Wednesday 5 September 2012

Forests – Old Rep, Birmingham


Calixto Bieito had quite a name for himself about a decade ago as one of those “enfant terrible” European directors. Inevitably that sort of thing didn't go down terribly well with critics here. Perhaps as a result his work hasn't been seen on these shores since 2006. Or by me at all. So I have no idea whether I'd have liked his earlier stuff. I do wish I'd had a chance to see some of it, though. He did a stage version of the Houellebecq novel Platform at the EIF. I'd love to see that now. All that was years ago, but even so, I was excited to finally be seeing some of Bieito's work.

We enter the auditorium to observe a lumpish dead tree suspended over an inscrutable shiny black box. The stage is a large white cube. An old man is slumped against the black box wearing a tattered overcoat and bowler hat. Any critic worth their salt would mention Beckett's Waiting for Godot at this point. Regular theatregoers may think it also.

As the house lights don't dim, the other members of the cast wander onto the stage. (If you want to imagine it, they're doing that acting almost exclusively reserved for sailors waking up from being enchanted in The Tempest. You know: looking around with “expressions of wonderment”.). Then Maika Makovski arrives on stage and sings a song – made largely of bastardised, cannibalised Shakespeare phrases – in a hillbilly stylee. The lighting shifts from formal white to a lush sunset-pink, -peach, -orange or -red.

Some speech or other starts. I wasn't taking notes, and it didn't especially matter which it was. We're pretty much in very As You Like It territory here, though – just already in the Forest of Arden, none of the Wrestling-based preambling. In fact, I think Makovski's next song says as much. Not so much hillbilly here as, well, bland.

There's much running about, whooping and clowning. It's all pretty likeable, if you like that sort of thing. Men and women swap clothes. Hayley Carmichael quick-changes out of a mac and trousers into the summer dress she's wearing underneath; George Costigan (for it is he) slips on a (another) pair of gold high heels (perhaps the World Shakespeare Festival got a job-lot, or had a bet with every company that they couldn't get a pair in their production).

The cut up text (dramaturgy: Marc Rosich) continues: contextless, storyless, characterless. I start to regret ever being snotty about how we don't need narrative. (Answer: we don't, but just replacing it with some people saying some things, sometimes clownish, sometimes a bit RSC-shouty might not be the best replacement solution.) Because it would be nice to have something to hang on to. At least a general sense or theme, maybe.

Ok, there is a theme, or at least a sense of a theme. We're being given quite a light-hearted, or bitter-sweet mash-up of the general tendency in Shakespeare's leafy romances. The heart-broken hero/ine lamenting their treatment of a love or their as-yet unrequited desire. And these bits are sometimes rather arresting and good in and of themselves – it made me hear Rosalind's speech about how she once “cured” her lover as if for the first time – but overall it feels difficult to see a direction. You get the basic point, but there's also the frustrating thing (perhaps this would be lessened if one wasn't acutely conscious of having to write the thing up afterwards) that this whole thing is like one giant “Who said:...?”/“In which play:...?” round in a pub quiz. So you (I) waste a lot of mental energy line-spotting, which makes it much harder to watch the actual work that has been made out of the lines before you.

At one point someone delivers Touchstone's observation that: “This is the very false gallop of verses...” I think every critic in the room immediately scribbled it down, presumably to serve as the mot juste to use when crucifying the piece later on, should the need arise. I have to say, I was feeling reasonably equivocal about the thing myself at this point. After all, 1hr40 straight through is a lot of winsome.

It carries on. It's charming enough in the moment, and although having everything surtitled – most of the show is in English anyway and Catalan performers' accents are far from impenetrable – is distracting, I was mostly just wishing I could find a way through it, a way to focus on what was happening.

Then the whole thing shifts on its axis.

The lights change, the tree that has been resting atop the shiny black box raises slightly and the performers tear at the bin-liner plastic sides of the box releasing a mound's worth of soil. This moment itself almost recreating the shuddering vision of humanity that bookends von Trier's Antichrist. The tree remains suspended, and cold light shines through its stunted branches as the ensemble claw at the raw earth beneath.

Suddenly we're into completely different territory. Essentially, we've flicked over the page in the Collected Shakespeare marking the boundary between comedy and tragedy.

(perhaps significantly, I also suddenly start recognising a whole lot more of the text being used)

The turning point – either just before or after the light, tree and earth shifted – seems to be a take on the moment early on As You Like It (II.i) where Duke Senior and his mates out in the woods go and kill a stag. A large floppy toy bunny is pinned to the wall with a very sharp-looking hunting knife, before Josep Maria Pou, the tallest, most physically imposing member of the company, yet the one cast generally as the bedraggled bearded beggar shouts much of Duke Senior and Jacques's thoughts on the slaying of animals in their own habitat.

Shortly after, Roser Cami is similarly pinned to the opposing wall – or rather her coat is violently stapled to it by Katy Stephens, still wearing only the suit jacket and trousers over underwear costume from the “comic” section – and shockingly the rape of Lavina from Titus Andronicus (and Tamora's claim of similar from the same play) suddenly materialises as the most brutally graphic non-naturalistic bit of forced fellatio you're ever likely to see.

Timon's “I am Misanthropos and hate mankind” monologue is spoken. And, naturally enough, given the stage now looks like the blasted health par excellence, parts of King Lear appear – the blind Gloucester being led like a poor animal. Even more unexpected moments transpire: Ulysses's speech on degree from Troilus and Cressida makes an appearance as dialogue between two fighting lovers, its language about appetites and choking suddenly finding very real physical expression.

At some point in all this, there is a further shift. The tree lowers onto the pile of earth and the mise-en-scene subtly alters from a kind of abstract shadowy world of phantasmagorical nightmares and threat to a somehow more real, more bleak, more broken conception.

We are at the heart of Beckett and Lear land here. More tragic chunks appear. The motif of the ensemble lying, apparently dead or dying in the mud conjures new texts. The two moments from II.v of 3HenryVI where a father discovers he has killed his son on the battlefield at Towton, and vice versa, are both played out in quick, truncated succession.

Maika Makovski's accompaniment has swung from the folksy to a screaming blend of Tori Amos and Nick Cave delivering a chilling version of Gertrude's description of Ophelia's watery death before being suffocated by symbolic cellophane and also being thrown onto the growing pile of bodies gathered in the mud around the base of the dead tree. Suddenly, we see that as well as it's stage-picture debt to Lear and Beckett, the tree is deeply, horribly reminiscent of those in Goya's The Disasters of War.

What seem like the piece's last moments find trampy, Lear-y, beaten and bedraggled Pou slumped against the wall of the pros.arch almost slurring his last words, over and over, into a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Again it's pure Beckett, this time a kind of instant, broken Krapp; one with no memories, only despair.

But this isn't the end. I shan't spoiler what comes next, suffice it to say, that it is a genuinely startling lesson in the extent to which theatre can pull the rug from under you and change mood, and make you realise how unreal it all is within seconds.

I'm not sure I've the brain-power left now to try to belabour some sort of grand over-arching meaning from the piece. Using Shakespeare's words, Forests talks about a lot of things, at the same time as delivering a fascinating commentary on how Shakespeare himself constructed his vision of the world. This is almost a piece about those structures as much as its any kind of presentation of a real world-view. At the opening (and in the programme), the audience is greeted with the Joseph Beuys quote: “I think the tree is an element of regeneration, which is a concept of time itself”. This quote from the German modernist neatly underlines the overall arc of the piece's trajectory, and many of the models of Shakespeare's works described by scholarly works. Bieito's archivement is to make you feel that movement through regeneration as a physical sensation.

Preamble as post-script:

To the best of my recollection, I've never seen a Calixto Bieito production before. Indeed, only earlier this year, I was wondering what had happened to him. In the early 00s, Bieito was the toast of the Edinburgh International Festival and got to direct operas for ENO. The reason I have never seen a production of his was, therefore, partly down to prestige and price: in the early 00s, no one was giving lowly internet reviewer types freebies for the ENO or EIF. The other, more damaging reason, is that I was still much more in thrall to (and indeed under the wing of) the dreary bits of the British Theatre Critical Establishment. “That many Dead White Men can't be wrong, can they?” I thought to myself, perusing what I remember as being near-universal sneary contempt for Bieito's work.

As such, I have no idea whether they were “right” or not. Or rather, whether younger me would have enjoyed myself or not. Given his reputation for shocking bloodiness, there's a fair chance I might not have been totally won over myself. And I was young and conservative. But still, I should have gone. I should perhaps have also thought: “Why would they be going to all the expense of bringing this guy's work over at all if he is just “a paradigm or parody of everything that is wrong and rotten about the Edinburgh international festival” or “one of the supposed highlights of the Edinburgh International Festival's theatre schedule”?” So, there you go: don't listen to your mentors on matters of taste. They're already way old, way more set in their ways than they know, and their taste mightn't be your taste.

Preamble as post-script II:

I've been to Birmingham's Old Rep only once before. It was a college trip in 1995/6 to see The Crucible, which we were studying for 'A'-Level. I sat right at the back of the balcony and it was like watching Citadel Miniatures bellowing at the other end of a railway carriage.

It was a pleasant surprise then to be greeted by my off-left-aisle seat F-17. The auditorium *is* narrow (19 seats plus two aisles, at a guess), and high ceilinged. But it is also excitingly, vertiginously raked. In most pros.arch theatres like this (in Britain *and* Germany) the Stalls tend to slope away from the stage almost imperceptibly (think the Royal Court or Old Vic, HAU Eins or Deutsches Theater). Here, even six rows back (I presume F is only six rows back, I didn't count to see if there was an AA or anything), you get a real sense of surveying the stage from a vantage point, but at the same time, are still close to the action. A bit like how watching Gatz in the converted Coward felt; comfortably *audience*, but still *involved*.

But this is going to be academic for most of you, since if you go and see this show at all, you'll most like go and see it in the Barbican (am writing this on a train with no internet, so I cant check if it's Main house or Pit. Main House would be better, I think. This stage still felt a bit small for it, to be honest).

The Stage of Birmingham's Old Rep is about the same size as the Royal Court's, but the rake in the stalls in much steeper. I also feels oddly European, but perhaps that was just me. We just don't have many theatres from this period left, I'd argue, whereas I think they might have rather more. (Funny, the whole of Europe can have the shit bombed out of it, and yet we're the place where all the old theatres are closed.)

Anyway, none of that is remotely relevant...

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