Wednesday 11 December 2013

Let The Right One In – Royal Court

[basically a lot of soul-searching about why I didn’t like I as much as everyone else]

Oskar is trapped between two women with drinking problems. His mother (Susan Vidler) is apparently drunk in every scene she appears in. His only other option (literally the only other woman on stage in a cast of nine) is an old woman in the body of a young girl, who is addicted to drinking blood.

Sadly, because he’s being bullied in school and out by Jonny (Graeme Dalling) and Micke (Cristian Ortega), and his dad (my God, Paul Thomas Hickey is playing dads now. God I feel old) has moved out – possibly because he’s started a relationship with a man, it’s hard to say; that bit is as coy as if portraying homosexuality were still illegal – Oskar (Martin Quinn, definitely not 12 years old. Hard to say how old he is meant to be) decides to go with option (b) rather than wait to see if there are Any Other Options At All. Ever.

In line with Matt Trueman’s recent thesis about reviewing now being a “team sport” after watching LTROI I had a read of all the other reviews, but, surprisingly, didn’t come across one which actually reflected how I felt about it. How I felt about it, for what very little it is worth, was: mostly very unhappy in the first half and much more convinced in the pacey, shock-scattered second.

As is fast becoming my habit, I should flag up Stewart Pringle and Andrzej Lukowski’s five star raves for Exeunt and Time Out, and here add supporting four-star evidence from Shuttleworth of the FT and Hitchings of the Standard. I don’t think I can really disagree with a single word that any of them have written, since they’re all plainly just reflecting their own simple enjoyment of the thing, quite without agenda. And they’re pretty much the majority.

And I should include Susannah Clapp’s review (also a “five-star rave”, now that the Observer has capitulated to the ravages of being fucking stupid and having star-ratings, much against the wishes of the anything-but-stupid Clapp). Not least because, thanks to the recent cessation of the Independent on Sunday having any critic at all (formerly Kate Bassett), and the Times’s replacement of Libby Purves with Dominic Maxwell, (and because Time Out happened to use Andrzej and Exeunt Pringle) she’s the only woman who’s written about it. Clapp is also interesting as she’s also the only critic who also saw the production in its original home at Dundee Rep as a National Theatre of Scotland production.

As a result of feeling a bit grumpy in the first half, you might expect me to naturally find Michael Billington’s three-star grumble in the Guardian and Patrick Marmion’s two-star hrumph in the Daily Mail (Patrick Marmion is all right, you know. Not AT ALL like his cynically right-wing co-critic Quentin Letts. Patrick actually likes (some) theatre and even writes plays) more conducive reading. Well, it’s hard to identify with Patrick’s position, since his two main objections are a) that it’s an adaptation at all (a stupid objection) and b) it’s not as good as the film (I haven’t seen the film, and it’s basically a subset of a) anyway).

Michael’s objections are, inevitably, about social context. And much though I might have ribbed him over the years about this recurrent bugbear of his, it’s a bit like the stopped clock: occasionally it’s right. And here I do think there’s something to be said for wanting a return of some of the social information. Look, for example, at how Pringle asserts: “Resetting the Swedish tale in some remote Scottish community is a brilliant move from Thorne, retaining the isolated otherworldliness that director Tomas Alfredson captured so perfectly in the first film version.” Given that the characters all had Swedish names, I’d assumed it was probably just Scottish actors “playing Swedes”, but Pringle’s assumption seems perfectly reasonable. There’s also the interesting thing that, not being Scottish or Swedish, suddenly the class identities of the characters became more or less illegible to me. And in realism – which this ostensibly is (explanation forthcoming) – class is an unavoidable dimension.

It is also from Billington’s review that I learn the original novel (John Ajvide Lindqvist) was set in 1981. This fact suddenly makes total sense of the Rubik’s Cube which Oskar gives to his new vampire girlfriend. But since Rubik’s Cubes still exist, that fact alone wasn’t really enough to make me think “Aha, it’s 1981. It’s Sweden! I wonder if I should be thinking more about synth-pop and impending nuclear holocaust?” Also, Sweden in 1981 is probably about the last time and place you could set something morbidly concerned with blood without it being one long AIDS metaphor. (One hopes to God that the whole dad-story isn’t a clumsy Swedish way of suggesting that dimension.)

But enough about them. Were my annoyances as inevitably guessable as Billington’s?

Everyone in chorus: Was it not German enough for you, Andrew?

Surprisingly, it wasn’t that at all.

This wasn’t about me wanting it to be something it wasn’t trying to be. My basic problems in the first half were much more boring. Firstly, I didn’t really think much of the acting was very good (director: John Tiffany). Secondly, I didn’t think the script was working (writer: Jack Thorne). And thirdly, I’m not quite as much of a fan of the particular movement sequences (movement: Steven Hoggett) deployed in the first half (boys practising stabbing moves in chorus, mother and son tossing and turning in the same bed through the night) as it would have be useful to be. And, yes, the transfer from Dundee’s wide stage to the Royal Court’s narrow one could be felt a bit in the squashed up stage picture. (I’m not saying the names in brackets are responsible, and this opinion does change in the second half. I’m just getting the info in...)

I should qualify the thing about the acting and the script. What I found most weird about the script – because I also started with Stewart’s understanding that it’d been transposed to Scotland (you hear “Oscar” rather than “Oskar”, for a long while) – was that everything that makes Thorne a great writer usually (and he usually is a really great writer) was absent. The way with words, the knack for vernacular, and most of all the non-stop joking that makes his characters so totally credibly, well, British. Here instead there was an attempt to have them speaking in the more stark, functional sentences of Northern Europe. Except, I’m not sue that worked. And much of the delivery sounded oddly forced, perhaps as a result.

The one glorious exception to this is Rebecca Benson as Eli, the vampire. Her lines work, and her performance of them, as if dragging her voice from her breathless body was perfect. Properly disconcerting and unearthly.

There was also the structure. Stewart tells me it’s pretty much – scene-by-scene – the film. Which is fine for films, but here it felt frustrating that scenes stopped when they were getting interesting, with cuts breaking momentum rather than building it as they do in films. It definitely felt filmic, without making any comment on this.

As a result of it not working (in my, largely isolated, view) I did spend a lot of time wondering what I wanted instead. The piece reminded me of Gisele Vienne’s incredibly more stylish This Is How You Will Disappear. If you want to know how to do dance, music, forests at night-time, teenagers and buckets of blood, then that is how. The design here is fine (Christine Jones: a bunch of trees on stage is always going to be quite an attractive proposition. I could have lived with many, many more. No one else will probably bother to note that they have been arranged in quite a specific arc. Oh and there’s a whizzy climbing frame which cleverly fills with water to double up as a swimming pool at the end). The lighting (Chahine Yavroyan), to my mind, was an utter catastrophe, but I don’t like kitsch, and this pretty much lit up the forest like a disco, and bathed the vampire in cold white light sometimes. Oh, don’t get me started on the lights. They’re a matter of taste and they irked my taste all the way through.

I did also spend a lot of time reflecting on what I wanted to be different about the dance. Motifs to which I kept returning were the purity and abstraction of Alain Platel and Pina Bausch, but also the twitching stillness of Sebastian Matthias. The movement work of Frantic Assembly/Steve Hoggart is increasingly pursuing a path of illustrative realism (see my similar objection in my Curious Incident review) and I’ve never really liked it: as far back as Hymns (1999). Actually, I really want to see Sell-Out (‘98) again, now.

I also wondered a bit about whether it wouldn’t have been interesting to see a version of this using the, ahem, German method of adapting a novel, cf. the recent productions of The Brothers Karamazov and Orlando. Well, no, I didn’t wonder, I definitely thought it would have been interesting. However, I repeat, I’d have been just as happy with an English version which had been working for me. Despite the total poverty of intellectual aspiration that might entail, I’m very happy with big, dumb story and shock as a substitute for thinking (which it isn’t here. There’s definitely some stuff about relationships to think about).

Which is perhaps why I did both the central “love” story and especially the second half of the second half a lot more. Maybe I’m just impatient and actually waiting for it the finale, and the constant interruption of the love story was what made them good. But I’m not sure I totally subscribe to the “there have to be annoying/dull bits” thesis. Because the love story was great – although I did kind of wonder what sort of philosophy it had subscribed to. But, y’know, as long as it wasn’t actually misogynist (plausible, but I don’t think it was), I don’t mind bleak (the story opens with Eli essentially breaking up with her former lover because he’s got to about fifty and she hasn’t aged a day. In his fate, we see Oskar’s inevitable future. If this is a blueprint for how Lindqvist thinks of romantic attachments, it perhaps goes some way to explaining Sweden’s suicide rate). Then, in the final few sequences where things kick off and get bloody it is also great. The movement and music came completely into their own. And you just wished that there could have been more moments like this.

What makes me sad about the whole, is that it felt to me that it was largely pandering to what the creators think people will accept. It doesn’t feel like a product of rigour, but of market forces and second-guessed expectations.

What was interesting (and much more depressing), watching in a sold out (I believe) Royal Court last night, is that, by having not made off-putting, “difficult” art, the production had attracting an audience, several of whom were quite happy to chat to each other as they might in a cinema, and who giggled because the spectacle of someone pretending to be a vampire on stage actually needs quite a bit of buying-into. And they weren’t really up for even putting in that much effort. Maybe that’s a misread, but that’s how it felt. I mean, obviously theatre is “a bit silly”. There’s absolutely no way of bullet-proofing it against that fact. But I don’t think there’s anything more wretched than a couple of half-cut Sloanies dropping that realisation onto an entire theatreful of people who are all trying to keep up their half of the pact between stage and audience.

So, yes. A pretty mixed experience. One, which, thanks to the final twenty minutes or so, sent me into the night with my nerves jangled and my adrenaline going. But it felt like it’d been a long time getting there.

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