Friday, 31 August 2012

Small Narration – Summerhall

#471. It is so difficult to find the beginning. Or, better: it is difficult to begin at the beginning. And not try to go further back. - Wittgenstein

Wojtek Ziemilski's Small Narration is a ““performance” lecture” about, as he says himself, contemporary performance art. And history. It is also about identity. Specifically, Wojtek Ziemilski's identity, the history of post-war Poland, and his grandfather.

Staged in Summerhall's Old Anatomy Lecture Theatre (the Summerhall venue is the requisitioned Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies), it is simple, stark, fiercely intelligent, and unexpectedly moving.

And I don't quite know how to review it. Because it is mostly densely packed narrative and fact. Tell the story and you've pretty much completely changed the potential audience-member's relationship with it. Even relate some of the parameters and you'll have done something. On the other hand, this was on for a six-day run during the Fringe, and I've got no idea if it's ever going to return to Britain. It should. It really should. It's a small, simple enough show to put on – all you need is a room with decent acoustics and a digital projector.

[Given how simple a set-up it is, I think more car than normal should be taken with the choice of room. Sure, it could be stuck in the Etcetera Theatre or the White Bear, but they're such horrible rooms. Actually, now I'm thinking about it, there really is a dearth of decent black-box rooms in London. Personally, I think it's Royal Court Upstairs or Almeida sized, but realistically I think it would be a hard sell for either venue, though I'd love to be proved wrong. The Barbican's Pit would totally work, but I guess it's most likely a BAC show]

I scare-quoted “performance” because Ziemilski's “performance” style is almost anti- performance. But perhaps it's a performance of anti-performance.

He sits in a simple wooden chair, probably the venue's own, script in both hands and head bowed into the script. He hardly ever stands, moves, or even looks up. Except that I have vivid memories of him making eye-contact with us all. I don't know how he manages to seem like his face is buried in his script thoughout, and yet look us all in the eye with an appealingly wry smile.

The language of the piece is similarly stark and straight-forward. The English translation isn't quite perfect, which, of course, makes the piece all the more perfect. Similarly, Ziemilski's delivery is an ironic, flat, Polish-accented delivery. It's not a monotone, because every emphasis is expertly placed, and there are discernible changes of mood and colour in the voice; and yet, it retains a sort of anti-performance deadness. It's very good.

He says: “It began when you did not want to go on stage, because you do not like being on stage, but there was no one else, except for the gentlemen from the Institute of National Memory.” And if this isn't someone who doesn't like being on stage then it's the best performance of it I've ever seen. Ziemilski looks uncomfortable, but somehow commanding. Similarly, his tone, his delivery, while refusing the usual comforts, seductions and ingratiations of the one-man-show, demands to be listened to.

There's an quiet intensity and force to what he's saying and how he says it. An anger, too. Perhaps it's this sense of quiet fury more than anything that makes the performance so compelling.

It's only stuck me just now, over a week since I saw the piece, to even bring to wonder whether it's actually a true story, or a made up one. Which is beyond unusual.

In fact there are several stories. It's glancingly about Wojtek Ziemilski, how his name should be spelt. Where he's lived and pieces of contemporary performance he's seen. But much more than that, it's about his (aristocratic, opera-singer, critic) grandfather being publicly outed by the Polish Institute of National Memory as an informer for the secret services of the Communist Party from 1949 until 1972.


It closes with another quite from Wittgenstein:

#676. If something has taken away my consciousness, then I am not now really talking and thinking. I cannot seriously suppose that I am at this moment dreaming. Someone who, dreaming, says "I am dreaming", even if he speaks audibly in doing so, is no more right than if he said in his dream "it is raining", while it was in fact raining. Even if his dream were actually connected with the noise of the rain.

A Midsummer Night's Dream (As You Like It) – King's Theatre (EIF)

Like Christoph Marthaler's Meine Faire Dame last week, the best strategy for enjoying Dmitry Krymov's A Midsummer Night's Dream takes more-or-less everything you know about about Shakespeare's Athenian woodland comedy, screws it up into a little ball and chucks it over your shoulder.

Krymov's production is essentially the last twenty minutes of Shakespeare's play – the bit where the proles perform Pryamus and Thisbe for the poshos – spun out over one hundred of the best minutes you'll ever spend in a theatre.

Bursting into the auditorium through the back doors, house lights blazing, and a chandelier still sat on stage, these twenty or so Russian rude mechanicals open the show by noisily, joyously, carrying a dangerously enormous tree trunk into the auditorium, which is topped off by an excitable dog trotting up and down it. Any pretence of division between stage and audience is completely shattered. We're here, now. We're in this together, and we're implicated and indicted by what follows.

After the mechanicals have set themselves up on stage – a process that also involves carrying a preposterous giant fountain through the auditorium, spilling water merrily all over the place as they go – their “audience” arrives. Sweeping imperiously down the aisles, these are the new Russian aristocracy. Looking spookily similar to our own celeb-, banking-, and old-Etonian class, they command the space noisily, self-involvedly; they sit down, their phones go off, and the performers shrink from them.

There's been a bit of business about the performers not wanting to smell of garlic. One of the first remarks one of this “audience” makes is that the performers smell of garlic. One falls face first to the floor in apparent mortification. When he gets up again his nose is bloodied. His white-gloved hand is bloodied. Both remain so for the rest of the play; a standing rebuke to the casual callousness of this new bourgeoisie. One of the most prominently placed women of the group is appallingly, almost inappropriately beautiful; dressed in a white fur stole and a black, backless dress, the skin on her shoulders radiant, we're reminded that the rich seem able to buy anything they like, including physical attractiveness and/or beautiful partners. (Yes, I am acutely aware that reads like I'm just being sexist. I'm pretty sure the way this mise-en-scene has been constructed, and that reading is made available entirely deliberately. If not, I'll hold my hand up and say, ok, last night I got very distracted by a beautiful Russian actress. Sue me.)

The player with the bloodied nose offers an introduction. Pyramus and Thisbe, he contends, are the first lovers. Well, no, Adam and Eve were the first lovers, he corrects himself, but they don't count because they didn't have any choice. He lists countless more great lovers from the classics and history, finishing with “Pyotr Tchaikovsky and his coach driver”. He stares out his “audience” as they look uncomfortable.

As of March 2012, this statement is probably illegal in St Petersburg, Ryazan, Arkhangelsk and Kostroma. And the company know exactly what they're doing. This isn't just knockabout clowning with a Shakespearean title. This is a piece very specifically about Russia today. It conjures the new laws banning “homosexual propaganda” in St Petersburg; the new 100-year ban on Gay-pride marches in Moscow; it makes you think about Pussy Riot; about Oligarchs, about the fact that since the end of communism, Russia feels like it has accelerated through the whole of the middle ages all over again and wound up right back where it was 100 years ago with a new aristocracy and a new peasant class.

The production says all this without ever once explicitly naming anything. It is like watching old Eastern European theatre that had to hide and encode its subversive messages because a direct confrontation with the authorities would result in prison sentences or worse. There are repeated references to the KGB Archives at the Lubianka. There is little doubt about what the production is suggesting modern Russia is like.

And yet at the same time as offering scapel-painful metaphor the piece is also raucously funny and, at times, strangely beautiful.

The version of Pyramus and Thisbe that this proletariat enact is a giant puppet show. Pryramus arrives first, a strange, towering Button Moon-style creature, with an inscrutable, boyish, Roman portrait for a face. Thisbe, when she turns up, is much the same, but with a strange Betty Boop-ish head and curiously adult, prominent plastic-domed breasts.

The main interest of the presence is the curiously precarious position they're often put in by this workers' theatre troupe; often threatening to overbalance entirely.

There's more horseplay. Avoiding circus and acrobats as I tend to, I'm probably more impressed than I should be by the tricks that are pulled off here in the service of something less asinine. There's also the best performing dog you're ever likely to see. Apparently there was a performing dog on Britain's Got Talent recently. I've looked it up on YouTube; Russia's Got More Talent.

This is a stage dog that can follow blocking. Hell, this is a stage dog who seems to have grasped method acting. You can almost see the flickers of eager anticipation across the creature's tiny, intelligent face as it waits for its next cue. You know how some performers just put you at your ease as soon as they walk on stage by virtue of their confidence and competence. This dog was like that. Perfectly, minutely drilled, it looked for all the world like he'd done it a thousand times before and couldn't be happier doing it again.

The net result is that this is an incredibly funny show, and yet one repeatedly underscored with an atmosphere of palpable real-world concern. It's the end of Shakespeare's play with all the fear and power-politics reinstated. We see, from the players' perspective, exactly how much freedom they don't enjoy, entertaining Russia's new rulers at the cost of their personal dignity; that, irrespective of how talented and funny they might be, joyfulness is a poor second to power and money.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Teenage Superpowers

[this is NOT A REVIEW of The TEAM's 45-minute, work-in-progress showing as winners of the EIF Fringe Prize 2011]

It didn't look exactly like this yesterday...

A new critical strategy I've been talking about and experimenting with during this Festival is the following: How about assuming that the people who made this know what they're doing?

It's an approach that has stemmed partly from reading reviews like this or this which read like the critic believes that they know some fundamental truth or other about theatre which has somehow eluded an internationally renowned director.

The next step of this strategy could be formulated thus: Now try trust that everything is deliberate/on purpose and then working out why they've done it.

I've found that applying this formula has made writing reviews a whole lot more interesting. Rather than trying to re-write or re-direct shows, I've been thinking about what it is I've actually seen, and writing about how that was, how it looked and what it seemed to be saying/said to me.

[I should confess, it's much easier to apply to stuff you're enjoying. I've been having an impossible time thinking about Mnouchkine's Les Naufrages Du Fol Espoir (Aurores) and trying to fathom a) what the fuck she thought she was doing, b) how the fuck anyone could have liked it]

What's interesting, however, is that having been generally using this strategy as a thought process, I've now got to a stage where it feels second nature.

And it was this strategy that I brought into the room with me for this afternoon's work-in-progress showing of The TEAM's Primer for a Failed Superpower.

Which was an interesting experience.

The piece opens with eight TEAM members on stage performing as a hardcore band. (Which means, a hardcore band with two vocalists, three guitarists, a bassist and a drummer. Plus someone operating the live-video-feed.) “This is the only song we know how to play,” they say.

The song is by Fugazi (I think she said). It isn't especially recognisable. The TEAM have only been learning to play their instruments for two weeks. It shows. The sound is reminiscent of the hundred garage bands I was in as a teenager. Sludgy guitars, stilted drums, too many people, plenty of enthusiasm and next to no technical or musical ability. The spectacle as a whole feels at once energising and pregnant with metaphor. Like a statement right there encompassing their critique of the United States.

TEAM director Rachel Chavkin then comes out and talks to the audience.

I imagine that instead of being a confident, intelligent, articulate, slightly improvised explanation, this is a perfect reproduction of a word- – -and-stumble-over-word- – -for-word, precise, ultra-naturalistic script in which every hesitation is painstakingly indicated. Or like the Wooster Group's preoccupation with reproducing videoed material of themselves (or others) as the key to their mode of performance. Or Recorded Delivery or the __'s (do The Citizens also do this?)'s use of earphones for verbatim work.

It works really well like that too.

It wouldn't be the first show this Fringe (OK, so this is technically EIF), or historically, which had played this game. The *Live* presentation of an imaginary show is after all at the heart of Caroline Horton's Mess at the Traverse; Daniel Kitson's ___ (apparently, I've not seen it); and of Forced Entertainment's Spectacular, to name but three.

So, The TEAM's new show, that we're “not being shown”, is about the following:


American hardcore punk bands (like Minor Threat, Black Flag, Bad Brains, et al.)

America's diminution as a world power

The rationale followed the lines that when members of The TEAM were teenagers, they first gained an awareness of the world at roughly the point when the Berlin Wall came down. Today's teenagers, they falteringly argue, gained that same kind of realisation with the destruction of the World Trade Center. They argue that both events redefined America's position in the world. The first plainly marking the apex of its ascendancy at the close of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the second the beginning of its decline across the past decade as it became mired in unwinnable wars, ever-increasing financial collapse and eclipsed by the ever lengthening shadow of China's superiority.

I was forcibly reminded of the moment over a decade ago in Cambridge when I was watching Khalid Abdalla's superlative production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? A week after the WTC attacks. There's a line in the play “Well, they never bombed New York” that absolutely silenced the whole theatre like nothing I've ever seen before or since. It is possibly the moment in a theatre that has stayed with me most powerfully until today. It felt like you could actually feel something physically shift as that line landed.

Chavkin tells us things they'd like in the show – a band, a chorus of teenagers (I think of the Karin Beier production of Das Werk), and to perform the show in a non-theatre space (ironically, I think of the Volksbühne, which also does a fine line in gig-venue-ness (here's Current 93 playing there, for example)).

But, yes. The show I'm imagining now is an awesome show. And imagining it feels amazing. It's one of the most exciting shows I've thought about during the Fringe. But that sense of excitement is totally real and in-this-moment. Which means this "work-in-progress" show is exciting in itself. And we're only about ten minutes in.

The next bit is the performance of a technical hitch.

Sure, it probably is a real technical hitch, but let's assume it's deliberate. Because it's really good.

If this is a show about a failing superpower, then the odd power failure is going to be par-for-the-course, right? This is a failure of a video projection; not live, like the band, but pre-recorded.

The screen shows a still of _ _. It plays a brief burst of speech. The screen glows blank – that “live” bright, dark grey colour of a TV on stand-by. The picture filters back. And disappears. The screen glows grey again. Then white. Then grey. The sound plays without the image.

If you were Bruce Nauman, you could stick this in Tate Modern and ask money for it.

Rachel' voice shouts in the darkness about restarting the tape.

Jessica's voice jokes that now would be a great time for another song. If they knew how to play another song.

It still feels like it could just as easily be art.

The video-proper starts. It's _ _ playing a young teenager (herself?) and an older teenager (a boy?), there's stuff about sexual attraction and smoking.

The scene shifts from video to stage and she's with _ _ and _ _, who are her parents. Her dad isn't happy about the low-cut top she proposes to go out in. Her parents want her to stop calling them “Mom and dad”. They worry they're losing their identities.

If they'd had kids in their early twenties these are conversations that The TEAM could be having with some real live teenagers of their own right now. Indeed, I wonder if part of the show is also about a missed teenage-hood – hardcore/straight-edge being music the heyday of which actually pre-dates them by a good decade – and now missed, or starting-to-be-missed parenthood. And of course it feels like their country is suddenly crashing down around their ears. Or maybe that's just my stuff.

It's interesting, of course, to note that alongside being “a show that describes an absent show”, Primer for a Failed State is another show about teenagers. Indeed, so of-the-moment is this presentation of a show-that-does-not-yet-exist, about-teenagers, that I worry that it might feel *a bit 2012* when it does finally materialise as a “real” piece...

Of course, I'm being silly. I'm watching the show through the sleep-deprived prism of three weeks of shows appearing to suggest common themes. As a result, I'm hardly talking about the other major preoccupation of the show – the decline of a global superpower. Perhaps this will end up being the element that resonates.

In the mean time, I get to sit here and feel energised and excited just through the act of imagining that in a couple of years there's going to be a theatre company in some found-space/railway shed/hangar who are going to create a massed chorus of teenagers with electric guitars and microphones all smashing through some hardcore punk in an attempt to understand another empire down.

Hopefully some of this, too:

Friday, 24 August 2012

Pornography – The Space @ Venue 45

[this review can be read in any order. It can be read by any number of readers.]


The acting is good.  Since Organised Crime Theatre are a young company – mostly still in various universities, friends from school or college, I think – the performances are several notches better than you might cynically believe you have any right to expect. No one is actually bad. A couple of the performers might either do a bit too much acting, or not quite enough, but in general this is a fine ensemble.

Along with Ken Nwosu [see below], special mention should be made of Daisy Bata's “student” and Zoe Templeman-Young's “Sister”. And, sure, there's nothing ickier than a critic more-or-less old enough to be the actress-in-question's father praising their handling of on-stage sexuality, but there it is. Those are two of the more difficult parts in the play, parts which make actual demands of the performer beyond speaking convincingly, and both Bata and Templeman-Young actually did the best job with the parts that I've seen British actresses do (this excludes Sean Holme's UK première). Indeed, Bata might well have been better than the German too (it's harder to compare Templeman-Young's performance with her German counterpart, since he was a large ginger man).


It's just occurred to me that having never reviewed Pornography before, I've never had to try to articulate what I think it does before. Which is strange. I now think of what it does, kind of on a level with what it is

What it is is a selection of slices of life, some with a tiny bit of bearing on 7/7 – the fictionalised bomber, obviously; but also the racist schoolboy, and all those users of London Transport. The incidents in their lives – with the exception of the bomber – aren't really anything to do with 7/7; they're just some of the people who make up the country, the city, that was attacked. And what they're doing – screwing up their lives, living their lives, getting into silly situations, perhaps morally difficult situations – isn't really anything to do with why four men packed rucksacks full of explosives and chose to detonate them and themselves on three underground trains and a London bus.

Except, of course, putting it all together suggests that there is a sort of connection. Barely any of the characters in the text are explicitly white, Asian, black, Christian or Muslim, and yet, bringing with us what we know of Jihadist/al Qaeda opinions on Western decadence, can we help but conclude that being shown a brother and sister (here played by white actors) drinking themselves into incest isn't a tacit admittance of something? And isn't there a slightly paradoxical purity in the observations of the made-up bomber on his train from Manchester Piccadilly about how grim life can be in those airport towns he's passing through on the way to deliver his made-up bomb to London?

This is the discomfort of the play, perhaps; that disappointed pre-Olympic feeling that Britain is pretty indefensible sometimes. In this way, perhaps the terrorist here has more in common with William Carlisle from Punk Rock and Morning's Stephanie than we might initially imagine.

Proper introduction:

Watching Simon Stephen's Pornography in the wake of the Olympic Games is strange. Like the last month finally closed off the period that opens this play; the period when London discovered it was going to host the 2012 Olympic Games and the next day suffered the worst ever terrorist attack in its history.

This is, I think, the fourth production of Pornography I've seen (German World Première dir. Sebastian Nübling, and two other student productions – one here in Edinburgh last year and another at NSDF'11. None of which I've ever formally reviewed, stupidly). But it still feels as much like I'm seeing a totally new play and an old, familiar one, every time I see it.

In case you've never seen or read Pornography, it's a collection of monologues and duos set roughly in and around the few days leading up to 7/7, which, if you remember, includes Live 8 on 2/7. This production opens with a vignette of commuters on the underground, their respective iPods playing over the theatre's PA, a small cacophony of Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb, and other tracks played that day.

At the start of the text there's an author's note that says “This play can be performed by any number of actors. It can be performed in any order”.


Annoyingly, I don't have my copy of Pornography with me here and, as the author's note suggests, seeing previous productions doesn't really help in terms of knowing the script, so in a lot of ways it's very difficult to offer a precise analysis of what Organised Crime Theatre have done here.

They've definitely cut one scene – the scene in which an old lady walks (from Bloomsbury, I think) and asks for some chicken at a random strangers house.

The rest, well, I think they've changed the order of the scenes, and possibly trimmed them a bit (but that might be down to other previous versions being stuck in my head, or my wrong-recollections of the running order) but aside from that this is pretty much 6/7ths of full-text. Either that, or they have left the running order entirely alone – actually, where is the “bomber” monologue in the script of Pornography? Here it's 5/6 and the end is intercut with 6/6 – the 52 almost Tweet-length two sentence character descriptions of, we assume, the 52 London Transport passengers who were killed on 7/7.

There is a brief moment, where it looks like the bomber – an outstanding performance by Ken Nwosu – looks like he's been directed to tip over into “a maniacal laugh” - but then we realise that it's an echo of perhaps the most noticeably recurrent bit of text in the play – certainly in this performance – the bit where someone says they can't tell if they, or someone else, is laughing or crying. It crops up in a few of the pieces.

Other motifs crop up again, stuff about licking food off fingers, mentions of Bloomsbury, Research and Development, and final polishes. Coldplay, Madonna, Snoop Dogg at Live 8. These are supplemented by visual motifs – the production's main design feature is multiple deployment of copies of the Metro newspaper, variously held round the heads of non-speaking actors standing in as illustrative bodies in monologues, and used as chip paper or restaurant menus; there's even a baby made out of Metro-mâché.

Superfluous introduction:

Until recently, in MSM criticism it has been standard practice when reviewing “New Writing” to talk mostly about the play, and to attribute most of the production to the playwright, with a namecheck for directors and a note that “the acting is good”.

However, with the advent of something I'm provisionally going to call The Open Text, that has all shifted slightly.

If there's one really live debate in Edinburgh this year – at least amongst the critics and theatre-makers I know – its been around how we talk and write about work that doesn't conform to what's perceived as the +standard+ writer-unto-director-unto-actors-unto-audience model of transmission. And also, how to acknowledge that even in the above-sketched model, it has perhaps never been as simple as all that anyway.

I have no idea what the first text was that didn't name any characters. It was almost certainly an idea in play in Germany before it was brought to Britain; a logical extension of the way that German directors were partitioning text and ascribing it to various speakers or choruses in order to present it in a way that made sense to them – often centuries down the line from when it was written.

The first British example of which I'm aware is Martin Crimp's Attempts on Her Life, which simply uses a dash to indicate when a new character starts speaking. Since then Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis, Martin Crimp's Fewer Emergenies, Mark Ravenhill's pool (no water) and obviously Stephens's own Pornography have become other prominent examples.

It's perhaps significant that I've also seen more revivals of these shows since their British premieres than any other New Writing. More even than previous student-theatre extant-script go-to standards like Beckett and Pinter. Which I think says rather a lot.

What is most interesting about the chance to re-see these plays is the extent to which different productions make it feel like you are seeing the play, the text, for the first time.


Images of criticism.  They are silent.

Strong Arm – Underbelly

Доверяй, но проверяй

“Trust is good, control is better” attr. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

If there's a deeper theme underlying the various configurations of hope and despair, and plays about the future, or about young people, at this year's festival then it might be characterised as being about control. Or about power and powerlessness. Noting this might be just about the most obvious thing in the world, since you could convincingly argue that all theatre is essentially about power and powerlessness. However, it does feel pertinent to bring it up here.

In an unexpected way, Finlay Robertson's Strong Arm makes a neat male counterpart to Caroline Horton's Mess. It's a first-person monologue about a twentysomething called Roland Poland who gets addicted to body-building. What's immediately striking is the extent to which actual weights-training is only a small part of his minutely described regimen. It's also an eating disorder by any other name. Ok, so it's eating extremely healthily, but the privations and strict observance seem incredibly similar. It's all carefully weighed portions of chicken and rice (brown in the summer, white in the winter). Food reduced to quantity and calorie, rather than as any sort of a pleasure. And vitamin supplements, protein drinks, muscle enhancement drinks.

The only real difference is the intent. For Josephine in Mess, the intent is to lose weight. For Roland in Strong Arm, the intent is not so much to loose his initial copious excess weight, but to supplement muscle. He starts out overweight, but he doesn't loose the weight so much as transform it into fat. At one point he observes that he's seventeen stone, but all of it is now muscle.

The text speaks urgently and directly about contemporary society. Perhaps part of why, I don't especially buy Matt Trueman's thesis that The Shit (which I've not seen) is somehow an improvement on Mess because it talks more about external factors is for the same reason I don't believe, for example, that Mike Bartlett's My Child: “[should've] had more space for social criticism... Who, one would like to know, is responsible for creating the kind of selfish society we now inhabit?

When a play is so clearly and firmly rooted in precisely the world and society in which we're currently living, and especially when it carefully demonstrates to use precisely the means by which it is examining that world, I don't think it also needs to triple-underline everything that might conceivably be what it sees as the relevant constituent parts of that world. If anything, watching the play will just remind audience members of their own experiences in precisely the same world as that in which the character lives. So it was in Mess, so it is here. Perhaps even more resonantly, since this was a piece about the unspoken, silent expectations that men kind of carry about with them unacknowledged. And one of those is to do with strength.

By this token, we could infer from Mess that there is a concomitant feminine ideal that is to do with smallness and slenderness and, by implication, weakness. (Actually Mess goes a long way toward demonstrating that actually Jospehine's anorexia is a lot more to do with mental toughness and control than it is toward body-image, per se; but it is still interesting that she uses that mental discipline to pursue a path toward, well, less of Josephine rather than Roland's path to an increased muscular presence). Neither show says as much, nor explicitly “blames society”. They don't need to. It's just there, hanging over everything. In the case of Roland P. we are allowed to see that it is also his insular, casually misogynist, emotionally stunted worldview that has led him to his conclusions.

He is a colossally unsympathetic character, and yet he's still wounded enough a creature for us to feel sorry for him and wish that something would go right for him, rather than to feel like this is an exercise in executing a straw target. Robertson turns in an excellent performance; vein-popping, straining and sweating under queasy yellowy-green lights; elsewhere demonstrating a real aptitude for both comic timing and catching the inflections of modern urban vocal patterns across a wide range of characters.

That said, the play is interestingly caustic, perhaps even judgemental in its handling of its central character. Or at least, playing to a metropolitan, liberal-elite-type Fringe audience (my row in Monday's show alone contained Chris Thorpe, Chris Goode's producer Ric Watts and Simon Kane, for example), I didn't get the feeling that the piece was dangerously dividing opinions. It's a strong and easily signed-up-to disparagement of the idea that extreme body-building is in any way a good or desirable thing.

The attendant literature that has built up around Mess makes an interesting and perhaps instructive comparison. I don't suppose, for example, that many male critics are going to that only women are really going to enjoy Strong Arm because they don't get how Finlay has somehow “ducked the issue”, or whatever. And I don't suppose anyone is going to say something like: “I'm glad it was something he's been through himself”. Or “I'd have been less comfortable if he didn't have first hand experience of it”. Apart from anything else, because, unless he's done some serious de-conditioning since, it's reasonably apparent from the conclusion, which sees Robertson posing in the briefest of briefs, that he's not spent significantly more time in the gym than anyone else in the room.

As writing, and as a narrative, it reminded me more than anything of that other chronicler of the Crisis of Masculinity™ Chuck Palahniuk. There's the same itchy obsessiveness, the same attention to number-crunching detail and a similar draw toward gross-out moments. Oddly, it also finds many parallels in the section of Sports Play in which Jelinek gives a voice to the tragic figure of Andreas Münzer. (OK, I'm not just unremittingly highbrow, it also reminded me of that episode of South Park where Cartman takes a load of weight-gain drink).

However, while the piece is essentially comic and caustic, it does also open a space to think about the point we've got to in the world where young men can quite plausibly feel that their value lies primarily in their bodies, and in their ability to be strong.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

The Rape of Lucrece – Lyceum Theatre (EIF)

[Written for - a website whose missing apostrophe distresses me more and more every time I type it.]

Text here. (will upload text here once they've had their no-money's-worth from it :-)  )

Monday, 20 August 2012

Gulliver's Travels – Kings Theatre (EIF)

[Written for]

Text here

Monkey Bars – Traverse

[written for - will hopefully write a longer piece about the show when it hits London]

Monkey Bars gently grabs you by the heart and the mind and doesn't stop showing you things and making you think and feel for the full extent of its 1 hour 15 minute duration.

Incredibly, it has achieved this by simply recording interviews with 72 children conducted by Karl James (co-director of Tim Crouch's The Author, in which Chris Goode performed) and staging the results. Goode – credited as writer, director and sound designer – has shaped the dialogues into a funny, touching, diffuse look at The Big Questions.

The staging is crisply perfect, switching from beautiful sequences in which one of the uniformly excellent six-strong cast delivers a child's thoughts or description of a dream into a microphone in a warm, glowing light like it was the work of a modernist poet, through to cleverly suggested adult situations - a first date, a job interview, Friday night after work drinks - providing poignant or hilarious counterpoints to the actual words.

Not content with having a beguilingly perfect-seeming structure, the piece also cleverly contrives to be meaningful; to be *about* something. It has a discernible political voice and purpose, which at no point betrays the trust of the children who have been interviewed.

Monkey Bars looks at the redistribution of wealth, taxation and the monarchy, the existence of Allah and the tenets of Islam, and even “the decline of the youth of today” as seen through the eyes of two 10-year-olds. It also covers burning issues like favourite sweets, what you'd do if you were made out of your favourite sweet, and which superpower you'd like to have.

It moves you. It makes you think. It makes you laugh and it makes you well up more than once. Most of all, it will make you wonder why we adults don't take children a lot more seriously.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Meine faire Dame – Lowland Hall (EIF)

[extended/apprendix. Original review written for]

Swiss director Christoff Marthaler's Meine Faire Dame is very much a *version* of Lerner and Loewe's 1956 musical. By which I mean; take pretty much everything you know about My Fair Lady and throw it away.

I think about three or four songs from the original survive into this staging, and they are mostly given pretty short shrift. Why Can't The English Speak English? is delivered as speech; I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face becomes three lines of drunken sprawl; I Could Have Danced All Night is sarcastically delivered as a rapid, fairground hammond organ jingle.

Then there's the setting: a large, sixties-architecture language lab, with polystyrene ceiling tiles and cheap wooden and plasterboard walls. The performers don't really take *parts* as such; well, the cast's only British performer, Graham F Valentine, is pretty much "playing" Prof. Henry Higgins, although there's a curious note in the programme alleging that he's playing a Hungarian linguist called Professor Zoltán Karpathy.

The rest of the cast as dressed as sixties language students, of various ages. Except second keyboardist Mihai Grioriu, who is dressed as Frankenstein's monster in a brown corduroy suit.

Oh, and such recourse as there is to the “plot” of the original seems to be running backwards, so it starts with the “cured” Eliza (nominally represented, I think, by a young actress, an old actress and Frankenstein's monster - perhaps a comment on the “social experiment” of Shaw's Pygmalion) and ends with them meeting. Maybe. The “plot” isn't really the point.

So what's there instead? Well, Marthaler has essentially assembled a kind of high- and low-cultural jukebox musical with contributions ranging from Dowland's Flow My Tears, Mozart's Magic Flute and Wagner's Lohengrin to Wham's Last Christmas, Bryan Adams' Everything I Do and Codo (Ich düse, düse im Sauseschritt) by German eighties popsters DÖF (not heard it? YouTube it now; it's great!).

The singing, accompanied by piano and organ, is ridiculously beautiful. The gentle piano accompaniment and delicate vocal harmonies lend the proceedings a church-y kind of grace, which seems to suspend the eclectic and sometimes patently absurd music perpetually between the ironic and the sublime.

It's also incredibly funny. There's a seam of visual comedy, clowning and absurdity which, coupled with the beautiful music, engenders something like that irrepressible desire to laugh at a funeral.

And in a way, that is the key to what Marthaler has done here. By planting the idea that this is *about* My Fair Lady, we view proceedings from that standpoint, cross-referencing and wondering how various elements relate to this central theme; at the same time, there is a higher narrative arc made from linguistic misunderstandings and slapstick, that is all about love, thwarted romance and ultimately ageing. Indeed, by the time Friedrich Holländer's Wenn Ich Mir Was Wünschen Dürfte (made famous by Marlene Dietrich) turned up, I was feeling a bit choked, truth be told.

This might not be a production for fanatical My Fair Lady purists, but judged on its own terms, this is an incredible, funny, touching and sometimes beautiful piece of theatre.

[five stars]

Melancholic people are lost in nostalgic spaces; time passes and then they sing. When they speak texts, they lack fire; only in the silence and the music does and an honest opinion of life light in them. Then time passes again.” - Christoph Marthaler
TBH, given Edinburgh time-constraints, I'm starting to find short-form reviewing quite seductive. On the other hand, I loved Meine Faire Dame in such a personal way that I thought I'd at least stick up a bit of an appendix/track-list as a supplement here so you've got some of the songs I write about in my review and a link to the theatre-trailer, so if you're not going to get to see the show, you can at least have a multi-media stab at trying to imagine it for yourselves.

Songs used included:

Dowland – Flow My Tears:

DÖF - Codo (Ich düse, düse im Sauseschritt):

Wagner - In fernem Land from Act 3 of Lohengrin:

Friedrich Holländer - Wenn Ich Mir Was Wünschen Dürfte:

 There's also a three minute video trailer, including snippets of the versions of some of the above and more here.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

2008: Macbeth – Lowland Hall (EIF)

[written for]

Review here.  Will possibly copy and paste it here for posterity once they've had their fair share of hits.

Hangman – Assembly Roxy

I first saw Do Theater in 2000, in their show with Potsdam company Fabrik, Hopeless Games at the venue then known as Komedia@Southside – now Zoo Southside. Watching their Hangman twelve years later felt like spending an hour wallowing in pure nostalgia.

Later that night (last Friday – bloody backlog), I ended up chatting to one of Rash Dash and she told me that she loved Hangman, when she'd seen it five years ago at Assembly's Aurora Nova venue. Or St Stephens as it now is. Where she is now performing a sell-out show of her own.

This show, more than any other I've seen so far this year, really made me think about how the imperceptible shifts in emphasis and artistry, expectation and understanding that take place from Fringe to Fringe.

Read Lyn Gardner's review/article on Hopeless Games from 2000.

And then her review of Hangman from 2007 (interestingly filed under “Dance Review”)

[It's interesting to note in passing that Lyn here describes Hangman as: “yet another piece in this year's Fringe about the power of words and the dangerous games we play as we try to twist their meaning.” Shades, perhaps, of her disconcertingly off-beam assessment of Mess as “a show at the Traverse, Mess, that succeeds in making anorexia all pink and fluffy” thanks to overexposure to too many actually cutesy shows first. Watching Hangman in 2012, it didn't seem to be about words, twisted or otherwise at all; usefully pointing up the extent to which other shows you see have a way of impacting on how you're watching the thing in front of you – see my own growing thesis on “Autistic Realism”.]

And, of course, how anyone watches these pieces also depends heavily on where they're coming from. When I first saw Do Theatre in 2000, I think I'd already seen *some* similar work – Imitating The Dog's Ark (BAC, 1999) sticks in my mind as my Ur-experience of the battered-suitcases-and-dance genre. Everyone's will be different. If you haven't had yours yet, this is no bad place to start.

But it strikes me as unlikely that anyone with an interest in theatre over the age of 18 can have possibly avoided the genre, or its successors. In 2000, it struck me as something quite new and unexpected, but there were plenty on hand to tell me that it'd been kicking around Eastern Europe more-or-less since the invention of the suitcase, and certainly in Edinburgh since the late seventies/early eighties.

Hey, Haydon, this is all well and good, but it's not really a review of Hangman, is it? You haven't said a single thing that actually happens in it yet, have you?

Well, no. Although, strangely, the above is a fairly accurate picture of the thoughts that were whizzing about in my head while I was watching the piece.

There are a couple of reasons for this: firstly, I find it's what tends to happen during dance/word-free work. Especially when it's non- or very-oblique- narrative. The work opens up a directional space in the mind, and you find yourself just thinking along certain lines or free-associating within specifically set up parameters. Secondly the show itself is pretty nostalgic. I've already noted that it was already seen here in 2007 (although, this year especially, I'm starting to feel the extent to which the Festival has a very short-term memory), but it's more than that.

You enter the space and four bowler-hatted performers are sat around a table on a newspaper covered stage playing a frenetic game of cards. A fifth bowler-hatted cast member sits at the on-stage sound desk.

And you think to yourself, who are these people meant to be? Who are they in today's Russia? What are they to today's Russia and what is today's Russia to them? Were they ever *a thing*? Were they people? Are they standing for a disappeared class of Tsarist clerks, or Jewish merchants, lampooned at the turn of the last century? Are they subversive stand-ins for the vast bureaucracy of Stalin's USSR? Or are they simply archetypes of “clowns”.

[On taxonomy: I found myself slipping into late-90s/early-00s-speak to describe this piece and the two after it (Mr Carmen and Mephisto Waltz) as “Russian Clown Shows”. In fact, this is much more like “physical theatre” or “dance theatre” or “visual theatre”; and while barely "clownish" at all, still the most so of the three.  It still feels like no one has really come up with a satisfactory name for this sort of work. But perhaps we should instead stick to just calling it theatre, thereby widening the scope of that word?]

But even a clown archetype has to come from somewhere, mean something, have an historical moment. These really don't seem to have. Or rather, they seem like relics of the past. This is an exercise in excavation as much as it is a live event.

The routines are fun. Don't get me wrong. If you've never seen anything like it before – which I doubt, dear reader – then it's probably worth taking a look. This is a style of which everyone with an interest in theatre should be aware. Annoyingly, it's not the best example of that style. And as for meaning, in a way it doesn't feel like the piece is asking to be read like that. (Any more? Or perhaps it never was.) I don't say it's not pregnant with suggestive possibilities, but it doesn't feel like it's really asking to communicate anything more than the fact of its own extreme competence.

Waiting for Orestes: Electra – Kings Theatre (EIF)

Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time – National Theatre

The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night Time is a novel by Mark Haddon that was published in 2003. It won x prizes. Everybody I knew read it. Everybody I knew really liked it too.

I am not very good at reading. The thing I remembered most about the book was that it was printed in the font that is called Arial. My friend Edward said this was because Arial was the most autistic of all the fonts.

This The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night Time that I am writing about is not the novel by Mark Haddon. It is a play by Simon Stephens. Except that is it a play of the book by Mark Haddon, by Simon Stephens. In the book by Mark Haddon, Mark Haddon pretends that his book is actually a book written by the boy in the book, who is called Christopher. In the play by Simon Stephens, Simon Stephens pretends that the play is an adaptation of Christopher-from-the-book's book by Christopher and his teachers. And the National Theatre, where it is on, pretend that it is a play by Simon Stephens. That is what it says on the posters.

Really, it is a play made by Marianne Elliot who is a director, and Bunny Christie who is a designer, and Finn Ross who is a video artist, and Paule Constable who is a lighting designer, and Ian Dickinson who is a sound designer and Simon Stephens who is a playwright and and Steve Hoggett and Scott Graham who are a Frantic Assembly. It is also by the actors and the other crew members, because they have all made it together.

In some other reviews of the play, some people have probably said things like “I thought it was very good the way that Marianne Elliot made Luke Treadaway act so well and told him what to do”. But I don't think the people who say that actually know if it was Marianne Elliot who made Luke Treadaway act well. Or when they say “Bunny Christie's idea is good” whether they know which bit of the idea was her idea and which bits of it were other people's ideas, like the video designer and the lighting designer and the Marianne Elliot, or not. So it is guessing. Which is like lying.

I don't know who you are, so I don't know if you have read the book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, or if you have seen this play of it. I had read the book, but I read it a long time ago, and I had forgotten a lot of the story, so that might have happened too.

Because I do not know if you have read the book, I am not allowed to tell you all the things that happen in the story, because that is called SPOILERS and they stop you being surprised when you see the story. Also, because I don't know if you have already watched the play, I also can't tell you all the things that they do when they are doing the play of the story on the stage because of the same thing.

If I can not tell you anything about what happens in the story, or what happens on the stage, it is quite difficult to write about why it is good and why you should go to see it. If that is what a review is for. (It is good, and you should go and see it).

It looks very good. The people who decided about how it should look and made it that way decided to make it in-the-round. Normally I don't like theatre in-the-round, because you spend a lot of time looking at other people who are looking at the play. That does not happen this time. It might not happen because of the shape that the Lyttleton Theatre is, or it might not happen because you don't want to stop looking at the things that are happening on the stage. I think it was because of both things. Which means it is good.

What it looks like is like a long rectangle of y boxes that are lit from the inside with three doors in it. On the floor there are z little round L.E.D. lights under little circles, that are arranged in a grid of squares. When the play begins, these get lit up in different ways to show you different things in the story; like a room in a house or a constellation of stars that Christopher is talking about. They also use video projectors in the ceiling of the theatre over the stage, which is made of lights and wire, to project different moving pictures on the stage floor. The stage floor can also open up and move to make different scenes and to make things appear and disappear more quickly when the lights go off, without the people wearing black coming on to the stage and taking them off like in some theatres.

Marianne Elliot has made 3 other plays that I can remember seeing. A Curious Incident... is like all of them a bit. It is based on a book and has Luke Treadaway in it and is about animals and will make people cry, so it is very like War Horse. It is also about someone who relates to the world a bit differently, and the floor moves, like St Joan. And it is in the Cottesloe like Mrs Affleck was. But this is good and Mrs Affleck wasn't.

Simon Stephens has made lots of other plays, and this one is also like some of them too. It is like A Doll's House because it is not a story that Simon made up. It is also like A Doll's House and Harper Regan – which he did make up – because it is about a mummy going away. And it is like Herons and Punk Rock, and Morning and other ones too, because it has a teenager who is different to other teenagers in it. These are called themes.

The themes of The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night Time are: understanding things; being happy; not being happy; things that grown-ups do, and love. The biggest theme is forgiveness. That is the biggest theme because it is the most difficult one to do.

The play is very clever because they have made it very like the book even though the book is not a play at all. And a play is not really like a book very much when you are watching it. (Although you can buy the book of the play that says A Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night Time by Simon Stephens on it, or the book of the book, that says A Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night Time by Mark Haddon on it). So it is very clever that they seem to be similar when they can't be, really. And it is clever that it feels like it is a play by Simon or a play by Marianne when it is a book by Mark.

Not everything in the play is good. Some of the movement sequences are not the sort of movement sequences that I like. That is not the fault of anyone specific. Some people will like them. I do not. The reason is because the actors pretend to be a door, or they pretend their hand is the keyhole of the door, and then another actor, being a real person, puts their finger through the pretend keyhole of the pretend lock and pretends their finger is the key. I think this is what they did. I am not sure that is a good sort of movement.

I did like the bits where they threw Luke Treadaway sideways like they do in Café Müller, and also the bit where he was on some boxes that were pretend luggage on a train, but then the people came and took the boxes away except under his head and feet but he still stayed lying down. I don't know how he did that. He must be very strong.

I also wasn't sure about the character of the teacher who keeps on appearing on stage but in a spot-light that means she isn't really there but is in Christopher's head, which is played by Luke's head. I think she might be made-up by Simon Stephens. She is nice, and you like her, but sometimes she is a bit too nice and is like Glinda The Good Witch in the Wizard of Oz. Which is a different sort of play that is from a book.

Mostly, it is all very good. It is good like War Horse, because it has things in it like movement and swearing that used not to be allowed in the National Theatre, but now are allowed in the National Theatre. And now nobody minds those things any more, and I could get let my parents go and see this play and they would like it and they would say “Ooh, isn't it clever?” like they did when they saw War Horse and wouldn't mind the swearing, because it is realistic and people do swear.

I think it is good that the National Theatre and Marianne Elliot and Simon Stephens and Finn Ross and Bunny Christie and everybody have made a good play that a lot of people can like. And I think it is good that has things in it that didn't used to be allowed and that people didn't used to like.

The End.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Hunt and Darton Café – Hunt and Darton Café

The cost of a copy of the Forest Fringe Paper Stages book is One Hour. That hour can be volunteered at the Hunt and Darton Café, newly opened in Edinburgh as of today. There is a list of 20 possible things one can do to get a copy of Paper Stages.

Thing number 8. was writing a review of the Hunt and Darton Café.

The Forest Fringe book Paper Stages is 64 printed pages of instructions for performances, either imagined or for you to make yourself, or with friends. A quick flick through suggests that it is suffused with the same warmth, wit, and either intelligence or clever-whimsy that informs the work presented by Forest Fringe live.

I'll doubtless return to reviewing “performances” from the book here, as well as hopefully some sort of ad hoc report from the Forest Fringe curated book-launch event that's due to kick off shortly, but, for the time being, here is my Hunt and Darton Café review.

It's a nice space. Large, airy, and not over-stuffed with tables and chairs, lending it the appearance of a bar or café either located in a city where space is not at a premium, or which is spectacularly unconcerned with packing in the punters and turning any kind of a profit.

This ethos does and doesn't bleed into the prices. Coffee is £2 for a mug-sized cafetiere (which could frankly do with a bigger helping of coffee grounds than mine had – heaped dessert spoonful, thanks). There are £3 bacon sandwiches. Quite spectacular-looking £5 Roast Dinner sandwiches (Beef, Chicken, Nut), and a bunch of other stuff. I'll post a photo of the chalkboard below.

The food 'n' drink is only a part of the shtick here, however.

Hunt and Darton Café is in fact not actually a café, but a performance of a café. This might be confusing, since the coffee is (more-or-less) real, and the sandwiches are definitely real. They also sell a lot of cakes and chocolate biscuits.

But there's also a strand of, well, something between eccentricity and hipster-irony (Capri Sun drinks – £1). Beyond this, there is Hunt and Darton themselves. Dressed in pineapple-print dresses and with pineapple tops strapped to their heads (fake, I hope), they wander around chatting to their customers and offering the occasional brief poetry recital. I heard two poems. Each about 30 seconds max. and funny; don't worry.

It's a perplexing set-up, and I don't even begin to pretend to understand how it's Live Art and not just an odd café – I shall ponder further – but, on a practical level, it's a decent artist-friendly space in the middle of town that makes a incredibly welcome break from the Pleasance sodding Dome.

The wi-fi is also good.

The floor of the back room is tiled with coloured covers of hardback books

An installation of books with "Survive" in the title.

[All the above was written inside the Café on 11/08/12. Photos author's own. All processed and uploaded within the Café, in accordance with my agreed undertaking for  receive a copy of Paper Stages]

Morning – Traverse

“Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt drauf an, sie zu verändern.” – Karl Marx.

Morning is Simon Stephens's most punk rock play yet. It shares a number of similarities with several of his previous works, but also feels like the culmination of a trajectory.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the piece, however, is the question over the extent to which it should be talked about as “a Simon Stephens play” at all.

The piece was written for both the Lyric (Hammersmith) Young Company under the direction of Sean Holmes and the Junges Theater in Basel, to be directed by Sebastian Nübling, following a series of workshop sessions with a handful of company members from both Basel and Hammersmith. In the case of Sean Holmes's take on the text, the company then proceed to devise a show around it.

[Meta-reviewing: as such, it is only convention that leads me to call it “Sean Holmes's”. The more this year's Fringe proceeds, the more recent discussions about text and collaboration feel incredibly, pressingly relevant; and desperately in need of a new critical vocabulary to support and articulate them.]

The anti-heroine of Morning is Stephanie (Scarlet Billham), a young woman whose mother is dying and whose best friend is just about to disappear off to university. Morning is a play about listless teenage alienation, but it also feels like a play which itself is listless, teenage, alienated and angry. In this production it also feels like the clear statement of intent. An unapologetic, unambiguous “fuck off” to those who want a glimmer of hope from Simon Stephens' plays.

Stephanie is a direct literary descendent of Punk Rock's William Carlisle (and that play's Lily, too), but also Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and Camus's Meursault from L'Etranger. Indeed, plot-wise, Morning could be viewed as a free adaptation of The Outsider, or perhaps, given Simon's penchant for post-punk, his version of Killing An Arab.

I'm not going to claim that everything about this production is perfect. I think there's a slight problem with the first three scenes which I suspect might permanently alienate some audience members. The essential issue is this: there's a real drive to get to Scene Four. (The written text has Twelve numbered scenes although scenes Seven and Twelve are simply stage directions and Scene Ten is a stage direction regarding the piece of text I've quoted in its original language at the top of this review.) Scene Four is where the action really kicks off. Scene Four is the crux and the point, and it feels like the writing (and performance) totally relaxes as soon as it arrives. The play gets funnier and much more interesting. The first three scenes simply serve to establish Stephanie with her best friend, Cat (Joana Nastari); her boyfriend, Stephen (Ted Reilly); and her brother, Alex (Myles Westman). Interestingly, again, they are written in that register I described in my Blink review yesterday as “autistic realism”. Maybe “Blank Realism” or “Deadpan Realism” would be better.

However, the problem isn't that the first three scenes “aren't good”. They're actually perfectly interesting scenes. The problem (if it is a problem at all, and not just something I've imagined), feels like it has more to do with having to take on board an awful lot of different things at once.

The style of “Sean Holmes's production” [see above note] is – well, a quick shorthand might be to say: “Sean Holmes seems to have spent a lot of time hanging out with Sebastian Nübling during Three Kingdoms”. This in itself is fine. Once the production gets airborne, it is actually a dizzyingly good take on this way of doing theatre. Holmes handles the post-Brechtian dissociated action and speech like a natural, and has created a nuanced, thoughtful, savage vision of the teenage world. It's not actually German, but nor does it strike me as simply ersatz. It is pure mid-North Sea sensibility; a naturalised synthesis, itself only in its infancy. It's certainly the best German I've ever seen a British director do.

Moreover, Holmes is working with British teenagers whose exposure to this style of performing must, perforce, be limited. As such, while it quickly gets good – and actually, it might start great too – it feels like both performers and audience have to tune into the register that's been deployed before being able to enjoy it. In short, while you're tuning into the style, you might worry that the young actors aren't actually very good at acting. As such, it feels like an incredibly brave way to present them.

I wondered if opening the piece straight onto designer Hyemi Shin's artfully arranged “undressed stage” (cf. Well, lots, but most notably Jeremy Herbert's for Ramin Gray's production of The Ugly One), was maybe one too many things to take in at once. Perhaps I'm worrying unduly, though. It only took me five minutes or so to tune in completely, and as I say in my review of The Letter of Last Resort, it took me a similar length of time to tune in to the performance style used there.

The set is actually more complex than merely an empty stage, though. There's litter too, and a kind of translucent roadworkers' tent, there's plastic sheeting, a large metal cupboard that's playing a fridge, the sound desk is on the stage and all about the place are strewn standing neon strip-lights and the sorts of wire-encased light bulbs that might hang in building sites. It's neither solely practical, nor deliberately obtuse. The whole suggests a very definite aesthetic, and totally supports the needs of the production.

The performances are similarly multi-layered. A quick flick through the script will confirm what you already suspected, that Holmes has stripped out all the stage directions. But this is obvious simply from watching. At one point, Stephanie and Cat tie Stephen up:
She takes off her belt and ties his hands together
says the script. On stage, Nastari goes and fetches a roll of white gaffa tape and binds Reilly's arms to his side. There are numerous examples of this kind of deliberate disconnect between stated action and the way it is performed. Were this a German production that would almost go without saying, but it's terrifically exciting to see it put into practice so deftly here.

At the same time, the actors do find their characters. Nastari's Cat is as frighteningly sexy as Reilly's Stephen is cutely diffident. Myles Westman (apparently only 14) is preternaturally good as Stephanie's younger brother Alex, combining a simplicity and honesty of performance with the rigours of the production style. There isn't a weak link in the supporting cast either, although special mention should be made of Michael Czepiel who wrote (is it written?) the music for the piece, and also plays a character called “Mikey” as he sits on stage operating the sound desk (is it a sound-desk?) and performing the music. “Mikey”, like "The Trickster" in Three Kingdoms, isn't a character in the text (at least as far as I'm been able to spot). Unlike the trickster, though, he has got a few lines, nicked from other characters and delivered with brilliant deadpan timing.

Actually, Czepiel deserves a huge amount of praise, quite aside from delivering some beautiful comic moments, for the pieces terrific score and soundscape. I suspect it's all generated live every night – although perhaps parts of it are pre-recorded. There is certainly some use of live mics on stage being used to capture specific moments of noise, speech or screaming, which are then treated, fed through echo effects and replayed at subsequent points in the piece alongside the menacing dubsteppy - (is it dubstep? How would I know?) - sounding backing. The overall effect is reminiscent of Peter Rehberg's music for Gisele Vienne's work. But by the looks of things, Czepiel is all of about 20, if that. Which makes his talent not only objectively impressive, but also slightly sickening. :-)

So, yes. Once it's aloft, the whole company plays a blinder. But what -- anxieties about “authorship” aside -- of the play itself? Why do I argue that it is: “Stephens's most punk rock play yet”, “The culmination of a trajectory...”, “A play which itself is listless, teenage, alienated and angry”, “A clear statement of intent. An unapologetic, unambiguous “fuck off” to those who want a glimmer of hope”?

It's partly down to the last speech, in scene Eleven. Interestingly, in the script, Stephens undercuts the sheer force of the nihilism in Scene Twelve with the final stage direction:
The set for the play is in some way dismantled and made brighter.
An interpretation of that instruction might have made it into Holmes's staging, but it certainly doesn't read as redemptively on stage as it does on paper.

Therefore, pretty much the last thing we're left with is the following sentiments:
“All music is shitand all art is shit and all theatre is shit and all television is shit and all sport is shit and all cinema is shit. The food is shit and everything is just fucking shit... 
“And everybody wants a hopeful ending and there won't be one. We have a decade. And then everything will retract. Everybody wants a message and there is none. Everybody wants hope shining through the darkness and there isn't any... 
“There is only terror there is no hope.”
(all the above quotes culled from Stephanie's final monologue)

Watching the production, and I suppose falling right into that trap of attributing everything that happens on stage to the writer, I saw an angry fuck-off speech that pretty much picked up a rifle and picked off the critics who had taken issue with, say, Wastwater's “bleakness without the hope”, saying: “You can't have any more hope. Hope's off, love.” Blam. Blam. Blam.

It's an attractive reading. The seductiveness of teenage nihilism will probably never fully lose its appeal. On the other hand, it's not actually all of what Simon's written. He has (arguably) subtly undercut it with a metaphor contained in a stage-direction. Which is somehow even more charming. I think he's on record as saying once you've had/got children, actual nihilism, no matter how attractive, isn't really a realistic approach to life.

On the other hand, there are frightening echoes in that last monologue of frequent Stephens-collaborator Katie Mitchell's latest piece, Ten Billion. And Ten Billion isn't a teenage tantrum, it's science. And so, through this monologue, we don't just hear the Situationist posturing of Johnny Rotten's "no future", we see the spectre of inevitable global catastrophe.

Even the carnage that gave birth to Camus's troubled Meursault in L'Etranger (pub.1942), is going to look like a walk in the meadows when this thing breaks. This is a play staring into that abyss – because, after all, these performers are a good twenty years younger than Simon or Sean or me, so, barring accidents, they're going to see a lot more of what's coming next than we are. Perhaps more than being a play by a grown-up who is scared of young people (it clearly isn't), it's a play by a parent who is terrified for today's young people.

But I shouldn't let myself be seduced by a suddenly plausible and suggestive reading. At the same time, this is still a study of alienation and the kind of scary blankness and apparent lack-of-conscience that teenagers exude, while at the same time, even here, articulating all the while precisely how not switched-off they are, talking all the time, trying to explain almost minute-to-minute precisely, honestly, exactly how it is they really real, no matter how contradictory, strange or wrong it sounds.

No; this isn't perfect. Perfection, even neatness, would be the wrong form for either play or production to take (although “clinical” would be an interesting counter- production-aesthetic to see), but it is intelligent, nicely staged, and fascinatingly textured. And, in writing all this, I think I've pretty much realised I want to see it at least once more...

So, yes. Go see. Twice.

Circus in Hand - Assembly Roxy

If I struggled a bit with the sheer alien-ness of an angular avant-garde show for Russian children, then I found Circus in Hand strange for a whole other bunch of cross-cultural reasons.

The show is basically a puppet circus. But nearly all the puppets are conjured before our very eyes from rectangles of stretchy fabric. Except the one that's a colourful stripy sock with a red nose.

If nothing else, you've got to admire the skill involved here. And the inventiveness too, for a good while. Although after a bit once the formulas deployed have been established there are only a few new variations introduced. Or rather you quickly get used to the skill and the shtick. After that you're left with the curious prospect on another half an hour of a pretty much the entire repertoire of a circus being run through by stringy homunculi.

As I tend to avoid real circuses and their trendy modern successors like the plague, CiH was most interesting as reminder of what circuses are actually like and what they're up to. What struck me most forcibly – and I have no idea whether this is an even faintly useful thought – is how much of circus is a kind of de-poshed Olympic gymnastics. At least, the bits that don't involve wild animals. (I did also occur to me that Olympic lion-taming would be brilliant, but that definitely isn't a helpful thought.)

So far, so not-really-alien-at-all. I suppose the thing I found difficult was the lack of “knowingness”. Sure, yes; I'm a snobby, lefty, postmodernist Guardianista, and I can't cope with people using eighties power-balladry or UV lights unless I'm absolutely certain they're being “ironic”, but more than that was the apparently uninterrogated use of 50s “Exotica”, being backed up by performances that seemed to totally buy into it.

Yes, I realise I'm now writing a review where I worry about the politics of some dancing hankies, but there's more. Later, there's a burlesque! Have you ever watched a tarty tissue shake its (worryingly impressive) booty before? Again, an odd choice of thing to show children, but there it is.

However, while there's a base level that's slightly tawdry and at times worryingly unreconstructed, I did find myself smiling at some of the whimsy and unexpectedness – including a a spangly muslin trapeze-artiste and a grand finale of a UV Grace Jones hula-hoop number made from stretchy coloured ribbons.

Re: my ongoing thesis that all Russian shows are underpinned by an unreal sense of misery – well, the show was mostly number-to-number with barely a break for applause, but sometimes there would be breaks during which they played that stock sound of whistling wind always used to suggest tumbleweed and wastelands. Why? I have no idea. Because they're Russians and because behind the circus, all is still bleakness, vodka and death? Possibly.

Does any of this constitute a recommendation or otherwise? I'm not sure I could say with any certainty.

The Letter of Last Resort & Good With People - Traverse

How much does context matter? This double bill of The Two Scottish Davids at the Traverse brings together a play each by David Greig and David Harrower originally written for completely different venues and contexts.

David Greig's Letter of Last Resort comes from the Tricycle Theatre's The Bomb – a partial history season, which staged ten plays by nine writers as two different evenings of theatre all about nuclear weapons. David Harrower's Good With People apparently comes from the much less context-heavy Scottish A Play, A Pie, A Pint season, produced by Òran Mór and Paines Plough. That is still a context though, for a single, short, satisfying play. Both plays also originated in much smaller venues.

What unites the two plays, at least tangentially, is their subject matter. Obviously David Greig's play is about nuclear weapons. It had to be. But, perhaps by virtue of his being Scottish, while this is a play set in England, in the Number 10 office of a newly elected prime minister (Belinda Lang), it remembers that the ultimate nuclear capability of the United Kingdom is on board submarines launched into the Atlantic from a base in Scotland. David Harrower's play is set in the town where that submarine base is.

Thanks to Dan Bye's Entertainment the other day, I was reminded that the subject of Britain's nuclear capability's Scottish base is now a current political hot potato, since it constitutes a major sticking point in Scotland's current struggle for independence.

However, splicing these two wildly disparate plays into a makeshift double bill to reflect this state of affairs doesn't quite work. For a start, sticking them on in Traverse One turns two intimate chamber pieces into something that feels as if it's expected to behave like a big old State-of-the-Nation play. A feeling bolstered by the large, carpeted sets and polished furniture that both – entirely separate – teams have opted for. But since neither play is, neither play does. So the double bill feels a bit funny.

There is also the issue of running order. Apart from finding David Greig's play far more my cup of tea, I also thought it had a sense of scale that really demanded it come after the interval. Going from big picture to small picture seemed to wrong foot both pieces, whereas I think stepping back from a little picture to see the bigger picture might have worked far better.

I should add, however, that the performance I saw was also interrupted by a fire alarm. At the end of a long day, adding almost an hour onto the running time of the show might have set me slightly against David Harrower's offering from the get-go. Which is unfair, and I do apologise if that is the case.

As it is, David Greig's play also wrong-footed me at first. It might be that it was coming into a large venue and hearing an actor actually raising their voice in order to reach the back rows for the first time over a week. But I've seen Daniel Kitson in and you don't need to raise your voice to be heard. So, yes, the acting style contained so much acting that it took a bit of getting used to. This is a very, very old-fashioned production. Part of the reason for this is that this slightly retro- feel is also written into the text.

At one point Greig's female Prime Minister knowingly comments “This isn't an episode of Yes, Prime Minister”. The observation is spot on. It's precisely what I was worrying for at least the first fifteen minutes – that Greig, having got short of time, had just copied and pasted the Nuclear Deterrent episode into a Word.doc and handed it to director Nick Kent. Lang's co-performer Simon Chandler is also turning in an admirably understated Sir Humphrey impression. But then, I do like Yes, Prime Minister an awful lot, so, even while wondering what on earth had happened to the mind of the brilliantly versatile playwright who wrote San Diego and Midsummer, I was enjoying myself. And, to be fair, marvelling yet more at Greig's apparent ability to write successfully in literally *any* register he chooses. As well as Yes, Prime Minister, another reference given is Pirandello. I'd suggest that a sort of Stoppard-y/Frayn-y might be nearer the mark. That's not a criticism, merely an observation. The piece makes its point, though. Coolly and unsentimentally it reminds us of the sheer zero-sum-game insanity of nuclear weaponry.

Harrower's offering could be drawing a wider analogy about the actual arrival of the base up the road from Helensburgh with this story of a young man whose father worked on the base turning up to stay in a guest house run by the mother of a local boy whom he bullied at school over a decade earlier, but the play seems more interesting in character and truthfulness than clunky metaphor.

To be totally straight, it's really not my favourite sort of play. I think it is probably quite a well done version of not-my-favourite-sort-of-production-of-not-my-favourite-sort-of-play, but, well, you see the problem.

Blythe Duff and and Richard Rankin turn in detailed, wholly believable performances as the damaged mother and the changed young man, although I'd be tempted to say that even with these, the production still feels a bit marooned on its large, low, rectangular plinth, set out in the middle of the larger blackness of the Traverse's main stage. The lighting (Oliver Fenwick) is pretty, and George Perrin has added a couple of bits of stage-picture to artsy-up the production. And it very effectively conjures a real sense of the place and of its past, but, like I say, not really my bag.

So, as I say, I'd be interested to see how they worked the other way around – more like Dr Strangelove, I'd suggest; starting with an interesting but ostensibly normal situation, and building up to the near-farcical use of logic in Letter of Last Resort.

Still, for those who like their theatre a bit straighter this is definitely a well-made, if slightly wonkily curated, double bill.