Wednesday 27 November 2013

Morning – Gorki Theater, Berlin

[written for Exeunt]

May 2012 suddenly feels like an awfully long time ago. From here – late November 2013 – even August 2012 is starting to feel like a different era in British theatre. I mention those two months in particular, since the former saw the British première of Sebastian Nübling’s astonishing production of Simon Stephens’s Three Kingdoms; and the latter saw the slightly less trumpeted World première of his subsequent play, Morning, directed by Sean Holmes with the Lyric Theatre’s Young Company, at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh.

A year and a half later Three Kingdoms has pretty much become legendary. It’s already been written into the theatre history books as a kind of revolutionary wake-up call to British theatre (much to the irritation of some radical British theatre-makers, since they were already making work that influenced Nübling (Forced Entertainment) or were just as radical already (too numerous to mention)). I think the real game-changer, however, was seeing that work on the main stage of a “mainstream” theatre. And knowing that it was “mainstream” for the other theatre cultures from which it came (Germany and Estonia).

All of which is far too much set-up for whatever Nübling did next. As it happens, I’d already had my first post-Three Kingdom’s Nübling encounter with his production of Volpone for Bochum Schauspielhaus, which I hadn’t much gone for. And, brace yourselves, folks: I’m not sure I was such an enormous fan of t/his Morning either.

As a compare and contrast exercise, the the difference between Holmes’s Morning and Nübling’s are instructive. Visually, where Holmes’s (designed by Hyemi Shin) was cluttered, messy and visceral; Nübling’s (“visuals Philip Whitfield”) is spare and stark. It has two basic elements flour and wood. The wood is all lent against the back wall in rough, unfinished planks. The flour is everywhere. Starting off in the performers pockets, or replacing the liquid in beer cans, the piece kicks off like a gig stand-off between Death in June (a single drummer beating violent rhythms on a lone snare – albeit a drummer who looks exactly like Fotherinton-Thomas) and Fields of the Nephilim (a goth band mostly famous for covering themselves in flour. Man, I have got to get me some more recent cultural references). The rest of the aesthetic looks much more like a hip-hop advert for All Saints.

Nübling’s production is for/with the Junges Theater in Basel (effectively one Swiss version of the Lyric Young Company). As such, the other two key-notes of the production beyond wood and flour are the company’s extreme youth and, interestingly, in the context of choice of music, their extreme whiteness. Where Holmes’s production not inaccurately represented the social and racial make-up of Hammersmith in West London, I imagine Nübling’s does much the same for Basel. As such, the appropriation of urban music feels somewhat strange. Now, (as the Fields of the Nephilim reference above makes clear) I know next to zip about urban music, and even less about the socio-economic and ethic mix of Basel. For all I know the kids in this production are all working class (Switzerland must have some sort of working class somewhere, right?) and the British/American accents they’re appropriating here for the rapping might be a more-or-less direct transfer. On the other hand, it might be a bit more like what it looks like, which would be like Barnes Youth Theatre making a show about “Thug Life”. You see my discomfort?

Similarly – and I’m pretty sure this is a grotesquely unfair judgement – the business of the company’s performance of youthfulness looks a bit more top-down than the Lyric company’s. Actually, since I’ve read Ashley Scott-Layton’s brilliant account of the Basel rehearsal process I know that denying the young people’s own agency in the work would just be incorrect. So instead I have the difficult job of explaining that what they’ve creating in collaboration with Nübling looks, (a bit, from the outside), like that kind of “grown-up’s version of what young people are like”. My (German, feminist, theatre-agnostic) friend who I saw it with mentioned Skins, and I knew what she meant.

There’s also the tricky problem of gender. Coming to this straight from Katie Mitchell’s Alles weitere kennen sie aus dem kino, moade for a stark contrast. Whatever else it does, Alles weitere... presents a version of women-on-stage that is utterly, fiercely, perfectly feminist. (Although I prefer the word “right” to the word “feminist”. Feminism shouldn’t be the exception, it should be the norm.) By contrast, the way that the women exist on stage here feels less progressive. Now, given that this is a collaboratively devised show, it would be idiotic to lay “blame” for this at Nübling’s door. On the other hand, he and his dramaturg (Uwe Heinrich) might have thought to come up with more elegant solutions to presenting the world.  (And I still wouldn't call Nübling a misogynist; possibly more of a provider of equal-opportunities objectification in an unequal world. Although here, with the additional youth of the performers, it did feel at once more worrying: but it also felt more insolent on the part of the young people, all of them, so maybe telling them how to stage themselves isn't my business.)

The issue is, though, that the young people are creating a vision of the world of the play, and its social context, largely through physical theatre. In many ways, I feel that I must have been spoilt by the quality of what I’ve been seeing recently that I’m not just immediately rolling over and letting this staging tickle my tummy. I mean, it is bloody amazing, don’t get me wrong. However, even within the world of amazing, we have to ask tough questions. And the question here is: does the Basel production of Morning fall into a rather rudimentary trap by – in seeking to delineate the blank, sexualised world of “youth culture” in which Stephanie, Cat and Stephen live – reproducing the tropes of that world, twerkin’ ‘n’ all, on stage? Here, unlike in Homes’s production, Tabea Buser’s Stephanie is a pretty relentless, screamin’, shoutin’, “sex bomb”. Cat, by contrast, is so much of a wallflower here that she literally spends whole scenes sitting against a wall playing videogames on her phone.

Beyond the shouting (of which I could have lived with less), there’s also the interesting sub-question of whether where one sits and the audience’s relation to the stage to take into account. If this Morning felt a bit more oppressive than Sean’s, then possibly partly this might have to do with the fact that Nübling’s actors towered over us on the Gorki’s strange thrust stage, rather than being surveyed way beneath us and far away as performers tend to be in the main space of the Traverse.

But what got me, and what confused the hell out of me, really, was that fact that despite – obviously – having completely rejected naturalism, the tropes that Nübling/the company were employing kind of brought the “realism” back in through a side door. This is a tricky idea to articulate, but in the Lyric production it felt more like Stephanie was allowed to remain partly as a symbolic, hypothetical set of propositions about the world. In the Basel version, she seemed more like a slightly unevenly written “real character” – in spite of the non-naturalistic playing. It perhaps didn’t help that Nübling has removed the Marx from Morning (and perhaps less significantly changed the going-to-university catalyst of change between Cat and Stephanie to going to a posh boarding school).

So, all this worrying aside, I should say that this production is actually pretty incredible. That I spent a lot of time wondering about these various aspects of it possibly just reflects the amount of time I’ve been spending in theatres recently, and the incredibly high-standard of that work, that mere brilliance of staging and sparks of energy and genius are no longer enough. Now I want purity of ideological expression and content as well. And in that respect, this production of Morning left me with a lot more niggling doubts than positive questions and propositions.

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