Monday, 30 May 2016

Ophelias zimmer – Royal Court, London

[seen 18/05/16]


It’s difficult to know where to start with, or how to approach Ophelias zimmer (trans: Ophelia’s Room – German doesn’t use apostrophes to indicate possession or, typically, use Title Case for titles. In this review, Ophelias zimmer is always the artwork, and “Ophelia’s room” is always the place.)

In terms of facts: O.z. is a collaboration between director Katie Mitchell, writer Alice Birch and designer Chloe Lamford. It was first staged at the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, Wilmersdorf, Berlin, 8 December, 2015 in a German translation by Gerhild Steinbuch. The further credits are: Sound Design: Max Pappenheim, Dramaturgy: Nils Haarmann, Lighting Design: Fabiana Piccioli, Mitarbeit Regie: Lily McLeish. Artistic Collaboration: Paul Ready, Michelle Terry. The actors – uncredited with official roles in the programme – are: Maid: Iris Becher, Man: Ulrich Hoppe, Ophelia: Jenny König, Hamlet: Renato Schuch. The ‘texts’ of Ophelia’s mother were recorded by: Jule Böwe. Oliver Herbst and Mario Kutz were the ‘extras’.

It feels important to acknowledge that seeing Ophelias zimmer at the Royal Court – in mid-May, three months after Cleansed at the National Theatre – we in the UK are experiencing both time and work out of joint. In linear terms Cleansed was the immediate follow-up to Ophelias zimmer. (Indeed, The Forbidden Zone, UK-premièring at the Barbican this week, opened in Berlin on 28 August, 2014 – before even Mitchell’s Young Vic Cherry Orchard, before Macmillan’s People, Places & Things... etc..) I note this largely because, reading Cleansed as a reaction to making Ophelias zimmer makes a lot of sense. Of both, arguably. Experiencing O.z. in the wake of Cleansed perhaps makes less sense.

Also relevant to this transfer, it feels important to note: The Royal Court Is Not The Same Shape as the Schaubühne. As such, an aisle seat in the mid-stalls – normally a pretty good seat for Royal Court productions – here becomes a real problem, since you have no view of the floor of the stage.

Ophelias zimmer is (at least in part) a response to Sir John Millais’s painting, Ophelia. The piece begins by outlining The Five Stages of Drowning. Jenny König (Ophelia) puts on layer after layer of clothing during the performance – partly to simulate the effect of water on a human body; turning the “slim performer into a bloated corpse” (to paraphrase Mitchell). The floor of Ophelia’s room is a pool. From the stalls, you cannot see this. You can hear splashy sounds, and know that there’s water, but the carefully constructed visual effect is entirely hidden. Those in the Circle and the Balcony were in a much better position to understand the piece. Similarly, on the far right of the stage (as it appears to the audience) there is a glass-fronted sound-booth. (...Sie kennen aus Waves, Yellow Wallpaper, und so weitere...) The booth is also not ideally placed in this transfer. Those are/were definitely significant factors in the question of “What did it actually feel like to be in the room with this artwork?” but where my seat was is extrinsic to the work of art itself. I also rather like the idea that Lamford/Mitchell had made something that privileged the view from the cheap seats.

What is in Ophelias zimmer? It is fair to say, I think, that a lot of what happens in Ophelia’s room is “nothing”. Ophelia comes in, she goes out, she sits on her bed, she picks up a book, sometimes she reads the book. Sometimes Ophelia sits and sews. Sometimes a maid comes in with a new bunch of flowers, she empties the “old” flowers out of the vase, and dumps the new ones in it. Sometimes the maid brings a new “letter” from Hamlet. In this production, these letters are played by old-fashioned cassette tapes. We can perhaps surmise that the production is set somewhere between June, 1980 (when Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ was released as a single) and sometime around 1999, when people stopped using cassettes and started burning CDs. And in dark ages/medieval Denmark. And in Jacobethan England. And in a side room offstage in every production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet ever since. Perhaps particularly offstage at the Schaubühne, Berlin (and touring), from 17 September 2008. It is set backstage in the minds of men and the minds of women, and in all the rooms where culture has ever sought to imprison us. Ophelia’s room here becomes a kind of Schrödinger’s signifier: everything and nothing all at once.

The official Schaubühne programme copy reads: “In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Ophelia appears in five scenes. If a play only consisted of these scenes, it would make for unpleasant reading. A young girl is told to reject the advances of her boyfriend in case he wants to have sex with her. She tells her father that her boyfriend just burst into her room and gripped her arm and shook her. The girl is taken to the palace with all her private love letters to meet her boyfriend and must then pretend to be alone with him even though she knows the king and her father are watching. She goes to see a play that her boyfriend wrote in which he accuses his step father and mother of murdering his father. The girl visits her boyfriend’s mother and is no longer able to speak coherently or behave in a sane manner.

What is going on in Ophelia’s private life? Does she really only read, sew and write love letters to her boyfriend, the prince? How does she feel about her body, her gender and her dead mother? What happens when she comes back home after the strange events in the palace? How does she find out that her father has died? How does she feel when she discovers that her boyfriend killed him with a knife in his mother's bedroom? Who is the strange man who suddenly appears after her father’s death? How does she go mad? And does she really die sliding comfortably into a stream covered in flowers as her boyfriend's mother reports? Or is there something more sinister and strange going on? And what does the bloated dead body of a young girl floating in a river really look like?

This performance aims to challenge received cultural images of Ophelia both in art and on stage. It asks us to consider what lies behind the aesthetization of Ophelia and interrogates our fascination with these old historical plays whose male heroes repeatedly crush or destroy women. It asks whether there isn’t something toxic and deeply misogynist being dragged through history on the coat tails of heroes, like Hamlet, Romeo and Macbeth, something that may still be influencing our own modern day gender relationships.”

The trap Ophelias zimmer sets – particularly for any white, male, Establishment critic (although white probably isn’t a factor here; Hamlet in this production was born in São Paulo and doesn’t look remotely like the Aryan archetype of Hamlets past) – is the temptation to deny this logic. I absolutely don’t. I wholly agree that the misogyny in Hamlet needs exposing and/or erradicating.

What I am less certain of is the extent to which Ophelias zimmer itself puts together an effective case. But perhaps that is too-literal a reading on my part of the intention. I’ve wished, since seeing it, that I had gone in *completely* unaware of the thinking behind the piece and instead watched/experienced it solely for what was in front of me, rather than thinking about the myriad other ways in which one could tackle the same problem. But then, equally, I wonder if “blank slate” is even a remote possibility when doing anything connected to a text as canonical as Hamlet.

I was also distracted – my fault, I know – by the vagueness of the rules by which Ophelias zimmer operates. There’s the timescale. To read the blurb above you might reasonably conclude that the time-frame of Ophelias zimmer is the time-frame of Hamlet up to the point of Ophelia’s death. It then *feels* like this isn’t the case. We see her watching the wedding fireworks from her window, uninvited to the wedding, apparently. Technically, these scenes could, I suppose, cover the time where Horatio and co. first see the ghost, casting Claudius’s first speech in Act 1 scene ii as being made directly after the wedding – a scene which Ophelia isn’t written into (although I’m sure is present during in a bunch of productions, if *definitely not* the Schaubühne/Ostermeier/Eidinger one, where Gertrude and Ophelia are played by the same actor/actress). But for some reason, perhaps lacking an external referent (and, yes, I guess that’s the point) it’s frustratingly difficult to pin down. As such, the thing I sort-of wanted to happen – essentially the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead version – where everything maps exactly onto what happens in Hamlet – is already shown as if through a kaleidoscope; off-kilter and constantly back-footing you from the get-go. Which is of course fine, but if I’m honest, I don’t think I ever quite recovered my footing. Similarly, (maybe due to my vantage point) I couldn’t work out the rules of the foley sound and the recorded sound. It felt slightly compromised by what was seen to be live, and what necessarily had to be recorded. That felt like an area where there could plausibly have been meaning, and then possibly wasn’t.

There is a feeling too, that Birch and Mitchell had an absolutely watertight case that they could’ve put by using the available evidence. But, to ensure the conviction, they’ve made up some extra stories. Nowhere in Hamlet does it suggest that Hamlet leaves Polonius’s body in Ophelia’s room. Nor that he sends her sexually explicit or abusive letters. He might, but we don’t have the evidence. “He seems like the sort who might...” or “That’s exactly what people like him do...” feel like sentiments that would lead to a very unsafe conviction. As the actual evidence exists, it feels like a pity it isn’t used. But that’s not what’s in front of us, and it’s not my job to say what I’d rather had been.

Here we have Ophelia living this terrible life in her almost bare room. And, yes, on one level it makes its point incredibly clearly. Although the room more represents a creative dead-zone in the mind of Shakespeare and perhaps his interpreters on stage, than – necessarily – the life of a Danish noblewoman. What’s odd, though, given of the relatively short length of the play, is actually, how little time it feels like she spends there. Now, maybe I’m an outlier on this point (I think every other review has spoken of “tedium” or “boredom” either approvingly or otherwise), but it all felt pretty zippy to me. I got that Time Passed. And that there was a bell that rang to change time. But, really, I think I wanted something more like five hours to really get into it. And really *feel* it. *Loads* of stuff happens in Ophelia’s room in Ophelias zimmer. And also, because there’s a big old glass-fronted box on stage, you also aren’t actually trapped in the imaginative room with her. You – in the audience – are given another point of reference to look at almost all the time, seeing two men make all the sounds of walking and doors opening and closing. Perhaps, again, this is a comment about men *still* getting to make all the decisions, and all the big noises, but as such it seems to undermine the mission here to also expose and undermine patriarchal power. It feels instead like it reinscribes it; larger and different, somehow.

Similarly, there’s *that bit* where Renato Schuch’s Hamlet bursts into Ophelia’s room, takes her by the wrist and holds her hard; then goes to the length of all his arm; and, with his other hand over his brow, performs a manic Ian Curtis-like dance to THE WHOLE OF LOVE WILL TEAR US APART (on the anniversary of his suicide, the day I saw it). Which is JUST BRILLIANCE INCARNATE. For three minutes twenty four seconds, Schuch somehow manages to embody all the genius, heroism and romance of Curtis/Hamlet, and at the same time, communicate just how problematic, self-regarding, and ultimately violent all that is as well. So, yes. That bit is just perfect. Does it feel like it’s problematic that it’s about Hamlet? Absolutely. It almost reinscribes what I’d understood to be the thing to which the makers objected in the first place – that the good bits are about Hamlet, and Ophelia just gets sidelined, treated badly, and then killed off (by the author).

One thing has been especially troubling me, though. And it’s the matter of Ophelia’s suicide. In the post-show discussion, Mitchell suggested that in Hamlet, Gertrude – who provides our only information about Ophelia’s death (apart from the grave-digging clown) – glosses over the “facts” in order to allow for her son to carry on happily through the play. This sits at odds with another possible reading, which is that since she’s telling the story to Laertes, her speech has two main purposes: firstly – as with the gravedigger’s explanation – to officialise the story that Ophelia’s death was accidental, rather than suicide, so that she can be given a proper Christian burial in consecrated ground. The second reason is – arguably – tact. Laertes sister has just died, horribly, whether accidentally or not. One of the bones of contention in this production is that Gertrude’s description *isn’t how people drown*. But then, probably the last thing Laertes wants or needs, on being told of the death of is sister, is to be sat down and presented with a blow-by-blow account of the reality what death by drowning is actually like. (That a pre-Raphalite then got carried away illustrating this gloss *is* of course problematic, and this piece an important corrective, but I think it also pays to return as much to the source material.) Do we think she killed herself or – simply by virtue of her having “gone mad” (ah! Early-Modern psychoanalysis, where is thy precision?) – it genuinely was an accident? Indeed, is Hamlet, a play so readily associated with suicidal thoughts, a play in which no one actually commits suicide? (Similarly, with Gertrude’s drinking of the poisoned “chalice for the nonce” at the end... Suicide or terrible mistake? I’ve seen it staged both ways, but there’s no real textual evidence in either direction.)

As the length of this “review” attests, Ophelias zimmer is probably the piece of theatre I’ve thought most about this year, and indeed, for some years. Its central premise and the questions it raises are vital and important. And even the aspects I found problematic felt rewardingly problematic. It feels, in fact, as if; had it been a perfect fait accompli, an easily agreed-with rush of excitement, then it would have failed to do what this production does, which is make the facts, issues and thoughts that the piece provokes live with you for months and months. Most crucially, I *hope* that it will reboot future productions of Hamlet. And that directors won’t simply opt for glossing Elizabethan violence with a rush of questionable glamour.


Anyway, I *must* stop writing this and post it so I can write about Forbidden Zone and other things...

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

4.48 Psychosis – ROH at Lyric, Hammersmith

[seen 24/05/16]


This ROH world première of Philip Venables’s 4.48 Psychosis is a game of two concurrent halves. What? Well, there’s the music and there’s the fucking staging.

The music is interesting; a lot of it is astonishing.

Ted Huffman’s production, on the other hand, is shockingly, shockingly bad. I mean: unbelievably inept. Grossly, offensively terrible. The temptation is to reach for similies – the dramatic work of schoolchildren springs to mind – but, fuck me, that’s insulting to the fine imaginative skills and good faith of schoolchildren. To call it unimaginative would be a wicked understatement. It’s like an imaginative black hole. Not only devoid of imagination, but also sucking imagination out of the surrounding space. You can’t imagine how something so resoundingly dreadful was allowed to happen on the stage, and you stop being able to imagine anything else happening instead; your eyes inexorably drawn back to the aching nothingness...

But hyperbole solves nothing. We need precision. What happens is this:

The orchestra are placed on a raised platform at the rear of the stage. The front half of the stage is bounded by room-height white walls. There are three doors – one in each wall. The door in the rear wall has opaque glass in it. Light sometimes shines through this in between scenes to confusing/little effect. When the other doors are opened, light sometimes shines from them too. Several wooden chairs and a couple of tables are brought out maybe twenty minutes into the piece (90 minutes, no interval). The chairs are left out for a bit, thrown about gently, and then later stacked against the back wall. At another point, some colourful clothes fall from the flies. These sit around on the floor and then they’re put in a pair of cardboard boxes and taken off. (Design: Hannah Clark)

The cast is sort of a chorus, sort of not. There are 6 of them. The one who comes on first (Gweneth-Ann Rand, who is the only BAME cast member. I’m reasonably sure that’s not meant to be significant, which in itself seems very significant), sort of turns out to be the person who stands in for the person who has depression (if it’s one person) in 4.48 Psychosis. The others are variously, supplementary her, sitting in for “the doctor” (if it’s one doctor), and – what? – some people all milling about in a big white room with inadequate lighting, all dressed in the same dark grey slouchy cardigan, light grey slouchy jeans, and a black top.

And apparently there was a movement director! (Movement: Sarah Fahie) FUCK ME! I mean, I’m kind of fine with a meh design and largely catastrophic lighting (D.M. Wood). Both get an “only following orders” pass (I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the same sort of set used stunningly, for e.g.). But MOVEMENT DIRECTOR? Christ. What were her movement directions? “Slouch a bit more”? “Don’t forget to look depressed”? “For this bit, could you all shuffle over there and then throw some sort of a half-assed shape together”?

God knows what any of them were thinking this would look like/feel like/achieve, but I’m hoping it was something more than “destroying any chance of the audience not finding the overall experience entirely hateful.” Up to a point, I’d be willing to forgive on the grounds of insufficient time with director and actors, or just a naïve experiment with staging that was always doomed to fail. (We still believe in the right-to-fail, right?)  As long as Huffman understands that this was a disaster, then that’s at least progress for him as an artist, right? Even if I do bitterly resent having had to sit through it, and his appalling misunderstanding of what a stage is. However...

AT THE END, RAND STANDS ON A TABLE AND HANGS A THIN ROPE OFF AN INVISIBLE HOOK HANGING IN MID-AIR...

That’s an actual thing that actually happens in this staging.

I have NO IDEA how *at least that* wasn’t just stopped.

I mean, *really*?

The luckiest man in the whole theatre is conductor Richard Baker (V.G.) who has his back to the stage the whole time.

So, yeah, that’s what it was like to look at; the abstract notions of literalism, nothingness and sheer fucking cluelessness fighting each other in a bland room. If it had tried *anything* and failed I would have hated it less, but it was so goddammed TIMID.

Oh, no, hang on, the video production was actually really good (Pierre Martin). It was only some words, but it’s always nice to see a bit of Helvetica, and these projected words actually displayed a better grasp of timing and style than any “live” element in the staging... :-/

---

But, there’s another element to talk about here (thank Christ). Two, maybe, since the play was still there – full text – too.

And this is where things perk up *a lot*.

4.48 – the text – is a challenging work. And I’m not sure I necessarily agreed with every single dramaturgical decision that the music made with the script (or, libretto, as I guess it is here), but the good definitely outweighs the not-my-personal-first-choice.

The issue – if you’re not familiar with the text – is that 4.48 is an incredibly “open” play. There are no designated characters, or even a specified number of people who appear on stage. On the page, each new speaker is designated by a dash. So it could be a dialogue all the way through, or – if you had the budget – each line could be said be a new performer. Sometimes the lines seem to resolve into recognisable dialogue. Most legibly, there are a number of sections that that seem to be a snappy back and forth between the/(a?) patient and her doctor. Venables’s solution with these is particularly ingenious – the patient is played by a massive bass drum, while the doctor is played by a succession of other percussive noises, starting off with a high-pitched striking of a metal pole, through the use of a saw, until, in the last-but-one exchange, the doctor herself (her “herself” anyway, at least by implication) is another bass drum. The rhythms of both patient and doctor vary. There are some terrific drum rolls of grandiose self-pity and virtually a beginning of California Über Alles’-worth of combative resistance to analysis. Elsewhere, words or even sentences are represented by a single resonant beat. It’s both witty and respectful. Funny about depression in the same way that the text itself is. The actual words for these exchanges are projected on the boring white walls of the set (while the idiot director has placed two women on chairs facing each other on the stage miming out the sodding exchanges, but that’s easily ignored). The performance of these bits, by the two percussionists, was far and away the best “acting” in the piece too. Stylish, reserved, expressive, cool. Anything and everything that the singers had been prevented from being.

Also fascinating are the sections where parts of text are layered through white noise, or where almost pastiche Nyman-band music is used to underscore the farcical administration of anti-depressants, and their resultant side-effects and failures.

Harder to assess are some of the sequences in which Kane’s more bald, raw, poetic, declamatory style is delivered in modernist soprano+mezzo choruses, sounding a bit like the Flower Duet’and the end of Act 1 of Lohengrin after being chucked into a blender by Ligeti. Hard to assess because *I think* that musically they’re pretty great, but the text itself is difficult to pitch right in English, and while it’s bound up in a staging that is genuinely train-wreck-catastrophic, it’s nigh-on impossible – in-the-moment – to disentangle the elements. Some of it just outright works and some of it needed something very different happening visually (much more or much less, ideally. Or even just something *intelligent*) to help shape it.

Beyond that, though, at its best Venables does precisely what any good dramaturg should do: give both a passionate and coolly analytical shape to the text, and a clear (post)dramatic journey through it. This was – oddly – perhaps the most linear and “narrative” reading of 4.48 I’ve yet seen. Here – thanks to the music – there was an incredibly detailed sense of a precise journey, and a real chance to re-hear/re-understand/re-preceive – as if anew in many cases – the meaning of what Kane wrote.

If I did star-ratings it’d be tempting to give this a 5/1 split. Basically, it’s like listening to something that could well be a work of near-brilliance while watching a slow walk-through of the worst student production of 4.48 Psychosis that you’ve ever had the misfortune to endure.

This is the thing: if you took the music away; *as a piece of theatre*, this would contravene the trades descriptions act. Utterly frustrating. For the love of God, someone take Huffman to see some theatre that makes sense of its etymology: θέατρον (théatron, “a place for viewing”). Either that, or only let him direct operas for the fucking radio.

32 Rue Vandenbranden – HOME, Manchester

[seen 23/05.16]


Written for Exeunt.



Have a couple more photos, though...



Monday, 23 May 2016

Unsent Postcards: Titus Andronicus – Ojunszkij Sakha Theatre, Yakutia

[seen 23/04/16 at MITEM III, Nemzeti Színház, Budapest]




While I was Hungary [12th – 24th April], the main (only?) thing that seemed to be being debated over and over and over in British theatre circles, on the British left, and the rest of my social media echo chamber, was the ongoing failure of inclusion, the lack of diversity and, from certain quarters, an impression of the impossibility of any meaningful interaction between ethnic groups.

Which was all incredibly cheering. Obviously.

It was also the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, of course. And all the forced jollity and jingoism that that entails. So it was ironic to watch an entirely racially homogenous version of one of Shakespeare’s most multi-ethnic texts, being performed by a racial group – Yakuts, from Yakutsk, which is in far eastern Russia; a part of far eastern Russia that is past China, but a lot further north – a racial group that has literally no physical resemblance to *anyone* in the play (Northern Europeans, Southern Europeans, Northern Africans). In terms of colour-blind casting, this was about as perfect (and as far removed from “western” discourse on race) as it gets. No one looked Roman. No one looked Germanic. No one looked “Moorish”. Everyone was a Yakut. And I’m presuming that the ethnic homogeneity of the cast reflected the society/community from which it sprang. You don’t get the impression that many populations emigrate to Yakutsk for fun. It’s near as dammit to Siberia, after all... (I mean, “near” is relative when you get to the vast expanses of Russia. In reality, it’s about as “near” to Siberia as Helsinki is to Cairo, but...). But, yeah, fill in your own guesses about uncharitable steppes here.

[pause. For a month...]

A month on [never apologise, never explain], it’s remarkable how much of the production remains lodged in my head (you might think that’s not all that remarkable, but think about a show you’ve seen in the last month that you’re already forgotten, or at least filed to the back of your mind and have to really work to dredge up...).

Sergey Potapov’s production is strangely familiar. A mix of martial ritual and familiar story. If someone stuck this in front of me at the Young Vic and said it had been directed by Peter Brook, I think I’d be completely happy with that explanation. It’s not quite a formally bare or stripped back as latter-day Brook, but that’s the ball park.

The stage centres around a short raked platform on a revolve. It has numerous trap-doors, to the extent that a whole passage can be opened in the centre. There are a bunch of painted wooden chairs on it, around it, that are moved and slammed down in regimental patterns.

But it’s the costumes that really grab the attention. Ranging from hints at the Roman Empire, right through to curious – and I’m guessing traditional Yakutsk – straw skirts, bodices, even maybe trousers. There are also “Oriental”-looking robes, and make-up. As a set of things intersecting in a production of Titus Andronicus hailing from this geographical cultural intersection it all seemed to make a lot of sense to me. (But, equally, I’m no expert. It might equally have been a really detailed, specific set of production choices to evoke somewhere else entirely, with no trace of the home territory whatsoever – although this seems unlikely given the overall MITEM frame).

And, what else to say? The play’s the play, still. Played here for narrative with symbolic gestures, rather than psychology and photo-real violence, as recent UK productions have maybe preferred.

But, perhaps because of imported Shakespeare-fatigue (fatigue imported by me from England, I should say) and possibly mild homesickness, while it felt kinda awe-inspiring to see people from somewhere so absolutely remote doing Shakespeare (and on the 400th anniversary of his death), I wasn’t rapt.

I’m not going to join in the coming trendy Shakespeare backlash. He’s *really* already a minority interest, just one accorded an extra deal of significance by a vast realm of politicians and teachers parroting what they know they have to. It’s not a great unspeakable truth that Shakespeare isn’t really all that popular. If he was, he’d be an actual national pastime. Like football. Not a pretend one. Like church.

As it is, he’s a landmark of literature, the familiarity of whose works – nationally and internationally – means that English theatre has access to a set of more-or-less universally understood broad references and symbols, and many hundreds of more niche ones. And, he does offer a fascinating baseline from which to take the temperature of any given national theatre culture. Are they reverent or good? being perhaps the best question.

Etc.


Unsent Postcards: Twelfth Night – Tamási Áron Theatre, St. Gheorge

[seen 23/04/16 at MITEM III, Nemzeti Színház, Budapest]


I’ll be honest. By this point in MITEM I really wasn’t feeling it. I mean, yes, sure, in the current financial climate, saying, “Yeah, I was a bit bored of being put up in a hotel room in Budapest, with really warm weather and endless free tickets to international theatre, with my flights paid for...” Of course it sounds bad. And ungrateful. And not too kind to one’s hosts. But, yeah, as festivals go, MITEM is about as distant and alienating as it gets. I now understand why even my Hungarian critic friends were giving most of the programme a very wide berth, and staying away in droves...

I mean, there’s the political dimension, of course: Hungary is run by a Very Right Wing party, in close collaboration with an actual Far-Right party; one of the things they did in their first term in power was forcing out the artistic director of the National Theatre and replacing him with someone more in line with their own ideological persuasion.

Part (most) of the reason I was interested to come to this festival was to see what an International Theatre Festival looks and feels like in a far right country. How do you square nationalism and ultra-nationalism with internationalism?

Well, one of the interesting features was that *a lot* of the “foreign” directors – at least from Eastern Europe – were “ethnic Hungarians”. In the case of Jovan Sterija Popović’s The Patriots this happened to work to MITEM’s advantage – they happened to land a brilliant show. In the case of Bocsárdi László’s Vízkereszt, vagy amire vágytok (Twelfth Night, or What You Will), not so much.

I mean, this was a *fine* studio production of Twelfth Night. It totally got the story across. It even got a kind-of ersatz “Shakespearean” feel across, what with the odd breastplate on Sir Toby, and the usual copious drinking. Elsewhere, it also had a burnt-out hippy playing guitar over everything and Kati Kovács’ Viola dressing “as a boy” in an electric blue leatherette jumpsuit and massive DM boots. So, y’know. A patchwork. Tonally it was squarely pitched more at the slapstick and vulgarity end of the spectrum. A kind of Grosz-out 12thN., if you will.

But, well, the dynamics didn’t exactly make any of it feel *urgent* or *vital*. And it wasn’t deconstructing the play to any real end. Other than to stage the story. And if you already know the story backwards, what’s actually left? I mean, this would be a pretty sound choice of production to tour schools studying the play. It definitely tells the story clearly and gives robust characterisations.

What was strange – perhaps poignantly, given the celebratory date – was just how easy it is to make Twelfth Night *deeply* unlikeable. I mean, the drunk men of Olivia’s household really are boors of the highest order. This production’s really tapped into that unbearable drunk-men thing. Meanwhile, what’s Olivia, really? Here, she’s vain and self-obsessed without really giving any hint as to why anyone would fall in love with her. Orlando is so self-obsessed and happy to mansplain the world, that it’s literally impossible to believe that Viola falls for him in any way at all. And Viola here doesn’t really even bother to pretend she has. She’s fine as a woman living by her wits in an improbable scenario, hopping from scene to scene with nothing more than self-preservation in mind, but love? Not here. Nuh uh.

And that’s the production, really. It’s got a nice, but under-used (and slightly too small) metal-wall-on-a-revolve, which looks nice and aids some admirably quicky changes, but in this transfer venue seems way too marooned in the middle of the stage to really mean anything, or achieve any sort of an effect.

Hey nonny NO.

Unsent Postcards: The Life of Galileo – Nemzeti Színház, Budapest

[seen 14/04/16 at MITEM III, Nemzeti Színház, Budapest]


Do plays have sizes? I don’t know about you, but for some reason, if anyone mentions Brecht’s Life of Galileo, I always think of it being “an Olivier play” (the Olivier is the brutalist, Greek-amphitheatre-style largest stage in GB’s National Theatre). [Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t some fit of nationalist fervour; I imagine it being a *terrible* production. Probably Simon Russell-Beale fussing around ACTING for three and a half hours...] As such, my first surprise at this production was being taken to a tiny room on the fifth floor of Budapest’s National Theatre (we need to talk about this building some time, remind me) to see the piece.

We’re talking about something the size of one of those studios the BAC used to have. Studio C, it used to be called. Maybe 100 people tops; small, end-on, black box, small audience rostrum. Low-ish ceiling...

Here the small-ish stage is taken up with a cramped black multi-level black and white set (design – Ambrus Mária – we know Hungarian names have the surname first, yes?). It’s a kind of miniature version of the inner yard of a tenement building. Four floors of walkways represented in a set about the size of a spare bedroom, sketched out in white paint and tape on black boards (Designer – Ambrus Mária).

The next surprise is director Sándor Zsótér’s chosen performance style. The most immediate and accurate comparison is to the No99 sections of Three Kingdoms. Four or five young men in shorts and vests burst through various doors and windows and perform athletic feats and acrobatics. They become living sculptures, Renaissance tableaux, and Galileo’s telescope (see above), as well as the myriad characters who appear in the story.

What was also incredibly refreshing was how far from classically Brechtian it was. This felt like a complete embrace of an entirely different aesthetic, which made the play its own. Now, while I know the play a bit, this being a Hungarian production in Hungary, the production was not surtitled, and apparently it also deviates/d quite a bit from the original. I’m not sure how much of this was readily discernible from just the visual aspects. It’s shorter, certainly, than the “full-text” (2hrs here). There was also a woman in a red body-stocking (playing the Pope – which I did guess), and a person (possibly different people at different times) floating about in a space-suit (playing the inquisitor – which I didn’t guess).

The best “intervention”, however, was having old Galileo played by an elderly, and apparently very famous actress. Actually, you could kind of *tell* she was famous, even before the final moments of the production played the final moments of a film she was in years ago as she walked into the projected image of her younger self.

[Something not-fully-related that the piece made me think about was the question of aesthetics in theatre. This piece clearly had a stripped-back, not “Poor Theatre” aesthetic, exactly, but not one that signalled wild opulence either. And it made me think again about the extent to which we’ve become really used to something that we might want to think about calling “Rich Theatre” in Britain. I mean, I bow to no one in my admiration for Cleansed, I thought it was glorious and near-perfect, but, my God, it’s not something to which students – for example – can practically aspire. But, on the other hand, how much more expensive is a set like Cleansed than this one? I’m genuinely fascinated to know (disparities in labour costs and materials between UK and HU. notwithstanding). Isn’t it more the case here, in a show made for the Hungarian National Theatre – albeit admittedly for a smaller room, by a less internationally well-known director, is at least partly to do with choice. This thought becomes more pronounced when you consider that – surely – a lighting design is a lighting design is a lighting design. Like, one gel costs much the same as another, so setting a lot of the lights to a kind of “neutral”, “cold”, deliberately glare-y, artificial lighting effect isn’t *actually* cheaper. It’s just a design decision to make something look cheap. Which is interesting (perhaps only to me, but...).]

Here I hand over to some notes supplied by a Hungarian critic friend largely just to illuminate the remaining details – questions that I could formulate having seen the performance, but not answer:

All the actors played many roles, their function (man of power, student etc) is important to Zsótér, not the character's name

The text is perfectly cut, it was always obvious who we see and when (Dramaturg – Ungár Júlia).

The university students in vest and shorts formed a telescope many times: when G. looked into the telescope, actually he was looking to the eyes of a young man...

About the famous older actress: she is a living legend, but in very bad health. A few years ago she fell into coma and she used to say she already died once. I think all the audience and even the director know that this is her last role on stage. The final video sequence is from a film made by her husband (who died a few years ago), which she starred in with Zsótér, the director of this show. Other members of the cast are also related to each other and to the director. Of course you don’t have to know all this stuff, but you can see that the show is very personal and has an intimate context...

And there we have it, I think. A strange but effective version of a vintage play, re-made here as something altogether more personal and charming, in a way that communicates this well beyond a still absolute language-barrier. Remarkable.


Unsent Postcards: The Public – Teatro de La Abadía and the National Theatre of Catalonia

[seen 13/04/16, at Nemzeti Színház, Budapest]


I went into The Public knowing nothing. Not the name of the play, not who it was by. Nothing. Maybe the nationality of the company performing; that’s it.

Which in many ways was not ideal. But in other ways, it turned out to be strangely perfect.

How do we judge a play? I don’t really mean “Olympian critical judgement”, I mean, how do we understand them? How do we work out what they’re about? How much information do we “need” in the moment? How much information is helpful (and equally, how much is maybe actually unhelpful?)

Teatro de La Abadía and the National Theatre of Catalonia were performing in Spanish, with Hungarian surtitles. And Lorca’s play makes little, if any, literal or linear sense even in English (from what I can gather, I’ve still to track down a copy).

So what did I see?

There’s curtain of foil strips round the small studio stage. It is piled high with wood-chips or gravel. Two chandeliers hang over the front of the audience, and another to the far right of the stage. Musicians mostly hidden behind the curtain play music. Two performers come in with a card and an old cine-reel is projected onto it. Maybe news, maybe Spanish. Some performers come on in uniforms? Three performers – two male, one female – enter fully naked. A bloke comes on in his white y-fronts and a massive Elizabethan ruff on. Another bloke turns up with a massive Elizabethan ruff around his waist. A woman comes on in shorts and bra-top and is all over one of the naked blokes. Two clothed performers have a fight? Two other clothed performers have a relationship-argument, or maybe a passionate declaration of some sort. They have names, too, many of them from Shakespeare.

1hr40.

By the end, I’d decided I really liked it.

It’s clearly “about” theatre. And about relationships between people. And then about theatre some more. And I thought it was a pretty compelling production.

Also: it seems like a REALLY INTERESTING TEXT. I dunno if it would actually turn out to be less interesting if you knew what everyone was saying – apparently it’s *poetic*, which is always harder to really translate, even if you can approximate the meaning, the actual point of it, the poetry, seems to fall apart. But, yes, on this showing, this seems to be a piece we need to rediscover?

[More as and when I finally read the play...]


Sunday, 22 May 2016

Unsent Postcards: The Champion – Katona József Színház, Budapest

[seen 22/04/16]


Ok, so here’s a properly fascinating thing. To review The Champion (A Bajnok) properly, I should first talk about the show I *saw*, and then go back through it adding context and understanding.

The basic news story about The Champion is that one of Hungary’s most celebrated indie writer-directors, Béla Pinter, has written a new libretto for – well, essentially, Puccini’s Il Tabarro, but with ‘Nessun Dorma’ and ‘Un Bel di Vedremo’ et al. also thrown in for greatest hits value. The new libretto concerns a “recent Hungarian tabloid scandal” involving a mayor of some provincial Hungarian town who is a member of the more-or-less entirely disgusting, right-wing, ruling majority party, Fidesz.

The action of the play is as follows: Bloke (Mayor) wins election, comes home, has a drink, can’t be arsed with TV interviewers, TV interviewers also get pissed, everyone goes off. Mayor’s wife seems to be having an affair. Now, without the language (I read a bit of the script before, but most after), it seemed ambiguous to me whether she was having this affair with a man played by a woman (cf. Nero in Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, perhaps just because of the way that the libretto from the Puccini had been reworked, right?) or a woman playing a (rather unconvincing) female love interest for the mayor’s wife (Adél Jordán does *seem* to have been instructed to do some pretty macho acting...).

The design/set is minimal, a teeny bit arty (there are a thousand twinkling fairy-light stars), and incredibly functional. There’s a revolve on which a sofa and armchair turn round and round, and around this is a green astroturf garden, with some garden furniture downstage right (and the pianist accompanying the piece – who is outstanding – d/s left). The performances are strong, if occasionally broad. The singing, likewise, is tuneful if not always “fine”. (But, y’know, Puccini, right?) It is a strong show. It is a comedy. The audience are laughing lots. The reception is incredibly warm. Even by the absurd standards of Eastern European applause (generally about five minutes) this seemed particularly enthusiastic.

And, y’know, it does have some genuinely funny bits. There’s a recurring motif of a bear wandering on, as the mayor watches a nature programme on TV, and, once he’s taken cocaine (the mayor not the bear), the bear’s activity becomes markedly more frenetic, bashing a plastic salmon on a plastic rock in an imaginary stream. So, yeah. Job done. Happy punters, happy Western theatre critic. This is an amazing, anti-governmental, popular success, *AND IT’S NOMINALLY AN OPERA TOO*! Trebles all round! This is precisely the sort of thing that Richard Bean could/should knock up for Nick Hytner’s New Not-The-NT. (I think just to compound this sense of a massive popular political satire, I saw the thing only a couple of days after the NT’s The Suicide opened in GB, to *some consternation*).

Which is where this review would end without context. However, some *actual facts* rather get in the way of it being such an open and shut case. As it turns out, the reason for the tabloid “scandal” around this small-town mayor is that his wife had an affair with a woman. Now, obviously this is splendid if you count it as one in the eye for a member of a party that is about as homophobic as it can be without crossing an EU guidelines. What’s less good is treating the entire idea of same-sex relationships as inherently comic. Which I’m not sure the production avoids (even if it’s not deliberate). But this appeared to be a nuance with which the audience didn’t seem especially concerned.

Occasionally I get told off for importing “Western Values” into Eastern Europe in my assessment of the work. But, well, homophobia is homophobia is homophobia. Allowing your production to actively court it for comic effect is inexcusable. I completely understand that making art in an ex-totalitarian, now ultra-conservative, and very right-wing country must be intensely difficult. And that the compromises that artists have to make must be huge. But, if you’re already making a work that’s had the theatre threatened with lawsuits and funding withdrawal, why then allow such a crass element to exist alongside in the same troublesome and subversive work? (But perhaps I’m over-reading this. The relationship wasn’t “funny”, per se; but neither was it credible...)

Once again, this does also make me acutely aware of the extent to which the British model of criticism does/can often function as its own kind of political censor: that we criticise work hardest for failing to meet progressive standards. And I do find this tendency absolutely fascinating. But I don’t think I disagree with it. I think it’s a vital part of the conversation we (critics and audiences) have with the work and with its makers.

Moreover, in this instance, it hands an obvious weapon to the right. This paragraph below is from a column offering scattergun criticism of the piece, but the argument they make here is striking:

“Also, what’s up with the careless homophobia towards the lesbian Olympic champion? Did the required tolerance of the liberals suddenly disappear? Is it now ok to use homosexuality as a political weapon? What is considered a pride for the left must be the shame of the right? It is kind of a suicidal tactic, isn’t it?”

Well, yes. Too right it’s a suicidal tactic. And if it takes a right-wing, pro-Fidesz columnist to point it out... Well, you do the maths. Of course, hypocrisy is a brilliant tool to take down this government, but I’m not fully sure that a right-wing politian’s *wife*’s affair (rumoured) actually makes the husband a hypocrite. One might uncharitably enjoy his discomfort, but, that’s hardly scoring the much-needed political points. Make operas and dramas about their actual corruption, and their godawful policies. Leave the state of their marriages in the tabloids where they belong.


Exeunt: Theatre2016

[written 13/05/16]


Click here

MG+MSUM – Ljubljana Museum of Contemporary Art 3

[seen 10/05/16]


This last set of pictures are of some of my favourite things in the museum. I’ve included the curatorial notes, largely because in most instances it is the rationale behind the things that particularly appealed...

[starting with the piece about the above...]


Our Miracle


Workers, 2014



Covers I-III





[To the museum website, immediately!]

MG+MSUM – Ljubljana Museum of Contemporary Art 2

[seen 10/05/16]


This is the outside of the museum (which I loved)...



This is the entrance lobby...



And, on the ground floor, they have a fair bit of art the relates most directly to the recent past, independent Slovenia, and the ex-Yugoslav/NATO wars of the 90s...



[Yes! Show me more of this museum...]

MG+MSUM – Ljubljana Museum of Contemporary Art 1

[seen 10/05/16]


Rather than attempting anything like “art criticism”, since I went to this museum, and found it really inspiring, this is a bit of ultra-low-budget curation, in keeping with the current way the museum is laid out – with stuff from their permanent collection arranged across three floors under the banner ‘Low-Budget Utopias’. As with seemingly everything else I saw in Ljubljana, it’s shot through with this amazing political awareness and constant self-deconstruction, but deconstruction that actually *creates* something.

Very early on in the exhibition there’s a room dedicated to Slovenia’s punk rock scene of the late-seventies and eighties. It consists of a wall of fanzines...


...three tv screens showing documentary footage...


...a projector showing stills of what might be one night in one punk club or every photo ever taken of Slovenia’s punk scene...


...and another projector cycling through what Slovenia’s philosophers of the day had to say about it.


And, I think that was it. Having all this stuff put in a dedicated room in a musuem – a room that was fully conscious of the irony of museum-ising punk – somehow managed to communicate both how small-scale, and how important it was. It was really moving, and really charming. Should punk be “moving” and “charming”? No. But it was. Probably at the time, and definitely now. Moreover, they were still playing the music, and the music was still really good. So.




[Yes! Show me more of this museum...]

Laibach – Cankerjev Dom, Ljubljana

[seen 09/05/16]



[EARWORM WARNING – although not as much as it is live]

“All art is subject to political manipulation, except for that which speak the language of this same manipulation”
Laibach, 1982

I wrote a *pretty comprehensive* introduction to Laibach for Exeunt when they played Tate Modern in 2012. What’s interesting, re-reading that piece now is how different this concert felt to the Tate Modern performance. Cankerjev Dom is a proper concert hall. A lovely modern/ist one, like the Royal Festival Hall, or the Barbican, or Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. Imagine going to see Laibach at the Bridgewater Hall. Seated! And then, even better, imagine that the whole audience is a *completely normal* audience. From, like, 7 or 8 to 70 or 80. And just wearing regular clothes. I mean, sure, there were a couple of “fans” too, but in the main, this was just a regular cross-section of Ljubljana’s population going to see a concert. This amazed me. And it was *really lovely*. I mean, you know, Laibach are *quite extreme* musically. There were some moments of properly avant garde composer/industrial noise, along with the more poppy material.

Another big draw for this concert was thst they were also playing sections of the Sound of Music concert that they played in North Korea. You heard about this, right? Laibach – the art-rock-protest-subversive musical-wing-of-Slovenian-art-terrorists-NSK – were the first “Western” Rock Band ever to play in North Korea. And what they played was their versions of songs from The Sound of Music...

You’ve really got to love Laibach.

For this concert they offered a really great spread of material. Old stuff, new stuff (see top and bottom, from their magically-named 2015 album ‘Spectre’), The Sound of Music songs, and even an interlude where a guest vocalist performed tributes to David Bowie (‘This is Not America’) and Prince (‘When Doves Cry’), before helping out on another number from The Sound of Music, and buggering off.

If you’re a regular reader, then you might remember my musing about what would it feel like if you put the violent, caged energy of the Fat White Family in the National Theatre’s Dorfman space as Cleansed was. This wasn’t *quite* the answer. That Slovenian Iliad I loved so much at BITEF’15 also plays here, it’s not an entirely untheatrical space, and Laibach aren’t quite the same loping, lean, threatening presence as FWF any more. But, Christ, the music was properly loud. What you mostly feel like here is Pete Murphy off of Bauhaus in that Maxell advert.

Moreover, like Republika Slovenija, it’s joyously, angrily, mordantly capital-p Political. And Political on a global scale.

And it’s bloody glorious, frankly.

I should also add that it was sheer chance I happened to see this concert. We’d flown over a day early for the Mladinsko showcase because flights on Friday were too expensive, and were flying back on the Tuesday because Monday flights were also well over €100 dearer. We were sitting in the hotel when we arrived, looking at the Ljubljana guidebook and it had an advert in it. And there were two seats next to each other right slap bang in the middle of the stalls (for considerably less than a seat in the middle of the stalls at the NT, I should add.) Sometimes serendipity just happens, I guess.

And, yes, it’s possibly the best gig I’ve ever been to.

I know this isn’t really a review. It’s too late for it to be useful, and not quite distant or thought-about properly to really coalesce into a theoretical position.

Still, that’s the nice thing about blogs. You can just do this sometimes; put in “reviews” of things you just went to so you can remember them.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Republika Slovenija – Mladinsko, Ljublana

[seen 08/05/16]



[pretty impressive trailer. do have a watch]

Two cars drive toward each other at high speed. When it becomes clear that neither will swerve, the drivers slam on the brakes and the cars screech to a halt only metre apart. Men with guns jump out of one car and begin yelling at the driver of the other. A jeep screeches up behind the car containing the two armed men. Armed masked soldiers jump out with machine guns. Still yelling at him, they smash the windscreen of the other car, trying to drag the man inside out. He is bleeding from the face. They are still smashing his windows and hitting him with fists and rifle butts when the police arrive. One of the armed men goes over to the nearest police officer, shows him identification, perhaps they already know each other, they mutter a conversation about procedure. The man from the car is dragged into the back of the jeep and driven off. One of the armed men drops a sheaf of papers into the passenger seat of the smashed-up car, gets back into his own car, and drives off.

The scene stops, the lights come up, the hangar-like showroom where we’re watching this smells of burnt motor oil.

A performer explains that this is the first account of the arrest of Milan Smolnikar in Depala Vas on 20 March, 1994, given at a subsequent trial in 2003.

This is the third Act of Republika Slovenija, Mladinsko Theatre’s anonymous, “verbatim theatre” piece marking the declaration of Slovenian independence 25 years ago.

To go back to the beginning, in Act one a former member of the Slovenian security services talks about how one afternoon, as he was working in the offices [of the secret police?] a higher-ranking colleague needed help counting out something like €17 million (in today’s money). The scene starts off with the chap (the entire programme is anonymised: “All the authors of the performance will remain anonymous. In this context, the individual isn’t important. What is important is the state.” – so apologies for lack of names here) painting a picture of the room, projected via live-feed throughout. Occasionally during his story he’ll point to a cupboard or chair in the on-screen picture. You get a real sense of place from his evocative little watercolour. And there’s something charmingly incongruous about the idea of the secret policeman who also paints. His story, which is summarised in surtitles, is still very funny, and the details are all captured. One afternoon vast, vast sum of money, kept in used notes of every imaginable currency, was put into suitcases in the offices of the security services and just taken away. The retired officer estimated there was at least as much again left, stuffed into the cupboard.
“Weren’t you sworn to secrecy?” he is asked, deadpan, at one point. “Well, secrets only last so long” he laughs. The audience laughs too.
He’s a tough-looking, unphased guy. He looks exactly what ex-secret service people look like. He’s probably seen some things. And he seems really nice. An unlikely whistleblower. And you don’t really worry if he’s going to be *ok*. So that’s something.

Act two is most like the sort of verbatim theatre we’re used in back in Britain. Six men, mostly wearing grey suits, played by actors – indeed, the most Slovenian moment in this act is where this concept is painstakingly introduced as a convention, with a surprising number of caveats about how the men they are playing are also playing the roles of themselves and their office. The script they are performing is a declassified transcript of a meeting that took place between six very high-ranking Slovenian officials only a short way into the establishment of the Republic of Slovenia. Milan Kučan, the then president, is there; on stage, in the meeting. And on the night I saw it, perhaps only the piece’s second or third performance ever, he was also in the audience, and interviewed by television cameras outside afterwards. Which seemed incredible to me. Also portrayed is Janez Janša, then the defence minister and subsequently twice prime minister. (Familiar to art fans from The Janez Janšas, the performance trio who all changed their names to Janez Janša.) The subject of this meeting is the fact that Slovenia is deeply involved with the illegal supply of arms to both Bosnia and Croatia. Since Slovenia has recently declared independence, and then even more recently signed up to a raft of UN Resolutions, it has to extricate itself from the arms trade, stop training soldiers from these countries, and somehow not offend its neighbours. It is essentially established, that everything should be deniable, and maybe they won’t look very hard. It also seems quite clear that prime minister-to-be Janez Janša is *a bit of a shark*, to put it mildly. You’re basically left in doubt that the then defence minister of the newly independent Slovenia was party to, and profited massively from, an illegal arms trade to Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina during the civil war*.

And then, we’re moved to the kind of showroom/warehouse opposite the theatre. It’s got a surprisingly large seating rostrum to accommodate the audience who have just emptied out of the theatre. (Also, can we just take a minute to admire how seamless a transition this was. Essentially an interval, and then we all return to different seats in a different room. So simple it’s brilliant. Never seen it done before. (The nearest you get is with that funny Castellucci/Hölderlin thing at the Schaubühne.))

After the sequence I described at the opening the stage is reset and the action is played out again, this time according to the version of events given in the testimony of one of the secret servicemen. Still the five cars on stage, still the machine guns and pistols, and shouting, but this time in strict accordance with the law, and with the “suspect” definitely in possession of the papers he claimed were planted on him.

The sequence plays again, according to another witness.

The meaning of what we’re actually watching kind of warps. At the same time, you feel that you get closer to the truth of the matter, but at the same time, feel the meaninglessness of the court proceedings where the truth of these competing realities – magicked into actual stage realities for us – can really only be guessed at. I mean, it’s pretty obvious, really. But, as this representation of these farcical proceedings, you also get a sense of the slippery process of justice here. In fact, it resembled nothing so much as a couple of series of the excellent British police corruption serial Line of Duty. And, like, can you imagine how that would feel? And, I don’t think I’ve oversold the sheer visceral fact that THERE WERE FIVE FUCKING CARS ON STAGE. And SHOUTING MEN WITH GUNS. And BRIGHT LIGHTS AND LOUD MUSIC. It’s quite important to convey that you leave this piece have seen a fucking good show. And really pumped. A kind of sense of injustice; adrenalised.

Now I’ve spent far too long sitting on this review, when really it should have been done overnight.

But, Jesus, yes! This! This is how you do political theatre. This is how you make a MASSIVE GESTURE as a state theatre. Forensic, explosive, and using a live unresolved legal issue about the country. And making it as your piece to “celebrate” 25 years of independence. Crucially, there is no feelgood resolution here; even while the piece itself is a joy, what it’s saying is just left hanging, a vital sense that as a country, we need be better. The state is/should be an expression of the people’s will. If we are the state, then we need to hold it to account far better.

As a Briton watching this, I have to say, even though this is Slovenia beating itself up, it’s incredibly inspiring. You take away more hope from Republika Slovenija than any number of tribunal plays at the Tricycle, and corrosive satires in the West End. Similarly, seeing the actual former president there gives some idea as to why. This is a country small enough to hold its politicians to account. There isn’t quite such an overdeveloped carapace of police and press between the politicians and the people.

I mean, yes, I’ve fallen a bit in love with Slovenia, and maybe I’m seeing the glass-half-full interpretation, but even so, the evidence suggests that it’s not just the infatuation talking here...


The Janez Janšas’ Mount Triglav on Mount Triglav (still from film projected on wall in MG+MSUM)

[CORRECTION: moved up from below-the-line. The pic above is not the Janez Janšas, who did recreate the Mount Triglav performance in 2007, but the “original” performers of the living sculpture, members of the neoavantgarde movement OHO – David Nez, Milenko Matanović and Drago Dellabernardina. The performance took place in Kongresni trg, Ljubljana in 1968.]

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Drame Princes – Mladinsko, Ljublana

[seen 07/05/16]



I’m not sure I’ve fully got to grips with what to do with the work of Elfriede Jelinek. Or, rather, I’m totally sure I haven’t. It’s problematic work. We know that. It’s “problematic” even if you’re a fluent German speaker and are fully theatre-literate. I’m not even slightly that. And here, with Prinzessinnendramen: Der Tod und das Mädchen I–V, we have the extra problem that I’m watching English surtitles over a production in Slovenian by the Polish director Michał Borczuch. The five pieces are essentially postdramatic monologues alluding to Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ingeborg Bachmann, Jacqueline Onassis, and Sylvia Plath – dense reflections on their mythologies and identities as critiques of Austrian patriarchal capitalism.

So it’s heavy going. Which is fine. Indeed, regular readers might assume I’d adore it. But, well, ultimately, one can only disavow one’s in-bred national tendencies so much. That very English desire to know “what’s it for?” “what am I meant to think?” becomes irrepressible sometimes. And this is probably exacerbated by the fact that reading the dense text in English, which is not even meant – really – to be translatable at all, let alone the fact that the strategies it uses would probably necessitate weeks if not months of study, when they feel like they should be second nature. Added to this, is the fact that Borczuch’s staging tends toward the stark, near empty stage, or else minimalise live-feed action, or other strategies of distantiation.

Imagine reading a third-generation translation of, I dunno, JH Pyrnne while women speak in a foreign language, their movements alienated from their words’ meanings. That’s where we are here.

Then there’s the fact that [when translated as just meaning] Jelinek text is just so relentlessly bleak and abrasive. Which, again, I should be up for, but there, on that day, at least, it just seemed so overdone. The relentlessness, the miserablism, the endless, endless sarcasm, irony, and not-even-definitely-real attacks on, oh, everything. The only element that really stuck for me in this production was when they played Sylvia Plath’s reading of her own poem Daddy (which is in English, tellingly), which, in the context of Jelinek’s prose, and being in real central Europe, suddenly feels a bit callow evoking Dachau, Auschwitz and Belsen like they were fairy tale places like Camelot. Plath’s drawly, arch delivery doesn’t help much either.

I mean, it’s still fascinating. I’m glad I saw it. I’d want to see a performance again of it again. But perhaps in English, next time, and with live commentary on it. Do I think having staged footnotes would be bad? No. Quite the reverse, I think they’d be excellent. I wonder, in fact, if the ideal UK solution to staging Jelinek is as a symposium or choreographed panel discussion.

It’s worth stating, however, that Damjana Černe as Jackie has won a national award for her performance, and was indeed strikingly good.

I really wish I’d liked the whole more, but somehow something didn’t click for me.  Trust me, I’m as annoyed about this as you are.  I don’t like not liking things and the most articulate reason to hand being that they’re too cynical. That doesn’t even sound like me. It sounds like Charles Spencer, FFS.

Anyway.  Enough.

Onwards. 

Ristić Kompleks – Mladinsko Theatre, Ljubljana

[seen 06/05/16]



It’s fascinating how much ground can shift between a first and second viewing of a show. The first time I saw The Ristić Complex (at BITEF‘15) I remember watching it *incredibly closely*. Really concentrating on it, working at it; trying to dig out meaning, and interpret “accurately”. In one way, this was something of a fool’s errand; without an incredibly detailed knowledge of Ljubiša Ristić’s body of work – which stretches back to the Yugoslavian sixties or seventies – there’s an iconography at work here that is simply unavailable at its primary level. If you want an easy comparison, imagine watching a piece about, say, David Bowie, in which his life and times are obliquely critiqued but almost all the symbolism is taken from his album covers and videos etc. Simply asking “what does the Pierrot mean?” is the wrong question. On one level, it maybe meant *something* specific in its original context, but without knowing that there even is an original context, you’d have no idea why it had cropped up in the [hypothetical Bowie-]piece. And so it is here. Most of the most striking images are adaptations or bastardisations or references-to scenes from the plays and films he directed, reworked into reflections on his own life and strange political trajectory; from an “art terrorist” director at Mladinsko in Yugoslavia to Milošević’s Minister of Culture during the ex-Yugoslavian civil wars.

So, that all sounds quite hopeless, yes? Wrong. Watching again, having had the dramaturgy really fully explained, instead of “getting it” better, I actually just watched in a more relaxed way. Watched it just as a piece of theatre, without worrying at all about specifics-of-meaning, or a “proper reading”. And the revelation was, if anything it worked even better just watched as an expression of abstract art. That’s not to say it suddenly felt like some sort of floaty free-for-all (as if anything ever does). But instead, watching trajectories and tendencies of scenes and exchanges rather than details and interpretations made the whole seem far more fluid. You could be impressed by the commitment and physicality of the performers rather than the intellectual rigour of the dramaturgs, for instance.

What was also interesting was how the piece *felt* different. Yes, I was sitting in as wildly different a vantage point, in a different building, with a different view (pretty much eye-level some way back in Mladinsko’s main space rather than an almost bird’s-eye-view from the balcony of the BITEF theatre), but that doesn’t even begin to account for it. Perhaps there was the total different in audience too – a smallish crowd of locals, rather than a rammed International Festival première. There was also maybe something more comfortable than confrontational in this performance. The dynamics for watching were probably more friendly across-the-board, and I wonder if that even feed back from the company on stage; like they were presenting Art here and not A Fight. I honestly don’t know. Perhaps they’d be entirely surprised by this assessment, perhaps not at all. The “gender politics” of the casting also felt far less problematic this time round – maybe due in part to being paired with Jelinek’s Drame Princes (five women, one (somewhat perfunctory) bloke).

But, yes. While feeling less *intense* – the upside of that concentration that I’d brought to the piece the first time round – this time it struck me almost as this incredibly vivid, moving almost dance-like meditation on cycles of entropy and collapse. Motifs from art repeatedly collapsing into the horrific carnage of civil war.

Butnskala – Prešernovem gledališču, Kranj

[seen 06/05/16]


By way of direct contrast [see previous review], the next piece in the Mladinsko repertoire showcase, was a co-production with the Prešernovem theatre in Kranj. Now, Ljubljana is probably the quietest, prettiest, most unspoilt capital city in Europe, but the little town of Kranj, about twenty-five minutes outside Ljubljana is something else entirely. We arrived early into what looked reliably like the town centre. There was, after all, the theatre, a massive church, and some sort of square. All heart-breakingly lovely, and all almost completely empty and quiet. Look, I took photos.




So that’s where we are. Now, believe it or not, all this formed an ideal backdrop to *getting* Butnskala. Emil Filipčič and Marko Derganc's Butnskala started life as a radio play in 1979(?). It has subsequently – much more recently – been turned into a graphic novel. And now it’s on stage, directed by Vito Taufer.

This information about it starting life as a radio play also felt crucial to finally “getting” the thing. And we didn’t learn it until the interval. Up to that point, I’d definitely been *enjoying myself*; the allegorical story is easily entertaining enough just to keep you engaged, but I had previously been quite surprised by the entirely *straight* treatment. Much more like something you’d see Michael Grandage do with Shakespeare (but not boring) than the overtly art theatre I was more used to seeing in Slovenia.

But, no. When you get that it’s an adaptation of a late seventies radio series (and graphic novel), then it all falls into place. The Pythonesque/Goon Show/Hitchhiker's Guide... humour, the dialogue, the incredibly unlikely antics... (I mean, bear in mind until the interval, I’d been watching not even knowing when it had been written, whether it was an updated production of a classic, anything...)

So, the basic plot of Butnskala is that a musician, Ervin Kralj (Matija Vastl), down on his luck and contemplating suicide. A professor (Blaž Šef) advises him to go up the mountain and chat to the people up there. (I think?) Either way, Kralj meets the people up the mountain. They’re a large community and they meet up their to run fast, head-first, into a special boulder they’ve got up there...

I mean, it’s such a simple allegory it’s brilliant. The group are pretty hardline, or fundamentalist, about running headlong into a rock. They have a spiritual leader, who leads them in appreciations of the joys of slamming head first into a massive stone (and who remains noticeably free from running into anything hard himself). In fact, the first parallel I thought, before I knew it was a radio play from late-seventies Yugoslavia of was with People, Places & Things. There was something oddly similar about the set-up of misfit amongst fanatics (fanatics trying to help themselves, at that). Here, however, the allegory is that bit more on-the-nose. I mean, it’s about people trying to achieve peace and subsequent dominance by bashing their heads against a rock. It couldn’t spell it out any more, could it?

After this set-up, the narrative gets a lot more specific. There’s a rise to power, a rival faction, suspected double-agents/spies, and ultimately a violent power-grab but the head-against-rock gang. Without ever specifically saying which period, or which country, the story speaks pretty clearly to almost any cynical view of revolutionary and post-revolutionary politics. Think also: the relevant strand of Chris Thorpe’s There Has Possibly Been An Incident. Of course, being *a comedy* the brutality is massively underplayed – but still omnipresent. Not knowing the genre or what might happen *at all* is really exciting. As it turns out, the violence never gets amped-up to make a point, but even feeling it could is effective.

After the interval, there’s a *really long* extended skit on State Entertainment, which *I think* includes some very fine pastiches of Slovenian counter-culture from the seventies. There’s a punk band (one of the best-sounding ones I’ve ever seen in theatre), and an incredibly good take-off of Scipion Nasice Sisters (the theatre bit of NSK), and some other stuff I couldn’t begin to tell you was satire or just fun. But, again (as with ÜberŠkrip before it) it’s primarily great just because of the lovely relation established between music, performance, satire and the main narrative. I love the idea of taking twenty minutes out of a show just to hold a mini- satirical – concert/gig.

So, yes. I won’t wring out the rest of the plot details, suffice it to say that the story has a pleasingly familiar shape to it, and you get all the satisfactions of a “proper story” from it, with added bite, and historical interest. What was most interesting to me, though, watching this deeply strange, absurdist play in a tiny town in Slovenia was getting the faintest hint of what it must have been like hearing it in somewhere like Kranj on the radio back in 70s Yugoslavia. To be fair, Slovenia hardly wanted for subversion – indeed, the only art I know about from pre-independence Slovenia is the subversive stuff, and there’s a lot of it – but, even so, Butnskala feels like a powerful reminder that art isn’t just useful when it’s trying to change things, it’s also incredibly good at just being a beacon for discontent and cynicism. And that the value of something silly and snarky cheering everybody up when things aren’t great is fondly remembered. Even when it first happened nearly 40 years ago.  That the piece still resonates astonishingly clearly today also suggests that  Filipčič and Derganc may have also tapped some far more enduring truths about how societies malfunction.