Monday, 26 October 2015

And Now: The World! – The Edge, Chorlton

[seen 23/10/15]


Yeah. It’s pretty good. Go see it...

There we go, there’s the boring bit of theatre criticism despatched.

Right. This is really interesting. And Now: The World! is a text for theatre by Sibylle Berg. It’s the second time I’ve seen it. The first was in 2013 at the Gorki Theatre in Berlin, directed by Sebastian Nübling.

I say it’s the second time I’ve seen it, but this version is so different both in tone and style that it might almost have been a completely different play. While the story was essentially the same – at least one young woman tells us about herself; her life before now; her life now – the way it is told more or less entirely changed its meaning. The first time: four women; tough, nonchalant, aggressive, moody, streetwise; this time: one woman; English, apologetic, hyperactive, neurotic. Is it the same story if the perspective is so different?

The text is a tough, rough thing. It’s ironic. Deeply so. But I get a sense that the way the irony functioned in the two productions actually tells us a lot more about our respective cultures than the actual words. Or the cultures of England and the German language (not *Germany* because the Gorki production was in collaboration with the Junges Theater, Basel, although I think the performers were from the Gorki company? I dunno). Anyway, there are lots of different varieties of English. It felt like this register – nice, unthreatening, middle class, but not posh-middle-class – might have positioned the story in a place that made it seem different to how it could have seemed. Some people tell me Germany’s class thing is different to ours. Others say not so much. Whatever. They’re *a lot less* obsessed with it than we are. But it’s not just about class, there’s also a thing about attitude here. Where, Nübling’s production is multi-ethnic (and for all I know, multi-regional), Graham’s production is white and southern/midlandsy accent-wise (I thought, although I wouldn’t swear to it). None of these things are criticisms. There’s nothing wrong with any of those things. But they do read differently, and it’s that surprise that I’m negotiating here. That social position can so alter how one understands a text.

Then there’s the productions. In this, Abigail Graham’s production, the performer, Jennifer Jackson, is placed on a nicely designed shiny white floor and back wall. It’s – aptly – a bit like she’s standing in an open MacBook. But it’s got all these suggestions of furniture too; a table, a shelf, a chest, maybe a slim wardrobe. These mean she can leap about the set, almost like a monkey in a zoo, swinging off bars on the wall and hopping from platform to platform. This is also apt. In this version of the monologue, she’s on the phone, on skype, texting, her mum’s calling on the landline... there’s time-urgency, compulsion, near-hysteria. Compare Jackson with the four young women in Sebastian Nübling’s version who pace the empty stage listlessly, and whose phone calls and skype chats seem to be spread across months rather than one anxious real-time-compressed day. The gulf of difference is genuinely unsettling. (And, it’s worth repeating, neither version feels either “better” or “wrong”. Just radically, radically different.)

Perhaps because of what I’ve been working on/thinking about recently, something occurred to me watching this: in Germany, there’s not quite the same vast tradition of stand-up, or live comedy as there is in the UK.

And the effect on how you think about this show is startling when you do consider it. Because, as a text, it’s quite unlike anything anyone’s written here, *as theatre*. Yes, Graham’s production makes it into something that we’re more familiar with in Britain – it’s properly fascinating that the brilliant writer Clara Brennan (Spine) is the dramaturg on it – really the text itself is rangy, diffuse, hardly telling “a story” at all (in the way that, say, Spine does). Instead, if you dressed it up the same, I think it would make all sorts of sense as stand up (although there aren’t many jokes, but I wonder if it would have more laughs just if presented in that way): just the performer, a mic, a raised stage. And, thinking back, in a lot of ways, that’s almost what Nübling’s production did do. But, obviously, because it doesn’t read like that in Germany, and of course because there were four people on stage. But, still, it was interesting to think about. The way we signal modes of performance... I think this also has something to say about signals of “liveness”. It’s a kind of crucial key to seeing how *rehearsed* our performers often seem. Even when signalling “liveness”, as Jackson sometimes does.

I’ve not said much about the subject matter yet. And I’ll admit, I was slightly thrown by it here. The central character here felt almost like she was interestingly played *against* some of the naturalistic conclusions of the words, whereas her characters’ self-irony seemed to function differently again. I’ve speculated fruitlessly on some sort of national difference in uses of irony between Britian and Germany before (yes, yes, I know Sibylle Berg lives in Zurich now and was granted Swiss citizenship in 2012, but...), but I think this piece gets close to demonstrating where we locate our irony, in contrast to where else it can be located. For example, the number of times the character seems to complain about the compulsion toward political correctness. I mean, in Britain complaining about “PC” is the province of UKIP. See Stewart Lee, etc. etc. Like, are we meant to take this seriously? IS the character proposing a notion we’re invited to agree with, or is it a facet of her character that we might view with irony? It’s hard to tell, but perhaps such anxieties themselves are also located in England’s own peculiar relationship to saying anything straightforwardly.

In a best case analysis of the text, it might be like a cross between Josie Long and a Bikini Kill record, at worst it might almost be blogpost by a nascent teenage Jan Moir or Katie Hopkins. Of course, that Berg is a 50-something woman writing a twentysomething character complicates this further. What are we to make of her take on this person? Is the author ironic *through* or *about* this person? (Or both?) Or is that not even a thing?

[Yesterday,] I also read this (brilliant) interview with Dennis Cooper, which reminded me to question my (recently lazy) attitude to *content* and characters, and what an author might mean by them. But also, raises that question again of the extent to which any author (be it writer, director, dramaturg, or performer) has a final say-so over *meaning*, compared with the individual audience member.

[and obviously my relationship with this position is extra complicated by the fact that I then have to recount my experience of being an audience member to another audience: you readers – who then have the final say over what I’ve said/meant.]

So, yeah. Stuff to think about.


Exeunt: Ali McDowall Interview – B-sides and rarities

[written for Exeunt]


As someone writing about theatre you sometimes get asked to do an interview with a playwright for the programme of a production of their play. The requirement for the programme tends to be about 1,500 words or so. Depending on the speaker, the average person seems to say roughly five times that (or more) in an hour. And, well, when the whole hour is really interesting, it seems silly not to put it out. The “Ali McDowall: The Greatest Hits” interview is in the programme for Pomona at the Manchester Royal Exchange, playing 29th October to 21st November.

This is a lot of the rest of that interview...

Friday, 23 October 2015

Measure For Measure – Young Vic, London

[seen 21/10/15]


Fuck.

I don't know the last time I left a home-grown piece of theatre feeling quite so electrified.*

Joe Hill-Gibbins takes Measure For Measure and knocks it out of the park. And he does it by making the play as much like itself as it's possible to imagine.

There’s no “concept” here, as such – although there’s clearly a lot of thinking about what the play means, how it operates, and the ways it can *mean* now – just unfussy modern dress, a brilliant design and one of the best companies of actors currently gathered in England.

Miriam Buether’s design brilliantly steals/suggests Robert Borgmann's design for his Burgtheater production of Die Unverheiratet (Measure For Measure is set in Vienna, after all), but adds to it a large, bare backroom of the Young Vic’s unadorned breezeblocks. The other main design elements include video-live-feed-projection (cf. my notes on Joe H-G’s Edward II), projected images of medieval religious allegorical paintings, pastiches of Gilbert and George pictures, early ‘90s rap videos, and a really huge pile of inflatable sex-dolls.

These inflatable bodies are a masterstroke. Co-opted as everything from participants in the opening “orgy” to the inmates of the prison, when they’re in the fore-stage they feel both embarrassing and ludicrous, dividing the audience into Id and Superego responses of Studiedly Not Laughing and openly laughing a bit too much. More fascinating, though, is that when Angelo (I don’t need to tell you the story, do I?) enacts his crackdown on sex-work, and these pathetic feather-light bodies are flung through the air into a heap in the back room, the result looks, just briefly, like a hideous parody of those photos from Belsen. Without the point ever being underlined, you suddenly realise just how not funny police brutality against women working as prostitutes is.

But – and while the lights are great, and the sound design is pretty awesome** – the real genius here is in the performances. Christ they’re good. It feels like each one has been honed within its own precise universe. You know how sometimes it feels like all the actors are in different productions and it’s a problem? Here it feels like a brilliant choice, and seems to speak about class, and expectations, and just attitude generally. Like, Zubin Varla – I bloody love Zubin Varla anyway, but – in this his version of the Duke is almost a kind of madness. His first speech... The way Sarah Malin, as his aide, Escalus, just looks at him dumbstruck – her “listening acting” is almost too compelling – the way he’s tackling his lines; spitting out odd syllables, almost mangling the sense out of revenge against school-taught Shakespeare; or perhaps forensically admonishing some quite shoddy scene-setting. But all the while within a completely realised character as well. The best way to imagine is maybe thinking of the way opera singers do text – dictated by music rather than syntax.

All the other performances seem to exist in a different universe to this and each other. Romola Garai, for example, seems – on one level, particularly at the start – to be living much more in the world of “pure Shakespeare” (all RP and a nice loud posh voice, and indeed *white*; as Sir Trev implies it should be). And, rather than feeling like a limitation, it feels like a very clever choice. Here she is, this Isabella, in her convent/nunnery, talking in this “pure” voice, in these sentences that seem to come from a different universe to the seamy world in which her brother is somehow involved. Garai is brilliant too, btw. They all are. And later, when the arc of the narrative turns against her, she goes all out with tear-soaked, snot-dripping fury like she too is suddenly possessed by Courtney Love. Close up (row F), its a properly visceral thing.

As her brother, Claudio, Iavanno Jeremiah doesn’t actually get to say a lot – he’s stuck in prison and being spoken for a lot of the time – but, blimey, when he does get speak, by Christ he’s good. Really good. It feels like a godawful cliché to invoke “inner calm” or something, but the power of Jeremiah’s Claudio is chiefly this incredibly charismatic silence, and clarity when he does speak.

Against this, John Mackay as his lewd and rambunctious mate Lucio basically recalls a young Ian McDiarmid. Which, when you consider that Ian Mc. was one of the best actors going for a very long time, is no small thing. He’s got that same lean, fox-like kind of intelligence, if that makes any sense at all. While Tom Edden turns the (hitherto mostly overlooked) part of Pompey into what *might* be construed as a kind of stereotypical Jewish American pimp-cum-lawyer from the 70s. It’s *a lot of fun*. And, Christ! How lovely to see Hammed Animashaun from Secret Theatre on stage again too.

Going back to this idea of these characters from different walks of life being from almost dramatically incompatible worlds, it seems entirely fitting then that Paul Ready’s Angelo most readily recalls our hideous Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. Paul Ready, I should emphasise, doesn’t resemble him at all. This is *acting*. But Ready absolutely captures here precisely that soft, pampered, flabby, smirking smile that crosses the idiot Tory’s face every time someone catches him out. But, by God, to do this while pretty much making all the knotty Shakespeare-language sound somehow more like modern English as well is yet more proof that Ready is another of the best actors we’ve got. The only drawback to this approach at all is that, in our more cynical age (and not much more, judging by this play), we’re hardly surprised when prize prigs like this turn out to also be rank hypocrites of the first water.

I’m not sure I’ve ever really *felt* this done before. Certainly not so seamlessly. Not in such a coherent world-of-the-play, which it *of course* happening emphatically *on a stage*, but also in our imaginations. I’ve often felt that the complaint that characters “all seem to be in different plays” should feel more true to life, and here it does. The production is also effortlessly multi-racial in a way that should have Trevor Nunn reaching for a glass of whisky and a revolver***.

So, yes. This is Measure For Measure alright. Turned against itself, and against the world. Mercifully, it doesn’t really underline any particular specious passing similarities with horrible UK in autumn 2015, it just gets on with the story, although, unless you’ve had your head under a rock, thing after thing, resonance after resonance will strike you. And, so, yeah, I think you just come out kind of high on theatre, but kind of fighty. There’s a deftness and a lightness to the way that the just terrible problems of the play’s conclusion are kind of presented gleefully straight. I mean, the ending *is* completely flawed, so staging it as a total WTF car-crash ceremony seems the best solution.

If you happen to be reading this before the production closes (14th November), for God’s sake go and see it. I reckon it’s one of the best stagings by a British director of anything this year. Definitely.

___

* some other electrifying things: Katie Mitchell’s Attempts on Her Life
Gisele Vienne’s I Apologize
Thomas Ostermeier’s Hedda Gabler
Rupert Goold’s King Lear
Sebastian Nübling’s Three Kingdoms
Ivo van Hove’s A View From The Bridge
(maybe Benedict Andrews’s Three Sisters)
...there are other A++ responses aside from electrification, btw. And I’ve almost certainly forgotten some electrifying things here (Alles Weitere... for example).

** The sound *is* good, if a bit underline-y in places. But where Die Unverheiratet chucks in a rabid re-working of DAF’s Tanz Der Mussolini at random, here we get a really on-the-nose use of ALANIS MORRISSETTE FFS. BLEUGH.

*** Ok, I’m manifestly not the person to call this, and it’s only a small hunch, but I did worry that while the play *looks* brilliantly multi-racial and had colour-blind casting, I did worry (like the guilty white leftie that I am), that the characters played by black actors had proportionally fewer lines than white actors, and possibly these had been further slimmed in this particular edit.
And I worried – slightly – about the available symbolism of having “pure, virtuous” Isabella played by a white actor while her naughty brother was played by a black actor. On the other hand, the fact of (black) Claudio being arrested as soon as (white) Angelo came to power also looked like the sort of arrest that is routine in contemporary UK and USA every day. Indeed, actually, without once overselling the idea, that feeling of wildly racist injustice is never far from the surface here, even while the apparent subject is still Angelo’s “moral crusade”. But how fitting, after all, that it should be so. After all, it’s never “because they’re black” that people get arrested in UK or USA either. It’s just an ongoing striking coincidence...
[edit: this is obviously not just a black and white issue, and the largest part in the play, the Duke, is played by Zubin Varla.]
___

I reckon this, not Morrissette, and bingo:




Design mood board:






Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Exeunt: Stewart Lee Intrerview

Capital – La Raffinerie/Charleroi Danses, Brussels

[seen 20/10/15]


Capital is an adaptation for stage of French economist Thomas Picketty’s recent required-reading book Capital in the 21st Century, by the Croatian director Ivica Buljan (whose Macbeth After Shakespeare by Heiner Müller and Quay West I saw at the Almada Festival in 2013).

I’m not surprised by someone adapting a 1,000-page book of economic theory for the stage. Rimini Protokoll did Marx’s Kapital *years ago* (they’re onto Mein Kampf now, which sounds really interesting. (It goes to HAU in January.)), although I wonder if I’d bridle slightly at calling it “an adaptation”; it's more “a selection of very personal responses to...”. In fact, weirdly, having seen so many “straight” page-to-stage stagings of non-written-for-theatre texts recently, I wonder if I was actually surprised at the extent to which this seemed to contain less *actual text from the book* than I’d expected.

In spirit, Capital isn’t unlike [comparison for UK readers] a youth theatre version of A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts/Show Five (not that Secret Theatre had any older actors either). Sadly, visually, it’s less look at: there’s an empty stage, (apart from) three (underused) tables near the back, the odd chair, and at one point a *really impressive* stack of plastic beakers. I guess my reservation comes more from the fact that the large dance stage of La Raffinerie is totally closed down into an intimate thrust stage by the addition of a single line of chairs right in the middle of the stage creating a little playing space in the middle of the bigger one. (Imagine them doing Show Five like that on the small stage of Sadler’s Wells and with the majority of the audience still in the stalls. But tis is just me deploring thrust stages again. Christ I hate them.)

The cast is large (20), but staggeringly underused. Mostly the piece consists of solos/monologues, occasionally more, any everyone else sitting assembly-style on the floor. I should just accept it as such, but it is difficult to resist a sense that more could have been done with 20 performers. (But I also don’t know the method by which the piece was assembled. Perhaps separately? Perhaps each performer was allotted a set number of pages/chapter/s to cover in whatever way.)

In fact, despite more or less the whole piece being in English, it still felt like it would have been really useful to have had something more like a roadmap of what was going on. That said, I think part of my discomfort/confusion was just to do with expectation vs actuality. A slight case of, having not known what to expect, filling in some blanks incorrectly and then being surprised when they failed to materialise.


I’ve now spent a few days with the piece knocking about my head to be thought about, and while the detail has consequently evaporated (in a way it didn’t with, say, Ten Billion), I think I’ve got more of a handle on what the piece was up to.

In fact, I *think*, and I could be wrong about this, but *I think* the large, rambling structure (three hours straight through, strangely watchable, never boring) is a response to what is made explicit at the end. That Picketty’s conclusion to Capital is pretty flawed. His faith in a “democratic” Europe just sorting out inequality is no kind of ending for the book at all. Like it points out all the problems, and all the reasons why they’ve grown up, and then imagines they can all be magicked away by pretty much the exact same institutions and organisations that caused them (encouraged them, even) to flourish in the first place. It’s a pretty reasonable analysis. Picketty isn’t a radical, after all. As Wikipedia puts it “the book argues that unless capitalism is reformed, the very democratic order will be threatened..”

It’s interesting, as with the work seen at BITEF this year (also by mostly ex-Yugoslavian directors), it seems that the consensus in leftist circles in mainland Europe is that “democracy” is a joke word now. Perhaps it always was, or at least was, once they started experiencing it as a reality, rather than the idealised, propagandised version sold during the cold war. Of course, this will doubtless sound somewhat “extreme” for many in Britain, to whom the mild left-leaning democratic liberal Jeremy Corbyn is currently being sold as The Most Left-Wing Thing Imaginable. And, indeed, our cultural memory in Britain does seen to be short-circuited; to the extent that it’s almost impossible to remember what Facebook looked like before it’s last redesign, which we all hated for about three days too. Christ knows what level of effort would be needed to remember what an actual spread of different political ideas look like.

So, yes. As a piece of theatre it has definitely grown on me (since I stopped having to sit still and be quiet for three hours. Often the way). And the more I read of and about Capital..., the more I see what parts of the show were driving at. On the other hand, while impossible to condense and deliver 1,000 pages satisfactorily in three hours, it feels like there are many, many more adaptations of Capital in the 21st Century to come, but it feels like they need to come soon, so we’ve all got that down before better books that we can properly get behind come along.

In fact, HA! perhaps this is in fact the staging of the world’s longest bad review of a book rather than the book itself...

The Crucible – Royal Exchange, Manchester

[seen 04/10/15]


The Crucible is a remarkable play. There’s a fair chance it’s the best American play of the 20th Century, which is pretty close to saying it’s the Best American Play Ever, right?

That it’s from Arthur Miller’s same fertile mid-fifties period in his work as A View From The Bridge is probably not coincidental. It is fascinating that the apparent nominal crux of both these plays is a bloke whose dick has got him into trouble shouting that he wants his name back. In the hands of a lesser playwright, this might grate somewhat. Miller, though, precision-tunes the world around a situation so that we somehow empathise with and care about the stresses and strains of a good five or six central characters, their various needs and desires often completely contrary, mutually exclusive, but always horribly understandable.

It’s this sympathy that feels crucial to the Crucible’s success; at least, when performed straight and uncut – as I’d argue Caroline Steinbeis’s production is. And it’s a very, very good production indeed. Max Jones’s design creates a – well, it’s kind of like a real crucible, isn’t it? (see pic) – on stage. A shallow concrete drain, with, again, passing similarity to Benedict Andrews’s Cleansed. We get a real sense of why the play is named as it is.

While the set design essentially offers some slightly loaded/symbolic open spaces on which to perform – perhaps the most intriguing bits of the set are the giant neon cross outside the Exchange’s “module” audiorium on one side and the blasted stumps of the woods out of the opposite exit (I rasther love the idea of having bits of the set performing a sculptural function *outside* the actual stage. How brilliant) – it feels like the main interpretative functions are being performed by the costumes. It is essentially half modern-dress (the men), and half Doctor Who crossed with The Handmaid’s Tale (the women). The blokes are all dressed pretty much as the equivalent of their character might be expected to in modern Britain or America. Farmers wear lumberjack shirts, slightly more hoity-toity/well-to-do citizens wear Barbour jackets, the minister brought in to check for witches wears pretty standard Rev jumper and dog-collar. It works extremely well indeed. The slightly-brighter-than-pastel colours of he women, who all wear one-colour, kind-of science-fiction Victorian dresses – which in themselves are a clever way of suggestion religious and moral conservatism. I’m not sure I *liked* them, as such, but what’s that but a trick of taste? There’s certainly nothing *wrong* with them, and they’re no more or less distracting than rigorously observed historical costumes. Probably better, since they stop the audience just consigning all the evils of the play to its dual pasts of McCarthyism and wacko seventeenth century ideas about religion.

The reason I think it’s such a good play is probably because it takes such a dim view of both individuals and society. We see single persons all seeking to invent or utilise existing structures to their own advantages, and then we see the structure’s incapability of resolving its own contradictions; its inflexibility in the face of momentum. And individuals’ connivance at maintaining the structure, even against their better judgement. It’s a truly horrifying picture of an all too recognisable truth. Hardly anyone *really* “means any harm”. Murder can be signed off as face-saving. No one *really* has to feel responsible. And no one really believes in anything. “Belief” is a handy, cynical fig-leaf for far more selfish desires. “Justice”, let alone “fairness”, is a joke.

What is also interesting, though not foregrounded here, is the way that in a society where women nominally have no power – on one hand second class citizens, but on the other hand, fetishized symbols – one girl with sufficient charisma can basically bring about a small-scale holocaust. I wonder if we should look harder at what Miller ends up implying with this, or perhaps Abigail Williams’s gender isn’t important for the political dimension of the story.

Sorry, I’ve gone a bit off track, worrying about a confirmed classic play when what I should be doing is writing about how bloody good gthe performances are here. I’ve been a big fan of Jonjo O’Neill since (I think) I first saw him, in Rupert Goold’s King Lear, but I think this is the best thing I’ve seen him do yet. It’s kind of a boring thing to note, but the extent to which his Irish accent maps onto Every. Single. Line makes it sound like Miller had written it in dialect for precisely this performance. Which is about as high as compliments go for acting, I hope. The rest of the cast are also great, and also *really well put together* as an ensemble. *Of course* it is effortlessly multi-racial, the Royal Exchange is better at diversity than nearly every single theatre in London (on a par with the Young Vic and the Unicorn), but it is also really good at giving a convincing accont of the span of ages. There are more older actors in this than I remember seeing on stage in a very long time.

Coda:

*Obviously* it’s taken me *ages* to get around to finishing this piece. Mostly it’s been a matter of other work having to take priority, but there’s also a sense that this had already done well critically, was selling well, and it didn’t feel very *urgent*. I mean, it’s a great play done great. What’s the rush?

Then, the other day, I happened to bump into a friend at HOME, and got chatting to their friend about this production, which he’d also seen. He’s a writer in his mid-twenties, and hadn’t seen the rain effect used at the end of the Crucible before. And he had *really loved it*. Not just because it’s pretty, you cynics. Like, really loving it on every level, primarily the symbolic. Evangelically so, more or less. And it made me feel quite ashamed of my seen-it-all-before approach to it. So bloody what if *I’ve* seen it before? He hadn’t. And, as a result, he’d seen it all the more clearly than me. It’s instructive to have someone nearly half your age just simply explain why the rain had come in at precisely the moment that it had, why it hadn’t made them think of A View From The Bridge (because they hadn’t seen it, because London or New York, not Manchester). And why, actually, that approach to watching theatre had yielded him a far richer experience of seeing the play than all my memories of precedents had. I mean, I’d *liked* it, but hearing it talked about and described by someone unencumbered by having seen A View From The Bridge (or Ostermeier’s Hamlet, or half-a-dozen other really great other uses of stage rain) really brought it alive for me.

Bloody “expertise”. What’s it good for, I ask you?

[Fwiw, Benedict Andrews’s Schaubühne Cleansed]



Sunday, 18 October 2015

Glass Menagerie – West Yorkshire Playhouse (Headlong), Leeds

[seen 03/10/15]


There’s a brilliant moment in the second half of Ellen McDougall’s new production of Tennessee Williams’s Glass Menagerie. The “gentleman caller” arranged by Tom Wingfield (Tom Mothersdale) to visit his disabled sister Laura (Erin Doherty) has turned up, and their suffocating, godawful mother, Amanda (Greta Scacchti), is grandly telling him about her luxury lifestyle back in the American south. Plantations, servants, etc. The gentleman caller, Jim O’Connor, is played here by Kofi Abrefa. While Amanda is telling Jim all this, I’d say that Kofi Abrefa – crucially *not* Jim O’Connor – looks out into the audience and somehow seems to give us a “are you hearing this?” look.

I could have misinterpreted this moment. The actor might well just be playing the character looking at the pretend fourth wall, and making a face while looking at the photograph of Tom and Laura’s absent father and being talked at by their awful mother. But I reckon it’s very pointed and deliberate. It feels like an otherwise flawless bit of “colour-blind casting” has also here been utilised to add a much needed moment of WTF? to the otherwise unchallenged witterings of a woman who is, to all intents and purposes, precisely the sort of enemy of equality and progress that a more on-the-nose, political playwright might take pains to have put against the wall and executed by the final act.

But here, in this lightest of Brechtian moments, I reckon McDougall rescues the production.

Yes, Doherty and Abrefa go on to absolutely smash their “duet” scene [in a good way], and Tom Mothersdale offers a hugely appealing reading of the play’s “hero”.

But, confession time, I kinda hate Tennessee Williams. Granted, I’ve not seen much, because until very recently the plays looked as godawful in production as they sounded in synopsis. But now he’s being reclaimed by the Germans and decent British directors, so obviously we now have to go and see them. And, blimey, I’m really not sure about them at all.

Ok, there are caveats to this, but...

It feels like McDougall’s version, designed by Fly Davies, does about as much as it’s possible to do with the play without actually altering the text. And, ultimately it’s quite a lovely production. But, Christ, what’s it *for*? (the play). The Glass Menagerie has a pretty whacking central problem as a play, in that the central character of the first half – Amanda – is just insanely annoying. Vicious, self-centred, self-pitying, cruel, suffocating... The more convincing Scacchi is, the more it’s just absolutely no fun at all being in a theatre with her. If anyone can explain what feeling Mr Williams was trying to achieve for his audience here, I’d be very interested. I get the impression that the play is *a bit autobiographical*. So, ok, Tennessee, you didn’t like your mom. Not entirely sure you needed to inflict her on the rest of us. (Amanda, fwiw, is given pretty much no room to either grow or change as a character. She’s been written off by this dramatist as fundamentally vile, it seems, and Scacchi/McDougall certainly don’t seem to seek to redeem her.) I imagine there’s a production which could David Lynchify her, but it’s not this one. Here the study seems to be of unbearable claustrophobia and the casual exercise of callous power. Davies’s set is a too-small black box suspended over a pool. You feel the claustrophobia all the more for its pinched smallness. But, blimey, it isn’t half a tough watch as a result.

This feels almost like textual fidelity as violence to the text. In fact, it’s bloody impressive in its way.

I guess, in a slightly wussy way (and I’m about to do that annoying thing that Michael does of saying what I’d have rather something had done), I ‘d have rather that the stage has given at least the performers a massive pile of room and we’d had to have imagined the claustrophobia from a critical distance, and all that other Marxist stuff. No. I know that’s not what Williams is about, but from that moment that McDougall liberates in Act Two we see the problems of playing his scripts at face value. Taken apart, dissected, and examined as containers of a rubbish ideology made out of questionable psychology, I think we might learn something about ourselves (and our theatre culture) from watching them as such. But the days of seeing them as charming period pieces are clearly numbered now.

Richard III – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

[seen 03/10/15]


As we see from my Odyssey: Missing, Presumed Dead review, I was having a bit of a rough time watching UK theatre again after Belgrade. However, where with The Odyssey in Liverpool it made me irritable and prone to sarcasm, in the case of this Richard III it made me a bit sad but mostly puzzled.

Because, in theory, there’s really nothing very wrong with this RIII. In theory. As other reviewers have noticed, it opens very hopefully indeed, with some henchmen in wipe-clean aprons hosing the blood away down a drain in a frightening-looking blank room (see above) with high curved walls (of which, more later).

The problem is, that moment is pretty much entirely isolated. As Roger Foss notes (rightly) in his Stage review, “it’s often unclear who’s hating who and why within the hierarchy of interrelated royals and nobles, especially when some characters are missing”. I mean, I’ve seen RIII, what? A dozen times, maybe? I’ve watched the McKellan film a bunch more. I saw it *in German* in May, in a production which achieved near-perfect clarity (if not much else), so it’s kind of an achievement to make a production in English which pretty much completely loses one.

But then, I think part of the reason it kept losing me was that I keep accidentally forgetting to watch. Again, I mean no malice and I’d love this no to be true, but this particular performance, for whatever reasons (and I don’t think the barely 1/5th full auditorium on Saturday night helped with the buzz), really did not hold the attention to the point of seeming to positively repel it at times.

Weirdly (and what do I know?), it felt like *some* of the problem was the continual over-bright lighting. There were a few in-between-scenes states which looked great, but as soon as everyone for the scene had assembled the whole stage was flooded again with brightness. It’s a fine intellectual decision, of course. Equating mediaeval violence to darkness, and castles, and candlelight does feel like it might be the most obvious thing in the world. Bright, shiny, sci-fi/1930s dystopia (like, say, Headlong’s 1984) is a good counter-instinct, but on this set, to my mind, it just doesn’t come off. Which is a pity, but also – while watching – a massive, massive stumbling block.

I similarly wasn’t all that into what Reece Dinsdale was doing with Richard Hitler the III, either. I mean, there didn’t feel like there was anything *wrong* with it, just something not really being my thing. But, at the same time, it also felt like there *was* some sort of technical flaw in the performance; whether be it diction, projection, insufficient energy of the right sort, I couldn’t say. That’s not really my end of things. As with many other critics, I thought my job was to turn up on or after press night – trusting to a general level of competence – to quibble about readings of plays, and give an account of what a director has done with a play, not to diagnose why the acting is a bit awry.

Of course, there’s also the problem with theatre being live that this was just an off night, and so many of these “problems”, as I perceived them, are one-offs; the results of a two-show day at the end of a tough week, on a quiet night. And as such it’s just bad luck for them (and me) that that’s the night I happened to see.

Which is partly why I’ve sat on this review for so long. Because it doesn’t really have much to say.

I didn’t really love the production, but I wasn’t really convinced I was seeing it in ideal conditions (which, given that it was Saturday night in one of the UK’s major cities, is a problem anyway). It felt like the whole enterprise was sound enough intellectually, as far as straight-forward productions of RIII go. I wasn’t big into the Very Bright Lighting and some of the acting/characterisation felt a bit haphazard – not enough sense of who was who.

___

Perhaps the thing I did find most interesting was the first appearance that weekend (3rd/4th Oct) of the curved wall, straight out of the Schaubühne’s smaller stage, memorable from Benedict Andrews’s German-language (première?) production of Cleansed.




Of course, the cyclorama isn’t uncommon in German theatre designs (the Volksbühne has a *massive* one), but I wonder if this scene in Brazil is the ur-text for this?



[Or, was it this loading bay on Manchester’s Oxford Road?




(below: the Schaubuhne RIII set)


The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead – Everyman, Liverpool

[seen 06/10/15]


Two things:

Firstly, have you read this thoughtful piece by Matt Trueman at WhatsonStage? Its central thesis is that “the best shows – those that really make you feel – might not be the most memorable”. Sure, it’s not an original thought (I wrote something very similar in 2008), but it’s nice to have it in circulation again.

Then, secondly, did you read my Weaklings review? Doesn’t matter if you didn’t. The short version is that since getting back from BITEF I’ve been really struggling to get enthusiastic about any British theatre at all. Christ. It all feels so... I dunno. Timid.

This is the worst outbreak of that feeling since all those blogs I wrote about Europe in 2008 for the Guardian.

I mention Matt’s piece because there’s a flip-side to his “what if we start to like something more after time?” question, which is the simple thought: “Maybe sometimes it’s better to sit on writing about something for a while after you’ve seen it until you’re not going to be actually offensive.”

Which brings us to The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead. It’s had ten days now. That’s enough cooling-off period...

You know that time I thought I didn’t like HOME’s Romeo and Juliet, and then saw the Sherman’s? I’m now feeling similarly sheepish about my Almeida Medea review. “Oh no! That’s a terrible way to modernise the Greeks,” I thought. Ha! Come back Cusk and Goold. Please. I promise no more sniping about class and gender and race and shit. At least you were taking it seriously.

So, yeah... What to do with The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead? I mean, look, Michael Billington’s four-starred it, so maybe read him instead. I have to say, I’m surprised, though. Watching it, I wasn’t exactly sitting there thinking “Oh, yes, this is exactly the sort of thing Michael loves” (so full marks to him for being unpredictable). Funny guy. Says “the regions” are “increasingly bland” and then wildly over-stars something that the charitable might let off as “Epic-Pantomime”.

So, yeah, what is TO:MPD? Well, it’s not just The Odyssey, I can tell you that. The thing opens with a kind of Zeus-alike and his Athena-alike daughter being modern British politicians (*and* the Greek Generals?) sending Dave Odysseus (might as well be) off to watch an England vs Turkey football match in Turkey (a ref. to this one, I think). Off Tony Odysseus fucks to the football, and afterwards gets involved in a nasty bit of racist violence in which he maybe stabs a waitress in the neck with a broken bottle.

Back at home, his 18-year-old son starts grudgingly reading The Odyssey (on a glowy kindle thingy, or from a magic book. I don’t know which). Next time Nick Odysseus turns up he’s *actual Odysseus* in a Greek-looking breastplate and shinpads, in a TIE production of The Odyssey, complete with that whole Shared Experience pull-the-mast-and-sails-and-oars-out-of-the-floor-and-stick-them-in-the-stage aesthetic. Sure, only having a crew of three means one bloke has to row oars on one side of the “ship” and then the other alternately, but by this point we might be so irritable that minor details like this might not matter one iota. The cyclops is a huge papier mâché head, with wavy papier mâché hands...

I think that’s where I pretty much gave up thinking about trying to be “fair minded”.

I mean, look; objectively, there were probably people around me having a perfectly nice time, laughing at the ambiguous comedy – which I presume is meant to lampoon UKIP (which, yes, rather dates the play) rather than make people nod, but really... – and generally enjoying themselves.

And, while there was the occasional good actor just doing their best, there were also some *really terrible* performances. The basic design of the set was quite nice, but didn’t especially work with the space, and kept on introducing all these really tedious little details – a wheeled on desk and office chair here, a whole mast/sails/oar thing there, the regrettable Orientalist “Turkish Restaurant” lights...

Ach, it just wasn’t my thing at all. And, having seen an incredible Iliad only about a fortnight earlier, I couldn’t have been less in the mood to have the potential of Homer’s original replaced with endless crap jokes. I mean, why? The satire was of nothing, and it didn’t even map onto the original story. A present-day Odyssey through modern Europe isn’t the worst idea in the world (though it is a laboured one), but this felt like some sort of Richard Littlejohn saga for sexist schoolboys.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

LADA Screens #4: Tehching Hsieh – [ s p a c e ], Hackney

[seen 12/10/15]


Until the 26th of October the Live Art Development Agency have got the 30 minute documentary film of New York-based Taiwanese performance artist Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1981–1982 (Outdoor Piece) hosted on their Vimeo channel.

You should totally watch it. It’s really awesome.

It feels a bit fatuous “reviewing” something that you, the reader, could just click a link to and watch for yourself for the next two weeks, so in this instance the first job of the critic is just to give you a bit of encouragement to do so, and the second to maybe provide a bit of context (which, frankly, you could Google for yourselves).

However, a) the film won’t be online forever, b) I want a record of what I thought seeing it, and C) Tim Etchells created a one-off 30 minute performance, which only the people in the room saw, so THANK GOD, there is a point to me after all.

You might have heard of Tehching Hsieh. The biog on his website reads:


Which is elliptical and modest. The dry descriptions of his works on Wikipedia give more idea of what is involved with One Year Performance 1981–1982:

“In his third one-year performance piece, from 26 September 1981 through 26 September 1982, Hsieh spent one year outside, not entering buildings or shelter of any sort, including cars, trains, airplanes, boats, or tents. He moved around New York City with a packbag and a sleeping bag.”

From this, you get a sense of what you might have to imagine, what you might have to think about. But the film helps you imagine further. Obviously, at only half an hour long, it can’t hope to give any real sense of what it was like to stay outdoors for a year, but feeling the weight of material edited out, or never filmed, works well. You look at Hsieh’s serious, impassive face and probably project a lot of your own feelings and anxieties onto his task. You look at the now 35-years-ago streets of New York and notice the differences between the film and the idealized versions you see in the cinema now. You see Hsieh bedding down with the down-and-outs of NYC, and think to yourself, hmm. You think about being cold. About being rained on. About never going inside.

Even the film as an artwork is provocative and troubling. Christ knows what The Artwork itself must have felt like. And you think about what “The Artwork” was. How far did it radiate from Hsieh? Was the whole of New York involved, complicit for that year? Was everyone in the City implicated in the artwork? What does an artwork of that size and scope mean for a city? I love, as well, how white-noise the film is. How so much of it is compromised silence. Or the sound of winds buffeting a microphone at high speeds; perhaps more familiar to us now from badly timed phone calls.

___


Tim Etchells’s piece accompanying the screening at LADA seemed – to me – to be a variation on the style explored in Seeping Through at Forest Fringe in August (and I say that, largely because that was my first experience of this particular mode in Tims performance work. For all I know, he’s been making pieces using this style for a lot longer and I just haven’t seen them).

The style, as I described it then, is: “Each repetition of a line has a different emphasis. The lines – or, let’s be honest, not “lines”, but fragments of text, sometimes just a few words – intend something different thing every time.”

The key difference here was the duration. Brought down from five hours to 30 minutes. The other main difference is that rather than a live violinist, the performance was scored by the soundtrack of the film, with Etchells also able to refer to the film itself on a monitor.

There was also more sense, for me, of physical movement being key here. The performance starts with Etchells holding his right hand out, away from his body, for minutes before speaking. Having seen the same gesture before as a component in Ivana Müller’s While We Were Holding It Together, I was quite up for seeing the same thing again. Sadly, the arm didn’t stay in the same place for thirty minutes, but then, as I say, I had seen that done before... This fact, though – the idea of movement, physicality, choreography – in turn reminds me that Tim is just back from creating one of the first of three new pieces with Pina Bausch’s company, Tanztheater Wuppertal. At the same time, I marvelled that it was still possible to do this. To come and see this event, for free, on a Monday night in Great Britain in 2015. It felt like the sort of thing that the government’s “austerity measures” should have put a stop to by now.

The text of the Etchells piece (which I don’t think had a title), was largely phrases to do with time. Which I found really interesting in the context. Perhaps it was because I knew he was performing to the soundtrack of the film, and the film was finite at 30 minutes, but it felt, as a result, even while thinking about time, that this concentration on time, and knowing there were only 30 minutes in the frame here, made it feel more about rush and possibility than the almost unimaginable length of a year outdoors. Which was perhaps the point. The stark contrast between 30 minutes indoors and 525,600 minutes outdoors. I’d been struck far more by other – perhaps incidental – moments in the film, so perhaps the performance had the useful effect of clarifying an element about which I hadn’t thought much.

As an evening; as a thing to do; as a place to go; and most of all as a thing to think about, I really liked this a lot. More of this sort of thing, please, world.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Weaklings – Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry

[seen 08/10/15]


On May 15th, 2005, the American novelist and poet Dennis Cooper started a blog.

On 13th May, 2006, British theatre-maker Chris Goode also started a blog.

[And, in 2007, inspired in no small part by Goode’s blog, I started a blog myself (this one).]

Now, in 2015, Goode has made a piece “about”/“based-on”/”inspired-by” (?) Cooper’s blog [and I’m writing about it].

Writing about Cooper’s blog here feels slightly stupid, since you could just click this link and have a look for yourselves. And, weirdly, because they’re both websites on the internet, both blogs, and both on the same blogging platform, it feels especially superfluous; like describing a neighbour’s house to someone sitting next to you who could also look at it.

[But I’m going to describe it anyway.] The blog is basically a kind of curated magazine of stuff that Dennis Cooper likes, and his guest “curators” like. There are posts about bands, lists of top ten favourite cartoon characters, collections of Stewart Lee material, and so on. And then there’s also a fair amount of stuff about (often very violent) gay sex, collections of adverts for “slaves”, for rent-boys, etc. If you’ve ever read one of Dennis Cooper’s novels you’ll maybe have some idea of the sort of tone to expect in these bits. (If not; Dennis Cooper's novels tend to feature the torture and eventual murder of very young men evocatively described.)

And this piece sort of functions in the same way, mostly pointing toward the various bits of the blog, and the personal interactions between readers, and some video interviews with readers, and Cooper himself(?), and maybe some nods to the worlds depicted n the fictions and/or fantasies (or, possibly, realities).

The set is essentially two cube-like frames; one opened out into three gauze screens, and the other serving as a sort of raised platform on which Karen Christopher (“playing” Cooper?) sits at a desk, talks into a black and white live-feed video (slightly out of sync with the miked voice), and writes at a laptop. There looks to be quite a lot of naturalistically (sp?) detailed clutter on the desk.

In general the piece is played under (or to the side of) low lights, and red and blue coloured lights, and latterly, in amongst red pretend-tealights covering the floor.

There is a small amount of male nudity in the performance. And possibly a couple of violent images projected. At the end, there is a sudden interaction between the three male performers of the piece (Nick Finegan, Craig Hamilton, Christopher Brett Bailey) in which one spits on another’s asshole and eats him out while the other strangles him (to death, in “the world of the play”, it seems) with an electric cord.

Prior to this, the piece has perhaps largely felt like a lot of only tangentially connected solos, the odd “narrative” is possible to discern. One sequence shows a young man cutting his wrist and sending a selfie (well, a bleeding wristie) and “Cooper” replying in what feels like a personal email, but which is presumably on the blog, with a concerned and kindly response, asking the young man not to send photos like that to him.

In the run-up to the performances, Maddy Costa did some interviews with the cast and wrote elliptically about her own experiences of the rehearsal room. To be honest, these contain far more “difficult” content than anything that made it into the show. But perhaps set potential audiences who had read them up for something quite different. (I for one had steeled myself for a lot more “livid” descriptions of child abuse.)

I have mentally noted that several people I like and respect have come out in favour of Weaklings, a couple of them suggesting that the piece was speaking to them in a language that they needed it to, and one which they hadn’t seen on stage before.

To be honest, the piece didn’t speak to me at all. I think in large part I’m blaming that on Serbia, BITEF, Jonathan Capdevielle and Gisele Vienne. That is: there was nothing wrong with any of the elements in Weaklings on their own, but – my fault, probably – it felt like I’d seen all of them elsewhere and arranged much better, less timidly, less  “English”-ly.

There’s that cliché that shows teach you how to watch them themselves. The bit of this show that I read as doing that was the following quote about Slowdive: “[which I can’t find now]”.  But I don't think even that should have been a problem. Necessarily. It’s just here that it felt like one.

I dunno.

To be honest, I’d much rather be having this as a conversation with someone who liked it, or someone who made it, rather than just sitting here uncomfortably telling you how I felt about it.

Anyway. At least we’ve got this document of what I thought at the time, now. I daresay it’s a view that’ll modify over time.

Still, it includes this cover version:


And some Slowdive...

Monday, 5 October 2015

The Death of Ivan Ilych – Yugoslav Drama Theatre, Belgrade

[seen 18/09/15]


The second performance of BITEF49 (the first I saw; Herbert Fritsch’s Murmel Murmel played before I arrived), was also an adaptation of a book. And, while I want to say that the means and effects used in The Death of Ivan Ilych and The Iliad were polar opposites, it wouldn’t even be true.

Tomi Janežič’s production also take place on a bare stage, but one which feels ferociously Spartan rather than merely “undressed”. This feeling of deliberate discomfort is supplemented by the fact that the audience is also seated on uncomfortable wooden chairs on the stage, in a long shallow rake that runs the full length of the stage and into the scene dock. At the rear of the stage is a high blank black wall, leaving only a thin corridor of a playing area. Proceedings feel deliberately cramped yet spacious. The flies (like the bits for flying in and out scenery) almost mockingly high above us.

The cast file on, into this narrow corridor, and one begins to read from Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych. Into a microphone. At the beginning the cast are dressed in a kind of “neutral” modern-dress, sombre black, or funeral suits. One man sits on a wooden chair downstage and pretty much in the middle. He never takes the microphone or reads. Or moves, really. My impression is that “he is Ivan Ilych”. Sort of.

After a bit of the text being read to us, we in the audience are invited to read to the end of the chapter to each other. There are English and Serbian versions of the text available. I think this process gets us up to nearly an hour into the four hour piece.

Throughout this first section there is a man painting the black back wall white with a roller. It’s pretty slow. Everything is pretty slow. He’s not doing an especially good job with the roller, but at least it’s something to watch. Maybe some more of the story gets read by the performers. Then there’s the first interval. Maybe an hour twenty in? It’s been pretty purgatorial so far. There are good reasons for this. Not least, that I’m reading surtitles or off paper. So this is basically reading. But quite slowly. In an uncomfortable chair. There are, I think, a lot of subtleties and interesting things about the staging, and I think the slowness too is a strategy.

Maybe even before the end of the first part the cast (except sitting Ilych cipher) have changed into quite hardcore Mad Men style mid-sixties costumes (costume design: Marina Sremac). The book is from 1864. I’m pretty sure this isn’t why, though. Actually, no reason is ever particularly revealed, but it still seems somehow like a right decision.

The Death of Ivan Ilych is a pretty laconic, matter-of-fact book. With occasional waspish asides. Essentially it gives all the main points of interest in the life of this singularly uninspiring man who at no point displays any great passions. He essentially conforms entirely to class-expectations, and if he’s interested in anything it’s at vague petty rivalries and trying to keep his wife from making a scene. Several properly awful things happen to him and his wife – two of their children die, for heaven’s sake – and yet the omniscient narrator maintains an ironic distance which seems to echo Ilych’s own. It’s a bit like the narrator is fooled by Ilych’s own stoic facade. Or, worse, that the death of children wasn’t expected to make that much impression on a marriage back then. But one suspects it always kinda stung, no? Even if infant mortality rates were higher.

So, we’ve got a dispassionate story being told in a way that even enervates the remaining interest that the story. Which I, as an Englisher, had to read. Talking to other people who had seen this and other examples of Janežič’s work – well, apparently he’d made an *astonishing* Seagull a couple of years ago, and this was harder work for everyone. But, even so, I think I was much more at a disadvantage for not understanding Serbian.

Even with all these factors ranged against it, though, and even with it actually being a *really* hard watch, and a big ask, I feel very pleased to have seen it. It was uncomfortable, slow, excruciating and uncompromising, but I think it really had a certain quality that kept me intrigued and kind of riveted, even while not. Does that even make sense?

The thing with the painting of the wall felt particularly crucial. I wonder if it’s just my political leanings which made me see it as a beautiful way of illustrating the problem of pre-Revolutionary Russia. This tale of comfortable bourgeois misery taking place while outside the workers... And, let’s be honest, the one worker was the only person getting anything done, while poor old Ivan Ilych just sat on his chair and waited to die...

It might have taken four hours – which is a hell of a way to make a point – but, Christ, maybe this is precisely the sort of afflicting the comfortable we need more of.

The Discreet Charm of Marxism – Yugoslav Drama Theatre, Belgrade

[seen 22/09/15]


Ok, so here’s a thing. Going into this show, I was a bit sceptical. A week later, that position has quite radically altered. I took the following notes on my phone, which, as will become clear, was fine within the context:

Despite the intriguing Buñuel-referencing title, The Discreet Charm of Marxism suffers for being precisely the sort of thing I hate most in *performance* – it’s an example of what we might called “de-centred interactivity”. That is: we the audience mostly interact with each other. Some people just adore this sort of thing *as theatre* (rather than say, *as the pub*). That's totally fine. But equally, I don't. Which I guess has to be allowed to.

“The impulse and manner of our interaction is: bits of Marxist literature served to us as if they were items on a menu. Here is the menu:

apéritif

Terry Eagleton and Franco Berardi Bifo

amuse-bouche

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Marx, Ellen Meiskins Wood, Gáspár Miklós Tamás, Jacques Rancière

entrée

David Harvey and Terry Eagleton

maracujá sorbet

Chico Buarque de Hollanda

roast or stew

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

bread

RIUS

salad

Nâzım Hikmet Ran

sélection de fromages

Slavoj Žižek

dessert

Karl Marx and Gáspár Miklós Tamás

digestive

Karl Marx

“We sit at impromptu office tables on the small stage of the Jugoslav Drama Theater arranged as if in a (very odd) restaurant. We sit largely in quite a bemused silence.

“The main problem here is that the terms of engagement are so poorly defined as to be non-existent. ‘Here are some snippets of things some prominent Marxist thinkers have written. Talk’ our host seems to suggest.

“Oh, yes, there’s a host. He is presumably Bojan Đorđev, the artist who conceived the piece, and now stands in as an ingratiating waiter. Precisely the sort of waiter I abhor, but, y'know. My friend Grzegorz and I make cynical small-talk as artist/waiter flogs the Marxist snippets-as-food metaphor pretty hard. I have a stab at the Nâzım Hikmet Ran salad. It’s nice.”

But, as I was politely taking these cynical notes, something actually started to happen on other tables. The notes go into “real time” here:

Woman challenging him [about the point of the show]. She’s making very good points.

She’s a dramaturg. [thanks to Grzegorz for local knowledge]

Now Polish critic [challenging him].

Lesson: never put a show with a slightly shaky concept, which depends on interaction, in front of an audience composed solely of critics and dramaturgs.

Artist: ‘My genuine intention was to take some of your time... (gets a big [hostile] laugh)

Some interesting things being said.

‘I was born in the Soviet Union. I am a vegetarian. I cannot eat this.’ [this from a Russian critic, being amusing about the concept of the show. Successfully. In her second language.]

Old school romantic wants to looks at nice old-fashioned Marxism.

Another critic: ‘Wrong to read Marx as “wrong”. We don't say this about Hegel...


Now, what’s fascinating to me is that, while in theory the show *as planned* seemed to fall apart under the scrutiny of a lot of critics and dramaturgs almost exclusively from ex-Communist or Socialist countries, what I actually ended up seeing was perhaps one of the most useful political discussions I’ve ever seen in a theatre.

I think it’s important that it happened in Serbia, and that the participants were drawn from countries with first-hand experience of communism or socialism.

But perhaps the thing that made most impression on me was the person who spat the word “democracy” in the same way that “socialism” is a swear-word in the United States. This was maybe only a week or so after Corbyn had been elected as member to Her Majesty’s Opposition (FFS), and the British press had yet relent with their ludicrous campaign of negative stories.

Nevertheless, it was an instructive time to be British. Of course we now know Marx wasn’t much of a prophet – or, viewed more charitably, said a lot of optimistic things that were seized upon quite unhelpfully. As a piece, it made abundantly clear that the vocabulary of socialism had been allowed to be trapped in the past, and with an analysis which, while brilliant, is also in dire need of a massive, rigorous overhaul.

So, actually, and even true to discussing the problem implied by its title, the show completely fulfilled its brief. A week or so down the line, it feels a bit like it’s possibly the piece of “political theatre” that has made most impression on me *ever*. There is literally no way that the myriad ideas and opinions expressed *because someone became too cross not to say them* could ever feel the same if written and rehearsed. So, yeah, maybe there’s even something in “de-centred participatory theatre” after all, if something that really matters is at stake.

___

Here’s the Buñuel, with subtitles not in English, but we all know French, right?

Sunday, 4 October 2015

La Mélancholie des Dragons – HOME, Manchester

[seen 02/10/15]


Fuck! Yes! This is what we’re talking about. *This* is the sort of programming that’s going to put HOME on the map. This is, what? The fifth thing they had in the theatre? (Funfair, Kafka’s Monkey, Axegate and a touring thing by Kneehigh last week that I missed there) But, yeah, this is *such a good bit of programming* that I could forgive six months’ worth of Douglas Gordon. What’s really exciting about it as a transfer/tour, is that these seem to be the only dates its playing (or has ever played) in England unless I’m hugely mistaken. AND LA MÉLANCHOLIE DES DRAGONS WAS QUESNE’S “PREVIOUS SHOW” WHEN I REVIEWED SOMETHING ELSE IN 2010, FFS. (This, at the very least, gives some idea how shit the UK is at transferring international work. 2008 this was made. 2008.) God knows how much it cost to bring over, but if it’s easy/possible, and there’s enough of an audience to make it work (last night’s house was gratifyingly full, and felt really warm and appreciative), then, well, wow. Manchester’s HOME for European theatre, here we come... (directs management to further transfer suggestions...)

But I should write about the show itself, not my excitement about Manchester’s theatre ecology, right? This is trickier. I’ve never felt more like just writing “Oh, you had to be there” and leaving it at that. I mean, that’s true of most theatre anyway, right? But there’s a lot of *taking on trust* you’d have to do if I were to just describe the show (again, as always).

The thing opens with a *really long* wordless sequence in which four heavy metal dudes are sitting in a car in a clearing in some woods drinking lager and listening to various heavy metal songs. Back in Black, Run to the Hills, Master of Puppets... Oh, it’s good. After about ten minutes I was pretty much convinced that if this was the whole of the show, I’d be completely happy with 80 minutes of just this. What’s weird is, even just with this skipping through songs and changing tracks half-way through, quite a palpable sense of *drama* almost emerged. I reckon you could probably do a whole Ibsen like this, without any words at all. Except, I don’t think that’s what was *intended*. I might have been reading subtexts and drama *onto* what was happening, but I wouldn’t swear I was meant to. That’s one of the fascinating things about this piece, the way that it’s both entirely without drama or dramatic structure, and at the same time, it really does have all that. It’s properly amazing. It is, I swear, 110% “Postdramatic” and literally the most entertaining thing you’ve seen all year. It is possibly also one of the most inexplicable – like *why* is this entertaining? Why it is possibly the funniest thing I’ve seen in a theatre (certainly this year)? Why did I definitely cry laughing at least five times, and have pretty much non-stop giggles? AND STILL THINK IT WAS BASICALLY A GREAT PIECE OF ART AND THEATRE?

I guess it has a lot to do with irony/not-irony, and some incredibly deadpan performances.

The basic set up is eight men wearing long-hair wigs and kind of heavy metal fan clothes showing an older woman some stuff that they’ve got in their trailer. They have a kind of shtick about it being a carnival, or funfair. I won’t go through it, but they’ve got a little water fountain, a library of books that (brilliantly) explain pretty much the whole show we’re watching, artistic references, kind of folkloric contexts, they’ve got a digital projector and a laptop which they demonstrate... See I told you explaining why this was funny (let alone magical or ART) was going to be tough.

There’s also something about the fact that despite being repeatedly, ongoingly gentle throughout, the entire scenario looks like it could just turn into something incredibly violent and dangerous throughout. Philippe Quesne and Gisele Vienne are both directors at Nanterre-Amandiers, after all. (And, Christ, why aren’t we all just going there on Eurostar ALL THE TIME? Fuck Berlin...) And it’s almost like This is How You Will Disappear is a direct reply to this piece (“We put a smoke machine in the woods”!) I’ll admit, I watched it thinking it was the other way around (that Dragons was the reply to Disappear...) which made a lot more sense. But, yeah, there’s this continually, ongoing tingling sense that The Very Bad Thing is only just being kept at bay; a kind of terrible, ancient, atavistic, *nameless fear* thing. And, to be honest, the show doesn’t stint on the uncanny. One near-climax involves several vast (especially on HOME’s relatively small stage) inflatables upended in the fake-darkness (well, it’s also real darkness, but you know what I mean), looming over this little older lady standing in a snow-covered clearing in the woods.

So: funny we’ve mentioned; the edge of darkness we’ve mentioned. The last unaccountable thing is the fact that it’s also incredibly moving. Somehow heart-burstingly gorgeous, glorious and generous all at once. The deadpan-ness and irony somehow In No Way interferes with the just sheer idiotic beautiful joy of the thing. There’s something somehow lovely about them just admitting to everything being theatre, to the muted “Oh, wow!” that the older lady comes out with every time the people plonk another new thing in front of her. You (well, I) spend the whole time giggling away at how absolutely ridiculous it is, and yet, at the same time, it kind of speaks to the whole enterprise of creating any kind of art which hopes to have any effect at all on its audience. There’s a really brave kind of owning of kitschy-ness, at the same time as owning a real affection for it. A key *key* to the show is Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, which at one point they kind of recreate, with the older woman up a ladder having bubbles and a smoke machine directed at her. And there’s a kind of Where The Wild Things Are-ness to the whole too. Like this little woman is Max surrounded first by these hairy metaller types, and then by the hulking great black inflatable sculptures...

Apparently the show has had a bit of a Marmite reaction, which always makes the experience of writing about it feel a bit more pinched. You don’t want to come across as feeling all superior for what, at the end of the day, is just something appealing to your sense of humour. If there’s one problem with arts criticism in the UK, it’s advocacy being too arch. This wasn’t a matter of being clever enough, or artsy enough to “get it”. And, sure, the way *I* read it is largely in connection to other things I’ve seen in theatre, as well as other art (that’s both the job, and a side-effect of the job). BUT, I honestly don’t think that’s the only way to read it. There’s a lovely (if arch) Howard Barker quote about laughter being (I paraphrase) “unbidden collapse (of language?) at spectacle of something-or-other” (grateful if anyone can find it in Arguments For a Theatre, I just looked and couldn’t). This, in a wholly non-Barker way, felt like exactly that. Just elements of the comic lined up just so. And a whole theatre-full of people erupting in giggles – all at different moments – on a friday night, while at the same time, still hushed by moments of this kind of really tender loveliness.

Yeah. This felt like something extraordinary and special.  I'd encourage you to go see it, but it's done now. Which, yes, does feel like a massive shame.  I'd have happily gone again... 

Saturday, 3 October 2015

The Stage: "Isn’t it time we looked at text with a fresh eye?"

[published 30/09/15]

written for The Stage.

The Stage: BITEF

[published 28/09/15]



Written for the Stage

Medea – Almeida, London

[seen 01/10/15]


[SPOILERS FROM THE GET-GO. How do you spoiler a story we already know? Well, let’s just say that the plot has undergone some revisions...]

In this adaptation of Medea, Medea is a writer.

And at the end she doesn’t kill her children, they just kill themselves because they’re sad that mummy and daddy are always fighting.

I think.

Just before that bit, the back wall of the set has flown out to reveal a kitschy glowy sunset and the costumes have gone kinda medieval-Macbeth, and Medea *does* lead the kiddies down some stairs in the the middle of the set and then re-emerges without them, and shovels a bunch of earth into the hole. So maybe it’s sort of both.

Fuck it, I’ll just get this out of the way. I *really* didn't get on with this. Albeit it in quite a complicated way. Because lots of it is really good. Kate Fleetwood’s performance is brilliant. So are a lot of the other performances. And there are some passages of really rich ideas and flinty language. Ian McNeil’s set is mostly a slightly deconstructed version of a flat I wouldn’t mind living in (is there any more deadly criticism of a set than “Ooh, that’s a nice chair”?). And Rupert Goold’s production – well, that’s tough, isn’t it? What part is director, what part actor, what part designer and what part writer? The acting here is great, but the production feels – as with The Effect – that his usual conceptual brilliance has mostly been siphoned off slightly into making a workable thing of the text, rather than starting with a work of genius and adding his own. All of which is fair enough, but, net result: not one of of my favourite R.G. productions. And in this instance, I’m not a big fan of the script either.

So what’s the problem? Well, because Medea has been so wholly transposed, I also spent a lot of time not really knowing how much mapping from original to adaptation I was meant to be doing. Ultimately none, I think. This really is just meant to be about a writer who gets left by her actor(?) husband, and then their children kill themselves. It’s a bit like discovering that Troy fell because it just couldn’t be bothered with standing any more. Or Jocasta isn’t really Oedipus’s mom, because that would be too extreme.

As a result, being asked to give the slightest fuck about these people really is asking the audience to dig very deep in their wells of human empathy indeed. Removing the Greek Gods from the equation, and the politics, and, well, pretty much everything else that makes Medea interesting does run the risk of making the whole thing read like a ghastly exercise in the most grandiose solipsism imaginable. I get that individuals feel that their own divorces are an epic tragedy. I do get that. But, Christ, in the greater scheme of things, they just aren’t. Get a grip. And, Jesus, if there’s a group of people it’s especially hard to feel sorry for at the moment it’s the incredibly wealthy. Even if they are getting divorced. Anyway.

If you want another way of looking at it, there is one black actor in this production, and she’s playing the cleaner. She gets some lines, some of them alright. She at least gets to be recognised as a person, but, well, it’s all a bit “Hello, 1930!” Elsewhere, the chorus are here a bunch of sharp-elbowed Primrose Hill [the MSM media designation would be “yummy-mummies” wouldn’t it? But let’s not go there]. You get a sense that the writer (Cusk, not Euripides) *really* hates them. It’s quite strange, you don’t often get to see – well, it’s misogyny, isn’t it? – misogyny of quite that velocity on stage. “These women!” we seem invited to think “What utter cunts these women really are.” Maybe we’re not meant to think precisely that, but since their main purpose is apparently to bitch about our (anti-?)heroine, it’s hard to know what else we’re supposed to be concluding. Maybe misogyny is the wrong word, though. Maybe it’s misanthropy. Or more, an imperious, sociopathic, Ayn Rand-ish selfishness that we’re really looking at. Although I’m not entirely sure what we’re meant to make of Medea either. I *think* that she’s some teller of awkward truths. Which, I guess, if you really think the world is out to get you, she does. Like some sort of upper-middle-class Morrissey.

Now, arguably, this could be chalked up as another example of that thing Vicky Featherstone said the other day about how even she doesn’t really like strong female characters. I’d counter this by saying that in this version most of all, and despite Fleetwood’s furious performance, this Medea is precisely the opposite of a strong character. Which is why it’s infuriating. She’s completely consumed by her divorce. She’s obsessed by this man who’s left her. She’s totally failed the Bechdel Test (she talks about nothing else, and “cleaner” doesn’t have a name). And she doesn’t even give her love-rival an exploding cape. Pfft. It’s funny what you miss in adaptations, isn’t it? I really missed the magic exploding cape (ok, I think traditionally it’s poisoned, but...). I reckon that’s the best thing real-Medea does. That’s properly inspired. Here she returns a pearl choker and they give the new woman a rash. Pfft.

[if we need to say these things: obviously, I’ve nothing against any of the *ideas* here, it’s a good experiment. I can totally see why anyone would be interested to put it together on paper and find out how it works. And, looking at the other reviews, other people seem to have got more from it, which is great. It’s just me and my grumpy old opinion who seems to have not really liked it. And I’m starting to wonder if BITEF is to blame for that – everything I’ve seen since I got back has seemed a bit meh in comparison.]

Anyway, I should stop complaining. Interesting experiment. Great acting. Not my bag.

[I was going to just let this lie, but I just read the first few paras of this Rachel Cusk interview and got as far as “What I want is for people to think, ‘Here are some things I recognise, little echoes of my own experience’” and though, oh, fuck it. Yes. One recognises some things here: the wealthy white people endlessly consumed by the health of their marriages to the exclusion of everything else; the invisibility of everyone else on the planet; the just astonishing, vertigo-inducing sense of privilege and entitlement... You maybe recognise as well the weird itching desire for the soldier out of Blasted to explode through the wall and demonstrate that really there are much, much worse things in the world...]

[EDIT: This is a comment left in the comments section, but I think it's worth promoting to above the line. I mean, if I'm going to privilege my *feelings*, I reckon it's good to have an account of the equal and opposite set of feelings this show can provoke. I completely think both versions/readings/sets-of-senstations are possible.]

Reading your review just prompted some sorting of my thoughts on this production which I experienced from a very different perspective. Not sure I need to send this. O fuck it...

To me this Medea felt like a genuine experiment to update a myth by a woman - a renowned novelist, not a playwright, of outspoken views and whose main obsession has been with form - here she's aided and abetted by great actors and a director committed to no less a task. Rachel Cusk - reference to the writer has been omitted in some reviews (eg Michael Billington), it's probably important to mention the writer as she seems most responsible / has been chosen for looking at the text with a fresh eye - is used to interrogating women and their modern day roles, in particular from the view of the artist outsider, perceiving and being perceived. I didn't need to know any of that to see that this Medea is not just some rich bitch bitching about the divorce settlement - that is crass - more that for all our enlightenment, some home truths have not changed. Men and women can still live in bad faith with each other. Like the usual Medea she's cut off from her parents/home (not a bad thing judging from those represented here), a witch, an outsider, loving towards her children and capable of astonishing cruelty.

No doubt personal mindset and circumstances do matter - when I saw the production I was in the middle of reading Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (bought on on a whim in the NT bookshop) - I'd skipped to the famous chapter 14 about the independent woman. Some of it was a bit dated since it was written in 1949 but to my amazement much of it wasn't. Much of it is about living in bad faith.

I suppose however much you felt this production reduced the core power of the original myth, its mindful convolutions and dramatic power kept me fascinated and constantly alert - and yes I rode various waves pondering the arc of meaning - yet always I found myself swayed by the sheer audacity, the attempt to transpose ancient weight to ongoing crises - marital, parental and otherwise. As for missing out on the bloody catharsis, I remember thinking just before that episode that the literal butchery will be problematic in this version - there are many shocking ways to kill or silence a child - probably because those excellent young actors were given good ground and had differentiated, affecting parts to play, more than in any adaptation I've seen. The switch in design at that point supported a switch in thinking too. I suddenly remembered a phrase I'd heard a few years ago, 'opulent neglect', referring to how seemingly materially wealthy children (the play is pointedly aimed at the audience) can be seriously harmed by self-absorbed, absentee or distracted parents. You really don't have to be very rich to experience oppulent neglect.

In these shifts there really is other relevance to the necklace thing you hated. The only thing I'd ever read about Rachel Cusk was this http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/24/rachel-cusk-interview-aftermath-outline. Anyway it mostly worked for me. I think