Sunday 10 June 2012

Wege aus der Krise

Timon aus Athen – Bremer Shakespeare Company, the Globe
Caligula – Benedict Andrews, ENO

Are there instructive comparisons to be made between a new German attempt on an early-modern English attempt on an ancient Greek life and an Australian's contemporary attempt on a pre-WWII French version of a classic Roman for the English National Opera?

As wags have already suggested, it was wry of the Globe to kick off the Jubilee Weekend with another Greco-German alliance. But once safely cloistered within the Globe's oddly comforting plaster, beams and thatch – away from the thousand union flags to which London been subjected – actually watching the play, the choice of having this story of a likeable spendthrift Greek being performed by Germans seemed to contain a much more meta-commentary on the the current state of the eurozone than anything to do with Britain's antique monarchy.

However, in the Bremer Shakespeare Co.'s production, “meta-” is where this commentary mostly remains. What we're given here – at least as far as I could observe – is a pretty straight-forward run through of the action of the play, cut to two hours, and performed without too much dwelling on the more “tragic” aspects of this “problem play”.

I say “straight-forward”, although I imagine a lot of Shakespeare “purists” will claim that the production was almost entirely bonkers. Indeed, I heard one old codger at the interval muttering that there was “almost no justification for that trampoline at all”.

And, well, no; textually, there's very little in any of the published texts of Timon of Athens to suggest that Shakespeare definitely intended that the table around which Timon invites his guests to sit in Act III, should be a trampoline. On the the other hand, there's no point where he definitely says it shouldn't be either. Indeed there's very little in Shakespeare's texts concerning scenography and costuming at all. Apart from the occasional plea (most notably in Henry V) for audiences to overlook the fact that what's on stage looks nothing whatsoever like the real thing.

But, yes, since this is a German production, it contains the apparently de rigueur full-frontal male nudity, animal masks and stage mess. Now, the cynical and jaded could suggest that this is evidence of a somewhat calcified system of stage semiotics (I'd contend it's actually a lot more to do with coincidence, having seen plenty of German theatre which contains none of the above), on the other hand (or even *at the same time*), maybe we should view this recurrence of such strategies as confirming a certain level of centrality that thy have achieved, and start to think about them a bit more seriously than just noting that they are “enjoyably bonkers” and wonder not only what but *how* they mean.

Actually, it's worth pointing out that the animal masks here aren't really doing anything more than *meaning* “some animals” who prance on and wiggle about a bit during Timon's speech in which he bitterly compares their worst characteristics to those of humans.

In fact, this production's overall gentle, un-pointed, “Regietheater-lite” approach suggested quite a useful bridge between British and German directing cultures, opening the option of a sliding scale of *types* of “director's theatre”. Because, for all the invention and mucking around on show in this Timon, it also reminded me a lot more of, say, Kneehigh's Cymbeline, than of the High Seriousness that we might sometimes think we should expect from the Germans. In short, it reminds us that as well as having a lot of theories, Brecht also wrote a lot of clown shows.

Timon aus Athen, BSC

By contrast, Benedict Andrews's production of Detlev Glanert’s Caligula at the ENO is perhaps the more familiar type of director's theatre, or rather opera.

The curtain (yes, Mark! There's a curtain, thank God!) rises, audaciously, on set designer Ralph Myers's meticulous recreation of a massive bank of stadium seats.

It is at once both impressive and flat; strangely attractive in its implacable gaze, yet ugly and functional. It reminds us of ourselves as an audience. It co-opts the same sense of the uncanny as Tim Crouch's The Author. At the same time, this type of plastic-seat, single rake is about as far away as you can get from the frou-frou chocolate boxiness and strict price differentials of the ENO's Colosseum (although, it was strangely appropriate to see something *about Rome* there, what with the auditorium's frankly bonkers addiction to ornate Rome-themed ceiling decorations. Seriously; don't look up unless you've got a strong stomach for Classical Imperial kitsch).

Down the central aisle of this stadium seating, under pretend-moonlight lighting, wafts a naked woman, covered vaguely in a wispy veil. Who then keels over, dead.

This, we quickly learn is Drusilla, sister of Roman Emperor Caligula. Or at least Caligula as imagined by “French” “existentialist” Albert Camus (he was born in Algeria to a Spanish mother and flatly denied being an existentialist). Caligula turns up, disguised, wrapped in a blanket and demands his servant Helicon brings him the moon. Various high-ranking Roman dignitaries arrive and discuss the fact that Caligula has been missing for three days. Caligula eventually reveals himself to them. Alice Babidge has dressed the cast in unfussy modern dress. Grey suits are pretty much the order of the day.

Perhaps the best moment of this first act is when from both sides of the stadium seating rake a vast number (for theatre) of chorus members file into the seats. Dressed in studiedly everyday clothing (strikingly most reminiscent of those socially-housed East Londoners who periodically turn up on the news to patiently explain how they've been turfed out by the coming Olympics), we get the sense of a population of a city.

And, as Matt Trueman has already intelligently suggested, one of the cleverest things about the design is the way that it implies so many more identical blocks, so many, many more people. Because, while on one level this is a personal narrative of a one man's madness, thanks to his position as third Emperor of the Roman Empire (although not, crucially, a dictator), the real story here is that of the actions and effects of tyranny.

What is interesting about Andrews's production, given its nominally “contemporary” setting, the rogue appearance early on of the now clanging slogan “We're all in this together” and the fact of a stage dressed as a stadium, is the slightly spurious feeling that this is a Credit-Crunch, Jubilympics, Caligula 2012 kind of affair. One of Caligula's first acts upon his resumption of power is to respond to the Roman Empire's bankruptcy by declaring obscene tax hikes on pain of death, ostensibly to pay for more of his own lavish, stadium-based grandstanding. To which the best response is: “You might very well think that, I couldn't possibly comment”.

Of course, the iconography of the stadium within a dictatorship goes a lot further than our own misplaced, narcissistic grumbling about the Olympics: from the murderous games at the original Colosseum, oddly recalled in the decoration of this opera house; through Berlin in 1936; to Pinochet's use of the Chilean Estadio Nacional as a concentration camp in 1973 (Sebastian Errazuriz's Memorial of a Concentration Camp is noted in the programme) – part of the impetus behind Sarah Kane's Cleansed -- and more recent atrocities like the Guinea Stadium Massacre and the even more recent massacre in the Port Said stadium, Egypt.

All this is conjured and echoed through those staring blank rows of identical yellow seats. Through this set we are given a sense of the enormity of the horrors which is strangely absent from music, libretto (Hans-Ulrich Treichel, trans. Amanda Holden) and to a great extent even the action itself.

Caligula, Yvonne Howard, Peter Coleman-Wright, Christopher Ainslie (c) Johan Persson

The other major iconography deployed in the mise-en-scène is that which might be described as German Theatre Kitsch. (Yes. There's coherent reason I'm reviewing this with Timon). In the second half, Caligula has erected a spangly kind of “stage” (silver foil curtains et al.) in amongst the seats of the stadium, and performs a burlesque as Venus, replete with long blonde wig. And elsewhere, Yes! there is the full-frontal male nudity, moderate stage-mess and, eventually, some members of the crowd crop up wearing animal heads (as long as papier-mâché Kermits and Miss Piggies, Mickey Mouses, Donald Ducks and Mutant Ninja Turtles count as animals). Yes; Benedict Andrews has worked pretty extensively in Germany – a look at the photos on his website suggest him as an something of an Australian Ostermeier, although the aesthetic here is far closer to that of the kitsch rage of Castorff and Pollesch at the Volksbühne than the often refined, elegant, sometimes-chilly minimalism of the Schaubühne.

(an aside: Ostermeier's aesthetic was once criticised to me by another German director for making stages reminiscent of Der Preis ist Heiss – Germany's post-unification version of The Price is Right, apparently launched to teach capitalism quickly to the Osties – on the grounds that you basically sat there wondering how much the sofas cost rather than watching the play).

So, that's what it looks like. Which, in the event, was what preoccupied me a lot more than what was happening or what it sounded like.

Detlev Glanert's opera dates from 2006. I don't know how much modern opera you've heard. I've heard *some*. What struck me as interesting was how *old* this piece sounds for something written only six years ago. I don't mean old like Monteverdi or Mozart, but it's not so very far removed from, say, Schoenberg's Moses und Aron or Berg's Lulu (at least to my inexpert ear). This isn't to detract from a musical achievement, which has been hailed elsewhere as the greatest opera of the 21st century (a judgement I'm in absolutely no position to dispute), but it is surprising, given other developments since then, that Glanert has written something which almost harks back musically to the era when Camus's text was written.

Conductor Ryan Wigglesworth's take on the orchestration seemed fine to me, although I was struck by the fact that, from where I was sitting at least, it all sounded quite quiet. I was more struck by what I thought was a certain lack of specificity that Andrews had allowed to pass with his performers. Perhaps unfairly, my main point of comparison here is Katie Mitchell's astonishingly detailed, naturalistic Idomeneo at the ENO a couple of years ago. From what I remember of other operas I've seen – longer ago, and probably at The Other Place – this Caligula is still comparatively-at-large incredibly precise and fluid, but it did still feel like specific moments of real threat and tension didn't quite hit home with the necessary ferocity.

Because, overall, what comes across here is a drama that needs to show us a man in charge of a city, country and empire, depicted as, say, Scarface, or a gangster from Goodfellas, or The Godfather. The threat of violence – given the way this production looked and seemed to operate – felt like it had to be more immediate, grotesque and terrifying.

As such, however, it reveals that just as Timon of Athens isn't really a play about the Greek economy, is Caligula really isn't a piece about austerity and the Olympics. So is there a useful thought to be gained from having proposed either in this way? I would argue that there is.

What I think happens here, is that when certain recognisable elements of modernity are hinted at or invoked, even if only glancingly, well, I wonder if different centres of our brain are engaged. I wonder if, rather than “just” “story-enjoying”, we also, additionally, start “thinking politically” (heavy, heavy scare marks for that second proposition). What I suppose I'm suggesting is that, from the point where something contemporary strikes us about the situation of the play, then the play itself doesn't then have to then go on to map exactly onto that political issue, but we in the audience might start to *read* the play, if not as an analysis of the contemporary predicament, then with at least with our interest in contemporary events.

This is a pretty un-constructed theory so far, but I wonder if it opens up a possible route out of the slight cul-de-sac that is describing everything as “relevant” as if this were the only possible virtue for modern performance. I suppose I'm proposing that glancing reference can awaken our contemporary political understandings and bring them usefully to bear on how we attend upon classical tales.

Perhaps such thinking, if it makes sense to anyone else, or gains any traction (assuming I'm not just coming up with something someone's already said much better somewhere else), offers a different way in directors might be able to approach extant texts, and, rather than inexactly nailing them onto an entirely different historical context, can allow the texts themselves to function both as themselves and through a series of more open-ended suggestions.

It feels, as if this is how both the Bremen Timon and the Andrews Caligula already functioned – political, without declaring their politics; questioning, without specifying exactly the terms of their inquiry – and yet, somehow avoiding being vague by presenting very definite motifs and routes into their questions: thought-provoking without didacticism.

Caligula, Peter Coleman-Wright, Ensemble (c) Johan Persson

No comments: