Thursday 26 September 2013

Romania round-up (theatre)

Offline Family – Theatre Foarte Mic

Born in the Wrong Place – The Platform

Performative Archive  – Odeon Theatre

Green Hours III – Theatre LUNI at the Green Hours

Mihaela Michailov’s Offline Family is essentially a somewhat ramshackle work of social realism. Its topic is a generation of Romanian children who are growing up without their parents, who are living abroad to work in stronger EU economies (although, unaccountably, the parent here has gone to Spain. Good luck with that). To this end, across several scenes (for which we were given detailed synopses) we see a large family of children – played by actual children – being brought up by their elder brother, who is also the carer of their wheelchair-bound grandfather).

Dramatically, there wasn’t much of an actual story arc. There’s no central aim or problem. The mother and father are just absent. The children continue to exist. With a different text, in a different production, this could have felt like a kind of kiddies’ Godot. Here, it simply staples together a string of incidents and lets the kids run around a lot.

I’m not really sure what sort of level at which this performance was being pitched. It feels more like reviewing a school play or SATS-level drama project than a piece of professional theatre, although amateur theatre is effectively vetoed in Romania (a hangover from when it was an enforced norm under the Ceaușescu regime, where populations were mobilised in to vast “spontaneous” street theatre productions praising the regime and making accessible art for all).

Suffice it to say, the young cast certainly excelled in enthusiasm – also performing songs and raps loudly into hand-held microphones and breakdancing. The slightly knotty problem of the piece’s morality – effectively a lecture against a family starting to fall apart (or at least, suffer a series of accidents and deal with them imperfectly) – which felt a little blunt and uninteroggated, like some agit-prop for the integrity of The Family.

In our notes, it was noted that Michailov and (director) Apostol are artists with a long-term dedication to documentary and fact-based theatre and are involved now with 'non-professional actors', children between age of 9 and 12, in a performance inspired by interviews with children whose parents left them, looking for work in the Western Europe. We have the Royal Court to thank for this, I believe.

Born in the Wrong Place

Carrying on the theme of Royal Court interference and cultural imperialism, Born in the Wrong Place is a piece of yer actual Verbatim Drama. And it’s dealing with Romania’s refugee problem! I know, right? We in Britain tend to only hear about Romania in the context of the projected millions of newly legal migrant workers who currently form the main plank of the UK Independence Party’s fears about immigration. Even the Guardian took days to report on the Rosia Montana protests – which are currently looking like they’re going to force a government out of office, but still ran stories about Romanians-as-immigrants in the interim – in Britain, it’s like Romania doesn’t really exist, except as a concept and a bunch of people who might move here. No internal life for the country credited whatsoever.

So, as such, in the most basic way, I did find this *socially useful*, *informative* piece both socially useful and informative. Who knew Romania had asylum seekers of their own?! (In fact, as the first EU reachable by land from Afghanistan (and Iraq and Iran if you go the long way round) it becomes the country where migrants to the EU first register, and as a result to which they are often sent back when applications in richer, Western countries fail).

Seen by us in rehearsal (a full three weeks ahead of its première), it’s impossible really to say much more about the piece as a performance. There are five actors talking in Romanian, pretending to be various asylum seekers, successful, unsuccessful and pending. What I found much more interesting from my British perspective is just how “anti-establishment” verbatim drama is as a form, here. The state-theatre situation in Romania might best be described as follows: imagine Peter Hall is still running the National Theatre. Nothing wrong with that per se; he’s still quite the auteur. But these theatres do seem to be in the iron grip of some very old hands, so to speak. And they suck up all the state money to do basically do the same repetoire of Shakespeare, Chekhov, etc. that has been running since the 1900s. Pitched against that, it’s easy to see why something new and vital that speaks directly to the present moment must seem exciting.

Of course, coming from a culture where in certain very mainstream circles verbatim drama is held up to be the most urgent political form, to the extent that our verbatim dramas can now sell out runs in the Olivier or Lyttleton auditoriums of our national theatre, coming and finding a burgeoning verbatim theatre culture feels a bit like being a time-traveller from the future arriving on a planet just about to discover, say, the atomic bomb. You kind of want to nip it in the bud before the poor fuckers find themselves mired in a situation beyond their control. But there’s a reason the Timelords forbid intervention, right?

On ethical grounds, I was mildly concerned to discover that not only were they content to re-word people’s stories (á la David Hare), but also to change them – the piece was inspired by someone they met in Afghanistan while researching for something or other and he now appears in the piece as someone who did move to Romania. The person they met didn’t. This strikes me as a level of social engineering beyond the pale for the verbatim form – which seems to have been slightly confused with the research-based, social-realist drama. Put simply, if you can’t find someone to interview who fits your thesis, then maybe look at your thesis, rather than re-writing their life and passing it off as factual.

Performative Archive 

Interestingly, the new piece by Gianina Cărbunariu – perhaps Romania’s most successful theatrical export, with a play seen at the Royal Court and another piece shown as part of the Romanian showcase during LIFT last year – is also “verbatim”-ish. Or rather, it is partly the transcripts and letters surrounding the case of Mugurel Călinescu, a young man who was arrested for painting anti-governmemt slogans on walls in his village during the Ceaușescu years. Was taken in for questioning by Securitate. And then – unconnectedly – died from leukaemia.

Seen by us in an early tech or dress rehearsal, the piece was strikingly more modish than Offline Family, featuring two video camera at either side of the stage with dual live-feeds to a split screen projected onto, well, onto what was effectively a huge grey inflatable wall – like the side of a bouncy castle. Pretty neat. So documents of close-up profiles of faces would loom as other cast members could fling themselves hard at this wall and be properly flung back across the space.

Annoyingly, this dynamism could have been invested in more heavily, rather than seemingly only occasionally deployed as an afterthought. And, well, if Cărbunariu has been mainlining Katie Mitchell, then she’s have to concede that Mitchell (or rather her video director Leo Warner) does it infinitely better. Still, it was nice to see something taking steps to join in with the great melting pot of the rest of International European Theatre.

Green Hours III 

In an odd way, it was Peca Ștefan and Andreea Vălean’s Green Hours III that I found the most satisfyingly “authentic”, “Romanian” theatre experience.

The set-up of the Green Hours series (there are going to be five in all, culminating in a ten-plus hour marathon staging) is a kind of soap opera/narrative tribute to the venue itself. Sites don’t get more specific than this one. The Green Hours is an underground bar off Calea Victoriei – one of the main streets running through Bucharest. It apparently has an amazing history of hosting performance and dissident meetings. So much so that the government recently tried to close it down – although this may also have had more to do with projected property development and the bar’s chaotic finances (although, as far as I could make out, most finances in Romania were chaotic). But no matter.

Artists in Romania are a hell of a lot better at ignoring or outright defying their government than we Brits are. The memory of seeing the country’s ex-dictator shot dead on live television on Christmas Day, 1989, couldn’t fail to make an impression on anyone entering Romanian politics since. The power of the people is an actual, tangible thing here. The people are pretty tolerant of successive governments since, which someone described as now either cowardly or idiotic or both (as opposed to actively “evil” before ‘89), but it doesn’t do to push them too far.

So, Green Hours was, I think, effectively just squatted back into existence and Theatre Luni are now running these bonkers plays.

Part III is about two+ hours long, and a convoluted tale of the bar owner travelling backwards and forwards in time while never leaving the bar – trying to sort of a bunch of confusions and scrapes he gets into in past, present and future: at one point, for example, he runs into a drunk, thuggish Nicu Ceaușescu (son of the famous dictator Nicolae) who owns the club in the eighties and is dating a drunk, washed-up Nadia Comenaci, the famous Romanian Olympic gymnast. This scene in particular is recognisably very funny.

Overall, it is massively self-indulgent, rambling and anarchic, and I kind of loved it. Starting at 10pm, I imagine it would be even better for having had a few drinks (and speaking Romanian), but even as it stood, it was great to see something with so little regard for “doing things properly” – and attended by possibly the largest, most diverse, young audience we saw all week.

Romania round-up (dance)

Romaniyeah – Centrul Naţional al Dansului

Zic Zac – Centrul Naţional al Dansului

VJ and DJ Cinty Ionescu’s Romaniyeah – billed here as “performance” rather than “dance”, is essentially a live mix of music, video images and a slightly under-used dancer throwing the occasional shape quite slowly – but largely overwhelmed by the presence of the large screen dominating the space.

There was also quite a bit of recorded speech, albeit in Romanian. The video images (shot by Ionescu herself) record the more down-at-heel end of Bucharest (of which there is plenty). The video isn’t especially distinguished – looking like pretty much any footage shot out of a car window with a camcorder in the main. And the montage, without the advantage of knowing what was being said, didn’t add up to much on its own.

I should record that one section of (I assume) YouTube-edited-together comic clips and stills of Romanian life did make the (mostly) home crowd hoot with knowing laughter at the some of their country’s foibles – there were a lot of pictures of horse-drawn cars, for some opaque reason.

Andrea Gavriliu’s Zic Zac is the choreographer’s degree graduation piece. It’s essentially a duet between snappily dress man and woman at separate tables in a restaurant or bar, overseen by a performer playing a kind of DJ-cum-waiter/maître d’. Dressed as a porcupine.

The schtick is that the porcupine, by playing different music, controls the man and woman, making them dance in various different styles to appropriate music. This makes a lot of sense as a framing device for a degree show – Gavriliu proves herself adept at knocking up great tango, pop, contemporary, and ersatz-Pina Bausch numbers – as calling cards go, its got outstanding proof that she can do something for everyone.

As an actual piece in its own right, well, it’s fun. It’s perhaps not trying to say much about the world, beyond observing that men and women sometimes have relationships (which are generally sparked by a match-making porcupine, right?), so, no, it’s not very deep. On the other hand, the variety and slickness actually ended up reminding me of the sort of show that might do surprisingly good business on the Edinburgh Fringe at somewhere like the big upturned cow in Bristo Square. After all, it’s got a rousing pop hi-NRG dance-off finale and a porcupine with a mirrorball stuck on its head by the end. What’s not to like, frankly?

Wednesday 25 September 2013

(anti-) ageing – Centrul Naţional al Dansului

Two women enter the space. They are dressed in the sorts of clothes we might most associate with our grandmothers (although I’m pretty sure grandmothers these days dress differently. Whatever happened to old people who dress as old people? They’re a dying breed): old-fashioned coats and hats, and walking sticks.

They walk, agonisingly slowly, to the middle at the back the stage and from there they totter forward, their motion tracked by a video camera in the central aisle of the studio. What the camera records is projected simultaneously, with little affectation, onto a screen to the left of the stage; slightly bleached out by the lights, slightly fuzzy and indistinct.

Once they’ve reached their mark, they explain the concept of the show. They have made this piece in 2011, and they are going to make it again when they are over 60 years old (at some point between now and then, they’re going to stop touring this “young” version). Performers Mădălina Dan and Mihaela Dancs are in their thirties, so we will not get to see this new version until 2041.

They then talk about themselves briefly, how they’re feeling, what they’ve been up to recently. Dancs talks about her boyfriend and new career highs, -- that sort of thing. Then Dan talks about her latest course of radiotherapy.

There was already something poignant about the image of these two young, beautiful women pretending to be old in a show which they will perform again when they won’t be pretending so much, but having been diagnosed with non-hodgkin's lymphoma (after the show had been conceived and first performed – this was never part of the plan), the video takes on a whole new level of reflection. It feels crass to spell it out. Of course, anything could have happened to either of the performers in the thirty years between the first and second incarnations of the show, but this new fact brings the possibility into very sharp relief indeed. From there on, the concentration deepened, the laughs gained a real edge. A near-unbearable bitter-sweetness hung about this already excellent concept.

Stylistically, the majority of the first half of the show is very funny. Performing in English, the Dan and Dancs are oddly like a French and Saunders or Smack the Pony sketch with Romanian accents. And, yes, they’re being deliberately funny, wry and ironic, I’m not just imagining it because "the accents are cute". Pinning down precisely why they are so funny is harder (there are reasons I’m not a comedy critic), but I think it boils down to their air of pretending to be quite grand, and Dan’s habit of restating things Dancs says, with an added layer of – most of the words I want to use here are more sounds that might be transcribed as an extravagant “Pffff!”.

The second half, which includes more of yer actual dancing, also includes a lengthy sequence of full frontal nudity, which is probably even harder for this (white, Western, heterosexual) male critic to write about than comedy.

[I am actually pretty serious about this subject of how we might discuss this subject in a way acceptable to these days where we’re actually thinking seriously about feminism for the first time since the eighties, and are interested in being progressive. Because, on one level, we can’t pretend people aren’t at least a bit moved, and moved differently, by the sight of naked people, can we? So what are we meant to say about this?]

What’s fascinating about the nudity (or is it nakedness) here is that like everything else in the show it is actually making you think about the future version of the scene (although I have no idea what the future show will look like – whether it will be a kind of Wooster Group exercise in recreating from video, or something in which that sort of thing is framed). You look at the smooth skin and the frankly enviable figures in front of you, and because of the concept, you mostly think about what ageing does to the human body. Without special make-up effects or prosthetics, two young women’s bodies make us think about two old women’s bodies. We think about what is lost an what is gained by ageing. Perhaps about the possibilities of child-bearing, and motherhood (these things do get mentioned too. I’m not just projecting onto “women” generally). There’s also the movement. Having flagged up the fact of movement so frankly with the hobbling onto the stage, the faster, and the sexier dance moments are moving now partly because of the difficulty and perhaps perceived “awkwardness” of these sequences in thirty years.

Watching this shortly after Edinburgh I was reminded of Deborah Pearson’s The Future Show. There’s a similar nobility of intention. In fact the two pieces would be fascinating to see them as a double bill.

So, yes, another massive transfer recommendation. I’m not sure for how much longer Dan and Dancs want to play this version before putting it away for its (now) 28-year hiatus, but I hope a lot more people get to see the remarkable, poignant, moving work before it is mothballed.

Tuesday 24 September 2013

Quartet for a Microphone – Centrul Naţional al Dansului

[apologies for using a (very short) self-shot YouTube clip in lieu of a “cover photo”]

The basic set-up for Vava Ștefănescu’s Quartet for a Microphone is the following: the three performers (in this case, Mihaela Dancs, Farid Fairuz and István Teglás) are locked into a specially constructed orange-framed phone box-style cabinet. The fourth member of the quartet is the musician/sound technician Vlaicu Golcea. What happens is that the three perform – in this instance – an hour or so’s worth of improvised dance/movement within the confines of the box, to a shuddery, echoing, dance-music.

As the piece progresses, the windows of the box first steam up, then condensation sets in. The performers are getting hotter and hotter. They begin to noticeably sweat – well, as noticeably as is possible through the steamed-up windows, now running with rivulets of water. Their proximity frequently forces them back against the windows, sweaty clothes rub against sopping perspex. More steam rises. More perspiration. More heat.

Watching the piece, I assumed that it had some basic level of soundtrack to which the microphone merely added, but after a while it became clear that (I think) all the music which accompanied the piece was generated within the “phone-box” and treated by Golcea – slowed down, speeded up, looped, delayed, turned into notes, beats, and layered creating at times what felt like commercially available dance music and at other times the musique concrète of, say, Stockhausen.

To an extent, the performers are aware of this, and “collaborate” with Golcea in making helpfully percussive sounds and sequences within the box, near enough to the microphones to be helpfully turned into something to which they can move. On the other hand, the beats themselves dictate to a certain extent how they move in the first place. The fact that the piece will be different every time it is performed (it has also been shown as a more durational piece in a white-box gallery space – here it is in a black-box studio space) strikes me as both immensely exciting, and also a bit sad, since I rather fell in love with this particular incarnation.

So far I’ve just kind of described what happens, and only the basics there. There is possibly/probably much to also be said about the sort of movement undertaken in the box. There’s a lot of contract – perhaps necessarily. But also threatened, implied and maybe even actual (if largely accidental) violence. That there are two men and one woman (in this performance) makes it seem about gender, even if it isn’t. That Dancs, the only woman in the box, often seems to end up lower than the men, sometimes even cowering on the floor, might seem retrograde were the piece prcisely choreographed, but apparently the only instruction is for the dancers to “be themselves, really” and “try stuff out”, then it’d be futile to read an authorial vision beyond the situation itself onto the piece. There is no narrative as such – though we might find ourselves as audience members co-authoring one – beyond ongoing bio-chemical reactions.

The climbing up into the top half of the box is just “something to do to kill the time” perhaps. Something that gets more and more difficult as the piece progresses. In this it recalls the existentialism of Camus’s Sisyphus and the time-killing of Beckett’s tramps, perhaps; albeit replayed as a violent night out clubbing in the city as suggested by the physiques of the performers and the thumping music of the microphones.

I’m not sure if I’ve really communicated yet just how great this was to watch. It was bloody brilliant. Someone get off their ass and transfer it here immediately, please. LIMF, maybe?

Dance a Playful Body / On Tenderness – Centrul Naţional al Dansului

Having not really checked my programme properly, I didn’t know much about this double-bill before I saw it. A couple of hours (give-or-take) later, I was perplexed: why would you twin Playful Body, which is a taut, meticulously made, excellent piece of work, with On Tenderness, which, was frequently, severely misjudged (and that’s the polite version of what I thought). The creator and performer of the latter clearly didn’t have a fraction of the talent of the former. You can see where this is going, right? Andreea Novac, the creator-performer of the latter piece, was also the choreographer/director/dramaturg of the first piece.

Playful Body, performed by the Romania-based Hungarian István Teglás, is a (roughly) fifty-minute solo. Teglás, who has been standing on stage as we enter, making near-hostile eye-contact, signals the start of the show by turning his back on us and putting up the hood on his hooded top. The house lights and workers are cut, and he switches on a floor-standing theatre-light (I couldn’t tell you which sort. Par-can, perhaps). It mostly lights the black rear curtain of the stage. Teglás is leant against it, the light picking out, accentuating the folds of his street clothes into jagged black and white relief. A Caravaggio painting, if Carravaggio had painted hoodies. Or the stark drama of a Francis Bacon Pope. He moves incredibly slowly. He walks forward in miniscule agonising steps. He retreats again. Then, all of a sudden, he’s upside down, pinned against the back wall in a handstand, then a one-handed handstand. Suddenly he’s transformed from a surly youth into something reminiscent of a salamander scuttling down a sheer wall.

The section ends, and he turns on a different light, downstage. He brings on a large inflatable bed. He brings on a portable CD player and a plug-in electronic pump. He fills the bed. He might play us a tune as we wait. Then he’s on the bed. Then he’s hiding behind it. When he emerges, he is naked. A sequence follows in which he appears to mimic one of those arguments Gollum has with himself in Lord of the Rings. Then there is more movement. He cavorts, sinuously on the bed. Then, again, up against the back wall. The tone has changed from sinister or threatening to light and playful. There are visual gags – which is no mean feat for a guy hand-standing upside-down fully-frontally-nude. It is witty, full of impressive feats, and one of those pieces where you swear to God you’re going to exercise more having seen it.

[actually, there is an interesting piece to be written (or read by me if it’s already been written) about what we do with our experiences of watching dancers’ actual bodies. About what desires they may or may not provoke – from envy and self for self-betterment, through to potentially lust – and whether those responses are legitimate, or problematic.]

The piece, running at about 50 minutes, is pretty much just that: a man, starting in clothes, ending naked, having displayed some intensely impressive physical control, and a fine sense of humour, leaves the stage strewn with his clothes and the re-deflated air-bed. It feels a bit more profound than this gives credit for, but it doesn’t feel like a massive ache for poignancy is the real point. This is more an artful entertainment than a philosophical treatise. Still, it’s a deftly made and executed one.

What is curious, then, is that in theory On Tenderness follows a similarly episodic structure. The performer, Novac, happens to be a larger woman rather than a staggeringly athletic man, so from the off I suppose I was monitoring my responses as best I could as a western, heterosexual male who’d like to do their best to be a feminist.

What was odd, though, is that I think what actually informed these initial responses to the piece were much more what I’m used to seeing bodies being deployed to mean on British stages, than anything to do with my Male Gaze. Put simply, Novac is tottering about the stage in vertiginous “stripper heels” (the ones with platform soles and then stupidly long actual heel bits) a very brief silky dressing gown and undies. She is performing a kind of burlesque of coquetry, draping herself over a low armchair, and then slipping off, either due to her heels or to her lack of balance. I found it oddly uncomfortable, because for me it didn’t seem clear precisely what she was parodying here. Or even if it was a parody.

And this seemed to be a recurrent problem throughout. I just could not get a fix on the tone. I’m prepared to believe it was a trans-cultural thing (although chatting to others from my grounp afterwards (Bulgarian, Canadian-in-Prague, Pole, Hungarian), no one else had really seemed to get a fix on it either). Elements not dissimilar to those I’d found witty in Playful Body here seemed worrying and contrived. Perhaps that problem was that in On Tenderness, the playfulness had been replaced by an almost painful level of sincerity. But sincerity that it was impossible not to read as possibly ironic. It’s odd how unsetling “not knowing where you are” can be when trying to watch a piece of work.

That said, there was also the matter of execution and concept, both of which seemed to be sketches-toward... at best. At one point Novac dances slowly and “sensuously” to a piece of music under a red light for a full five minutes (approx.), and at another point, she tells us how she imagines a man with a guitar walking slowly across a room just appears. The man duly does appear, and proceeds to cross the room slowly playing the guitar for another full five minutes. All these elements sound like they could add up to a great show, and perhaps one day they will. For the first part of the show, while trying to work out the mode, my colleagues and I agreed that it seemed most interesting when it might have been a Forced Entertainment-style piece about failure, or something exploring that sort of “boredom”. But what I perceived as the piercing level of sincerity somehow seemed to get in the way of that.

That said, clearly from her choreography and dramaturgy on Playful Body, Novac is a real talent, albeit one who should perhaps make sure she has a more rigorous outside eye on her own solo work.

Saturday 21 September 2013

Realia – Centrul Naţional al Dansului

[Bucharest Dance Meetings]

Realia is the new “dance” piece made by “Farid Fairuz”. Which is a lot of scare-quotes for a first sentence. I suspect I’m going to be qualifying the term “dance” a lot over the next few reviews. If you’re not at all with familiar with contemporary dance (hello, mum and dad), then you might be surprised by the extent pieces need not include much *actual dancing* or even movement. As is the case here. I would say at least 70 per cent of Realia is spoken word.

The second set of scare quotes concern Farid Fairuz himself. I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to explain that Farid Fairuz is a total fiction. It seems not-spoilery (to me) because Fairuz has been made up by Mihai Mihalcea – who was the artistic director of the (old) Centrul Naţional al Dansului, before the organisation was effectively evicted from their former premises by the government. As such, Mihalcea is a very well-known figure in Romanian Contemporary Dance, so the fictional, Lebanese-born Fairuz character isn’t really meant to “fool” anyone.

That said, I went in not know any of the back-story. I had read the below blurb:

“A performance in which dramaturgy blends temporal plans, real and fictional events from the life of a character living simultaneously a double identity: Mihai Mihalcea, born in Bucharest, and Farid Fairuz, born in Beirut. ‘Two years ago I had to invent myself a character so I can still exist. Now I’m Farid Fairuz and I tell you two things: The Ottoman Empire did not disappear. A part of it has for sure remained inside me; everything in life is connected to pain and pleasure. Otherwise I cannot explain myself anything from all this…’”

Maybe it’s a testament to the number of blurbs I read (or the number of British shows about dual-identity), but I reckon you can get through that and manage not to read a word of it literally. Instead, possibly you read an account by someone of mixed heritage making a show trying to reconcile their diverse backgrounds.

Fairuz/Mihalcea stands before us wearing a PVC bodice and mini-skirt and occasionally puts on sunglasses, a long wig and fake beard. And mostly he recounts stories from his biography and offers us his thoughts on the world. Here we don’t know what stories are “real” and which are made-up, or Lebanese-ised versions of Mihalcea’s own autobiography. The stories and observations themselves are totally charming and frequently very funny. Also, at one point, F/M (the initials FF and MM themselves don’t feel like an accident – reflecting as they do, a further question of gender alongside nationality and/or ethnicity) does perhaps the best cut-through-the-fourth-wall I’ve ever seen. It’s a strange phenomenon, given that he’s clearly talking to *us*, the present audience, all the time, so to manage a specific moment where he “comes out of character” (especially while potentially still “in character”).

It reminded me very much of a lot of the work seen at Forest Fringe – indeed, the performance style coupled with the subject made me think especially of an exact mid-point between Brian Lobel and Tania el Khoury. Indeed, I texted Andy Field the moment I got out of the show, suggesting he book it for next year’s Forest Fringe, or Forest Fringe at the Gate.

The really interesting, *crunchy* point for me was the question of how the piece would be received in the UK. Granted, I’m not a programmer, so it’s not really my problem, but I would LOVE this to come over. And, as an ersatz, erstwhile “critic” it sort-of *is* my problem. Because I think the British (certainly theatre, maybe dance less so) might have problems digesting it. The main problem is that of “Orientalism”. For a start, we in Britain have a *very* different relationship to the ex-Ottoman Empire to the Romanians. As far as I understand it, we (the British) just went into the ruins of the Ottoman empire as it collapsed post-WWI and maybe colonised for a while. Romania, on the other hand, has never been a colonial power, but has been repeated subsumed into other empires, or else co-opted as part of the “Eastern Bloc” post WWII (-interestingly, a bit like ex-Yugoslavia, but with a bit less distinction, Romania didn’t really get the full Stalin treatment. My impression was that Ceaucescu and his predecessors just made it clear that they weren’t going to cause any problems for the USSR, weren’t going to flip and get American air-bases, and in return, were allowed to practice whatever grotesque dictatorships they fancied in the name of communism).

But I’ve gone a bit off-topic. My point is, watching a Romanian perhaps slightly burlesquing being Lebanese is a very different thing to watching a Brit do it. And I think, though perhaps our initial natural reaction might be to be concerned, a) the difference of relationship is crucial, and b) I also think it comes from a place of affection and curiosity rather than Orientalism and/or prejudice.

Amidst all this diversionary wondering, I should also mention that Fairuz/Mihalcea also turns out to be an awesome dancer. Whether trained in the ballet school of Beirut or Bucharest, he can still (at 44 – this performance was his birthday, he gave us cherry wine) execute what looks, to my untrained eye, like pretty impressive ballet – at the end, he gives us his Odette/Odile from Swan Lake: he, like all th other boys in his ballet school, he tells us, was always jealous of the parts for girls in ballet.

And it’s in these moments – freed of both gender and “identity” – where I think we see what the show is driving at most clearly. A disatisfaction with having to play the fixed, continual role of “yourself” in “everyday life”. The idea that if life is a performance anyway, the question of why can’t it be a better, more exciting one.

Carte Poştală de la Bucuresti

To Romania, ostensibly to see the programme of Bucharest Dance Meetings 2013 (henceforth BDM), but with a bunch of other stuff chucked in – including meeting the two artists who have made this year’s work for the Romanian pavilion at the Venice Biennale, visits to Bucharest’s other two main dance spaces (all the work at BDM is shown at the new National Centre for Dance), meetings with their programmers, and seeing some “plays”/“theatre”. All this alongside the inevitable tourism, and the endless conversations with the other national and international guests of the festival comparing the situations in our respective countries about funding cuts, philistine governments, difficult funding bodies and artistic differences.

At the moment, still in the midst of all this, it feels like I haven’t properly processed enough of the information to make much of a useful job of explaining it. On the other hand, I want to start recording the trip already as it feels useful and important.

Something I realised immediately is the extent that one’s own nationality colours not only one’s perceptions, but also the frame through which you recount those perceptions for an audience. Which is to say: I feel a bit hamstrung by how much I want to write about Bucharest in relation to the British scene – coming hard on the heels of Edinburgh, it feels like I’m experiencing BDM partly as a very specific comparison and contrast with the Fringe.

I think how I’m going to organise this, is by writing both reviews and reflections continuing on from this piece (in the same monster Word.doc), and will put links to them below as and when they’re finished.

In the mean time, here are some pictures of some of the spaces where work has been shown:

The old National Theatre. Now a Novotel

The new National Theatre. Now a building site.

Theatre LUNI at the Green Hours (Calea Victoriei 120)

Patrons of Theatre LUNI

Zona D – independent performing arts studio -- also someone's home

WASP – independent performing arts venue 

WASP's white-box space

"The Platform"

The Platform's stairwell

Exhibition space in The Platform

Exterior: Gallery where the artists Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmuș, makers of An Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale, at the Romanian Pavilion in Venice – 2013, are based

Interior: Tranzit.Ro

detail of Dust Square by Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor

Friday 6 September 2013

Edward II – National Theatre

[mostly a pedantic argument about terminology]

To judge by the Twitter-buzz following Wednesday’s press night for Edward II, you’d have thought that Joe Hill-Gibbins had just poured the whole of the Volksbühne onto the NT’s Olivier stage. Suffice it to say, he hasn’t.

Phrases like “director’s theatre” and adjectives like “European” really aren’t at all helpful here. Let’s be honest, they’re never helpful.  Britain is part of Europe, and almost all plays have directors, no matter how invisible they consider their hand to be. But we know what these shorthands mean. The thing is, as with all shorthands, they’re blunt tools for analysis. If there wasn’t such an ill-informed fuss about “Europe”/“Europeanism” and “Director’s Theatre” then at least the latter might mean something, but given the span of directors that the old-hat catch-all term regietheater covers in Germany, even that should probably be put into the same bin-for-crap-thinking as “In-Yer-Face-Theatre” and “New Writing”.

So, let’s talk about what actually is here. Joe Hill-Gibbins has made a new production of Christopher Marlowe’s 1594 play Edward II. It runs at 2hrs45 including a 15min interval, and I’d say it’s a pretty faithful version of the text. Probably “some” lines have been cut, and I expect the word “assholes” isn’t in the original, but on the whole, I reckon this is most of Marlowe’s play.

The pre-show stage has a member of stage management hoovering a downstage semi-circular yellow carpet while a musician plays anachronistic Bach-ish harpsichord music on a Yamaha keyboard. Behind them, the backs of wooden flats, clothing rails of costumes, lights, the mechanics of a theatre’s back-stage, and ultimately the looming black back walls of the Olivier itself. It’s an aesthetic that never fails to make me smile, no matter how ancient and old-hat it now is. But attend upon the suspiciously period armour on the clothing rail, the narrow leaded windows set into the flats, and the ornate, golden, heavy velvet curtain hanging ominously above the stage like the ghost of Victorian theatre.

The show opens with a crash and a loud video montage showing portraits of British monarchs beginning with Elizabeth II and running back through time until we get back to Edward II, King of England and Ireland from 1308 until his forced abdication in 1327. And it is in this montage that we get the clearest key to what Hill-Gibbins* is doing with this production.

Following the montage, that ominous Victorian-production curtain drops in behind the semi-circular throne room and quite “proper” lights snap up to reveal a sort-of-historically-faithful version of EII’s coronation. “Sort-of” because, alongside John Heffernan’s golden robed, be-crowned Edward II, his Queen Isabella (Vanessa Kirby), his brother (here sister) Kent (Kirsty Bushell), and young son Edward (Bettrys Jones) are dressed in an a-historical parade from high-heeled, trouser-suited Kent, through a kind of contemporary-take-on-medieval Isabella, to a young prince Edward (later III), dressed as a particularly obnoxious-looking prep-school boy from, well, pretty much any time between 1930 and now. Prep school uniforms don’t really change, do they? That’s the point of prep schools.

So, from this, and from the montage, I think we get that Hill-Gibbins’s intentions are to highlight the strange modernity that lurks in this totally alien spectacle. Something from 1308, written about in 1594, that can still be staged as something which speaks – at least in part – to contemporary fact. Indeed, it interests me that in his review Michael Billington claims “Hill-Gibbins’s production also overlooks the fact that Marlowe’s play is as much about class as sex: the real objection of Edward's barons to Gaveston is not that he is gay, but that he is a peasant”.

I’m not sure that this can be strictly true. I wondered the same thing, a bit, but then the reason I starting thinking about it at all was because I was noticing the way that everything all the Baron-characters ever objected to about Gaveston was his rank (he is variously “a stable-boy” and Edward’s “minion”, and so on). The idea of sexuality (such as I don’t think it even was then) isn’t raised at all. There’s occasionally the issue of fidelity, of which more later; and there’s stuff about “love” – mostly voiced either by Isabella or Edward; but everyone else in the play (bunch of nobles, mostly) a) just hate Gaveston because – at least here – he really is an annoying, arrogant prick, who delights in having a go at them, and b) because – again, here at least – they’re a bunch of war-mongering primitives, whose idea of statecraft begins and ends in yelling and threatening war. In this respect, also, we might conclude diplomacy has changed depressingly little in the intervening 700-odd years.

Perhaps a problem with raising the idea of the play’s modernity, however, is that while we can see what Hill-Gibbins is driving at with his admirably clear production, we also begin to see firstly how differently (and better) we would write a play about the subject now, and also the elements of J H-G’s staging of this very old play, which also feel surprisingly old fashioned. Put bluntly, there is *a lot* of shouting. A horrific amount. Thanks to some of the video stuff (oh, there’s video stuff – a closed-off back room where we can’t really see the actors except on video screens, á la, oh, Gob Squad, René Pollesch, Frank Castorf, Katie Mitchell and Thomas Ostermeier, to name the first five instances that popped into my head (video trailers for examples of eac h behind the names)), the actors are all miked. These can be turned on and off, of course, but it does seem as though only Kirby actually knows what a microphone does when it’s on. As a result, much of the play, is an epic shout-through version of that Beyond The Fringe sketch (“GET THEE TO GLOUCESTER, ESSEX. GO THEE TO WESSEX, EXETER. AND ALBANY TO SOMERSET...” All: “AYE” [hearty shouty and cheery] etc.).

Perhaps the employment of this arcane performance style, from which only the thoroughly modern Kirby emerges more-or-less unscathed, is part of H-G’s cunning postmodern plan. But, it’s a bloody hard pill to swallow, even if it is in the name of well-observed satire. Ironically, the other element of the acting which is hard going is John Heffernan’s undoubted ability to seem mild, sincere and pained. Partly, because it somehow doesn’t quite come off here, and partly because it seems to sit quite oddly with the play, with the character, with the character’s journey, and so on. It’s like the minor-key one-note counterpoint to all the major-key shouting going on. Wet with Gaveston, sulky with the Barons, mopey with his wife, and sad when he’s about to die. Interspersed with a bit of shouting when the plot needs moving along. But then, I don’t think in Heffernan’s case, the acting is the problem, per se. It seems to arise from trying to impose the psychological acting where there is no psychology.

But, yes, my basic thought is that, despite the deployment of the video-only back room, this is a totally British production, still divorced entirely from German or other European theatre traditions. The difference, I’d say, is of a really fundamental difference of approach. As I think I’ve said before elsewhere, that difference might best be characterised as a difference of dramaturgy. What Hill-Gibbins has done here, is take the play and use the play *as is* to make his point (which I take to be about the strange, twisted, bloodied shadow cast across Britain by the history of our Royal Family and class system (but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?)), whereas any German director worth their salt *remakes* or *attacks* the play to make their point. It’s a gross generalisation, but I’d say the reason this felt different to me is the lack of a strong dramaturgical hand (the production dramaturg(e) Zoë Svendsen's interview on the subject is instructive), and the way it uses the play to argue a point, rather than arguing with/against the play itself.  As such, I would say the productions successes and failures should be seen as British ones, rather than allowing ourselves to be distracted by some co-opted visual trappings.

What fascinated me, was that all the production’s greatest successes and failures all felt uniquely British, and I think that’s something we should recognise.

The successes – the wit in some of the early bits of video work. What was striking here was that one immediately remembers that we Brits can be Very Good At Telly. And sarcasm. And deadpan humour. And absurdity. As a nation, we’re also pretty good at goth music and thuggery. When the production mashed these elements together it was brilliant, and one just wished that they’d slashed the script to ribbons so that these briefest of sections could have been massively expanded to tell the story that way.

The failures – just all that bloody shouting of dull expository lines. It flattens characters. It gives actors nowhere to go – if they start out yelling, what can they do later when they’re even more pissed off? More yelling. Eugh.

I’m not sure the production succeeds on its own terms, but I think it’s important that we take stock of what those terms were. This sort of production should be standard, but the standard of this sort of production can be much, much higher.

*Look, I think we’ve had that conversation about “who does what?” enough times now for you to know that I’m aware that the central dramaturgical thrust of this production might not have originated with H-G but, I think, unless it came totally from the design team or his dramaturg(e), we’re going to have to assume it was his originally his idea.

Credible Likeable Superstar Role-Model – Pleasance

[written for]

***** (Five Stars)

Back in 2010, I saw an early version of a show called Sex Idiot. I think it was still in previews, not that anyone bothered telling me. I duly reviewed it, wondering aloud if Bryony Kimmings was even a real person (“I'm going to keep her name in quotation marks for a bit, because I'm not at all convinced she's actually a real person”).

I concluded:
“Instead of cheering you up, making you laugh, moving you, or reminding you of the astonishing feats of talent, imagination, generosity and nobility of which the human animal is capable, this show really does make you feel the sheer pointlessness of it all. More than Kafka, more than Camus, more than Beckett, “Bryony Kimmings” is the “artist” who most makes you feel the grinding, grating, relentless banality of human existence.”

It’s probably one of the most relentlessly vicious reviews I’ve ever written. I’ve not been proud of it for a while. Even if I still stand by how I felt about that particular show on that particular night I saw it (I do), I could have expressed it differently. I could certainly have taken less pleasure putting the boot in.

Still, there’s nothing better than someone coming back and making you eat your words.

If in 2010 Bryony Kimmings was the artist who made me most despair, in 2013 she has become one of the brightest beacons of hopefulness on the British stage.

Credible, Likeable, Superstar Role-model is, by any measure, an extraordinary piece of work. Kimmings has devised the show with her nine-year-old niece Taylor. Partly, it comes from Kimmings exploring her anxieties about the world in which Taylor is growing up, but perhaps more movingly, it comes from inventing the most brilliant summer holiday adventure imaginable.

The basic deal of the show is that Kimmings has asked Taylor to invent a role-model she’d actually like to live up to. Thus Kimmings spends much of the show playing credible alter-ego superstar Catherine Bennett: a palaeontologist pop star whose boyfriend is a proofreader (a total result for proofreaders everywhere).

This mixture of different levels of reality – Kimmings and Taylor talking about the real world on stage; Kimmings and Taylor both actually being on the stage doing the show; and then the fact that the show is just the tip of a wider project: Kimmings performing in schools as Catherine Bennett, Kimmings and Taylor appearing on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour; and now Taylor and Kimmings picking up a Fringe First for the show together, with Taylor giving a speech about how proud she was to be a feminist – is not only clever, but profoundly affecting.

This is, after all, a show that is really making an actual difference just by the simple fact of existing. That it has gone on to be widely acclaimed only makes it all the more moving. On one level, that it has been so warmly received obviously underlines the resonance of Kimmings’s central thesis – that we’re not all that happy about the world that’s currently being sold to our children, and that we’re all totally charmed by Taylor’s parallel, and more real reality, where kids are more into dancing and dinosaurs than money and fame. Ultimately, I’d suggest that the real subject of the show is not simply gender role-models and the internet, but the poverty of aspiration that is being sold to children – a model of social mobility available only through fame and sexualisation, rather than through any education, artistry or application.

Perhaps we are ultimately moved by Kimmings’s own personal journey most of all. Because this is clearly a show that is made out of very real rage and love. There’s a moment toward the end of the show where Kimmings talks about Taylor while Taylor wears a pair of sound-excluding headphones. Her voice trembles slightly with emotion. We’re watching someone who has discovered something she really gives a fuck about. Something that she is angry and passionate about, and the whole Fringe has fallen in love with that sense of mission. And how much more exciting as a reviewer for your discovery of the Fringe to be that someone you’d written off as dead inside turning out to be your absolute hero.

The Future Show – Forest Fringe

[written for Whatsonstage]

***** (Five Stars)

Programmed after I Wish I Was Lonely only twice during Forest Fringe’s residency at their new Out of The Blue, Drill Hall base, Deborah Pearson’s The Future Show feels curiously contiguous with the themes if not the method of ...Lonely.

In theory, I’ve seen The Future Show before, at Forest Fringe at the Gate in April ‘12. But actually I haven’t, since Pearson re-writes the whole of the show, or at least the first half of the show every time she performs it.

It is something of a testament to Pearson’s astonishing skill as a writer that each time I’ve seen the show I’ve found it incredibly well-written (not a hint of the flurry with which it must be flung together), thought-provoking and beautiful. Pearson is a great performer too; her soft Canadian accent, her slow deliberate delivery into a microphone, the just-so poise of her sitting behind her little desk reading from the freshly printed script.

The actual text of The Future Show starts by describing Pearson’s life from the moment that the show we are watching ends. She describes us clapping and her leaving the space. She describes her post-show rituals and what happens for the rest of the day. And gradually, we move forward in time, past Edinburgh, past this year, and then gradually, past decades into the future. The show ends with Pearson describing her own death.

The first version of the show ended sooner than this, with Deborah lying in bed with her then new-husband-to-be, and seemed to include a lot of nostalgia and memories from the past occurring as elements of the future into which she was looking. This time round, the future feels longer, further, more distant – it is interesting that it becomes less detailed as it goes further ahead, just as if looking forward is very like looking back; yesterday vividly remembered, last year slightly more boxed-up, ten years ago represented by only a few fleeting images and so on.

What becomes fascinating, even enviable here, is Pearson’s ability to foresee a future with her in it. External events do occasionally play a part (“I buy the last newspaper ever printed”), but mostly we spend time with a fiercely intelligent, independent woman going through her life being every bit as awesome as we ourselves imagine she will be, and so facing her death becomes a genuinely saddening experience.

There’s something quite remarkable about the peace that Pearson seems to have made with he own life and the inevitability of death. Watching The Future Show, it feels much less like an act of solipsism and much more like an incredible act of quiet generosity within which we all get to sit and spend time and think about the future.

Coriolanus – Edinburgh Playhouse, EIF

[written for]

Link to the review on As last year, I'll stick the text in here too, when WOS have had their money's worth...

I Wish I Was Lonely – Forest Fringe

[written for]

Link to the review on As last year, I'll stick the text in here too, when WOS have had their money's worth...

Hamlet – Wooster Group, Lyceum Theatre (EIF)

[written for]

Link to the review on As last year, I'll stick the text in here too, when WOS have had their money's worth...

There Has Possibly Been An Incident – Northern Stage

[written for]

Link to the review on

(Hopefully I'll finish the expanded version of this sometime...)