Thursday, 24 June 2010

As You Like It - The Bridge Project / Old Vic

For the most part, I absolutely loathed Sam Mendes’s new production of As You Like It. I mean really loathed. Proper writhe-in-your-seat, grinding your teeth, loathing.

It’s not all a catastrophe. It has got one of my favourite rarely-seen actors Ron Cephas Jones (last seen, by me at any rate, in The Trial of Judas Iscariot at the Almeida in ‘08), although he’s wasted here as Charles the Wrestler. Edward Bennett (of RSC Laertes/substitute Hamlet fame) acquits himself well in the small role of Orlando’s grumpy brother, and Stephen Dillane makes a fine melancholy Jacques. And that really is about it. Maybe some of the minor characters, made to feel all the more minor in this production, aren’t too bad; although Thomas Sadoski’s gurning and bug-eyed Jim Carrey impression of a Touchstone grates like mad. The rest of the thing is just awful.

I don’t have to tell you the plot, do I? Orlando, the son of a deposed duke (or something) wins a wrestling match, then has to leave court, but meets a girl, Rosalind, before he leaves. They fall in love, she then gets exiled as well, or something, and they all spend a load of time buggering about in a forest – Rosalind disguised as a “peevish boy” finding out more about Orlando’s love for her, while they are beset by a bunch of yokel comic turns.

The most obvious problem is that Christian Carmago as Orlando and Juliet Rylance as Rosalind are both utterly dreadful. They are dreadful in different ways, though. Christian Carmago is a total charisma void. He looks great – curly black hair and impossibly high cheekbones – but looking great is no substitute for being watchable when you’ve got that many lines and your story is basically what we’re meant to be taking an interest in. Instead, he overdoes sullen to the point of boredom, but does deliver his lines at various volumes in an attempt to claw back some interest.

Rylance, on the other hand – though visually making a convincing boy – suffers from the exact opposite problem. She just can’t stop acting. Every. Sodding. Line is treated to the same affected, over-projected, musicality that sacrifices nearly all the meaning of what she’s saying to the same one-note, plaintive gush (when she came on at the beginning of The Tempest as Miranda and started doing exactly the same thing, I nearly walked out). The net result, then, is that the burgeoning, ambiguous love between Rosalind and Orlando is reminiscent of someone doing a drama school audition at a sulky mannequin. And this is the romance that is meant to drive the play.

One of the reasons Orlando might be so sulky is Tom Piper’s atrocious set. The thing starts off on a bench in front of a big, black, rough-wooden wall. As a rule I like big walls, but somehow this one was just annoying. Perhaps it was the way it was lit. Perhaps it lacked the courage of its convictions. Perhaps it was the furniture that got liberally distributed in front of it during the blackouts (Blackouts! I know!), but, yes, even As You Like It’s set was infuriating. The maddening wall then rises to reveal a patchy forest, which looks to have been enjoying a good twenty years worth of acid rain. With another big wall at the back. Again, there didn’t seem to be anything technically wrong with it, but for some reason it was just about the most irritating, not to mention ugly, stage design I’ve ever seen. By this point, I was even starting to feel anxious about why I disliked it so very much, but dislike it I did. Maybe part of the problem was the lighting (Paul Pyant) – mostly very dim. Perhaps a contribution to “bringing out the darkness of the play” as Mendes suggests he is doing, somewhere in his flimsy director’s notes.

Actually, the lack of a directorial vision here seemed particularly striking. There really didn’t seem to be a reason that they were doing this play in particular, or that there was any especial reason for why they were doing it the way they were doing it. If anything, this was just a stab at “actors’ theatre” – you know, putting the thing on the stage with not too many gubbins so as to best display the talents of the actors in an established text. Which sort of works fine if you’ve got the actors for it. But this year, Mendes doesn’t.

It is interesting watching them, though. Edward Bennett, who is very good, manages to get a laugh out of a single “no” just by the way he says it. To someone who doesn’t really know the first thing about acting (me), it seems remarkable that someone can hit a monosyllable with such precision as to make it funny and at the same time seem to acquire a bit more sympathy for and understanding of their character from the audience, while at the same time, and under the same director, someone else can gabble their way through reams of lines without once even making an especially compelling case for themselves as a human being, let alone one we care about.

Anyway, the whole thing was largely terrible. Funny about twice, and tedious in the extreme the rest of the time. It was only professional duty that stopped me making a break for it in its interval.

(the Bridge Project continues below)

The Tempest - The Bridge Project / Old Vic

(Continued from As You Like It, above)

Curiously, for a production which shares cast, set, director and designer with As You Like It (see above), the Bridge Project’s Tempest is actually several shades more hopeful.

It doesn’t start promisingly. The trees from Tom Piper’s post-apocalypse squash court set are gone, but it’s still awful dark, and Ariel’s sixth-form devised-piece antics with the Milanese & Neapolitan seamen conjuring the tempest are nothing to boast about at parents’ evening.

But then Stephen Dillane’s Prospero kicks in. And he’s very good. Part of it is that we’ve seen Dillane do other stuff (in fact, wasn’t he in the last major London revival of The Real Thing? Yes, he was. At Mendes’s Donmar), and he’s not *that* old. So instead of the usual wizened wizard with a stupidly young daughter, we’ve got a plausible deposed duke who just hasn’t been able to get a decent shave these past twelve years.

What’s also nice about Dillane’s performance is that he speaks the lines as if he were a human being talking sense. Indeed, he even mumbles a fair few into oblivion, but this feels like a small price to pay for having that interminable opening exposition scene explained by a person rather than in the usual pompous magisterial sort which crucifies most Tempests before they even get going.

The shipwrecked nobles are fine. They’re dressed unimaginatively in the cast-off costumes from Kenneth Branagh’s film of Hamlet, but since they’ve got to wear something, those are perfectly god things to wear. And while the characterisations are nothing special, they’re serviceable enough.

Juliet Rylance’s Miranda is unspeakable. And exactly the same as her Rosalind (who was pretty much exactly the same as her Ganymede). Although she does perform with such a lack of anything at all that it’s possible to imagine all sorts of better Mirandas onto the tabula rasa of her performance.

Conversely, Christian Carmago, who had made such a catastrophic Orlando, makes for quite a passable Ariel, dressed like a New York new waver circa 1979, with his pretty boy looks and sullen blank stillness making a preferable reading of the part to the usual high-voiced capering and scampering that actors often seem to feel the need to adopt.

Annoyingly, all the scampering and capering seems to have been left to Ron Cephas Jones’s Caliban. Although given the external factors pointing to potential for over-doing the possible post-colonial readings of the play, it’s a pretty straight-forward, and even intelligent version of a creature that no one ever seems able to pin down.

In fact, as Tempests go, this is most defined by its clarity. In most other respects it’s a bit like a compilation tape of other recent “straight” Tempests (it’s remarkable that a play that has so many fantastical elements so often seems to end up looking exactly the same), but at least it’s one that knows where it’s going, if not precisely why it’s important that it does.

Piper’s set benefits enormously from the removal of the “forest” at the back, which is replaced by what I presume is a sort of reflective-bottomed moat against the back wall (from the stalls, you can’t see any water, only the dappled reflection of water playing on the walls). The net effect is strangely reminiscent, at times, of scenes from Peter Greenaway’s earlier films (not Prospero’s Books, happily) – I can’t find precise photographic evidence on Google, but I’m pretty sure there’s stuff like it in Drowning By Numbers and A Zed and Two Noughts. Anyway, it looks jolly nice and goes a long way toward making amends for As You Like It. Downstage there’s a large-ish circular sandpit which neatly allows us to imagine the rest of the island being viewed and interfered with from Propsero’s cell, which actually works well as a way of containing the play’s many location changes without all the awkward faffing about of, well, As You Like It.

But, for all this acuity, the thing does begin to drag after a while. I’m not sure if it’s always going to be played without an interval, or whether that was just to get press day over and done with in an acceptably short time, but it definitely needs one. There’s not so much momentum going on here that it wouldn’t benefit from a bit of breathing space.

As for the rest, there’s some pleasant music (though much of it sounds like Michael Nyman’s score for The Piano and none of it is as good as his masque music from Prospero’s Books, sadly), and well, not really much by way of a ‘take’ on the whole thing. By the end, you get a good idea of what happens in the play, but very little idea of what attracted Mendes to it, beyond a desire to prove his competency at making stuff clear. That said, it does “wistful” better than any previous production I’ve seen. The point where Prospero and Gonzalo are reunited is actually touching, and this is the first time I’ve heard the line: “We are such stuff as dreams are made of” related with regret – that being of the same stuff as dreams, rather than the usual “magical” reading, is like admitting to a total lack of substance, an ephemerality.

In short, some lovely moments, but not nearly enough to keep the whole afloat.

Sucker Punch - Royal Court

It’s a strange beast, this new play of Roy Williams’s. On the surface of it, it’s a straight-forward tale of a young black lad, Leon, growing up in eighties London which purports to “look back on what it was like to be young and Black [sic] in the eighties” and apparently “asks if the right battles have been fought, let alone won” (cover blurb for playtext programme). Of these two elements, I’d suggest that the latter is by far the more interesting, fertile and successful ground than the former.

After all, the narrative is rather specific: Leon (Daniel Kaluuya) and his friend Troy (Anthony Welsh) find themselves cleaning out their local boxing club as punishment for breaking in before the play starts. Even at the level of metaphor, it can’t have been like that for everyone young and black in the eighties. There aren’t even any black girls in the play. Anyway. At the start of the play, the club’s (white) owner, Charlie (outstanding understated, honest performance from Nigel Lindsay), is concentrating all his efforts on Tommy (Jason Maza), his best hope for the Under-18s ABA Championships. Who’s also white. After a playground-style scuffle at the club, though, he soon spots Leon’s potential.

When it’s not moving the plot along, the dialogue in the initial scenes is heavily peppered with racial abuse (of the sort that both white, male characters claim as “as bit of fun”/“joking”), references to recent events (the inner city riots loom large) and references, cleverly, to only high-street chain stores which have ceased trading since the eighties (Rumbelows, Our Price, etc).

The underlining of the Main Themes does at times veer dangerously close to the theatrical equivalent of those “Do You Remember the Eighties?” TV shows, trotting out the same landmark moments and items of period kitsch. But this is mostly offset by a story which is quite fiercely its own thing.

Granted there are a few clichés there too. The only two white male characters are both basically racists, while Charlie’s daughter, Becky (Sarah Ridgeway) does at times seem like she’s only been thrown into the mix to provide some “love-across-the-barricades” action. But in the main, the plot is much better when dealing with relationships. The whole thing is wrought out of the precarious deals of trust. Leon despairs of his Falstaffian father “Squid” (a name presumably sharing a provenance with Lemmy from Motorhead) (Trevor Laird), who is forever borrowing more money from his son to blow on horses or drink, forms an uneasy alliance with Charlie, who has just had his trust in Tommy thrown in his face when Tommy runs off with a more glamorous manager/trainer.

At one point Squid suggests that “black people” are “Nuttin but crabs in a pot. When one gets to the top, all the others want to do is drag it back down”. Except that this is true of everyone here; all struggling to get to the top and, in the scramble, most, irrespective of colour, not caring who they need to stamp on to get there.

As a narrative, it’s often workaday stuff. Feeling a bit like those endless moral stories about how one shouldn’t “abandon one’s friends on the way up”, or how you shouldn’t “abandon your roots”, which are told across class, gender and race.

The plot itself moves at a fair old pace, with Williams adopting the blink-and-you-miss-them scene changes (in fact, there aren’t even “scenes” in the text), which one associates Mike Bartlett. Glancing at the programme, I see that Sucker Punch has indeed been directed by Sacha Wares who also did Bartlett’s first play, My Child and transformed the Theatre Downstairs into a distended tube carriage to do so.

Here again, the Downstairs has been remade (again by Miriam Buether, who as well as My Child, also created the fighting pit for Mike’s Cock), this time as the seating round a tacky Daily Mirror-sponsored boxing ring, which doubles as the ring in the training room.

It is partially this staging which lifts this play much higher than other recent Williams stagings. Of course, it’s been given a hefty boost by the subject of the play. After all, boxing – just the sheer physical spectacle of two athletic men with their tops off bashing away at each other – is a sort of theatre of its own, while the way that the ring, the stage, towers above the seating also enacts its own urgent dynamism on the space. Coupled with the physicality of the performers, and the whipcrack pace of direction, the more mundane bits of business are constantly being lifted by sheer adrenaline charge, underwritten by another excellent bit of sound design from Gareth Fry – sequencing drum machine rhythms, onstage microphones, and all sorts of aural cut-ups to create a kind of sonic artillery, with Peter Mumford’s lights creating blinding white flashes when punches are landed.

So, yes, if it were just a matter of staging, moments here would be astonishing – with extra points added for Kaluuya’s charismatic central performance. Although I reckon the outstanding bits would have worked for a staging of anything – and indeed might even be the more exciting for having been applied to something other than a play that was actually about boxing. This could have been a revolutionary Hamlet, for example.

So, what’s interesting is, that, away from all the visceral stuff and the plot, the “thinky bit” of Williams’s play is probably one of the most thought-provoking he’s yet offered. As I mentioned at the beginning, the blurb asks if “the right battles have been fought, let alone won”. Now, there’s a lot in the play that suggests this might be to do with an idea that “white people” “love nuttin better than to see two black men beat up on each other. They too afraid to do it themselves, so they get you to do it” according to Squid. Or that “We [white people] hate you” according to Charlie. Since both these father figures are pretty unreliable theoreticians, I’m not sure we should be reading them as the ciphers voicing Williams’s own concerns. Their viewpoints are interesting in the mix, and certainly there is a side of the play concerned with whether Leon is selling himself out to a “white” “establishment”. Except that Williams at no point presents a plausible “black” position which wouldn’t also involve “selling out”. And at the same time, we see white people selling one another out too.

No, the two most fascinating things here are the vast shadow cast by America, and the incredibly careful, almost intricate way that Williams uses language. Perhaps the key moment of the play for me is the moment only minutes before the end (p.82 of 86, since you ask) where someone uses the word “Nigga”.

It’s been completely absent from the show up to that point, where in previous plays about contemporary Britain (contemporary black Britain?), it’s used almost like punctuation.

Significantly, it’s a black character who says it. Moreover, it’s an American black character.

What the play most interestingly investigates is the relationship of Black Britain with Black America, and how Black America seems to have rapidly evolved and overtaken Britain in terms of emancipation and representation, but at the same time, has a new, harsh proto-neo-con, arch-capitalist agenda behind it.

Coupled to this is a quiet but insistent critique of American capitalism, and perhaps the seeds of questions that Black Britain might be asking Black America. These questions lie very subtly within the text, but are the driving force behind it.

As a play, it barely even frames its bigger questions, as if they only really filtered out in the telling of the story, but if this is the ground toward which Williams is moving into exploring, then his next few plays (no doubt staged before the end of the year, given the phenomenal rate at which he seems to crank them out) might be some of his most exciting yet. And this one isn’t half bad as a starting point.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Idomeneo - ENO, Coliseum

Katie Mitchell’s staging of Mozart’s Idomeneo is a thing of great elegance and intelligence. It also makes a neat companion to her 2007 NT production of Euripides’s Women of Troy. The opera, based on Antoine Danchet’s French text, is another post-Fall-of-Troy narrative, this time concerning the king of Crete, the little-known Idomeneo of the title.

In the beginning, we’re introduced to Ilia, one of Trojan king Priam’s daughters, who has been brought back to Crete by Idomeneo’s son, Idamante. The pair have fallen in love with one another in spite of the decade-long war between their respective nations, but neither has told the other of their burgeoning passion.

The overture is played over a stark, beautiful black and white photograph of the texture of waves on a calm sea, which covers the entire safety curtain, which then rises to reveal the first of Vicki Mortimer and Alex Eales’ many gorgeous sets.

The production is set in scrupulously observed modern dress and settings, achieving non-specific internationality by rendering all the interiors as the sort of expansive, expensive, characterless beige lounges, lobbies and conference rooms of high-end hotels across the globe, conjuring an atmosphere of slick corporate efficiency.

The brilliant thing about these sets, though, is that way that Mitchell and Mortimer/Eales (along with movement advisor Joseph Alford from of Theatre O) have their cake and eat it: at once enjoying the tongue-in-cheek (and frequently laugh-out-loud) moments provided by being able to have a steady stream of suited men walking briskly across the stage, or punctuating the dramatic action with primly officious waiters performing rituals of elaborate hospitality during the more notably twiddly bits of the score, while at the same time still creating beautiful, memorable stage-pictures. Perhaps it’s this constant movement which, as well as bringing the sense of place vividly to life, keeps the pace whipping by so that each hour-long act feels more like fifteen minutes.

What’s most striking about Mitchell’s direction is the level of detail in the naturalism. A lot of opera tends toward either the ludicrously generalised – offering acting and settings which look like a big trifle – or the austerely symbolist – mythic figures in mythic spaces behaving, well, not very much like people actually do in space dominated by a big sculpture. I haven’t got anything against either approach. But, while Mitchell’s approach already yields astonishing results in theatre, it might feel less remarkable there just because such techniques are more expected – indeed, in theatre, it is usually Mitchell’s signature deviations from what appears to be realist, fourth wall naturalism, which mark her out as special. Here, in the context of opera, it’s the intensity of the clarity which with Mitchell delineates the emotional arcs of the four central characters which really sets this production apart.

Where in theatre Mitchell’s almost “fetishistic naturalism” (cf. Krankheit die Jungen) can sometimes feel like a tic or affectation, underscored by Mozart’s music, and subject to the fact that the performers are having to sing, it takes on a different sort of function. It looks as if she has really worked with the singers on their acting, so that they really do have a reason that they are saying/thinking/vocalising/singing even every repetition of each line.

Alongside this emotional clarity, there’s also the recurrent sense of humour. When in the opening scene Electra (Emma Bell), Ilia’s love-rival for the affections of Idamante, blows into the palace/hotel conference suite, in contrast to the sober, dark-suited populace and subdued captive Trojans she turns up in a bright red coat and a look of “What? What’s wrong with this coat?” establishing the character (or at least this characterisation) minutes before she gets a line.

Electra is certainly the most fun in this Idomeneo. The central narrative revolves around the tragic consequences of the king promising Poseidon that he will sacrifice the first person he sees if he is allowed to reach his homeland safely, and then that person transpiring to be his son, Idamante (shades of Iphigenia at Aulis). The romantic subplot leads to Ilia, though noble and pretty, not really getting to do much but virtuously waft about lamenting her lot – touching though this is. So the real dynamism here is found in Electra’s mad cackling and vows of bloody revenge, hilariously overplayed with thunder and lightning flashing outside the windows of Mortimer/Eales’s set, while the princess irritably sends back glasses of wine and picks grumpily at her food. Elsewhere in the piece, where everyone else sings arias about their despair, Electra gets drunk and sings about how she’s going to re-seduce Idamante, while simultaneously touching up a hapless waiter who happens to be passing.

Being Mozart, there’s a sense that what you’re watching is basically a sequence of stuff thrown together with the primary purpose of delighting; a sense of a composer-slash-dramatist, basically contriving ways of giving people stuff that they’ll really like. Scene after scene. Every time the dramatic action might look like it’s about to flag a bit, Wolfgang chucks in some more allegro twiddling. He happily piles up the arias in act two, and then follows them with a massive climactic thunderstorm/tsunami. If there’s a weak point in both the music and the plotting, then it’s the seemingly bolted-on happy-ending in which Poseidon rears up out of the sea and forgives everyone, but even this is rescued by good old Electra going nuts with a revolver shortly afterwards.

The chorus numbers are, to this theatre-goer, impressive even before anyone opens their mouth just because of the sheer weight of numbers and the elegance of the mise-en-scene. And then when they do actually start singing... Well, it’s not all post-baroque showing-off. There are also some seriously beautiful choruses here.

What’s most glorious, though, is this marriage of Mitchell and Mortimer’s modernist sensibilities to Mozart’s ornate orchestration, with the clean lines and crisp direction at once grounding and being lifted by the richness of the music. There’s something wonderful about just the sheer expense and scale of it all, too. And then, because it’s not “theatre” per se, there seems to be less of an anxiety about certain aspects of the staging – covering scene changes with the return of the big black and white photo of the sea seems fine since there’s also the fact of the orchestra playing yer actual classical music. Live. I don’t suppose such things would excite a regular opera-goer very much, but to these funding-starved eyes, it all seemed pretty damn remarkable.

I should point out that the seat I was sitting in was thanks to a plus-one from a colleague, so I’ve got no idea how the production fares from the affordable seats. But if you’re a theatre-lover who has liked Katie Mitchell’s other work and the better part of ninety quid is something you happen to have in your disposable income, then I’d book a ticket in the stalls immediately if I were you. I’m not sure how well it will translate from the higher seats in the balcony, but it might be worth taking a look. If nothing else, it’s just great to see something of this scale on a stage. And then to see that scale handled on such a human level. Actually, it’ll probably still look great from the back of the balcony.

Either way, this is inspiring, brilliantly intelligent stuff.

Edit: Oh, and perhaps thanks to some spectacularly dim reviews in the national press, tickets seem to be a bit cheaper at the moment.

Photo: Emma Bell, Paul Nilon, Robert Murray, Sarah Tynan © Steve Cummiskey

Lulu - The Gate

As a text, Lulu seems to have suffered as chaotic a life as its eponymous heroine. Initially conceived by Frank Wedekind as two plays, it has been performed together and apart, frequently cut or banned, mistreated by the authorities, called by various names, remade as a film or opera, and then, unsure of what it is anymore, it ends up bedraggled in London where it is butchered. Only kidding.

But, like Lulu, there isn’t really a definitive Lulu, so the brief of Headlong and the Gate’s annual New Directions award – to adapt and reimagine a classic European text – is almost a given for any staging. However, as in previous years, the rubric seems to have given director/adaptor Anna Ledwich the necessary sense of freedom to go beyond mere restoration and into what reads on stage like something that is almost entirely her own dramaturgically.

Ledwich has stripped the script down to one possible set of bare essentials and rendered them in stark, almost emblematically contemporary language. Indeed, the thing whips by at a little over two hours including an interval. And you hardly feel the time passing. And yet, to the best of my memory, all the significant episodes of the play are still there – or at least, this version runs fairly similarly plot-wise to Georg Pabst’s early film-of-the-play Pandora’s Box.

At the start, Lulu is the worryingly young bride of a wealthy older man having her portrait painted by a dashing, romantically-minded young artist. This is virtually all that is certain. Is she flirting with the artist as he paints her, or is he projecting that onto her? Seeing what he wants to see, or seeing what he cannot help but see? It isn’t giving many minutes of the plot away to note that this first husband soon dies and Lulu immediately takes up with the young artist, establishing a pattern that is to see her through the rest of the play as a sort of cross between serial-monogamist and serial-murdereress, or rather, someone who happens to be in the vicinity of an unusually high number of deaths. More like a curse than a killer, perhaps.

Sinead Matthews’s performance is unsettlingly compelling. She bursts onto the stage like a cross between Bonnie Langford in Just William, Marilyn Monroe and Lolita; childishly energetic and disturbingly sexualised and provocative. What’s unsure is whether the sexuality is knowing or whether she is completely oblivious to her effect on men. This is a tension which is played on repeatedly. Does Lulu know what she wants? Does she ever really fall in love? Does she enjoy sex or tolerate it? Are these men using her or is she using them?

Thanks to the way that the piece uses modern idioms and partially places the scenarios in which Lulu finds herself in a modern context, we find ourselves assessing her along modern pop-psychological lines – did an “abusive father”, as we would now have it, plant the seeds of her troubled psyche? For example.

Ledwich is canny in her choice of contemporary language. The sexuality and relationships get discussed with contemporary frankness and candour, but there’s a total absence of “therapy-speak” and, more importantly, glib, harmful press coinages like “people-trafficking” or “abusive childhood”; coinages which have become so over-familiar that they immunise us to the misery which they denote. It is refreshing, albeit unpleasant, to be reminded of the actuality without the euphemisms.

Not that Lulu is much of a play for dwelling on misery. What’s fascinating is how little, compared to modern plays, the depths of the characters’ psychologies are trawled. Lulu isn’t a play that’s much interested in getting you to understand why the characters do what they do. They just seem to go about doing things. In this respect it’s rather reminiscent of Woyzeck; or what now seems destined to become Alan Bennett’s single most famous line – the description of history as “just one fucking thing after another”.

But Wedekind’s deeply linear, if apparently a-consequential, plotting isn’t the focus here. Indeed, for all that we find Lulu fascinating, she seems to exist at a bit of a safe remove from us and from Ledwich. More “emotional Brechtianism”, perhaps. Because, for all the cleverness on show in the translation, and the lovely performances elicited from a fine cast, the other real star here is the staging. It doesn’t look like it’s going to be, initially. The Gate is laid out other-end-on (the Gate’s space is adaptable, but the lighting box is usually at one particular end of the long, narrow room. This show is pointed at where it usually is), and the right hand wall is rendered as a half-finished tattered construction of wood and thick plastic sheeting. The stage is cut across with more curtaining – plastic, rags, velvet – which each in turn are drawn as the play proceeds. At first, the scrappyness of the look doesn’t seem to serve much purpose beyond a kind of impressionist naturalism. By the end, the sense of the stage deepening, particularly the removal of the “final curtain” (deliberate My Way gag?), has created a real feeling of movement, of the stage evolving to fit and accommodate the play or the narrative.

There are nice “Headlong-y” touches too – the best involving The Smiths’s I Know It’s Over, actor Michael Colgan and a whole lot of stage blood.

Actually, the soundtrack deserves a full-length review all of its own. Watching the play I’d lazily assumed that sound designer Carolyn Downing and composer Alex Silverman had done a few bits and pieces with a computer and then used a lot of found music by the likes of Monroe Transfer, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Arcade Fire and maybe some late-period David Lynch soundtracks. Wrong. All the music you hear in the show – beyond Marilyn Monroe’s I Want to be Loved by You and, oh, another pop song (someone remind me?) – including the cover of I Know it’s Over were recorded specially for the show. And it’s great. The music is also brilliantly mixed into the overall soundscape of the piece – with clattering guitars fading in and out of the sound of cities at night.

Similarly, Helen Goddard’s visual design is at once cleverly specific and bluntly non-committal. I mean this as a compliment. Everything that appears on stage, everything that everyone wears, looks like it has been carefully chosen and thought about, but none of it adds up to a specific “period” costume, nor does anything read like “an anachronism”. At the same time, costumes both conjure particular periods and perhaps usefully tie specific moments to particular tropes. In a sequence where Lulu poses as a photographic model for a Countess (who, on press night, was startlingly well played by the director herself after Caroline Faber suffered an injury), for example, Matthews is dressed not unlike a Bettie Page type pin-up from the fifties. It feels like there’s plenty of iconographic temporal travel, with no especial purpose other than to best present the scene. Perhaps there’s a more complex matrix at work, but if there was, I wasn’t reading closely enough to pin it down and offer a translation. But I’d be more than happy to believe there was something cleverer than necessarily-needed-to-be-spotted going on. It was that sort of production. Intelligent, carefully thought-through and worked on, but not *off-puttingly referential. If you don’t see any more than the play, then it still works, but there’s certainly more, both transparently and perhaps opaquely, going on beneath the surface for those who like their theatre more “readable” than “legible”.

So, in conclusion: it’s a bit of a strange original; not, perhaps, offering much for those interested in emotional engagement to get their teeth into. This is a clever, intelligent staging, with interesting decisions from the supporting cast and a remarkable central performance from Sinead Matthews. It’s also an excellent calling card for the director. Here’s hoping that even away from the New Directions rubric this is the sort of production we can expect more of from Ledwich, Goddard, Downing and Silverman in the future.

photo: Sinead Matthews © Catherine Ashmore

Through a Glass Darkly - Almeida

The big story here is that Through a Glass Darkly is the world premiere of the first adaptation for stage of Ingmar Bergman’s film of the same name. The only one of his films that he gave official permission to be so adapted.

It’s not a film I’ve seen, so there’s a bit of an elephant in the room here. This one of those perennial questions about reviewing. Once you know something’s going to be adapted for stage – be it novel or film – should you immediately seek out a copy and read or watch it, or should you watch it closer to the actual event, or save it until after you’ve seen the stage version? Because there’s always going to be an impact of one onto the other. I tend to think, if I’ve not seen/read the thing before I hear about the adaptation, I should probably leave off seeing the original until after I’ve seen the stage adaptation, so as not to wind up experiencing the stage version – which is after all the one I’m actually meant to be reviewing – as a pale shadow of the original.

The problem with this approach is that you wind up not knowing where to attribute praise and blame. Have difficulties of transposition been masterfully surmounted or has the film forced the play into an odd place? How much has it been adapted? Is the original better or worse? Should one even go about comparing a good film to a good play? Anyway, it’s too late now. I’ve seen the play and I haven’t seen the film, so this is essentially a review of what’s on stage at the Almeida. So much for critics being authoritative.

Though a Glass Darkly opens simply enough. A family emerge from a sauna/steam room/ swim in the sea, towelling themselves off and chatting happily. Thanks to the vagaries of casting conventions, it takes a couple of minutes to establish that the older man (David, Ian McElhinney) is father to the young woman (Karin, Ruth Wilson) and youngest man (Max, 22-year-old Dimitri Leonidas, who’s playing sixteen here), while the other man (Martin, Justin Salinger) is Karin’s husband.

Almost at once we’re made aware that something isn’t quite right. Father and husband talk of the wife’s recent dispatch from hospital. They exit. On another part of the coast, Karin and Max sit and chat. They’re awful flirtatious for a brother and sister, but that’s fine, right? Except that we now know she’s a bit unspecifiedly nuts, and so her every action seems that little bit more underscored with our concern.

And this is sort of how it continues. Little encounters between members of the family at David’s remote holiday cottage/writing retreat. A table rises up through the trapdoor of the Almeida stage and the family sit down for dinner. There’s mention of a deceased mother. Max has written a play, Karin has carefully rehearsed the prologue to perform to David. Martin sits up the other end of the profile and keeps a low profile. David, given more to self-absorption than parenting fails to take an interest in the play. Max is sad, Karin is cross, then it’s time for bed – for which the table lowers halfway back into the stage to double as a bed.

In the night Karin hears spooky voices amid the dripping and creaking of the old house. We hear them too. The thing circles and turns about in much the same way for the majority of the remainder of its 90 minute stage-time. It’s well done. Mostly pretty well acted – Ruth Wilson is best, and it’s a toss up between McElhinney and Leonidas for least good (although both have their moments).

What’s most striking is that, as narratives go, it’s very still. It feels like it maybe should be quite Ibsen-y, except that we know all the information. There isn’t really a shock revelation of something buried that’s underpinning all the tension.

There’s the dead mother. She had the same mental illness that Karin now has. And the father didn’t really deal with it very well at all. Indeed, he writes in his diary that he pretty much used his wife’s illness as an engine for his not-terribly-important writings. But Karin discovers this diary entry almost immediately and confronts her husband about it, who in turn confronts David.

Similarly, Karin recalls her mother’s “mad” episodes. They didn’t strike her as a child as madness, but as fun adventures. And there’s a sense that she isn’t quite sure whether or not she really trusts that her “madness”, or mental illness, as we might now prefer to think of it, is really “illness” at all.

Karin’s illness revolves around her hearing voices and trance-like states in which she imagines herself in a waiting room to heaven, waiting to look upon The Almighty. As a consequence, she isn’t at all sure that she wants to “get better”. Her husband and father aren’t especially convinced that she could anyway.

There’s sort of a question, at least in the text, of whether or not she is indeed mad, or whether this “madness” is a construct of the men around her. Strangely, the staging dispels this ambiguity by apparently playing us the voices in her head, and then, when Karin goes into one of her trances, by playing appropriately “heavenly” music and shining a Very Bright Light down onto her from above. Assuming we’re not meant to read these visible, audible signs as literally existing in the world of the play, but rather as manifestations of what Karin’s seeing, there doesn’t seem much ambiguity in the mind of director Michael Attenborough as to whether or not Karin is on the same page as the rest of us.

While the staging looks hugely competent and nicely designed (although I found the slightly off angles of Tom Scutt’s impressionistic sort-of interior/sort-of cliffs oddly annoying), it doesn’t feel like the whole thing was properly gelling on the night I saw it. Now, of course, this would be where it would be most useful to have seen the film. Perhaps viewed as a supplement to the film – as an adaptation of something previously known – it comes over as much more interesting, insightful commentary, but as a stand-alone experience it feels strangely inconclusive. There is drama here, and some moments of beautifully nuanced performance (not just from Wilson. I quite liked just how Scandinavian Salinger somehow managed to seem, while saying and doing very little), but the whole wound up feeling more like a celebration of well-done-ness than as a thing which fascinated in its own right, coupled to the fact that a fifty-or-so-years out-of-date understanding of mental illness is always going to grate slightly, especially when it’s married to the dubious trope of “holy lunacy” (like “idiot savant”, but even less savoury). But, yes, all very well done. Probably just me not going for the wider picture.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Faust (erster Teil) - Deutsches Theater

Goethe’s Faust occupies a position in the German literary canon for which we Brits – perhaps fortunately – have no dramatic equivalent. Basically, it’s sort of an unstageable peak. I think the closest we could get would be if Shakespeare’s pair of history tetralogies was just two plays. With no real reduction in length. But, as if the histories contained as many coinages and (now) clichés of our language as Macbeth and Othello and held a similar place in the national imagination to Hamlet or King Lear (but with as many duff moments as Pericles, Timon and Cymbeline combined), but with the curious extra dimension that Goethe wrote Faust in deliberately völkisch idiom – so perhaps imagine all the above if Shakespeare had written the above plays in cod-Norse/Anglo-Saxon/Chaucerian. Actually, all that godawful Arthurian stuff by Tennyson is probably nearer the mark.

Some of you might have seen Silviu Purcarete’s reportedly lavish staging in Edinburgh last year (sadly, I didn’t – but I imagine it’ll turn up at another festival). Another useful point of comparison might be Peter Stein’s 21-hour staging of both parts in 2000. These productions perhaps give some idea of the difficulties of size, length and scale demanded by the text.

Michael Thalheimer’s production of the first part runs for 1hr50 and offers only six (seven?) characters on stage. To call this a study in stark minimalism doesn’t even begin to cover it. The staging is also a thing of much starkness.

The first fifty minutes to an hour are played on the very front of the stage – virtually a corridor – between mostly Faust and the various visitors to his scholarly cell (a neighbour, a student, Mephistopheles), while the stage’s enormous revolve essentially contrives to make it look like the high, plain, black, walls of his cell are continually turning (if you see what I mean).

This first setting basically takes us up to the bit where Faust, weary of everything that the world seems able to offer, sells his soul in the hope that he’ll ever experience anything worth experiencing.

As a thing to watch, much of it is intensely still (save for the ever revolving wall). The performances – my heard-German is still what it could be in terms of comprehension – are fascinating just on a level of what the actors seem to be doing – there’s a weird kind of style deployed here –and it’s not the first time I’ve seen it – which is almost operatic in its treatment of text. It’s not sung, per se, but it is variously delivered lentissimo, allegro, sotto voce or fortissimo con fuoco. And so far as anyone has ever explained to me, while not actually *random*, there isn’t necessarily an obvious reason for where these differences might be deployed. No one seems to do anything so frightfully obvious as shouting when they’re angry or talking slowly when they’re thinking, for instance. That said, it’s worth noting that Goethe’s rhyming text is, at the same time as the above innovations, is still being spoken more as naturalised speech than being end-stopped as verse.

Not understanding half as much as I’d like to, puts me at a distinct disadvantage in terms of staying interested here, but in my defence, I’d say I did mildly better than the party of not-quite-tacitly restive teens amongst whom I was sat. (Still, full marks to them for even turning up on a gorgeous Sunday evening for two hours of Goethe, even if it was mostly to text one another throughout).

Perhaps mindful of his audience’s patience, perhaps also in lieu of an interval, Thalheimer chucks his audience a brilliantly unexpected curve-ball. So far, we’ve had this mostly pretty muted, very sober setted production. It’s a fair assumption that most people in the audience know what’s coming up in the story, and so, instead of Mephistopheles taking Faust to the Witches’ Sabbath he gives us about seven minutes of this:

Yup. Seven minutes of Deep Purple’s Child in Time, while Ingo Hülsmann’s Faust dances, air guitars and throws himself about in front of the revolving wall, which now has bright white light shining out from the gaps between the planks. It’s one of those moments which really reminds me why I love German theatre. An hour of really serious looking and sounding heavy dialogue, apparently brilliantly edited, and then seven minutes of buggering around to 70’s metal as a dramaturgical decision. Brilliant.

It’s not very deep, I know; but I do love it. Quite a large part of me also wanted to get out my phone’s video camera, film it, and send the clip to my best teenage friend with whom I grew up listening to this sort of stuff with a note explaining what it was (It’s 9pm on Sunday, I’m in Berlin watching Faust in German. Check this... – kinda thing).

After the Purple/Sabbath (is that the gag Thalheimer’s going for? One imagines not), the remainder of the action from Goethe that he can be bothered with is the stuff concerning Gretchen. For those of you who don’t know Goethe’s Faust, this is where Part One takes serious leave from the Marlowe (the Witches’ Sabbath scene does, after all, have mild equivalences in its Elizabethan forerunner). Basically, Faust sees a young madchen walking down the street and falls in love with her. Her one discernable character trait is her purity/chastity. Mephistopheles sleeps with her neighbour Marthe, Faust gets the girl, gets the girl pregnant, and then buggers off. Somewhere in all this, Gretchen asks Faust if he believes in God. Apparently in German, this is known as “die Gretchen frage” (the Gretchen question) – which is now a catch-all term for asking a naïve question.

Here the question is repeated a number of times, in what is clearly another key aspect of Thalheimer’s approach to the text – his emphasis on the existential questions of desire and knowledge at the play’s heart.

Gretchen’s eventual suicide is gorily rendered as a sudden spurt of blood from her neck as she cuts her own throat. And that’s practically it. Faust and Meph. slink off not-very-guiltily to wait for part two to start happening to them in another theatre another time.

Did I like it? Yes and no. I think my enjoyment would probably have been doubled by actually knowing what the hell Faust and Meph. were talking about, tripled by being able to appreciate Goethe’s actual use of language, and quadrupled by knowing the text well enough to really appreciate the cuts that Thalheimer’s version makes and being able to have a perspective on them. It would even , possibly, have been quintupled if I’d previously seen lots of other, more traditional, more staid productions, more literal productions against which to compare this sleek minimalist version.

Even so, aside from perhaps being a bit on the slow side (it really is very still indeed) there was something admirable about the austerity and the unpatronising demands made on the concentration. No spoon-feeding or playing to the gallery here – or very little, at any rate – this was serious seriousness being taken very seriously indeed, and I liked that a lot. You didn’t get much of an impression of a director worrying if his audience were “entertained”. Instead, this felt like someone taking a highly regarded piece of literature and offering their version of it to people who they trusted to appreciate being treated like thinking adults.

There’s an excellent description of Thalheimer’s style over at the Goethe Institut here, which manages to explain what I’ve been trying to describe above with a much better grasp of the context.

And another blog review in English of the production here, which fills in a few of the literary blanks.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Carrie on regardless

Screen cap. of the Tricycle website. Someone clearly has a wry sense of humour.

(click on image to enlarge)

Monday, 7 June 2010

The Man - Finborough Theatre

[written for CultureWars]

[With shows like The Man, there’s a massive advantage to not being a “proper” critic. For a start, I was under no compulsion to go, see the play, and then file my review by midnight, one in the morning, or half nine the following day (which was fortunate, since I was also keen to catch Mike Bartlett’s Bull, of which more another time, perhaps). Second, it meant I didn’t feel as embargoed from talking to The Man’s author James Graham about a few details of the show’s construction. And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it meant I could go and see the show a second time (after I came back from Pulse).

Of course, all these factors modify my experience of the piece, and in ways that “proper” critics aren’t really supposed to modify their experiences, but I think there’s a pretty compelling argument for approaching Graham’s piece in this way [is the British school of critics trying to preserve the purity if their perceptions against external (often useful) information necessarily *best*?]. It also means I don’t feel obliged to start the review: “Nothing is certain in life but death and taxes. The Man is a monologue about both...”]

The big thing with The Man is its liveness. The piece is being performed by a rotating, or, rather, fluctuating cast of four actors. But, more excitingly, despite there being a printed text of the play, the piece is different every night of its run. The premise of this monologue is its narrator, Ben, going through his receipts for the last year as he attempts to fill out his first tax return form. As the audience enters, each member is handed a receipt. The order in which any given audience hears the narrative depends entirely on the order in which these receipts are given to the performer.

At the conclusion of my first viewing of the show, I was more or less convinced that this “live” element was actually a bit of a cheat. I thought there was probably a certain amount of forward planning, or perhaps Derren Brown-style trickery so that we the audience *thought* we were feeding the performer receipts entirely at random, but in fact were just handing precisely the props he needed when he needed them. There isn’t.

Talking to Graham, consulting the script, chatting to other actors doing the show, and then seeing the piece for a second time – with the narrative delivered in an entirely different order – it’s entirely true: the order is complete chance. Which makes the show, a) a bugger to review (how to avoid “giving away the ending” when you don’t know which section is going to end any given performance?), and b) a pretty impressive testament to Graham’s strength as a writer.

On first viewing, you experience the unfolding narrative as completely logical. More than this, it feels as if the order you’re hearing it in makes *most sense*. Yes, it jumps about chronologically – first you hear about something from quite late on in the year, then a new receipt takes you back ten months, then forward five and so on – but it feels completely natural for it to do so. Like when someone is telling you an anecdote and then realises that you need a bit of context about their relationship to the person in the anecdote, and so they go back and tell you a bit about how they know that person, which in turn leads to another anecdote...

The way that the randomised order of the receipts appears to prompt these “memories” is about as unforced a way of achieving this effect as I can imagine. It also reveals something about the way in which we in the audience construct links between events and anecdotes ourselves. Perhaps the first order we hear the monologue in will always feel more definitive to us than it ever will to anyone involved in the production, because we’ve just heard the stories for the first time and have therefore forged all the information around it and the pictures it has created for us into a cohesive whole. It’s interesting that people I saw the show with on both nights swore that their (entirely different) orders of the script seemed like the ideal order to hear the play in.

Importantly, the randomised order doesn’t just feel like a gimmick. In fact, it seems like a beautifully judged way of owning up to the way that the audience and performer share the space. At the same time doesn’t seek to introduce some spurious notion that we’re “controlling” the action – the effect on the show’s order would be exactly the same if the performer just picked the receipts out of a hat, but it does make the whole experience feel much more “shared”.

It’s tempting to say that the narrative itself (or rather the events that are covered in the piece) is “classic Graham”. Except that looking back at the reviews of the other two plays by James Graham (Little Madam and Sons of York) I happen to have reviewed, that claim seems a little hard to back up. Where previous plays (see also: Eden’s Empire and Tory Boyz) have worried hard at Britain’s class-based politics, The Man, while touching on political themes (not least the question of taxation, which lies at the heart of every British election), is unashamedly personal. It deals primarily with attempts at love and coping with death. It’s also a smartingly funny snapshot of what it’s like being a non-native, twentysomething Londoner, living on precious little money in the early 21st century.

The first performance of The Man that I saw had James Graham himself playing the protagonist. This fact, coupled with the myriad receipts we had been handed, did make me wonder if the show might be a clever way for a writer to recycle the clutter of their tax receipts. But, no, in fact all the receipts are worryingly perfect forgeries – even the train tickets and Sainsbury’s receipts. Indeed, the receipts from iTunes (a clever way of seamlessly providing the show with a soundtrack) even have the character’s name and address on them.

Graham’s performance initially struck me as something of an essay of the part: the author gamely stepping up to undertake the same pretty difficult task of learning an hour an a half’s worth of material and then delivering it in a random order every night that he'd inflicted on his actors. By “essay”, I suppose mean I thought that Graham wasn’t really doing “proper acting”. Sure he was a hugely likeable presence on stage, but if anything he seemed a bit too “live”, somehow. Like he wasn’t really “pretending” enough to be “acting”.

His delivery of the emotional bits, for example, was somehow a bit too much like how someone really would brush away the actual emotional content of what he was saying with one too many silly jokes (which were, of course, in the script anyway) and nervous laughs. At which point, you realise that this really is an incredible performance. Graham really has a talent for stage-delivery. He captures the character perfectly, completely blurring the boundaries between himself and the person he’d made up; to the extent that, aside from the more writerly touches, you’d be happy to believe at the end of the show that he’d been talking about himself. Except without the self-indulgence that this would imply.

Seeing Samuel Barnett’s performance only six days later was perhaps a bit unfair (on Barnett) – not least for the reasons mentioned above about the extent of the relationship one builds with the first version of the story you hear. Barnett’s is an excellent performance, but one which feels much more assured and controlled in comparison with Graham’s. But then, I also knew the twists and was enjoying comparing the delivery of the jokes, rather than just laughing at them as I had done in the first version of show I’d seen.

That said, having four actors rotating in the part feels like an excellent idea for a new play, as it offers four different takes on the material in an way that new plays are hardly ever afforded. Granted it’s only got one director (the excellent Kate Wasserberg) and one “staging”, but it feels like the actors here – clearly with the two I saw (and I haven’t ruled out trying to catch more) – haven’t been shoe-horned into a role “created” by another actor, but are each offering their personal interpretation of the part.

So, what does one get out of the whole experience? I’ve rabbited on at unhelpful length mostly about the theatrical properties of this production – because that’s kind of what I like about theatre: its theatreyness. But actually, The Man is also a lovely, big-hearted, very funny story about getting round to growing up a bit. It’s really sweet and it leaves you feeling generally cheered up and the better for having seen it. Which isn’t a bad result for an impressive exploration of the relationship between audience and performer, performer and text, and text and audience.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Lonely is an Eyesore* (Pulse ’10)

Like the Barker day at Riverside Studios I’ve posted this strand of reviews top-to-bottom chronologically, thus posting the last review first so that the weekend can be read downwards (if you see what I mean).

Roughly half the shows I saw at the opening weekend of this year’s Pulse Festival were one-person shows. The stated reason for press being invited to the first weekend was that there was an emphasis on local, or local-ish, acts (which, if nothing else, made me feel jolly smug about being “in the regions” while that particular row raged on the Guardian Theatre Blog). There were also scratch performances generated at/by the New Wolsey Theatre and the East Anglia leg of Paines Plough’s excellent (on this showing) Come to Where I’m From initiative, while lot of the rest of the weekend showcased stuff that will be going to Edinburgh under the Escalator East to Edinburgh umbrella.

This partly accounts for the one-person-ness of many of the shows. One person shows are, after all, cheaper to transport and set up than a fully cast production of Les Miserables. The Edinburgh effect doesn’t, however, account for why so many of the one-person shows were first person “me-monologues” (I’m not counting Bunny among these. Bunny was at least written by a writer and performed by an actor. And Jack Thorne isn’t an 18-year-old schoolgirl from Luton. So even if there are biographical elements in there, they’re certainly not first person).

I’ve got a confession to make: I don’t really like “confessional” shows. I don’t like the idea of them at all, and I rarely like the actuality. In fact, if there is a solo performer on stage, I’d much rather they were talking about anything other than themselves. There have been major, shattering exceptions to this (notably by Lucy Ellison). Ordinarily, though, when it’s just a solo performer telling a story about themselves in the first person, particularly when you suspect it’s a very one-sided version of a completely “true” story, well, it almost always smacks of solipsism, doesn’t it? As an artist there are all the stories in the world you could choose to tell, and the one you choose is about yourself?

As a result, the following write-ups seem to become an assessment of how well the performers manage to look beyond their personal experience, or how much they manage to bury the origins of the source material for their shows. Or simply whether they manage through good writing, charm, great performances, artistry or insights, to lift the experience beyond someone forcing you to listen to them tell you stuff about their life that you haven’t wittingly asked to hear.

[There are some more upbeat accounts of other stuff seen at Pulse on the way, btw, but rather than wait until I’d finished writing everything, I just wanted to get these pieces filed and out of the way to clear the decks a bit... Seriously, Poland 3 – Iran 2 was one of the best things I’ve seen this year, the Paines Plough thing was lovely, and there were also some scratch things I’m not allowed to write about properly, but will try to cover in some way…]

* Blog title taken from the 4AD album of the same name which in turn takes its from a line in this song, which is on the album...

Bryony Kimmings - Sex Idiot - New Wolsey Studio (Pulse '10)

[Edit: since this review, Sex Idiot has won a Total Theatre Award, gained a perfectly respectable review from Lyn Gardner and become the toast of the Forest Fringe. I have no idea whether the show has changed from what I saw, or whether I'm in a humourless minority, but it's probably worth reading a few other reviews beyond this one]

There’s a problem with Sex Idiot, namely that it’s unclear whether it’s the most rubbish “performance art” you’ve ever seen or an unfunny character comedy pastiche of the worst “performance art” “Bryony Kimmings” has ever seen.

It doesn’t matter, though, since it’s excruciating either way.

The basic premise of the show is “Bryony Kimmings” talking about herself (I'm going to keep her in quotation marks for a bit, because I'm not at all convinced she's actually a real person). Or, rather, roughly the last decade of her sexual history, occasioned by the discovery that she recently caught Chlamydia, and that she'd broken up with a boyfriend, had to move house, and so ended up going through boxes of old emails and letters from ex-partners. It later transpires that she caught Chlamydia off her new partner, so all the “soul”-searching turns out to have been unnecessary. But, here it all is anyway.

Her sexual history is wholly unremarkable for someone of her age. She's had a four “serious” boyfriends and slept with some other people in between or during them. She takes an hour to tell us about this.

There is the alternative that none of this is specifically true (or at least it is based on nothing more than the entirely predictable relationships and break-ups that a vast majority of people have in their twenties). Which would beg the question: why go to these lengths to make up and talk about something so utterly, utterly trite?

Except that these banalities are the peg from which she hangs the puzzling “performance art” dimension of the show. This is the element which could qualify the piece as “character comedy” – a kind of mini-narrative satirising this “artist” who creates these “performances” to mark “significant” emotional episodes in her life (“I call this the dance of the lost baby” – Really. I shit you not. And the “dance” itself is terrible. Unwatchably terrible. And not even in a “it would be funny if a “performance artist” *said* that” kind of car-crash, comedy-of-cruelty sort of a way. Instead, it’s just terrible.)

The show’s one real achievement is that it achieves a kind of anti-catharsis. Instead of cheering you up, making you laugh, moving you, or reminding you of the astonishing feats of talent, imagination, generosity and nobility of which the human animal is capable, this show really does make you feel the sheer pointlessness of it all. More than Kafka, more than Camus, more than Beckett, "Bryony Kimmings" is the “artist” who most makes you feel the grinding, grating, relentless banality of human existence.

Even all this might be excusable if there were a scintilla of wit. There isn’t.

Oh, but there are songs. She can't sing, but there are songs. That might be a joke too, either because the songs are meant to be funny, or because it’s meant to be funny that this made-up “performance artist” is singing them. In the event, they aren't funny on either level. By way of example, one song is a list of words for vagina set to the tune of Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues, complete with Kimmings doing the words-on-pieces-of-paper video. It’s an ok concept, if just about the most hackneyed imaginable – and one that feels like pre-existing material being crow-barred into an already ramshackle structure. She then adds ineptitude to unoriginality by having all the words written onto piece of cardboard which are too thick to hold many of. So she writes words on both sides. And then has to rotate the pieces of card rather than coolly dropping them as Dylan does. Perhaps that’s a visual gag too. It just looks like someone not really knowing what they’re doing. Oh, and she runs out of words and phrases for vagina about halfway through verse two and has to start repeating them or making them up. Again, maybe that’s part of the complex matrix of humour.

The fact that you can’t tell if it’s meant to be a satire of “performance art” (which itself could be a satire of the sort of satire that people who know nothing about performance art make when satirising performance art) or if she really means these things to be comic pieces of performances in their own right is pretty indicative of the level of total failure we’re looking at here.

In short, all the jokes are rubbish, and if that’s the joke, then this a particularly rubbish example of that one-joke joke.

Reykjavík - Old Town Hall Galleries (Pulse '10)

Jonathan Young’s Reykjavík is at least well made. It suffers from all-in-white, floaty, wanting-to-be-Complicité-ness (there really should be a single noun), but it’s well designed, well lit, nicely thought-out and well executed.

The problem is, the title of the show might as well be “my failed gap-year romance (in Reykjavík)”. Not knowing Young personally, it’s impossible to tell how much of the narrative is fictionalised, romanticised, or just plain made-up. Not very made-up, one suspects, given that his programme biog puts him in the same places at the same time as the narrator (reading the Pulse programme blurb, it claims Reykjavík asks: “how far can we trust our own memory.” We might be better off asking how far we can trust Mr Young's).

Even these needn’t have been a problem had the subject been different. But one suspects that this really is the true story of how Jonathan Young went to Lecoq, or Gaulier, or wherever in Paris, met an unhappily-married Icelander with two children, had an affair, and then went to live with her for a few years in Reykjavík.

In fairness, the piece does demonstrate a desire to look outward. It tries for same sort of fairy tale of experience that Milan Kundera writes, crossed with the sort of meditations on internationality that Complicite’s more John Berger-influenced stuff does. But while it keeps coming back to the performer’s own relationship, it feels like it’s never really going to free itself from the shackles of solipsism.

Partly,perhaps, it’s because it refuses one of fiction’s chief pleasures: guilt-free moral judgement. With fiction we can assess a character’s successes and failings quite bluntly. It is more awkward to do so when the “character” is standing in the room with you, smiling at you ingratiatingly. Similarly, fiction allows a writer to create characters and situations for us; just telling an audience your side of events which actually took place doesn’t, no matter how much you dress it up with the books you’ve read or the places you’ve been.

The whole dynamic throws theatre’s usual cosy boundaries slightly off-kilter. And instead of being given permission to be charmed by actors’ performances of characters, you’re basically being asked to actually like and engage with the actual person who, at many points in this promenade performance, is actually standing just a couple of feet away.

The piece doesn’t ask “how far can we trust our own memory?” half so much as “how much of Jonathan Young can you tolerate?” I’m sure he’s a nice bloke and everything, but it seems like a failure of theatre that I feel the need to even say as much. Except that everything here seems so manifestly personal, that it’s impossible not to get the feeling you’re reviewing the bloke, not the show.

And after a while, I (and *I* resent all these personal pronouns that this sort of show ends up making *me* use) started to find Young pretty suspect. After all, there’s nothing especially admirable about embarking on an affair with a married mother-of-two, having a foreign girlfriend, or sincerely believing nothing is ever your fault, which is pretty much what the contents boil down to. Stir in some infuriating nods to Buddhism, stuff about the I Ching and a lot of godawful, earnest, singer-songwriter, acoustic guitar music and you’ve got a recipe for spending a very long hour with someone who I suspect I’d tolerate for about three minutes if I met them at a party. And in Reykjavík, one isn’t even given the vodka which presumably got the Icelanders through it all.

Ordinarily I’d be wary of offering such a blunt personal response, but the show is so bluntly personal, that it seems somehow unavoidable. Partly it’s the insufferable egotism of it all. I’m pretty sure in the hands of another performer (the one I thought of was Unlimited’s Chris Thorpe), the writing might acquire a much more likeable edge. And there are some nice touches in the staging. The audience is dressed in white overalls to watch the piece/wander round the installation, and at one point is required to don frosted-glass goggles to experience aurora borealis style lighting effects. As well as having a pleasing ambient lightshow, mingled with that mildly frightening sensation of standing in the middle of the room and not being able to see a thing, this has the welcome effect of not being able to see Jonathan Young smiling at you for a few minutes.

Whenever I Get Blown Up I Think of You - New Wolsey Studio (Pulse '10)

If I felt bad for not being charmed by Jonathan Young in Reykjavík, I was positively mortified to discover I didn’t especially care about Molly Naylor. Ms Naylor happened to be on one of the tube trains which was blown up in the 7/7 attacks on London. She escaped without apparent physical injury, but it seems her ability to say anything straightforwardly was irreparably damaged.

The ghastly fact at the centre of Whenever I Get Blown Up I Think of You is that being at the centre of horrible carnage doesn’t make you any more able to write or perform.

Naylor’s chosen style for her (again, entirely solipsistic) monologue is a kind of twee poetry-of-the-streets. She is a mistress of the misplaced simile. For every thing she names, she seems compelled to find half a dozen examples of things that aren’t in the least bit evocative of the first thing to liken it to. Her metaphors sound like they’ve all been stolen from Massive Attack records and reapplied at random to whatever she happens to come across. Her delivery is faltering, mostly lifeless, and labours the “poetry” of the piece so much that it probably sounds a lot worse than it is.

The story itself isn’t without interest – of course we’re ghoulishly drawn to tales of what happened to the people who were on the tubes that were blown up. But by dint of forgoing reportage, having absolutely no eye for what about her situation is interesting, and dressing it all up in this twee poetry the overall effect is (on a Far Lesser Scale) as if Primo Levi had written Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats instead of If This is a Man.

The pity is that Whenever I Get Blown Up... (and, yes, the title’s in the show) lessens what happened on 7/7, reducing it to a twee narrative of a flaky twentysomething who was “on a quest to make her life just like the movies”, who had “encountered a series of reality checks epitomised by dead-end jobs, disillusioned characters and the immeasurable cynicism of her generation” (thanks, programme blurb), just getting out of Stoke Newington after the explosions, moving to Wales for a bit, breaking up with her boyfriend and then going back to live at her parents’ house.

Yes, that’s probably exactly what happened. But, if anything, this show puts any degree of empathy or understanding further from out grasp at the end than it was when we entered the theatre. The fact of the matter is, unclear writing and poor poetry can distort the attempt to transmit information, meaning and emotion. No matter how real and urgent the creator’s subject is, if they fudge the medium, then the message will never materialise.

The Three Stigmata of Pac-Man - Sir John Mills Theatre (Pulse '10)

Ross Sutherland’s The Three Stigmata of Pac-Man could have suffered from sharing a less sensational version of exactly the same plot as Whenever I Get Blown Up... were it not for a couple of saving graces; firstly, Sutherland, while a founder member (a decade ago!) of performance poetry schticksters Aisle 16, is basically a stand-up comedian who chucks in a few “poems” for good measure, which happily avoids another hour of trying to untangle the narrative from forced rhymes and unhappy similes. Secondly, he doesn’t present himself shielded by the irreproachable seriousness of his subject or enormous self-regard. Instead he’s just quite a funny bloke taking the piss out of himself. He’s not half as clever as it might have been nice for him to have been, but that’s hardly the point. And by this stage in the weekend, I’m just grateful that he’s competent and funny.

When his story starts, he’s working as a music journalist for the Manchester edition of Metro, which shares an office with the Daily Mail (I assume this is all true). He’s (lazily) writing music previews while his opposite number across a cardboard partition is writing terrifying predictions of how Britain is being swamped by gypsies who will lower the value of your house. He speculates that journalism has now become the practice of writing possible futures. It’s a neat observation. Then he loses his job, largely because a bunch of people in America whose job it is to trade in “futures" quite spectacularly cock it up, and all the money in the world suddenly contracts. Sutherland doesn’t make this link between the sale of futures on global markets and his own contribution to the craft of selling the future explicitly (although he’s welcome to nick it), but it’s roughly around this nexus that the shows baggy contents revolve.

There’s an amusing digression about a reviewer pronouncing Sutherland a racist, which is turned into a prose poem in which the reviewer in question sees everything in the world as fascistic. Elsewhere, toward the end, there’s an extended passage describing a humiliating return to the parental home and a near-breakdown. That this is all delivered as amusing, blokey self-effacement says a lot more about his talents as a writer and comic performer than might occur at the time. At no stage does this feel either particularly self-important or -indulgent. Rather than pleading a case for his specialness, “Ross Sutherland” seems to effortlessly describe things happening to himself as if they could be happening to anyone, or even to you. There’s also the fact he’s clearly making some stuff up – unless he really can travel in space and time and repeat events again and again in different genres.

Ultimately, this is a likeable, though not profound show. Worryingly, it is made all the more likeable by the simple facts of the performer's charm and good humour. "Worryingly", because, I'm not sure I especially want my “theatre” – and I’m not sure many of the above shows would want to be categorised as “theatre” – to win me over with charm and some nice jokes. But then I suppose [and this is a pretty sudden hypothesis] when you impose that much reality into a performance, perhaps different criteria for assessment suddenly kick in. After all, if the story isn’t made up, if the people really are real, if it’s not “acting” but, well, what? being? – if the co-ordinates have been re-set to such an extent, then perhaps the way one responds is also altered.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Ingredient X - Royal Court

[Written for CultureWars]

First things first: Nick Grosso’s new play Ingredient X is terrible.

How and why it is terrible are more interesting questions.

The back of the printed script claims: “Full of piercing dark humour, Ingredient X veils uncompromising truths behind quick-fire banter. This tough, abrasive comedy explores different types of addiction in modern life, from reality television to Class A drugs.”

The main problem with Deborah “Scarborough” Bruce’s production, then, is that it doesn’t seem to realise the play is a comedy. A fair enough oversight: the script isn’t terribly funny. But the extent by which this rag-bag of performances miss the mark suggests there are far deeper problems with both script and production.

The main problems of the production seem to stem from the setting and [God forgive me] casting. Ben Stone’s detailed naturalistic set depicts a fairly desirable open-plan loft-style flat. It could be pretty much anywhere. Meanwhile, “recovering drug-addict writer”, Frank (TV sketch-show stalwart James Lance), his “co-dependent” wife Katie (Indira Varma) and their, what? friends? neighbours? Rosanna (Lesley Sharp) and Deanne (Lisa Palfrey), don’t make any sense as a collection of people whatsoever. You don’t get any idea of where any of them met, how any of them come to be friends and, most damningly, you get absolutely no inkling of why any of them would ever want to speak to each other.

Is the play meant to be a social comedy? If so Grosso has totally failed to indentify a recognisable social milieu, or, if this is a demographic well-known to everyone else, then either he or Bruce has managed to make something real seem like a lazy invention. And yet all this work has gone into the creation of this detailed set. All the characters seem to be wearing very specific costumes and talking with very specific accents. But none of this naturalism adds up to anything natural. Perhaps is a brave theatrical attempt to create a kind of everyBritain, but when clothed in this much naturalism it simply fails to register as such.

But then the tone of the script can’t be asking for naturalistic treatment, anyway. After all, it’d be a misunderstanding of almost farcical proportions to treat a script with such godawful schlocky stock figures seriously. Isn’t what Grosso has written meant to be a kind of live cartoon? That’s surely the only possible explanation for the way that each character seems to keep bursting into a new aria of addiction exposition. There’s Deanne’s alcoholism speech, Rosanna’s one-dimensional anti-addict stance on account of her coke-addict ex-husband, there’s Katie’s apparent addiction to the mantras and buzzwords of therapy and 12-step programme groupspeak, her ability to view both her own and everyone else’s behaviour as somehow pathological, and then there’s Frank’s own recovering-addictspeak.

Playing this as naturalism, even as half-naturalism, just makes it look like the most badly written play imaginable. It might be just about plausible to envisage the play on stage if it had lot of jokes that everyone in the audience were laughing at, but it doesn’t. And, my God, does the silence on our side of the fourth wall (behind the big imaginary telly that the cast spend most of the play watching) leave it looking horribly exposed.

It’s worth looking back to that programme blurb. The claim that …X “explores different types of addiction in modern life, from reality television to Class A drugs” would be true if the word “explore” were substituted for the word “mentions”. For a start, half these “modern addictions” aren’t even painted convincingly as addictions. Saying “Ooh, Rose, your Dan don’t ‘alf watch a lot of telly these days. Blimey, I’m pissed” hardly constitutes a searing indictment of Broken Britain™. And that’s about the level of “exploration” offered.

More worrying is the claim that there are “uncompromising truths... behind [the alledgedly] quick-fire banter”. From where I was sitting it looked much more like several Daily Mail editorials had been made to scream histrionically at each other in a nice loft apartment. On one hand is this hysterical configuring everything that any of the characters do as part of a pathology of addiction, on the other there’s either a pointed satire of the Mail’s bête noir – “therapy-speak” – or else two of the least sympathetically drawn proponents of its ideals and the ideals of 12-step programmes. As a result, Grosso seems to be satirising a tendency for modern Britain to label everything an addiction – while allowing actual addictions to run for years unchallenged – at the same time, taking the piss out of the ways in which some people take steps to deal with their addictions. Granted both tendencies can be incredibly irritating, and the play only depicts a sample of four, but as such it seems a somewhat forlorn hope that the play was ever going to be able to shed much light on the perceived range of “addiction in modern life”.

A further key to the failure of Ingredient X is provided by a quotation from the late Sheridan Morley on the back of the text (no comment on the fact that one has to look so far back to find an approving quote about Grosso’s work, that the critic who wrote it is now dead, or that Morley is using just about the laziest formulation available in critical writing). He suggests “[Grosso’s] style is that of a latter-day Oscar Wilde on speed”. If, to the minds of those who assembled this blurb, that provides the most ready insight into what this play is also meant to be like, it further underlines how both script and production fail it.

If Grosso’s early work was like Wilde on speed, then this is its come-down in rehab.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Bunny - Sir John Mills Theatre (Pulse '10)

Pulse ’10 kicked off with a rehearsed reading of Jack Thorne’s new Nabokov commission, The Siege. Being a work in progress, the first thing we learn is that The Siege is now called Bunny. Fairy nuff.

Being a rehearsed reading of a work-in-progress, much like with Mike Bartlett’s Bull last night [Weds 26th], it’d be wrong to write something that pretended to the status of “a review”. I mean, it *was* open to the public, charging for entry, and indeed kicking off the Pulse Festival 2010, so it seems fair to write *something* about it. It’s not like it was meant to be a secret. But at the same time it’d be wrong to think of the below as “a review”, more as a note-to-self so I’ve got a record of my original impressions when the finished version materialises (it was very useful to have my first encounter with Laura Wade’s Posh written up when the final version breezed into town). I thought Bunny was good anyway, so I don’t know why I’m apologising so much. Anyway...

Noting that Jack Thorne is a writer whose body of work has underlying themes would be worthy of a Pulitzer Prize for understatement. Throughout his work there’s a preoccupation with sexual violence against women. There’s also an issue about class. And his plays focus on teenagers more often than not.

If I’m honest, I used to find it quite troubling. After all, writing play after play about violence against women is like picking at a particularly nasty scab and it results in a body of work in which bad things kept happening to quite young women.

But then, violence and sexual violence shouldn’t be comfortable subjects. And they are important subjects. I think I used to worry a bit too much about the gender of the protagonists (the female speakers in monologues) compromising the gender of the writer (or vice versa).

As a result, I rather wish I’d seen Bunny in kind of theatrical double-blind trial. On one level, it’d have been quite helpful to have had to assess the writing from scratch, rather than going in confident of a level of quality because I already knew Thorne could write. But much more that this, I’d have been really interested to have known what I’d have guessed about the age and gender of the writer.

Those misgivings aside, I think Bunny represents a real shift for Thorne as a writer – which sounds ludicrously pompous. Actually, scratch that. It represents a tangible widening of scope for Thorne as a playwright/writer-for-theatre. Whereas texts like Special and Stacey seemed much more focused on actual violences against specific women, Bunny – with much less explicitly happening to its narrator – paints a much nastier picture of a world made up of pre-fabricated violences; hand-me-down attitudes and second-hand nastinesses which morph into actual acts of aggression just because they’re already hanging round in the air, in the zeitgeist.

Bunny is a nasty, itchy, scratchy little play. Its subject is nominally Katie (is that her name as well as the name of the actress?), a year thirteen schoolgirl (that’s an upper-sixth former) and what she does on one evening after school.

The trajectory of the monologue is the imperceptible slide from quite a cocky, assured-but-self-deprecating start to a sickening rush into situation that you don’t quite see coming and events which shouldn’t really follow on from each other.

The devil here is as much in the digressions and self-corrections as it is in the details. The rhythm of the whole piece is stop-start, stop-start... The device is the delivery of a simple, bland truism – such as might be tossed out unthinkingly by any sullen teenager – which is then worried to death with endless revisions. Like a hysteric version of the “Well, I say A, but B. Well, I say B, but...” formula. Or a hyper-articulate “yeah, but, no, but”.

As a character, [Katie] is a fascinating creation. She delineates where she fits into the overall scheme of things, into the intricate social hierarchies of the common room and wider world, with an obsessive precision. She knows pretty much exactly where she stands, although this self-knowledge is underscored by a hefty dose of self-doubt, which in turn is underwritten by a certain amount of cynical realism. She’s also interesting for being pretty upfront about sexual desire. She actually articulates some, which – it strikes me – still seems rare for a female character on stage outside the work of Howard Barker.

On one level it adds up to a very precise portrait of one girl’s sexual self-hatred. At the same time, Thorne’s focus isn’t so myopic. There are other issues at play here too. Race, for example: Katie has a black boyfriend (“He’s not that big, so *that*’s a myth...”), and the overarching narrative of the monologue concerns the fallout from said boyfriend getting into a fight with a younger Asian lad.

If anything, even gender and race are overshadowed by place. Thorne’s Luton is perfectly captured imperfection. It exists as a series of small flaws. I don’t think there’s an outright description of a single place, and yet you see it all in the mention of the chipped this or the badly planned that, and the sides of town divided into ethnic groups, and the parts of town that people move out of as soon as they can, and the takeaways on housing estates that are closed mid-week.

It works beautifully as a backdrop for Katie, who seems to hate herself about as much as Luton hates her. She doesn’t like Luton much in return. And isn’t a racist. Because she’s got a black boyfriend. And her parents read the Guardian. Although she does have some residual nasty bits of British culture stuck in her head. When an Asian man she’s been fancying suddenly turns nasty, she in turn whips out a description of him as a greasy kebab shop worker.

This is another of the piece’s strengths – Thorne’s eye for the nasty turn of phrase, for the tiniest bit of suspect thinking. The half-uttered, immediately retracted epithet. All turning and spinning like clockwork keeping the bigger, nastier story running. What’s also fascinating is the way that none of the characters seem to own these thoughts. They just lazily reach for the nearest bit of recycled tabloid nastiness to throw at each other.

In a way, it’s a perfect picture of how England goes wrong. Over-tired, over-worked, anxious, financially insecure people taking out their frustrations on whoever or whatever comes to hand; justifying it with whatever half digested, half-believed bigotry comes to hand.

As a rehearsed reading , it seems silly to spend much time on the “production”, other than to record that [Katie (no programmes) reading/performing the part of (Katie?)] was excellent.