Wednesday 27 November 2013

Alles weitere kennen sie aus dem kino – Deutsches Schauspielhaus, Hamburg

[written for Exeunt]

[this review contains a few errors of analysis, which I've left in due to a misplaced sense of honesty]

Martin Crimp’s new play Alles weitere kennen sie aus dem kino (The Rest Will Be Familiar to You from The Cinema) is an adaptation of The Phoenician Women by Euripides, which in turn is a version of Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus.

Katie Mitchell’s staging of it is possibly the best piece of theatre she has ever made. It is probably one of the best made things I’ve ever seen in a theatre full stop.

There’s an interesting thing going on with Katie Mitchell’s growing body of work: as piece follows piece the complete oeuvre feels like it’s gradually taking on an almost solid form of its own, a kind of over-all dramaturgy. Piece by piece it gradually returns to previous themes and ideas and re-explores them. Her productions of the classics more and more explore plays with a female perspective (Ipheginia at Aulis, Women of Troy, Idomeneo, this). Her choices of new plays and original work reflect a growing horrified concern with the future of the environment (Ten Billion, Lungs). At the same time, stagings of other texts – Waves, Reise Durch Die Nacht, A Woman Killed With Kindness, Pains of Youth, Written on Skin – experiment with different possibilities of staging.

Much as Reise Durch Die Nacht felt like the apex of her work with video so far, Alles weitere... feels like the absolute best of her non-video work (although I started late on this with Women of Troy). What also feels exciting, though, is the extent that you can see the traces of so many previous stagings in this one. The most notable elements are the “scene-change Scene of Crime Officers” adapted here from Pains of Youth, the “opening the fourth wall” lighting and sound effect that I first saw in Women of Troy, and then there’s the best example yet of the “people walking backwards” thing that definitely featured in, again, Women of Troy, but also Written on Skin and I think much else in between.

However, theatre criticism isn’t a matter of just seeing a lot of someone’s work and then listing the familiar elements which recur from previous productions. These elements are distinctive, strong and important to this new work. It is significant that there is such a strong, increasing through-line to Mitchell’s work now. The idea of a theatre director as an artist in such control of their body of work is something that we should all get excited about. Of course theatre is a collaborative art-form, but one gets the impression that it is not unreasonable to credit Mitchell as the intellectual driving force behind the series of pieces that she has directed.

Being a British critic writing about a British director directing a British writer, it is of course sacrilege to suggest this. How have I got three paragraphs in and not mentioned Martin Crimp? Inconceivable!

Being as Alles weitere... premièred in German, in Germany, I got the theatre’s press office to send me a copy of the play ahead of the performance. Interestingly they could only send me a copy of the German translation, because the English version – the original – isn’t licensed. Which is as fascinating as it is insane – how can me translating what Crimp wrote in English back to English possibly be an improvement on what the German translator (Ulrike Syha) was handed to translate in the first place? Y’know? On the other hand, I think it does admirably make the point that this play had its world première in German. And that the German text is A Thing in its own right. (Also, being in Germany, it was nice to not be the only critic reading the play before seeing it. Being English, however, I only read the first half, so I could have both experiences. And because I didn’t want to spoil the ending...) But, we want to talk about the play...

It’s a testament to the distinctness of Martin Crimp’s voice that you can run a German version of one of his plays through Google Translate and the English version comes out looking and sounding recognisably like the work of the man who also wrote Attempts on Her Life, In The Republic of Happiness and In The Valley. I mention these three specifically as, like Mitchell, Crimp also has his own growing body of work and Alles weitere... is definitely also an expansion of his own themes and motifs. The text basically alternates between two modes. One, reminiscent of Attempts... or part two of Republic ... – and with changes in speaker signified by the same dashes – has the chorus of Phoenician women musing on their situation with non-sequiturious digressions into reflection on the modern world. These alternate, however, with scenes where the named characters of the Greek tragedy engage each other in dialogue which runs close to the general thrust of the original, discussing the deeply strange situation in which they’ve found themselves.

(In brief: in this version of the Oedipus story, Jocasta hasn’t committed suicide, and Oedipus has been bundled off out of Thebes, which leaves his sons Polyneices and Eteocles to take over the city. However, Eteocles has seized complete power and now Polyneices is outside with an army. Old favourites like Tiresias, Creon and Antigone also all put in appearances. It almost feels like a Greek Tragedy’s Greatest Hits album.)

Now, what’s fascinating about having read half the text before seeing the show is that I had a pretty good mental picture of what Crimp was driving at. No. Mental picture is wrong. I had no particular visual sense of how the thing would look, but I could hear the voices very strongly. The voices – possibly even a range of different possible voices – from an imaginary English version. What comes – came – across most strongly in the reading is the impression of the sardonic exercising of power on the parts of the men waging the war. And of Jocasta, actually. And Antigone. The sense of them as arrogant upper-class rulers. Very English upper-class rulers, in fact.

Mitchell’s production takes that assumption and forensically shreds every last scrap of it. Here we are in a draughty looking, semi-abandoned-looking old upper-class home or perhaps some sort of asylum or other similar institution (beautifully designed by Alex Eales). (It is wonderful to notice that as well as there being a discernible continuity within Mitchell and Crimp’s work, there is also a satisfying dramaturgy in Karin Beier’s opening season, with this production making a neat pairing with Schwarze Augen, Maria, and Beier’s own projected three-part Trojan War sequence which would have included her own (re-mount?) of Die Troerinnen (Women of Troy). Here again is Tiresias surrounded by peeling paint...). The Phonician women (we assume) are dressed in severe black dresses with high necks and no arms. They have a clinical, military air about them. The dramatis personae of the play are also mostly dressed in black, but like the Trojan women of Mitchell’s production, they look more like they’ve been taken out of a black-tie dinner (the men are indeed mostly still wearing black ties).

But what’s remarkable, the entire extra element that the production adds to the written text, is that this chorus seem to have all the named characters held prisoner. Rather than re-staging a world which leaves unchallenged that miserable lot of these women held prisoner Mitchell has rewritten the balance of power so that the unnamed women exert observable power over both the men and women of the play.

So, the way the action runs is thus: the women deliver their “chorus” bits. They do so facing front, mostly. They then detach from one another and in a series of pre-planned (in the world of the play) movements, they disappear off through the many doors leading out of the main room (the set also has two floors, a grand staircase, and one cutaway upstairs room), reappearing with glass cases such as you might find in museums, containing authentic-looking ancient Greek artefacts – the props of the story the characters are involved in, in fact.

The actors of the story are brought in and are apparently made to deliver their lines under duress. The chorus of women don overcoats to “pretend” to be the women from Phoenicia, but they plainly never lose control. Even when they’re “in character” the named players remain observably terrified of them.

This also has an interesting impact on the way the characters speak. Rather than delivering their lines with whatever sort of level of contempt or bravado appropriate to their status as rulers of ancient cities, they now instead speak with the hysterical fear of a prisoner in a beheading video. It seems likely that every time they are taken off the stage again when they parts are done they are being tortured in some way in the unseen rooms. They don’t come back on bleeding or anything, but you can imagine that they are perhaps being forced to listen to disorientating white noise á la that brief but haunting scene in film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. When they have been positioned by their chorus captors, that brilliant lighting effect of an iron being raised from in front of the stage plays out every time, so we also get a sense that they are now being shown to us.

The effect this has on the “meaning” of the piece as a whole is fascinating. It is at once distancing and makes the entire thing feel somehow incredibly more present and plausible. Instead of asking us to directly relate to the pre-historic troubles of Mediterranean aristocrats, we think of the modern world and the horrors of war that are still being perpetuated. In the reading which I made on Sunday night there was a sense of this being an examination of what happens to the losing side in a war. These meta-theatrics creating a situation very similar to the one in The Trojan Women. A series of Nuremberg Trials or Truth and Reconciliation Committee being played out well beyond the boundaries of international law by infinitely more vengeful inquisitors.

The other effect that this style of staging has is the purely aesthetic. On one level, quite apart from and beyond the contents (which is a stupid thing to say, but bear with me), Alles weitere... is one of the most beautiful-to-look-at pieces of theatre you will ever see. As well as all the action being superbly choreographed, there are also sequences where scenes “rewind”. So, a scene will take place, and then when it is finished, or perhaps because it didn’t go as planned, or... to be honest, the precise logic of why a particular scene might re-play or simply be reversed is largely opaque – but opaque in a way that makes you think about the possible reasons it might have re-wound. Is it to do with the title – a modern idea of history where all events spool forward as in a cinema, but can be recalled and re-written or re-imagined? The way that subsequent generations re-write and now even re-film history? That all history is just a series of framing devices and relative understandings and post-fact justifications? All this seems possible and present. (So, even while I say “apart from the contents” an element I was about to position as entirely aesthetic does in fact create meaning.) However, these rewind sequences, beyond the additional possible meanings they create, are also just astonishing to watch. The precision with which the actors perform all their actions in reverse is more akin to watching contemporary dance (coupled with the vast room-setting, I was most reminded of Two Cigarettes in the Dark). The first time it happens it’s impressive enough, but there is at least one sequence where an entire scene rewinds – for what feels like minutes (in a good way). I was conscious that my jaw had actually dropped. It really is that impressive. And also beautiful. But also strangely painful and troubling.

The more I write, the more I feel like I’m completely failing to really deliver either succinct enough analysis, or clear enough description. This is one of those pieces which I think might be termed a “two review show”. i.e. to really do it justice, one would probably have to write about it more than once. One review probably just gets the froth in your mind out of the way. Perhaps later, down the line, a better, more thoughtful, more precise analysis might be possible, once the immediate excitement has died down a bit. At the moment it feels a bit like trying to describe why a rollercoaster was great just after getting off. Moreover, this is certainly the sort of thing I’d really want to watch again and again in an ideal world.

For the time being, though, suffice it to say that if you can possibly get to Hamburg before this run closes, then you must. Otherwise, pray that it gets picked up by TheaterTreffen and that the Barbican (or someone else) brings it over to Britain. In a British context, this is the most revelatory and revolutionary piece of theatre since Three Kingdoms. And this time we won’t have to argue about the feminism.


TS said...

This makes me want to go to Hamburg - when does the run end?

Andrew Haydon said...

Here's the schedule:

It's a ridiculously short run for reasons beyond everyone's control, basically I think there are about 7 or 8 shows left spread out over December...