Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Warum Läuft Herr R. Amok? – Deutsches Theater, Berlin

[seen 04/05/15]


Warum Läuft Herr R. Amok? is one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen in a theatre. And I have absolutely no idea how to explain how or why. Even to myself.

The cumulative effect by the end is a real visceral sense of, what? Rage? Release? Catharsis? You’ve essentially been tipped into the head of a man who loses his mind and murders his wife, child and neighbour. And, in a really worrying way, you’re kind of right there with him when he does it.

To get to this point, you’ve been sitting in the theatre for the last two hours watching what in theory is some of the most deadpan-to-the-point-of-tedious theatre you’ve ever seen. So much so, that it’s even quite funny for a while. But you soon stop laughing. Some of the catharsis of the end is simply relief that the play has stopped making you watch it.

The show opens in a slightly false perspective light wooden room. There’s a counter with a pile of CDs on it, two bored looking women, and a bloke. All the performers are wearing see-thru plastic masks and very acrylic wigs. All their clothes look brand new: ironed jeans, box fresh trainers, uncreased sweaters. They look – and move – like human showroom dummies. Some interminable lift music is playing, maybe. Everything looks too bright. Kitschy. Maybe late seventies or early eighties. It’s not overdone. It doesn’t quite grate. It’s just bland to the point of cheerful nothingness, with the added uncanny effect of the plastic masks.

A man is asking the saleswomen is they know a song that he heard on the radio last week. He can’t remember the title. He can’t remember much about it, to be honest. The information he offers is comically useless. In over-precise terms he describes what could be almost any pop song ever. But it’s also like a nightmare. You know that sensation when you can’t stop hearing a song, but all you can explain is a tuneless “Deee, dah dah”. That. Perfectly.

Oh, and the dialogue is mimed. It’s delivered in the most toneless, deadpan voices imaginable, and just played over the scene (I presume it’s recorded, although it could be done live backstage and we’d never know). At times the pauses between lines seem almost eternal, and sometimes a line will be repeated by a character over and over again just to hammer home more mind-numbing tedium. Again, it teeters between hilarious and agonising. For the whole play. It’s like making a whole piece from the dialogue bits in porno. Porno where no one is ever going to get to have sex. Ever.

On one level it’s like the whole piece is daring us to keep watching at all. On another level, though, it’s genuinely fascinating (and funny, and entertaining and compellingly watchable). I don’t think until this show I’ve ever really got what anyone might mean by “alienation technique” (bad translation of V-effekt, I know) or how it would work. But, well, this is pretty alienating, and it really does have a brilliant effect on how you watch and think about what you’re watching.

In between each scene a screen lowers and we see a video of another room, almost identical to the one facing the auditorium, in which usually nothing happens at all. Sometimes the music/ambient noise of the previous scene will continue, sometimes not. Sometimes new music or ambient noise will be introduced. Sometimes that will carry over into the next “live” scene. Sometimes not. Sometimes a person – always a senior citizen – will walk into the videoed room. These sections end with the location of the next scene in eighties computer writing projected onto the screen.

The question of the title is pretty easily answered: because capitalism. Or, more precisely: because everything in the life of Herr R. (pronounced in German “R” is “air”, so it rhymes with Herr) seems designed to be grating, irritating to the point where he snaps. If anything, the real question of the piece isn’t: why does Herr R go mad? But: why isn’t everybody going mad?

The piece is based on the script of a film by Rainer Maria Fassbinder, and it’s not without its problems. While Herr R. is obviously a blank and a bit of a bore, his wife and female neighbour are pretty much cartoon harpies of social climbing, and one could wonder about how much of that is to do with hating capitalism, and how much just to do with hating women. Similarly, there’s a scene with his son, whose main crime against Herr R. seems to be having a speech defect (unable to say “sch” without whistling). Here the sympathy of the audience’s laughter is ambiguous. There’s also a sense that the piece might indulge that problematic “artist’s version” of “everyday life”, which never quite resolves that line between concern and condescension – that sense of: “how do ‘ordinary people’ put up with it all?” All that said, I don’t think there’s much here in the day to day exchanges that won’t be familiar to everyone. Small exchanges where someone else aims to demonstrate their superiority to you, perhaps based on value systems about which you don’t even care, small set-backs, failed attempts at camaraderie, feeling betrayed by a partner’s social climbing. In a way it’s an achingly slow, German, art-house The Office, or an anti-capitalism American Beauty.

Herr R.’s attempt to buy this record that’s become an earworm is a recurring motif throughout the piece. At one stage a looped intro to Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head plays throughout one scene for what also feels like an eternity. As the piece progresses Herr R. gets closer to finding out what the song is. It turns out (here) to be Let it Grow by Eric Clapton. Albeit, for a really long time, just a loop of the few bars starting roughly at 2.00 and cutting out before the vocals happen. It’s a brilliant use of music. Everything from its era, its stirring-but-bullshit hippy promises, even the melodic structure of mounting force and somehow sense-of-yearning. It paints a completely plausible picture of the inside of Herr R.’s mind. And the way that all we hear for just ages is a loop echoes both the nature of an ohrwurm and the cyclical, recursive life Herr R. is living.

Just after (or just before?) Herr R. snaps, and does his family in by smashing their heads in with a garden gnome (brilliant! The pathos!), we have a scene where we actually do hear at least half the full song (I reckon from 2.00 onwards). One of the senior women from the room-on-video comes into the audience-facing-room and does a ludicrously sexy dance along with it. Then, in the next(?) scene the familiar plastic-faced cast in the office setting have been replaced by the senior citizens from the video room. The hideous plastic-faced dream-logic of the whole thing thus far is abruptly shattered. Maybe they even speak with their real voices. Weirdly (perhaps because of surtitles already putting me at one remove?) I didn’t notice/don’t remember.

But, yes. Somehow it’s impossible to communicate precisely how much a rush the end of the show gives you. I mean, I think it is to do with the way that you’re relieved that it’s over. But also it’s amazement at the completeness and beautiful realisation of such a completely alien aesthetic.

For me, this felt like about the most unequivocal attack on capitalism/Western life that I can think of. Without ever doing more than, well, than demonstrating alienated labour by showing us the most distorted, alienated, alienating vision of it imaginable. And its effect on people writ large.

It’s cleverer than I’ve just made it sound. And harder to watch. And more satisfying. And more mad, inexplicable, and visceral. Yeah. I don’t really have the words, but, blimey. Warum Läuft Herr R. Amok? is stunning.

___

Listen (from 2.00) until you can’t dislodge from your mind:

Oh, and YouTube has the original film! (Italian subtitles, unhelpfully):

  

Hen Zek

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Monday, 4 May 2015

Richard III – Schaubühne, Berlin

[seen 03/05/15]


The opening of Thomas Ostermeier’s Richard III is one of the most exciting things I’ve seen on stage in recent times. For this production the Schaubühne has completely reconfigured Saal C. Usually a regular, raked audience facing its shallow semi-circular concrete stage; now the audience is seated in a dark wood and steel suggestion of Shakespeare’s Globe bolted to the curved concrete walls, with a new thrust stage pushing into it and immediately behind that, a high rough plaster wall, with almost-black wooden gantries criss-crossing it like wounds, suggesting medieval castles, ramparts, walkways and gallows. The players explode onto the stage in a volley of live percussion, loud music and hand-held glitter cannons. Glorious summer indeed.

Ostermeier’s House of York is younger than usual too. Less stately. More like Bullingdon Club bullies than House of Lords. It all feels terribly fresh and exciting. And then there’s the fact of Lars Eidinger – *that* Hamlet – fêted, in Britain at least, as Germany’s most exciting actor. And he does feel exciting. Understated but urgent. “Jetzt...” has never sounded more *now*, kinda thing.

But, this is still Richard III. Two hours and forty long minutes of it. (Sometimes, Shakespeare’s history plays make it seem like the monarch in question only ruled for the space of an evening. Not tonight.) As I understand it, Germany hardly ever does any of Shakespeare’s history plays* so the plot of Richard III – easily Shakespeare’s funnest (and least historical) history play – is a draw here. Perhaps as a result, Ostermeier’s *take* on the play, is essentially *just doing the play*. Perhaps pretty radical for Germany, and welcome if they just want to know what the plot is – and what the plot is, here, is a lot of blokes with the names of English counties shouting and running hither and yon – but pretty standard if you’ve ever been to the Globe. Also, I quite missed having a sense of drive, or any of the relationships between characters. Richard’s relationship with Clarence is well realised, and Clarence’s murder – stabbed to death, naked; blood soaking into the sand of the thrust – is suitably horrible. Much of what follows is far more muddied.

There are inventions: the two doomed princes are presented as shiny-faced, life-sized puppets; Richard throws a fair bit of food around, eventually daubing his whole face white with some sort of emulsion porridge; Laurie Anderson’s O, Superman turns up at (irritating, as always) length; hanging above the stage is an ever-present internally-lit old-fashioned mic, which also has a live-feed camera in it; and straps, from which Richard swings, and is eventually hung, upside-down, dead. [SPOILER, DEUTSCHLAND!].

Perhaps the most intriguing bit of staging, though, is that Richard’s final climactic battle is fought solo. Indeed, the small ensemble of nine or ten, already mostly playing two or more parts, never even show us Richmond. Once lords from Richard’s side defect, they simply disappear. Indeed, watching in a concrete bunker, in Berlin, listening to Richard rant and rave at his betrayal in German, it is hard not to think of a certain scene from a certain film popularised on the internet. But here, there’s almost a suggestion that the paranoia goes further still – not only is Richard battling real enemies, but invisible demons who eventually do him in unseen. Perhaps.

However, for all this, quite a lot of how this production unfolds is pretty bog-standard, and a long way from the most compelling reading of the part along the way. (Watching this RIII, I realised just how much of an effect Ian McKellan’s film of the play has had on my understanding/memories of it. Glib though the setting arguably is, its clarity and style is undeniable.) Essentially it’s a fine account of the play, perhaps dramaturgically streamlined a bit too much toward narrative at the expense of the incidental details and relationships that make the story matter in the first place, but without replacing these with either politics or metaphor. Similarly, while Eidinger’s performance of disability is rather superbly realised – the design of his hump, just a small, black cushion strapped to his shoulder is a particularly fine touch – the entire problem of Shakespeare effectively equating physical disability with a predisposition toward evil feels particularly untouched here. Indeed, my biggest thought last night was suddenly *really* wanting to see Graeae blow the whole mad, early-modern thing out of the water giving us both the rompy plot, *and* all the problems that it entails exposed at the same time.
___

Actually, you can see all the good bits here and save yourself 2hrs38.30:




*(Fair enough, really; why would they? Richard II has been surpassed by almost every play about a sad bloke in a room since, 1 & 2 Henry IV are wildly overrated, Henry V must be pretty irritating for anyone who didn’t win Agincourt, 1, 2 & 3 Henry VI are a hotch-potch at best... Ok, I’m taking the piss, but only just)

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Onkel Wanja – Maxim Gorki Theater, Berlin

[seen 02/05/15]


There’s a beautiful moment in Nurkan Erpulat’s new production of Uncle Vanya where Falilou Seck as Professor Serebryakov is left alone on stage. From the carefully constructed domed sky above the stage, a single spotlight slowly descends, gently smashing any pretence of illusion. Seck walks to the back of the stage, still talking, and opens a door in the cyclorama depicting the forest surrounding the stage. There is a bright light shining from behind the door, and smoke drifts out across the stage into the beam of the hanging spotlight. Stood half in, half out of the doorway, Serebryakov gives a little shrug. For some reason it’s one of the saddest images I’ve ever seen on stage. It turns out that he’s talking about how returning home doesn’t feel quite right somehow. Not as comforting as he’d hoped; not as homely.

I confess that up until that point I’d been beating myself up a bit during this production. Before seeing the show I did an interview with the artistic directors of the Gorki. And they’re brilliant: so politically switched-on and alive to the possibilities of theatre as a full-blooded instrument of real political change (link/s forthcoming). We probably talked a lot more about politics, history and “identity” than about, y’know, actual plays. So I really wanted to like the production too. And I was doing. The reason I was beating myself up slightly is that I was finding it a bit *normal* for Germany. Not normal-German; normal-British. I mean, I checked myself, and, no, even before the spotlight/door intervention it would still have been considered *a bit avant garde* in the UK. The effortless way in which the cast is multicultural, the modern dress, the small departures from *what Chekhov wrote*. Oh yes, there was still more than enough “intemperate excitement” to concern certain British critics. But no more so than you’d find in, say, Rupert Goold’s work. On one level, *of course* Rupert’s work is outstanding, and I should have just been relaxing and enjoying it, but since I was in Germany, I found myself – unfairly – wanting more upending of my expectations. And there I was watching a staging with the painted backdrop of a forest and the cast sitting in chairs and acting with recognisable, psychological realism (!).

It’s interesting, though. In theory, not *much* changed after the spotlight/door moment. The spotlight withdraw back out of view. Serebryakov closed the door and continued his soliloquy under the changing projected sky. Yes, more *things* did start to happen; but really it was the explicable sense of having been so moved that really shook things up at first. I think I also relaxed into the style of Erpulat’s production.

For some reason, I didn’t really tune in to the German last night (and, perhaps for the best, there weren’t any surtitles), and yet this production – running at two hours twenty(?) without interval – completely held my attention throughout. As opposed to the violence of a Castorf, or, say, the abrasive junkyard chic of last year’s Theatertreffen Vanja, the mood here feels mellow and buccolic, tinged with sadness and weirdness – shortly after the spotlight/door thing there’s another brilliant moment where Maria (Sema Poyraz) simply opens a tablecloth ready to drape it over a table and a projection of an owl in flight flashes across it in a blink-and-you-miss-it moment. Indeed, I think I did blink for half of it, and was really surprised to briefly catch this Lynchian omen suddenly part of the stage picture.

But, perhaps the best thing last night was the chickens. Man, am I a sucker for funny animals. But then, I think last night *everyone* was a sucker for funny animals. They’d been on stage for Act One, but they’d stayed pretty much huddled against the back wall. So much so that I didn’t notice them for about half an hour. Later, though, they’re returned to the stage and plonked down squarely in the middle. And join in a bit. Perhaps the absolute best moment last night is when Vanja (Tim Porath) performs a soliloquy of his own, essentially to one of the chickens. By this point, the revolve – not quite in the centre of the stage – has started to turn (at one point causing Astrov’s books to disappear though another door in the forest as he puts them down on this shifting ground). Vanja is laid out next to a cardboard box one of the chickens is sitting contentedly in. Vanja bemoans his fate, the chicken clucks sympathetically at him, with what appears to be perfect timing, while just poking its head over the lip of the box to stare at the audience and reflect on what a weird position this is for a chicken to find itself in. The mixture of extreme pathos and hilarity somehow feels like it realises the Chekhovian predicaments of the characters perfectly.

Overall, the work that the Gorki is doing tends to be more macro-political than this, and definitely less whimsical. For all that, this felt like a perfect addition to their repertoire. The building’s commitment to exploring “post-migrant” Berlin (their term) finds a perfect reflection in the personal-political level of Chekhov’s story about someone returning to their home after a long period abroad (reflecting the other side of the familiar family-left-behind story common to all countries experiencing significant levels of migration). But, more to the point, even without any knowledge of the building, its programme, or its politics, this is an intelligent, funny, sad, deeply moving production of a beautiful Chekhov play. And a brilliant way to spend a Saturday night.

Theatertreffen-blog podcast

[audio!]


Exeunt’s Annegret Märten is working for the Theatertreffen Blog. After Die Schutzbefohlenen she recorded herself, me, Meg Vaughan and Theresa Gindlstrasser talking about it.
 

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Die Schutzbefohlenen – Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Berlin

[seen 01/05/2015]


[In an irony that I suspect Germany will appreciate, the UK-based American playwright Anders Lustgarten recently accused German theatre of being “very arch, with an arctic chilly distance to it. And that’s exactly the product of what happens when you are destroying people not very far away and you don’t wanna think about it.” Leaving aside the sheer idiocy/Olympian condescension of trying to characterise an entire country’s theatrical output with three adjectives, the occasion of this interview was Lustgarten’s play Lampedusa (“Lustgarten’s writing is just awful.” – WhatsOnStage), his stab at British consciences re: the ongoing humanitarian crisis of drowned immigrants in the Mediterranean...  The first play at this year’s Theatertreffen – the Berlin-based showcase of the ten best plays in German-language theatre over the last year – is Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek’s response to the exact same subject. Nevertheless, Lustgarten’s choice of adjectives – “arch”, “artic”, “chilly” – is worth tackling, even if his rationale for thinking why (all of!) German theatre might be like that is immediately blown clean out of the water by this play staring hard into the heart of precisely the same problem as his own.]

Jelinek’s new text is a response to immigration: immigration to Austria, immigration to Germany (the number one destination in Europe, Britain is only number four, understandably), the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean, all of it. Both her text and Nicholas Stemann’s staging of it are also concerned with the problem of theatre in a predominantly white, Western country trying to stage such a response. In a move that feels almost inevitable, being German-language theatre, the way it does this is to take Aeschylus’s 2,500-year-old play, The Suppliants as a starting point.

The piece opens with a stage full of refugees. Quite literally. Hamburg’s Thalia Theater has recruited a 40(?)-strong chorus of actual illegal immigrants/refugee activists for this production. The first image when the piece starts is them lined up across the front of the stage with the opening lines of Jelinek’s text echoing around the room. It is gradually revealed that the lines are being spoken by three middle-aged, white men at the back with microphones. The chorus disperses and the first, what? half-an-hour? consists of these men continuing with this poetic, punning, probably-classical-tragedy-derived chorus. When they are joined by an actor of non-white heritage they imagine that there are communication problems, despite his being an actor from Hamburg now based in Berlin, “Phone my agent” he suggests. Blank looks. Examinations of the surtitles (in English) projected onto the theatre walls to find out what he’s saying. Etc. A giant wooden crucifix and church windows descend from the flies. Etc.

During this first hour or so, my sympathies pinged back and forth on an almost minute-to-minute basis. Is this good? I wondered. Is this useful? Are they tackling racism or actually being massively racist? At one point after the black actor has joined them on stage, one of the white chorus goes off and returns half-heartedly blacked-up, as per many German stage productions. The look the black actor gives him is so brilliantly withering as to be worth the price of admission alone. Trope after trope is exploded. Two of the white actors at one point turn up dressed in false beard on one and headscarf on the other. The sheer silliness of this simultaneous failed-attempt-at-representation, satire, and affront somehow even recalls the problem of Charlie Hebdo (as – on another level – does the Wir Sind Lampedusa cardboard placard, nailing not only the problems of that sort of crass identification, but also CH’s own perceived racism).

What’s surprising (for Germany) is the level of directness here. Yes, on one level the whole thing is deeply ironic – about itself, about everything else, especially about the futility of what it’s doing – but at the same time, it’s very direct about what it’s being ironic about. Problem after problem is named. The problem of a white Austrian woman authoring a text about immigrants, the problem of a white director trying to achieve authenticity by employing black actors and a chorus of real-life refugees. The problem of condescension. The lot. As such, at times it’s quite difficult to watch. A process of infinite recursions, rather than *drama*(Drama!).

Ultimately, whether you find this good or bad (ha! Such categories!) might depend on your national training. Because this absolutely isn’t what the British version of this same thing would look like. I suspect most British productions on this subject would choose to start by ignoring all the elephants in the room. For at least the first hour Die Schutzbefohlenen stages little more than just the elephants. Rather than seeking to make a digestible play that looks at the problems faced by refugees through the prism of a satisfying fictional narrative (see, well, most British plays on the subject really), for most of the evening we’re pretty much in the theatre watching the problems of the theatre on the stage. And indeed we’re playing the part of the equally problematic white, middle-class, privileged, Western audience while we do so. At which point, the very idea of ever watching something which ignores these problems (Lampedusa, anyone?) feels like a far greater affront to human dignity than actually facing these problems of representation head-on. Of course, theatre about the failure of theatre can be immensely frustrating, but here theatre also stands in for white, Western civilisation at large, and theatre’s failures become observably the failures of society at large.

At the same time there are points, when the refugees return to the stage and speak for themselves (again, staggeringly direct in my experience of German theatre), where the irony is binned in favour of simple, moving testimony – the names of the chorus members who have been deported since the production began, the name of the chorus member who was murdered while sleeping rough, the stories of the refugees in the chorus, why they had to leave their home countries, etc.

The overall effect of the piece is hard to immediately assess. As the final lights faded to black, there was one of those long audience-pauses before the applause, where everyone watching just gathered themselves. And, yes, it did feel like we’d been through the wringer. The piece makes no apologies for pointing the finger at its audience and calling them out for their complacency, privilege, and their continuing to do nothing to solve the world’s seemingly insoluble problems. In this it was, if anything, even more successful than Wallace Shawn’s The Fever because, though less pointed and ferocious in its accusations, it made them in precisely the place we’re most accustomed to being: the theatre. This wasn’t a J’Accuse hurled in a hotel room that I’d otherwise have never entered, but in a totally familiar theatre space that I’ve visited on numerous occasions (the same would have been true in Hamburg).

On one level this is difficult, intellectually challenging theatre. It doesn’t give us an easy ride. It doesn’t offer the consolations of narrative, or pat us on the back for at least turning up. It relentlessly prods and pokes at its audience, often even at the level of its own content. On another level, though, this is completely accessible (though, more so to German-speakers, obvs). While intellectual and philosophical, the problems it presents and the way it tackles them could be grasped by a bright seven-year-old. I don’t think you need to have a keen appreciation of its classical allusions (on top of The Suppliants, at another stage Europa makes a(nother) appearance riding on her bull, draped in the flag of the EU) to get the point. Sure, the more stuff you happen to know, the more levels reveal themselves, but that’s true of everything. Doubtless there was a load of stuff I didn’t get. But, difficult watch though it was, it was an incredibly effective and affecting piece of theatre.

[So, to address the bracketed introduction directly: hardly chilly-ly distant, hardly not wanna-ing to think about destroying people. And arch? Well, only in service of its own relentless self-reproach. Which I found admirable. Now, I’m a pluralist; I completely see the value of myriad other theatrical approaches to tackling vast impossible subjects. However, I don’t think the charges against (the whole of!) German theatre even remotely begin to stack up if they can be this easily disproved after one random example. Danke und gute nacht.]

Friday, 1 May 2015

On criticism: after the end, part one

[a response to Meg Vaughan and Mark Shenton’s recent Stage pieces]


Meg Vaughan has written a Very Exciting Thing. For The Stage. I should briefly say, I cannot begin to tell you how chuffed I am that The Stage has started publishing stuff like this. The new editor Alistair Smith has completely turned the paper around from being almost entirely ignored to rapidly becoming required reading. (Although I still think they should put their entire contents online as soon as they get them) And, oddly, it might be the host venue that makes Meg’s piece feel as exciting as it does. Which reflects on its contents in a very interesting way indeed.

If you’ve not read it (and you should), the piece – “The long tail of theatre criticism” – covers a number of things. It starts off looking at the predictions of gloom and doom for theatre criticism, goes on to propose an alternative way of thinking about online criticism, and then casts a disparaging eye over the new My Theatre Mates initiative floated by Stage associate editor Mark Shenton and wrongfully-dismissed former WhatsOnStage editor, Terri Paddock.

I’ve already grumbled about the dismissal of “online criticism” or “bloggers” both for Nachtkritik and here at Postcards (more than once), and don’t intend to rehash those rebuttals here. Not least because that narrative is done now. It used to be fun, back in the mid-2000s, to see “the internet” as the bright young thing challenging the dead hand of conservative taste and old white men. But that was almost a decade ago. Now “professional” IN NO WAY means “printed in a newspaper”. The existence of numerous reputable, and sometimes even salaried websites (WhatsOnStage, Exeunt, The Arts Desk), the expansion of online-only content at newspapers and magazines (the Guardian, the Stage, Time Out etc.), and the writing at these of many former print critics, means that the old demarcations have been entirely erased. The impetus behind Vaughan’s blog, then, is in part irritation at the way that she sees these dead problems being propped up and still trotted out, and then given a new lease of life by My Theatre Mates.

The most interesting part of her piece is where she discusses Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson’s economic model of online music sales – a graph showing a big spike with a long tail – and proposes that this is how we could now see criticism. It’s a creative way of imagining the situation. “Creative” not least because it completely up-ends the conventional wisdom of how and why people read accounts of pieces of theatre. In many ways, I think by adopting that model of readership Vaughan is partly describing the relationship of readers to individual writers. But much more, I think she’s also excavated something interesting about when, how, and why people read “reviews”. As such, it makes me think that the real questions in theatre criticism now are ones of purpose, function, intent and audience.

The traditional, newspaper-based model of a review is, after all, exactly as the first bit of that graph describes. It was produced for a single edition of a daily newspaper, and if people didn’t buy that edition of that newspaper on the particular day the review was published it immediately became rather difficult to ever get hold of again. Yes, theatres would paste up quotes or even the whole review outside (if the review was positive), but that was it. A sense of “hit” or “flop” would maybe hang in the air, and bits of the review might be imperfectly remembered and repeated, but until the mid/late-2000s no one could *get their phone out of their pocket and look it up*. (I mean, really, that sentence! Imagine if someone had told you in 2000 that that’s what you’d be doing in 2015.) As Mark Shenton has literally just pointed out, these sorts of reviews could be construed as a kind of Which? “consumer guide”. I am a little surprised that Mark will go so far as to argue that this is what “critics are, first and foremost”, but it’s certainly one use some people might have for a review.

[an aside: if a critic is really “first and foremost a consumer guide”, if all the tickets to a show sell out in advance, as with, say, the forthcoming Cumberbatch Hamlet, can we assume that no critics will need to attend?]

It’s worth bearing in mind that in the olden days, newspapers would carry, what? One? Two? Three reviews a day? Theoretically from across the country (depending on the number of regional editions, etc.), and so for a majority of most newspaper readers, any given review was less likely to be useful consumer advice (because they were in Watford and the play was in Leeds, frinstance) than an interesting account of something taking part in their nation’s culture, woven into the fabric of a much wider account of the planet on that particular day (so, no, not “first” or “foremost”). But this is still the review at the short fat end of the graph. The point in a review’s life where it is either an urgent marketing tool, or a piece of breaking news in a country’s cultural life. And it is also the reviews audience at its most general. Still a self-selecting section (people who read a theatre review), within a self-selecting section (people who buy that newspaper), but in theory, at this stage, people with no specific interest.

This is where that model of the internet/long-tail gets interesting. Because one of the things that the internet has definitely done is change the shelf-life of a review. Before, all the reviews used to be collected in the pages of Theatre Record, copies of which could be accessed from, well, the libraries of University theatre studies departments or the British Library. Or maybe in the archives of particular theatres. But, yes, not much of a readership for them after day one. Now, reviews go online and stay online. Apparently “forever”. Although who knows how long the internet is going to last once the planet heats up, the population explodes, or the oil runs out.

And it is to this changed use that I think online criticism has best responded. Researching my chapter on Katie Mitchell’s productions of Greek plays recently, I had to get the sets of reviews for her Trojan Women (1991), her Phoenician Women (1995/96), her Oresteia (2000) and her Iphigenia at Aulis (2004) from Theatre Record (before both my own experience and the internet both kicked in with 2007’s Women of Troy). Even across that quarter of a century, it was fascinating to watch the on-paper critical landscape shrink. The magazines City Limits and What’s On (no relation) disappeared, word counts in the broadsheets contracted, and, over the years, you could almost read certain critics just getting tired. The worst year is undoubtedly 2004, though, where it feels as if almost every critic is writing to a template, and so the theoretical “diversity” of voices is in fact what? Ten? Twenty? people (and let’s not even begin to look at questions of *actual diversity*) all writing pretty much the exact same thing, all for different places. Which is OF COURSE the point of a newpaper critic. People only bought one newspaper, so their critic had to write a “proper review” for them. It’s a skill, and there’s nothing wrong with it. However, if you read a few of them back to back they do all read remarkably similarly. Sure, they have different assessments of whether a thing is good or bad, but actually, that information is the least salient in any review. I’ve suggested before that the main difference between what say Quentin Letts writes, and what I’d write, is that after the list of things seen/heard/experienced, he says “so; obviously terrible” and I’d say “so: obviously brilliant”.

But does it make sense for online to function in the same way? Serving mostly the interests at the thick, fat bit of the graph? Let’s be honest, it’s still early days, and I think online criticism is very much still evolving. However, already I think we can see that it’s starting to be used in different ways. I know, for example, that people probably don’t use my reviews as a consumer guide. I think ppl might sometimes use my Twitter feed or Facebook status updates as a consumer guide, and they might back that choice up by reading the review, but apparently just as often readers will leave a review until afterwards to find out what other people made of it. A kind of written version of chatting to your friends in the pub about a show after you’ve all been.

[Similarly, I don’t think I know many other critics who either read other reviewers *before* seeing a show, much less use them as a consumer guide. I mean, it used to be a pretty strict rule that one didn’t even discuss the elephant in the room during the interval of said elephant. On the other hand, one of the older Sunday papers reviews of a Katie Mitchell Greek play *did* make oblique reference to what some of the overnight critics had written, largely to disagree, which was interesting. I think that happens much more rarely now. But, again, this is all a matter of either botched convention or personal choice.]

So, knowing this about how people use my own reviews, and knowing that I have readers overseas who almost certainly won’t see a production, but might read or produce a play I write about; or having British readers when I’m abroad; or London readers when I’m in Manchester, and so on... It makes me write differently. And, again, pretty much the last thing on my mind is “consumer guidance”. Does this tie in to the Long-tail? I think it does. Because another thing of which you become aware when you have your own blog is what articles get revisited; which reviews get re-used, re-referred to. For example, I could sometimes probably even tell you when some plays have been added to a university course (especially if a lecturer has been kind enough to put me on the reading list) and which week they’re being studied (Or: “Why are 25 people suddenly all reading about Wastwater this morning?”). Because that’s another function of a review, surely: that buzzing first draft of history thing. The best, most detailed first-hand account possible, right? People who weren’t even there at the time wanting to read about what a thing was like. The internet has definitely made those readers feel much nearer, I think.

Another of those maxims that get bandied about in theatre criticism workshops is the idea that our first duty is to our readers. I’m not sure I fully buy that 100%, not least because we don’t know who they are or what they want, but perhaps, at least online, by being idiosyncratically ourselves our ideal readers find us, and thanks to a bit of extra fellow-feeling, might be interested in whatever self-curated programme of performances we take ourselves off to...

[I think I should stop here today, but I think from this piece hangs another one about what work we choose to see as independent critics...]

Das Kalkwerk – Schaubühne, Berlin

[seen 30/04/15]


To be honest, I didn’t do a lot of research before booking to see this production of Thomas Bernhard’s 1970 novel (yes: novel, not play) The Lime Works (“works” in the sense of “factory”). If I had, I might have counted the number of cast members (one) and concluded that my re-introduction to Deutsch Theater might be better served by something a bit more active than a monologue. On balance, I think I’m glad I didn’t do any research.

Thomas Bernhard is a difficult bastard. Here’s the synopsis of the novel on the Schaubühne’s publicity: “For years, Konrad has longed to write a unique treatise on hearing. To finally give himself the time and opportunity, he buys a house in a remote lime works. In this seclusion, far from the disturbing influence of society’s hustle and bustle, he begins work on his masterpiece. His sick, paralysed wife serves as his guinea-pig: for days, weeks and months he experiments with the effect of various consonants, vowels and vocal-groups upon her. But Konrad is unable to put his thoughts down on paper. When he has a dream in which his wife can move, the truth suddenly hits him. She lacks both the discipline and the respect to help him with his experiments. Konrad can see only one way out: he must kill her. What happens when someone fails to live up to their own expectations and life is thus rendered pointless?”

Bernhard’s novel itself is “told through a hypnotic wave of voices – the people of the small Austrian town nearby” (Wikipedia). On stage, it seems that the single performer, Felix Römer, is more embodying the scientist Konrad himself, although he begins dressed in what could be taken to be the nightie and red Dorothy shoes of the wife. Let’s be honest, he’s a middle aged bloke sat in a massive three-sided reflective cube, I don’t think we’re meant to think that’s what Konrad’s wife *actually* wears. But, y’know, in terms of where it’s going allegorically, it seems more like Römer’s inhabiting Konrad while also sometimes hinting at the wife. Perhaps with a fuller grasp on the text, it’s more apparent that he’s being lots of other people, or perhaps the Bernhard have been shaved so that the impression is more of these two subjects (the programme – unusually for Germany – credits Austrian director Philipp Preuss with an adaptation).

For the first forty five minutes, if I had any feeling other than generally watching, listening, and taking in the meaning as best I could, it was a vague sense of concern that I really couldn’t get a grip on where the director (or Bernhard for that matter) was with what is, after all, surely a really problematic text – even in synopsis. I think I’ve remarked before that Bernard usually only escapes the charge of misogyny by virtue of how hard he also hates men. And how mostly he hates Austria most of all. (And what Austrian artist doesn’t?) Nevertheless, I was all at sea for a good long while with what I thought this piece was achieving.

Then there’s a moment. The two motifs of the performance beyond the “costume changes” have been Römer sitting in the sole chair on set contorting under a bright white light in the manner of a pope in a Francis Bacon painting and the playing of Viennese waltz type music. At about one hour in, Römer leaves the cube and comes back with two buckets, water and flour. He pours the water over himself and goes off to fetch two more buckets. He tips the flour over himself. The other two buckets turn out to be egg yolks and schnitzel breadcrumbs. He tips the other two buckets on the floor next to the remains of the flour. If you’ve ever prepared your own schnitzel the line up is totally familiar. And this is what Römer does, to the strains of the most familiar Viennese Waltz after the Blue Danube, he proceeds to cover himself next in beaten egg, then breadcrumbs. It’s a brilliant, appalling-to-look-at visual statement of hatred against Austria. (At least, that’s how I read it.) All at once, a clear directorial take on the text is revealed. And it’s worth the wait. Preuss, himself, an Austrian, has, I think, very firmly decided that a plausible main thrust of this weird, horrible story is a kind of condemnation of Austria – at least, the Austria of the 1970s, which, given the glacial rate of change in Austria, is probably still relatively true now, give or take living Nazis in positions of power.

It’s an interesting thing to note in passing that Britain has never really produced this kind of novelist, or if we have, we don’t/won’t like them much. Maybe Martin Amis gets closest by virtue of his intense dislike of, well, increasingly everything except his own ever-worsening prose. But on the mainland Bernhard and now Jelinek and Houellebecq seem to command ever more respect the more they despair and dislike things. The gloomier their analysis, the more their mainland fans hold them up as paragons of analysis. I’m not sure how I feel about it, really. It’s the sort of thinking that gets dismissed as “teenage” in the UK, but the UK’s done pretty well out of its teenagers over the years, from the Sex Pistols outwards. So, yes, on one level there’s a sense of an incredibly strange and probably depressing (to me) story told here both to amuse and to make-think-widely (something else we seem not to do so much in UK – the thought we tend to want provoked tends to be quite directed), while also being used as an attack on its very foundations. As a re-entry point for German-speaking Europe, it feels apt, somehow.


Thursday, 30 April 2015

Stand – BAC, London

[seen 28/04/15]


Chris Goode’s follow-up to last year’s Edinburgh smash hit firework display, Men in the Cities, is formally about as different as you can get. Where Men in the Cities was a one-man show telling multiple fictional narratives, Stand involves six actors each telling one real person’s story, verbatim. Although, as several of these interviewees point out, it’s not just about them.

It’s also unlike Men in the Cities, in that it’s essentially lovely and optimistic (particularly if you’re a bit of a would-be leftie revolutionary, who, like me, largely never gets round to it, but does however somehow find time to buy property and accrue possessions). If Men in the Cities was about violent, almost suicidal revolution, Stand is about the simple actions and peaceful protests which might or might not work, or even be very “important”, but which nonetheless feel crucial on some much more fundamental level to our society.

Goode’s last verbatim show (his first, I think), collected a range of interviews with children and young people, and before that, he made 9, in which nine members of the community local to the West Yorkshire Playhouse told their own stories. Stand is a verbatim show in which six actors play six people from the community around its own commissioning theatre, the Oxford Playhouse. (If you go in not knowing this I imagine the Oxford-centricity is simply either a little perplexing or largely unnoticable). They are stories drawn from a self-selecting sample of people who responded to Goode’s call for people who have ever taken a stand about something to tell their story.

Throughout all these seemingly disparate pieces, however, is the common theme of a voice being given to the voiceless. “Voiceless” is maybe too grand and too condescending (both generally, and here) for a piece about people who have already volunteered to stand up and be counted. And then volunteered to stand up again and relate that moment or period of standing-up-and-being-counted-ness to members of a theatre company who are going to stand their stories up again and tour them nationally. Nonetheless, it’s the sense that you get. (It is perhaps to this end that Naomi Dawson’s set is such a sober, Question Time-like affair – a sense that these stories are being the national platform everyone deserves, maybe.)

Perhaps inevitably, all the voiceless voices heard here come from a non-defined, compassionate, anarchist and/or left. Were one the critic for the Telegraph or, God forbid, the Daily Mail, one could (myopically) grumble that the “disenfranchised far-right” aren’t similarly represented here (No! Because they’re the people needing standing up against, you dicks). But I think that would be to miss the point. It’s not really a matter of from where on the political spectrum these voices hail – we’re not told a single thing about the politics of the woman who adopts an eight-year-old Russian-speaking girl. It’s merely confirmation bias that makes me think that every word she says makes her full-on left-wing.

[But that’s a bit like that bit in The Last Battle where Aslan claims – in *the most exceptionally racist bit of children’s literature I’ve ever loved* – that basically *everything good* done by adherents of ANY OTHER IDEOLOGY is basically done in his name *really* and *everything bad* done in his name is essentially done in their name. Which is a fabulous way of winning an argument, but an exceptionally starting point for any kind of understanding.]

The fights here are against injustices, on everything from the micro-scale of one girl’s life, through vivisection – the facts of which remain startlingly horrific – and property development, to fracking and the sponsorship of Shakespeare by BP. Cathy Tyson’s character doesn’t specify a particular fight, so much as describe a life of perpetual dissidence, leading to, in the present day, a seat on the local council, which she justifies as a legitimate attempt to do her best to change things for the better.

All these actions are ultimately framed as a question to us in the audience. That if we don’t think things are all right with the world, then what are we doing to change them? The final sniffle-and-gulp-a-bit moment of the show offers the statement that it isn’t about them (on stage), as the lights (Anna Watson) go down on them and come up fully and briefly on us before the curtain call. There’s no more spelling out than that. And there doesn’t need to be. In this, it is a remarkably engaging way of not preaching, and yet leaving a door open as a direct challenge to make things better in the world.

Spalding Suite – Contact, Manchester

[seen 24/04/14]


How much does context matter? On paper (i.e. *in press releases*), Spalding Suite is mostly being sold as the new piece by Inua Ellams. The programme goes on to list five other international poets whose work is included in piece. Nevertheless, this is ultimately a bit like selling the latest piece by Gisele Vienne as “the new Dennis Cooper”. Similarly, this is nominally a piece about basketball, a game about which, dear reader, you will be unsurprised to learn, I have not even the faintest clue. (I mean, I get the self-explanatory titular rudiments – there’ll be a basket and a ball – but...). So let’s chuck most of what we think we know out of the window and start again.

For my money, Spalding Suite is a difficult piece of non-linear, abstract contemporary performance, cunningly disguised as a relatively relatable piece about young men and basketball. By picking a game which already involves spectacular grace and movement, the splintering of movement into abstraction is given a get out of jail free card. In the same way, by having the soundtrack created live by human beatbox MC Zani, the piece gets away again with being able to present texturally dense, sonic soundscapes without seeming impossibly “arty”. And, by tethering the work of the five poets to an overarching narrative about a a five-a-side basketball team, some fiercely complex imagery and writing gets by without seeming wanky. Christ, at one point someone even invokes Prometheus and a raft of classical allusions and doesn’t alienate anyone. Which is a bloody clever trick, if you can manage it.

More striking than this, though, is the fact that this is a piece of performance/theatre/dance that manages to put four young black men (out of five) on stage, in a piece about contemporary life, and not once make them discuss “issues” or patronise them. I’m not sure I’ve *ever* seen a show do that before. Former artistic directors of the Royal Court in particular might want to take a lot of notice. Instead of the usual litany of all-too-familiar casting options and tropes, the *issues* this basketball team have to work their way through are, variously: lack-of-speed, being a boring player, vainty and rage, etc. It’s a relatable range of problems that cuts across class and race, and, mercifully, also has application beyond sport.

But it’s director Benji Reid’s the choreography and stage-pictures that are the real stars here. Inspired seemingly by everything from basketball itself to computer games, slow-motion replays, via architecture, geometary, and probably some abstruse sport theory of which I know nothing, the movement here is precisely everything that I moaned about Shooting With Light lacking.

At the start of the piece I asked about context. And it is an interesting, crucial point. Spalding Suite opened at Contact last week. This week it’s going to the Southbank Centre for its “World Premiere” (their press release: the South Bank Centre really do seem to believe that nothing that happens outside London actually counts). I have no idea how it’ll do there, or who’ll go to see it. It doesn’t seem unfair to suggest, though, that the South Bank Centre is less *at the heart of a community* than Contact. It seems likely that the piece will have a more white, more middle class, much older audience than the majority young black audience it had in Manchester. *And*, if anyone can find a Chicken Tikka Kebab for £3.00 within a minute of the South Bank Centre, I’ll give them a tenner.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Rolling Stone – Royal Exchange, Manchester

[seen in preview 23/04/14]


I last saw Fiston Barek on stage in 2010 in a play called Love the Sinner at the NT, in which he played the gay, African lover of an Englishman in a play exploring the persecution of homosexuals in Africa. I remember it as one of the worst-written plays I have ever seen.
In 2015 at the Royal Exchange, Fiston Barek is playing Dembe, the gay, African lover of a Northern Irishman. Rolling Stone is a play exploring the persecution of homosexuals in Africa, and that, mercifully, is where the similarities end.

Where Love the Sinner was condescending to the point of racism, Chris Urch’s Bruntwood Prize play corrects all its major faults. Instead of being a play about white people in England worrying about Africa, it’s a play set in Africa with an almost entirely black cast (the exception is the token British voice – the mixed-race Northern Irish/Ugandan Sam played by Robert Gilbert (Vronsky in Ellen McDougall’s brilliant Anna Karenina, with which Rolling Stone plays in Rep.)). But more importantly, it’s only *about* the persecution of homosexuals in contemporary Uganda in much the same way that The Crucible is *about* the persecution of Witches in 1700s America.  That is to say, this is a story about characters rather than a spider diagram exploring abstract concepts.

In fact, the Miller comparison feels crucial. As well as clear parallels with the The Crucible, there’s also a fair amount of A View From The Bridge thrown in for good measure – indeed, it was in Rolling Stone that I realised how central to both Miller plays accusations made from within tight-knit communties against other members of the community were. Rolling Stone, in fact draws both plays together, reminding us that it doesn’t matter if the accusations are true (AVFTB) or false (TC) when they’re made within an unjust system.

What’s refreshing about Urch’s approach is that his play treats the situation in Uganda as a given. It’s not a play of white-Western hand-wringing. It doesn’t explore *why* Uganda has such particularly toxic laws against homosexuality: a debated death-penalty for homosexuals, four years imprisonment for anyone not reporting suspected homosexuals, and the titular newspaper, The Rolling Stone, publishing names, addresses and photographs of men accused of homosexuality, leading to some being publicly murdered, one man set on fire in the street watched by a crowd. Even Sam (interestingly self-identifying as British, but calling his hometown Derry), is secondar. All this is good. And, yes, you can see why the play was a Bruntwood finalist. It’s very tightly constructed. Through the tight-knit inter-relationships of just six characters: Dembe’s older brother Joe (Sule Rimi) and twin sister Wummie (Faith Omole); Naome (Ony Uhiara), who has been mute for six months; and her mother, Mama Kyeyune (Donna Berlin), friend and supported of Joe, who is also the local pastor.

From this web of interrelationships alone, you can almost feel the arc of the tragedy that’s going to unfold, with all the inexorability of an Ibsen. I will admit, the play hadn’t really captured my imagination by the interval. A lot of the work done by the first half comes to fruition in the second, but while those seeds are invisibly being sown, there isn’t so much by the way of conflict. Or rather, what conflict there is, superficially rarely seems to rise beyond tensions within Dembe and Sam’s hidden relationship and between Dembe and the rest of his family.

Similarly, while McDougall’s direction and Joanna Scotcher’s design both serve the text admirably, I can’t help wishing that a few more of the sculptural fireworks in Anna Karenina’s design and dramaturgy had also been deployed here. Plainly I don’t mind “straight” productions of plays (See: Little Voice most recently), but the brilliantly municipal plain blue carpet here almost sucks art out of the air (as such carpets tend to). It’s perfect design, even while it’s deeply dispiriting to look at.

As pretty much everyone who knows me said beforehand “It’s not really your kind of play”. But I’m always up for expanding my range a bit, and I think I can say that while, no, it’s not an example of my exact favourite sort of thing, I do think it’s quite a good one of the sort of thing it is. It should also maybe be noted that this production was apparently stood up from scratch in two and a half weeks (as was Little Voice, apparently).

My favourite moment of the show was shortly after it finished, however. I was wandering out the the Royal Exchange for a cigarette, after a Thursday matinee almost exclusively peopled with old white folks. The bloke in front of me was expressing his outrage and I mentally rolled my eyes in expectation at the probable homophobic, UKIPy nonsense I was about to hear.

“It’s the bloody injustice of it that really makes me sick,” he practically shouted.

Really loved that.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Shooting With Light – Lowry, Salford

[seen 23/04/2015]


First things first: theatre is an entirely subjective thing. Lyn Gardner has already written a “best case scenario” review of this show. I fear I’m about to do the opposite.

Shooting With Light is a piece of “physicsl/visual theatre”. Idle Motion are a young company. Very young. About halfway through I realised that accusing them of simply ripping off Complicite’s Mnemonic would be idiotic. I saw Mnemonic just after I graduated from Leeds. In 1999. Probably before any members of Idle Motion had started secondary school. So, on one level, why shouldn’t they make retro, nineties theatre? My generation certainly spent far more time than necessary remaking lots of 1970s theatre (Mike Bartlett’s first acting role at Leeds was playing the lead in Howard Barker’s 1976 play Claw, for instance).

On this level, it’s really fascinating to watch Idle Motion’s work as, I think, a product of the “theatre studies-ification” of theatre. I should say, I have no problem with either theatre studies or devised work. But I do have a theory: that there is a drawback in the initial work it can engender (I say all of this with the full expectation that if Idle Motion stay together as a company they will make much better work than this in the future). Put simply, if you’ve ever seen any visual theatre made by recent graduates, you’ll have seen *a lot* of this show before. It’s almost like a Mr Burns scenario: a lot of people my age saw Mnemonic, became theatre studies teachers, and over the years have passed on their memories of it as tools to make theatre, so that now their pupils, and their pupils’ pupils probably, have a kind of default methodology that results in them making Mnemonic without realising.

Nominally, Shooting With Light tells the story of Gerda Taro, a German socialist war photographer who died, age 26, shooting the Spanish Civil War. Her story is told through two prisms – firstly that of her partner’s brother decades later trying to track down his brother’s remaining work (said partner also photographer), and secondly, essentially as a shadow of that brother. It’s remarkable to see a piece whose entire top-tier creative team is female create a piece which so firmly frames the story of this remarkable independent woman in terms of the men around her, gives her so little of a voice of her own, and even fails her at the Bechdel test.

Also remarkable is how *at no stage* does anything we see on stage ring even remotely true. It’s a odd, because it’s a totally watchable piece of theatre on many levels, and it’s entirely successful story-telling, but what anyone says? Or how they say it? Or the *movement*? No. The whole thing needs to be looked at, gutted, and pretty much re-started. Maybe the lighting is good, although again, it’s evocative more of great lighting in a black-box student theatre show than of Europe in the 1930s. On the subject of Europe in the 1930s, this is a story about a German and a Hungarian living in Paris and then Spain. Now, I get that accents can be a no-no. On the other hand, a bit of variation from the uniform “heightened RP” that the cast use would be good: the overall effect is like watching the Famous Five improvise Land and Freedom. With added *movement*.

 And, ARGH. MY GOD. The *movement*. I see from the programme that Dan Canham was their “movement consultant”, but, no, really, I think the company need a lot more than a “consultant” if they’re going to stick this much movement in. I’m not an expert, but I’d say the company’s main problem lies in the purchase their feet have on the ground. They are virtually rooted. Much of the “movement” is from the waist up. And a painful amount is floaty, slow motion stuff with a lot of people watching their own hands (moving, of course, in slow motion) with their mouths slightly open to suggest wonderment (at their own hands moving?). Perhaps I’m being unfair, but it struck me that they needed to see *a lot* more contemporary dance, and also to do a hell of a lot more physical training, before bothering to include *movement* because they felt they had to. There’s nothing wrong with thinking that dance is an ideal medium through with to present a civil war. There is everything wrong with making the people watching (me) think that that’s the worst idea anyone’s ever had. At least the combination of music and photographs was so much stronger, that the five figures running to and fro on the stage and then freezing was largely ignorable.

Finally, re: characterisation – it seems the fact that Gerda Taro went to finishing school and had a boyfriend are the two key aspects of her life that made it into the play. She comes off as someone who should be called Bunty in a P.G.Wodehouse musical. And, similarly, for someone imprisoned in Nazi Germany for her socialism, her values – except for the occasional bit of lip-service – were much more akin to those of a depoliticised noughties arts graduate than someone committed to the workers’ struggle.

Saying all of this feels grotesquely unfair, and more like kicking puppies than reviewing theatre. *Of course* I’d rather be encouraging. Of course, I think Lyn’s review is *also* right. I want to say “of course Idle Motion are a talented company, and...” but I’m not sure what their talent is. Not really acting, not really movement, and not really creating good dialogue. The mise-en-scene is well realised, but not original or radical. It is indeed a brilliant story that they’ve uncovered, but I wish even a scintilla of the anger, and passion, and *need to tell it* had come across. Instead, it felt like pragmatic next-step “content” on a road of relationship-building and Arts Council Application Form filling. However, people only get better by doing, right? So I am glad they’re doing.

Trailer:

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Blood Wedding – Everyman, Liverpool

[seen 22/04/15]


Watching this version of Blood Wedding – and *version* it most definitely is – I was struck by the realisation that Graeae are pretty much *the* blueprint for what I wish Mainstream British Theatre was like. Consider this production: David Ireland’s take on Lorca’s text almost entirely does away with any attempt to find an equivalent for the floaty poetic original, and instead replaces most of the speaking with the bluntest possible exchanges needed to move the same plot forward, supplemented with remarkable sexual frankness and precisely the references to Facebook and mobile phones with which modern life is filled. Meanwhile Jenny Sealey’s production – inextriably linked to Lisa Sangster’s design – offers a way of playing the text which nimbly hops between demotic naturalism and a kind of post-Brechtian European arthouse style without ever feeling like it’s doing anything even remotely so wanky. At the same time, the company offers more British national and regional voices than you hear over a whole season at the National, is effortlessly mixed race (but emphatically *not* colour-“blind”), and, oh yes, several of the actors are disabled too. Ireland has also written this into the script with delighted, frequently very funny, frankness, offering the same sorts of jokes, but with infinitely richer returns on them, as last year’s Fringe-turkey I Promise You Sex and Violence.

In terms of putting a bomb under a classic, it almost makes Carmen Disruption look suddenly timid. What we get here is: the plot of the original; an updating of it, a stage picture of the multicultural (and multi-national – Graeae co-produce with Dundee Rep) society we actually live in; and a kind of deconstruction of what the hell Lorca was up to in the first place. After all, the plot is the stuff of Eastenders: man with murdered brother and father is marrying a woman who is having an affair with the nephew of their murderer. In this version the bride’s parents are ineffably reasonable Scots, while the groom’s deaf mother feels like she alone has come, virtually unaltered, from the rural, Spanish, Catholic, almost classical-tragedy original. What she’s signing seems to come straight from Lorca. I’ve no idea if her deafness is intended to double as a metaphor for her grief, but it’s an evocative and readily available reading.

Apart from the obviously updated script and the nicely abstract (if a bit too *clean* for my money) set, I think part of what makes this production so brilliantly contemporary is the way that Graeae use language. Because of their status as “a disabled company”, their default way of treating a stage – incorporating surtitles and signing for the deaf and plentiful audio-description for the blind *as a matter of course* – means that at any given moment about three languages are being used simultaneously. As an approach it simply makes all of us *read* the stage more carefully. As a result, it effortlessly aces the kind of stage semiotics that some “visual theatre” companies are still struggling with after more than a decade. Indeed, the whole reminded me more than anything of Frank Castorf’s celebrated destructions of Chekhov at the Volksbühne.

And the cast are great. Rather than the hideous declamatory thing I imagine trad. British productions end up with – attempts to wring every ounce of “Spanish passion” from a bunch of etiolated RADA graduates – here everyone behaves like the everyday Brits they are; mostly substituting irony, sarcasm and self-deprecation for wild hair-tearing and Mediterranean passion. It’s also brilliant that Ireland’s script directly addresses every “elephant in the room” regarding disability. That this is a play in which two black men are fighting over a white Scottish girl in a wheelchair with what I’d guess is sacral agenesis – essentially, no legs – does not politely escape comment. Nor does the white mother’s deafness, or the black aunt’s height. Indeed, given Britain’s propensity for embarrassment at saying the wrong thing, Graeae and Ireland have almost contrived to give the titular wedding not only a tragic dimension, but also a farcical one, both running concurrently. The deaf mother from Lorca, for example, repeatedly – in sign language – calls the daughter a whore, while the daughter’s father says all the wrong things to the deaf mother. To their mutual incomprehension. Jokes about racism and political correctness abound. And yet, all that is merely window dressing for the actual narrative about forbidden love, passion, the question of who the daughter really loves, and this almost savage blood feud that hangs over the families.

The ending of the Lorca is probably stranger than this – the moon is credited as a speaking character in the original – but Ireland/Seeley nonetheless find a stylish solution to the increasing abstraction. Two tramps on a suddenly miked stage – replete with echo-effect – comment on the action as the jilted groom hunts down his wife and her seducer and reflect on the strangeness of desire. So, yes. I look forward to the day when this level of textual and visual interrogation of a piece, and this extent of diversity-of-casting, comes as standard in British theatre. And I don’t think it’s fanciful to imagine it’s so far off now.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice – Kings Arms, Salford

[seen 21/04/15]


As I’ve already said, I’m a bit late to the Jim Cartwright party. Watching Little Voice at the King’s Arms last night, I got another good idea of why: I used to live in London. Apparently LV premièred at London’s National Theatre in 1992, directed by Sam Mendes and behaving as a star vehicle for Jane Horrocks and Alison Steadman. And, well, it’s just too easy to be cynical sometimes. I think John McGrath says it best – referring particularly to the plays of David Storey and Arnold Wesker at the Royal Court in 1960s – when it notes that “this famed New Era/Dawn/Direction of British Theatre was no more than the elaboration of a theatrical technique for turning authentic working-class experience into satisfying thrills for the bourgeoisie.”

Being a bit less hardline than John McGrath, I get the National’s quandry, I get Jim Carwright’s quandry: surely it’s better to have this opening at the National Theatre than another Tom Stoppard play like The Real Thing? But at the same time, when it’s ripped out of its context, it could be seen to amount to little more than selling “grim up north” narratives as poverty porn to the then entirely unreconstructed audience of the NT.

So, yes, before even a word was uttered I was pleased to be seeing this for the first time at a pub in Salford rather than in the Cottesloe; even if, 23 years down the line, parts of it already feel more like a history play than anything to do with present-day Lancashire (the whole first scene revolves around getting a land-line installed. A land line! Imagine!).

I suspect everyone else already knows the plot of Little Voice (from the film if not from seeing it on stage), even I had a basic grasp: withdrawn daughter of brassy mum turns out to be able to do uncannily good impressions of famous singers. Her mother’s latest gentleman caller wants to put her on stage at the local variety club (again, history play). Mother and boyfriend conspire to push child into lucrative stage career. Child is unhappy. Mother’s house burns down. Child goes off to start a relationship with a similarly withdrawn bloke who’s been stalking her. To be honest, despite a touching conclusion, the plot does fall apart a bit in the second half, all getting a bit “and then, and then, and then...” with rapidly spiralling improbability. In fact – let’s get the negatives out of the way here – I reckon with a running time of 2hrs40 (inc. 20 minute interval) I reckon it could probably lose twenty minutes. That said, as a positive, I couldn’t point to anything I saw last night and say, yeah, that’s the bit to cut. Moment to moment you’re completely with the action throughout, and eagar to learn what happens.

So this is weird, right? I’d usually have said – at least on paper – this sort of thing isn’t my bag at all: from the broadly naturalistic set, through the proper story, to the total lack of European anything... And yet, I admit I was pretty taken with this Little Voice (more so before the interval, but I’d been up since half six and was at the Lowry Studio showcase from 12 – 5.30pm, so maybe all the second half really needs is audiences who have had a nap). It’s impossible to single out a particular aspect of the show that made me go “YES”, but it totally happened. The set is clearly a creative labour of love (designed and co-built by director James Baker). Clever eliding the various rooms of the (northern, terraced, back-to-back) house, and with an upstairs level, playing into (what I think is) a reconfigured thrust version of the King’s Arms’s high vaulted space, with a cleverly unfussy way of transforming it into the nightclub of part two...

And then there are the performances. Bloody hell they’re good. Jeni Williams as LV’s mother is a brilliant permanently pissed blizzard of tits and swearing (the character refers to her chest non-stop, ok?), while Josie Cerise, well, she’s good at “being withdrawn”, but she knocks all the covers/impressions out of the park. Liam Grunshaw nails the wheeling-dealing Ray Say, ably supported by Leo Atkin’s Mr Boo – both also turning in fine in-character songs. There’s also excellent comic support from Laura Lindsay as much-teased overweight-friend Sadie, and Ben Sherlock’s Billy is earnest enough to make what could be pretty creepy attention to LV seem sweet and desirable.

So, yes. This is yer proper quality fringe musical, played pretty much exactly where it’s set. Apparently there’s a version opening at the West Yorkshire Playhouse next month (seemingly Little Voices, like Oresteias, come not as single spies...), but it’s very hard to see how a bigger venue or budget will be able to improve on this much care, attention and love.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Reformation 9 – The Yard, Hackney

[seen 16/04/15]


[When I wrote this embargoed review, Reformation 9 wasn’t going to be revived again. Now it might be. The below includes the full text of the introduction to the show, which, while not a “spoiler”, might be something you’d rather see live first. etc. Meg Vaughan has written an excellent non-spoilery review here if you’d rather do that.]

Reformation 9 is introduced by Andy Field who some of us might know from Forest Fringe. It is a work by two German artists Luther & Bockelson. In order to introduce them, Andy reads us their manifesto, which they’ve given me permission to also reproduce here. It’s a brilliant text:

1. We are Luther and Bockelson and the first thing you must know is nothing that happens this evening is our fault. None of this is our responsibility. You brought this upon yourselves.

2.What did you do when they first told you God did not exist. Were you angry? Were you disappointed? Did you ask for a second opinion, or burn your church to the ground?

3. We are Luther and Bockelson and this is our manifesto. Initially we were disappointed that you could not read it in the original German but actually the translation really adds something.

4. We are Luther and Bockelson and we are from Europe. Real Europe. Grand hotels and cheap cigarettes Europe. Conceited, war-wounded, iron-curtained, gothic-spired multilingual racist Europe. Rosa Luxemburg Walter Benjamin Ferris wheels and barricades nailing manifestos and heretics to the walls of our great Cathedrals Europe. We are ghosts. We are angels of history.

5. We are Luther and Bockelson but enough about us let's talk about you. You look beautiful out there in the half light. You are so young. So irresistible. You look ready to take on the world.

6. What did you do when you realised this was what you paid your money for? Were you angry? Were you disappointed? Did you ask for a refund, or did you get up and dance?

7. We are Luther and Bockelson and our moment has passed. It’s your time now darlings. Time for a party. Time for a riot. Time to sing of the multicolored, polyphonic tides of revolution. Time to kiss like strangers in the aisles of the theatres of our great European capitals. Time to spit and drip. To twist and shout. Come all you rebels, youth spirits, rock minstrels, bomb throwers, bank robbers, daylight looters, God botherers, poets, plagiarisers, panic buyers and body snatchers: let's toast to the future! Let's toast to the next time! To all the joy rides we'll take along roads that haven't even been built yet!

8. We are Luther and Bockelson and we have travelled a long way to get here so let's not fuck this up.

9. [silence]

10. We are Luther and Bockelson and this is where our Manifesto ends. We hand it over to you now, to do with as you see fit.

Seeing Carmen Disruption the next night seemed like the almost perfect round-off to a week that included two trips to the ROH and this. I’m very pleased that Meg Vaughan went so far as to round this and CD up together. Because I think she’s right. And Michael Billington, with his Crimp reference, is right too. (It’s section 4 that reminds me of Crimp. Section 7 reminded me of Chris Goode’s reading of Howl at Forest Fringe or the end of his own God/Head, and section 8 – in delivery at least – reminded of Chris Thorpe.)

Just the manifesto of Luther & Bockelson (keep wanting to call him Bockelstein) alone strikes me as an important part of Where We Are With “British” Theatre Right Now. After writing this, and a thing about “Three British Playwrights Since 2000” (for IATC website), I’m going back to a piece for the Guardian about “National Identity” in art prompted either by the Identity.Move! Festival in Prague, or by an ongoing discussion with a Romanian colleague about a Hungarian play. In both pieces, as in Britain at large, the idea of of Britain, then “Europe”, then “The World”, feels particularly pressing at the moment. Reformation 9 offers little by way of conclusive answers, but just the text of the manifesto seemed to cover an important spread of ideas, both in terms of how we in Britain create Europe (that brilliant “Real Europe” distinction), and how within that we define it, the landmarks of differentiation for us, and perhaps also for them, who might well view us as an American proxy moored just off the bit that counts, and with a past more catastrophic than anywhere else on the continent except Germany. As we sit and wait to discover which war we’re going to get involved in next, and thereby what course history will take, it seems both interesting and futile to consider who on earth we even think we are.



[run your mouse over the next bit for more definitive spoilers if you’re never going to see the show...]

Now that the show has closed it can be revealed that Luther & Bockelson are figments of the fertile Field imagination. In fact, the action of Reformation 9 is largely determined by the audience and how they interact with the contents of A4 envelopes on their chairs, and with Field returning to the stage a further eight times to deliver the manifesto (hence 9). As such, there’s not really *a show* to review at all (hence my being very keen indeed to have the manifesto to post, in lieu of content). On the night I saw it, my fellow audience members and I had a fine old time recreating various tropes of European theatre – I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to make my own Katie Mitchell camera show with a live-feed video recorder, to put another section of the performance in a solid red lighting state, and to leave an electric guitar propped against an amp making screechy feedback noises. Other people did other stuff. On other nights, totally different things happened. And, well, it made me happy – and doubtless confirmed to anyone else that it’s a good job I only direct one play every ten years as my aesthetic gets ever more calcified. 
FIN

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Carmen Disruption – Almeida Theatre, London

[seen 17/04/15]


Simon Stephens’s Carmen Disruption is a play of echoes and fragments. It exists in this form because the form precisely mirrors the worldview. It veers between the public and the private; between impersonal facts and personal perspectives. It is a play about Europe that it about the world. Fittingly, then, my relationship with the play is already both public and personal. I first read Carmen Disruption sitting outside a café in the autumn sun in Berlin, 2013; I first saw it, directed by Sebastian Nübling, at Deutsches Schauspielhaus, Hamburg, in 2014. This seems important to mention, firstly because each version has differed so much from the last, and secondly, because it is very much a play set in “Europe”. Watching it at “home” is a very different experience again.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. You want to know the basics: each incarnation of Carmen Disruption is a set of five intercut monologues with a chorus. The voices of four of the monologues are essentially modern versions of four characters from Bizet’s Carmen. The last is that of The Singer, a character “informed by lengthy conversations with the mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham”, who, like The Singer, has played the role of Carmen in dozens of productions in dozens of cities across the world. In the Hamburg production The Singer was played by Rinat Shaham (she’s currently in New York. Two weeks ago she was in Berlin). The chorus, on paper, is something like the voice of the city: newspapers, announcements, trends, zeitgeisty thoughts; the sound of the crowd, the murmur of the Platz der Republik. In this version the chorus is played by the mezzo-soprano Viktoria Vizin and a surtitle machine.

Having seen the text of the piece go through so many iterations, it almost feels like the stories it tells could be anything at all. Of course they couldn’t. The shock of narcissism and violence of the rent-boy Carmen, the near-suicidal despair of the jilted student Micaela, the low-grade criminality and reconciliation with estranged child of the (now female) cab driver Don José, and the criminality on a global scale of Escamillo’s financial career all build – in the same way as Wastwater built – into a very particular elliptical sketch of the modern world. Indeed, it was in Wastwater that Stephens first introduced Habanera from Carmen as a kind of synaptic device, an almost inaudibly hummed motif running between its disparate parts; the tune carelessly hummed by the woman having the affair in the Heathrow hotel room.

Carmen Disruption is, once again, Stephens exploring that vision of Europe that – after the section “A Tragedy of Love and Ideology” in Attempts on Her Life – I unconsciously think of as Crimpland. As I say; echoes and fragments. In Escamillo’s painstaking morning routine we are perhaps reminded of Rupert Goold’s production of American Psycho. In the jarring descriptions of online pornography we’re back to that Heathrow hotel room in Wastwater. Even, eighteen years down the line, we can still perhaps hear Larry from Patrick Marber’s Closer mumbling that “everything is just a version of something else.” Hell, even just as an encapsulation of my last week or so of theatregoing, Carmen Disruption is ludicrously resonant, from the Crimp opera, through to the Hofesh Shechter Royal Ballet show.

Michael Longhurst’s production here immediately joins the ranks of the most fully, beautifully realised productions of *anything* I’ve seen on a British stage. Lizzie Clachan’s design is, by turns, brassy, subtle and glorious; and above all, a great *Almeida* design. We enter the auditorium from the stage, and so see the auditorium has been dressed as one of those great European chocolate-boxy national opera houses of the late 1800s, while the stage itself is almost empty save for additional bricks, rubble, and, centre-stage, the carcass of a dead bull. (Like I said ages ago, bullfighting is definitely This Year’s Image, and *obviously* Carmen has it in spades). Of course, in the context of *Europa*, the bull also has an additional context which also finds its resonance here. The rubble of European capitals also presents that dual sense of the – still – ever-present aftermath of WWII that you feel in any European capital, and at the same time, that allied feeling of property development, of state and nation giving way to globalisation; industry giving way to Capitalism, factories and warehouses becoming desirable loft-style apartments and multi-purpose arts centres. All these ideas present in the text are reflected in the design.

And, as with the design, so is the whole atmosphere of the show – through dramaturgy (Pia Furtado), movement (Imogen Knight), sound (both the sound design: Carolyn Downing and the original score and musical direction: Simon Slater), and light (recent Katie Mitchell regular Jack Knowles here furiously channelling Lee Curran) – somehow a sculptural version of the text. The use of two live cellists alongside the recorded booms and crackles of city life, the use of striking actual dance moments, and the sheer intelligence of the edit done on the script all deserve massive credit.

One could make one or two minor quibbles: the movement feels like it could be a bit more integrated – ; the young student *isn’t how I imagined her* (the dumbest possible objection – Katie West’s performance is perfectly excellent *of itself*, but apparently her German counterpart’s version stuck more than any of the others, being less plaintive and painfully, almost embarrassingly, sincere, even in the midst of her self-ironisation); and occasionally Stephens’s op-ed voice sounds a little too clearly – financial toreador Escamillo does at times sound like he’s just delivering the lecture on the catastrophe of capitalism that Simon would, were he a columnist not a playwright. But these are personal trifles. Things that struck *me*, rather than real or damaging dramatic flaws. Instead, there’s much more to enjoy here – both rent-boy Carmen (Jack Farthing) and banking Escamillo (John Light) are brilliant dramatic creations, and both beautifully rendered here. Light’s reading especially notable for its broad, hilarious take on E’s astonishing lifestyle pomposity.

But really, it’s the way that the whole works, rather than individual elements, that make this creation so strong. The fullest set of ideas and resonances from the script have been picked up and expanded on exponentially, creating an incredibly rich intellectual synaptic tapestry.

In my review of Carmen Disruption in Hamburg I said “with Three Kingdoms, Sebastian Nübling and Simon Stephens changed a generation’s idea of what British theatre could be.” It might be opportunistic to claim that this production is proof of that promise, but it doesn’t seem entirely fanciful. What is spectacular about this as an achievement, is that it feels entirely organic. It’s not “influenced by” Three Kingdoms. At all. (I realised writing this that I saw my first Michael Longhurst show a decade ago this August: the intercut monologues of Peter Morris’s Guardians, and he was bloody good back then.) Instead it feels at once completely British (the acting, the costuming, the attention to realism and detail), as well as completely “European” (the cross-disciplinary verve, the abstraction, the dramaturgy, the precise-yet-conceptual design). Finally, it feels, we are making work that demands work in return. And aren’t afraid of making something that is beautiful as a way of examining the gritty and grubby.

Oh, and the final moments, attributed in the printed text to the Singer, but here delivered by surtitle, seem at once to define the entire production, say something more than just that, to make sense of the whole piece, and yet be saying almost nothing at the same time. Or rather, refusing to spell out what it is they’re edging towards. To have even an empty stage give you goosebumps is thrilling theatre indeed.
___

Tracklist:













And, obviously, *this*: