Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Relocated - Royal Court

Written for CultureWars.org.uk

Without wishing to give too much away, Anthony Neilson’s new play for the Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court is essentially a fantasia on Maxine Carr being abducted by Josef Fritzl - the ‘Austrian basement guy’. It’s a reductive description, but it gives the bare bones. The mode of operation here is pretty much that of the ghost train. The forbidding black set behind a haze of gauze, under a lowered false black ceiling of Miriam Buether's design all serve to ratchet up an atmosphere of claustrophobia. The audience is frequently plunged into complete darkness. We hear screams and the echoey sounds of children playing in a playground. We hear sinister voices. A single bulb suddenly snaps on. A shadowy figure lies on the floor. You get the picture.

The narrative is anything but linear. And it is while it is at its most confused that it is most frightening. While there is a sense that anything could happen, the piece builds real tension. It is the sense of the unknown, the fear of what could be lurking in the darkness, that really works. For better or for worse, Neilson (who also directs) doesn’t choose to keep within this shadowy, David Lynch world. Instead, while different characters do seem to swap bodies – it is interesting that here this doesn’t feel like mere meta-theatrical mucking about, but something far more pointed and sinister – scenes resolve themselves into fragments of linear sense. A creepy scene of a couple arguing at cross-purposes is replayed as something suggesting the conversation between Ian Huntley and Maxine Carr following the deaths of Holly and Jessica.

There is much speculative dialogue around the subject of women’s relationships to their abusers, particularly those within their own family. It's pretty heavy going, made no easier by the fact it is conducted in near-blackness, and with the intention of making the audience jump – an old trick from The Exorcist is cleverly deployed at one moment, while the penultimate scene owes a great debt to the Blair Witch Project.

Using a framework of horror films to explore the subject of child abuse and murder sounds pretty much as misjudged as it is possible to get. And that argument carries a lot of water. On the other hand, Neilson could cannily defend himself by first arguing that theatre shouldn’t shy away from difficult subject matter (although whether theatre should have “subject matter” per se remains a moot point). And at the same time, theatre shouldn’t shy away from theatricality.

What is interesting is how Relocated doesn’t make explicit how it expects to be read. Too ambiguous to be social realist *message* theatre, but too anchored in the real world and comments upon it to be pure abstraction, part of what makes the piece so unsettling is one’s uncertainty about what it’s trying to do. The horror elements seem to have the effect of making one cling to anything recognisable, no matter how horrific. Analogous situations, strategies of understanding, become vital as a way of blocking out fear of what might be lurking in the dark. The banality of evil becomes a weapon against the fear of fear itself.

This could be pure theatre located right at the heart of something horribly real. It could be a deplorably cheap co-opting of personal tragedy for theatrical gain. Or, elsewhere, some of the speculative dialogue around questions of loyalty, duty and even love within abusive relationships, suggest a more serious enquiry. Without doubt this is a remarkably effective piece of theatre. It is up to individual audience members to determine what that effect is.


Ian Shuttleworth said...

As I've said elsewhere: more than one reviewer has compared it not to David Lynch but to Japanese horror movies. I think that's a meaningful distinction: that whereas Lynch pretty much mucks about because he thinks it'd be neato and happens to have a pretty damn good instinct about it, Japanese films carry a sense at once of the uncertain and the inexorable - a suggestion that even the viewer can't escape by looking away. Things happen, connections are made, around the edges of the frame (literally so, of course, in the case of Ringu), so that the gratuitousness and extremity of the nasties aren't quite dismissable in the same way as those of, say, Chucky or Jason Voorhees.

I also think you've been grabbed by the headlines in the story - the Carr and Fritzl references - at the expense of considering the other fluid elements of identity in the play. What does the title mean? Is it that one story is relocated within another? That the protagonist (inasmuch as there is one) is relocated, moved, in the manner of a released criminal under identity protection (nobody's mentioned Mary Bell)? Is there an element of sleeper agent about things too? And what about the opening moment - is the whole thing relocated/dislocated in a zone of uncertainty between life and death?

I think it's an example of facing up to challenges of signification hot-spots in exactly the way that, say, Philip Ridley's Piranha Heights muffed it. That play thought that it was enough to know that such zones existed and still to enter them; Neilson is, as it were, testing their shape and extent and finding, and letting us find, that they're frighteningly amorphous.

Plus whenever I stood up to let somebody move along my row of seats, I got dizzy because suddenly my eyes were above the level of lighting and my senses of perspective and balance canted momentarily.

Andrew Haydon said...

Ian, thanks for this response. I have been feeling quite strange about this review too. I wrote it as an overnight for practice, polished it a bit in the morning and had it up by ten yesterday (the current 10.46 posting time reflects changing a typo) – another reason was also that I wanted to write my reactions were still fresh – to write while I was still feeling mildly shaken and adrenalised.

Of course, shaken and adrenalised aren't ideal conditions in which to be insightful, so even while I was feeling stuff I was also trying to think about why I felt it. Interesting quandry. Sensation doesn't really lend itself to analysis, and certainly not in the immediate aftermath.

Following both Wiesbaden, and the lovely comments made here, I was also keen to try to approach the piece from a slightly non-traditional angle. While I had been careful to avoid reading any reviews at all of Relocated (not least because I didn't want the surprises spoiled) I could very easily imagine Michael Billington's objections, having glimpsed his star rating.

My review is essentially an attempt to describe and wrestle with the piece, while trying to avoid plugging it to directly into particular interpretations, while at the same time, positing my own questions about whether the piece does actually deploy quite as much fluidity as has been suggested in some quarters. In short – as I hope I said in my review – I found it quite reassuring when things turned out to be *just* Ian Huntley and Maxine Carr – or rather something very like, and latching on to those moments I think rather coloured my experience of the piece.

There was a moment where the three women all came together on stage that I was very interested by, but could find a way of getting into the flow of my piece – the way in which they seemed to form a kind of fluid Greek chorus of abused and abuser without distinct characters.

At the same time, while you say “you've been grabbed by the headlines in the story - the Carr and Fritzl references - at the expense of considering the other fluid elements of identity in the play” I was trying – experimentally, I guess, to try to give information on the elements of the piece, without trying to force an interpretation on them.

Let's be honest, Relocated is, if nothing else, a pretty illusive thing as far as meaning goes. And I wanted to respect that in the review, while also questioning the ethics a bit. It felt as if the piece wouldn't have been most usefully served by the traditional British describe-interpret-dispatch model (although I think Sam Marlowe and Caroline McGinn both do an excellent job within this model, so maybe I'm wrong). But, yes, given this was for CultureWars rather than the FT or Time Out, I thought I'd use the freedom to try something out. The problem with trying something out is that it doesn't always come off. Reading all the reviews afterwards, I was struck by how much more detail many had managed to pack in – not least the names of the cast, etc – but I guess I was writing this for a slightly more *theatre* readership – the kind of people who may well see the show or have seen the show, and don't necessarily want all the answers, just a take on the questions.

It's odd, when experimenting, that one sometimes feels one's simply failed to do a proper thing properly, rather than a different thing altogether.

Similarly, I was keen not to get into the whole discussion of themes and things, just to see how it would be if I worked more on the experience and wider issues – leaving the themes to be experienced, while at least flagging up that they were there.

So yes, it was an experiment and one that I don't think I really pulled off, but I do have a go, lady :-)
And quick responses to some other bits:

More than one reviewer has compared it not to David Lynch but to Japanese horror movies

Well, I can't because I haven't seen any, and I'm too much of a wuss to want to, even for reasons of cultural betterment :-) Also, for me, a lot of it was pure Lynch – not least the body-swap thing, for which his name has become almost shorthand (see my review of The Alchemy of Flesh)

Nobody's mentioned Mary Bell

Didn't occur to me at all. Again that's the funny thing with signification, it let's you bring in stuff if you want, but doesn't make it wrong if one's synapses aren't fired in that direction.

Is there an element of sleeper agent about things too?

Wasn't for me, but there again, that could just be my way of looking at things.

Is the whole thing relocated/dislocated in a zone of uncertainty between life and death?

That's a good one, and one that did occur to me, though not strongly enough to put it into the review.

Plus whenever I stood up to let somebody move along my row of seats, I got dizzy

I'm much shorter than you. :-)

I think it's an example of facing up to challenges of signification hot-spots... Neilson is... testing their shape and extent and finding, and letting us find, that they're frighteningly amorphous.

Yes, and I do wonder if I flunked putting what there was on stage into a useful framework. I'm tempted to try a re-write if I get time, which comes at the piece from another direction – more fully interpretative and discursive of the themes. Ohn the other hand, I'm glad I wrote up on the night, because, whilst a huge amount of interpretative post-fact discussion is possible, I did feel that Neilson was perhaps pinning things down a little too much and maybe throwing around some stock weirdnesses as a way of disguising the joins. While it was effective in both making people scared and introducing an area of public concern, I'm not sure if the ways in which this were done was wholly ingenuous, or whether appeal to the need for interpretation wasn't a disguise for a lack of solidity.

I know that'll sound like rank hypocrisy coming from me, as I so often argue that solidity isn't the point, but I do think there's a qualitative difference here between the dense but obscure symbolism of something like Longwave (Chris Goode's one, although Small Change's one would work) and Relocated. I think there's just an extra level of depth. I could be totally wrong. But I think Neilson gets the extra depth by having a level under which the audience can go into free-fall because they've dug through the crust and mantle and discovered an infinite void beyond. That makes it sound like I don't think Neilson's got ideas, or that I think the work is empty, which I don't. But, oh hell, it's hard to explain thinking, isn't it? Moreover, nigh-on impossible to describe layers of signification. But yes, it is something I wonder about.

Anyway, I've rambled way too much, back to you...

Ian Shuttleworth said...

That's a remarkable self-criticism and -analysis, certainly far beyond any minor points that I was making.

I'm interested that you say it was an experiment in on-the-night-ing. I normally write up my FT reviews on the night even though I don't strictly have to, but in this case, since it opened on a Friday, I had a day or two to percolate, and I did actually go back and make a change: in my first draft I'd mentioned Carr, Fritzl and Bell, but hadn't said outright that the piece was "about" those cases or about relationships specifically around abuse - it had seemed to me a much less definite thing than that.

The comparison with Chris Goode's Longwave, I think, shows up the difference there can be between density and richness. All kinds of meanings or meaning-possibilities can be packed into a piece, but it's their unpackability that matters.

Interval Drinks said...

I have been reading through these comments with great interest. I must say I found the production very unsettling, I had an almost physical response to it and found some aspects of it very troubling.

But I'm starting to feel as if I have failed in some way for not being able to get past what I felt was a rather opportunistic snaffling of recent events.

Anthony Neilson said 'When the protagonist is asked for the name of the school she worked at before, what is she told to say?' and that this was the key to why the referenced the Fritzl case in the way that he did. I've been told - I didn't remember, I must admit - that it was Petersgate infant school (someone suggested this could be a reference to heaven), but I feel more lost than ever - as well as slightly patronised for failing to 'get' what Neilson was trying to achieve.