Saturday, 26 July 2014

Full text: Simon Stephens

[on adaptation: A Doll’s House]

Simon Stephens by Mark Haddon

Ahead of the West End Run of Carrie Cracknell and Ian McNeil’s production of A Doll’s House, the Young Vic were kind enough to ask me to contribute an interview with Simon Stephens for their programme. When the run ended, I posted the programme text on here with the promise that I’d upload the full text sometime. Recently, I was emailed by a PhD student who wondered if I was ever going to put the full text online. So here it is:

AH: Whose idea was it do A Doll’s House? Where did it come from?

SS: Well it was an idea that was brought to me. The genesis came from Carrie Cracknell, the director, who was and remains fascinated by he sexual politics surrounding Nora [the original title of A Dolls House. I'm slightly guessing which use is intended in each instance here] and representations of Nora and the meaning of her narrative now 120-odd years after its writing. But it was brought to me by David Lan who was excited not only by Carrie’s enthusiasm for it, but also by the thoughts of Jon Fosse on the way Ibsen was being represented in England.

So this came after your adaptation of I Am The Wind?

It came around the same time. I was approached in rehearsals, I got on well with Jon and he was very happy with what I’d done. Although I Am The Wind didn’t really succeed in the Young Vic, it was a big hit throughout Europe and [the director] Patrice Chéreau was very happy with it – it was a co-production with lots of different theatres –Théâtre de la Ville, Paris and the Grec Festival in Barcelona – and it was fascinating seeing how the different way it was received in Théâtre de la Ville compared with the way it was received at the Young Vic. People in the Young Vic were largely perplexed and unsettled by the whole thing and in Paris received it like it was the most euphoric poem every written. Going out with Tom Brooke and Jack Laskey afterwards; it was like they were rock stars. They were stopped in the street, you know, a mile away from the theatre by people who were in awe of their performance, which is kind of an amazing thing to witness.

Anyway, Fosse had a take on Nora which really excited David Lan and he talked to me about it, which was really this idea that the play as received in Norway – according to Jon – was not a celebration of the importance of female emancipation at all. Now, and in the history of productions in Norway. And I think the kind of notion that I’m familiar with is represented by Michael Meyer in in his seminal study of Ibsen called, imaginatively, ‘Ibsen’ is that actually it was the early British or Irish response to Ibsen in London at the end of the 19th Century – the start of the 1900s – that gave a very particular refraction to the representations of Nora, specifically the response of George Bernard Shaw who held her up at a time when he and Harley Granville-Barker were running the Royal Court theatre and were celebrating the work of Githa Sowerby, who wrote Rutherford and Son, and really engaged in the sexual politics of emancipation at the time they found in Nora a kind of flag bearer for women’s rights. And this was something that sat at odds with Ibsen’s intentions. He never intended her to represent – in the letters and in the lectures and in the journals he kept he talks of his frustration with people who represent Nora as being symbolic of female emancipation. Because for him she never was.

Instead she’s representing...?

Well, I think what Fosse would argue, I think when I read Ibsen’s letters at the time, what strikes me is that he was wrestling an awful lot with his own sense of his authenticity and the extent to which he’d been received in a particular way by the literary cultures of Norway, not just within Norway – he was in Italy for a lot of the time when he wrote the play – and was held up as emblematic of Norwegian literature, but became objectified and commodified and was received in a way that sat at odds with the way he felt. And I think this kind of theme recurs again and again in his letters and his journals and his essays at the time – a frustration with how he is being perceived by other people. And how that perception sits at odds with how he really feels.

Is this something to which you can relate with your second play about to go into the West End?

[laughs] Er. That’s a bit of a blindsiding question. I don’t know, because I’ve got no idea how I’m perceived at all actually. I’ve no idea how people... I don’t think writers have the same... I don’t think playwrights have the same cultural currency as...

You were on a Hot List in Grazia, weren’t you?

I was on the List of Lust, I think you’ll find it’s called, in Grazia, but that’s entirely accidental and related to going out once with Polly Vernon who edits that list. Not going-out dating, but going out drinking. But I don’t think playwrights have anything like the same cultural currency that they did 130 years ago, so I can imagine it’s the kind of thing that an actor might relate to, or a y’know, kind of a football player might relate to but but I think playwrights are ignored largely by most people. And that’s exactly how I like it to be. It’s really good. It makes me very happy. And most people who do know who I am normally have some level of serious commitment to and engagement with contemporary playwriting. And they’re quite interesting people. Quite nice people. So that’s alright.

But, yeah, for Ibsen, Nora was emblematic of... I think I do think it’s true to a real extent that all characters that playwrights write are in some way carved out of themselves. And, well, clearly he’s not here to talk about this, but reading the journals and his letters at the time that was what I extrapolated, that Nora wasn’t emblematic of female emancipation, but she was emblematic of him. And feeling [word inaudible] and contained and trapped in ways that he perceived as limiting and wanting to rail against that.

That’s really interesting.

It might be bollocks, but it also accords with what Fosse was talking about. Because what he talked about was that in Norwegian productions she’s much more represented as being cruel and selfish and egocentric and destructive which is often edited – not edited, but not engaged with in Britain and that was what really drew me to it.

And was Carrie doing that? Because my impression was that if Carrie was doing that, no one sent Hattie the memo – would have been my take on that, because - to my eyes - Hattie was playing a sympathetic character...



I never saw her as that in rehearsal.

That’s really interesting.

I think the way she treats Doctor Rank is unbelievably cruel. I think the way she treats Mrs Lind is just unbelievably selfish and unthinking, her capacity for savagery in the way that she lashes out at the servants is consistently high-handed and her treatment of Krogstat in the end is ungenerous and unthinking and lacks empathy.

If Nora is nothing but an emblem for female emancipation she’s not a human being therefore and I think she’s much more interesting than that, so my impulse was to try to reclaim that. And part of reclaiming that humanity involved dramatising that selfishness and thoughtlessness as honestly as her capacity for clarity and bravery and I think that might be the stuff that Shaw shied away from

Presumably you’ve had conversations with Hattie about this. What’s her take on it?

I think she would agree with me on it. Nora is unquestionably cruel towards Mrs Lind

I guess the way I, and probably generations of Nora-apologists and/or those making the argument for female emancipation, would justify or rationalise that is that it could equally be symptomatic of somebody panicking. She’s in such a fix that all her behaviour could be boiled down to not that she’s irrationally cruel, she’s backed into a corner.

That’s fair. But I think that there are times when she’s irrationally cruel. No hold on, do I think that?

But these things are all present in... I mean, you haven’t changed the script...

No, because the thing is as well is that the last time I saw A Doll’s House I kind of thought I’d made a tremendously English version. I might have started off with the intention of writing something more born out of Scandinavia but watching it I think it would be idiotic to say that’s what I’d done. And I think that’s kind of fine, I think starting with the intention of doing something and achieving something other is something that happens in the creation of all art. And when I saw it in the revival this year I was struck by how English the sensibility of it was and you know...

What do you mean by English?

I think there are some linguistic flourishes that I added to make lines sing more happily out of my mouth and I think those flourishes anglicised the energy of the lines. So a lot of “My dear Mrs Helmer” or “You can’t possibly know what...” – the use of adverbs, embellishing lines with adverbs, and just qualifiers, because the English being a fundamentally polite nation will qualify their language constantly. And I think if the production was successful – and it was a successful production – I wonder if partly it’s because the text is more is more anglicised than I’d anticipated making it.

How close did you get to the Scandinavian?

I’ve never seen it in Scandinavian, I’ve never seen it in Norway.

Presumably you were sent a literal translation and...

I was sent the original as well, Swedish. He wrote in Swedish.

How close did you get to the rhythms, or was it just sense that you were dealing with?  I don’t know how people do translations... Is there a “correct” or an ethical...  Is there a consensus? Do people go to conferences on this?

Yeah, they really do.

But do playwrights go to those conferences? Do you all hang out and talk about this?

I don’t know if we hang out and talk about this, but there’s certainly debate about what the role of the playwright should be in the making of a version. David Eldridge, who’s a friend of mine, has done three Ibsens. Very successfully. So I certainly talked to him about it, before I started work, and listened carefully to what he was talking about. Like with everything, the range of opinions on that question is extremely broad. So someone like Gregory Motton who does a lot of translations, but tends to write from the original, to translate from languages he can read. He’s quite savage about the culture of “versions” and is really unforgiving. It’s a fascinating read it’s in the introduction to Strindberg Plays Two he writes exactly about this issue of doing versions and is completely damning about it and is really hostile in terms of his sense that if you’re doing a “version” then there will always be this instinct to anglicise the language which will always betray the original author and that will always come from a position to assume idiocy on the part of the audience. So that’s one extreme and then I guess someone like David Eldridge might be on the other extreme. That there’s a directness and an openness to the way he writes his versions that while born out of the original text shouldn’t necessarily feel completely beholden to honouring the original syntax, the original rhythm of language.

I read the literal out loud and aspired to get a sniff of that original rhythm and language not just in terms of... I don’t think I’d have had it in my imagination to fucking write anything down – to actually write any words – if I felt too beholden to the original syntax and language. And actually, I think Motton’s underestimating the extent to which all things are fundamentally a version of a version of a version. That’s what theatre is. I think the notion of staging the writer’s original intention is specious. It can’t actually sit with what theatre is or with what theatre is for. Or what theatre is as an artform. People talk about getting into the writer’s head but that’s bollocks. You don’t get into the writer’s head. The only people who will ever get into a writer’s heads are brain surgeons in the unfortunate event of a writer needing brain surgery. The rest of us deal with collaboration all the time.

The more I think about it the more vehemently I feel this, that there is no archetypal platonic form of what a play should be and actually if there was, if Ibsen had directed his own world première in conditions that he dreamt of with actors that he adored it would still be a version. It not that you’re getting inside Ibsen’s head... much I might have wanted... for me this is where theatre’s really interesting, because much as I might have wanted to honour the Scandinavian tradition of portraying Nora as somebody who’s not emblematic of female emancipation and much as I might have wanted to make something more Scandinavian, I didn’t, because I’m not necessarily in cogent control of everything I do as an artist.

Also do you think there’s also a thing that because the audience have their knowledge of the British history of the play...

Yeah. Exactly. I was going to pursue that idea. If one were able to go into a time machine and take that original Ibsen production and transpose it to the National Theatre now or to the Young Vic or to the Lyric or to any theatre in London it would be a different cultural phenomena precisely because all the audiences know the play before they go in. because the play has been mediated by learning it at school or by studying it at university or by other productions of it. And also we’re not – if we saw the original Ibsen production we wouldn’t understand it – most of us wouldn’t understand a fucking word of it, because it’s Swedish

Its what you were talking about on the Guardian website about John Donnelly’s production of The Seagull. All that swearing and all those English words [annoyingly, I can't find this now]. I went to see The Seagull and really enjoyed it, really enjoyed myself and thought John did a super job on it and bought a copy of the book at the interval, and then in the second half I put it on the floor by my seat and in the second half in that old Matcham theatre in Richmond it slipped between the gap between my seat and the seat in front of me, so at the end of the play I had to ask the woman in the seat in front of me if she could pass me my book and they made a joke about me being able to find time to read during watching the play and I said, oh, no, it’s a copy of the play and they asked a really interesting question which was: “is it this play or is it the original?” And they were really enjoying it, they had had a good night, they weren’t being pejorative, but I thought their question was really indicative of lots of different assumptions that we sit on when we go to the theatre. If it had been the original, it would have been in Russian. And a particular old form of Russian that Chekhov would have written in, in the way that Ibsen wrote in Swedish in a particular way. For their contemporaries was not perceived as being old-fashioned or creaky; the play was perceived as being radical. I don’t know if there were actually riots, but what happened in Germany is that a leading actress refused to play the end of the play as it stood, so got Ibsen, and he agreed to do this, got Ibsen to rewrite the ending so that Nora stayed with Torvald and the children. And he did that happily.

Well, her walking out is a decision which could go either way, isn’t it?

What happens in the whole structure of that remarkable third act is that there are a whole load of twists and turns – really quite astonishing gear changes. One of my favourite things about doing the version was writing from Ibsen’s perspective and imagining myself as a dramatist and imagining the things that he’d imagined and the moments that I found hardest to imagine were those moments throughout the third act where he invited characters to go on remarkable shifts of psychological state in tiny spaces of time. So it kicks off with Mrs Lind and Krogstat reconciling, Lind persuading him to drop the debt, them agreeing to be together, which is pretty melodramatic. And one of the hardest things about writing the play was writing that in such a way that it felt to my ears to my brain as being psychologically compelling. That was pretty hard to write that in a way that left me feeling yes if I was him I would say yes to her offer, if I was her I would make this offer. So that’s a slight recalibration of some of the energies. largely cutting actually. I mean, most of the stuff that I did was cutting. I cut 1,000 words from the literal. I think there’s something like 30,000 words, so cutting 1,000 is a 25th lets say, so it’s not tiny...

The Ibsen literal was to an extent actable so it was just about refining and refocussing.

Apart from the technical challenges, and the urge to repoint the British sympathies toward Nora, what was the most interesting aspect of it for you. I mean, does it change you as a playwright?

Yes. I think so. I think if I’d done more of Ibsen it would really fundamentally change me. I think there’s a level of dramaturgical daring in his plays that I find really inspiring. So he rally tries stuff that I wouldn’t try and doing a version I imagine wht it would be like to be him thinking “I am going to make the decision to try this”.

It was a hugely original play for its time...

What was interesting was that it took popular melodrama forms and just operated within the confines of the melodrama. I was just [reading?] an essay this morning about The Third Man by Carol Reed, which was written by Graham Greene and talking about the astonishing achievement of that. I think it’s one of the greatest screenplays and it’s one of Green’s greatest works but the different tension by which it both adheres to noir structure and then sits at odds with it, so there is a kind of femme fatale figure, there are confrontations in cafés with strangers, there are phone calls with nobody on the other end of the line, there’s a big culminating meeting between the hunter and the hunted. It’s all classic kind of noir set pieces but Greene operates within those and structures them to make it a very profound consideration of the morality of the world of post-war black market.

And I think Ibsen does a very similar thing, I think he takes so many moments that in a lesser writer’s hands could be archetypal melodrama, you know? There’s lots of letters never sent, lots of secrets from the past, there’s lots of lovers coincidentally bumping into one another after years of separation, all of this is the meat and drink of melodrama but he uses this convention and writes against it I find that really fascinating. I think like, that third act, I go again and again back to that third act when writing the version thinking “this isn’t going to work. This isn’t possibly going to work. The gear change from him finding the first letter from Krogstat and then effectively banishing Nora from her children and promising to keep her prisoner within her own home to then getting the second letter from Krogstat and in the throes of euphoria and relief he forgives her.” I remember working on that and thinking “this is where we loose the audience”. They’re not going to believe that any fucking sentient human would do this. And so there were two decisions made about that, one was the introduction of the possibility that Torvald’s illness, which is very vague and unspecific in the literal very probably was a kind of mental breakdown so there’s a character with a backstory of erratic psychological behaviour and the other thing was to really amp up the amount of booze he’d had.

And considerations of madness and alcoholism are really central to my writing. Alcoholism and madness return again and again in my plays. Herons, On The Shore of the Wide World, Country Music, there’s stuff about drinking in Pornography, the bottle of gin that runs through Morning as a kind of emblem, The amount of boozing in Three Kingdoms – there’s *a lot* of drinking in Three Kingdoms... There’s a lot of drinking and madness in my plays.


Because I think they’re kind of things that fascinate me. I come from a family of alcoholics. My dad died when he was 59 of alcohol-related illness. And so as a writer you do return to those things that haunt you. I mean, it’s a long time ago. It’s twelve years ago that he died, but actually the death was nowhere near as definitive to my sense of self as the last ten years of his life, which were all about hiding booze and and drinking at 11 o’clock in the morning. Really brutal. So as a writer that’s something you’re going to return to and obsess about.

I think I’ve tried to be as articulate as I can in my defence of writing versions because I think all literature is built on a process of making versions of versions of versions so I don’t have any truck with the arguments of Gregory Motton who posits, however compellingly and seductively and angrily – and he does and they’re a great read – but I just think he’s wrong.

I think every version of the play is indicative of the things that writers are conscious of when they make a version but also emblematic of the things that they’re unconscious of. And I think that would be the argument of this academic that even writers who would consider themselves to be left-wing, who consider themselves to be feminist, are operating in cultures they can’t control and so it may not be surprising that they write versions that sympathise more with Torvald and which cut Nora’s voice more than they would realise they were doing. And she’s quite interested in statistical analysis although I think she underestimates the power of not speaking.

But I would say, the other thing, and so it’s not surprising that in my version themes that have haunted me like compassionate consideration of mental illness and an interrogation of alcoholism and the presence of alcoholism in our culture that have fascinated me from [his first two plays] Duke and Good Rockin’ Tonight [here he points to the posters on the wall of his office.] right up to Morning and Blindsided, I think. And even Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, actually, those things should be underlined and revealed in my version. It’s amazing rehearsing A Doll’s House at the same time as rehearsing Curious Incident now these are two pieces by two different writers that I’m just doing an adapation of, generated by Mark Haddon and Henrick Ibsen yet being I remember one morning really clearly very vividly having a realisation that the same line appeared in both plays. Which is the line: I could never spend the night in a stranger’s house. Which is something that Christpher Boone says to Mrs Alexandra, his neighbour, and something which Nora says to her husband.

So another consideration of mine which is really central to both these plays is “What is home?” “Is it possible to leave home?” and “Is it ever possibly to return home?” Really simple questions, but they sit in my plays from Bluebird onwards so it’s not surprising that that fascination or revelation should underpin my versions as well.

And the other thing is a consideration of psychological catastrophe of anatomised culture, which is a multisyllabic way of asking the question “Is there such a thing as society?” Have we lost sight of the fact that there is such a thing as society? Because the notion of society carries with it responsibilities as well as rights and in that sense is Nora’s argument to try to justify her departure in my version does she become does she articulate quite post-Thatcherite ideas in the literal version the line that I really think pinged out is a version of the line “There’s no such thing as society”. And there’s part of me that thinks actually Torvald’s got a point. He’s not got a point about Christianity I don’t believe in his argument on Christian grounds, I don’t believe in his argument on grounds of obligations to a husband, but I think sometimes we’re better when we take responsibility for our own actions and commit to the possibility of a shared action and I would as somebody who’s always been kind of social democratic if not socialist in his thinking and certainly would as someone for whom the central architecture of of my life is my family and my responsibilities to my family so it’s not surprising that I don’t see Nora as being an icon of female emancipation. I think she does things which are pretty questionable.

I also think she’s really drunk when she leaves...

Do you think she’s be back the next day?

[Laughs] Yeah, yeah! It’s really interesting because I really hate that question, you know, when people ask me that question of my own plays, I get really pissed off, but actually the two things I am fascinated by are Curious Incident and Doll’s House. Maybe because I didn’t generate them, there’s part of me that is absolutely convinced that Ed and Judy, Christopher Boone’s parents are definitely going to get back together. And really, I don’t know what the hell is going to happen to Nora, but it’s a fascinating question and there’s part of me that thinks she’s going to go back the next day really hung over and apologetic [laughs]. But that might just be indicative of my upbringing [still laughing].

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Paisagem Desconhecida – Teatro Nacional D. Maria II

[seen 17/07/14]

Hallelujah! Let joy be unconfined. The Almada Festival programmed some contemporary dance. “No text!” the festival director beamed at me, as I entered Lisbon’s National Theatre. “Well, of course everything is a text, really...” I refrained from replying.

Before getting onto the thing itself, I should just say a few words in praise of Teatro Nacional D. Maria II (feel free to skip down to below the photo). It really is an absolute Rolls Royce of a National Theatre. Built in that European National Theatre style, it is far and away the most functional and comfortable example of that style I’ve ever been in. The seats alone would make a West End theatre weep with envy (of course they would, they’re there as a matter of state pride, not ceiling-ignoring profiteering): wide, spacious, and actually comfy. But it’s the auditorium which makes it. Usually this sort of chocolate-boxy kind of affair feels deeply weird, and not-quite right, be it Deutsches Theater, Schauspielhaus Hamburg, the national theatre in Prague, or any of the countless others following that barely-raked many-layered design. Somehow, this one does. The auditorium is more drum shaped than most – it’s a bit like being given a hug in a tin of Quality Street. The stage itself, however, is resolutely modern – like Sadler’s Wells or the Schaubühne. A bit like a vision of the Royal Court if there was elbow room. And the chintz – there’s always chintz, right – is at least kept to a moderate level. *And* they’ve currently go a Tim Etchells neon outside (see bottom).

And so to __’s Paisagem Desconhecida (). This really is work in a different league. The piece starts with a slow, silent, scratchy video projection of something that looks like a blurry moon, it’s an animation of some chalk-dusk or flour, I think, and it is flickering and resolving itself repeatedly anew into childish faces or skulls.

Lights gradually reveal a stage set with two percussionists on the right and two men in suits-but-not-shirts with stockings over their heads on the right. The percussionist do their thing and the men do movement. That’s the hour, really. The attempt here for the critic is communicate just how far the company exceed this brief and how.

There were repeated points in Paisagem Desconhecida where I would think to myself: “imagine Charlie Spencer watching this.” And, I’d be filled with a sort of glee. Not just because he deserves the torture, but because, on one level, this is literally a dictionary definition of “wanky”. Preposterously, marvellously so. This is the sort of thing that, were a stray Tory to discover it in the UK, could end arts funding at a single stroke. Because, on one level – more than one level – it does feel obtuse. Wilfully so. Aesthetically it feels like it *could* have been almost mathematically calculated to be difficult. A-rhythmic drumming, sudden bursts of screechy, squawky, honking saxophone. Miked steel bedframes. Amplification set at that level where bass notes actually vibrate inside your ribcage. Oh, yes. On some levels this feels like “difficulty” incarnate...

Similarly, the movement is intriguingly opaque. As with contemporary opera, contemporary dance is pretty hard to describe in terms of things other than itself. There are two men. They rarely touch or connect. They move in tandem, angular and spider like around the stage. Jerking and twitching more than flowing or sashaying. You can imagine, I’m sure. The piece seems split into distinct sections in which discernible variant styles are deployed. The first is like thuggish mod music hall in its movements, the second more like some sort of drunk fight in a Friday night chip shop. The stockings over their heads lend the thing both an air of genuine menace and a comic-book bank robbery. A tin bathtub is dragged around the stage, sounding for all the world like a Wagnerian horn section. But from behind the tub emerges a black tree stump and the men in black masks. One daubs his obscured face with white greaspaint, creating an effective skull mask. He also produces an enormous axe. The tree stump, far from being the Beckettian prop it originally suggested in the presence of these two trampy figures, suddenly becomes executioners block and eventually a reed in the mouth of the non-axe-weilder is sacrificed to appease whatever obscure deity has put these creatures here. After, sat in front of a small black flat, the men throw rice over their shoulders, then more chalk-dust at the board, forming a kind of Tony Hart-style seascape. Eventually the men lay themselves to rest over the now smoking bathtub like two shrimps on a barbeque.

Possibly this birth-to-death cycle is the story. Perhaps “narrative” per se isn’t meant to be an issue. The thing has commanded attention throughout, and been executed with virtuosity. That, along with its uncompromising relentlessness seems like more than enough. That it resists any easy analysis just seems part of its charm.

A message I think we can all get behind...

Friday, 18 July 2014

Alemanha – Fórum Romeu Correia

[seen 17/07/14]

Might as well get the obvious jokes out of the way first. This is a play called “Germany” being performed by a company from Argentina. Actually, I’m not sure what the actual joke would be. Possibly, given the production, something to do with evidence of the latter party being sore losers...

In terms of the actual play, “Germany” here seems to occupy the same sort of geographical irrelevance as Alaska does for Pinter. Or rather, it’s less a place and more a state of mind. The programme suggests: “Germany appears as a remote place, inaccessible to this family living their last days stagnating in a single place, like an organism that grows unmoveable over water on some forgotten bucket in some remote patio. Habitat-room, bed-aquarium where – it is fair to say – the whole work takes place. A place from where the father unexpectedly returns after his wife’s suicide, to which he will refer as his place for true happiness. There in Germany, one can live in peace, it all happens orderly, unsurprisingly.” [all sic]

Reading that, you might expect a rather sombre, indeed Pinteresque, piece: all peeling paintwork and endless pauses. You would be wrong. The tone of Alemanha is remarkably upbeat and the setting – a large, bright-red-carpeted bedroom – lit in such a way that the whole thing looks remarkably like an American daytime soap opera from the eighties.

The plot – obscured once more by delivery in Spanish, with Portuguese surtitles – concerns an older, bald bloke in a bed; his son(?) and his son’s wife and their son, Fred. And, well, it might as well be about how his whole family goes mad when his magic shoes lose their powers.

I did spend as long as humanly possible concentrating on trying to watch this sensibly. I really did. But, well, broadly speaking it’s a naturalistic comedy played out on one of this carpeted squares with no walls but all the furniture slap bang in the middle of a black stage (but lit so brightly that the glow off the carpet illuminates the faces of the back row of the stalls perfectly). I tried to get an idea of the plot: nope. I had a stab an wondering what the central conflicts were: not a dicky bird. I vaguely tried to work out what any given character’s deal was: nada. Even having scrutinised the programme notes I had literally no way in and nothing to look at by way of compensation. My fault for not knowing Portuguese, granted; although I’d be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t record that a good dozen (at least) Portuguese people left throughout the show.

I will say that the acting seemed pretty good, although the same strange “relaxed” atmosphere on stage prevailed. If I’ve learnt anything a this festival it’s that we British (and most other more northern and eastern European countries) are *really intense* about things like *energy* and *focus*, and that even if “acting convincingly” as this cast seemed to be, the idea of “commanding attention” is hard-wired into our theatre so much that it looks like a terrible category error when it’s missing.

Obviously I can tell you nothing about the text’s success or the prodctions fitness-or-otherwise to the task of bringing it to stage. I can say that the thing it most reminded me of was Peter Hall’s revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce in Richmond. There, of course, the seventies-look of the thing was deliberate. And maybe it was here too. But I do think, an Argentinian without a word of English would have been able to follow (and even enjoy, if Bedroom Farce was her sort of thing) that production a lot more closely than I was able to follow this.

I am finding this question of what you can and can’t watch/get anything from in another language increasingly fascinating as this Festival of the largely incomprehensible draws on. Because, as I said before, I can do watching theatre in languages I don’t speak. I wonder, then, if the difference is between watching theatre and watching plays.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Íon – Teatro Municipal Joachim Benite

[seen 15/07/14]

We need to have a talk about the Greeks, don’t we? I’ve just had a look at the plot of Euripedies’s Ion (Íων) on Wikipedia because I didn’t know the play before. Having read the plot, I now maybe see why I haven’t seen the play as many times as relatively unproblematic classic texts about incest (Oedipus) or child-murder (Medea). A weird rape-based, recognition-comedy, foundation-myth is always going to be a bit of a hard sell, right?

Wrong! Last night’s performance of Íon at Teatro Municipal Joachim Benite was totally sold out, with additional guests being crammed into the aisles. But this has a lot more to do with the production than the play. As I mentioned in my first Portugal piece: “Every year the Almada festival is dedicated as a kind of lifetime achievement award to a leading Portuguese theatre artist, and this year it’s Luis Miguel Cintra”. And Íon is his show.

It’s been interesting for the past week finding out context about this festival. This is the 31st edition and, until his death in 2012, the festival was run by its founder Joachim Benite. It’s now been taken over by his long-groomed successor, but, what with the naming of Almada’s main theatre after him, Benite is clearly still casting a long shadow.

Hearteningly, before founding the festival, Benite was a Marxist theatre critic (yup, that’s a theatre named after a critic that they’ve got there). And, most interestingly in this context, when Cintra formed his company, Teatro da Cornucópia, in 1973 (the year before the revolution) the Marxist Benite reviewed their first performance – something by Molière – damning it for its deviation from accepted, Marxist-standard, Brechtian practice. That said, it’s been fascinating the amount of respect and love for Cintra’s work that I’ve encountered at the festival. No one seems to have a bad word to say about him. Imagine a cross between Rylance and Olivier, that’s the sort of level of indisputable we’re talking about here. And his company is also spoken of in terms of its importance. That said, while Cintra does briefly appear in Íon, he’s mostly the director here.

But what about the actual performance/production we here to see? Leaving aside ancient Greece’s abysmal dramatic treatment of women – which I inadvertently did throughout last night’s performance, as I forgot to read a synopsis of the play *before* seeing it, and obviously the entire thing was in Portuguese, so I had no idea – what to say about the production?

Well, the aesthetic is an interesting one. The pre-show stage – which lasts for 25 minutes after the advertised start time of 21.00, prompting one elderly gentleman to completely lose his shit after about twenty minutes and start loudly demanding that the show begin, in such a theatrical fashion that I thought it just had – is obscured by two short flats in the red and green of the Portuguese flag. The shallow “orchestra” before the stage is bisected by a short promontory and one each side is a simple table with a few scripts, props and lamps on this. At these tables sit Cintra and men who look to be his contemporaries – young revolutionaries in 1974, now 60/70-something year old men.

One of these is the chorus/prologue. He speaks commandingly once the thing finally kicks off, and the flag-flats are raised to reveal a curiously “un-designed”, largely empty stage with a few simple elements variously positioned around it: here, some bowls; there, a sort of incense burner thingy; a raised dais covered in laurel leaves; etc..

The dramatic action seems to have enjoyed a similarly laissez-faire approach as the design. Everyone comes on and does their acting in much the sort of way that I imagine “un-directed” British. rep productions of Chekhov or Shakespeare might have been achieved in the 1950s. That is to say, to look at, it seems servicable and nothing more. Coupled with how tired I am (it starts at half nine. It is two hours long without interval. I think I was up at six. First world problems, I know, but nonetheless, not ideal conditions for watching a play in a big, dark, cosy room after a swelteringly hot day), I suspect I’m already not the ideal audience member, even without taking into account my lack of the language.

I do know from a colleague that the show isn’t *just* Ion. There are also bits of direct audience address by Cintra of both things he’s written himself, and of a reading of something written by Pasolini. And, at the end, this song of revolutionary Portugal is played. Now, obviously this might all contrive to create a really strong impression in the viewers most fully alive to all the cultural specificity. However, for everyone else – Italians, Spaniards, Argentinians, me – I think the effect is greatly diminished. I should also record that none of the *young* Portuguese thought much of the staging either. They like the revolutionary song – even if they post-date the revolution. But, there seems to be a strong generational gap between young and old on the matter of staging.

This young/old division – there are curiously few “middle-aged” people at this festival – seems to be an overarching theme of the 31st Fest. The young people, making their shows like Circle Mirror Transformation, and being excited, not only by the Slovenians, but also the perfection and precision of Cheek by Jowl, seem left cold by other work, mostly notably this, not to mention things like . And, talking to Portuguese theatre types even further outside the Festival, it does feel like there is a raft of other work made by companies like Mala Vodora and __ __ which is set completely apart.

Of course, we’ve similar ecological divides in Britain, and even my “alternative theatre” mates quite like the access that the Almada Festival sometimes gives them to a completely different, and unique audience (and yes, it does seem to be largely one audience of the Almada Fesitval faithful). On the other hand, it also seems crucial for me to recognise that the Almada Festival is perhaps best at representing the Almada Fesitval – an aesthetic and *thing* all of its own. As such, as neither explicitly a Portuguese “national showcase” nor a truly/fully *international* Festival – at least this year – the almost exclusive focus is on Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, and Argentina, with Ivica Buljan and Declan Donnellan (the latter already working with French actors and the former making one of his shows with Portuguese). Which, ok, *is* international, but much less so than, say, Sibiu (which included: Russia, China, Japan, and USA, alongside Austria, Poland, Italy, Czech, Croatia and the UK). And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of that too. I’m rather enjoying this one-stop-shop chance to see so much southern European work in one place. At the same time, it feels increasingly crucial to recogise that while most of the work is Southern European, it doesn’t represent all of Southern European work.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Shorts: Melody Maker and “European” Theatre

[a thought]

The other afternoon, I happened to read this article in The Quietus. However, it’s not the review that interests me so much as the introduction. You should really just click through and read the whole thing, but here’s the relevant bit:

“In my mid-teens, I had Swans down as a byword for extremity without having ever heard them. Every week, the front matter of the NME would contain half-page ‘looking back’ feature, tellingly positioned adjacent to the new bands interview, in which a writer would pick an act, usually critically acclaimed but not publicly so, who would help the paper’s younger readership make sense of – build a historical narrative about – their obsessions du jour. ...if you strung the pieces together in a scrapbook it would look like the minutes of a brainstorming session for a Death In Vegas record. I remember reading about Suicide first in here, trying to figure out how an eleven-minute drone composition about a man killing his family would actually sound... My idealised auditory image of this music made it sensational, world-altering, and this was never more the case than in that of Swans.”

I suspect Joe Kennedy is a bit younger than me, and I was a Melody Maker reader not an NME reader (which, funnily, used to be quite *a thing*), but the most important thing for me here still holds: the idea of *reading reviews* being the *only* access to the music. Because *obviously*, being a teenager in the 90s there was no access to YouTube or Google: they didn’t exist. There were three main ways to hear the music that I was reading about – buying it (unlikely: buying it involved a) money, and b) somewhere to buy it from), hearing it on the radio (unlikely: it wasn’t exactly radio friendly, most of it), or, c) hearing it at a club, or seeing it played live (Club: unlikely, DJs at “alternative” clubs tended to favour the same floor-fillers week-in, week-out – they were places for dancing, not checking out new albums; and, Live: well, standing up while people dive at your head from the stage is not a good way of *listening*). And that was it. No instant anything. No way of wondering if something was good and just finding it on your phone and listening to it (Your phone, for Christ’s sake!).

Now, I don’t want to be Buzzfeed’s 31 Things Kids Today Will Never Understand (V.G., btw), and – Jesus – I really do hope this isn’t an early manifestation of some sort of horrifying Nick Hornby-style mid-life-crisis phase in my writing (although, I guess the money from the movie rights for that wouldn’t kill me). But.

But, the more I think about it, the more I think this early brush with criticism – reading not writing it, and never once really feeling remotely drawn to writing it either – had a real bearing on both how I see the function of criticism and how I relate to it now.

It definitely explains why, now I’m “a critic” (for want of a less-pompous sounding word), I think there’s any earthly purpose in my going and seeing, and writing at length about all these plays in Germany and Romania and Portugal. Because not actually being able to hear the music or see the bands didn’t really deter me from buying and reading Melody Maker every week. And, moreover, me and my mates didn’t stop at just *reading* Melody Maker. We also formed bands (terrible bands) based on the music we read about. I’m pretty sure I was in at least two bands inspired by Throbbing Gristle before I heard a single thing they’d ever recorded. Because the idea of them, the idea that this other thing existed, just seemed absolutely crucial to me. Then and now, I guess.

The other reason is advocacy. If no one had been writing about all that music then it may as well have not existed as far as I was concerned. But, thanks to some people just about putting the idea of it within reach, it gave me something to look forward to, or something to try to find, or just a huge bunch of information about it – written with people with such an obvious, unrestrained, unembarrassed passion for and knowledge of this stuff that it was a pleasure in itself. Which is about as much as anyone writing about something can ever hope to aspire to, I think.

Or, as one of the characters in Dan Rebellatos Static has it: “Music isn’t just music, it’s also everything else.”

Ubu Roi – Escola D. António Da Costa

[seen 15/07/14]

Harry Potter and the Bourgeois Parents of Death
-- photo (untouched by me) by Johan Persson

Obviously I’m miles behind on this one. Seen at Warwick Arts Centre in January ‘13, Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod’s Cheek by Jowl production of Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play Ubu Roi has been round the block a few times now.

I have to confess, I’d been deliberately sitting Cheek by Jowl productions out for a few years after their frankly godawful 2008 Troilus and Cressida (“Shakespeare is robust enough to withstand a few dim design ideas. What the play cannot take is virtually inaudible dialogue and characters who display no sign that anything that they are doing matters to them in the slightest”), but I was already tempted by this, even before I knew the cast was French (a plus, in my view).

The day before I saw it, I did happen to catch Donnellan being interviewed at the Festival Club, however (open air, miked, amplified, not much option to miss it if you wanted to eat), and several things he said I found quite arresting: “I am bourgeois and I have no problem with that” was one, “Jarry said he wrote this about a teacher, but if you look at the names... I think it’s about his parents”, “Nick and I were staying at this very expensive apartment in Paris which had loads of signs everywhere saying what you couldn’t touch and etc.” (you get that I’m paraphrasing, right?), and “I find it fascinating [or was it frightening?] how fast ‘civilisation’ can fall apart [– although the first example he then gave was of the extremely wealthy side of his family losing it’s money. I can’t remember if it was him who mentioned the Polish villages who ‘only had to hear the Nazis were coming to start murdering all their Jews’ or if that was something else.]”

I had a quick flick through the Brit reviews this morning – I was curious, because my impression had been overwhelming positivity, but Love in Exeunt only three-starred it. Anyway, Michael Billington’s review does precisely what the production wants: he spots precisely what it’s doing, and then broadly agrees with every decision made. And he astutely pins down the added element of Oedipal desire (interesting, since it’s *British* translations which usually opt for “Ubu Rex”), which seems both central and extraneous here. [Aha! It was Hutton who called it “masterful”.]

This is very much a production of two halves (running concurrently, vertically); on one hand there’s the undeniable verve and style in the realisation of the piece. In this it is nigh-on flawless (last night’s technical hitch notwithstanding – starting a 1hr50 show with a start time of 22.00 twenty minutes late didn’t endear it to me at the time, or aid my concentration much). On the other hand, I did have some big questions about the overall concept.

My main point of comparison was Simon Stephens and Katie Mitchell’s The Trial of Ubu at the Hampstead in 2012. Granted that is, to all intents and purposes – apart from the first 20 minutes – a different play. But there’s something about the intent that maps onto this production: Donnellan’s production takes Jarry’s text and plays the playwright behind it rather than the world now. As such, in a strange way it feels like a psychoanalytic telling-off of the playwright.

Donnellan’s concept is to play Ubu Roi as the fantasies of a bourgeois teenager (as Jarry was when he wrote the play). He and his parents inhabit an elegant Parisian flat, and he wanders around with his (live-feed-projected onto the back wall) video camera, almost stalking them as if in Psycho. As the parents assemble three of their friends for a dinner party, the boy’s imagination of them as figures in Jarry’s text takes over. Mostly under green lights, so that we – the audience – can readily grasp WTF is going on. This has two possible effects: one is that we “see the violence lurking inside/under-the-surface-of society”; the other is that everything in the play is reduced to the violent fantasies of a teenager.

Of course, particularly in the wake of the Elliot Rodger murders, the violent revenge fantasies of the spoiled, privileged, bourgeois teenager are not to be taken lightly. And the coda here of the family and their guests being gunned down by a teenager (whose mind’s eye, replete with video-game targets super-imposed over family members, is shown projected), seems to confirm this.

On the other hand, virtually *everything else* about this concept takes the violence, tyranny, and madness in the play that so eloquently describes the century leading up to 1896, and even more graphically anticipates the century that lay ahead of it, and reduces it to a comic charade. It’s ironic that Mitchell managed to evoke more pity with the suggestion of some simple puppets being fed into a wood-chipper than Donnellan does with several on-stage or on-screen/back-stage/live-feed murders. Where Stephens gave us a dictator who evoked Milosevic, Hussein, or Karimov, Donnellan gives us someone bad-mouthing their dad.

Ultimately, though, it’s a matter of taste. This production is absolutely first-rate in terms of realising its ideas, and it would be completely churlish not to acknowledge the virtuosity there. And indeed, that it’s a fine concept, and one which completely holds the attention throughout. I guess for me, it was just a matter of importance: by turning the piece inward rather than outward Donnellan’s dramaturgical conception runs the risk of being as pleased-with-itself and bourgeois as the apartment and teenage fantasies that it’s critiquing.

Os Negros e os Deuses do Norte – Sala Experimental

[seen 14/07/14]

publicity shot - perf pix if/when available

CIA/JGM’s Os Negros e os Deuses do Norte is *experimental theatre*. I was told this by a Portuguese fellow writer as we sat down, when I asked him if he’d translate the odd bit for me. “I think it will be impossible” he suggested. In the event, translation was largely unnecessary, as, in this instance, *experimental theatre* turned out to mean *three-piece Patti Smith gig*.

It starts worryingly. Two blokes are noodling away on guitar and violin, a rack of effects pedals each, and it’s all a bit Gypsy Pink Floyd. Then a light comes up on a small gold lamé covered mattress with performer Sara Ribero face-down, topless and writhing around. Oh crap, I thought, remembering that one of the many excellent rules-of-thumb for spotting appalling sexism in performance is: clothed men, topless woman. In the event, this rule feels about as relevant as it would telling Janice Joplin or Patti Smith that what they have chosen to wear is inappropriate in the view of modern feminism. That is to say, toplessness it is, exploitative or sexual it clearly ain’t.

Indeed, the spectre of the seventies (the UK/US musical seventies, not the revolutionary Marxist Portuguese seventies, annoyingly) looms large and hangs over the proceedings. Which is basically a bunch of Patti Smith-sounding numbers. Even a bunch of the lyrics are in English with phrases nicked wholesale from the Doors “All the children are insane” and Smith herself: “n-word, n-word, n-word, n-word / n-word, n-word, n-word, n-word”.

So, yeah, rather than sexism, what it turns out we end up needing to discuss are the “racial politics” of the piece. Around which I have yet to fully get my head. Scare quotes for “racial politics” since on one or more levels, calling what’s on stage here “racial politics” seems like critiquing a Wendy house with postmodernist architectural theory. i.e. you *could*, but really, why would you? Well, because “Wendy houses” are probably all sorts of normative and sexist, so...

The ethnic make up of the group is approximately (visually): one balding black bloke on guitar, one seriously built “hispanic” type on violin/vocals/various-other-things (is hispanic a thing if we’re in Portugal? IDK, anyway), and one topless, ostensibly “white” Portuguese woman (scare quotes for “white” because, well, Portuguese people aren’t as white as, say, Polish people, are they?).

She seems to be singing a song about “Bringing black back” (in which the Patti Smith quote recurs numerous times. I think in several languages). This is a frequent refrain throughout the show.

Watching, my main thought was: “Well, Christ; you wouldn’t get away with this at BAC; even if your guitarist is black”. This in turn made me think, I wonder why not? I mean, it was plainly well-meaning. Texto is by João Garcia Miguel (who also did Direcção and Encenação). For all I know, he’s the guitarist (the programme seems a bit vague on identifying the musicians). In which case I guess everything gets a bit less “edgy”. But otherwise, we have got this *well-meaning* show liberally laced with the n-word and generally thrashing about in the shallows of the drug-addled seventies trying to “bring black back”. From where to where is never made clear, at least, not in English. There’s also a fair bit of decrying religion, which manages to elicit the first walk-out after only about fifteen minutes or so.

Of course, I’m writing about this with literally all the attempt to understand another culture that Charles Spencer usually deploys. I think, looked at charitably I could dismount this very high horse, duties discharged, and say that probably this isn’t actually as problematic here as it might be in Britain (let alone the States). It’s weird, really. We Brits think we’ve got a *really good handle* on, y’know, racial politics – at least enough to think we’re in a position to lecture anyone else. And yet, well, Britain’s still a terrifyingly racist country. (Want a good example? Try the comments section from this Daily Mail article published today/yesterday. See? We’re still basically in the fucking dark ages. So why shouldn’t the Portuguese have an upbeat Patti Smith tribute act singing about “bringing black back”. Maybe that’ll work better than white, liberal British uptightness, claiming to be deeply concerned, doing nothing, and having a crazy racist underbelly which turns out to be most of the body politic).

As theatre it’s basically not. It’s much more an arty gig that happens to play in a theatre and be watched by a seated audience. But let’s not open that “what is/isn’t theatre” can of worms on top of everything else. Sure, if it wants to be theatre then it is. I reckon it might want to do a bit more self-interrogation, but, y’know, I wasn’t bored. It passed the time. The home crowd seemed to love it. I dunno.

Monday, 14 July 2014

L’Architecture de la Paix – São Luiz Theatro Municipal, Lisbon

[seen 11/07/14]

As is perhaps obvious from the last few posts/reviews, I’ve been struggling a bit, basically trying to work out where my opinions are coming from; or rather, what’s me and what’s the work. Is it my fault when I don’t (or do) like something; because I haven't worked hard enough at it? How to recognise when it's a case of me not having sufficient cultural knowledge to find a way and what really is not-very-good work? (And, yes, beyond all that, the fact it’s always going to be a matter of taste anyway...)

Anyway, happily, here, we can dispense with all that concern as L’Architecture de la Paix is a pure, copper-bottomed turkey. I have literally no idea why anyone would make this, much less voluntarily select it for inclusion in a fondly regarded international festival.

To describe: it opens promisingly enough before one of those huge walls that seem to be a mainstay of International Festival circuit shows (the number I’ve seen at the Edinburgh International Festival alone can’t be counted on fingers and toes, I wouldn’t have thought). The cast are dressed in light-coloured, loose-fitting, floaty garments, which, outside of naturalistic plays about gits, seem to be a surefire warning signal of impending artistic catastrophe.

They come on and, well, they do a bit of *movement* and say some things. In French. Oddly, after having had a really clear understanding of the Joël Pommerat piece (also French), this I didn’t get so much from. Talking to my friends afterwards, I realise this is because they were saying things than literally no one ever says: “I want to build a house with feathers”, “my eyes are covered in silky threads” and so on. The sort of things that, even if you were French, you’d probably doubt someone had actually just said.

There’s also a musician. He happens to be darker skinned than the rest of the cast, and, as a result, given the pseudo-ethnic backdrop and the floaty clothes, the whole enterprise starts to look like a really dodgy exercise in exoticism and “my mid-life, gap-year crisis”. Apparently the whole thing is about re-building something after a catastrophe or rupture. As far as we can make out, this catastrophe is a middle-aged couple’s son leaving home to live with a Portuguese lass; occasioning more *movement*, and some more preposterously foregrounded Orientalist noises – everything from a marimba to a didgeridoo. To be fair, at least the musician is talented. If you’d stuck him on stage at the Festival club, I could have happily whiled away an hour listening to him do his thing. As it is, as accompaniment to some painful, bourgeois, *movement* family drama (or whatever it thinks it is), you just feel terrible for the guy.

The single most infuriating thing that happens in the entire piece comes at the end, where they suddenly do a speeded up run-through of the previous hour in two minutes. At which point you realise just how little has happened for the last hour, how slowly it was done, and how the entire show didn’t need to be any longer than two minutes. They do this twice. Presumably to ensure the twin bases of insult and injury are each firmly covered. Still, the struggle for “single most infuriating thing” is a hard-fought contest here. When my friends and I were spat back out onto the street, we mostly just stared at each other agog, bemused into wordless pantomimes of rage.

Having recently seen The Valley of Astonishment, it stuck me that this is the dark side to Peter Brook’s legacy. He might make it charming and get away with it, however, it appears that he has spawned a legion of imitators who have entirely misdiagnosed what is good about his work. Let me tell them now, it is not this.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Fauna – Centro Cultural de Belém, Lisbon

[seen 12/07/14]

What a difference a day makes. Yesterday I posted my review of Argentine writer-director Romina Paula’s O Tempo Todo Inteiro, and attached to it a fairly stream-of-consciousness monolgue about my worries that thanks to my taste in theatre I was turning into some sort of unarmed Anders Brevik-style Northern European supremacist.

After posting it I went to meet a Portuguese theatre friend unconnected to the Festival. It turned out to be an incredibly useful way of spending the time for me, as he’d read all the stuff I’d posted and was able to fill in a lot of context and tell me where my suspicions and feelings had been correct and where I could have done with a bit more insight. If nothing else, it felt like a real vindication of what appears to be my current policy of saying as honestly as possible whatever it is I’m thinking and letting that be the start of a conversation rather than the end. (My intractable views on L’Architecture de la Paix [forthcoming] notwithstanding.) Perhaps naturally, the piece we ended up discussing most was the review of O Tempo Todo Inteiro. Not least because it was the first show by Romina Paula, whose secosnd show we were going to see after having our coffee. The contextual stuff he explained about “Argentinian Theatre” (scare quotes, because obviously it’s actually pretty diverse) was especially helpful. Yes, he conceded, it might look like dull naturalism (and that’s not his thing either), but what doesn’t come across in just looking at it is the special sort of minimalism, that the Argentinians have developed. Like, super-pared-back naturalism. Ultra-minimalism. Lorca without the poetry, just stripped down to bare essentials. Paula had taken the Williams text and carved it down to just one event. Put like that, it sounds a lot more exciting. So I was refreshed and quite up for having another stab at *getting* Paula’s work.

As it happened, I’d already accidentally had a look at the publicity photos for the piece (I’ve been trying to go in blind on that score) and, as you can see above and below, they’re pretty promising, right? (“Yes, Andrew, they do look a bit German...” “Fuck off.” “Rightio.”), but it was reading the intro-cum-director’s note in the programme before the show started that really got me interested. It’s worth reproducing in full:

Fauna is the third work by the Argentine company El Silencio, formed in 2006. When comparing El Tiempo Todo Entero, the second play from the company’s original repertoire (which is also being performed in this year’s Festival), Romina Paula acknowledges that “Fauna is less simple, has more layers and is more literary. I don’t know how far it can get.” Where did it come from is something that author and stage director also cannot tell: “I do not know where Fauna came from. I remember having asked for the name of a street: Conceptión Arenal. A street that I had gotten use to refer without thing that it was the name of someone with enough credit to have a street named after her. I started searching on Conceptión Arenal and realized that she was a feminist writer of the late nineteenth century who, among other things, dressed as a man to be able to attend university and poetry circles, so as to access public cultural life. This image moves me, the presence of this unknown woman among men opens a door to many others like her. How many of these men and boys were in fact women pretending?

Fauna is born out of this will to blur the boundaries between genres, a mythical character, a woman both strong and vulnerable, wild and erudite, who finds in male attire an entry to a world she cannot enter. An actress and a film director go on a search for her with the intention to make a film about her. But how do you tell a life story? Specially about someone who’s gone and whose true story intersects in many instances with the fiction that was built upon her? In this sense, Fauna also corresponds to the meta-theatrical reflection that focuses on the problems of representation – rehearsing a play within another – and of truth – thus showing a big, little or no concern at all with the biography of the depicted figure. It also sets out to meet the words of authors like Rilke or Calderón de la Barca, motivated by Romina Paula’s love of literature and a deliberate attempt through quoting to “animate the words of others and give them back a body.”

And I was thinking: blimey, that’s some synchronicity. This is basically Argentinian Adler and Gibb, right? In the event, at least to look at, it’s not half so meta-. But, blimey, from the get-go I was a whole lot more into it than O Tempo... Sure, this could ultimately be down to any number of extraneous factors (nice day, good food, good conversation, decent travel – getting a boat, rather than taking a car over the bridge, etc.) but I think mostly it was down to the design, conception, and even subject of the show.

This piece is played on a large wooden stage-on-a-stage. The rough boards seem to suggest a landscape, rather than an indoors, or if indoors, then perhaps vast, hangar-like studios, rather than a suburban domestic interior. (Having just met the Scottish critic and Howard Barker expert, Mark Brown, who was here until Thursday, I was reminded of one of the many things Barker said that made me love him as a playwright when I first came across him: that at a certain point in his career he vowed he was never going to write another scene set indoors, or, if indoors, never in a normal room.)

And, yes, there is something transformational that happens to the stage when rough wooden boards are perhaps being asked to play a vast open plain or industrial size interior. The whole auditorium suddenly feels charged with this more exploratory, speculative atmosphere. That idea that suddenly anything *is* possible. (As the recent piece in the Sydney Morning Herald on The Motion of Light in Water has it: “We’re always being told that theatre is this amazingly malleable form where you can do anything, become anything, the only limit is your imagination – and then you go to see another play about a white middle-class family”.)

Now, all this is essentially a big preamble to me still not having the fainting fucking idea what anyone was actually saying on the stage [I’ll ask over dinner tonight], or at least not much. It opens with (I presume) the actress playing the actress playing Conceptión Arenal reciting Rilke. And later there’s a discussion of Shakespeare. But, I suspect this might be a play worth getting a rough translation made of and sharpish. I don’t *know* – obviously – but clearly, thematically it seems to occupy a weirdly contemporary/synchronic position, and, hell, how much contemporary Argentinian theatre do we ever get on see on mainstream UK stages? (Apols in advance if the script turns out not to have legs.) But, yeah, on this showing, can I imagine Lucy Ellinson or Denise Gough leading a production at the Gate next year? Está certo.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

La Réunification des Deux Corées – Teatro Municipal Joaquim Benite

[seen 10/07/14]

Having exorcised, or at least confessed, a load of my worries about my fit-for-purpose-ness in terms of me covering this festival yesterday, it was a relief to come across a show where none of those misgiving were really remotely relevant.

This is the first thing I’ve seen by Joël Pommerat, but the fleeting presence of Young Vic artistic director, David Lan, at the festival – just to see this show – gives you some idea of the sort of level of European/international talent we’re talking about here. And I also thought it was pretty good.

La Réunification... is played on a very long, narrow, black traverse stage – here constructed on the stage of Teatro Municipal Joaquim Benite’s main house (like Blackwatch at the Barbican, but thinner). And, my God, Éric Soyer (both lighting and set, interestingly) could teach everyone who’s ever lit a British show in traverse a thing or too. You could barely see the opposite bank of audience despite the fact that they were only a few metres away. The whole piece is played in striking levels of darkness – the blackouts themselves really are black, brief, and whole sofas, large armchairs, and even beds silently appear and disppear within seconds. (Apparently the company made night-vision films of themselves doing the scene changes to learn how thy could get them faster and now they’re pretty much just muscle memory. Ordinarily I think blackouts – especially furniture-moving blackouts – are the worst thing since traverse staging: here they acquire the interest of a conjuring trick.) So, yes, the look of the thing is essentially stark, slick, modern, and often involves a few chic pieces of Heals-looking furniture magically turning up.

Onto this stage spill successive, unrelated scenes. In fact, it’s like nothing so much as a very French Love and Information, albeit with longer scenes and fewer of them. Even the milieu feels similar – largely middle class couples playing out stock scenes from romantic comedies or tragedies (a bride in her wedding dress gradually discovers that her husband-to-be has been intimate with pretty much her entire family; a sex-worker offers not to charge a man for sex, then does; a teacher argues with two parents that nothing happened when he shared a bed with their child, and so on...). Of course, the accretion of such scenes creates a feeling of investigation, or deconstruction. By and large, I understood what was happening in each scene and what everyone was saying (my French is much better than I thought it was. Phew). What my French doesn’t run to is spotting the literary merit and the moments within the show where suddenly the register would shift and in the midst of the trite truisms and stock phrases of courtship or break-up something – according to one of my Portuguese colleagues – shining, breathtaking and true would suddenly turn up and flatten everything.

This information certainly allayed my main reservation while watching the piece: that it might all be a bit middle class. And I do wonder, if the emphasis is so much more on “love” than, well, ideology, I suppose, whether I mightn’t still have had a tiny reservation about it. But, without it being in English (I’m not sure if even surtitles would have done the job here), then it’s impossible to say. It might contain those critiques too. [edit: another Portuguese colleague who saw it last night just expressed a lot of reservations about how “manipulative” he thought the show potentially was, in terms of it’s use of music and situation to create a kind of tear-jerk effect. I’m not sure I fully believe that either, but it’s interesting to hear such a contrasting perspective.]

In terms of plotting the piece on the international scene, it seemed to me to be like how you might imagine a particularly stylish, French, auteurial take on Attempts on her Life could feel. It has “international festival circuit” written all over it, and is absolutely no worse for it. Indeed, there was something hugely reassuring about the brio with which bold choices had been confidently made.

The acting is good, too. Although, basically just really raw, truthful accounts of often heightened emotions. So: French, basically; perhaps. More striking, although perhaps already something of a visual cliché, is the kind-of androgynous Elvis figure who sings, unaccompanied, in a couple of inter-scene breaks. I have no idea off-hand if s/he was played by a man or a woman, or the costume was used by more than one performer. The first “song” is deep, haunting, like a pitch-shifted Anthony and the Johnsons, perhaps. Another more alto, but similarly husky and tortured. (These bits, btw, if they had words, I didn’t pick up on them).

Although hard work without surtitles, this is imaginative, intriguing work. You could totally imagine it turning up a the Barbican (it’s quite new, so probably in about five years or something, given the Barbican’s current ability to effect up-to-date programming) and everyone quite liking it. Beyond “quite liking” and recognition of an undeniable level of quality I think it’ll be down to individual tastes how much beyond that the appreciation goes. One thing I will say, though, as far as theatre goes, Žižek’s characterisations of European nations according to toilet-design and philosophy seems to be totally off- as far as French theatre goes. Perhaps there is a certain statement-led violence about the language that I’m missing, but on the whole this feels far more cool and contemplative than violent and revolutionary.

Would be interested to hear just how wrong (or right) these perceptions are. Hmm.

O Tempo Todo Inteiro – Centro Cultural de Belém, Lisbon

[seen 09/07/14 also: On National Styles II]

Argentine writer-director Romina Paula’s O Tempo Todo Inteiro is the auteur’s “dialogues with” Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. The rationale for creating it is apparently because, at least in part, “copyrights are expensive”. Which strikes me in equal parts as brilliant, hilarious and foolhardy: massive hubris as a cost-cutting exercise. In the event, my Portuguese-speaking colleagues tell me that it was actually a pretty awesome script/play. However, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, THERE’S NO WAY I CAN POSSIBLY KNOW THIS WITHOUT SURTITLES.

To look at, O Tempo Todo Inteiro is about as purgatorial a thing as you could wish not to see, however. To keep myself amused, after the first twenty minutes or so I started keeping a note of every single visually interesting thing that happened on the stage. There were literally five. The piece was an hour an a half long.

Alicia Leoutre and Matías Sendón’s set did the production’s visual appeal no favours. Basically playing on a poor man’s Thomas Ostermeier set – a big living room delineated by a large metal frame describing the side and back walls, a door, and a cupboard – it also suffered here from playing on the stage of a large concert hall, replete with a lovely warm-coloured wooden wall. As such, the “intended” effect – certainly the effect in all the press photos provided to the festival which show it bleak on a black box stage – was supplanted by something altogether cosier and more reassuring.

On one level, it feels like a crying shame to be reviewing an apparently beautiful play – delicately saying something about everything; about the point of life, or lack of it, with everything submerged beneath surface conversations – by just talking about what I could see. On the other hand, I think my Portuguese interlocutors might be a bit (a lot) less hardline than me about regie and the visual (great band name). This was naturalism gone mad and limp. People who looked like the people they were play standing in a room filled with the furniture that room would be filled with, talking to each other like people do. Obviously that’s fine. Obviously. But none of it looked even remotely interesting. Really. I’ve seen David Hare plays with more visual interest and incident. It really was spectacularly uneventful, even by the often stultifying visual standards of naturalism. (But of course, I have no way of really knowing how I’d deal with this in a British context. What, for example would I really have made of Wastwater if I hadn’t understood a word. A lot more, I think, but it’s hard to know for sure.)

So, yeah. Not really much I can do with this. Apparently it’s a really careful, subtle play. I’d say it’s a catastrophically dull staging, even if you do know what’s going on, but on its own terms the acting seems good, committed, even watchable to a point (a point curtailed by the compounded pointlessness of watching without comprehension).

A rare moment of visual interest in O Tiempo...

As a result of this, and not having anything to distract me during the play, I did find myself having a bit of a think about other things I’d seen without surtitles in languages I didn’t understand. This includes all the stuff I saw early on in Germany and a whole edition of the year’s best Polish theatre at Warsaw Theatre Meetings (crucially, a national showcase, never billed a “international”). And I was stuck by the fact that, going by those pieces, I actually liked (even loved in some instances) watching theatre in a language I didn’t speak. (Another reason, other than assuming there would be surtitles, that I accept this commission.) And yet here none of the Portuguese or Argentinian work I’ve seen so far has made anything like the same impression. (Granted, I found Circle Mirror Transformation fascinating, but...)

I’ve found this interesting. And I’m having a hard think about it.

I think it’s fair to say that both German and Polish theatre is very different from the majority of Portuguese/Spanish-language theatre being presented here (which I emphatically won’t presume to be representative of *all* Spanish- or Portuguese-language theatre). The former tends to have whole extra dimensions beyond the text. The staging and performing have a significant dramaturgical impact on the whole. In the case of several productions here (including a few I shan’t be writing about), there’s a real sense that all that’s been thought about is the most literal way to present the script. Actors who “look like the characters” in rooms that “look like the room” saying the words in the script “convincingly”. And, in the worst cases, without even a decent stage-design in evidence.

Back when I went to the Swedish Theatre Meetings festival in 2008, I wrote an “ask the stupidest question you can think of” piece for the Guardian wondering about the extent to which an entire country’s theatrical output might not appeal to a specific individual (me). I was pretty convinced at the time, at least on the showing of that festival, that Sweden had nothing of interest to offer me. I now wonder if that might not have been more sensibly framed as being a problem of the tastes of the selection panel combined with their own dumb insistence on pieces being “nationally representative”. After all, the next thing I saw in Sweden (Ingenting av Mig, five years later) was awesome.

But, despite it’s curious social structures and superficial lack of conflict, Sweden is at least a Northern European country. And, in my head, in some weird thumbnail-sketch way, I feel like I like Northern and Eastern Europe. On some stupid level, it feels like I at least slightly *get* them. I get the landscapes. I love the sound of the languages. The whole thing feels like *home* on some inexplicable level. I admit that, on the same thumbnail-sketch level, feel almost entirely the opposite about South-Western Europe (Southern France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal), let alone South America. I *really* don’t get the climate and I wonder if that has a bearing on a the culture.

It was my desire to confront this idea, which feels like a ridiculous prejudice, is most of the reason I’m here. And I’m willing myself to be won round. And, finding out more and more about the country’s history and culture are certainly helping me understand more about the place. But history, culture and politics haven’t signalled a shift in aesthetic appreciation yet. While everything’s been *fine* at the level of design, *nothing* South-Western European or South American has yet really connected with me on the gut level of say a bare-stage, modern-dress Polish Three Sisters or Andreas Kriegenburg’s Der Prozess. My favourite aesthetic experience so far has been Ivica Buljan’s Macbeth, a Slovenian show on a bare stage with some LX tape on the floor.

Lisbon is obviously absolutely gorgeous, and the more I find out about Portugal’s history – the strange “in Europe but not *in Europe*” narrative: a right-wing dictatorship from the 1930s, sitting out the war, and finally being overthrown and losing its empire in 1974 – the more I find to relate to, and yet the actual plays, so far, that I happen to have seen, seem strangely too naturalistic and *too relaxed*. Of course, all this keeps coming with the massive health warning that reads “I NEED SURTITLES BEFORE I CAN REALLY SAY FOR SURE” (even a synopsis would help), but in terms of the purely visual, and listening only at the level of sound-rather-than-comprehension, I find myself missing the total dramaturgy of Northern and Eastern European theatre, where, even if totally lost, I find myself continually astonished and enthralled rather than irritable and dismissive.


Exercise: basically, reconcile


Argentinia's A Verdade, which won't be getting a review...