pretty. And much more important, that Alan Oke has got possibly one of the most spectacular voices (what a strange choice of adjectives for a voice) that I’ve ever heard: powerful, unforced, pure, and richly resonant. I think I’d happily listen to him sing his bits in concert for hours.

But, on the whole I just kept on feeling troubled by different things. The antique “alternative theatre” vibe, that seemed to have simply submitted to politely flattering the opera’s wealthy patrons and an opera that seemed to offer nothing more than hippy platitudes, content to celebrate the murder of two radical campaigners for social justice as some kind of groovy cosmic balance.

I’m sure there’s a great opera to be written about white oppression and colonialism, but I’d think it might have to be a damn sight angrier and more powerful than this one to succeed.



Thursday, 5 December 2013

Die Gelbe Tapete – Schaubühne

[written for Exeunt]


This last of the three Katie Mitchell shows I saw in the past fortnight only serves to underline again what a remarkable talent has been largely lost to Britain, due in large part to the sheer philistinism of the mainstream press, successive governments’ arts funding policies, and perhaps even our largely moronic theatregoing public. Well, mainland Europe has pretty much got her now: the critics love her, better funded theatres offer greater resources, and the work receives the large appreciative public it actually deserves. Perhaps it’s all for the best; the British can grunt and get back to watching funny musicals, the mainland gets one of the best directors in the world largely to itself, and Mitchell gets to make work the way she wants for people who adore it. (The only tiny bright side: getting to Berlin is quicker and cheaper from London than getting to, say, Glasgow.)

What’s also remarkable about Die Gelbe Tapete (The Yellow Wallpaper, after the 1892 American novella by Charlotte Perkins Gilman), is its total difference again from each of the other two (totally different to each other) pieces. Premièred in mid-February this year, it is the most recent of her “camera pieces” for theatre. I am kind of assuming that the majority of readers here will have seen at least one – possibly the Barbican transfer of her first camera show for the Schaubühne, Fräulein Julie, or going back further to her first, Waves, at the National in 2006. Just in case not, let me quickly describe the set-up:

For Die Gelbe Tapete, we the audience are looking at the wide main stage of the Schaubühne divided into three large rooms. The room to our left is viewed through a wide glass window. It is lit with cold, blueish, businesslike strip lighting. In it one woman, unfussily dressed in what are probably her own clothes stands in front of a table, faces a monitor, there are microphones, a sound desk, a computer, etc.

The room to our right starts off completely obscured from view by a black wall. When this is raised into the flies, we see what looks like a tatty store room. Largely empty, except for various flats and screens on castors.

In the central room is an inch-perfect naturalistic replica of a bedroom. A door off upstage left into a hallway and upstage right into a bathroom. There are two curtained windows, a wooden-boarded floor, a bed, a couple of chairs, a desk. The walls are covered in the titular yellow wallpaper.

The first thing that happens is that the cast and crew bring on the cameras. I think there are between three and five. The crew are mostly dressed in black. They set up and the “action” begins. No. Sorry. Before that, possibly before all of that, there’s a (pre-recorded) video projected onto the large screen that hangs above the rooms of a young couple with their baby and a nanny, Tania (Iris Becher).

The young couple (Anna (Judith Engel) and Christoph (Tilman Strauß - Jean in Fräulein Julie)) and nanny from the video are moving into the room. They’re trying to get an annoyingly shaped iron cot-frame out of an unhelpfully solid door. The action is filmed and projected onto the screen above. This live video is pretty much perfect. And it cuts between camera angles as often as a “regular” film would.  It’s not feverishly jump-cut-ty, nor does it compromise in any way. If you just watched the film which plays on the screen above the stage and couldn’t see it was being made live, then you’d be perfectly happy to assume it was a cinema film or TV movie.

All at once, you notice that the sound effects are actually not coming from the room, but are being created by the foley-artist in the left-hand room. And immediately this becomes compelling too. Watching her unwrap a similar bunch of flowers to the one which Christoph has just brought into the room suddenly becomes fascinating as you try to watch the noise being made while watching the thing that is supposedly making the noise.

– there’s an interesting thing: I think part of the excitement of watching is to check for the slippage between these different realities. You can watch just the screen and listen, or you can look at the real flowers (pre-film) being unwrapped, and try to cast your eyes across at the same time to watch the foley artist, Cathlen Gawlich (plainly a genius) doing the noise with her fierce concentration on the live-filmed image she's watching –

At the same time, you can watch the camera operators (the credits are for Andreas Hartmann, Stefan Kessissoglou, but actors who aren’t in shot also take on camera duties, often passing them to each other as they switch from in-front to behind).

Lyndsey Turner’s *version* of the text (translated into German by Gerhild Steinbuch, so I really couldn’t tell you if it’s all an edit of words-from-the-book or an original script) is delivered in a second sound-booth – between the centre and right rooms – by Ursina Lardi with such precision, energy, and expression that it could almost certainly stand alone as an effective, evocative radio play. Similarly, the visual treatment of the story is so clear and detailed that it could easily work as a silent – or rather, wordless – film/or performance (and in my case, probably did to a greater or lesser extent).

On one level, as has been observed by everyone seeing one of these shows for the first time, just the intricacies of this process are enough to keep you happily watching for hours. The seamlessness and the technical achievement going on from minute to minute is just ridiculously satisfying to watch for itself. But this isn’t just a virtuoso display of technique, there’s also a whole tonne of content here.

The Yellow Wallpaper is one of those texts which has taken on an enviable life of its own after publication. I have no idea whether Perkins Gilman intended it as the piece of proto-feminist literature it has become or simply as a psychological thriller about a ghost (and it’s been so long since I read it that I can’t remember how much clue the book gives).

Here, as confirmed by the Schaubühne blurb, Mitchell’s take on the piece suggests a sound basis in the psychological reality of post-natal depression. (In this it forms one of the growing corpus of Mitchell’s work dealing with depression and suicide; from Wunschkonzert, through Pains of Youth, up to Small Hours in 2011 and the forthcoming Wunschloses Unglück in Vienna.) However, this production has its cake and eats it. In the story a woman becomes obsessed with the figure of a woman she thinks she can see behind the pattern and cracks in her yellow wallpaper. I don’t think it’s ever necessarily/entirely clear in the book whether or not she’s right to believe this. Here Mitchell has made the choice to show us what the woman, Anna, sees. (How brilliant, also, that the woman is called Anna.) As such, we are presented at once with both a serious psychological condition and a manifestation of that condition which could at once be either a physical manifestation of a metaphor or an actual stage “ghost”; suggesting that Anna isn’t crazy at all. That there really is something there – in that way like in horror films where no one believes the person who can see the nightmarish figure until it’s too late.

I think there’s something in the slippage between all the modes being used to present the story as well which furthers this ambiguity. That we can effectively be watching every possible explanation *at the same time* – all the while knowing that *everything* is (obviously) just an illusion. But an illusion that speaks to at least one reality.

There’s also something brilliant in the choice of Luise Wolfram as the woman behind the wallpaper. She has a kind of unearthly beauty which renders her just standing there in the corner of the room – or else, standing in the other room, being filmed and projected into the room where Anna is – actually unnerving. The effect of the woman behind the wallpaper is rendered using yet more clever digital video trickery – sometimes so the two women being filmed in different rooms can only meet on the screen above them.

Melanie Wilson and Gareth Fry’s sound design and score adds increasingly to the kind of vertiginous feeling of madness engulfing everything on the stage – even as cool logic can still be seen making the sound effects and using the cameras.

The final moments are shattering and then, just after it’s all stopped, leaving a ringing in your ears, there’s a final cruel, “before” video like the one shown at the start, which suddenly makes the bitterness of the piece all the more profound.

To be honest, I was never a big fan of the novella. This, however, is just about as perfect a piece of theatre as you are likely to see this year (or next, it’s definitely still running in January, and will probably go on well beyond that. Miss Julie from 2010 is still going, after all).




all photographs © Stephen Cumminsky

[and that concludes my two weeks in Germany in November 2013]


Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Atmen – Schaubühne

[written for Exeunt]


In my review of the UK première of Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs, I suggested: “It is interesting to consider Lungs in the light of Katie Mitchell’s Ten Billion, which I don't think has had nearly enough praise for the game-raiser it is as regards theatre's dialogue with the impending global catastrophe that is climate change”.

The German-language première of Lungs (Atmen) is directed by Katie Mitchell and it also makes precisely this connection. It also presents one of the most elegant syntheses of Anglo- and German theatre thinking that I’ve ever seen, marrying British new writing with German conceptual staging in about as evocative way as is possible to imagine.

If you didn’t see Lungs on tour here (or in one of its US versions), or catch the version on Radio 3, it’s a two-hander about a couple which starts with the man asking the woman if she wants to have a baby. Scenes cut into scenes, time and place jump forward, but throughout it’s just a couple carrying on a conversation. They agonise over whether it is responsible to have a child, adding to the world’s ballooning population. They worry about the possible future their putative child will have. She gets pregnant. They have to adjust their expectations and habits. Then she miscarries and they are devastated. They break up. They get back together. She is pregnant. They have a child. Then – briefly at the end, In a bit I don’t remember *at all* from the original production – they get old and die.

It’s small, bittersweet, thoughtful, truthful, insightful and probably quite harrowing for anyone without children.

The central conceit of Mitchell’s production is that both the actors are on bikes. Placed on top of Chloe Lamford’s beautifully designed, functional charcoal plinths, with a further “plinth” hanging empty above them, recalling, variously: Rachel Whiteread’s Fourth Plinth design, the original set for Thomas Ostermeier’s staging of Crave, and perhaps the greyscale version of those blocky equal marriage symbols everyone had as Facebook profile pics for a while.

The reason they’re on bikes is that the entire show is run on electricity generated in the room during the show. As a result, there are also four other cyclists ranged round the shallow concrete cyclorama, pedalling throughout. The performers control their own lights, the others I think the sound, sound desk and video projection (the sound design by Ben and Max Ringham – the whirring wheels of the bikes amplified, is superb). It is breathtakingly simple brilliance. *Of course* they’re on bikes. *Of course*. What better way to remind us continually of the world and the anxieties they’re talking about. The video projection shows one of those clocks which shows the world’s population increasing. Over the course of the show, it has gone up by well over 10,000. The show is a bit longer than an hour.

What’s lovely about the concept, however, is that beyond this eco-purpose, it also feeds back brilliantly into other aspects of the play. At one point I found myself noticing how apt it felt that they were getting absolutely nowhere no matter how hard they cycled, which felt like another possible critique of the play’s wider theme of life under capitalism: the protagonists are set on this on possible course and they never quite think to get off, or change anything. They just keep pedalling to keep the lights on.

Then there was also the effect that the cycling had on their performances. The performances – by Lucy Wirth (last seen by me in Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant) and Christoph Gawenda – are both excellent, btw.

But it’s fascinating to see Wirth, much more than Gawenda, seeming to find it tough going (of course, this could also be acting); her lights dimming more often, as the physical demands of the piece make themselves felt. Neatly, this also lend her character a kind of vulnerability which the character’s external toughness and cleverness refuse.

I’m not exactly sure how I’d describe the performances or where I’d situate them, in terms of national theatre cultures. They both emote far, far less than any British actor would, faced with the same emotional journey. But then so would any German. And the language lends itself to emoting less. There’s a plainness and a directness to it, instead of being this fabric of ums and ahs and “tact” and intonation with which English communicate. But there is a truthfulness and a concentration to the performances. And that is the crucial thing. You find yourself convinced by the truth of what they’re saying, which is interesting, since actually, in the play, the characters are sometimes lying to each other, or at last being evasive or unsure.

I did find myself wondering how much of Duncan’s script, just in terms of the way the two spoke to each other, might come across as sheer science-fiction – all the locations have been swapped for roughly equivalent German ones, so this is now definitely a play about two Germans, not two Germans performing a play about an English couple. (And, talking to the Nachtkritik editor afterwards, possibly reflects a way of thinking more common in Britain than here – perhaps in large part because of the also catastrophic cost of bringing up a child in London compared to Berlin.) Actually, it *feels*, in the room, at the time, like it is being listened to and felt with remarkable attention. For a very funny play (in English), I was also reminded again how nice it is to watch plays with people who don’t feel the need to laugh loudly at every single joke to signal approval. Smiling is an acceptable substitute in Deutschland and it interestingly makes for a much more pleasant atmosphere.

By any measure, though, national or international, this is a splendid production of this excellent chamber play. And it’s one which a) will be in rep for some time, I suspect, and b) it’s not one which it would be impossible to imagine happening here. So if you’re after an idea of what Germany makes possible that perhaps England makes difficult, then this might be a good place to start. You can find the script easily enough in English, I imagine, or find the radio version online, and then marvel at the way that an elegantly conceived concept doesn’t *interfere* with a play, but simply just compliments it beautifully, adding additional layers and amplifications to an already rich texture.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Es sagt mir nichts, das sogenannte draußen – Gorki Theater

[written for Exeunt, although the writing is a bit meh, if I'm honest]


If anyone had any lingering doubts about whether Sebastian Nübling is a misogynist or not, this show ought to pretty much remove all trace. The text is by Sibylle Berg, the hardcore German feminist, novelist (of whom we have (un)surprisingly little in translation over here), Spiegel columnist and theatre type. And the staging, well, the staging is four women (possibly graduates of the Junges Theater in Basel) of various races and appearances, all dressed roughly the same as the single-voice narrator. They perform her in chorus (pretty much perfectly) as duets and in solos. At the same time, they own the stage with movement created by choreographer Tabea Martin.

The text itself (shown here with surtitles in line with the Gorki’s “inclusion” policy of surtitling all home-grown shows in English – I’m not sure of the extent to which the JTB is involved as this is definitely a Gorki production – how amazing) tells the narrator’s-eye-view story of a girl-gang member who used to go out beating up men, who gradually drifts away from her gang, into more mainstream society, and generally despairs about the state of the world.

The style of the text is emphatically German, however. I was incredibly surprised by the reaction of the audience with whom I saw the piece on Friday night, who responded as if they’d seen a really angry, searing piece of social realism. I suppose, in theory, they had. But this felt like a real cultural gap for me (although my (German, theatre-agnostic, though perhaps a bit Anglophile, feminist) friend was also non-plussed by the cheering that happened alongside the inevitable year of applause.).

But, discussing the show the next night with Nachtkritik editor Anne Peter she, like Nachtkritik’s reviewer (who wrote: [Google-Translated] “Why is this such a way that a kick in the auditorium of sweat on the forehead, vibrate the muscles, the pulse races, as if someone had just driven himself seventy-five minutes high performance sport, at least to Fight Cup level?
Because these four furious chorus speakers make up there on the boards relentlessly pace, driving beat and hook not only play themselves into a frenzy, but also the floor above which the hall light has been started.
It’s out the tirade of a young woman from our own four walls, against the eroding female “role models”, in the political, erotic, consumer-economic, digital, artistic, whatever promise of happiness, against almost anything and almost everything. Switch via Skype, text messages and phone in close timing her friends, her half-sister, her mother, it without that they would gain presence. There is only a brief bucking in the monologue of the protagonist, then resting on the discourse Ticker. Such is life 2.0: manic, hyper reflects virtually.”), suggested that the piece itself exerted a real sense of physical, tangible rage.

I confess, sat not so far from the stage, I didn’t really feel it. I read it. And granted, reading something with the voice in your head while some people talk in a foreign language which, because you’re reading, you’ve stopped trying to understand, is a bit of a secondary experience. But I don’t think it was this that was the problem for me. I wonder, a bit, if it was that there was something about the general culture here that you can be told a thing in stark terms and you take that thing seriously as a result. Just as a result of the being told. Whereas in Britain actors might tend to bend over backwards and shout themselves hoarse to prove it to you physically, because of the way that the British tend to treat language generally – as a medium for wit or diplomacy (or “lying” as a German ex- had it), yes; as a tool for ernst or echt-ness, not so much. I wondered, in short, if me not really feeling it was more a consequence of not feeling German stage conventions keenly enough for them to have a real emotional impact on me. For everyone else in the room, it was apparently like watching Credible Likeable Superstar Role-model. (And I wonder whether they’d conversely have found BK’s CLSR a bit needy and demonstrative, what with all the nearly actually crying and so on...).

It’s tricky. Because I don’t want to pass any kind of definitive judgement here. I can only say what I felt and what I thought. And I don’t believe in fudging the issue with a kind of halfway house synthesis of what I was meant to think or feel, or how I imagine I might have felt if I was someone else and passing that off as “a review”. So all I can do is relate as carefully as possible what I actually did feel and let people try to pick out of that what they find relatable.

So, yes. There was demonstrable talent. But partly I suppose I was also missing (again) Nübling’s more epic production style. I suppose this I also unfair of me. To see two things by a director (Pornographie and Three Kingdoms) and to want everything else he does to do something similar. And that style wouldn’t have necessarily suited Es sagt mir nichts... anyway. So, yes. I was probably the wrong person for this show much more than there being anything wrong with the show per se. If other reviews and colleagues are anything to go by, this was pretty searing stuff. But I didn’t feel any of it. Or especially find the half-narrative/half-analysis especially convincing. I did spend a lot of time noticing national differences in the way the story was told however. I wonder if that is another dimension which distracted me – an unacknowledged wedded-ness to the national style of storytelling of the country of my birth – although I’d again say not, part due to my German friend, unprompted, saying much the same things that I was worrying about, and part due to the fact that it doesn’t work as a truism across the board.

So ultimately I’m not sure why me and Es sagt mir nichts... didn’t click, but we didn’t.