Thursday, 16 May 2013

Unsent Postcards: Luxuriant – People’s Palace, QMUL

The best description of Simon Vincenzi’s Luxuriant I can offer is that it is far too much of not nearly enough. And vice versa.

I intend this as a compliment: this is spare, stark, arresting work.

If you want a cheap visual shorthand, imagine David Lynch trying to knock up a cabaret at some point after an apocalypse using only shell-shocked transvestites. That’s kind of how it feels and how it looks.

There is almost painful, potentially infinite iteration of just a tiny sequence of opaque movements. At the same time, there is something sumptuous, almost decadent about just how much it refuses to tell us, about the sheer quality and attention to the detail of this opacity.

The piece opens with a group of men. Jittery. Scampering. They’re on the huge stage of the newly reopened People’s Palace Theatre. They’re clustered round a video camera, skittering this way and that, dressed in tight black t-shirts, pink tights, and, what? Mickey Mouse ears? One of the troupe – with his genitals bound up in shiny black gaffa tape – trembles and preens before the camera, as if making some kind of off-kilter porno.

Then there’s a woman on the stage. She’s dressed in some sort of futuristic tent, or carapace. She speaks, or sings, or screeches, into a concealed microphone, which delays, distorts, flanges and reverberates her voice. Her falsetto Throbbing Gristle-isms echo around the hall.

The audience are stood, scattered about the vast hall of the newly refurbished and re-opened “People’s Palace” hall in the grounds of QMUL. The hall is in near darkness and filled with smoke-machine smoke. The men – Troupe Mabuse, I think we’re encouraged to think of them as – are off the stage now and skittering about the floor in their strange tribal patterns. As a result, there’s a fair amount of shuffling, or sudden getting-the-fuck-out-of-the-way on the part of the audience, lest we be suddenly entangled with six ft of skittering PVC Mickey Mouse.

The piece lasts, what? an hour? an hour and half?

It isn’t “immersive” in the crap sense of the word. There’s no real pretence – or indeed set-up – suggesting that we’re anywhere other than right where we know we are. As a result, it’s strange that at the same time as quite revelling in the sheer copious strangeness of what we’re seeing, we are (or at least I was) inventing sort of “other locations” and “other times” where we might plausibly be watching this work. Perhaps because it is so unlikely that this is precisely what we are doing right now, on a Friday night, in a hall on Mile End Road, with a nice new refurbished bar on the other side of the doors. So we (I) reach for words like “post-apocalyptic” and “Lynchian”.

I’m not sure that’s the whole story, though. Troupe Mabuse’s apparent stated intention or goal or mission is a performance of The Gold Diggers, a 1930s film which I’ve never seen, but which I’m pretty prepared to bet doesn’t look anything like this *at all*.

I kept on being reminded what Nicholas Ridout, who curated this piece, as part of the Peopling The Palace events [a couple of months back, now] at QMUL, wrote as the conclusion of his excellent book Theatre & Ethics. In it, he describes Maria Donata D’Urso performing In Pezzo at the Centro de Arte Moderna, Lisbon in 2002. She: “is visible, naked, in low light, surrounded by an insect-like scratch and crackle of electronic sound. As she moves her limbs slowly in the subdued and tightly focused pool of light, it soon becomes impossible to make out the relationships between surfaces and volumes... This effect of an apparent separation of the evidence of a human mind (intention) and the actions and organisation of a human body is profoundly unsettling as well as very beautiful.” Ridout is using this description of her performance to illustrate a key part of his thesis:

“The performance appears, at least, to have no interest other than the meticulous presentation of the surfaces of the body to the light. In this regard it may be regarded as having nothing other than aesthetic content. It contains no proposition about the nature of the world, offers no narrative or dramatic encounter or anything that might solicit from an audience any ethical response. There is nothing to be ethical about here.”

This above passage felt crucial as a possible way into understanding Luxuriant. It also felt as if something like the below was also taking place:

“The challenge issued by this work, from the place of the other, is to our conception of what it is to be or have a human body, and to have intentions that make it do things. The human figure, so often the luminous centre of the aesthetic experience and the presence with which the spectator may easily identify, is here shadowed and obscured in such a way as to render it utterly strange to all those human figures who sit in the dark and watch it.”

Ridout’s conclusion from this, citing Levinas and Hans Theis Lehmann among others, is that:

“the event of theatre [should be] approached with uncertainty, with a view to the possibility of surprise, challenge or affront...

… that theatre [currently, normally] justif[ies] itself in terms of its contribution to an ethical life, might be the very thing that prevents any theatre from meeting such a demand. Theatre’s greatest ethical potential may be found precisely at the moment when theatre abandons ethics.”

Reading Theatre & Ethics back in 2009, I remember finding it difficult to imagine such a piece of theatre (I proposed Andy Field’s the other night i dreamt the world had fallen over as an early working example). I think Luxuriant went a lot further toward perhaps making me appreciate what Ridout is talking about. During the performance itself we’re in a kind of imaginative and ethical freefall (and free-for-all). It is disconcerting, without ever really explicitly making it clear what it is you could, should, or might be disconcerted by.

The sheer oddness of that situation alone – certainly when compared to, say, being spoonfed an easily understood and digested moral dilemma at the Royal Court – feels like some faculty of reason, curiosity, or sheer puzzlement that most theatre feels like it is actively seeking to keep sedated is suddenly, violently being reawoken.

As such, even when flailing around failing to pin the piece down, even just enough to describe and reflect on it, the piece still feels urgent and strange.

[watching the trailer won't help much, but here you are:

“Public Enemy” – Young Vic

["Vi kommer til å trenge en større filtrering enhet"*]

You want more acting? THIS MUCH MORE ACTING?
The heart of Ibsen’s En Folkefiende is a MASSIVE FUCKING PLOT-HOLE. This is made especially clear and galling by Richard Jones’s new production for the Young Vic. The key issue of Isben’s drama – not changed one iota in David Harrower’s “version”, which then oddly finds itself put into a clunking Norway-in-the-Seventies setting – is that a small town has styled itself as a bathing resort, only for the town’s maverick Doctor Stockmann to discover that these baths are full of toxic bacteria.

It’s a pity for the town, sure, but it’s also an open and shut case. Stockmann has the scientific evidence. However, the town mayor (who also happens to be Stockmann’s brother), seems to reckon it’s just a matter of hushing up these findings and carrying on as if nothing had happened. The reasons given for Not Doing Anything tend to focus on the damage that publicising the problem would have on the town’s economy and the significant costs of cleaning up the problem (which is here presented as totally do-able, but just prohibitively expensive). All this seems to rather ignore that fact that, given Stockmann is right (we must presume, and it wouldn’t hurt the characters to at least consider) the alternative the town is choosing to face instead is *at the very best* half a successful season, followed by a mountain of corpses and some very difficult questions being asked.

I’m just about prepared to go along with the idea that the idea of lawsuits for corporate manslaughter were an underdeveloped phenomena in 1882 Norway, and even that health and safety checks on bathing water were not routine... But, probably *after* the bodies start piling up, and given that the science exists enough for Dr Stockmann to have discovered the toxic properties, surely someone else would also be able to also put two and two together. At which point, even if the town successfully en masse manages to deny any prior knowledge of the toxicity of its deathtrap resort, the ongoing success of the resort is still totally shafted, with the added stigma of having its name forever linked to the deaths of hundreds of holidaymakers.

It’s just silly.

Which rather short-circuits the first three acts of the play, since no one once addresses this glaring omission.

Of course we can all still think in the modern world of examples of local councils, or companies, or governments, or global corporations who have flouted health and safety, who have put the lives of workers, or even populations at risk. On the other hand, the way that this town is painted – small, economically precarious – suggests that they are hardly in a position to be able to take risks.

Yes, I know we’re meant to see it as, y’know, a metaphor for a wider tendency toward a corrosive, damaging self-interest of a community. But when – sitting in the stalls – you could fill the holes in their arguments with water and call them another bathing resort, but no one on stage even addresses them, then the whole debate feels stupid and redundant.

However, this is only the first three acts. Ibsen has another trick up his sleeve for Act Four, in which Stockmann is to address the town over his findings and is supposed to plead with them to see reason. Instead of sensibly pointing out to them that if they don’t clean up their bathing resort, then they will have a massive lawsuit on their hands, Stockmann opts to denounce the entire town as fools, and proceed to give a lengthy rant about the primacy of the intellectual individual over the stupid masses like some kind of proto-Ayn Rand.

In 2013, we can see this speech for what it is – seductive fascistic nonsense. We have perhaps, for example, read John Carey’s forensic examination of this sort of thinking in The Intellectuals and The Masses (which I happen to be re-reading now), which draws a detailed picture of the emergence of this sort of post-Nietzschean thinking, traces it through the intellectuals and artists of the 1880s through to the 1930s, where it found its logical conclusion in Hitler’s rise to power. So, yes, liberal humanism had its problems back then. And, sure, the rhetoric in David Harrower’s version certainly makes it clear that you can knock up a modern-sounding version of the same which sounds very familiar, cf. the humorous columns of, say, Charlie Brooker, David Mitchell, or anyone else who makes a living despairing at the stupidity of the majority of other people (I would have included Richard Littlejohn or Quentin Letts, except, strangely for humourists, they make their fun picking on minorities, not masses).

Still, Stockmann’s basic schoolboy error is the same as that of Coriolanus and Gerald Ratner: he tells the people that he thinks they’re idiots to their face. Which tends to be a poor way of winning round an audience.

Irritation with Ibsen’s 131-year-old story aside, time should also be taken to wonder what the hell Richard Jones thinks he is doing.  David Harrower’s “version” of the play is a curiously colourless object. Just about speakable, it does feel rather that Harrower has let himself be steamrollered a bit by the literal translation provided for him to do his version. As such, there’s no real point in this having been done by a playwright at all. As with his clunking version of Woyzeck, you could probably get any half-intelligent actor to paraphrase a better version of the text from the literal.

Jones, in collaboration with designer Miriam Buether, the contrives to make the blandness of the tranlsation even stranger by setting the the production in a remarkably ugly room in 1970s Norway. The back wall is knowingly appalling orange 70s wallpaper, the rest of the the shallow stage, a varnished wooden cabin. A window, stage right, inexplicably gives onto a glittery kitsch picture of a fjord. Despite the half-assed presence of a – clichéd – “revolutionary” stencil later, none of the language is especially that of seventies European left-wingers.

Indeed, one spends the first three Acts wondering what on earth could possibly have made Jones pick this period. Does he just like actors in scratchy-looking nylon clothes? Is this Norway at its most recently quintessential? Is this the last possible point in European history that anyone seriously considered social change? The whole thing feels like someone being glib and embarrassed by the earnestness of their material and attempting to defuse any possible seriousness with a kitschy, ironic, knowing, hipster set. Great.

Also, what the hell happened to the acting? There are some seriously good actors in this play. And there is also Darrell D’Silva, but you can’t have everything. But even the good actors (notably Nick Fletcher and Bryan Dick) seem to have been directed into doing a bunch of very odd shouting. Elsewhere there is woodenness that puts the log cabin to shame. Indeed, the style is so strange that I honestly wondered if I was missing the point of a particularly significant stylistic choice. It feels as if the whole thing might have taken its cue from a a 70s farce, or else some strange stylised form of acting deployed by New York or German avant gardists.

Perhaps the most galling part of this largely galling staging, however, is the totally bogus use of direct audience address. This scene which – like Mark Antony’s also famously problematic-to-stage funeral oration – can be played either to an onstage audience or to the actual audience, is here played out to the audience.

Except, being British theatre, we know exactly what is expected of us: nothing.

I couldn’t help wishing that I had been watching Thomas Ostermeier’s Volksfeind instead (TBH, that was true throughout, but it was most true here). Matt Trueman gives the most glowing account of the electricity that the opening of this speech into an actual discussion in the audience, although Jana Percovic’s counter-argument against Ostermeier is also vital reading (which last night I had remembered as this much more favourable piece about Berlin audience interaction).

But, no. We are emphatically not expected to speak. I was briefly excited that something vaguely radical might have been about to happen, but it didn’t. Granted, this part of the staging is still far and away the most successful part of the play. Apart from anything else suddenly makes total sense of the reconfigured Young Vic auditorium – which is set up a bit like a small public meeting in a town hall might be – but by doing so, it also stops the whole rest of the staging making any sense at all. And the fact during the scene we’re both *there* (our applause is the applause in the hall) and *not there* (what would have happened if any of us *had* asked a question? I wanted to ask about what year it was. I had a bunch of smart arse questions; I was ready to go. But at the same time, I kind of got the impression that wasn’t the game, and I didn’t want to spoil the evening for everyone else) – how does that work? Does it work? And who are we when we’re watching the stuff before and after the meeting? Is the wooden acting intended to indicate that we’re seeing part of a kind of pre- and post-town hall meeting burlesque?

Actually, to an extent, the slipping-between-modes-thing can be fine (it isn’t here, but it can be). The being co-opted without being co-opted is less good. Not least because the audience in the theatre could have probably turned the course of the play around. After all, Stockmann’s vanity shouldn’t really be allowed to trump the life and death matter of the poisoned water. And science isn’t a democracy.

Ironically, I should note that the performance was well-attended, with a laudable spread of people, and received an enthusiastic response when it finished. At which point, on first glance, to dismiss these diverse peoples enjoyment of the show would seem like a massive bit of Stockmannism.

However, I think this distinction can be drawn – there is nothing wrong with any of the people who enjoyed Public Enemy last night. However, I think there is a better production of the play – one with fewer internal contradictions and a greater willingness to work out why the hell it is staging the play in the first place – that they could have enjoyed more. One doesn’t have to be a snob or a dangerous Ayn Rand-alike to believe that we could all be being given something better.


What is with the publicity image? (see above) It’s perhaps the most confusing part of the production. It seems to almost suggest that the version the Young Vic wanted was more to do with Malcolm X and methamphetamine. Now *that* would be a production:

Mayor: But our community needs the money!

Malcolm X: But I’ve done some tests and it turns out this methamphetamine you’ve been selling everyone is really bad for them!

Mayor: The game’s the game.


Post-post script: I am blaming the fact I saw this almost entirely on Henry Hitchings (well, him and the fact it’s still kind of my job). He wrote a perfectly fair-minded three-star review for the Standard, which I happened to read on the Tube. Sadly, it contained the words: “The use of strobe lights is one of several conceits that are too abrasive”. And it put me in mind of Hitchings’s three-star review of Three Kingdoms (“the symbolism becomes overwrought. Strenuous attention is paid to the seemingly trivial... The results are disorientating — sometimes in a good way, sometimes not... The spectacle can be cloying,”) and so I had to check for myself.

FWIW, I didn’t think there were nearly enough conceits, and the strobe lights weren’t nearly abrasive enough. If only there could have been more moments like that.

[* "We're going to need a bigger water-filtration unit"]

Monday, 6 May 2013

The Seagull – Headlong at Watford Palace Theatre

[in which I abuse the privileges of a press ticket to breaking point]

[In the spirit of full disclosure: I’ve known John Donnelly since his A Short Play About Sex and Death at Leeds Uni was the reason I first went to the National Student Drama Festival in 1997. And we’ve been mates ever since. And since that NSDF is pretty much the single reason I’m where I am today (in a pub writing a review. Thanks a bunch). The first thing I ever directed was a short play by John Donnelly (starring Lucy Ellinson. Yes, that Lucy Ellinson). And, on the night I saw this Seagull in Watford, the actor John Hopkins (currently rehearsing with the RSC), who’d starred in A Short Play About Sex and Death, was also there (which in itself says something about the loyalty of university theatre friends). And we all went for a drink after and I was introduced to director Blanche McIntyre and half the sodding cast. So, yeah. This is about as compromised a review as it’s possible to imagine.]

Further, coming to The Seagull roughly a week after its press night in Southampton seems to have been another error (see also: Narrative). The reviews have been pretty unavoidable on social media. And, well, there’s nothing like having your expectations managed, and this was nothing like having your expectations managed. From Matt Trueman’s five-star rave in his Torygraph début downwards, the only person who apparently didn’t love Headlong’s new Seagull was the Salisbury Journal’s Elizabeth Kemble (like “a bad school production, made by rebelling teenagers who wanted to shock their audience by sticking in a sex scene, a bit of nudity and littering the dialogue with the F word”). And even Kemble sagely concedes that these things are “always a matter of opinion”.

A couple of the reviews (notably Lyn’s and Matt’s, ironically) suggest that the crux of this production is a battle of youth versus age. For my money, it breaks down into a much more undeclared war between the sexes. In the staging of Konstantin’s play, it is predominantly the hostility of his mother, Arkadina, and the nerviness of his would-be actress, Nina, that derail the project. The kindly, elderly(-ish) doctor, Dorn, is actually rather encouraging. Where men fight – most obviously Konstantin and his mother’s lover, and his inamorata’s seducer, Trigorin – it is because of women. Obviously, as an essay in gender politics, this isn’t a super way of looking at it. Director McIntyre (and probably Chekhov) get around this by at least crediting the women with a respectable amount of agency of their own. These are not merely simpering playthings stuck into the play to facillitate the Big Important Feelings of some guys.

There are no winners in Chekhov. Only different sorts of loser. Here it doesn’t feel implausible to suggest that in Donnelly/McIntyre’s version the women do finish up ahead, if only on points. Abigail Cruttenden’s Irina and Pearl Chanda’s Nina are, by the end, slightly less broken than their respective lovers. Even Jenny Rainsford’s booze-soaked, bitter, pragmatic Masha with her solution: “It's what you do isn’t it when something makes you miserable? Find something else to make you even more miserable” somehow seems to come out on top of her situation, albeit in the worst way imaginable.

The men here, at least, the younger men, seem much more mad and neurotic. Alexander Cobb’s Konstantin is convincingly young, gauche and embarrassingly petulant. He’s not been glossed or smoothed into a tragic hero, instead, he’s horribly accurate as precisely the sort of precocious teenage nightmare we all wish we’d never been. It’s a pity he kills himself, since, in a few years he’d have probably have graduated to becoming the (also uncannily accurate) desperate mix of cynicism and fear displayed by Gyuri Sarossy’s Trigorin. Rather than playing him as a louche seducer, Trigorin here seems pretty much at the mercy not only of his career as a writer, but of his attachment to Arkadina and Nina’s subsequent attachment to him. Yes, he still behaves like an utter shit, but remarkably he comes off looking like a victim of circumstance – someone just a bit to immature to actually be relied on for anything by anyone ever. You don’t get the impression that this Trigorin is ever really enjoying himself any more than Konstantin isn’t. Or Nina isn’t. Or Arkadina isn’t. Indeed, if anything, this production makes a strong case for never aspiring to artistry of any sort whatsoever in your life. Or, at least, making damn sure you prefer labour and settling down with whomever is closest.

The most obvious touchstone for this production for other reviewers seems to have been Benedict Andrews’s revelatory Three Sisters seen at the Young Vic last year. It is also interesting to note, in passing, that no one as seen fit to compare it with Anya Reiss’s recent (largely unpopular) modernised Seagull set on the Isle of Man (snigger), seen late last year (though not by me) at the Southwark Playhouse.

For my money it unwittingly owed a good deal more to Dimiter Gottscheff’s Volksbühne Iwanow. Here, as with the Gottscheff, the staging is essentially played on a bare stage with a stark concrete wall at the back and a smoke machine. By sheer coincidence the back wall is also graffitied on during the progress of the play. Unlike Gottscheff’s production, the stage is not totally empty. McIntyre’s designer Laura Hopkins (who also designed Rupert Goold’s astonishing break-out (at least to me, having missed The Tempest) Faustus) has plonked a massive, rough wooden see-saw on the stage. It’s a glorious, bold gesture (which goes some way to mitigating the slightly odd – and presumably touring-practical – decision to have the concrete-looking back wall only a couple of metres high) and it works beautifully as a simple, adaptable piece of set. In act one it is a kind of jetty, in two a kind of almost not-really-real metaphorical see-saw, in three and four a simple table pointing first up- and down-stage and then finally left and right. Of course, niether McIntyre nor Donnelly have Gottscheff's stern contempt for the idea that we might be seduced by the bourgeois comfort of identifying with the characters, but this is not entirely a bad thing.  What the production lacks in Marxist rigour, it makes up for in excellent jokes and painfully acute characterisations.

The biggest difference that Donnelly has made to the script [at least: a) I think it’s a change, and b) I think it’s one made by Donnelly rather than McIntyre – at least in the first instance] is that there are moments of direct audience address. The first of these feels genuinely shocking. You are taken completely by surprise when a character from Chekhov speaks directly to you, a member of the audience. In its own way it’s probably the most iconoclastic gesture you can imagine someone making with a Chekhov play, what with all the Stanislavskian baggage that it’s accrued (certainly in Britain, anyway). That said, it does feel slightly like this playfulness could have been more extended into the way that the stage is treated the rest of the time. Granted, what with the big see-saw and the modern dress costumes, the production *does* go further with it, but I suppose I’d have been happy for it to have gone further still. [take out the words, replace with animal heads and proper nudity, etc.] But, yes, this works. This is a good, solid, intelligent, British take on how to do Chekhov in the 21st century. If it feels to me more like the start of an important process rather than its end-zone, then that probably say more about me than about the production. But this if this is the shape of things to come, then I very much look forward to what comes next, and to Elizabeth Kemble’s ongoing, deepening despair

Unsent Postcards: If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep – Royal Court

[sat on my hands on this one too. Rather wish I hadn’t now]

There a mismatch between Anders Lustgarten’s rhetoric and the latest play he’s written. Having read the recent interview in the Evening Standard, I went in expecting (and hoping for) the theatrical equivalent of a Crass album. In the event, the play Lustgarden has written is deeply conservative, both formally and politically. Similarly, Simon Godwin’s “production without decor” rather undermines itself: firstly by having décor, and secondly by feeling more like a sulk than a production:“If you don’t give me a play, I won’t make a production” it seems to shrug.

The play is divided into two parts. The first, of ten scenes, might be subtitled: Scenes From Our Undoing, and features a series of One-Dimensional Men and Women bluntly explaining their miseries to even less developed secondary characters in a privatised near-future Britain. The second, which could be titled: Scenes From Our Redemption, is a single 32 page scene set in an “activist” “Court of Public Opinion”, in which several activist characters explain everything that Anders Lustgarten thinks through the clever dramatic device of being several characters who all think the same things that Anders Lustgarten thinks, saying those things to each other: excitedly and earnestly.

There are more problems though: while Lustgarten’s politics may be serious and unimpeachable, his imagination isn’t. Lettuce Dream attempts to be a dystopian satire, but its inventions just aren’t sharp enough. As Stewart Pringle has already pointed out, given that the situation *right now* is an obscenity, why bother making up badly thought-out extras? But if you’re going to make-up extras, then they should be better than these: a government dept. called:“Department of Home and Business Affairs”, a hedge fund called “Empathy Capital”, a private security/prison service called “Competitive Confinement”, a new tax called “Debt Tax”.

Then there are the characters. Who have no interior lives whatsoever. They exist solely to illustrate their bit of the social milieu. There are the aforementioned business types, who wear suits and talk about business. There is Joan, who explains to “Workman” that she was “42 years a nurse. Looking after people”, who refuses to pay her debt tax because she “didn’t cause it” and remembers “Fought a war for this. Fought a war for our rights... Not the Germans. After that. A war against our lot. The elite.” Yes. Those words were actually spoken – without irony – in a British theatre this year.

There’s Ryan, a student who seems to have been caught up in some looting, to whom “Man” is explaining a bunch of stuff about how privatised justice works and, y’know, being a cardboard cut-out nasty police explaining man. Then there are Jason and Ross, two of Ryan’s friends in “A Wetherspoon’s in a satellite town” (*a* satellite town. They could be anyone. Those places. You know.) who spend four pages articulating why young unemployed white men might think racist things.

So, there’s a choice between nameless functionary of the state, or named functionary of Lustgarten’s social analysis. I don’t remember giving the slightest fuck about any of them, and I didn’t get the impression Lustgarten wanted me to (or Godwin either for that matter). Not for Brechtian reasons of Verfremsdung-ing, nor to refuse the bourgeois comforts of identification, but simply because he doesn’t seem to give much of a fuck about these people either. Or rather, he cares about their plights, and so it is just their plights that are articulated. Which doesn’t really amount to drama. Indeed, it barely amounts to the level of characterisation present in a corporate training video. And there are too few jokes, and zero poetry to leaven this deadness.

Given these meagre scraps to work with, the cast actually put up a sterling defence, at least of their own abilities to act. We come away with credible performances of unspeakable lines. And, yes, as other commentators have noted, it’s nice to see Ferdy Roberts playing another policeman.

Presumably Simon Godwin can take some of the credit for that, which is a good job, as the rest of the “without decor” concept is about a sloppily handled as it is possible to imagine. For a start, a massive scaffolding tower which I think at one point even has a door attached to it, isn’t “without decor”. Ramin Grey’s The Ugly One, designed by Jeremy Herbert, did “decor without decor” beautifully, and actually taking everything away also counts, but having the stage strewn with costumes and the other stuff of naturalism isn’t really “without decor” is it? Also, why have the Royal Court flagged up the "without decor" thing so much? Do Sloane Sqaure audiences now regularly demand their money back if there isn’t a lovingly-crafted naturalistic replica of the inside of some posho’s house? Plausibly some, I suppose. It’s bad enough for them that there’s this “playwright” telling them all to go fuck themselves, without having to suffer the additional indignity of having to imagine the rooms in which the characters who are telling them to go fuck themselves are standing.

So I was bored, yes. But worse, I was deeply irritated. I was irritated by the way that we the audience were being sold all this as “insight” as “a revelation”. As if Anders Lustgarten believes he’s the first person who’s written a play suggesting that capitalism isn’t the way forward – indeed, Lustgarten removes all trace of doubt that this is his opinion in his unbelievably condescending three page intro to the script, which concludes: “I wrote it to make you feel, and therefore think. I hope it worked.” As is evident from this review, I *felt* irritated, therefore *thought* it wasn’t a great play. But, flippancy aside, what a monstrously arrogant thing to say about one’s audience. To have a baseline assumption that, in our day-to-day lives, we are unfeeling and unthinking, and need fucking Lustgarten to show us some stuff we couldn’t have ever possibly felt or therefore thought for ourselves.

There’s a near-constant accusation that political theatre preaches to the choir. This commits a worse sin – of assuming that the choir has never even been to church before. There is *nothing* in this play for anyone with the slightest social conscience or feeling of opposition to the current government. There are a few factoids thrown into the Activist Saviours section, but even these are familiar. There are the portraits of the country on its knees, which we already live in.

But it’s the fact that it’s so dramatically meagre that really grates. Not only are we being told nothing new – or, if it is new to some audience members, being presented with it in such an unconvincing form that they’d be well within their rights to shoot the messenger – but that it’s being told in such a way as to play right into the hands of anyone who does assert that explicitly political theatre is A Bad Thing or that it preaches to the choir, or that it won’t change a single mind will have all their prejudices confirmed here.

So, to recap: this sort of thing – in principle – could be good. But this is a very bad example of a potentially good thing.  Just don't ever do it this badly again, please. 

Unsent Postcards: Spades – Roundhouse

[unaccountably, I thought I'd leave a cooling-off period before posting this]

Apparently the famous Canadian auteur Robert Lepage used to be good. I have to take this on trust as he’s one of those parties I turned up late for. I saw his enormously long, and far-from-finished Lipsynch in 2008 at the Barbican and thought it was flashy, cold, horribly over-long, vain and only sporadically interesting. But it had a certain chuztpah to it. I liked that Lepage was happy just to sling on his half-finished devised piece and make us pay money to watch his glorified scratch night.

I’ve got no idea if he thinks “Spades” is finished or not. (The title alludes to the unhappy prospect that he’s planning on doing a quartet of these pieces, each tenuously based on the apparent properties of a different suit in a pack of playing cards.) It’s two and a half hours long and very little really happens.

The big deal about Lepage was apparently his way with a mise-en-scene. In his prime he could apparently knock-up a half-decent stage picture. No more. Spades at the Roundhouse is playing in-the-round, which of course means that there’s no way to create a single unified spectacle for the whole audience, who are all looking at it from different angles. So, things that in-the-round theatre is good for are: things in which either the drama is compelling, or else: things where the quality of the image is not dependent on the angle from which it’s viewed. Lepage opts to side-step either option and presents only one spectacle (a “sandstorm” at the end, which consists of a smoke machine, some extractor fans, someone spinning round in the middle to make it swirly, and a lot of red light) and next to no drama at all, compelling or otherwise.

There are stabs at drama. There are a range of characters, but they are undone by the fact that they speak some of the worst dialogue you will hear spoken on the London stage this year, and the fact that they are all wankers. I say that. Actually, all the male characters are wankers. None of the female characters get enough stage-time to really develop beyond “very irritating” (and "wearing bikinis" mostly). But there we go, that’s the hand we’ve been dealt.

There are themes too. The main themes of Spades are The War In Iraq and Gambling in Nevada, near a military base, where some soldiers are, who are going to go to Iraq. I think there’s also some sort of shamanistic elemental mythical cowboy bullshit stirred into the mix, which only serves to make the whole thing feel like someone’s tried to make an Iraq play out of The Cult’s Love album, which, as a friend pointed out, would actually be better if only it was what they had been trying to do. Instead, we have to deal with the fact that this mess seems to think it’s being profound.

There’s also the upsetting matter of Lepage’s much-vaunted way with stage craft. Certainly there’s some impressive machinery on show. The circular stage at the centre of the Roundhouse’s cavernous interior has a middle section that can rise and fall, revealing hidden interiors or delineating sunken rooms. There are also a load of fold-up trapdoors, from which characters can emerge, or stand waist-high in, creating the impression of hotel bars, casino tables and so on. The problem is, while these “scene changes” are neat enough in themselves, the scenes that they actually create are no more impressive that your average student production of Dealer’s Choice. They’re fine, they’re functional, but they’re hardly visually exciting. This would of course be forgiveable if anything that took place within these uninspiring environs was of any interest whatsoever. Instead, wanker talks to wanker until we’d pay actual money for them to stop.

On the night I saw it – maybe a week or two after press night – by the end the sparse audience was openly, almost aggressively laughing at the worse lines. There were plenty of walk-outs too. It was wretched; a state of open contempt between audience and stage. “Oblige us to sit here for two and a half hours by all means” the audience, slumped in its seats seemed to hiss, “But don’t think we’re not going to fight back.”

This was theatre at its absolute worst. A passive-aggressive audience and, I would imagine, deeply unhappy performers, all stuck in an interminable nightmare of a “play” made by someone with a disgustingly inflated sense of their own importance.