Friday 18 December 2009

The Misanthrope - Comedy Theatre

[Written for]

Once in a while, you have to stop and marvel at commercial theatre. In the midst of a season packed out with grim forced jollity and horribly saccharine “family” shows, some lunatic decides to put on Martin Crimp’s translation of Moliere’s venomous little play and then succeeds in making it the hottest ticket in town by attaching it to the stage debut of Britain’s most bankable starlet (second most bankable, by numbers, apparently, after Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame).

Hitherto, I’d never really got the Keira Knightley thing. I don’t know who her constituency is. No one I know ever seems to have anything positive to say about her, her screen acting is frequently derided, and women seem to take exception to her face. And yet she seems ever-present and able to command huge fees for her work. Entering the Comedy Theatre at last night’s press night, I got the feeling that I was the only person in the building who was excited that they were going to see something by Martin Crimp.

And, so here’s the surprise headline – it turns out Keira Knightley is a pretty damn good stage actress. Even if she has been given a massive postmodern bunk-up by the text.

Crimp’s adaptation of Moliere’s tale, allegedly transposes the action to contemporary London. At least that’s the theory. However, because he isn’t complete re-writing of the play, this is a bizarrely unrecognisable London full of intellectuals, gossip journalists familiar with Derrida and Barthes, and yet only one playwright who rails against the superficiality of the contemporary scene.

What is immediately recognisable, though, is the cult of celebrity. Knightley plays Jennifer, an American actress currently the toast of London’s fashionable set. She has embarked on a relationship with Alceste, a perpetually angry playwright who loathes the social scene, spouts sixth-form Marxism, and is perpetually jealous of Jennifer’s flirtatious ways and rumoured string of lovers.

Sadly, Damian Lewis makes for a pretty rum misfit. Fashionably dressed and clearly a regular gym-goer he doesn’t look as if he objects to anything contemporary London has to offer. But it’s his performance that really finishes him off. Sure, Alceste isn’t meant to be exactly likeable, but Lewis turns well-aimed, humorous disgust into petulant, high-pitched apoplexy.

Knightley, on the other hand fairly radiates star quality. She starts a little uncertainly, but once the script has given her time to warm up – no one really shines doing exposition – the near-perfection of her casting comes into its own. In part it’s the game it plays with reality – any actress could have stood there and looked beautiful, but virtually no one else could have brought so much of the baggage of fame with them. And she’s no slouch at the part itself. Well, partially. The text calls for someone iconic, but also a character who is believed to be slutty on screen and off. Knightley plays it more coquettish than sexually voracious. The crucial point is that while using her sexuality to get on in the world, Jennifer is in fact completely faithfully devoted to Alceste. Knightley might let too much of the subtext in a bit too soon, making Alceste’s gnawing jealousy look a lot more like rampant paranoia as a result. However, when the revelation comes that Jennifer, far from being a superficial airhead, is in fact far more penetrating and astute in her judgements than even Alceste, Knightley’s combination of shimmering intelligence, beauty, defiance and fear is about as effective as you could hope for.

Of the supporting cast, Dominic Rowan as Alceste’s sounding-board mate speaks his lines very well. Tim Mullan as Covington, the theatre critic (ho ho) who has written a play, disappoints my inner theatre-nerd by playing the part precisely as written: as a stock comic character. He’s fairly funny, but as fits the text, his character doesn’t really map onto any actual critic or their place within theatre’s ecology. Much better is Tara Fitzgerald who looks like she’s having enormous fun as Marcia, Jennifer’s drama school mentor, with designs of her own on Alceste, playing her as an almost psychotic luvvie of the worst sort.

Beyond the acting, Hildegard Bechtler delivers a pleasingly elegant impossibly high-ceilinged hotel room set, which by neatly echoing the play’s seventeenth century origins looks like absolutely nowhere in London at all, but I guess that’s fine. Amy Roberts, on the other hand, serves up a set of costumes that are almost all disastrously ugly and mostly wrong for the characters.

Indeed, it seems a bit uncertain at times if Thea Sharrock actually has the faintest idea what she’s doing with the play or why. The actors all come at the text’s rhyming couplets from different directions and wind up in different places. I don’t think Crimp’s adaptation is perfect, but it’s very hard to assess the script when some actors are effortlessly pulling it off, while others are mangling their lines to such an extent that they sound unplayable. Damian Lewis, as I’ve said, is atrocious casting, and his relationship with Knightley is pretty much entirely carried by her. He just shouts in her general direction. You have to do a lot of work to recognise the love story that is underpinning events. And yet the whole just about manages to cohere, if only because the events in the script keep happening and you can see what the play is meant to be doing, even if this production isn’t actually doing it all for you.

For all that, though, there’s still something remarkably pleasing about seeing an expensively dressed press night audience so comprehensively ridiculed from the stage and knowing that they’ve all paid exorbitant prices for the privilege.

Monday 23 November 2009

Cock - Royal Court

[Written for]

There’s a great quote from the writer and director René Pollesch: “I would like to talk to the capitalists about money, but they only want to tell love stories”. Mike Bartlett’s Cock (let’s get the smirking over and done with now; I’ve been enjoying the joke for weeks, but it’ll get tiresome if we keep having to giggle through the review) comes (stop it.) at the question from the opposite direction – nominally telling a story about love, or “gender relations”, it actually proves to be an astute dissection of lives lived under advanced Western capitalism.

John and his boyfriend, M (for Man, we suppose) are bickering. They’ve been together a long time, the spark has gone. John leaves. John comes back. He’s slept with a woman (‘W’ unsurprisingly). All of a sudden his ideas of who he is, “what” he is, have been turned on their head.

As the story unpacks itself, it manages to throw up enough acute observations of the way relationships are conducted, the things people say to each other, the manner in which power and control are exercised in the name of “love”, the nature of desire and the things people do in bed to fill half a dozen less searching plays. It’s also incredibly funny and admirably filthy (at one point, W says she’s “got a gap on” – i.e. the female equivalent of a hard-on).

Bartlett’s text, too, is a thing of real precision. From the way that it is laid out on the page to its use of punctuation it has a real authority about it. While, of course, it makes perfect sense as dialogue, the exactness almost has more in common with sheet music than “proper sentences” written in the English language.

If the script is precise, then James Macdonald’s production is more than equal to staging it. Designer Miriam Buether has created a small wooden, circular amphitheatre in the middle of the Theatre Upstairs, evoking a feeling of a boutique gladiatorial arena crossed with one of those Victorian anatomy lecture theatres with viewing stalls for medical students. The stark overhead lighting is encased in a stylish circular wooden shade, adding to the impression of creatures in a Petri dish under a microscope.

I don’t know if the “wooden O” comparison is deliberate, but Macdonald certainly takes Shakespeare at his word as regards the primacy of the imagination; while the characters change clothes, get naked, have sex, and eat a meal, none of the performers undress or even handle a single prop. The pace and style of the production is singular and breathlessly intense. Andrew Scott’s M is a machinegun-fire hurricane of catty bitching in a Dublin accent trained mercilessly on Ben Wishaw’s sweetly diffident and confused Paul. Katherine Parkinson’s W cleverly manages to suggest an incredibly sexy, warm femininity while delivering her lines with a similarly stylised intense focus. It took me maybe three minutes to tune in and warm to the performance style, but once in I was absolutely hooked. It’s one of those productions that once seen, you can’t imagine any other way of doing it.

But, while the formal and emotional stakes are high, it’s the piece’s lightly worn intellectual credentials that are really fascinating. Bartlett clearly doesn’t set out to create a social critique, he’s just (“just”!) written a story that he thinks is interesting, in which characters with a bit of agency fight, have arguments and try to work out how to live. What’s fascinating is the stuff the seeps out from the edges. There’s a point where John says of coming out at university: “all these people hugged me and were proud of me and said how brave I was and suddenly people were touching me and I was wearing different clothes and I was part of a scene, even walking differently I think and everyone said the real me was emerging, that I’d been repressed...”

While this speech in its entirety feels like the moment where the play gets a bit too spelt out, it also crystallises the way in which the play moves the entire argument away from “issues” of sexuality/homosexuality and into the far bleaker territory of the commodification of desire; the way in which every feeling becomes a “lifestyle choice” expressed largely through commerce. The final moments of the play feel like The Birthday Party for desire – we’re no longer coerced and interrogated by sinister agents of The State, we’re policed by our partners. “The State” no longer needs to enforce its vision of normalcy on us; we’re unwittingly, brutally doing it to each other in the name of love.

Sunday 22 November 2009

The Roman Tragedies - Barbican

[Written for]

[For those of you pressed for time, Lyn Gardner manages to arrive at pretty much the same conclusions using 1,900 fewer words. And she filed on the night. Consider me a little in awe.]

Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s The Roman Tragedies, directed by Ivo van Hove, designed and lit by Jan Versweyveld, collects Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra and stages them back to back for six hours; more or less solidly.

And what a staging it is.

The main stage of the Barbican’s theatre has been converted into a kind of chic corporate hospitality space. There are nicely minimalist sofas everywhere, large widescreen televisions, potted plants, and bars on either side, along with a small internet café, newspapers and coffee. This is Coriolanus by press conference for the CNN generation, a kind of living manifestation of Baudrillard’s The Iraq War Did Not Take Place (a massively misunderstood title, btw, which is actually derived from Giradoux’s play La guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu, which unfortunately became The Tiger at the Gates in English, thus depriving us of the chance to understand what Baudrillard was driving at).

One of the things that is interesting when watching Shakespeare in a foreign language is seeing what’s been done with the translation back to English for the surtitles. Here, barring a few odd phrases here and there (it was nice to see “O, happy horse...” and “Serpent of old Nile” survive), Tom Kleijn’s translation is mostly rendered in slightly more colourless lexical choices than Shakespeare made. However, given the staging, this works rather well as it doesn’t feed the production back into English antiquity. Instead we are watching “Europeans” in the 21st century.

After the first twenty minutes of the play – probably the first forty minutes of any other production; quite considerable cuts have been made – there is a “Scene Change”. Not much actual scenery gets moved, however, the audience is invited, should it wish, to go up onto the stage, get a coffee or wine, sit on the numerous sofas and watch the next bit at close quarters or on the big TVs.

After this, the atmosphere in the theatre completely changes. Suddenly it’s a whole lot more relaxed. The auditorium remains slightly lit, and the doors of the Barbican theatre are left open until the closing minutes (if you’ve not been there, rather than having aisles inside the theatre, the Barbican has them running outside the auditorium, with heavy wooden doors giving access to each end of every row. These doors normally automatically close in unison when the lights go down). There’s suddenly an unusual amount of agency. Given that the show runs for six hours pretty much without a break, this atmosphere of relaxation is enormously welcome, as is the sudden dispersal of the audience. All at once there is a lot more elbow and leg room (it’s pretty much exactly the atmosphere that I proposed would be the ideal conditions for viewing The Habit of Art, actually).

But these greatly improved viewing conditions are only part of the story. Thanks to having part of the audience on stage, there’s also now a vastly increased mise-en-scene. And it works brilliantly for Coriolanus. After all, the root of all Gaius Martius’s problems is his point-blank refusal to pander to the wishes of the people, or the people’s tribunes. That said, this relationship isn’t directly invoked here. The EU-fication of the look of the thing put everyone in suits. The people’s tribunes look like young, but professional negotiators. While to an extent this is a play about the power of the outraged masses, here it is mediated (aptly enough). We see the protesting people only on video screens. In fact, rather than a corporate hospitality area, what the staging most feels like is a newsroom – indeed, there are even sections where the Volciscan leader Aufidius is interviewed by a news anchor-woman.

Instead, what having the audience on stage here seems to stage is a professional class milling about both in newsrooms – watching election reports and breaking news or those clustered around television sets in cafés and bars, watching a public crisis unfold. It evokes a world from which “the people” are excluded, and yet are presented as the raison d’etre of the leadership. As such, it feels like a perfect evocation of modern politics. Perhaps this is a particularly British reading, mirroring concerns about the professionalisation of politics, and perhaps a wider concern about power being devolved to Brussels. Either way, as a way of opening up the dilemmas of Coriolanus, it is absolutely spot-on and totally engrossing, at the same time as presenting the most successfully “contemporary” Shakespeare I’ve ever seen, and offering an incredibly successful kind of “immersive” way of viewing.

Five minutes before Coriolanus meets his end, the red LED text scroller offers the message “5 Minutes until the death of Coriolanus”. It then counts down, until he is laid on a low trolley that runs on tracks between two glass partitions. The trolley is slammed home, and a camera takes a last, over-head shot of his prone body, which appears on the vast screen overhanging the stage, with the text scroller showing his name and the dates of his life. Then, without pause, Julius Caesar starts.

If Coriolanus worked well in this mediatised update of classical Rome, then Julius Caesar positively revelled in it. Where Coriolanus adapted the text around the need for on-stage plebeians to a certain extent, this Julius Caesar plays much more thoroughly with the idea of public address and who that public is. The private plotting scenes are carried on pretty much as standard, with suited conspirators meeting in what we imagine as anonymous corporate rooms downstage, while the audience continues to mill around behind them, or is seated in the auditorium before them. It is the funeral oration which is really transformed.

Joe Kelleher in his contribution to the Theatre &... series, Theatre & Politics, uses this section of Julius Caesar for a discussion of how theatre and politics interact – where the choice is to either stage the speech to the audience – thus theoretically achieving none of the impact it actually achieves, since the audience do not then take to the stage and riot – or else staging it by showing the orations being delivered to a largely crowd of costumed extras, thus placing the immediacy of the speech as some remove.

Watching it mostly on television from a sofa by the bar on the stage, it felt like I was seeing perhaps the best version possible. I could look over and see the “real” Mark Anthony hailing a “real” audience (though a mic with that echo/short reverb effect that invariably recalls the Nuremberg Rallies, and of which I shall never tire, no matter how much of a cliché it may be). Or I could watch the close up, being live-fed into the TV in front of me, along with dozens of my fellow audience members. It perfectly evokes the kind of speech that people would watch on television in a shared public space. Like watching 9/11 coverage in bars, or those American election night viewing parties, or Barack Obama’s inaugural speech. The sort of moments that have such evident public impact that people feel compelled to watch them together, as if for reassurance.

Even though it’s plainly a fantasy – when you’re on stage, you can see the lights, the auditorium, the actors, etc. – it’s one which, thanks, I think, to precisely these sorts of resonances, feels remarkably easy to become immersed in.

The “newsroom” type feel also makes a lot of sense of the “battle” scenes. Instead of showing anyone on stage actually doing any fighting, the lights flicker, two percussionists at either side of the stage make a fearsome racket, strobe lights flash in our eyes, while the performers run to and fro with clip boards much like one might expect panicked TV executives to as outside their studios conflict rages. While only on the video screens do we see footage of troop movements, tanks moving through bombed streets and the like. Again, a perfect evocation of modern warfare being something we only see on screen.

I ducked out for slightly more of Julius Caesar than I intended, something the makers of The Roman Tragedies both intend and legislate for. Nevertheless, my take on the whole is slightly incomplete as a result.

For all the immersive properties of the first two plays, there is a certain clinical edge to them. While one does take them in experientially, there is also always a kind of forensic interest winning out. One sees the plays anatomised. It certainly opens them up, and makes fascinating and suggestive parallels, but while you are considering their political import, you aren’t really feeling the emotional journeys of the characters. Perhaps this is also due in part to the less emotive, more matter-of-fact language you’re reading. There is no deliberate manipulation of your emotions. Indeed, the text scrollers announcing the death of a character five minutes before they die is at once amusing, kitsch and distancing. It gets a knowing laugh from the audience, and as such, makes the death itself feel somewhat less tragic and more of an historical inevitability. Which, of course, they are. You become dimly aware at the lengths other productions must have to go to in order to wring some sort of tragedy out of these tragedies.

That is, until Antony and Cleopatra.

Mark Antony has of course been introduced to us in Julius Caesar, and it’s enormously satisfying to the see the two plays run back-to-back, not least because it allows us to see the absolute contrast between his brilliant statesmanship in Rome and the tragic effects of his ruination in Egypt.

What’s especially great about this performance is that Mark Antony, played by Hans Kesting is in a wheelchair throughout. Apparently this wasn’t intentional. Last Friday, Kesting just broke his leg. However, the very fact of his being in a wheelchair really galvanises his portrayal. That it is a constant through both JC and A&C means that we don’t have to view it through the prism of any sort of intended naturalism, but instead, it’s just a very actual constraint continually being negotiated. As a metaphor for Mark Antony’s frustration and political hamperedness in the first and his, well, differently sourced political frustration in the second, it is hard to beat. He tears around the set, angrily unable to do exactly what he wants to do, with a savage energy jabbing at flunkeys with his crutches.

Chris Nietvelt as Cleopatra (female, don’t worry, it’s not *that* radical a production) is also outstanding. The stripped down version of the play’s text and structure does away with a lot of the speechified contextualising and instead gets straight down to business. Antony, lounging around in Egypt, is told of his wife Fulvia’s death. He whizzes back to Rome and promptly marries his co-Triumvir Octavius’s sister Octavia (Octavius, strangely, is played by a woman, however – and while not distracting from the story if the thing is modernised, then sure, why not have female leaders? But it does make it difficult to know which “sister” is being talked about sometimes). Cleopatra sits at home and doesn’t take the news at all well, and then all hell breaks loose when Mark Antony does return to Egypt.

While the preceding four hours or so have continually felt fresh and inventive, this climax to the cycle feels by far the most detailed. Octavia is presented as a sexy, rich-looking opportunist, while Nietvelt’s Cleopatra is infinitely more desirable precisely because of the force of her personality. There are nice directorial touches: Egypt’s flagrant, bisexualised licentiousness; a Roman messenger stealing a kiss from the stricken Cleopatra; and, at the very close, an actual snake, filmed close-up as it is handled by Cleopatra, its image filling the large video screen to deeply unsettling effect.

But it is the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra that really keeps you nailed to your seat (for the last hour, the audience are all returned to their seats and the emptied stage feels newly sombre – you feel that the end is coming). The stripping away of their more flowery language, perversely, allows them to demonstrate the way in which they cannot live without each other more physically. Stripped of ornate words, there’s just this savage passion. At the same time, you can see why everyone in Rome despairs of Antony. It is sheer idiocy. He might well be in love, but that doesn’t make him any the less of an idiot for allowing it to rule his decisions. Antony and Cleopatra’s decisions once at war can clearly be seen as the actions of two people whose belief in their love makes them feel invulnerable to the whole world and to logic. It is a damning indictment. And yet – rarely for this play – you find yourself compelled by their belief. Wanting them to defy the history books and somehow win the day. And yet, being lovers, even their deaths are a slightly farcical joke. Cleopatra gets a servant to tell Antony that she’s dead just to discover his reaction. His reaction is, of course, suicide. And so, when the two lovers are reunited, it is with the bitter irony that Antony has but a few minutes to live. His death, like the others before him, is portrayed with the trolley and the bird’s-eye-view photo. However, Cleopatra’s devastated scream is the first thing that really brings home the pain that death has on others. Her eventual suicide, long minutes later, is utterly devastating. The whole thing felt absolutely electric.

It’s hard to sum up six hours worth of theatre experienced in such conditions and the end of Antony and Cleopatra was such that left me feeling like my heart had been run through a wringer, quite genuinely shaken. This is a quite extraordinary performance, running from brilliant intellectual insight to raw emotion. Some of the most outstanding Shakespeare I’ve ever seen.

Thursday 19 November 2009

The Habit of Art - National Theatre

There’s something rather charming about the way that Alan Bennett’s latest play appears to side-step that most boring of critical questions: “is it actually any good?”

As a play, no, I don’t suppose it is. It certainly doesn’t quite behave like a “proper play” should. Playwrights who spend months and years fine-tuning and re-drafting their work into a perfect shape may well find they have cause to feel irritable.

What Bennett’s done is have a go at writing a proper play. One which seeks to dramatise the twilight years of W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten, and then, having decided that his play has too many problems to solve, has thrown up a protective frame around it by showing this initial play being rehearsed.

Thus, any problems that the play-within-The Habit of Art (called “Caliban’s Day”) has, become points of interest and potential comedy. Rather than feeling awkward about lines that clunk or devices that don’t quite come off, we are licensed to find them funny or ridiculous.

On one hand, it feels a lot like cheating. On the other hand, it works rather well.

Having scrupulously avoided reading up on the thing before I saw it, I am pleased to discover that Bennett has fulsomely admitted that this is the case.

[Finding this review harder to write, than I’d like, it’s hugely tempting to stick in the same device.]

We get two plays for the price of one: Bennett’s Auden/Britten drama about two great artists – their temperaments, their artistry, their homosexuality and their attitudes to biography – alongside which, we are presented with a commentary on the creation of such biographical plays, bits of stuff about the National Theatre and the business of writing and acting in plays (though not, significantly, about their direction).

The effect of framing “Caliban’s Day” with The Habit of Art is to lift the potentially over-heavy original and allowing some much needed lightness to circulate around it. It possibly says something about Bennett’s limitations as a dramatist that he feels the need to do this in the most literal manner imaginable, but the net effect is not dissimilar to the way in which younger, less naturalistically concerned companies deploy a similar effect. There’s an extent to which one wishes that he hadn’t done it in a way that feels like it is disingenuously apologising for itself, but one is nevertheless ultimately grateful that the effect is there.

It also means that Bennett is free to send Caliban’s Day up a good deal more than he might otherwise have felt licensed to. Some of the funniest bits concern a latex W.H. Auden’s mask and sections in which the “writer” – a very un-Bennett-y fictional chap called “Neil”, intelligently played as sulky and earnest by the equally un-Bennett-y Elliot Levey – has seen fit to deliver some very silly dire poetry into the mouths of pieces of Auden’s furniture.

[Aha! Reading Bennett’s own piece on Habit, after finishing this, it’s rather satisfying to see: “The stylistic oddities in The Habit of Art – rhyming furniture, neighbourly wrinkles, and words and music comparing notes – may just be an attempt to smuggle something not altogether factual past the literalist probation officer who’s had me in his charge for longer than I like to think and who I would have hoped might have retired by now.” Excellent.]

There’s also a fair amount of enjoyable actors’ banter. Richard Griffiths playing “Fitz” playing Auden essentially reprises his role as Hector from The History Boys while Alex Jennings as “Henry” playing Benjamin Britten has a nicely bitter line about how the critics will probably just praise his “efficient performance” – which , curiously, is pretty much what I would have done, if he hadn’t drawn my attention to it. In fact, Jennings turns in three quite brilliant performances – one as the almost regally camp Henry, a totally different performance as the diffident Britten (although one wonders if it’s Jennings’s performance of Britten or Jennings’s performance of Henry’s performance of Britten), he also doubles as Henry standing in for another actor (who’s in a matinee Chekhov and so can’t attend rehearsal – although he turns up for a bit in suitably hilarious, incongruous heavy Russian peasant costume). But like Henry says, it’s all done so well, you barely notice it is being done at all.

You’ll notice I’ve said a lot more about the “how” than the “what” so far. Post-fact, it feels like there’s an awful lot more “how” to talk about. Actually, while you’re watching it, there’s an awful lot of “what” going on. Bennett’s play is, after all, a work of incredible condensation. Two major biographies, not to mention a fair amount of detail about the biographer Humphrey Carpenter himself (Adrian Scarborough, again perfect, apparently without effort) are being staged here. As such, there’s a lot of factual detail mixed in with the quotation-heavy, ‘what’s it all about, anyway?’ dialogue (C.S. Lewis’s “fucking elves” description of Tolkien’s fiction gets a (reattributed) look-in, as do lines by Coleridge, Spender and Larkin). If this were written by a younger playwright, one might call the thing richly allusive, or even, God forbid, postmodern, but because it’s by Alan Bennett, it doesn’t really strike you that way.

It’s also interesting, in common with The History Boys, that it feels like it is set at least a good thirty years before it’s meant to be set. Caliban’s Day, is a remarkably old-fashioned play. The way the fictional playwright, Neil, talks about it – in a manner sympathetic to Bennett’s own feelings on the matter, one supposes – doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard anyone of Levey’s age say about their practice.

But again, this is by-the-by and detail. The wider sweep of the play, its arguments about biography, the characters’ observations (both sets of characters, within and without the “play”) about the way that Art is created is interesting enough, if a little antique. More interesting is the biographical interest it generates around Bennett. Here he is, after all, having achieved National Treasure status, not least with a recent run of autobiographical books to rival Katie Price, making a piece in which two artists essentially articulate their desire not to be autobiographised. And into the bargain, foregrounding *a* playwright – if transparently not himself – and then subtly inviting us to see the comparisons between Bennett and Auden and Britten.

And certainly there’s something in it. The homosexuality is one element – Bennett having lately moved from his brilliant if coy “Perrier or Evian” rebuff to seeming comfortable admitting that he is in love with a man. His characters, thanks partly to Britain’s shameful history of persecution, seem less happy, while there is also an interesting comparison to be made between Bennett’s recent run of older-men-who-like-younger-boys plays and Britten’s criticism of himself for repeatedly indulging the same theme.

There’s also a return to Bennett’s perennial theme about access to the arts. This is certainly the subject of Neil’s Caliban’s Day, which takes its title via a muddled route through Auden’s The Sea and The Mirror, a poem which seeks to upset the tidiness of the Tempest’s rather pat ending, and in doing so creates a hyper-literate Caliban who addresses the audience. “Neil’s” “Caliban” is a rent-boy who has been ordered by W.H. Auden. He doesn’t do much except stand in for the Great Unwashed (ironic, given Auden seems far less given to cleanliness), along with the Beauty of Youth and various other clichés. More affecting is the discussion between stage manager (Frances de la Tour (the programme is in BLOCK CAPITALS – not helpful when trying to work out how many capitals her name should have) who is playing a perkier version of Mrs Lintott from The History Boys) and playwright – the director is absent from this rehearsal (Bennett obviously doesn’t think much of the mediation that a director interposes between writer and actor) – about the National Theatre itself in which Ronald Eyre is said to have suggested that on the unveiling of Denys Lasdun’s building that its three spaces should immediately have been converted into a pool hall, ice-rink and box arena until the perceived elitism of the building had worn off and only then would it be fit for plays. Counter to this suggestion is the argument that the continual run of play after play after play is what has gradually made this curious building fit for purpose. I’m not sure it’s an ironclad case, but it sounds very moving in the moment.

Overall, well, you come out having enjoyed some good jokes and been given an awful lot of things to consider, and experienced some fine, moving moments into the bargain. It’s a big old grab bag. You have to do quite a lot of the work yourself, while formally it seems to be far in advance of its contents’ conclusions. It feels like it would benefit from being staged before an auditorium of sofas, with the audience free to wander in and out and make themselves cups of tea. Then it could go on much longer.

I’d quite like to see the unedited, durational version – same set, same cast, but somewhere comfy like BAC. As it is, it feels like a compromise between someone halfway to believing plays don’t need to be proper and someone who insists that they should at least try to keep up appearances. There should be something that feels quite sophisticated about the approach, but it’s hard to resist the idea that this is simply an attempt on a play that has been sent into the world before its time.

Monday 16 November 2009

Vùng Biên Gió'i – Laterna Magika

[Rather than being an attempt at a review – which would be crass since I don’t speak German, this is offered in the spirit of a “Walk-through”. It’s an idea for reviewing I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, following my reading Tim Etchells’s excellent first novel The Broken World, about which I want to write much more soon. The set-up of the novel is its narrator writing a blog that talks its reader through the many levels of a computer game. At various points, the narrator’s own insights and thoughts penetrate his straightforward descriptions and advice on the game’s content. I guess that’s what the following sort of does too]

As I remarked in my prefatory note on Prague yesterday, Vùng Biên Gió'i marks the first time I’ve actually seen Rimini Protokoll in yer actual, proper, conventional theatre (Prague’s ugliest and most Communist). I was surprised by how strange I found it.

As you’ll probably know, if you’re a regular reader, Rimini Protokoll are an enormously exciting Swiss/German theatre company, who, I think I’m right in saying, are partially attached to the Hebbel Am Ufer theatres (?).

(There are three, collectively referred to as the HAU. Hebbel was a 19th? century playwright and the Ufer is the river next to which the original Hebbel theater, is situated. It’s also worth noting that HAU Zwei does excellent pizzas, has a great bar and is in the building that used to be house the Zodiak Free Arts Lab where, Tangerine Dream and Kluster formed/played a lot, while at the same time housing the Schaubühne theater prior to its1981 move to its current location in Lehniner Platz).

RP are exciting primarily because they’re so inventive and smart. They seem to be making new, fairly unprecedented work on an almost continual basis. There’s a great post by Ant Hampton on their show Heuschrecken here, and if you check HAU’s website they seem to have new shows going up there almost all the time (ok, not this month, but…). They make urgent, live, discursive/documentary theatre that feels like it is informed not only by global concerns, but that seems as if it started to achieve a global reach. You get a sense of what the theatre of globalisation might actually feel like.

I admit I’m a bit vague on the details, but the sense you get is of this tremendous energetic collective constantly arranging new pieces and firing them off to festivals and theatres. They also seem to get specifically commissioned a lot. I think I’m right in saying that Vùng Biên Gió'i was made especially for Pražský Divadelní Festival Německého Jazyka.

Its subject is Vietnamese immigrants living in Germany and the Czech Republic. And, in particular, those living in a town right on the border between the two countries. In common with many (well, all, in various forms) of RP’s other pieces, the show does not use “actors” or “performers”; instead, everyone who appears on stage is talking about themselves, or telling other stories from their own personal perspective.

The performance style is incredibly free and unforced. As I have previously discussed, this might be to do with the German language, but in this case, since only one of the speakers – a former German border guard – has German as a first language, it seems likely that it is much more to do with a very specific and evolved performance style – which at the same time is no style at all (all this feeds back to the very necessary discussion prompted by Chris Goode’s comments following my Everything Must Go review to which I have yet to respond). This “style” really doesn’t feel forced at all. The speakers are all radio-miked, so their tone of voice is entirely conversational. They are just people being themselves (big “just” there, I know, but that’s how it *feels*) explaining something to a large group of people in a room. It reminded me of what Nicholas Ridout says about stage fright in Stage Fright, Animals and Other Theatrical Problems (not that I especially buy the notion, but…) he seems to suggest that it emanates from the anxiety of the pretence at trying to *be* someone else (that’s a really, really slender summary of a very long chapter, which I might have got wrong, but it’s one of the things the piece made me think about anyway).

Oddly, unlike with Der Prozess, I found it much easier to follow Vùng Biên Gió'i. Perhaps this is partially because I was mostly listening to other non-native German speakers, and so perhaps at least the older “cast” (?) members, were speaking at a speed I could hope to comprehend bit of, or perhaps it was the internationalism of a lot of the words. It sounds like an advertising slogan, but “Communism” seems to be pretty much the same in most languages.

The show was about 1hr 50 and covered an awful lot of ground. Each performer told their own particular tale of how they came to be in Germany or Czech, there were charming anecdotes, complex anecdotes, a lot of explanations about how their situation has changed over the years. How they make money selling knock-off Ostalgie souveniers or bootleg cigarettes. How these jobs can be more lucrative than anything they might get even after a university education (as a biologist, as one girl said?). These personal narratives and narrations – frequently illustrated with either live feed video projection or with the actual mobile crates from which they sell their Eastern Bloc combat fatigues – are frequently interrupted by a general question posed to all the participants: “What is your experience of bombs?”, “How did you travel?” etc. The questions are posed by LED text scroller. The answers to the first were accompanied by the performers throwing those little paper cap bombs at the floor.

Photos of the participants are also shown on the live-feed, while giant cut-out, blown-up photographs of various people they’re talking about and a very German-looking pine forest are brought out and rtanged on the stage.

What was particularly fascinating for me, a Briton sitting in Prague watching a German show about Vietnamese immigrants, was the sudden total perspective shift that came with the realisation that these weren’t necessarily “economic migrants” or “asylum seekers” as we seem to assume everyone foreign is in Britain. Many had come to East Germany or Czechoslovakia under favourable terms arranged between the DDR or the CSSR and the Vietnamese. When the East Germans were short of workers, they’d apparently advertise the fact and encourage Vietnamese workers to come over in the spirit of Socialist Brotherhood. (I’m probably taking massive chunks out of the nuance here, so if you’re interested in the subject, do, for God’s sake, do some reading round and don’t just quote me).

I hadn’t really taken on board that Vietnam’s communism had been sponsored by Moscow rather than Beijing, – hence the massive American resistance to it, compared with its failure to bat an eyelash at Cambodia’s China-sponsored Communist revolution-cum-genocide. It was quite strange to see the story of post-’89 eastern Europe told from the perspectives of those who had come from the last country to actually defeat Capitalist America in open warfare.

As a piece of theatre, the thing had that strange Rimini Protokoll sense that somehow, through careful dramaturgy and playful elements, there was a real flow of the ideas which coalesce to create an impression greater than the sum of the component parts. The extra elements, the singing, the staging, all combine to make this feel like the most explicitly political show I’ve yet seen by the company, who, while not making explicit comment on the macro situation, evoke it through the intersections of the micro-narratives. As something to watch, it felt maybe twenty minutes too long, although I’m more than prepared to accept that this may well be down to my having to concentrate about fifty times harder than anyone else in the auditorium to understand it. Because it’s so specific, it feels like a transfer here might be a little oddly superfluous, but then, as I say, the sheer culture shock of realising that Vietnamese immigrants to Eastern Europe, or the former Eastern Europe (some of the “performers” arrived post-’89) came from a very different tradition of migration than the one which the British press paints as a near uniform narrative for those coming into Britain.

Video clip: the other thing the show reminded me of was Jean Luc Godard’s film about French student Maoists, La Chinoise, which – I hadn’t realised until recently – is in fact based on Dostoyevsky’s novel Бесы.

Sunday 15 November 2009

Der Prozess - Divadlo na Vinohradech

The most striking thing about Andreas Kriegenburg’s production of Kafka’s The Trial is the audacity of the visual concept. The thick safety curtain rises on a gasp-making (and vertigo-inducing in this already too-high-up-for-comfort viewer) bird’s-eye-view of Josef K’s room. Suspended mid way between stage floor and ceiling, and viewed as if at the bottom of false-perspective walls which reach out meeting the stage proper at the bottom and disappearing into the flies at the top.

The room is circular and the walls stretch out in a way that none-too-subtly also suggests a vast eye. The walls are rendered in white/gray concrete while the floor of the room itself, two desks and numerous chairs are a warm wood, the floor is scattered with white pages. Three identically dressed performers (black four-button blazers, trousers, side-partings, moustaches, the essence of 20s MittelEuropean bank clerkery) are seated about the room looking perfectly relaxed and clattering away on typewriters – magically not falling off the vertical desks to shatter on the (real) floor below – in spite of the fact that they’re suspended at ninety degrees against gravity.

And then the floor of the circular room starts to revolve. Clockwise.

You can see the problem, yes? It’s all well and good if performers have got into position to appear seated or lying on the bed before the curtain rises. We’ve all seen this sort of false perspective done before on a fixed plane. But this one was turning.

As I might have mentioned a million times before, my German isn’t up to much, so I’m afraid this “review” is going to be a lot more describey than, y’know, usefully evaluative of the overall experience.

The performances are largely conducted in that very calm, conversational German, which friends have pointed out are largely a matter of the difference between the way that German and English are spoken as languages. Gradually the piece is revealed to have eight performers (of mixed gender and age), all dressed in the same identical moustache, side-parting and suit, and all variously taking or narrating the role of Josef K (either solus or in chorus) as well as playing his interlocutors.

The conversational tone of their exchanges, without the advantage of comprehension, was such that I actually paid a lot more attention to the giant spinning floor at the centre of the eye. But, frankly, that was more than reward enough. As the room gradually rotated, performers not involved in the scene – or sometimes ones who were – (although “scene” makes the whole thing sound a lot more unit-ed than it felt) would clamber about on the turning landscape of desks and chairs, sometimes making a concession to looking like they were behaving as if the room were horizontal, sometimes simply trying to cross from one side to the other as if trapped in a Harold Lloyd nightmare. It’s hugely entertaining.

Sometimes the revolving floor also lowers – away from the eye/walls – to become a slowly spinning disk behind the main action. Performers can then indulge in walking on the spot round the edge, sitting normally at the desks or lying on the bed. However, the floor never stays flat for long, and soon it’s back up to vertical, or else halted at an angle, with the performers once more sliding and climbing their way across it.

That’s the first half anyway – during this, there was also a neat scene in which K. meets Fräulein Bürstner (who, in a rare concession to characterisation, has changed out of her suit – although retains the moustache and side parting). The scene is played with maybe only two or three Josef Ks (each physically removing their predecessor and insinuating themselves into his or her place), while the rest of the cast, laid with their heads under Bürstner’s skirts, rhythmically blowing into them, causing them to rise and fall throughout the scene.

The second half (well, after the interval, probably less than half the whole running time) sees the room floor set replaced with a stark white disk, with five black poles sticking out of it. For much of the section, five actors hang from these, monkey- or possum-like, gently swivelling round as the circle rotates, while in the foreground animated or laconic long monologues are delivered.

The whole effect is very beautiful. Even without understanding the language, it is evident that these are beautifully controlled, very precise actors. Wonderfully animate, and yet incredibly understated.

Quite how well it works as an adaptation of the book, it is hard to say – hell, my familiarity with that isn’t what it could be. The Czech review the next day suggested that while obviously accomplished, this (former-West) German take on Kafka’s classic (the production originated in Munich) might have been a bit remote and hypothetical for a nation that still feels the effect of having lived through the reality of Kafka’s fiction. It would be fascinating to see how it worked in the Barbican (pretty much a perfect space for it, I’d imagine – possibly a bit too wide/high, but I don’t imagine that would be an insurmountable problem. Perhaps reading the surtitles might distract from the sheer visual loveliness of it, and I can’t begin to comment on the text, but, while this was slow and almost too deliberate, the constant turning wheel made it feel almost Zen at times. I imagine that at least a section of the British public would find much to admire.

Pohlednice z Prahy

To Prague for Pražský Divadelní Festival Německého Jazyka (Prague Theatre Festival of German Language [theatre]). On the Thursday before flying out to Czech, I happened to be doing a Q&A session with the students of Central School of Speech and Drama’s Writing for Stage and Screen MA which is taught by my friend, the playwright John Donnelly. Along with questions about “being a critic”, John was quite keen that I talked to them about my experiences of mainland European theatre, and specifically how they relate to the role of the writer. I mention this only because it was one of those times when you discover what you know (or, at least, what you think you know – and I’m very much still learning) as you’re trying to explain it.

Granted, I probably spend a disproportionately large amount of time thinking about mainland European theatre and its relationship with Anglophone theatre (not having seen much Australian theatre, I’m just guessing from the plays I have seen produced over here, the ones I've read and production shots I’ve seen, that it doesn’t differ too wildly from our own or American traditions, at least in terms of staging and how plays are thought about (at least in the mainstream)), but nonetheless, I had a revelatory moment during the talk: It had never really stuck me before how much of what we might call mainstream subsidised theatre practice – at least in Germany (but also, seemingly, Poland and Czech) – is actually “text-based”.

Recently it feels as if that annoying (and, I’d argue, mostly spurious – cf. Field) division of work into “text-based” and “devised” has subsided a bit, at least as a bone-of-contention/source-of-conflict. On one hand, everyone (in Britain) now seems a bit happier with the idea of plurality, apart from the odd occasion when someone blunders in with a misplaced “proper” or “better”. On the other hand, it feels like much work in the past couple of years has served to make the debate seem either misplaced, or has usefully and critically changed assumptions about the terrain. Seeing Tim Crouch’s The Author (The Author! for heaven’s sake!) Upstairs in the Royal Court felt like the moment when we all happily crossed the Rubicon together and everyone, whatever prior (fictional) allegiances, could agree that this was A Jolly Good Thing.

(Another example: the following night, after Slung Low’s They Only Come At Night: Visions, which I was reviewing for Time Out, I was chatting to Jerry Killick who told me he was currently working with Forced Entertainment on devising their new show. I confessed to being very surprised by the word “devising”, since recently I’ve been thinking more and more of Forced Ents’s work as essentially written work – and more likely than not, work written by Tim Etchells. I’ve no idea if this is any more the case for Spectacular or Void Story, but it was a useful reminder of how little can necessarily be assumed just by watching a thing. It’s more the way in which things get presented and promoted that leads to assumptions.)

What’s actually different is the perception of pre-eminence of The Playwright in Britain. “I’ve been to see the new Simon Stephens”, or “the new Tim Crouch”, or “am looking forward to the new Alan Bennett”. “I’ve been disparaging the new David Hare”. It pretty much conjugates itself. The only two irregular verbs, so to speak, are Katie Mitchell and Rupert Goold. Perhaps in the case of really, really established classics (Shakespeare and Chekhov only?), it’s more likely to be “Simon Russell-Beale’s Hamlet”, or “David Tennant’s Hamlet”, or “Kenneth Branagh’s Ivanov”. Did anyone care who’d directed them?

What I’m trying to pin down, very circularly indeed, is the way that German theatre seems to function – at least to my eyes.

Essentially, it seems to be far more likely that one will be talking about the director of the piece then either the writer or a star actor (that said, I do seem to end up seeing more Regietheater than New Writing at festivals for some reason). But this shouldn’t obscure the fact that their theatre is very “text-based”. That is to say, the director – whatever they’re doing with the design of the production – seem still to work from the text up. There’ll likely be weeks of discussions between the director and actors about the text. That this can end up with productions of texts that look to our (I would still argue) more conservative eyes (ok, let’s not say “conservative”, let’s say “differently acclimatised eyes”) that look like they’re miles beyond the strangest works of the “upstream”. At the same time, this version of working with the text can include some cutting, perhaps even of new plays. But then this seems to be true in Britain’s New Writing culture too.

The best two examples I can think of off the top of my head are the disparities between the printed texts of Alexandra Woods’s Unbroken, directed by Natalie Abrahami at the Gate and Joel Horwood’s Food, presented by the Imaginary Body at the Traverse in 2006. With the latter, it was a case of a writer collaborating with a devising company and the script being worked through well past the point when a draft had been sent to Nick Hern. In the former case, it *felt* (and this is nothing but a guess) like a director had taken a red pen to the lines she didn’t fancy. So, even within our “Writers’ Theatre” perhaps it’s not so radically different on some levels.

One of the things that was fascinating for me in the case of the first show I saw in Prague – Andreas Kriegenburg’s Der Prozess (Kriegenburg being the director, natürlich) – was that the publicity material reads:

1.11. So, 19:00 | Weinberger Theater | ERÖFFNUNG
Münchner Kammerspiele | Regie: Andreas Kriegenburg

All pretty self explanatory. The top line is pretty much unavoidable, and the bottom line makes perfect sense in terms of billing given that this is a festival of German theatre in Prague, and the way that German theatres operate – i.e. as buildings that can be identified as artistic endeavours – i.e. they seem to tend to go one step beyond an “artistic policy” and into dramaturged seasons of premieres (although these premieres also run alongside the theatre’s repertoire – which, thanks to a standing repertory company, can often been a show that was premiered over ten years ago – shown maybe once every month/few months).

So: dates, times and place; fine.

Point of origin and directing credit; fine.

But look at the author credit. It’s not “Franz Kafka’s The Trial” (cf. “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”). It’s presented like a writer credit. Now, my German’s not great (read: non-existent), but even I’d be willing to swear that there’s no way they staged the whole 200+ page novel in two and a half hours. There was certainly a sense that they were, in part, playing with the edited text of the novel, there were various “he said”s and “she said”s, but obviously it had been cut, it’s a work of adaptation. But no writer credit, no dramaturg credited and no suggestion of “devised with the ensemble” – nor much of a feeling of that later process either, although, as I suggest above, I’m not convinced spectators are necessarily the best judges of that.

Similarly, the next night, Rimini Protokoll’s Vùng Biên Gió'i - Regie: Stefan Kaegi. Sure. No problem. Except: everyone on stage was speaking pretty much solidly through the show’s one hour fifty minute duration. And what they were saying was definitely scripted, because there were pre-prepared surtitles.

I guess this element of scripted-ness surprised me slightly, as I’ve always tended to think of Rimini Protokoll as a company who deal very much in Liveness. In actual fact, I suppose this actually varies considerably from show to show. My first encounter with them (or at least with Stefan Kaegi’s work) in Soko Sao Paulo did actually have non-actors speaking prepared bits of text, albeit ones of which I think they’d at least written the first draft themselves. The point was this was real people telling their own stories in their own words. The dramaturg’s hand (postdramaturg?) was not much in evidence (although, given that the non-actors were speaking in German or Portuguese, I couldn’t swear to it).

In Call-Cutta in a Box I remember it was the scripted element of an apparently “live” encounter with a call centre worker in India (via first Skype phone and then web cam), which caused my colleagues from FIT Mobile Lab most problems – in a way not dissimilar to the discussions about agency occasioned by Internal in Edinburgh this year.

But, on the whole, Rimini Protokoll = Live, I reckoned. Or at any rate, not “authored”. In actual fact, Vùng Biên Gió'i was the first time I’d seen the company in an actual theatre building. Nevertheless, all the central elements were still in place: the people were all precisely who they said they were and the stories they were telling were their own. As such, it surprised me even more to imagine that the whole traffic of the stage would be written down somewhere – possibly with lighting cues scrawled all over it just like a LX copy of something by George Bernard Shaw or David Hare would have – and yet, no writer was credited. Perhaps this is because “Regie: Stefan Kaegi” covers the whole creation of the work.

While I was in Prague, I also happened to watch a video of Michael Thalheimer’s staging of Gerhard Hauptmann’s play Ratten at Berlin’s Deutsches Theater. It was perhaps this that made me appreciate more than anything else the direction in which my thoughts had been headed concerning the way in which we perceive German/“European” theatre “over here”.

The play is a 1912 straightforward tale of a childless underclass couple who try to buy a baby of a pregnant Polish prostitute. I imagine it being something like a cross between Gorki’s Lower Depths and maybe a cheerless Shaw or Granville-Barker, full of social comment and miserable characters. The point being, it’s an old-fashioned, well-made play. Now go look at that YouTube clip. It’s basically a modern dress production of an old fashioned play. I’m afraid I don’t know the original script at all, so I couldn’t tell you if the text has been cut, mucked about with, or modernised, but it was my impression that it hadn’t been. And yet, it’s Olaf Altmann’s set that really changes things. You can’t get a real sense of it from the clip, but what the letterbox format of the set essentially does is ensure that no performer can stand up straight throughout the show. In one sense it’s *just* a staging of a play. And, on a really, really basic level, you can see precisely how imposing such a metaphorical space on the actors absolutely *is* “serving the text”. And yet, it’s absolutely *not* like any approach I’ve ever seen here in Britain.

So, to conclude very briefly, having stalled this piece for over a week and written parts of it into other exchanges elsewhere now – not least my most recent Guardian blog (well, the original draft anyway), I think I’m still trying to figure out how/why it is the mainland European theatre *feels* different to British theatre, even when it often appears to be springing from the same starting point. I’m now thinking a lot more about the dramaturgical application of design. The way design is used as an extra character or comment on the piece. This might well bleed into how I write about British theatre in the interim. Which will probably get on everyone’s tits. Ok, I’m just burbling now. Time to post.

Any useful questions to refocus/repoint this piece gratefully received.

Oh, and here's a thing:

A question of attribution

You might already have read my Guardian blog this week, but after a bit of hmming and ha-ing, I thought I’d post my first draft here, since I think it is significantly different enough to the final piece to be of additional interest. If you have read the original, I hope the new-to-you bits putting it in a wider European context justify a re-read enough to forgive the bits that are just directly repeated.

Watching lots of German theatre last week, I was also struck by how culturally conditioned our assumptions might be. In Britain, it seems fair to say that the idea of a “writers’ theatre” prevails – if only subconsciously. That is to say, if a critic is reviewing a new play then they will generally tend to credit most of the action on the stage to the writer. The director will have been “serving the text”. Of course, many British writers collaborate in this process, offering scripts containing descriptions of the room or rooms in which the play is set and even tones of voice in which a character delivers a line, or to whom. Thus, critics needing to apportion responsibility seem to lean toward painting the director as someone who has simply moved the actors around within a world created by the writer.

A particularly striking example comes from a few years ago, when Telegraph critic Charles Spencer reviewed Mark Ravenhill’s pool (no water). It’s a particularly personal attack on Ravenhill, and centres on Spencer’s distaste at a scene in which four friends of a coma victim sexually violate her. Except, Mark didn’t write that scene. The production was created by the physical theatre company Frantic Assembly and they just happened to stick in this movement sequence in between two written scenes. So, the direction of Spencer’s bile was entirely misaimed.

In the opposite vein, consider the adulation and opprobrium heaped in equal measure on the shoulders of Katie Mitchell or Rupert Goold. As soon as either of them stage a play, it often feels as if the play or writer becomes nigh-on invisible; a mere provider of lines around which these directors weave their illuminating/infuriating (delete according to taste) spells.

At the same time, designers seem to get even shorter shrift. Something I am frequently struck by in German theatre is the sheer imagination of their stagings, and to give them their due, the credit for “Bühne” is right next to “Regie”. But surely there are similar examples in British theatre – after ten years in the West End and extensive touring, pretty much everyone knows the house that falls to pieces at the end of Stephen Daldry’s production of An Inspector Calls, but who could name the designer (without using Google)? Or: who created the chilling Stalinist basement that gave Goold’s Macbeth so much of its power?

I’ve already written about the short shrift actors often seem to get ( from critics, but even here, how do we know where the performance comes from? Has a director spent weeks creating genius in intense collaboration, or, worse, is a dreadful performance from an actor precisely because they have followed to the letter a set of utterly wrong-headed directions?

But then, beyond this, how much of our enjoyment has been subliminally created by barely perceptible shifts in light, or by sound effects or compositions that complement the action on the stage?

In short, while it feels as if culturally we might finally be moving away from anxieties about “directors’” vs. “writers’” theatre (, who actually did what still seems to be an impenetrable mystery from this side of the footlights.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Pains of Youth - National Theatre

[Written for CultureWars]

If we didn’t know so much about her working methods, it’d be tempting to suggest that in the spirit of some impish joke, Nick Hytner actually employs two directors called Katie Mitchell. One does stuff with video cameras and sound effects and producing live video images, the other committed to a kind of Stanislavskian naturalism to the point of near absurdity.

It’s this second version that the NT has hired to direct Austrian Ferdinand Bruckner's 1923 play Krankheit die Jungen. Set in the living room/lobby of a student flat, the piece deals with a set of (mostly) youngish medical students as they hang out, falling in and out of love and bed with one another. Kind of like an accelerated, downbeat, philosophised version of Friends, if you will.

Naturalism to this extent almost feels like some sort of perversion. It feels fetishistic, almost hysterical. In this respect, it rather suits the post-Freud feverish atmosphere that the students inhabit. But that’s about the only respect. The only departure from this studied realism is the completely theatrical scene changes. These are performed (in all senses of the word) by the members of the cast not involved in the interrupted scene entering in sharp black designer suits, the women in notably high heels for stand-in stage managers, and variously they remove items not wanted for the next scene into clinical-looking plastic bags, or solicitously insert a smoking half-cigarette into the waiting hand of an actor. Drinks are poured with a conjuror’s flourish and then they depart, like chic Scene of Crime Officers from the fashion police.

These scene changes at least feel like a clever joke on Katie Mitchell’s part against herself; as if slyly acknowledging that naturalism of this order is ludicrous. But the rest of the time, the business of studiously being “in the room”, is taken deadly seriously. So much so, that you gradually notice that no one in real life actually concentrates that hard on appearing to be where they actually are. It’s very strange and very disconcerting. It’s almost like a performance of a performance of performing. It’s not that it isn’t “good”, whatever that means, it just feels deeply weird, like something that’s ordinarily so conventional is trying extra hard to problematise itself. Not that I know Mitchell’s mind, but I’d be willing to suggest, this isn’t necessarily her intention.

It’s interesting that what I ended up watching here was the way that the play was done. In part, I’d put it down to the (ironically) V-effekt of its naturalism, but also to the way in which the play is constructed. First staged in 1926 in Vienna (precisely where and when the play is also set - although the programme is rather confusing on this point) you get the impression that while the play itself isn’t especially opaque about its concerns, they would have actually fed much more specifically into the Austrian national imagination of the time. Perhaps this is also a condition of Mitchell’s staging, combined with a nervously copious context-filled programme, offering essays on virtually every conceivable aspect of the period, from the origins of the dances the girls do to the post-Austro-Hungarian empire atmosphere of inter-war Vienna. There’s also the usual stuff about Hitler and Freud, although with perhaps a little too much hindsight-based emphasis on the former given the year and country of the play (yes, Hitler might have been born in Austria, but he’d buggered off to Munich in 1913, was only just out of prison and leading a very minority German party in 1926).

So, what do all these factors leave you watching? Well, it’s an engrossing two and a half hours (inc. interval). The travails of the students' love lives are interesting enough. But, although I’m wary of using the words “cold” or “clinical”, it does feel here like the interest is at something of a remove. This isn’t gutsy, heart-wrenching stuff, but at the same time, the socio-psychological musings of the students now feel more like fascinating items of historical interest rather than plausible designs for living. You find what’s happening engrossing, but given the turns the plot takes, it feels like there’s a crueller, more involved production possible. However, Mitchell’s version (or perhaps it’s partly also Martin Crimp’s translation) opts for “detached”. It’s cool and spiky, but not in the least bit moving. As such, it’s hard to really rave about it, even though the cleverness, precision and techniques are beautiful.

Saturday 10 October 2009

The Power of Yes - National Theatre

[Written for CultureWars]

“This isn’t a play” says “David Hare” at the start of his latest “play” The Power of Yes. That’s alright, Sir David, neither were Berlin or Via Dolorosa. And, frankly, if Gethsemane and The Vertical Hour were anything to go by, we should all be rather grateful.

At a later point, one of Hare’s “characters” quotes Andy Warhol’s suggestion that people continue to have sex because it reminds them that sex used to be good. Perhaps this is why the National Theatre keep on staging plays by David Hare.

The Power of Yes is a piece of verbatim theatre. David Hare went out with a dictaphone, or video-camera, or whatever, and interviewed a load of people about the recent financial crisis and then edited the results into an hour and fifty minutes of the bits he thought were interesting and shaped them into a kind of narrative; sometimes, within the process, commenting on this fact to the people he was talking to.

Unusually for this sort of interview-based (as opposed to tribunal-based) verbatim theatre, Hare himself is represented on stage (sadly not by Alan Bennett in a wig). Actually, Anthony Calf’s performance of David Hare is a remarkably good one. There’s even the neat visual gag that he’s wearing exactly the clothes Hare wore on exactly the same stage when performing Berlin. Or perhaps Hare’s only got one set of clothes. But, yes, Calf is so convincing that by about halfway through you’ve almost forgotten it isn’t him who’s irritating the hell out of you, but an uncanny impression of the person who is.

And, to give Hare his due, I think he knows as much and plays with it. The structure of the piece – its subtitle is “A dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis” (self-dramatist might be closer the mark, but I digress) – foregrounds his quest for knowledge. In this respect, the piece is almost identical to Berlin. It starts with Hare not getting something, and ends with him concluding that it’s about the death of an idea. I’m looking forward to the piece where he goes about trying to comprehend astrophysics and concludes it’s all about the death of an idea. I mean, really, surely there are hundreds of things David Hare doesn’t understand.

The problem is, David Hare really doesn’t get it. And, because of the way the piece functions, that’s our problem; because he’s up there asking all the questions, effectively on our behalf. And either he thinks we really are very stupid indeed, or he is radically out of touch with the real world. As such, the first half of the play virtually turns into a lecture. At several points a blackboard is even wheeled out for Christ’s sake. Normally, as a critic, it feels slightly silly or ostentatious to have a notepad parked on one’s lap. Here it felt like everyone in the audience ought to be issued with one.

It turns out that the script isn’t by any means the biggest problem. The beginning is indeed rather droll and the rest of the structure is perfectly sound, if pretty much the most obvious way of doing presenting the story. The material, of course, necessarily depends on the acuity or sense of humour of the interviewee. Some are incisive, witty and make good jokes. Lots of others talk in dead language and platitudes and are probably made several degrees more interesting just by dint of being played by actors.

Visually, however – directorially – the piece swings between complete inertia, visual sign-posting of such ludicrous literalism that it’s hard not to conclude it is intended as a joke and some of the worst theatrical kleptomania I’ve ever seen. There’s one sequence practically lifted wholesale out of Complicite’s A Disappearing Number, but without either the wit or the warmth. But mostly it’s just men in suits standing around. Sometimes there’s a woman in a suit. Very occasionally there’s a nice stage-picture, and the stage does have an admirably shiny black floor. But that’s about it. The acting is pretty good.

Given how pressing the issues are, it is strange how uninteresting …Yes manages to make them. In a way, it feels like it’s because the whole thing is mediated through “Hare” – this fictional construct of an actual playwright. It’s not about the financial crisis, it’s about his interest in it. And it feels like that’s the thing we should be interested in. It’s about him feeling for us, taking the sins of capitalism onto his Christ-like shoulders and bearing them for us. He gets jolly cross on our behalf, to absolutely no real effect. Perhaps his impotence is also our impotence.

Elsewhere, some of his clever-clever self-reflexivity rebounds rather badly on him. At one point close to the start, one of his interviewees suggests that he’s got a tough job in trying to dramatise the financial crisis, and isn’t it going to be impossible to stage the stock market. I don’t think I’m going too far to suggest that the knowing laughter this elicited was two-fold. One, the intended: “Oh, ha ha, yes, very good, how on earth would one stage the stock market? Ha ha!” and, Two: those who had recently enjoyed Enron and seen an imaginative writer and director do just that laughing at the dramatic irony. Ha ha, indeed.

At another point, Hare is pursuing the arrogance of merchant bankers in a conversation with a (former?) Financial Times journalist. The journalist (here played by Claire Price) asks him “but don’t you also ignore your critics” (or words to that effect), Hare’s response is quite remarkable rage concluding “writing plays doesn’t ruin people’s lives” (again, I’m paraphrasing, the NT really should give away script-programmes rather than charging £8.99 for copies of the text). Actually, the FT journalist seems to have precisely skewered the massive truck-sized hole in Hare’s project. He seems to want to preach some sort of left-ish message, I guess, but the means he’s using are entirely right-wing. Everything on the stage is normative. By chasing a news agenda, he’s already so buried in the system, that he can’t even see it around him. He, like these merchant bankers he so despises, suffers from colossal arrogance and flatly refuses to recognise it.

There’s no doubt that Hare sets himself up for this sort of criticism. Indeed, viewed optimistically, the play’s a piece of self-reproach as much as anything. Having himself portrayed on stage as well as being responsible for the script, does make writing about the piece feel unduly personal. I have nothing against the actual David Hare, who I’m sure is charming and generous, but here he does present himself in a deeply unflattering, and central, spotlight. Less forgivable is just how dull the play is to watch. Sure there are bits of narrative interest, and the stuff with billionaire financier George Soros, charismatically rendered by Bruce Myers, is fascinating. The piece concludes with a rather beautifully rendered dinner between the two in an anonymous skyscraper looking out over the twinkling lights of the financial centre of some major world city or other. While failing to land any particular punch, it does feel oddly, fittingly Faustian. Here we are with David Hare, his concerns, and a multi-billionaire enjoying a glass of mineral water. Lovely. How polite. How informative.

Wednesday 7 October 2009

Beyond the Frontline - The Lowry, Salford

This is still in progress, but, well you can see what I've written so far if you like... [sorry it's still unedited and rambly]

Oh, and currently contains spoilers too...

On one level, the most impressive thing about Beyond the Frontline is its sheer scale. Essentially it’s a promenade, avant garde, requiem to the British Army with a cast of about 150. Intriguing, no?

The actual form of the piece is quite simple. The audience is led into a field tent nestled by the side of Salford’s imposing Lowry centre. In the dark, in driving rain, the nervous, grim expressions on the soldiers’ faces make for an unnervingly realistic atmosphere of tension. We are divided into numbered chairs and greeted by the commanding officer (Oliver Senton). In a rather neatly crafted speech he informs us of our role as inspectors, cleverly blurring the theatrical rules into briefing and backstory – the British Army deployed on our own streets as a counter-insurgency force.

Because Beyond the Frontline isn’t concerned about the rights and/or wrongs of any specific conflict, who “the enemy” are is left deliberately unclear (al Qaeda? The Continuity IRA? The Scottish?). While this is helpful to the show’s general theory – “in a civilised society when men and women lose their lives in the course of their duty, society should take a moment to pay tribute” – it suspends the action in a kind of moral void. Perhaps reflective of the state of soldiering. We don’t get to worry about the rights and wrongs of the conflict, only that the soldier’s duty is to carry out work that their country has asked them to do.

The format of the show is essentially another variation on the headphones and boxes formats of earlier shows Last Seen and Helium. Following the briefing, the audience is divided into four groups and each taken out into the plaza in front of the Lowry, where officers lecture us on the principles of this sort of military presence. We are shown checkpoints. People passing through the square have their papers checked by sentries, dozens of soldiers line the rooftops around the square, and can be seen in the windows of the theatre and outlet mall opposite. Searchlights sweep the rainswept paving. It’s all enjoyably apocalyptic and totalitarian, contrasting with the clipped but friendly, urbane tone of the officers. Suddenly there’s a massive explosion at the far end of the square. Our headsets crackle into life as suddenly dozens more soldiers are running across the square; there is gunfire; confusion; we hear orders being issued as we are rushed toward a set of nearby trucks.

Inside each truck is the next part of the show – essentially four dramatic monologues. Each audience only sees one monologue as part of their experience of the hour-long piece, however. Having nothing better to do in Salford, I went round all three of the evening’s performances (shows start at 7.00, 8.15 and 9.30) and managed to catch three of the four (apologies to Dom Fitch and John Hunter). It’d be helpful if these monologues had names (or if the programme made the credits a bit clearer – bloody ensemble efforts). Each monologue is an entirely separate commission from a different writer. As a result each is wildly different, and makes for a completely unique middle of the show, which in turn impacts on how one experiences the final segment.

Comparisons between the three pieces were fascinating. How each negotiated its place within the truck, how they differed in terms of style and content, and indeed in performance.

Joel Horwood’s piece, for example, cleverly morphed from being us, the audience, really in the back of the truck with a solider into a hallucinatory death rattle. Chris Thorpe’s piece, by contrast, made no such concessions to setting – immediately, once we were in the truck, we were in a room with Chris Thorpe, a upturned spotlight and a microphone.

Of the three I saw, the first – sat in a leaking truck, following driving rain in the square – suffered slightly for being seen with fifteen-odd sixth-formers who, while perfectly amenable, were also catching one another’s eyes and looking slightly self-conscious and disconcerted. It also sat mid-way between the other two pieces, neither naturalistic or totally frame-bursting. Instead, Dave Toole plays a kind of fragmentary ghost (by Matthew David Scott). An echo in the back of the truck. Perhaps from a previous tour of duty. His reflections intercut with static, crackle and snippets of dialogue through our headphones as this ghost’s final moments play out in a kind of feedback loop. It’s a grimly effective little piece, but perhaps slightly too fractured and clever to achieve either a real punch or a sense of intellectual vertigo. Which is precisely what the other two do, respectively.

Horwood’s piece is, in many ways, typical of his writing: touching recollections of adolescence, some excellent jokes, and a real emotional kick at the end. Simple but effective. It also had some new stuff: a disconcerting Donnie Darko-like imaginary best friend called Roof-Rack, who seemed to have horns and fur and some beautiful linked images of death and blood soaking into snow, or bandages. It also has an outstanding performance from Daniel Rigby who flips from friendly, chatty squaddie to Welsh youngster and back again...

Chris Thorpe’s text, by contrast, is a taut, angular bit of writing that hurtles at psychotic speed with chippy intensity from a near-Marxist-theory version of why bread is made in factories to the emotional breakdown of someone who designed computer software to make it easier for soldiers to kill people. Thorpe’s performance couples a flat accent and blunt mateyness to a piercing, unblinking stare and machine-gun delivery in the glare of stark white lighting. While it’s not exactly ‘moving’ in the sentimental sense of the word, it is perhaps all the more horrifying for its relentless pursuit of logic.