Wednesday, 13 August 2014

This is How We Die – Forest Fringe

[seen 07/08/14]


I’m sorry for this welter of positive reviews. Spine kinda re-energised my writing thing so I’m clearing the backlog and this is next up, and, well, hell, here’s a review I don’t feel equal to writing...

Meg Vaughan has already nailed reviewing This is How We Die so hard, that literally no one else need ever bother.

And, while I was watching the show, I kind of swore that all I’d do to review it was assemble YouTube clips that give some impression. And just open with the words:

“This is How We Die is basically Patti Smith reading The Story of The Eye, except it starts with writing that sounds like this:



then it turns into this:



then this:



and then it ends like this:



But that won’t really do at all.

So: This is How We Die is the third part of the unofficial “Chris Trilogy About Men” (parts one and two there). Where Chris Thorpe’s Confirmation is the visceral lesson in theory, and Chris Goode’s Men in the Cities is the tender, thoughtful, evocative question, Chris Brett Bailey offers a kind of Howl as a conclusion. And, yes, the capitalisation is deliberate. If there’s a single other live event I could point to as a comparison it’d be the nights at Forest Fringe in 2008 where Chris Goode (perhaps coincidentally) read both his own poem An Introduction to Speed Reading and Alan Ginsburg’s Howl. This is possibly the finest bit of poetry I’ve seen live since that night.

This is How We Die opens with a contradiction: the cute observation that the cliché phrase “political correctness gone mad” absolutely contains its own refutation. And so does TiHWD. Attacking language throughout, it closes with the lines:

“and with our savage tongues
we lick our loved ones clean
we spray our enemies’ blood all up these walls,
and we pronounce this language dead.”

And, having just committed pretty much the best electric-shock resurrection of the language for the previous hour, I guess I don’t buy that [the English] language dead. But, fuck me, it’s so compellingly told that you absolutely do believe it at the time as the words dissolve into feedback, and guitars, and two amped violins and ten solid minutes of Monroe Transfer or Godspeed You-style post-rock riff, rage and feedback.

In between the opening and this sonically spectacular ending, the main body of the text relaxes, if that’s the word (it’s not), into a kind of fitful, fantastical, sexy, road-movie of a thing where the narrator and his girlfriend seem to travel to the edges of their minds on highways from American films lined with cool jokes and wry puns and peopled with, like, a smoking mouse, a human Swastika (literally), and a murdered priest.

Maddy Costa, it turns out (I’ve literally just paused writing this to read that), has knocked up the best actual analysis of what the thing is plausibly “saying”, which is well worth a read if you’re into meanings. I read the script of TiHWD just to remind myself of how it went, but really *didn’t* want this writing/review to turn into lit.crit. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Maddy’s wrong to do it, or that the piece is resistant to it – quite the reverse, Maddy’s prising it open and considering the words and how they mean, make the text shine all the more brightly. But it’s not at all how I experienced the show. Instead, I was letting it wash over me, sense, seeming nonsense, and narrative, all conjuring these glorious postmodern filmic images of sex and violence and a kind of idea of a teenage freedom that no teenager could ever hope to either describe or appreciate fully.

Reading other reviews also makes me realise I haven’t covered the basics. Partly because half of them seem obvious: Chris Brett Bailey looks like he always looks and I’ve known him for ages; and *of course* he’s sitting at a desk talking into a mike with the script also on the desk, who isn’t these days?, etc. And the other half – whatever I was thinking of when I opened this sentence – are... Whatever.

But, yes. This is *one of those shows*. One of those shows that we’re all going to oversell to you, dear reader, and you’ll presumably not be able to like quite as much as “us” for having read and imagined it first. So, unread this review. Forget it ever happened, book a ticket for it in October at the BAC, and go and be completely surprised.

Maybe there’s something in this: “this language [is] dead” thing after all.

And, oh, look, there’s a neat trailer:

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Spine – Underbelly

[seen 11/08/14]


Rosie Wyatt is a properly, properly brilliant actor. And that’s a real problem. Because, well, great acting presents the same problem for theatre criticism as the Bad Sex Award bear testament to in literature. That is to say, great acting is bloody hard to write about well. We all know what it’s like, and we know when we’ve just experienced it, but actually putting those feelings into words is nigh-on impossible, and also risks reaching for the risible in the process.

One could dwell on the technical. In Spine, Wyatt plays an old lady, Glenda, in her eighties(?) or more, and a young woman, Amy, who’s only a year or so out of school, both have brilliantly observed working class London accents: the old woman’s of a vintage that reminds you of Carry On films and Ealing Comedies, the young woman’s that new post-cockney sound that seems to mix the accents of every immigrant community in London into something as recognisable as it is unplaceable. Both accents are flawlessly observed, and delivered with such machine-gun intensity, that you’re almost pinned to your cliché for the first ten minutes, hardly breathing under the torrent of wide-eyed, swear-heavy, enthusiasm and cursing.

Indeed, Wyatt is so good a bloody actor, that you find yourself completely forgetting how theatre works, and writing the first three paragraphs of your review of A New Play about the performer, because the performance is so good that you’re made to forget that all the words were in fact written down in a script (Clara Brennan), and that there is a director (Bethany Pitts), a designer, a lighting designer (neither credited in press release), who were also involved. Which is breaking pretty much every unwritten rule of theatre criticism that there is. It also feels weirdly like that’s because this is a production that’s broken the rules of theatre a bit. Ordinarily, when you see a new play performed in Britain – and this production has only just made me realise the extent to which this feels true – while the productions nominally “serve the text”, what that partially means is that the actors take something of a back seat? Like, one sense in which they’re “serving the text” is like “serving it up” or “serving it *to* you”. Like they’re saying the words in as ego-less a way as possible so literally nothing is getting in between you and The Writing. So you can appreciate The Writing, in as “pure” a fashion as possible. Wyatt isn’t doing that. She’s doing something that feels almost completely opposite to it. Without in any way feeling like a selfish act of diva-y attention-seeking (because it’s not, it’s the characters that feel terrifyingly present, and yet still totally “theatrical”, not the performer), Wyatt is like a sort of non-stop barrage of language, fury and passion.

But. It’s important to stop and acknowledge that this is a piece that’s been written. Because the writing is actually extraordinary. Spine – I’ll keep the synopsis brief – narrates in a rush the story of Amy turning up on the steps of Glenda’s house, looking for a cheap room in this austerity wreck of a country of ours, and, over the course of the next hour, being transfigured from angry aimless “pikey” (her words), into... oh, go and see it yourself. There’s even a bit of magic-realism in there. And, Christ, the thing contains at least half a dozen moments that run the risk of tipping even the most jaded hack into an embarrassing amount of weeping (for the record, I didn’t. Mostly because I was sitting next to Lyn Gardner, and I didn’t want to alarm her. I quite wish there was a video version that I could watch with a couple of glasses of wine when this sodding festival is over and get it all out of my system properly).

And. Not only does this thing contain the single most extraordinary performance in anything that you’re going to see all year – at least, equally tied with Mark Strong in ...Bridge (yes. It really is *that* level of good, ladies and gents) – and some of the most virtuosic writing (yup. Really), it’s also got a narrative and drive that are actually about something that properly matters. And, rather than the (admittedly brilliant) reflections of the despair and darkness that we’ve living through that are playing elsewhere on the Fringe, it angrily offers a vision of potential for change, not to mention some neat observations (“what you need is a feminist man who thinks you’re the funniest person alive” (I paraphrase)) and the best slogan to represent feminist refusal and determination ever (“Less twat, more cunt”). I’m tempted – even if only for the sake of having some, *any*, reservation in this rush of enthusiasm – to say that it’s a worry when the best form for talking about socialism is as a ghost story. That’s a crude way of putting it, and Spine isn’t *really* “a ghost story”, but there is a sense that just as it’s at its most hopeful, it’s also at its most fairy-tale. That the promise and possibility of hope and change are its most fantastical element. But maybe that’s just my personal pessimism, and complete lack of faith in humanity to ever stop actually being shit to each other. And my ongoing mistrust of revolution as a means of delivering anything, really, more than violence and ongoing slaughter. And, assuming those are things that we also want to avoid, along with the entrenched violence of capitalism against the proletariat, the hell we do about that is still hard to say, even if Spine does make the most beautiful (if impossibly optimistic) case for people becoming the change they need on an individual basis, and transforming their communities from the molecular level upwards.

But. Fuck it, you *must* go and see this. And probably let yourself have a bit of a cry. And be moved by the possibility of human potential. And the idea that maybe we can change things for the better. And that maybe libraries can end oppression. And then wrestle with the fact that even in this brilliant, beautiful play, we’re still so fucked that the most optimistic play about the possibility of social change that I’ve seen on the Fringe so far has a conclusion that rests on a social revolution effected by private philanthropy and London’s obscenely inflated property prices. And trying to work out whether, if those are the terms by which social change can happen, it’s even going to be a social change at all. (Ultra-pessimists among you might also note that the venue complex making even seeing this possible is the profit-machine of two Old Etonians a couple of years below David Cameron at school.) But, yeah. Still brilliant. Still inspiring, and still one of the performances of the year, a stunning bit of new writing, and direction so tight and assured that you can’t even imagine the process. And/but something that bitter-sweetly leaves you wanting so much more from the rest of the world.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Show Six – Summerhall

[seen 06/08/14]


Is Mark Ravenhill Britain’s best science fiction theatre writer? Show Six adds another compelling, urgent play to the Yes camp. Show Six, directed by the excellent Caroline Steinbeis and performed in Paines Plough’s newly tarted-up Roundabout space – itself looking not unlike something out of Blakes 7 – is a kind of classical dystopia. Or, put another way: Oedipus meets Dr Who.

A young man (Stevie Webb, white singlet and gold lamé Kylie shorts) has driven his car into “a chav” in “the favela”, but the “chav” has not died. Instead, the young man gets out of the car with the hope of finishing him off, but the “chav” whispers something in the young man’s ear that causes him to go back to his car, speed off, while still “monged” on drugs from his dealer, and later record a twenty-minute crying jag where he screams “Who am I?” over and over again. Cut to a scene with his bad slinky mother (newest Secret Theatre company member, Matti Houghton, in a frankly devastating white bathing costume and red high heels), reassuring him and spelling out the realities of the Brave New World to us in the audience. Drugs are commonplace, she’s got a friend’s dealer on speed-dial. These are the complacent rich. A J.G. Ballardian über-elite: privileged, armed, rich and powerful without consequence. Webb and his friend (girlfriend? – Cara Horgan in a black bathing costume) go off to find the “chav” that the young man ran down. In a seamless scene change, Horgan is now “the chav” and Webb is pleading with him to tell him what he said to him last night. Suddenly the “chav” reveals that the young man’s mother is not his real mother. That he is not who he thinks he is. And so on. That the old(ish) “chav” wears sunglasses and walks in a fashion suggestive of blindness should perhaps make us all think “Aha, Tiresias!” That the young man’s (now presumed-adoptive) mother is all over him, and that he’s nearly killed some guy he doesn’t know at the cross-roads in the favela... Oh, you get the point. The old “chav” tells the young man about a right-wing military coup which his real parents were on the wrong side of. The young man begins to real to recall his former childhood, which seems to have been drugged and influenced and lied away from him; a childhood of workers’ rights and conversations about “the nascent power of the proletariat”.

The world Ravenhill conjures is classic sci-fi, indeed, the whole feels like it’s just missing the bit where the Doctor comes in and sorts it all out. It also feels like an amalgamation of numerous coups, state atrocities, and power-grabs: the favelas of Brazil, the forced adoption of aborigine children in Australia, the coup against the Allende regime in Chile, but also the recent catastrophes in Egypt and Syria. At the same time, the sclerosis-rigid class system suggests modern Britain as much as anywhere, with a demonised, and now free-to-murder underclass.

There’s much to admire here, both in Ravenhill’s script and in Steinbeis’s production, the three Secret Theatre ensemble performers, all here at the top of their respective games. It’s interesting to finally see an ST show which *doesn’t* make use (however small) of all ten performers. And, while we might mourn the resultant lack of diversity (although as Chris Goode pointed out at Northern Stage yesterday, you can’t really represent diversity with two people. Or three, I’d suggest) and the loss of company’s previous commitment to gender-, race-, and disability-blind casting, I guess it streamlines the comprehension process for prospective audiences in what is only a short piece with plenty of other potential theatrical confusions for the potentially wider range of punters found in Edinburgh.

It is good, though, to finally see (having admittedly missed Show Four), the ST team doing a new piece of writing for theatre that seems in line with their modernist and socially aware origins (no, social-stereotype-reinforcing farces about the death penalty which accidentally come out in favour of it *don’t* count, no matter how much one brings the iron up at the end).

So, yes, beguilingly inconclusive, admirably global and, ahem, “continental”, and as sleek and stylish as anyone could hope for, Ravenhill, Steinbeis and Secret Theatre make for a fine way of worrying more about the state of the world for an hour and beyond.

A Journey Round My Skull – Summerhall

[seen 06/08/14]


There’s a haunting moment in Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis where one of the unnamed speakers says: “Fuck you. Fuck you for making me fall in love with someone who doesn’t exist.” Which, in a curious way, is also how A Journey Round My Skull works, on at least two levels.

Based on Utazás a Koponyám Körül by the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy, Journey... turns out to be a remarkably straightforward bit of solo-performance. Olivia Winteringham even does *proper acting* and a pitch-perfect middle-European accent. The deal is, we in the audience are playing the patient, and our neurosurgeon is explaining to us what’s happened before. We have a brain tumour, you see, and it’s pressing down on a bit of our left temporal cortex, affecting all sorts of bits of our memory, causing unpredictable violent mood shifts, and making us experience auditory hallucinations.

The twist is our neurosurgeon is also falling in love with us. And we are falling in love with her. Winteringham’s performance of a slightly nervous, intensely intelligent, slightly-goofy-joke-making, beautiful, slender woman, with a devastating accent, makes this part of the show ridiculously plausible. The problem is once we have the tumour removed, will we be the same person? Will we still be in love with her? Will the person we were still be the person she fell in love with? On this level, it suddenly feels like the piece could be about any number of conditions – depression, alcoholism, whatever – you name it; this anxiety seems common to all such sufferers. On one hand, of course they want the cure, on the other hand, would they really want to lose all the up-sides and the rushes and creativity and stupid excess passion that comes along with the suffering. Numerous interviews and, well, hell, whole lives, bear testament to the fact that the answer is never as simple as you might hope.

Rather depressingly, the conclusion is that, no, with the tumour (or whatever thing you’ve made that a metaphor for) removed, the love affair abruptly ends. And we only meet of neurosurgeon one more time, in the middle of Budapest, near Heroes Square (does every central European city have a Heldenplatz?), and we go off on a ghost train ride together.

[posted as placeholder. Needs final para.]

Blind Hamlet – Assembly Roxy

[seen 05/08/14]

[no decent image. someone nip into the venue and just take an arty shot of the empty stage and dictaphone with their iPhone?  Thanks!]

Blind Hamlet is Nassim Soleimanpour’s follow-up to his massively acclaimed Fringe (and elsewhere) hit, Red Rabbit/White Rabbit (which I’ve still not gotten round to seeing). The external shtick around RR/WR was that Soleimanpour couldn’t leave his native Iran – you can’t get a passport there without having completed national service, apparently – and so wanted to make a show/production which could travel without him. Not having seen it, I’m not really sure how it differs from emailing a script, but there we go. It was dead popular and seemed to say some things about the situation of an artist who wasn’t able to leave their own country by their government.

Since then, thanks to a deteriorating eye condition, the government of Iran has relented on his ban on Soleimanpour’s travelling. Indeed, I met him myself at the Internationales Forum at this year’s Theatertreffen, where it was incredibly funny to watch him effectively explain to Omar Elerian that the entire access policy of the Bush was bullshit (there was some a bit more nuance than that, but not a lot).

The deal with Blind Hamlet, thanks to to eye condition, is that he’s made this piece by speaking into a dictaphone (or whatever they’re called these days) about Hamlet. It’s his father’s old dictaphone and the piece begins with his father reading “To be of not to be...” in Farsi. I don’t know how true any of this is, but it’s what the dictaphone tells us. The dictaphone also tells us that Soleimanpour is in Moscow getting treatment for his eyes. Possibly the dictaphone is lying. There’s a point close to the end where the play stops and the stage manager reads out a notice that says Soleimanpour died in a car crash before finishing the play. Now, I happen to now for a fact that this isn’t true, so, while it’s an entertaining way of wrapping up your play – and certainly it got a nice wave of shock round the audience with which I saw it – it does also cast increasing doubt on the veracity of anything else that you’ve said into the microphone. I’m reasonable sure, for example, that the words he puts into the mouth of “handsome playwright from Manchester” Simon Stephens were almost certainly never spoken by Simon. Not least, because Simon would have probably put him straight about Stockport before continuing.

So, yes, what we’ve got in Blind Hamlet is a dictaphone in a spotlight on a nondescript chair, on a rather nicely designed and lit stage (directed by Ramin Gray, no designers credited) – not a million miles off the set for ATC’s The Events last year – which gradually brings a total of seven audience members on stage for a game of Mafia (you know, that game where one (two here) person is the murderer, someone else is the policeman, see also: wink murder).

Annoyingly, there’s a more-or-less total disconnect between many of the individual thoughts here. The reflections on Hamlet are interesting and diverting enough. The various games that the audience members play on stage are also entertaining (although, on the day I saw it, the participants ranged from a bit too embarrassed to actually too dense for the games to work 100%). But none of it really adds up to a whole. I’m a big fan of just putting a bunch of stuff on stage and letting the audience make its own connections, but here it feels like either Soleimanpour believes it all adds up in a way it doesn’t, or else the way the show works makes it feel like we should perceive active, workable links between the various elements which either aren’t really there or that I missed. As such, just making our own connections seems somehow more unavailable than usual, and I’m not quite sure why that is. Perhaps because the things made available to us to draw the connections between simply refuse to tessellate in a satisfactory way. Which is a shame. I’d have quite liked to have got more out of what is definitely a interesting premise or two, but it feels like it still needs another re-write/re-think before it fully hits its mark.

 [I reckon, fwiw, it needs either more Hamlet or more blindness or more Iran or more theatre or all four, and tied together with a slightly stronger conclusion – although, the random elements; the unpredictability of the participants, also possibly want a few more failsafes built in. If the game is to be the conclusion, then either its result should be rigged – which seems possible that it is – but then that conclusion perhaps needs to speak to something else in the piece. Or, if someone already thinks it does, then what it’s speaking to should at least be reasonably apparently to a critic of average intelligence while they’re watching...]

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Amongst Millions – Paradise in the Vault

[seen 04/08/14]


Amongst Millions is the sort of show that single-handedly justifies a day of taking wild punts in the Fringe brochure. It’s also the sort of show that I reckon everyone at the Edinburgh Fringe wants to see, although I admit it might be an acquired taste and Not For Everyone.

What it is, is a piece of contemporary dance – and, at last, contemporary dance in the sense that I understand it; that is to say: the sort of thing that people who like ballet walk out of, saying “he hardly moved at all.” – in which the solo performer (and self-choreographer) Pedro Goucha Gomes stands naked in a spotlight for half an hour. Perhaps twice, achingly slowly, he gradually collapses to the floor. In short, the “action” of Amongst Millions is simply the act of watching an unclothed human body tense, writhe, shudder, and spasm, over and over again, for 30 minutes.

As an aid to this, the piece also has an immense sonic landscape composed by MiguelAngel Clerc. The “music” (and this is to music what the dance is to ballet) is also properly stunning (again, if you like that sort of thing. No one’s judging you if you don’t. I think I’m explaining this clearly enough for people to make up their own minds...). It seems to come from the lineage of Sunn O))) with maybe a hint of a screechy power-electronics influence. For the first few minutes, you knew there was music, but it was almost inaudible as sound. It was something playing at so low a frequency that you first really became aware of it because it was rattling every loose metal fitting in the small, narrow, ascetic room where the piece plays.

Writing analytically about such minimalist work feels – in the abstract – like it ought to be intensely difficult. Like, in theory, all you’ve got is one silent, naked human body, and “no plot”. In the event, here, it feels as if, if anything, at points Gomes actually gets a bit too demonstrative and explain-y. Only maybe twice, but even so, it’s there. Admittedly, obviously, this is just my take on the thing, but to me it felt like the piece presented a really clear set of, well, pointers to direct how you thought about this theoretically opaque, abstact thing. For a start, Gomes doesn’t even smile until about twenty minutes into the piece. And even then it’s only brief, and too forced to represent pleasure. Instead what we mostly see if either a staring blankness or else rictuses of agony.

 As a whole, the piece feels like spending half an hour in front of an animate painting by Francis Bacon or Egon Schiele. What’s remarkable about it, is the way that watching it feels like it’s almost clearing your head – or rather, by forcing you to concentrate so intently on one thing, that it’s like giving your mind a good scrub. Everything else somehow gets replaced (well, this is my experience anyway) by the analytical soundtrack in your head. Precisely because of the lack of any narrative to distract you, you’re constantly writing your own script, story, interpretation of what’s happening in front of you. The whole thing feels like an almost audible exercise in highlighting the human tendency toward explication because that’s what you hear yourself doing, loudly, internally, for its entire duration.

The precision and skill with which the movement is executed is somehow incredibly reassuring. As if it’s the most normal thing in the world to sit for half an hour concentrating hard on the nude male form. Gomes’s body itself – obviously that of a trained dancer – also exercises a strange fascination (not least for this out-of-shape critic, among whose more banal thoughts might, more than once, have been the reflection: “wow. I really need to do some more exercise”): because it is so *trained*, it’s almost not like a human body at all, so much as a perfectly tuned machine. All the muscles – not overdone, not ludicrously, steroid-y, but functional; existing to perform difficult physical tasks with ease – look like they’re in optimum shape, this is more like considering sculpture than a person. (Which, reading back, sounds like it’s “less human” as a result, my point is somehow partly the opposite: that Art is more “person” than an actual “person” would be (cf. Am I).

Overall, playing at 19.30, and tucked away in the Vaults venue, off that street which curls up from the Grassmarket to Bedlam, this show feels like a real break from the normal run of the Fringe – a kind of mental spa, crossed with a vigorous workout for the synapses. Like I say, it might not be for everyone, and aficionados of this sort of work might have their own specific issues with it, but for me, it was a case of exactly what was needed at exactly the right moment: muted, subtle virtuosity that trusts an audience to understand properly difficult work.

Am I – Spotlites @ Merchants Hall

[seen 04/08/14]


Continuing my day of dance/physical theatre, picked largely at random from the first couple of pages of the section in the Fringe guide, we come to Am I. And it turns out to be a piece of danc-theatre about sex trafficking. Perhaps – following on from Theatre With Teeth’s dance version of Posh, we might like to consider this as the dance version of Three Kingdoms.

As it happens, I did end up spending a large amount of time thinking about Three Kingdoms through the show, largely because, post-Birdland, and then post-Streetcar..., I’d been party to a couple of *those conversations* about Whether The Plays of Simon Stephens are Misogynist. Interestingly, the thing that And I highlighted for me about Three Kingdoms was what an original bit of thinking 3K actually was. Put simply, I think I’ve seen Am I in various guises about a million times now. It tells the story of one trafficked woman, and is based on a “Sunday Times Bestseller”. What is striking is that the story of one trafficked woman tends to be the same as any other story. There is essentially next to no variation in the story. As someone recently noted about the stories of Holocaust survivors, it’s an awkward fact that *all* the stories are the same, and fatigue sets in at a certain point. As such, Am I is literally no different at all from Bodies in Transit which I saw on the Fringe eight years ago. It’s a difficult observation to make. Obviously. It also made me realise why Three Kingdoms was so interesting. At the time, one of the sticks used to beat it was that the women in it were largely voiceless: silent, doe-eyed (literally), victims. Actually, in theatrical terms at least, seeing this show I was reminded that I’d seen those “voiceless” women’s stories about a million times before, and since. And that 3K was unique in that it was attacking sex-trafficking as a male problem, as a power structure, and rather than telling a story which enforces the idea of women as victims – much like those “Don’t Get Raped” campaigns – it was tackling the real problem: the men who perpetuate the trade, both traffickers and customers – the wished-for equivalent of a “Don’t Rape” poster campaign.

Thinking about Am I through the prism of the criticism that was levelled at 3K, you also notice again another problem of portraying the sex industry (or the rape industry as it might be better termed) – that is: the objectification of women. In Am I, the audience is invited to watch five twenty-something women dancing in fishnet hold-ups, underwear and lacy tops for an hour and ten minutes. There’s also a cute, Italian(?) boy with a floppy fringe and undercut playing their improbable pimp. The dance routines they perform are frequently what could be described as barely-disguised, barely-stylised lap-dance club style-stuff, grinding pelvises against their chairs, and thrusting themselves about this way and that. It wouldn’t take a great leap of imagination for blokes who were so inclined to find the show mildly erotic.  And not in any way that would be useful to the furtherance of the pieces undoubtedly noble aims. And this is Am I’s problem – a problem throughout of stultifying literalism. If a woman has been dressed as a sex-worker by her pimp, then so is the dancer. If the woman is forced to perform “sexy” dances, then so does the dancer. And so on. (All, incidentally, to a soundtrack composed largely of what sounds like bad Nine Inch Nails off-cuts from the point in the band’s history where they stopped being an interesting industrial band and started being a dull, sludgy metal cabaret act.)

As such, I would say Am I more or less entirely fails its subject. The visual literalism means that all we’re looking at is a representation with no interpretation or analysis. The passages of the book which are read out, while miserable and appalling (obviously), also add nothing more than a key to *explaining* the dance moves we already understand. And, where the violence is necessarily stylised, it simply doesn’t connect with the audience on any visceral level. Where this should be a piece of theatre that is should be near-unwatchable because of the sheer level of human misery, violence and suffering involved, instead it is close to unwatchable both because of its failure to communicate this, and the point-blank fact of its lack of imagination in the choreography and presentation.

It’s only fair to mention that all six dancers are clearly capable of more and better, and I imagine the choreographer is young enough for this work to still count as developmental. For their work to blossom, I’d say that a greater understanding of how dance can actually communicate as a medium is needed. Rather than a mimetic walk-through of what happened using moves we’ve all seen a million times before, there needs to be an appreciation of the power that abstraction can bring.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Dirty Decadence – C Nova

[seen 04/08/14]

We were somewhere around Barnes when the drugs began to take hold

Dirty Decadence is a piece of dance theatre “Inspired by Laura Wade’s Posh” (Fringe Programme, p.182). And, well, I was intrigued...

The first thing to say about the company, Theatre with Teeth, is that they are young. Very, very young. Possibly university age, but I’d be surprised. They’re all clear skin, springy flesh, and bits of blurb that say: “Think Matthew Bourne on LSD.”

Apparently, in Matthew Bourne’s trip, he’s stuck in a tiny room in Edinburgh, tasked with making a dance version of a two- or three-hour-long play having only seen the hideous trailer for the disastrous-looking film.

Luckily for Matthew, the seven-strong company of adolescents he’s been given to work with seem like talented enough dancers. Of course the room is still a problem for him. Its walls look like they’re made of black curtains, which are forever threatening to swallow him up. Because it’s so small the moves his dancers can perform are necessarily quite timid.

Nevertheless, despite his acid-addled state, he soldiers on. The company he’s been given to work with are four girls and three boys. This puts a pretty big hole in trying to adapt Posh, since the whole point of it is that they’re all blokes (apart from the the waitress and, was there a prostitute?), and it’s a play about white male privilege. One of these blokes isn’t even white. “Ok, let’s just say ‘inspired by’, then,” Matthew breathes, hoping that he’s only imagining the spiders.

The company get to work, and, to be fair, they’re adept enough at dancing. In his head, the hapless Bourne can only hear classical music backed with old Portishead beats, and some dubious early 90s synth music made by me and my mates when I’d just bought a drum machine and we were all quite into the Sisterhood. “It’ll have to do,” he softly moans to no one real.

Meanwhile, the group seem to have worked out some sort of replacement story without Bourne’s help. It basically revolves around six poshos having teenage relationship issues. One of the girls is a bit too snobby to be paired up with the mixed-race guy, but that’s just her good luck, since he’s carrying on with one of the other blokes, while the last bloke is more interested in making a pas de deux at the waitress (who here, contra Wade, seems pretty into it; rolling around on the shiny table and touching herself suggestively). In the end, one of the girls stabs the waitress and they all get away with it. The final scene sees them all sitting round in another restaurant having got away with it.

Bourne sits with his head in his hands. I should never have taken this LSD, he thinks to himself.

No, but seriously: I don’t see much not-contemporary dance, so seeing people mostly doing ballet-inspired dance is interesting. It feels a bit like it comes from a parallel world where Pina Bausch never happened, and feels pretty old-fashioned. The company, as I say, are very young, and I don’t think it’s wrong to say that they should be given a lot of credit for an imaginative thing to attempt. I think C Venues logistics work against them, but they’ve come up with a credible and committed piece of storytelling, and I hope they stick together as a company and adapt some more plays.

Actually, I already totally want to see their dance Punk Rock next year...

SmallWaR – Traverse

[seen 03/08/14]

[no image found]

Apparently last year Valenijn Dhaenens’s BigmoutH [his silly capitalisation] made a big splash on the Fringe. It’s back this year for three dates later in the Fringe. MeanwhilE, we have to make do with his new piece SmallWaR.  It’s Monday morning, and I’m being snippy and UnfaiR.

The basic deal with SmallWaR is that it’s a mash-up of various accounts of horrible injury suffered by soldiers in wars. It owes a great – uncredited – deal to Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (recently seen at the Southwark Playhouse, and the inspiration for Metallica’s One, fact-and-metal fans). It’s a solo show, albeit one with a lot of (admittedly very impressive) video work. Dhaenens, dressed as a WWI nurse, wheels on a small hospital bed with big telly with a video of himself armless and legless on it. Various ghosts of this quad-amputee peel out from the TV screen and go and stand projected onto a large, low video-projection back-wall, all dressed in their modern hospital gowns. You might at this stage begin to get an inkling of the problem that this piece of “live” theatre has: there is only one live element within it. And that live element – even if he were pulling out all the stops and giving the blood‘n’guts performance of a lifetime – is constrained by the fact he has to absolutely stay in time with these projected selves. As it happens, he isn’t being remotely bloody or gutsy. The key-note here is deadpan, laconic, ironic. It’s appealing enough as a mode for about ten to fifteen minutes. For 1hr10 it’s pretty enervating. You have to will yourself to keep listening to the material. Which would be just about acceptable if the material wasn’t so a) patchy, and b) inevitable for the most part.

TBH, far and away the most interesting thing included in the piece is a totally unexpected appearance from Attila the Hun, talking about smashing the Roman Empire. Which, thanks to references to the Romans’ “cowardly habit of attacking civilians” and “forming their defence lines and hiding behind their ridiculous locked shields...” recalls with horrifying clarity the current situation in the Middle East (I’ll let you decide which side are Romans and which are Huns. In a way it hardly matters).

Like Men in the Cities, Confirmation, and even Don Quixote, this is a piece about men, war and violence, at the heart of which are words like “valiant” and “honourable”. Coupled with Horizontal Collaboration, it does feel so far if the theme of last year’s Fringe was “women and feminism” this year’s is “men and war”. And it feels pretty apocalyptic. What with ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the ongoing US/USSR conflict being played out in Ukraine, and Israel/Palestine, and the 10th anniversary of the unimaginable catastrophe that was the First World War, I did find myself trudging over the Meadows in the driving rain the other day wondering how long it was going to be before we were all drawn into some horrific new conflict, and how long after that it would involve conscription, and how that would be, and what use would “being a theatre critic” be then.

But, for all that, the show, feelings of impending disaster notwithstanding, is basically: underpowered, not-metal this:

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Horizonal Collaboration – Traverse

[seen 03/08/14]


What is it about the deuterocanonical story of Judith that so fascinates artists? From the paintings by Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi and Klimt (among many others) to the previous dramatic treatments by Friedrich Hebbel and Howard Barker, and apparently a bunch of operas and oratorios (one of which I think serves as play-in music here), the story of the beautiful Jewish widow who saves Israel by beheading the enemy general, has enjoyed or suffered countless reiterations and translations across form and nation over the centuries.

David Leddy’s latest take on the story is a fascinating addition to this corpus, transposing the story from the region which is now Israel/Palestine to a war crimes tribunal investigation the Democratic Republic of Congo. He also invokes everything from Kafka (“Someone had been telling stories about Judith K...”), to a curious repeated refrain from ‘Abide With Me’ (“...Fast falls the eventide, the darkness deepens...”) in a postmodern text littered with quotations.

The form of the staging is also interesting: the stage is soberly set with a long table on which sit four identical laptops each with two desk-lamps, one on either side of the screen, to light the actors. And the performers of the piece, dressed in simple legal gowns, are different every day. As with, say, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit before it, they come to the stage text-unseen and simply read it off the screens of their laptops. They are playing “reserve lawyers” (paraphrase – script not printed/available yet), although, being actors, not lawyers-reading-from-laptops, the cast I saw do a remarkable job with sight-reading. I mean, Jesus, they’re good. Enough to make you wonder why everyone doesn’t just save cash by never having rehearsals. Beyond simple financial expediency, there doesn’t seem to be a particularly tangible artistic reason that the performers not be rehearsed, but the very fact of how good they are doing it for the first time ever seemed like more than justification enough.

If you already know the story of Judith, you might find the odd bit of the narrative a bit over-explainy and slow-moving. After all, only one thing really happens in the story, and if you know what it is then you’re kind of sitting around waiting for it to happen so you can go home. That said, the move to the DRC (I’m assuming – all the “interview files” the lawyers are reading out are numbered 21-DRC-75, -76, -77, and so on) means that Leddy has a load of details that he can interest us with. There are descriptions of what they do to women accused of “horizontal collaboration” – something that sounds like it was made-up by Andy Horowitz or Maddy Costa, but more usually the euphemism of choice for sleeping with the enemy (so not *that* different) – recall photos of women hang by French partisans after the overthrow of Vichy France. Across the piece we are reminded time and time again of the way that women are abused in warfare. It’s reminiscent of that line in that Crass song about how war is men’s currency and sex is women’s. At one stage it almost quotes it word for word.

Despite the nominal location change, I found – blame the news – that I couldn’t put the original source material, or its specific location, out of my head. *Of course* the story from the “Apocrypha” (if I’m going to be Anglo-Protestant about it all, which I might as well be since that’s what I am by birth) doesn’t map onto the present situation *at all*. Or at least, would only do so if one effective decapitation of a general would cause anyone’s war effort to disperse. Still, it’s horrifying to be reminded of even the similarities in territorial dispute between then and now. And rather gives the lie to *anyone’s* “prior claims” to anywhere, really. It’s unfortunate that by moving the conflict zone to the DRC Leddy sort-of equates the middle east 3,000 years ago with present-day DRC, which is, y’know, open to accusations of racism. Interestingly, another recurring thing in the text is one lawyer or another keeps saying “it’s Biblical” (as in “a tragedy of Biblical proportions” or something). I guess it’s partly a broad hint as much as anything (and, technically, it’s not, but nevermind).

In terms of watching and experiencing the thing, it reminded me hugely of Katie Mitchell’s production of Simon Stephens’s The Trial of Ubu – The Hague War Crimes Tribunal set up, the row of people staring into the audience, so on... Linguistically, it often feels most akin to that Martin Crimp Attempts on Her Life school of allusion-strewn narration, blank prose rendered suddenly poignant or poetic, even through the irony. In fact, if I hadn’t been so distracted by dwelling on the politics of Israel/Palestine, I’d have probably just spent this review raving about the elegance and playfulness of the writing, and its service to big ideas.

But then, maybe not. Unlike Confirmation and Men in the Cities, the spaces that Horizontal Collaboration opens up – the collaboration the audience makes with the piece, if you like – somehow doesn’t feel as *directed* as Confirmation or Men in the Cities. In both of those (in very different ways) your synapses are put through a mental assault course, but with what feels like very directional instructions: each new component directs your thinking to consider or imagine quite specific things, or perform precise tasks. HC, to me, felt much more diffuse, so my mind wandered more and settled on related-but-distant questions. The thing itself comes ready-pieced-together more, so your activity here is not the creation of meaning, but a relatively simple grasping of it (probably quite early on if you know your Apocrypha) and then freedom to associate that story however you like. It’s interesting to me that as a result of this, I think I found it really surprisingly less “important” as a piece of theatre. I mean, it’s good: well written, brilliantly performed, and very neatly staged; but, I guess it’s also part of that genre of inactive comment-on-the-world plays. And it’s very hard to make those *do* something. Where Men... and Confirmation’s liveness is only part of their appeal. Much of the rest of it is the construction of not only meaning, but also of your own sense of that meaning, and your ethical response to it. HC, by contrast, in a funny way presents a ready-made. The story already part-sealed, and its meaning complicated by the millienia of prior reinterpretation. Although, maybe that’s what it wants us to do – see the DRC through the prism of a tradition of Western Art stretching back over 1,000 years, and further, to a Middle Eastern source 2,500 years old. On one level, of course seeing the DRC through western eyes gives us a precise understanding of the roots of its current troubles. On the other hand, doesn’t it also perpetuate the same process of colonialism which caused them in the first place?

The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha – Zoo Venues

[seen 01/08/14]


A radical, post-modern, punk-rock Don Quixote was the first thing I saw in a theatre this year, and for some reason its combination of anger and charm was just what I needed in rainy, early January. Fast forward to August and my first entirely random show in Edinburgh turns out to be another Don Quixote. And, once again, it turns out to be exactly what I needed.

The first thing to say about Little Soldier is that they might be the straight-up funniest, most charming theatre company I’ve come across in an age. They’re also stupidly talented (one of them plays the Spanish guitar more or less constantly throughout and it’s so perfect you keep forgetting it’s there, and then remembering and being impressed all over again). They’re three-quarters Spanish, three-quarters female company, with a token English Bloke (who, as if just for my own extra amusement, looks startlingly like a young Jeremy Herrin).

Their M.O. is, well, if it wasn’t this funny then it would be “clowning”. But here it’s actually, genuinely warm and for some reason irresistibly funny. Oddly this feels in part like it might be down to the fact that they have such a brilliant selection of faces. (God, writing about things that make you laugh is weird.) They’ve also totally nailed the right ratio of filth, mucking about, surrealism and actually getting down to telling (some of) the n-hundred-page narrative. Obviously Don Quixote is a really stupid book. It’s ridiculous. Some of the episodes they bring to the stage include: the bit where Don Quixote kills a whole field of sheep because he thinks they’re an army; the bit where Don Quixote encounters a psychic monkey; the inevitable tilting at windmills and duel with the moon bit... It’s such a mad book, so playing it as – well, it’s not un-Python-like – seems to be as good and logical a solution as deconstructing it quite literally with a circular saw as the last lot did.

There’s a lovely moment about five minutes in when, having done the first scene, the company stop the whole thing for a “feedback session” and Q&A. It’s that sort of thing. They never stop looking at us. They’re totally performing *for* us. And while none of that’s new, finding it genuinely heart-warming, funny and compelling is much more rare.

It’s early days, but if everyone else likes them as much as I do, I think Little Soldier could well turn out to be one of this year’s real discoveries. (Unless everyone else has already discovered them and I’m just way behind the curve here...)

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Confirmation – Northern Stage

[seen 31/07/14]


Chris Thorpe’s new play is essentially a piece for two voices performed by one man: Thorpe himself. It is directed by (and developed with) the luminously brilliant Rachel Chavkin from The TEAM. Although it’s as much a “performance lecture” as it is “a monologue” or “storytelling”.

It’s about confirmation bias, which, if you’ve not heard of it, is the scientific/psychology theory that states people tend to interpret facts and events in a way that confirms what they already think/believe. Chris is using it to explore the gulf in thinking between himself and the far-right. To this end, he’s sought out an intelligent, articulate, white-supremacist and had a series of conversations with them. Not because he wants to be converted, or because he wants to change their mind, but because, well, I suppose because he wants to understand them better. And understand himself better. And, well, obviously, he would want to do that because he’s a nice left-wing, liberal type.

At the start of the show – and I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow account, because the piece doesn’t really work like that – he’s describing going to a BNP meeting with some idiot BNP member. He’s finding it difficuly, and, strikingly, when they get the train home, he’s more socially embarrassed for the bloke he’s with than angered or challenged by him.

So he finds a new bloke. Online. And, yes, there is a weird, totally unacknowledged dimension where this show does also feel a bit like something about online dating, albeit, searching for verbatim subjects for a performance lecture on confirmation bias and the far right rather than a nice life partner/quick shag. In this it is a bit like Chris Goode’s Men in the Cities. Indeed, seeing the two on consecutive days really does make for a startling, sobering picture of the State of the Nation (or maybe The State of Men) nowadays. It’s also interesting to note in passing how – contra the idiot headline of Dominic Cavendish’s recent list-piece for the Torygraph occasioned by The Nether – theatre actually depicts or relates online meetings as a matter of unremarkable course these days. Thorpe performs, plays both parts of, several conversations before idly mentioning that they’re happening via Skype and he hasn’t met this guy in person yet (I think. Or another person. A person anyway).

The genius behind having Thorpe playing both himself and his “opposite” – his fair-right mirror image – is that it illustrates one of Thorpe’s convictions perfectly: that it’s only a matter of chance, or upbringing, or genetic inclination, or whatever, that made one of them right-wing and one of them left. Chris is even more generous than that. He is ceding that, really – even though he completely and totally believes that he’s right to believe what he does, and will use research and figures as back up to prove his point – he’s no more “right” in his analysis of a situation than the other guy, who will also use figures and facts as back-up. Even if the other guy’s interpretation of those facts or figures is, in Chris’s eyes, abhorrent and twisting them to their own purposes.

And it keeps going in this fashion, gradually showing us that no matter how much we might wish Chris were just objectively right, a lot of this stuff does tend to be a matter of opinion, even if scientific facts might seem to fall more on our side than that of the right wing (reality’s “well known liberal bias,” as Steve Colbert once amusingly suggested).

The results are chilling. Chris takes the piece to about as difficult a place, ethically, as I’ve ever seen a piece of theatre go...

[SPOILER WARNING]

... Because you don’t flirt with Holocaust denial lightly. And, Confirmation doesn’t flirt with it. Nor is it light. It is full, frank, and takes the piece right to the edge of how far any liberal audience is going to go before walking out. It conjures a holocaust-denier that Chris met, and David Irving, and the number 6,000,000. And it examines how articles of faith are not necessarily the precise same thing as the rigorously examined truth. (I should say, lest someone stumble across this review long after the show’s run has finished, that at no point does Chris even begin to deny the Holocaust. The question is the actual number of Jews murdered, and how obviously 6,000,000 is a rounded figure, and how legitimate historians and researchers now have a range of other numbers the lowest of which is goes down as far as 4,000,000 – Four Million – which is still a unique monstrosity in human history. And is probably too low a figure. But, it shows how the use of even that rounded number – “The Six Million” – plays to a certain tendency to want to belong and believe.

[/ENDS]

What’s fascinating about the conclusion of the piece is that it gets to a point where Chris backs away. Not entirely because he’s scared of what he might start to believe, but because he can’t contenance any more tolerence on his part. If the thing is an experiment into the boundaries of liberal values, often defined by and condemned for their constant attempts at “understanding”, Thorpe seems to reach his.

As such the piece (also like Men in the Cities) offers both a possible statement and a challenge. The statement could be: “People don’t change other people’s minds. Not much. Not often enough statistically to make it worth your while trying. And there’s no point in discussion, dialogue or debate. They don’t change anything. Now what are we going to do to change things?”

That is a possible statement made by the show. Or an available interpretation at the very least. (It is not a statement made explicitly.) Which sounds – to my left-liberal ears – like some sort of totalitarian maxim. As if, following on, the only logical conclusion is: we need to try a different tactic. A tactic that doesn’t involve “being understanding”.

Or it is asking a massive ask. It’s pointing to a near-Beckettian embrace of failure (“Try again, fail again, fail better”), or else an embrace of the Quixotic – carrying on because it’s valiant, and the thing you believe in, and the *right* thing to do (which Confirmation manages to make feel almost as dangerously right-wing).

It’s interesting. I know that a hour an a half or so of oratory is probably a bad thing to base life decisions on (at least, it didn’t work out well for the Germans – on which subject, this piece also completely refutes that lazy defence that “fascism couldn’t have happened in Britain because British oratory wouldn’t be up to it, or ‘we’re too ironical’ or something”. On that score we’re just lucky Thorpe *isn’t* a racist), but, in common with Ten Billion this contains enough science and argument to actually make you think slightly differently about the world after seeing it (which, paradoxically, rather defeats its suggestion that things don’t). I did come out feeling that bit happier about my own beliefs, and possibly not justifying them so much to people who didn’t agree. (Unintended consequence? My own biases or needs confirmed?)

But, for me (always “for me”, but much more foregroundedly so here), it also – in tandem, later, with Goode’s Men in the Cities – made me think again about what the Left, and Left resistance, might start to need to look like in the future.

Perhaps it’s allied with the current feeling swirling around in the air engendered by online feminism and the situation in Israel/Palestine, and the closure of that Israeli-government-funded show at the Underbelly by protestors, that a more militant, combative form of leftism is necessary. That the old-fashioned cliché of “Guardian readers” also being pacifists isn’t going to work any more.

Although, again possibly due to my own confirmation biases, it’s equally possible to read both pieces as appalled by this possibility. As neither piece has “a message” (at least that doctrine of lefty theatre remains) it’s impossible to say for sure. (And as a big old lefty myself, I whole-heartedly *approve*.) But what is clear is that this is a serious, and difficult, and thought-provoking piece of work. It is also, for the record, glorious use *of theatre* *as theatre*.



[also includes this song, which also isn't racist]

Men in the Cities – Traverse

[seen 01/08/14]


At the apex of Men in the Cities is a performance of a new, three page modernist poem which is almost certainly the best thing that will be written in the English language this year. The rest of Men in the Cities is extraordinary, beautiful, tender, compassionate, angry, funny, insightful and remarkable in its ability to absolutely pin down the way we live now, and without pretending knowledge of solutions, or blueprints for a cure, gives us all something we can point to and say: “Yes: this. This is how it is.”  And the poem – although, really, why separate those three pages and call only them the poem? – goes several miles further than mere brilliance.

It is at once: the waking dream of a bereaved father of an fake-underage internet porn angel boy, a howl of despair at society, a hymn to violent sado-masochistic sex, a shocking depiction of actual grief,and, somehow, an evocation not so much of the hopes and fears of all the years as the very concepts of hoping or fearing themselves.

A lot of Men in the Cities is a bit like that. If you don’t find yourself alternately welling-up and laughing your ass off, then check your pulse as a matter of urgency.

The form of the thing is, well, it’s Chris standing, live, in front of us, in front of a microphone stand, in front of a stack of artfully arranged electric desk fans behind him. On a large grey circle, which looks like the spot from a spotlight. He tells us about various men waking up round London (I assume everyone’s in London, is that right? Weirdly, and aptly, as it turned out, I was actually picturing the town where I grew up, which was more north Kent than south east London).

The descriptions, the telescoping in and out of their various minds, the clever, or funny, or caustic, or shockingly empathetic descriptions of their thoughts are arresting. The dialogue is excellent, and, actually, Chris is a really, really good, subtle actor of character – mere softenings of the voice, or trace accents are added and subtracted as needed. Even just on the level of technical skill, I bet this goes largely unremarked-upon. I also bet not enough people will remember to credit director Wendy Hubbard, designer Naomi Dawson, or lighting designer Katherine Williams. And they should, because alongside the achievements of the script and performance here, this is a beautifully realised production.

The characters are an arresting bunch. There’s Jeff, a 73-year-old widower, ex-national service, who’s talking to his dead wife’s black doll from childhood about the the Lee Rigby murder. There’s Rehan the Asian newsagent, with a nice line in wry observation and self-deprecating wit. At the start there are Ben and Matthew. Ben kills himself. Then there’s just Matthew and Ben’s dad, Brian. It is Brian’s drunk bereavement misery that becomes the modernist poem. And then there’s Rufus. Rufus is brilliant. Rufus is a ten year old boy. We meet him wanking over the gay porn website Gay Twink Angels before school. Rufus offers us a sexual imagnation as vivid and violent as Dennis Cooper’s. And there’s Chris. Our Chris. Chris who’s in the room with us. And Chris’s dad, who’s in his eighties and starting to get a bit forgetful. Chris’s main narrative is how he can’t write the bit where Matthew actually finds Ben’s body, and goes back to his dad’s house for a bit. I also think about Adrian Howells, who killed himself in March; whose part in Tim Crouch’s The Author Chris took over for the Edinburgh run in this very space in the Traverse theatre. Indeed, the first page of Men in the Cities almost picks up where The Author leaves off, except here it’s Rod slamming the head of his baby son in a draw in a dream which has been invaded by the sound of a fox vixen being fucked, and the “dark black O of [his son’s] mouth is screaming”. (That child-porn-in-The-Author-recalling dark black ‘O’ itself possibly a distant relative of the ‘O’ of Shakespeare’s Globe at the start of Henry V, and its use in Chris Goode’s piece The Forest and The Field.)

It is through Rufus that we also get to see some Art, or, rather, after hitting someone he fancies in the face – probably just to feel their skin – Rufus bunks off school and goes to see NON ALIGNMENT PACT a (fictional?) art exhibition of “Punk / Post-punk / Politics” named after the Pere Ubu song (and presumably the actual Egyptian/Yugoslavian/Indian/etc. cold-war opt-out). I suspect the curator of this exhibition is Chris Goode. The work in the show is radical queer art. Robert Longo’s Men in the Cities (top) is there. Chris/Rufus’s art critical description and analysis of this alone are worth seeing the piece’s namesake-monolgue for: for the analysis itself; for the image of a ten-year-old boy, already looking at the bodies and mentally comparing them to “the most fucked-up, desperate porn”; and for that fierce evocation of how actual pieces of actual art have an actual, physical effect on you when you experience them, especially for the first time, and they really speak to you.

Which is what is also happening in the room.

Something fascinating that Men in the Cities also does – and this is the last “scene”, a coda, almost – is that it either makes a proposition, or confronts us the audience with some much more difficult ethics than, well, than I remember seeing in a theatre for quite some time. Chris takes us back to Rod (he of the slamming-his-baby-son’s-head-in-the-drawer dream). Rod hasn’t recurred through the rest of the story/ies yet. Chris takes us back to Rod and tells us that he quite wants to kill him. The last words that precede this section are – in a Christmas card, felt-tip come-on: INSIDE YOU THERE IS A TERRORIST. The story’s already told us that Jeff sympathises more with the killers or Lee Rigby than the outrage over what they’ve done. And Chris, “mad on authorial power and queer resentment,” does kill Rod, and his seven-year-old son. In a car crash, as it happens. He takes Rod’s irresponsible drunk-driving in his speeding SUV, and his listening to David Cameron saying how life should mean life, and Foreigner asking again What Love Is, and he kills them. Because: “Fuck ‘em”.

I think it’s the first piece of totally left-wing art where anyone’s proposed this. Where anyone’s said, maybe we’re being a bit *too* understanding, and maybe what about just fighting back? Like Chris giving this fictional Tory a level stare and saying: “yeah, I know, you’re only made up (by me, as it happens, in fact), but fuck you. Mate.”

And that feels like the biggest ethical challenge anyone’s tabled in a really long time. Well, since the day before when Chris Thorpe maybe told us that there was no point in even trying to talk to these people.

No conclusion. Chris (Goode again now) doesn’t tidy things up for us. He hasn’t even really asked a question. Men in the Cities feels like a portrait and an exorcism. I think Chris used the word Catharsis about. I’m not sure “cartharsis” is exactly what it achieved for me, because it fills you up with too much stuff to just be able to let go of it all straight after. I just left the theatre and walked around on my own for as long as I could, until my heart-rate got back to normal, and my speed-of-thought slowed back down to something that could be described as “thinking” again.

This is remarkable art, no question. And a brilliant, compassionate, thoughtful and terrifying picture of where we are, and the biggest question facing us: what the hell do we do about that?

Friday, 1 August 2014

A Streetcar Named Desire – Young Vic

[seen 29/07/14]
Do reviews/plays need trigger warnings? If so, this is probably one of them


My expectations for Benedict Andrews’s version of A Streetcar Named Desire were unreasonably high. Those expectations were based more of less solely on his production of Three Sisters, with maybe a bit of Schaubühne-backstory thrown in for good measure. However, sadly, as with Medea the day before, this Streetcar left me cold.

And, like Medea, I have to say, I’m really not at all sure about Streetcar as a play. Last year I spent several months in the rehearsal rooms of the Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre Company as they were creating their own version of the piece. A production, incidentally, that it turns out Benedict Andrews would have been well-advised to have been to see, since he (I’m sure unwittingly) makes a lot of the same decisions in his production, so everyone who saw the ST production is left with a weird déjà vu of diminishing returns.

I should flag up that *at the time*, I was way less keen on the Secret Theatre version of Streetcar as I was on the production of Woyzeck with which it played in rep. Streetcar, for my money, felt a) like they’d left the play alone too much, and hadn’t eviscerated the text in the way that such a godawful, creaky, hysterical, florid old mess desperately needs (I *really* don’t like the play one bit, do I?), but also b) like the directorial decisions that Sean [Holmes] had made, made the thing even more cruel and unpleasant. On mature reflection, I think (b) was an important step. And I did think the ST production was immensely powerful. Granted, it was the somewhat short-circuit-y power to make the viewer intensely depressed, but, that’s still real power. And, thanks to the totally missing-the-point furore about *Secrecy*, most of the real value about “Show Two”’s radicalism – just the casting alone, not to mention the do-it-in-their-own-accents thing – was completely overlooked. Although part of me does think it would have been better if all that genius radicalism had been applied to a better, shorter, less intensely woman-hating play than Streetcar.

Woman-hating? Really? Well, yes. Surely. Over the weekend – off the back of my review of (the script of) The Nether – I got into an ‘interesting’ discussion (again) about the perceived misogyny in the plays of Simon Stephens. I don’t really want to re-hash it here too much (key article here, which I think exhibits some astonishing confirmation bias). The basic premise for the people who say it’s a thing is this: that his plays show women suffering at the hands of men. Now, in the plays where this happens (and, clearly that’s nowhere near all the plays Simon’s written), I would say there’s a demonstrable intent that the play condemns this situation of women suffering at the hands of men. And, well, look, they’re real things that he’s writing about: Simon didn’t invent human trafficking or psychotic blokes or misogyny. I’m aware of the counter-argument – brilliantly articulated by Doon McKichan recently here: that protraying violence against women a) perpetuates it, and b) is a kind of violence against women in itself. At the same time, I wonder how it works when BAME actors are arguing for greater representation, why feminists are arguing for less representation of one of the most pressing issues. Of course, there’s representation and representation. And that, I guess, is where we get back to Streetcar...

On one hand, Blanche Dubois is a whacking great part which a tonne of actresses are clearly dying to play. Indeed, the seeds for the genesis of this Young Vic production seems to lie with its star Gillian Anderson. (And, y’know, props to her: rather than going to the West End and doing a boring *normal* version, she’s come to the Young Vic and done a version directed by Benedict Andrews, which is only boring by accident.) On the other hand, the entire play exists to allow us to watch an alcoholic woman with severe mental health issues gradually unravel, then get raped, then be institutionalised. The whole piece plays like a power-struggle, and it’s one where – given it’s classic status – we already know who’s going to win, and still come along to watch it anyway. And I’m not sure what watching it actually gives us.

Actually, this version gives us very little indeed.

Andrews’s production is set on a small constantly revolving platform which represents the Kowalskis’ flat. The kitchen is a single unit against one (not-present) wall, the “living room” bleeds into the the bedroom, with only a flimsy curtain to separate them, and the bathroom is through a door at the far end. Magda Willi’s set offers a metal frame to describe the room’s dimensions, and real doors. Outside the front door there’s one of those outside metal fire exits which run up the side of American buildings. It’s an interestingly standard “Schaubühne/Ostermeier” set, from the designer who once hung a grand piano over a classroom of Turkish students for Ballhaus Naunynstraße’s Verrücktes Blut.

The stage’s state of continual revolution is interesting. I’m pretty sure it’s just bad luck, but I think I saw Gillian Anderson’s actual face maybe three times in the whole evening. The back of her head is fine, but not very expressive. But, yeah; we need to talk about Gillian Anderson. On a very basic level, she’s quite strange casting for a natural-ish-tic production. The things we learn about Blanche is that she “looks old”. And hates it. And I guess is meant to be less attractive than she was. And, well, without wanting to be all Charles Spencer about it, Anderson doesn’t exactly look like she’s spent the last few months-shading-into-years falling apart, drinking herself insensible, and turning tricks for cash in a cheap motel. But, that’s all fine. It’s acting. It’s theatre. I’d be happy to ignore all that – although the fact that every time something disparaging about her appearance is said onstage there is an audible ripple of amused snorting round the audience (ditto to the suggestion that Vanessa Kirby’s notably slender Stella has “put on weight”). No, the real problem with Anderson’s Blanche (for me, at least – and, again, worth mentioning a tonne of people effing loved it) was the strange combination of accent, voice-work/diction, breathing, and a weird sort-of hermetic-ness about her performance. *Every line* feels like it’s been pre-prepared and is then delivered, accent-perfect, but a bit *outside-the-moment*. On top of this it felt like about half her lines got swallowed up halfway out of her mouth lost in a tangle of accent, back-to-my-half-of-the-audience, and other physical factors of theatre.

By contrast (contrast mostly with Secret Theatre), Ben Foster’s Stanley was really interestingly different to Sergo Vares’s. Where Anderson’s Stella feels pretty much template-standard, the contrast between Foster and Vares is fascinating: for me, Sergo made complete sense of Stanley as someone who started chippy, violent and intimidating and just escalated. Foster, on the other hand, has Stanley as someone largely unassuming with a bit of a temper when pissed. Someone who gets wound up by Blanche, rather than someone openly hostile to her from the get-go. In a way, it’s a much more sympathetic portrayal and, as a consequence, feels that bit more disturbing whenever he turns out to be a violent, wife-beating thug or, ultimately, a rapist. The scene in which Stanley rapes Blanche also feels slightly fluffed. At the start it looks like Blanche is about to kiss Stanley back and then she passes out. As such, the rape itself mostly involves Stanley riffling through the frou-fru layers of Blanche’s pink taffeta prom dress (oh, count the symbolisms yourself), rather than the violent or silent struggle and staring horrified eyes more usually deployed. The result is – appallingly – much less difficult to watch (although still horrifying).

Corey Johnson’s Mitch is pretty much exactly as a the script demands, physically he seems spot-on and Johnson has a real facility for inhabiting Mitch’s no-man’s-land between judgemental, reactionary sexual politics and compassionate humanity. Similarly, Vanessa Kirby – as with Adele Leonce’s in ST – is a thoroughly modern Stella. I read some preview or something that said this sort of fighty, steadfast, give-as-good-as-you-get dynamic is quite new. I have no idea how the play could even be bearable without it. Did Stella used to be a dowdy punchbag? Jesus. Re: staging – there’s an interesting bit where Stan‘n’Stell are getting down to some make-up sex after he’s smacked her in the face (which is, well, actually it’s pretty sodding horrific. There’s a strong strain of “you don’t know what goes on in other people’s r/ships and if they’re fine with it then it’s fine” philosophy running through the plays. We’re not really invited to condemn Stanley for his DV any more than we’re required to feel sorry for Stella. She doesn’t seem brutalised. And this in itself is pretty horrifying, isn’t it? Or problematic? Not that you really think any of these things at the time, because you’re mostly too reoccupied trying to hear what Blanche is saying and being irritated by her self-performing, but also at Anderson’s performance of her self-performance) where Stanley leaves the room and Stella continues writhing on the bed in the throes of sexual ecstasy. It’s not immediately clear if he’s still meant to be in the bed *really*, and the shade of him that Blanche watches leave the rom and leer at her is a kind of phantasmal foreshadowing of things to come. I hope so, because that would be nice. It’d have been nice if there had been more touches like this.

Finally, once again, I’m left completely perplexed by the response of the mainstream media, which, without exception, has praised this production to the skies. This accords with roughly only 30% of my actual friends who have seen it, where after a maybe agnostic 50% were 50% pretty much dismayed and wondering what happened to Andrews’s mojo after Three Sisters. Now, maybe it was my seat (although there shouldn’t be a bad seat in the house with a revolving stage, right?), and my seat for AVFTB was in a far weirder place, and I couldn’t have loved that more.

So, yeah, odd. My view isn’t a minority one, although it seems to be minimally represented among critics. Not really sure what to make of that in this instance. Nothing, probably. Kind of most interested in why we think Streetcar is an alright thing to keep staging. For me it seems almost entirely pessimistic and abusive. Discuss.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Medea – National Theatre

[seen 28/07/14]


If theatre is as “tribal” as it suits some people to make out, then my glowing five-star review of Medea should have been a foregone conclusion. In theory it’s got everything I could possibly wish for: Tom Scutt’s set echoes Alex Eales’s design for Katie Mitchell’s Alles Weitere... in Hamburg – a widescreen, two-storey, peeling and decaying mansion, here updated from timeless European splendour to a muted seventies feel. It even throws in the forest from This is How You Will Disappear as the trees-inside-the-room thing that was also seen in Mitchell’s production of Written on Skin (which I’m fairly sure is an instance of cultural energy swirling around rather than actual “inspired-by”-ness). Choreographer Lucy Guerin’s work with the chorus conjures the same Haitian Voodoo dances as Sebastian Nübling’s production of Morning (which, again, I doubt she’s seen), or, if you want to know what it looks like: the video for this awesome cover of She’s Lost Control by Spoek Mathambo. And, at the opening, Michaela Coel’s presentation of Ben Power’s prologue (after Euripides) suggests a reasonably astute, modern, demotic-but-still-majestic-and-a-bit-poetic take on the text. And, yet, for some reason, for me it just didn’t work at all. (Sorry, no, that’s not true: I think within the 90-ish minute running time there are possibly three minutes which are really great and several which are entirely passable, but as an aggregate: not so much.)

I should say at this juncture, it possibly “didn’t work” at the level of *exacting, theatre-nerd reasons*, and anyone normal is probably going to be fine watching this. I reckon they might experience that weird sensation of slippage between how good they think it’s meant to be and how much they’re actually feeling it, but they’ll probably be fine overall. But that’s why they don’t let normal people review theatre. I should also note that seemingly without exception, *all* the mainstream critics seemed to 4-star it (I haven’t read any of their reviews, there’s just a long list of 4-stars and newspaper titles on the NT’s Medea page, from which I’m getting the cast and creative info... But as I remarked about something else, post-Weekus Mirabilis MSM approval really can’t be held up as shorthand for hopelessly reactionary, wrong opinion. And besides, it’s nice that they all liked it, right?)

So what’s gone wrong? Well, the basic problem here is that the show feels like it’s pulling in a million different directions at once: more spider-diagram or brainstorming session than the finished product. And, yes, there are instances where that kind of feeling can be deliberate and yield great results. Here it feels too diffuse. Rather than prompting different thoughts which each unlock new ideas about the text, the thing instead seems to cancel itself out or contradict itself.

At the centre of this big old mess is Helen McCrory. As I’ve said, given the track record of Carrie (Birdland, A Doll’s House) Cracknell, Tom (Mr Burns, Charles III) Scutt, and Ben (Faustus, Six Characters...) Power, one not unreasonably expects – and visually and sonically gets – the best of new young British theatre, inspired by the likes of Katie Mitchell, Thomas Ostermeier, Rupert Goold and and Pina Bausch. All of which counts for very little if the actor at the centre of whole thing is going to turn in a performance that hails from the School of Generalised British Acting. It’s hard to know for definite what’s failure of nerve and a desire to crowd-please to the largest number possible in the Olivier, and what’s a result of an actor’s “I know best” attitude, but from seat M4 in the stalls, McCrory communicates next to nothing save for some moves that look a lot like a generalised idea of what acting should look like. At no point does she convince on either a human or a mythic level. Which is kind of a pity. If you catch yourself thinking “well, this is my fault for sitting so far back...” something’s gone wrong, right? But then, Christ, I’ve seen Simon Russell-Beale from the back of the *circle* in the Olivier and felt what he was doing as vividly as if he were a foot away. And, actually, I bought this ticket and it’s come to something when you think: “well, I guess you can’t expect much for £25. I should have gone to press night and let myself be put in a decent seat if I wanted to give this a fair hearing...” That said, at least McCrory is doing *something*. Even if it is A Lot Of Acting, it’s a damn sight better than Danny Sapini, who, in trying to dignify his Jason as a stoic, noble, kingly warrior somehow winds up as an emotional void, arriving from the death of his wife by means of a poisoned cloak with all the terror and agony of someone who wonders if his ex-wife has accidentally-on-purpose taken the spare car keys.

There was much fanfare about the music which has been written by _ _ and _ _ of Goldfrapp. Annoyingly, Goldfrapp are famous for sounding like this, but, perhaps because they’ve been asked to write music for a theatre, most of the music they’ve written sounds like totally bog-standard theatre music, some which is even played live of fiddles and accordions. (Fiddles? Accordions? Goldfrapp? What?) Admittedly, the fiddles and accordion bits of the music make a sort of sense alongside the vaguely modern Greek/Balkans bits of the the look of the thing (are we meant to think about the Greek dictatorship of the seventies? We could do that), which obviously makes several kinds of sense in the abstract, although on balance I’d have probably been more interested by a sleazy goth-disco T-Rex-soundalike version of Medea than this one.

Contrasting with this Greek/Balkans thing is a kind of Haitian voodoo dancing, the climax of which, shortly before the the child murder [SPOILER!], is probably all three of the good minutes of the show. This mash-up/collision also kind of illustrates the weird spatial-geographic-problem of postmodernism in the show. Basically, it’s all fine. It’s fine that the costumes are modern. It’s fine that the house is really seventies. It’s fine that there’s a wood in the living room. It’s fine that the wedding in another place a long way away is upstairs. It’s fine that the dancers, who are the Greek (-ish. Wherever) women are Haitian voodoo dancers evoking Medea’s Colchis-based witchy-ness, it’s all fine. But not one of these things really relates to any of the others. And, as I say, most of them seem pretty intent on cancelling one another out.

Medea is a difficult play to make emotionally engaging, but also, curiously, one which no one has really managed to figure out a way of making say anything *useful* about *society*, so it’s a really strange thing to keep seeing. Because, at root, isn’t it just a fairly piece of pretty anti-woman propaganda, saying that they’re well nuts and a more than a bit witchy? As such, it’s strange to see Carrie “Blurred Lines” Cracknell trying to reanimate this mad, misogynist, old corpse with a bit of voodoo dancing.

 

Sunday, 27 July 2014

The Nether – by Jennifer Haley [text review]

[postmodernism]


In 1997 Patrick Marber wrote ten minutes of stage-time which anticipated one of the biggest problems which was to face theatre in the years that followed. It is scene three of Closer. In it, two men meet in an internet chat room. One of them is pretending to be a woman. However, because neither man can see the other, the man who is “being himself” allows himself to believe that he has indeed met a woman looking for casual sex online and arranges to meet her in real life (IRL, as subsequent internet jargon has it). The scene is written and played for comic effect, although it’s essentially a technological update of the bed-trick or transvestive disguise on which Shakespeare and his predecessors capitalised for centuries.

Fast forward nearly twenty years and Jennifer Haley’s 2012 play The Nether (now receiving its European première at the Royal Court) deals with almost precisely the same online misunderstanding. And this time it’s serious.

This week, I’ve been out of town, writing the introduction to Peter Boenisch’s forthcoming book Regie: Directing Scenes and Senses in European Theatre, and so I’ve been unable to see Jeremy Herrin and Es Devlin’s production. I have, however, been very interested to read the script, the reviews, and experience some of what the play is.

It seems apt then, given that The Nether is a play about the disparity between the proposition and the actual, that I instead review this “virtual” experience of the play. After all, on the surface of it, the play appears to propose some level of moral equivalence between a simulation (text and photographs) and “reality”.

Oh, and it’s going to be WELL SPOILERY, so don’t read if you’re going to go and mind about “twists” and “surprises” (Hint: as always, I think that the “ooh!” factor is totally over-rated, and actually knowing what’s going to happen is a much better way of watching any sort of content if you want to come out of with an intelligent opinion about it.)

***

The plot of The Nether is important, because it’s where a lot of the play’s ethical questions take shape; indeed, the script initially reads much more like a film than a piece of theatre. A film where everyone talks a surprising amount, but a film nonetheless. Reading it, rather than watching it, you are plunged into a windowless, featureless grey cell. Across a blank, slightly futuristic table a female detective (Morris) confronts a man. Sims: a name that, presumably on purpose, recalls one of the earliest online “second life” games). Sims is the inventor and proprietor of “The Hideaway”, a “realm” in “the Nether”. Haley’s proposition is “the Nether was called the Internet” in the past (p.27). A “realm” (a brilliant choice of the most irritating word imaginable for “website”, suggesting that internet technology in the future is still mostly in the hands of Tolkien addicts) is where people go, virtually, to do stuff on/in “the Nether”. Most universities and workplaces are now on/in “the Nether”, we learn. How people do stuff is never really discussed, but there’s an implication of full bodily and sensory immersion. Perhaps with special suits and hats or something.

The Hideaway is apparently the best designed “realm” in “the Nether”. It is a labour of love. Unfortunately, that love is a product of Sims’s sexual desire for children. On the surface, therefore, it feels as if this should be “a play about paedophilia”. Haley definitely underlines this point early on. At the end of the third scene (p.11) Sims gives up dialogue and lapses into underlining:
“Look, Detective, I am sick. I am sick and have always been sick and there is no cure. No amount of cognitive behavioral therapy or relapse determent or even chemical castration will sway me from my urges toward children. I am sick and no matter how much I loved him or her I would make my own child sick and I see this I see this - not all of us see this - but I have been cursed with both compulsion and insight. I have taken responsibility for my sickness. I am protecting my neighbor’s children and my brother’s children and the children I won’t allow myself to have, and the only way I can do this is because I’ve created a place where I can be my fucking self!”
The implications of “the fucking self” are left sadly under-explored.

But, yes, that’s the end of the third scene, a continuation of the first. In between there’s been another interrogation scene, this time between Morris and Doyle, a man who has been using “The Hideaway”. This scene is all pretty standard: threats of exposure (he is 65, married, a teacher, a churchgoer) are mingled with more exposition so that we, the audience, can get to grips with what this “Nether” thing is.

Then we go into the Nether for the first time (p.12-15). Papa (Sims) is talking to Iris: “a little girl” (Haley’s only character-description for Iris). It is an innocent, even grating conversation between some Shirley Temple-type and this avuncular Papa. Because we know that she’s a virtual child-prositute and he’s a self-confessed compulsive molester of children, I guess we read it slightly differently. Still, in the abstract, it’s all perfectly above board, and fine for a child to perform. Which is what happens in this production, as we can see from the production photographs. At the end of the scene a “guest”, Woodnut, enters.

Anyway, the story arc continues along these tracks, pinging between the alternate interrogations of Sims and Doyle by Morris, and Papa, Iris and Woodnut hanging out in various configurations in The Hideaway.

The twist – the two twists, in fact – should be pretty guessable by this point. In her interrogations of Doyle and Sims, Morris refers to a detective who had entered The Hideaway under cover as “a guest”: Woodnut, we rightly assume. Morris reads from “Woodnut”’s report, about the terrible things he thinks, feels, sees... And, in two moments of sudden revelation, we learn that Morris was Woodnut and Doyle was Iris. “But didn’t they...?” as Blackadder might have put it. Why, yes: yes they apparently did. Female detective Morris, does apparently fall in love and have sex with Doyle while she is Nether-disguised as a chap, and the 65-year-old man is disguised as “a little girl”.

To complicate matters yet further, “Iris”/Doyle is “in love with” “Papa”/Sims. And Sims/“Papa” is pretty into “Iris”. Most interesting of all is that Doyle has wound up playing “Iris” because he was formerly a “guest” who ran out of money, and came to this arrangement with Papa so that he could remain in The Hideaway.

Several reviews have suggested that the play explores questions about images of child sex abuse and the internet. And, with Sims’s above-quoted confession, this might be one fleeting aim of the playwright. But for my money, it seems to obscure the most interesting things that the play actually does.

For one, we have this character – Doyle – whose desires don’t actually seem to be focussed on children or child abuse at all. He enters The Hideaway as a guest and presumably does do those things, but ultimately it turns out he is addicted to the place itself, declares his love for the patently older, male Sims, and also forms an attachment to Woodnut. There’s even a sense that Doyle enjoys playing the part of a child who is repeatedly violated and then murdered with an axe (always an axe, apparently). Doyle can even choose how much of any of this he “feels” (again, no explanation as to how, but that’s probably for the best). If this is really meant to be a play about paedophilia, what would we be supposed to learn from Doyle? Mercifully, I don’t think that is what the play is trying to do.

We then have to negotiate the complexities of Morris, who, in the guise of Woodnut, “falls in love” with “Iris”. And then there’s Sims, who while claiming to “love” “Iris”, is, at root, most attached to designing and refining the details of his realm, and exerting control over those within it, dictating their appearance, and maintaining his rules.

This is a fantasia on and exploration of a much stranger set of desires than any review I’ve so far read seems to credit. It is already much less “about” discovering a capacity within ourselves for darkness than Tim Crouch’s The Author was five years ago. And, rather than being a play about images of child sexual abuse online, it struck me that it’s much more a play about theatre and love. Indeed, the character Doyle most reminds me of – especially once you know everything Iris says is also him – is Blanche Dubois from A Streetcar Named Desire: everything from the repeated attraction to the wrong men to her refusal to be seen in plain sunlight.

Of the nominal question, Herrin’s production effectively already answers that conundrum for its audiences by casting “a little girl” as “a little girl”. After all, the child playing Iris on stage is more “real” than “Iris” ever is, and certainly isn’t actually controlled an adult. The script invites the audience, almost causes them, to envisage this particular child being raped and then murdered by two of the men on the stage. By putting an actual child in our eyeline, the production tells you precisely what “little girl” to imagine. And that actually does happen. And isn’t legally culpable in away way. So the question of what it’s ok to look at that isn’t actually real seems like it’s been dubiously resolved, because the audience has already looked at it in their minds eye. Or, rather, this production perhaps raises more questions than it answers by offering this staging.

After all, in the script, the moral dilemma seems, incorrectly, to hang off this question of whether by doing something online, to a picture of a child which is being animated by a 65-year-old science teacher, means you’re actually a paedophile. In many ways, it feels like the question relates more closely to the periodic grumbling about games like Grand Theft Auto, where your avatar can apparently rape and murder prostitutes and gun down whole arcades of people. Does doing so in an environment where you know it’s not real make you a rapist and a psychopath, or merely someone who understands that’s what the game’s offer is? Because otherwise, I’m not sure what volunteering to watch the play means. The Author seemed to confront that question much more directly.

This is part of what I mean when I say that the play raises questions about theatre and about how theatre operates. It perhaps recalls the controversy about Three Kingdoms, or Chris Goode’s ongoing argument that theatre “makes real things”. Separately, the play also recalls Nicolas Ridout’s suggestion in Theatre & Ethics (usefully paraphrased here by Maddy Costa):
‘Theatre isn't at its most ethical, Ridout posits, when “what the work says or does matches our own sense of what we would like it to say or do, corresponds with our own sense of how we would like the world to be”. For theatre to be ethical, it “would have to confront its spectators or participants with something radically other, something that could not be assimilated by their existing understanding of the ethical”. Such work requires “a labour of critical thought for its ethical potential to be realised”, requires a critic to approach it “with uncertainty, with a view to the possibility of surprise, challenge or affront”.’
The last line of the play is: “The world is still the place we have to learn to be. You are free to go, Mr. Sims. You are free.” The play also talks about God a surprising amount. This, then, could be seen as a play about free will, and one which ultimately asserts some pretty conventional moralities: that you should look after your children not hook yourself up to the internet the whole time (‘become “a shade”’ in the parlance of the piece); and that you should recognise your bad desires and just not act on them. Simples. If this were a piece of theatre with a “moral line” then it would be a dismal catastrophe. Happily, because of how plays work, that last line of the play (before the epilogue, anyway) is just a statement of belief – perhaps not even a true one – by one character, and not “the moral line”. That said, the last scene proper is a bit of a car-crash attempt to shackle what is frequently a fascinating, imaginative work to the kind of black and white morality to which the American mainstream still seems troublingly addicted.

Apparently, in the printed script version of the play that accompanies this production Haley makes the helpful suggestion: “A young actress also adds warmth, which is critical to the chemistry of the play”. To which I would reply, “*a version of* the play.” (And also: “funny ideas about warmth you have, Jen.”) Reading the script, you get a sense of infinite possibilities for staging it. Not just in terms of the look of the thing – it’s easy to imagine story-telling by just the three real people, all in virtual-reality suits, suspended in some sort of Matrix thing, like a kind of Drowned World in stasis. But the actual texture of it. Imagining the Idomeneus approach, with the contested storytelling spilling out of a multi-voiced chorus. Or the Adler and Gibb version, where the use of a child on stage is dealt with intelligently and brilliantly as a question about ethics and about the stage, rather than as the location for edgy discomfort. One thinks of Tom Scutt’s fierce, bright vision of a post-electric apocalypse, echoed in Haley’s nearly treeless reality. The accretion of mess and the encoaching sludge of personal ruin in Ian McNeil and Carrie Cracknell’s Birdland, or just the fuck it, the rest of us might all as well go home and stage every play like this, brilliance of Ivo van Hove and Jan Versweyveld’s A View From The Bridge. And that’s without even getting onto things like the distillation of fear, tension and fantasy in Gisele Vienne’s This Is How You Will Disappear.

One wonders how it might be if Iris were played by Annie Firbank, or even, as per “the reality” by Doyle all along. Or a chorus effect of the two of them. One wonders what having actors play characters of different genders to their own might have. One wonders what a vicious, brash drag-show version starring the David Hoyle and Christeene (NSFW) might be like.

Obviously I haven’t seen the production, so it might have been any of these. The hope is, of course, that what people who did see the production did see was something that they couldn’t have imagined if they’d just sat at home and read the script.




p.s. I had to go online to find the above photos and Charles Spencer uses the word “beautiful” three times in his review; twice to describe a ten-year-old girl.