Monday, 30 June 2014

CRIMĂ – Teatru Platformă

[Cu ocazia împlinirii a 4 ani de existenţă, Teatrul UNTEATRU va organiza în perioada 25 Iulie - 4 August un maraton teatral, în cadrul căruia veţi putea vedea spectacolul companiei de teatru BÉZNĂ Theatre (Marea Britanie), “CRIMĂ”.]


Să nu ne învârtim în jurul cozii, CRIMĂ este unul dintre cele mai incitante debuturi regizorale la care am avut privilegiul să fiu martor. Este o adaptare brutală şi prescurtată a romanului lui Dostoievski, iar titlul a fost trunchiat cu motiv. Este o lume a crimei fără consecinţe, transpusă în perioada de început a anilor ’90 în Rusia. Doar crimă după crimă după crimă. Începe– o scenă goală făcută din plăci de parchet prinse grosolan în cuie şi o folie groasă de plastic în fundal; ca un abator într-o clădire veche (Robin Soutar a făcut o treabă foarte bună) – cu o lectură de 5-10 minute din Milton Friedman (jucat cu o convingere măgulitoare de către Oliver Longstaff) despre tarele statelor sociale şi necesitatea pieţei libere. De aici suntem aruncaţi într-o lume de coşmar a studentului care este nevoit să-şi amaneteze ceasul, pantofii, tot ce are, doar pentru a putea ţine pasul cu plata dobânzilor şi a chiriei. A mamei singure, violată de gangsterii cărora soţul le datora bani, care mai târziu îşi vinde fiica în scopul prostituţiei infantile.

Producţia lui Nico Vaccari (după propriul scenariu non-nonsens) e o adevărată plăcere. Pornind de la tradiţia teatrului sărac al Europei de Est, distribuţia puternică,formată din patru bărbaţi, populează scena purtând costume care nu sunt nici kitchoase, nici convingătoare din punct de vedere psihologic. Este „teatrală”în cel mai bun sens al cuvântului. Cămătăreasa jucată de Theo St.Claire, de exemplu, nu cade niciodată în parodie, nici nu devine cu adevărat femeie. Este doar un bărbat cu perucă, jucând carismatic şi inteligent un rol.

La fel se întâmplă şi cu rolurile jucate de Angel Perez-Silva, fiica mamei singure şi mama în vîrstă a studentului. Dacă există râsete, sunt dintre cele mai întunecate,genul de zgomot pe care îl faci atunci când totul a devenit atât de grav şi de teribil, încât râsul este singurul răspuns rămas. Vaccari nu se teme nici de spaţiu. Scena în care „clientul” violează fetiţa – simbolizată de St.Claire simplu, prin punerea unui prezervativ pe degete, pe care le introduce apoi în gura lui Perez-Silva – este insuportabil de lungă, mută şi complet statică. Pur şi simplu stă acolo, cu „copilul” îngenunchiat în faţă, cu degetele îmbrăcate în prezervativ în gura lui. Minute în şir.

În antiteză cu scenele teribile sunt pauzele muzicale. Bine, spun „în antiteză”: Oliver Longstaff cîntă „Feeling Good” a Ninei Simone cu o acurateţe şi o forţă uimitoare; Theo St.Claire cîntă „16 Tons” a lui Ernie Ford într-o versiune la o fracţiune de viteză sub cea normală, transformând-o într-un strigăt de disperare; Mathew Wernham (Studentul), îşi croieşte drumul prin „Everybody Knows” a lui Leonard Cohen înainte de a face audienţa să cânte în cor; iar Angel Perez-Silva – crucial fiind faptul că nu este în rolul copilului atunci când o face – transmite o versiune a melodiei „Rape Me”, a trupei Nirvana, într-o notă perfectă, guturală.

Este un refuz aproape Brechtian de a lăsa audienţa să se implice emoţional faţă de personaje (ba chiar stă scris pe fundalul din plastic „În seara aceasta se va comite o crimă”). Ceea ce este şocant – dincolo de dispreţul rece faţă de umanitate al lui Friedman – este cât de proaspăt şi imperios este simţit stilul. M-am gandit la asta şi aveam de gând să-l caracterizez drept „regietheater”, dar în ciuda prezenţei dramaturgului Sânziana Koenig. Nu sunt sigur că asta ar fi cea mai bună descriere. Bineînţeles, există o viziune regizorală incredibil de puternică – deşi pare mai degrabă complet colaborativă, decât dictatorială – dar nu este nici una care „serveşte textului”,nici nu îi aduce un „concept”. Cu certitudine designul simplu dar iscusit al lui Soutar joacă un rol crucial, aşa cum o face şi scenariul lui Vaccari, deşi este o „fiară” rescrisă în mod constant, improvizată de o distribuţie înfricoşător de dedicată, iar pe hârtie toate instrucţiunile sunt date la timpul trecut, ceea ce dă probabil o imagine de ansamblu asupra modului experimental în care a fost făcut spectacolul. Şi în scenariu sunt multe spaţii deschise – pentru a fi servit opusul unei dovezi de prescripţie.

Cel mai important lucru legat de piesă şi producţie este sentimentul de furie pură faţă de lumea capitalismului târziu. Faţă de nihilismul monetarismului şi piaţa liberă, cele mai mici aşteptări de umanitate în gândirea lui Friedman şi faptul că mai mult sau mai puţin toată lumea (probabil 99%) a fost vândută pentru luxul inutil a foarte, foarte puţini. Nu este o piesă care sugerează răspunsuri, nu este nici măcar o piesă care să diagnosticheze clar problema – personajele sărace se comportă într-adevăr dezgustător şi în moduri pentru care nu poate fi acuzată doar sărăcia – dar vezi că o societate în putrefacţie, încare toţi sunt distruşi, condiţiile pentru cel mai rău comportament uman sunt inseminate, în mod ironic, de cea mai rea gandire umană imaginabilă la vârful scalei. Cum spuneam, CRIMĂ este al dracului de furioasă şi al dracului de rece. Şi pare a fi exact genul de piesă de teatru de care Marea Britanie are cea mai mare nevoie acum.

(translation by Alexa Mihalcea, who is a very wonderful, generous human being)

Musicals We Love

[written for the Guardian]


TBH, I still can't quite believe they let me write this

Chorale – Bussey Building

[seen 20/06/14]


You know that thing where you see a show, and there’s probably nothing wrong with it at all, but you think: “See every decision they’ve made there? I’d have made a different one.”? That.

Chorale, subtitled “A Sam Shepard Roadshow” is a co-production between ATC (The Golden Dragon, The Events), and Presence Theatre, Simon Usher’s company with the aim of “redressing the problem of the ever-shrinking repetoire in the UK’s mainstream theatres.”

There are a possible four things you can see as part of the Sam Shepard Roadshow: this programme of The Holy Ghostly and The War in Heaven, or another featuring The Animal (You), a devised piece made from Shepard’s works, and Savage/Love, a film about Shepard and Joseph Chaikin, with whom Shepard wrote The War in Heaven. I wonder if the pairing of a devised show with proper ownership over the material and a film is a slightly better bet.

The Holy Ghostly is a short (50 minutes) piece in which a father confronts his son over a campfire, only for it to turn out that the father is already dead. It’s an entertaining piece here, but I can’t help feeling in a different space – the Bussey building’s performance space is like a smaller version of the old Arcola: *very* low ceiling, pillars spoiling the sightlines bloody everywhere, etc. It’s also configured in that very unhelpful shallow, wide stage, shallow, wide audience configuration. They should bite the bullet and have it “Portrait” rather than landscape. Audience right to the ceiling, but a really excitingly deep stage in a studio space. Anyway... This is also a touring production so it might not be seen to its best advantage in this space. Given the amount of shouting that the actors have been asked to do (or done themselves and not been told to stop), you’d hope that this production started life in a *much* bigger space. Here it just looks like volume has been misunderstood as intensity, when in fact it makes it much harder to hear what’s actually being said. But shouting is one of my (many) pet hates, so I should maybe shut up. It’s interesting; theoretically the first act of Mr Burns is *much* darker (in the literal sense of difficult to see due to lack of light), in the event, The Holy Ghostly, despite twice as many visible light sources, feels like you’re always missing the crucial expression or moment. It’s also like Mr Burns in that it’s a play where the text does all the weirdness and the acting of it seems to want to be played as entirely truthful. Here, I’m not sure the company completely make that decision work.

More promising is War in Heaven, in which an angel talks to a bloke who might be dying or dead or something. This feels much more like it comes from a similar lineage to Strindberg’s Road To Damascus or even Hamletmaschine. Usher’s staging, likewise, seems to move away from the strictly literal; but it doesn’t feel like he’s quite worked out what to do instead, or where to put everyone. And there’s still quite a bit of shouting. It’s a shame, as Jack Tarlton is a great performer (Golden Dragon, the NT’s Morning til Midnight) and I imagine the other two actors are also great in different circumstances, but here it feels like a slightly misfiring shout-through (Also, if you’re going to have a freeze frame final imagine, don’t do it in front of a data projector which is still casting a massive glow over the back wall of the stage even in “black-screen”, the blackout doesn’t work and it looks silly).

Urg. I really wish I’d liked it more. What I could hear of the text through the shouting (is it just me who finds it hard to concentrate on meaning when people bellow lines?) seemed really interesting, and I get the impression that even just having the piece in a different space would radically alter one’s experience of it. That said, yesterday was the last date in the Bussey Building, and the next is in Enfield (next Friday, other programme), so that might be really great. In the mean-time, I can only call it as I see it, and for me it didn’t quite gel.

[edit: oh, I’ve just looked for an image for the top of the piece (which you’ll have seen as you came in. World of difference. That pic is from the Traverse and looks about as unlike what I’ve described above as it’s possible to imagine, so, yeah, let’s chalk this up to transfer difficulties and say no more about it)]

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Quartett – Royal Opera House

[seen 28/06/14]


Luca Francesconi has created this chamber opera from Heiner Müller’s play of the same name. The programme has it as “based on the play by...”. That is my impression too. Where the play feels like slab after slab of granite-like monologue, here the action remains relatively light and dialogic. I’m afraid I don’t know if the piece was written in English (I can’t find a translator credited; libretto also by Francesconi), but either way, it *feels* different to how I remember the Müller being. So...

Heiner Müller’s Quartett is kind of his “popular” play (along with Hamletmaschine). Based on Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, it’s set in (I paraphrase) “18th century France and in a bunker after World War III”. Müller claimed his play was an exploration of the problem of terrorism. I think that element more than any other has perhaps been lost in this transposition from theatre to opera, but perhaps I’m not looking at it laterally enough. However, without the vast monoliths of text, I’m not sure that’s possible. None of this is a gripe or a complaint, btw. I’m a lot less worried than fans of Dangerous Liaisons would be. It’s an adaptation *and* a translation. It’s bound to change.

Something fascinating, both about the opera and this (World première? Definitely British première) production of it (dir. John Fulljames), is just how hard it tries to make *everything* kinetic. There does feel like there’s a morbid fear of letting the audience get bored or lose track of what’s happening.

Soutra Gilmour’s set has landed very firmly on the post apocalyptic side of the putative equation. Tattered white material hangs from the ceiling over the “stage” – two precariously adjoining gantries hanging in traverse *above* the orchestra. *This*, at least, is pretty much the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in the Linbury studio. It’s a brilliant set. I’m not totally convinced it’s a brilliant set for this show, but, Christ, if anyone ever writes Aliens – The Opera, then this is absolutely the set for it. No question. Ravi Deepres adds video design – projected onto the tattered white sheets above – which for the most part looks like micro-organisms, perhaps bacteria multiplying under a microscope. The last image, counter-intuitively, however is that of a butterfly, suggesting a Merteuil emerging out of some sort of chrysalis. It’s a nice thought. Perhaps a bit too nice for this piece...

But, I’m too hard on the set. What it achieves dramatically is a really tight, focussed playing area. *Everyone* in the audience gets that bit closer to the action, and it actually does serve to usefully limit the possibilities for how the drama, how the playing, the performing happens. It’s like a fencing match – both players parry and thrust up and down their ruined promontory.

While I got what was going on – same as the play: “Valmont” and “Merteuil” talk to each other, then Valmont pretends to be Tourvel while Merteuil plays Valmont, then Merteuil pretends to be her neice while Valmont as himself re-plays what is effectively his rape of her. “Merteuil” then kills “Valmont” with poisoned wine (the “poisoned wine” here played by some petrol) – what I found really difficult was processesing the levels of reality. This is entirely my problem rather than a problem of the production. Or maybe it is slightly a problem of the production, insofar as there’s so much cultural disconnect here that even the fact of the opera/music elements making the dramatic action function so well seemed to make taking on board what reality we were dealing with interestingly problematic. What I mean is this: in the Laclos novel we can kinda buy into “the reality” of the characters. We can pretend we’re reading their real letters, rather than an authored novel. Similarly, even in the daft Hollywood movie, we are expected to pretend that John Malkovich and Glenn Close *really are* Valmont and Merteuil. Or something. *Very annoyingly indeed*, I’ve never seen Heiner Müller’s actual play performed, but I imagine the lack of an orchestra makes the relationship of “character”/performer to stage and to audience that one bit more simple to negotiate. Here, not only did it feel that “Valmont” and “Merteuil” (_ _ and _ _ on the night I saw it) played other characters, it also feels from the outset like they’re some unnamed survivors of a nuclear holocaust playing even those initial characters. Which is fair enough. And possibly even the intention. And the fact that this keeps on bringing you up short in terms of “investing in the ‘characters’” could be seen as a huge Brechtian/V-effekt positive too, although I wondered if a little too much had been stripped out of the text to make it accessibly whizzy to then feel the full force of the politics.

The music here is very much in the register of contemporary opera. As such, it’s quite hard to describe with reference to much else besides contemporary opera. I’ll try to paint a little thumbnail sketch (which will probably be everything I know about contemporary opera), as a kind of scale on which to try to plot where it sits within the milieu . Let’s imagine a scale where Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach is at one end: melodic, repetitive, ultimately hum-able and easy enough to grasp. At the other end of this axis is, let’s say, Helmut Lachenmann’s Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (The Little Match Girl), which I’d characterise as more or less the precise opposite: musicians abuse their instruments, nothing seems to be repeated, no motifs announced themselves, it is arrhythmic, jagged, at times more like the sound of an orchestra falling down the stairs than “music”. I think it’s amazing. None of that is criticism of it, but it’s about as far from Einstein... as it’s possible to get, I think. In the middle of this, I reckon, is something like George Benjamin’s Written on Skin (libretto: Martin Crimp; there directed by Katie Mitchell). Where the music is jagged and “difficult”, but regular enough to get a handle on. If that’s the X axis, then I think I might propose a Y axis that runs from Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest at the top, which, while very modernist itself, is also playful and witty, through to Wagner at the bottom, which, as far as I can tell, is never intentionally hilarious. On this cross, I think Quartett errs toward the bottom right, that is: more Lachenmann than Glass, and more Wagner than Barry. It has a lot of notes and no tunes, but does have a propensity for drama much more than irony or theory. (Christ, that was difficult. Are you still reading?)

Put another way, (unusually?) for a modern opera, Francesconi actually facilitates, draws out, even enhances the audience’s understanding of key moments of conflict with his score. He effectively directs the piece himself. There’s no option for the actors (they’re singers, Haydon, do keep up) to take a different route through the psychology, the score’s done it all for them. Fulljames directs this with clarity, and while being grateful for the clarity, I could help wishing there’d maybe been a bit more austerity (I’m not letting the Tories have that word. It’s a good word for lots of things, and a crap euphemism for what they’re up to). It did feel like a lot of the cold-blooded, analytical bleakness of the text had been made a bit, well, hot-blooded and passionate. I’d hate to trade in national stereotypes, but it might be precisely what you’d imagine happening if an Italian got their hands on something East German. Absolutely nothing wrong with it; it’s an adaptation, an appropriation to the composer’s own ends. But, well, if I could compose opera, I’d hve done it differently. (Is there *ever* any point in a critic flagging that sort of thing up? Almost certainly not, but at least I’m setting out my stall honestly. It’s a taste thing. One really *can’t* be objective about these things, so why pretend otherwise?)

And that’s pretty much it, really. I think as a production of this opera it’s a very good one. I think the opera itself is good. I think I possibly came to it with a bit too much pre-expectation/baggage, but on the other hand, I can’t imagine what it would be like to watch without any preconceptions at all. Excellent programme notes notwithstanding (hem hem), I do actually think the opera allows you to learn how to watch it, perhaps even at the expense of a bit more possible complexity.

Still, an effective night out (it’s closed now, but...), if not a shattering or truly interrogative one.

Programme notes: Heiner Müller

[written for the programme of Quartett at the Royal Opera House]


Heiner Müller is Germany’s most important dramatist since Brecht. He was born in 1929, three and a half years before Hitler’s rise to power. An early prose piece, The Father (1958), records an early memory of his father – an official of the Social Democratic Party – arrested by the Nazis in his bed at four o’clock in the morning, and imprisoned in a camp for a year. The spare, stark prose, describing what must have been an unimaginably traumatic memory, is perhaps as good a way in to understanding Müller’s life and work as any. In a later piece, Obituary (1975/6), he describes the suicide of his first wife in similarly dispassionate language, this time intercut with savage, capitalised, unpunctuated poetry.

For the majority of his life, until its dissolution, Müller lived in the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik). In 1954 he joined the German Writers’ Association (Deutscher Schriftsteller-Verband, DSV), and in 1959 was one of the three winners of the prestigious Heinrich Mann Prize. However, despite his Marxism, he quickly found himself out of favour with the state, which censored his play Die Umsiedlerin (The Resettler Woman) in 1961, later that year also banning him from membership of the DSV.

It may be instructive to compare the young Müller with the ageing Brecht at this point in their careers. As a young writer, director and dramaturg, Müller wanted to work with Brecht, but Brecht thought otherwise, and this was a crucial turning point. Rather than becoming indoctrinated into what was to become a cult of Brecht during the DDR years, Müller instead developed his own theories of theatre, and a harder, fiercer, more dissonant literary register. Where Brecht capitulated with the totalitarian regime (famously rehearsing his version of Coriolanus throughout the workers’ revolt of 1953), told easy-to-understand communist fables, and had sat out WWII in America; Müller lived through the horror of Nazism, the war, and the savage destruction of Germany by the Allies and USSR. His plays offered uncompromising, difficult-to-understand critiques, and he was frequently banned, unpublished and censored as a result. Quartett itself was banned in 1981 on the flimsy pretext of its being “pornographic”. At the same time, Müller’s work was enjoying massive critical success in West Germany and across much of the rest of mainland Europe. Apart, notably, from the UK.

Reasons why Müller’s works may have struggled to find a British/Anglophone audience may include the density of his language, the sheer difficulty of “understanding” what they “mean”, and the ever-present problem of translating his agile texts adequately-as-poetry while accurately-as-political-philosophy.

Consider the fertile, popular period during which he wrote Die Hamletmaschine (1977), Quartett (1981) and Verkommenes Ufer Medeamaterial Landschaft mit Argonauten (roughly: Wasteland Shore, Medea Material, Landscape with Argonauts, 1982). Each is nominally “based” on a well-known classic of literature: Hamlet, Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Medea. But consider Müller’s cryptic, brief, and strangely charming author’s note to Quartett:

Quartet is a refection on the problem of terrorism, using material which on the surface has nothing to do with it. I never read the whole of Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses. My key source was Heinrich Mann’s preface to his own translation...”

The text that the above quotation introduces is as strange, alien and unfamiliar to the British notion of what a “play” is as it’s possible to imagine. For an easy point of reference, compare the concept of Quartett, which apparently contains only two named speakers, is mostly constructed from lengthy monologues, and is, according to the author is actually “a reflection on the problem of terrorism” with Christopher Hampton’s British adaptation of the same novel only four years later for the RSC (and which was subsequently turned into a Hollywood film). The differences of approach and expectation are the clearest, quickest example of the differences between British and German theatre cultures I can think of. Where the British version tells irons out the question of how to adapt an epistolary novel into a play which moves through the story with the characters speaking lines of dialogue to one another until all the key scenes of the book have played out through a satisfying dramatic arc. Müller, by contrast, solves the problem of how to present a novel des lettres by creating a game in which two speakers play four characters. And – while reflecting on “the problem of terrorism” – at no point tries to relate the narrative trajectory of the book.

Reviewing a recent Australian production of the play, Alison Croggon suggested “Müller presents us with a picture of hell, in which souls are tormented by their own decaying bodies. All that is left to titillate these jaded appetites is the destruction of innocence.”
A review of an earlier production in the New York Times also observes “In a program note, Mr. Muller expresses his amazement that so little is generally made of the ‘comic aspect’' of his work. Up to now Mr. Muller's sense of humour has been a secret...”

To a British audience it may at first seem perverse in the extreme, but for Germany this sort of reflection on “motifs suggested by...” has become a major dramatic form now. More than simple “adaptations”, such texts-for-theatre innovate in extremis, while still demonstrating a linear theatrical debt which runs all the way by to the ancient Greeks.

Beyond the already non-naturalistic texts themselves, there is also the question of how they might be expected to be produced. Alongside Müller’s dramatic writing there is also his work as one of the leading post-Brechtian directors of his day. This school in turn gave rise to the “postdramatic” school of direction, in which pre-existing texts would routinely be cut, re-edited, and turned into often monolithic-seeming slabs of text and dialectic.

On 9th November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Only four days earlier, breaking off from rehearsing a new production of Hamletmaschine, Müller had addressed a 500,000-strong demonstration in East Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. In a move of almost characteristic perversity, claiming he had nothing of especial interest to say himself, he instead read out a call for independent trade unions, which its writers had not been able to present themselves. This short-circuiting of the optimistic spirit of the demonstration perhaps served precisely the same purpose as the play itself – ever-questioning, never-satisfied, refusing to give in to optimism in favour of rigour and continual struggle.

Müller continued to work in reunified Germany, and was made artistic director of the Berliner Ensemble in 1995. His last production for the theatre was a version of Brecht’s Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui (The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui), starring Martin Wuttke in the leading role. It premièred after his death on 30th December 1985. It is a testament to his enduring popularity – and perhaps also to a catastrophic misunderstanding of his purpose in making theatre – that the piece is still running that, with the same cast, to this day, 18 years later. Similarly, thanks to the death last year of one of Müller’s greatest collaborators, Dimiter Gotscheff, a new version of his 1972 play Cement appeared at this year’s prestigious Theatertreffen festival in Berlin alongside a retrospective of Gotscheff’s other work including Müller’s uncompromising translation of Aeschylus’s The Persians.

Müller lived all but nine years of his life under dictatorships; it seems a cruel irony that his works have now outlived him in “freedom” for twice that long, but Müller considered his circumstances an advantage to his writing. What we understand as the extremity of his circumstances make the extremity of his work easier to comprehend, but one suspects he would have found this modern neo-liberal, globalised economy every bit as grotesque and extreme; as such his continual excavation and excoriation of power and control remain absolutely vital as art through which to discover our world today.


Saturday, 28 June 2014

Cărți Poștale de la Sibiu

[written for the Guardian]


My round-up of Festivalul Internaţional de Teatru de la Sibiu has been posted by the Guardian.

Once the comments are closed there (as yet none, thank Christ), I might post the original piece here.  I like the edit very much indeed, but since I've got infinite space here, why not?  There's also a fair bit of expanding on that article I'd still like to do, and I've just done an interview or a Romanian magazine, to which I'll link, and maybe also post the text here.

So, um, watch this placeholder, as they don't say anywhere...

Oh, I also made this useful comparison-map between London and Sibiu when I was thinking about the differences between FITS and LIFT.  Maps at exactly the same scale:






Thursday, 26 June 2014

CRIME – Platform Theatre

[seen 23/05/14, re-watched on Vimeo (sadly private) this morning]


Let’s not beat about the bush, CRIME is one of the most exciting directorial debuts it’s been my privilege to witness. It’s a nasty, brutish and short adaptation of the Dostoevsky novel, and the title has been truncated for a reason. Updated to early nineties Russia, this is a world of simply crime without consequence. Just crime after crime after crime.

It opens – a bare stage made of slabs of parquet flooring roughly nailed together, thick plastic drape backdrop; like an abattoir in an old mansion (great work by Robin Soutar) – with a five or ten minute lecture from Milton Friedman (played with unctuous conviction by Oliver Longstaff) on the evils of welfare states and the necessity of the free market. From there we’re dropped into the nightmarish world of the student who has to pawn his watch, his shoes, whatever he’s got, just to keep up the interest payments and rent on his flat. The single mother, raped by gangsters to whom her husband owed money, and who later sells her daughter into child-prostitution.

Nico Vaccari’s production (of his own no-nonsense script) is a real joy. Taking its cue from that tradition of eastern European poor theatre, the four-strong, all-male cast inhabit the space in costumes which are neither kitsch nor psychologically convincing. It is “theatrical” in all the best senses of the word. Theo St.Claire’s (female) Pawnbroker, for example, never descends into parody nor ascends to camp, but is just a man in a wig playing a part with charisma and wit.

Similarly, the way in which Angel Perez-Silva plays both the child of the single mother and the Student’s elderly mother is entirely without camp or kitsch. If there are laughs here, they’re of the blackest sort, the kind of noise you make when everything has just got so bad and so grim there’s only one response left. Vaccari also isn’t afraid of space. The scene in which “the consumer” rapes the child – simply symbolised by St.Claire rolling a condom onto his fingers and then inserting them into Perez-Silva’s mouth – is unbearably long, silent and completely static. He just stands there, the “child” knelt before him, condom-ed fingers in mouth. For literally minutes.

Against this grimness, there are musical breaks. Well, I say *against* the grimness: Oliver Longstaff sings Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’ with a startling accuracy and power; Theo St.Claire does Ernie Ford’s ‘16 Tons’ at a fraction of the speed of the version under that link (or below) turning it into a proper raw cry of despair; Mathew Wernham (the Student) acts his way through Leonard Cohen’s ‘Everybody Knows’ before leading the audience in a singalong of the chorus; and Angel Perez-Silva – crucially not in character as the child while doing so – delivers a note perfect, throat-shredding redition of Nirvana’s ‘Rape Me’.

There’s an almost Brechtian unwillingness to let the audience actually get emotionally involved in the characters (and indeed, the plastic backdrop is sprayed with the legend: “Tonight a crime will be committed”). What’s shocking – beyond Friedman’s cold-eyed contempt for humanity – is how fresh and urgent it feels as a style. I’ve been thinking about it, and I was going to characterise it a “regietheater” but, despite the presence of dramaturg Sinziana Koenig, I’m not sure that’s the right way to describe it. Sure, there’s an incredibly strong directoral vision here – although one that feels entirely collaborative rather than top-down or dictatorial – but it’s neither one that is “serving the text” nor bringing a “concept” to it. Soutar’s unshowy but deft design certainly plays a crucial role, as does Vaccari’s script, although this is a constantly re-written beast, improvised around by a frighteningly committed cast and, on-the-page, all the instructions are given in past tense, which perhaps gives an insight into the experimental way in which the production was made. There are a lot of open spaces in the script too – the opposite of a prescriptive document to be served.

Most important about play and production is the sheer sense of anger at the world of late-capitalism. At the nihilism of monetarism and the free-markets, the lowest expectations of humanity in Friedman’s thinking, and the fact that more or less everyone (the 99%, perhaps) has been sold out, for the worthless luxury of the very, very few. It’s not a piece that suggests answers, it’s not even a piece which clearly diagnoses the problem – the poor characters do behave disgustingly, and in ways that can’t just be blamed on their poverty – but you see that a rotted society where everyone has been let go to the wall, the conditions for the worst of human behaviour is sown, ironically by the worst imaginable human thinking at the top of the scale. Like I said, CRIME is fucking angry and it’s fucking bleak. And it feels exactly like the play that today’s Britain needs most right now.



Ernie Ford – 16 Tons

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Then Silence – Platform Theatre

[seen 23/05/14, re-read this afternoon]


Two men torture a third, the funeral of a father, an infidelity, *really violent* playground bullying – perhaps with echoes of the Jamie Bulger murder, the building and economics of a floating country, a woman who has lost her child, an old couple observing a stranger’s grief are attacked by him, drunk teenagers at a party think about death, three women end up in a screaming match about superiority, and then three boys, one already dead, trying to keep their heads above the rising water in a drowned world.

These are all the scenes of Arne Lygre’s remarkable 2004 play, Then Silence. And, Christ. There is so much to like about this play it’s hard to know where to start.

I first got to know of Lygre’s work through this show’s director, Kay Michael, when we both went to Sweden to see the première of his newest play Ingenting av mig, as research for a projected longer piece about Then Silence later in the year. In Stockholm I was struck by the shattering stillness of the production. Michael’s London production (of, admittedly a different play – albeit one that, on the page, you could imagine receiving similarly sepulchral treatment) is the diametric opposite. Frenetic, energetic, and feeling almost relentlessly physical it takes the poise and deliberation of the script and makes it muscular as well as cerebral (movement – Sara Green). Not non-stop, actually. That would be too much. There are necessary, unexpected pools of quiet. The production is played on a small, noticeably raked stage (smart, effective, minimal design by Denisa Dumitrescu). This has the effect of focussing all the intense physical activity into a confined space and making it all the more jagged, looking like a box or wrestling ring at times, while at others reflecting the preoccupations of the text with islands, coastlines, and borders.

And then there’s the text itself. It employs a recurring technique throughout where each scene opens with a variation on the line: “A man at a distance from two other men.” And begin with the three actors – in each scene, consistently playing: “Brother”, “One”, “Another” – narrating the place and their actions, imperceptibly slipping into *actual dialogue*, and sometimes out again at the end, or where necessary. As such, it feels at once literary, novelistic, but also hugely familiar, particularly from the work of Martin Crimp. From this opening, the first scene’s torturing has the unmistakable ring of Pinter about it too, a kind of miniature Birthday Party. Elsewhere, I was reminded of a bunch of other of our leading domestic (and other anglophone) writers. Caryl Churchill, a bit. Wallace Shawn, definitely. You get the kind of zone.

Were this just an exercise in style, it would already be a startlingly successful and original work. That it actually goes beyond that to real substance seems almost too generous. Dating from 2004, it feels reasonable to conjecture, with its torture opening scene, and its constant circling back to themes of nation, aggression, and invasion, that the recent invasion of Iraq by the United States and Great Britain (Norway apparently also contributed 20 soldiers) was a major inspiration. Watched over a decade later, while that impetus might be visible if you know the date, it is in no way obtrusive. Instead, like Sarah Kane’s Blasted, Then Silence, with its violent sex, or violent children, or surreal impossible floating nation, intelligently locates and then worries away at a more intangible core of aggression in the human animal.

Beautifully performed by the young actors Ben Woodhall (Brother), Hugo Bolton (One) and, on the afternoon I saw it, “Another” played by the actor David Burnett who was also the assistant director. Burnett was apparently “on-book”, stepping in due to the previous actor’s injury, and deserves special praise for seeming to barely once look at the script, and for seamlessly slotting into the physical sequences as if he’d been rehearsed all along.

In short, this is an intelligent, fluent production of a fascinating, intelligent script. Here’s hoping it gets picked up by more theatres and soon.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Shorts: Mark Lawson reconsidered

[snark, not snark]


As I mentioned in my review of Mr Burns yesterday, I happened to be sat next to Mark Lawson at the Almeida last week. And I felt bad. Because, you know, I might have said one or two slightly snarky, slightly public things about his writing on theatre in the past.

Mercifully, he had no idea who I was, so there was no Jeremy Herrin-style incident on which to dine out for the next three months. Partly I also felt bad because he seemed like a perfectly nice man. More, though, because the piece he subsequently wrote on Mr Burns turned out to be perceptive, intelligent, and one of the better things written about the show so far. And, if I’m honest, I thought his recent review of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies was actually really good. I don’t imagine I’d necessarily agree with this five-star assessment, but I thought the writing displayed more energy, latitude and engagement than many other MSM critics (props to anyone who can refer to Mel Brooks, Friedrich Schiller and the FA Cup Final in one piece without sounding contrived, right?). But the strangest reason for my recent remorse comes, improbably, from Romania.

While there, Romanian colleagues and I happened to be discussing (read: bitching about) the state of criticism in our respective countries (they convinced me pretty thoroughly that they’ve got it worse), and I happened to mention my unreconstructed opinion of the erstwhile “Mark Lawson’s Theatre Studies” series. (Ok, I still think the title is a catastrophe, and a lot of the pieces read like the work of someone who’s been given just enough rope, but...) And, as is traditional, I recounted my horror at Lawson’s now legendary piece bemoaning the lack of curtains in theatres.

What happened next surprised me. My colleagues replied that Romania’s most prolific (albeit ex-pat in Paris) critic, Georges Banu, had gone one better and written an entire book on the curtain in theatre, Le Rideau, ou la Fêlure du Monde. What was good enough for a blog in Britain was good enough for an entire book on the mainland. In French!

It’s even a book discussed in high academic terms in scholarly works. Look! (click on image to make readable-size):



Now, granted, there’s a world of difference between Lawson’s observation that: “curtains are becoming an endangered species. Most newer theatres – especially studio spaces or buildings with thrust stages – don't actually possess one, and even in more traditional spaces directors seem to be using them less and less...” and Banu’s proposition of the “entre-deux”.

Or is there? In his proposition that theatregoers are “caught in a threshold territory where we are not really ‘in’ and the actor is not strictly ‘on’,” is he not making the precise same claim? And might the charitable reader in fact not find echoes of Nick Ridout’s propositions of theatrical discomfort, in Lawson’s suggestion: “there still has to be a moment when the performance formally begins, with lights going down in the auditorium, if not on stage. So the moment of transition from pre-play to play is merely more gradual rather than removed”?

Admittedly, if it’s there – and looking at it, with its anxiety about certainties, it certainly seems to be – it’s there in a radically uninterrogated form, but then, isn’t the Guardian blog used as a format to provoke discussion? Maybe, rather than dismissing the question and mocking its originator, it would have been more constructive to try to provide the brightest answer possible. It’s a frightening thought, but (note to self) maybe one worth bearing in mind.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Mr Burns – Almeida

[seen 16/06/14]


For theatre fans with access to any sort of social media, it’s been impossible to ignore the fact that Rob Icke and Tom Scutt’s production of Anne Washburn’s 2012 play Mr Burns has become *the* play to argue about since it opened the Thursday before I saw it.

Briefly: in three acts, the play depicts a small group of people in post-apocalypse (and “post-electric” as the play’s subtitle smartly has it) America trying to remember, and then re-enact, an episode of a much-loved TV programme over the course of 80-odd years (a few weeks, seven years, 75 years).

Semi-annoyingly, Mark Lawson (next to whom I happened to be sat when I saw it, and who (rightly) admired my skills of rolling cigarettes in the dark) has already written the go-to rebuttal piece that was my initial reaction to the hoo haa (and made a rather good job of the obvious defence).

Lawson suggests: “As often happens to brilliantly original and provocative plays, Mr Burns has met critical hostility and mystification.” I reckon it’d be worth inserting the word “some” between “met” and “critical”. Of the reviews I’ve read, only Mark Shenton and Tim Walker’s reviews have expressed outright dislike*. Michael Billington reads the play perfectly well and makes plenty of intelligent points, as do Ian Shuttleworth and Michael Coveney while both also cheering loudly for it.

What’s most frustrating in the British reviews, is how hung up on the fact of the much-loved TV show being recreated after the apocalypse is The Simpsons they are. Michael Billington even fears: “If you stumbled into the theatre knowing nothing of The Simpsons, you’d be totally lost.” (which is true, albeit on much deeper level.) For what it’s worth, thanks to ‘Do The Bartman’ and the mass-marketing of T-shirts with the words “Aye carumba!” on them, I pretty much avoided the first decade or so of the show. Obviously, I’ve seen it. Maybe I’d even seen the apparently much-vaunted Cape Feare episode around which Mr Burns is centred (I’ve since watched it, albeit overdubbed in Russian). But actually, I think the vagueness of my knowledge made me appreciate the show more, or at least watch it as a piece of theatre. (Even if the visual gag of leaving a bunch of rakes lying around the stage eluded me.) But, Christ, there is Wikipedia now – a service which worryingly offers a more insightful analysis of this episode than any review does of the play. (I realise, in passing, that this is – unfairly – the exact reverse of my review of Goold’s American Psycho, in which I basically couldn’t engage with the show on it’s own terms precisely because of my own.)

Mr Burns is a fascinating script. Yes, at the level of conceit it’s just such a good idea that all that really matters is the execution. And the execution here is first rate. It’s interesting, too, that Washburn observes in her programme essay that the first act of the piece is essentially an edited verbatim transcript of a workshop held with some actors, with a bit of added apocalypse. This fact, for me, is one of the elements of the play that makes the script itself much more interesting than something just imagined. It's also interesting to me that the play is essentially as naturalistic a play as any by Ibsen. The actors are completely behind the fourth wall, required to make their characters move and behave convincingly, the world-of-the-play is entirely real to the characters, and there is no direct audience address. At least, until the third act, in which the actors are playing actors in a theatre performing *within the-world-of-the-play*. This in itself is an interesting dynamic, at once demanding our complicity and not needing it at all. In this, I think it might represent a really exciting direction in which naturalism can travel, while seeming “experimental” and exploratory.

In my opening paragraph, I suggested the production is Icke and Scutt’s. Traditionally, the designer get relegated to a thank you note, while the director is praised for pretty much the whole production. Obviously I have no real idea where the ideas came from, or how the collaboration works – although in the programme there’s a lovely photo of Icke, Scutt and the assistant director Whitney Mosery all grinning away in the rehearsal room – but the design here, especially of the final act, feels absolutely central to how we even begin to read this production. In fact, on that score, the music and staging of the final scene are also crucial. 

There’s a beautiful moment at the start of Act III where three wooden chandeliers are lowered, lit, and raised over the stage as lighting for the spectacle to follow. Then there’s the design of the spectacle itself. The simple fact that how it looks is pretty much the entirety of the information we’re given about how far this culture has progressed (or regressed) since the apocalypse 82 years earlier. It’s the key to the production’s ideological take on what the script means, and indeed the outward manifestation of their optimism or pessimism about human ingenuity. Here, for me, it recalls a rough-hewn version of the traditional costumes of Balinese dance – perhaps a little nod to those who so impressed the young Antonin Artaud at the Paris Exposition. Perhaps that also says something about Western ideas of advanced cultures. But at the same time as being very funny – “Look at how wrong they’re getting The Simpsons!” “Hear how they incorporate Britney Spears’s ‘Toxic’ and Ricky Martin’s ‘Livin’ La Vida Loca’ into some sort of opera!” – it also seems to have a terrible beauty about it. Like, yes, I could imagine actually watching this *as art* and taking it seriously.

In this, as in much else about the play, it struck me that the piece is easily as much about theatre itself, as it is about culture, about apocalypses, and certainly maybe even more than it is about the flimsy distinctions between “high-” and “low-” cultures – Although one point that we could very easily take away from the play is – contra the dismissive and frightened reviewers’ point that The Simpsons can’t hold a candle to Homer (the Illiad one) – is that much of our culture might all be a terrible misunderstanding, and we now use deep, posh voices to read in hushed tones stuff that might very well have been considered populist, or even sub-par, at its inception.

The escalation of the performance as it goes from camp fire, to amateur troupe, to preposterous-from-the-outside operatic spectacle could also easily be argued either as a fair assessment of the history of theatre, or of story, or equally as a metaphor for the way that “high” art happens. I mean, Christ, in a way you could take it as a history of the way that the Delta blues of 1920s America had, over the course of 80 years, evolved into the grotesque, mad pageants of stadium rock.

I’m now wondering if the gaudiness of the final scene isn’t maybe partly intended by Scutt and Icke as a (perhaps slightly reactionary) suggestion that “isn’t it a shame that we can never retain the camp fire simplicity the the early days?” Maybe that’s an over-read too far, but it’s definitely a possible reading.

Michael Billington’s thesis that “a pattern is beginning to emerge at the Almeida under Rupert Goold; one that offers a bleakly apocalyptic vision of the future.” I’m not so sure that it is about apocalyptic versions of the future at all. After all, Icke and Macmillan’s 1984 is set in a reading group in 2050, when IngSoc have been overthrown. And, Bartlett’s Charles III, well, it’s set just around the corner; if the monarchy is an apocalypse then it’s one we’ve been living with for over 1,000 years. Mr Burns does fit neatly into a couple of other theses, though – my cheeky suggestion that Charles III was about “legacy” is echoed here. Rather than what remaining of us being love, Goold’s programming here suggests that what remains of us will be either overturned or misunderstood by the future, but that continual churn might just be what keeps life interesting and bearable.


I also want theatre-trainspotter points for being the only person to point out that Tom Scutt also designed Anne Washburn’s UK debut production The Internationalist at the Gate directed by Natalie Abrahami in 2008.


*It’s worth noting that Tim Walker’s review reads like a series of exaggerations and outright lies. Claiming: “I have no idea at all what Anne Washburn’s play is supposed to be about, and I doubt very much that she has either. The programme stated that she works as an associate artist at an ‘investigative theatre group based in New York’...”, given that the programme includes a two-page essay by the author (from which he’s quoting directly there), and a tonne of other smartly curated material, explaining precisely that.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Mraky / Clouds – Sala Studio

[seen 13/06/14]


Handa Gote are DIY-aesthetic, indie Czech company. Mraky (Clouds) is apparently a continuation of their ongoing project to make piece of theatre which present “little histories”. And it’s great.

In the context of this festival, what’s perhaps most welcome about Mraky is the way that it offers a standing rebuke to everything in Pippo Delbono’s L’Orchidee. Where that was a grotesque exercise in vanity and self-satisfaction, this is small, detailed, unassuming, matter-of-fact, unsentimental, and – as a result – incredibly generous, outward-looking, and profound.

It’s striking, too, that both the best, most affecting pieces I’ve seen here in Sibiu (the other being Oliver Frljic’s Damned be the Traitor of his Homeland), have both been housed in the small, cramped, intense end-on black box of the Sala Studio. Formally, it reminded me *a lot* of the work we see in Britain at Forest Fringe (or The Yard), The personable simplicity of, say, Deborah Pearson’s Future Show, Ira Brand’s A Cure for Ageing, or Tania el Khoury/Dictaphone Groups’s Nothing To Declare.

The premise is simple, Veronika Švábová stands in the middle of the space and tells us about older members of her family. The piece starts in the early 20th century and ends between the late fifties and the early eighties. The “clouds” of the title are a sort of oven-baked Czech pancake (the recipe is included in the programme – Yes! At last! A company with a sodding programme!), which her grandmother used to make with her. During the course of the show, she cooks some for us. There’s also some really impressive live-feed video and foley work (which, judging by the publicity shots abve and below, got a bit more cramped up on the narrow back wall of Sala Studio). When not speaking directly to us, Švábová does a lot of movement and dancing. The live feed is often used to freeze-frame snap-shot this, allowing Švábová’s on-screen image to dance in an out of what looks like a garden of statues of her, or to impress herself (or rather, be impressed by the two on-stage technical operators) into old photographs of long-dead family members. This in itself is quietly touching enough, but it’s the interplay between image and story that really makes it.

Being from a long line of apparently quite important Czechs from 20th century history also pretty much ensures that her stories are absolutely fascinating throughout. Her great grandfather was one of the founders of the Czech Communist party in the 1920s. There are letters he wrote back to his wife when he was visiting Soviet Russia. He even apparently met Lenin. I mean, this stuff is plainly gold-dust. The tides of history that lap around the family, and occasionally engulf them are remarkable. During the war, as communists, most of the men in the family seem to have spent their time in the various concentration camps (even the 70-year-old great grandfather). Not being Jewish, they weren’t there to be exterminated, but to work as slave labour in munitions factories and so on, so the conditions they endured seem to include more cameraderie – discussions after lights out in their huts, in the bunks. The grandfather movingly says that they were all discussing life, “I had so much to tell them,” he says. Two of Švábová’s aunts by marriage are Jewish, however, and one is reported by a neighbour to the Nazis. She is murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Švábová notes that no one ever said who the neighbour was. She names her. Into a megaphone. And plays the name on a loop. It is quiet anger, but potent nonetheless.

After the war, she charts the families fortunes in Communist Czechoslovakia. Her uncle, she notes, is tortured and murdered by the secret police in a purge. She then goes on to reveal that, prior to the purge, he was high-up in the secret police and co-wrote a handbook on torture, that he used to regularly beat men and sometimes women. She reads the letter from her great grandfather denouncing his son as a traitor. It is impossible to tell from the letter’s tone whether this is a necessary distanciation (sp?) from the executed traitor, or an honest account of a committed communist’s feelings. The uncle’s last words before he was shot were “Long live the Communist Party”.

Švábová shows us her expertise with an air rifle given to her by another uncle, the executed uncle’s brother. She shows us her swimming, using a backless chair. It looks like a theatrcial/video device. She tells us it’s how her grandmother learned to swim – from a manual when she was in prison. When she got out, she could swim.

The entire show (1 hour?) is packed with gems like this. It’s simple, honest, and gives a fascinating view of life in pre- and post-war Czechoslovakia. And, somehow, it manages to transcend history – through the figure of Švábová herself, who, by being present in the room with us, reminds us that it’s not just history, or recent history, but human and family. That those people lived and now she lives. And the history is still with us, and shaping our present lives. Something that is maybe easier to appreciate seeing the show in ex-communist Romania than it might be in Britain, where such stories always have a ring of impossible exoticism and glamour about them – I ruefully reflected that my own family history would be nearly so racy. On the other hand, I think we’re probably all pretty grateful none of us had to go through a concentration camp, political prison, or firing squad.

Nonetheless, I would love to see it transferred. The Yard or Forest Fringe being ideal, but equally, somewhere like the Barbican Pit could do a lot worse than think about it. Perhaps in a double bill with Damned...



Imn de Rugaciune (Kaddish) – Teatrul Gong

[seen 13/06/14]


“There is no explanation for Auschwitz.” So opens this monologue adapted from the novel Kaddish for an Unborn Child by the Hungarian writer Imre Kertész. It’s been directed and produced by Barbara Lanciers and is performed by the improbably youthful-looking Jake Goodman. And it’s from America. Theatrically speaking, it’s basically Sea Wall with added Holocaust.

It’s also only 45 minutes long, for which, in the context of this Festival, tiredness, and yesterday’s three-show day, I was immensely grateful. In the context of, oh, adapting the novel for stage, and generating a full, engrossing, comprehensive theatrical experience, it seemed a bit slight. I’ve kind of got used to two hours something, no interval, being *how long a piece of theatre is* here. So 45 minutes seemed almost irresponsible, especially given the weight of the topics.

Performed against a couple of metal flats at right angles to each other, and over-hung with a beam of lightbulbs, Kaddish is a perfectly serviceable-looking piece of work. Goodman is charming enough, although his delivery perhaps tends toward a fondness for one particular cadence, with which he relates everything from his divorce to the narrator’s experience of Auschwitz. Important words are underlined with the voice going a semi-tone up. He wears a “timeless” suit and white shirt. And doesn’t look like he’s suffered a day in his life. I guess, being theatre, wanting verisimilitude is a bit dim, but I don’t think wanting maybe a bit more *acting* – or maybe it’s *less* *acting* that I wanted – doesn’t seem so much to ask.

In short, I think I’d really like to read the book, but I wasn’t remotely convinced that this adaptation of it for the stage was especially good. That said, it was playing in pretty hostile conditions: 4.00pm on a hot day in a space that couldn’t achieve anything like a full black-out, and sounded it like had mostly been constructed from squeaks. Like, seriously, you couldn’t shift weight in a single chair there without it sounding like you were flapping an enormous barn door back and forth. And it wasn’t comfortable enough not to, so in a lot of ways, I still don’t think I’ve really seen the piece enough to properly assess it. On the other hand, given that it’s an adaptation of a novel performed on an indifferent set, by a performer who is merely charming and capable of speech, doesn’t seem like enough of a draw for a return viewing. At which juncture, thinking seriously about the subject matter – about as serious and heavy as it’s possible to get – seems inappropriate.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Oidip (Οἰδίπους) – Teatrul Naţional “Radu Stanca”

[seen 13/06/14]


Thanks to a couple of ecstatic reviews of his Faust (which I saw last Saturday here in Sibiu, review forthcoming) when it came to the Edinburgh International Festival back in 2009, Silviu Purcărete has something of an inflated reputation (especially among those who didn’t see it) in Britain, which, curiously, the subsequent transfer of his Gulliver’s Travels (also playing in Sibiu yesterday) did nothing to really dent.

Here in Romania, the première of a new Purcărete is plainly still a *really* big deal – at least, if the police on the door of the theatre and the scrum to even get in is anything to go by. And, well, a venerable iconoclast’s take on the Oedipus plays has got to be worth five minutes of jostling on anyone’s part, right?  And, to be honest, I was excited to see it, too.

I guess the first most striking thing about the new production is the set. And what’s striking about it, for a director generally so associated with visual spectacle, is how small and unspectacular it is. It’s basically a bare, wooden/MDF, little shoe-boxy room, sat facing outward in the middle of the Radu Stanca’s already small-ish stage (think Cottesloe in end-on configuration).

(Once the audience have settled down – the usual fifteen minutes or so after the advertised start time...) Into this small room shuffles a bloodied figure, his back to us, as he gropes his way round the walls, trying to make sense of the room he’s entered. He is followed by two young women, modestly dressed in clothes that could date from any time after about 1940 right up to now: plain macs, hair plaited and tied up. The room is visible only from the waist up. They sit their father down on a chair – back still toward the audience – and begin to wash the blood from his matted hair and dusty torso. This is Colonus, we learn.

And, briefly, I’m excited to be seeing not Oedipus Rex (again), but the much less frequently performed sequel. Then there’s a blackout and we’re in a flashback. A flash-right-back to, yup, the beginning of Oedipus Rex.

Purcărete’s vision of the play is pretty damn straight-forward. There’s a mid-sized crowd of citizens – maybe nine or ten? – they’re dressed a bit 1940s, but modernly so (basically: costume a play as if it were the 1940s, but you have to buy everything in Gap, kinda thing). Oedipus is wearing a black suit. Jocasta is wearing a see-thru tight black lace number over flesh-coloured underwear. They keep opening bottles of Prosecco. The waist-high wall at the front of the stage is whizzed back into the wings, revealing an intriguing clay-covered, faceless, bandaged figure. Tiresias, when discovered in the crowd, also has his face bandaged, under his fedora.

Do I need to tell you the plot? After consulting a bunch of oracles, it gradually dawns on Oedipus, King of Thebes, that everything any of them have ever told him or a member of his family is bang on, and he has indeed killed his father and married his mother. She goes mad and kills herself. He stabs out his eyes with her broaches (off stage. We are told about it by a messenger, as per Sophocles. Thank God). He returns to the room/stage dripping with blood and smears his rotund body around the walls.

This is all whipped through in about an hour. It reminds me, at least in terms of narrative drive and concision, of Gareth Jandrell’s version, Thebes, seen in London in January.

So, happily, we do get to Colonus, or to Seven Against Thebes, or to somewhere beyond Rex, anyway.

I should note that the performances are a strange blend of natural, theatrical and functional. There’s no time wasted on “psychological” acting, per se. The lines are spoken emphatically, in a manner suitable to the predominant emotion of that the speaker is experiencing – apart, that is, for the odd bit of spooky-voice-acting they do, either when recounting the words of an oracle, or relating the words of a God.

Once in Colonus, the set also picks up. The back wall – which has hitherto just moved back once and forward again – is now dismantled and we’re in a room with vast French windows looking out onto a (brilliantly executed) video projection of a field and behind it a forest in the wind. In “the middle of the field” (on-stage) is a table, around which Oedipus’s sons and friends – the men dressed in black tie, and three female friends dressed in sopping wet white dresses, which, yeah, have gone pretty see-thru. It perfectly conjures a decadent party with the patriarchy (although it also rather adds to the ledger wherein is recorded the countless unnecessary naked/semi-naked/topless women in Purcărete’s productions (tonnes in Faust), ranged against all of one fat bloke with his shirt off, which some people might see as a wee bit sexist (compare with Olivier Frljic’s four or five full frontally nude men against two women wearing bras)). In a slightly more Katie Mitchell moment, though, there’s also a woman in a long black hooded dress, wearing one of those white aerosol-protection face masks that cover the nose and mouth, wandering round this garden spraying everyone with a fine mist of water. There’s also a guy sat in the chair at the end with a cardboard box on his head. The guy with the box on his head suddenly stands up and shoots everyone with what sounds, for all the world, like a spud gun.

Oedipus, Antigone and (is the other daughter Ismene?) are still in the room down-stage. The box-headed figure enters the room, takes off the box, turns out to be a woman, and has a chat to Oedipus (about what I know not, as I was so caught up in the visual spectacle at this point I’d stopped reading the surtitles – which is a nice way to be, but not much use for relating what the hell’s going on). Eteocles turns up in military fatigues and also has a chat with Oedipus. The shot figures from the garden get up and have a more violent confrontation with Oedipus – which his daughters are forcibly held down on the bed, hands over their mouths, in positions that look like they could represent or turn into rape, while the blind Oedipus chats on, oblivious.

It ends rather suddenly, although I’m sure that’s Sophocles’s fault as much as anyone’s – it just doesn’t feel like a very conclusive or climactic moment. It just kind of stops.

As productions go, this is largely squarely in the realm of The Solid. It’s by no means a revelation, but nor is it an embarrassment (apart from maybe the nearly naked women and fully clothed men – do we need Blurred Lines at Colonus? I think not). I’m sure it will do respectable business both domestically, and probably on the international touring circuit, but I’d be surprised it is garnered any of the raves that Faust did either.

Perhaps most critically, I’m not really sure what it was trying to achieve beyond a classic narrative, competently delivered. If it contained a critique, either of society/the world/something or of the play, then I properly missed it – which I’m totally prepared to say could be entirely my fault: I’ve only been here a week, so local references and/or politics are still going to whizz over my head unless underlined three times in neon. On that front, I’ll be interested to read the other reviews when they come out, and will try to update this piece with links.

[in other news, yes, I’m quite pleased I got this review up two and a half hours after the show came down. If I have any extra thoughts having slept on it, I’ll also add those below, as I’m aware this is much more describe-y than in any way analytical...]




Orhidee (L’Orchidee) – Casa de Cultura a Sindicatelor

[seen 12/06/14]


Pippo Delbono is new to me and since seeing the show last night I’ve been scrabbling around for a bit of context. As this relatively old interview with the New York Times attests, that is pretty much my fault. He’s apparently pretty big. He even made a piece for the Complete Works season in Stratford. The reason I wanted context was, bluntly, wanting to know why on earth I’d just had to sit through the previous two hours of Not-My-Thing-At-All.

Plausibly it all boils down to a matter of taste. The best case scenario is that Delbono is a big-hearted, sincere, socially-engaged theatre maker, whose sense of the aesthetic just chimes very little with my own. The worst case is that he is also a monstrous egomaniac, over-fond of his own voice, whose grasp of stagecraft is slipshod at best and whose use of performers is worryingly exploitative.

L’Orchidee (The Orchid) is possibly his response to the death of his mother, which, on one hand, is totally fair enough, and, on the other, feels like we’re being co-opted into a therapy session which really should have remained private.

The usual announcement about switching off your mobile phones at the start of the piece segues into a rambling monologue about the death of the – at that point unidentified – speaker’s mother (“but I understand why you’d want to leave your phones on. I am always taking photos, filming things... I even filmed my mother while she was dying...”): recollections about what she was like, her life, and so on. In fairness, it is quite charming, even if the speaker does have a hideous tendency to luxuriate in Every. Single. Sodding. (Italian.) Word.

[Admission: I guess languages are also a taste thing. For whatever reason, beyond one’s control, some resonate deeply while others grate like nothing else. Not really sure what one can do about that. I’m not even sure it’s *Italian*, per se, so much as Delbono’s way of speaking it.]

Anyway, The Voice introduces Pictro Mascagni’s opera Nero, a work from 1935 which was played before Mussolini once, Il Duce didn’t like it and the run was cancelled. As the opera plays, one of the Delbono company, Gianluca Ballarè, who has Downs syndrome, stands on stage and mimes to the singing dressed in a kitsch mock-up of a Roman Emperor’s robes.

A YouTube video of a French woman explaining how homosexuality is “against nature” plays. Delbono recalls that his mother bathed he and his sister separately, leading him to assumed that male and female bodies were the same – “which may be why I got confused later” he jokes. Deep Purple’s 'Child In Time' is played. The last time I heard this in a theatre was in Thalheimer’s Faust, and if it had any power here, it was largely as a by product of evoking that for me. Another company member, Bobo, enters, he is eighty-something, mute, and Pippo “met him when he was in an institution for the mentally ill”.  Again, it feels like there’s a best and worst case scenario here. Either Delbono is giving a platform to those usually denied one, or else he is exploiting the most oppressed in the name of creating “edgy” visual spectacle. I suspect it’s actually both. Compared with Back To Back’s Ganesh Versus the Third Reich or Food Court, it looks remarkably careless, cavalier, uninterrogated, and un-thought-through.

Speaking of “signifying nothing” there’s also *a lot* of Shakespeare used here, as well as a bit of The Cherry Orchard – the bit about cutting it down, obvs. What it, and all the Shakespeare adds up to I couldn’t say. It’s all Romeo (balcony and suicide), and Hamlet (where he talks about suicide). It doesn’t mesh with anything. It doesn’t form any sort of a dialectic. It floats, unmoored to anything, and delivered with such a level of hysteria (Delbono into mic) that if I hadn’t been reading it as surtitles I doubt I’d have understood a word. Still, good to know what Hamlet would sound like if his speeches had been delivered by a fascist dictator.

Elsewhere a revolutionary with a megaphone (presumably representing an earlier-mentioned friend, an imprisoned member of the Red Brigades), shouts more slogans, which, until concrete demands appear, also sound like they might equally hail from the “revolution” demanded by the American right, or indeed Italy’s fascists. At another point, Delbono attempts to cajole and then bully the audience into chair-dancing along with the rest of his company. He might think it’s a nice touch of unity and one-ness, but I’m with the Germans on this one – large halls full of everyone all doing the same thing in unison because the guy at the front says so tend to end badly. It was reassuring to see so few of the audience take up the offer. In another section, the origin of the titular orchid is given as the suicide of a “beautiful boy” who grows breasts and consequently flings himself off a cliff sprouting flowers from the ground on which he lands. Then we see some footage of a preying mantis that looks like an orchid eating a beetle.

Toward the very end, Delbono even goes so far as to show us what I can only assume is the actual phone camera video footage of his actual mother on her actual death-bed, reciting St Augustine. Sure, it’s his mum, and his footage, and he’s within his rights to show it to us, in a large theatre, and indeed to tour the world doing so. At the same time, it feels exploitative and cheap, as does the following section in which Ballarè and another performer strip naked and embrace (in between, Ballarè has been dressed in a succession of garish costumes from showgirl to a table with cakes on it. None of the other performers have, so I don’t think it’s me squeamishly singling him out and indulging in surrogate-offence-taking, but it is impossible to argue that he hasn’t being specifically cast in a particular way, and a way that is completely lacking any discernable agency. He doesn’t get to speak once, for example.  And the show isn't about him.  Like the rest of the cast, he's just a prop; a bit of moving scenery).

I’ve written before about my problems with the one-man show – and this is precisely a one-man show, albeit one with a half-assed, Jan Fabre knock-off of a supporting mise-en-scene thrown at it, which completely devalues its performers. Of one-person-shows: the ones that don’t work, don’t work because they are purely self-involved: they aggrandise the soloist at the expense of his audience. *Of course* it’s possible to make a one-person-show about a personal issue which is outward-looking. And it superficially feels as if that’s what’s been attempted here. But closer examination, at least for my money, reveals a very closed circuit in which the “lead” performer just craves attention, and slings a load of their phone-shot YouTube uploads together to get it, all the while talking, talking, talking in the the microphone, saying less and less with every word added, demeaning everyone else involved in the process.  

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Hai Iu Iu Nu Hey You You – Sala Thalia, Sibiu

[seen 11/06/14]


In New Performing Arts Practices in Eastern Europe (of which, lots more another time), Iulia Popovici describes director Radu Afrim as “a lone voice in Romanian theatre for the past 15 years.” And, along with Silviu Purcărete, one of “the last two remaining representatives of East European auteur-theatre in Romania.” That gives you a useful bit of context, as does looking on YouTube at trailers for remarkable-looking productions of, for instance, Three Sisters or Cosmonaut’s Last Message...

As it happens, this is only tangentially useful context for understanding Hai Iu Iu Nu... (henceforth Hai...). The subtitle of the piece is “Maria Tănase Remix”. Knowing literally nothing about Romanian culture, I wondered if this meant a piece directed by Afrim had been re-directed by another director. Nope. Maria Tănase (1913 – 1963) is Romania’s biggest folk singer star. Her songs are all about “Sex, even with prostitutes. Drinking. Women who drink...” and Hai... is quite literally a concert of cover versions of her songs, delivered by a large cast of (mostly) women, in a variety of musical styles – mostly erring toward the hardcore, jarring, discordant, and, dare-I-say-it, goth-y. And it’s pretty terrific.

I happen to be staying in the same hotel as Radu, so I just asked him about it at breakfast (professionalism, yo), mostly because I wanted to know if there was any specific story being told across the piece. Apparently not as such, but even so, watching blind (or, rather, without surtitles) last night, it did feel like thought and dramaturgy had gone into the order of the pieces, the contrasts between one style and the next. The different sorts of presentation. Ultimately, it didn’t actually feel any more or less problematically episodic than, say, Solitaritate or Do Damaszku. Indeed, following on from things like Das Schottenstück. Konzert für Macbeth, you could have told me it was a producion of The Orestia and I’d have happily gone along with it (like the useful idiot for postdramatic theatre that I am).

The style of the thing is, as I’ve implied, diverse. Lacking a track-listing (or CD copy of the music), and having to go only from memory (even if I normally took notes, it would have been pretty impossible last night), this is probably going to be a bit impressionistic and flawed. Also, because it’s music, one’s field of reference gets weirdly more specific/specialised/personal than when writing about the field of theatre, which, at least in Britain, has, it feels, a lot more common points of reference. The opening song sounded like a soused, raw, husky Romanian Patti Smith. The next like a cross between Siouxsie and the Banshees doing techno mixed with Le Mystere des voix Bulgares (doubtless several Romanians just winced at me comparing their national folk singer to a Bulgarian choir – all I can do is apologise and say, thanks to 4AD, they happen to be the first (and consequently most enduring) version of this southern, eastern European vocal sound, where Europe starts to meet “the middle-east” – doubtless due in part to the Ottoman Empire’s reach). Elsewhere, I was reminded of something the British goth band Play Dead coving Ibiza house music. There’s also a smattering of “authentic” folk played on fiddle and accordion, and even a pastiche Eurovision number. All in all – despite some *really frustrating songs* which feel like they never get to *the good bit* (musically: the resolution of the motifs, I guess) – this was all terrific fun. It’s also worth noting that the musician, Vlaicu Golcea (lots of free downloads on his site under the link), responsible for these new versions, has created work that is properly textured and intense, there are nods to really out-there power electronics pioneers and an attention to detail that recalls someone like Nick Gill.

What felt more significant about the staging, however, was something that I might try to describe as “the overt feminism” of it. Here were women of every age, size and shape, belting out pop music in a way that feels like it’s been banned in Britain since about 1989. You know those old episodes of Top of the Pops with people like Alison Moyet or even T’Pau? That sort of thing. It’s weird. I don’t think I consciously noticed it happening, but pop music these days seems to be made exclusively as a side project by people whose main job is going to the gym and polishing themselves the whole time. It’s a bit weird, right? So, yeah, apart from anything else, it was properly great to see a cast of women assembled more diverse (and certainly more numerous) than anything I’ve ever seen on a British stage outside performances of The Vagina Monolgues. (Oh, except, maybe imagine a version of Little Bulb with about four times as many people...)

So, yes. For something that’s nominally “only” a concert/gig (and one put together “as a workshop” – kind of a very realised scratch?), it felt like there was a whole lot of really intelligent and meaningful political decisions being taken at every turn here. I’m pretty envious of Romania’s theatre culture right now. (Although, it’s worth noting that this had been programmed into absolutely the wrong space. Sala Thalia (where I also saw Ping Pang Qiu) is a big barn with seating. This wanted to be at the Brixton Academy, or its nearest Sibiu equivalent...)

[below, one of the songs. For full effect, turn up to the loudest volume you’re comfortable with, then double it. And listen in a dark room with a strobe light...]

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

On Criticism – the Guardian years

[compiled primarily for my colleagues on the theatre criticism workshop series at the Festivalul Internaţional de Teatru de la Sibiu]


For the last three days alongside seeing plays and reviewing them, I’ve also been taking part in a series of two hour seminar-style discussions on criticism. I suspect these are far more interesting to me than anyone else in the room, who already know all about the situation of theatre criticism in Romania, how it’s practised, what the problems are, and so forth. And, again, what’s striking is how many more similarities than differences there are, even if the state of Romania’s newspaper industry seems to be in a more advanced state of decline, with several national newspapers having gone “online-only”. I was briefly shocked when they said that several newspapers had also been bought up by groups of businessmen and were no longer independent; until I remembered that the reason that can’t happen in the UK is that *all* our national newspapers bar the Guardian are already owned by private individuals who use their newspapers to propagate their own worldviews and advance their interests. Ir’s just, as a Westerner, when I hear it described in a Romanian context I think “corruption!” and when I know it in a British context I think “good old, incorruptable old Britain!” It really is spooky how deep that conditioning goes.

Anyway, below is just a collection of the pieces that I wrote about criticism five or six years ago for the Guardian. What’s remarkable is the frequency with which these very subjects have reared their head this week, so I thought it collecting them in one place might be a useful resource for my colleagues. And the rest of you can have a look too if you like. Links to the full article are under each title, and I’ve stuck in a snippet so, without clicking, you get a vague idea of the direction in which the piece heads. Hope it’s useful.


Reading the play before seeing the production:

“As preparation for our reviews, our coordinator sent us all the respective scripts of the plays that we would be seeing. I was surprised to say the least. In Britain, I think it's fair to say that we have a pretty established tradition, if not a hard and fast rule, that critics don't read new plays before they see them... Moreover, playwrights are often keen that this remains the case...”


Saying whether it’s actually any good or not:

“...British criticism has been way too co-opted into the PR industry. Have British theatre critics, along with pretty much every other branch of journalism, been tricked into moving away from serious analysis into giving things the thumbs up (where possible) in order to sell tickets? […] Similarly, when compared with a rigorous, extensive and articulate interpretation of a play, the way that some British critics simply shut down and refuse to engage with writing or direction starts to look like the height of ignorance... On the other hand, this interpretative school of criticism can fall prey to finding meaning where there is none...”


Ethical guidelines:

“Where I foresee the IATC's attempts to create a global code of ethics running into real trouble is on the matter of irresolvable international cultural differences. The Canadians, for example, argue: ‘It is expected that critics be as objective as possible to achieve a balanced review.’ Not in Britain, it isn't. Here a critic offers a completely subjective response to a piece of work...”


The division between journalist critics and academics

“The critic is (quite unfairly) criticised for their lack of space. Show more cultural breadth, they are told, when in truth it's as much as many of us can do to fit the bare bones of a plot, cast, design and direction into a review with the word counts we are now given to work with... The academic, on the other hand, is berated (again unfairly) for their narrowness and insularity. Studies of minutiae are cited as reasons why the academic fails to capture the imagination of the general reader. ”


What should we teach our young critics?

“Before we all charge about arguing that we need more tuition for our up-and-coming critics, we should take some time to consider what we want them to be taught. Do we emphasise the often depressing commercial realities of the current situation, or do we try to instil in them a desire to make writing about theatre as vital as possible, with the hopeful goal of making it a must-read?”


Identifying who did what – praise and blame:

“As a theatre critic, the need to apportion praise and blame is a bit more pressing; we have to identify who is responsible for what – and we don't always get it right. One such example comes from Telegraph critic Charles Spencer, reviewing Mark Ravenhill's pool (no water) a few years ago. It was a particularly personal attack on Ravenhill, arising from Spencer's distaste over a scene in which four friends of a coma victim sexually violate her. But Ravenhill didn't write that scene – it was created by Frantic Assembly, the theatre company behind the production, who sandwiched the sequence between two of Ravenhill's scenes, making Spencer's fury entirely misdirected.”


How to even describe acting:

“Time and time again, when reading reviews, you are struck by the extent to which the play is the real star in Britain. Be it written or devised, it's the action, not the acting, that really gets reviewed. It sometimes feels as if theatre is marked for content and social utility, and the small matter of its delivery is a given. There are those old examples of Kenneth Tynan spending 90% of a review describing just one performance – say, Olivier in Shakespeare. If anyone wrote that sort of review now, I suspect they'd prompt a few letters to the editor asking what the rest of the play was like. ”


Star ratings:

“It's this insistence on a rating, particularly at the Edinburgh fringe, that highlights how varied opinion can be. Last year at the festival, with the increased proliferation of online reviewers and freesheets working alongside the national press, it seemed as if every show was scoring a full bingo card of stars, with ratings anchored only to a publication and rarely to an individual critic. In this instance, the question of authority – and whose opinion to trust – was rendered almost insignificant by the show's promoters, who merely clutched on to whatever stars they could...”

– Fin –