Monday 3 February 2014

Blindsided – Manchester Royal Exchange

[All spoiler. Get over it. It’s better to know going in...]

On the surface of it, Blindsided is my least favourite play that I’ve seen by Simon Stephens for a decade (Country Music, 2004).

“On the surface of it” is important here.

An interesting thing about Stephens now is that on one level it would be very easy to argue that he has turned into at least two – more probably three – different playwrights. There’s the Stephens who argues his work has been irrevocably changed by his encounter with German-language theatre (Motortown?, Pornography, The Trial of Ubu, Three Kingdoms, Morning). There’s Stephens the medium, conduit, or adaptor (I Am The Wind, A Doll’s House, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, The Cherry Orchard). And there’s the Stephens who wrote Bluebird, Herons, Country Music, and now Blindsided.

What’s interesting about this is that there are definitely seams running through all these works which bind them together as an oeuvre. There are insistent themes – parenthood, abandonment, fidelity, madness, murder, drinking and “home” – but, formally, *on the surface*, Blindsided does initially feel like a conscious decision to re-explore the naturalism of his early years. Or, if one were to view it more cynically, to give the “home crowd” what they’re more used to – to fulfil a commission from the Manchester Royal Exchange with a straightforward play set in the Stockport of his youth.

On the surface of it.

And, I’ll admit, it took me a bit of a while to get past the surface.

The first half of Blindsided is essentially a domestic, kitchen-sink romance. Cathy Heyer meets John Connelly – he’s sizing up her house for a possible break-in, she already knows all about the trainee accountancy course that has moved him to Stockport. It’s 1979 and he’s all dressed in black: tight jeans, long trenchcoat – the uniform of the angry, disaffected young man. And, here, Cathy is a bit of a mod/ska-girl.

On paper they’re both great parts. John reads like a proto-Johnny from Mike Leigh’s Naked crossed with Malcolm McDowell in anything from If... to Clockwork Orange. And, my God, would I have killed to see a young Malcolm McDowell or David Thewlis tackle it. Or Chris Thorpe. I think it’s a terrifically playable character. I wasn’t sure I fully bought Andrew Sheridan’s version.

And, yes, I agree there’s nothing worse than “a critic” projecting their “ideal production” onto an existing one, but it’s just something that sometimes happens. I was watching Sheridan and really wanting him to be different, or better: more menacing, charismatic, credible – less clean-cut and gym-bodied. I wanted his clothes to feel more period-accurate; his skinny jeans to look less All Saints; his brand new black mac to look more like the sort of trenchcoat a self-respecting angry young man might wear and less Gap-ersatz.

Similarly, I was a bit worried by Katie West’s Cathy Heyer. She was forever on the verge of tipping into being Man(i)c Pixie Dreamgirl by way of Emily Lloyd in Wish You Were Here.

Their burgeoning romance is opposed by Cathy’s mum Susan (played by Julie Hesmondhalgh in a 70s wig) and her German-Jewish refugee friend Isaac Berg (Is.berg??) (Jack Deam, who seems to have been instructed to take out or down-play every character trait that seems embroidered heavily into the texture of his part).

You’re getting that I wasn’t entirely down with the casting, right? It’s a shame. I really tried incredibly hard to buy into them. Granted, thanks to the Royal Exchange’s in-the-round setting, they’ve been blocked to death, always hopping around the stage – consciously, conspicuously and copiously changing ends so that we can all have a look at one of their faces most of the time. And you do *get* the characters. The people on stage *are* watchable. But, it felt (to me - subjective) like there was a strange gulf between the actor and character that didn’t feel like a deliberate “distancing” “performance device” designed to acknowledge some philosophical school concerning inhabitation of character. It felt like, well, not-good acting.

Anna Fleischile’s set is initially very exciting. It’s an off-centre concrete island of blank, clean paving stones; above it hangs another flat slab of concrete, which lowers to create “indoors” ceilings. The sides are flanked with occasional cutaway metal girders and the odd concrete gantry. It looks like the sort of set people often do modern-dress Shakespeare or Greek plays on. Which is a nice sort of set to do “New Writing” on. Lee Curran’s (comparatively under-stated) lighting design complements it beautifully with cold daylights, cold interiors, and a dusky red/brown half-light state for scene changes and “movement” half-sequences – some of which work better than others. Peter Rice’s sound design is notable chiefly for the angry crackles of feedback in scene breaks – oddly reminiscent of the Royal Exchange/Lyric co-production of Punk Rock. However, re: the set – it does do *a thing* in the second half of the second half which feels so bluntly illustrative that you kind of want to strangle All Of British Theatre (water gradually seeps out making the concrete island into a real island, at precisely the point where we discover the action has moved to the Isle of Man. ARGH. If the water had been there from the start, I wonder if that reveal would have felt better (yes)).

Then there’s the second half. Seated three people down from Gary Lineker, it would have been super to be able to claim that Blindsided is a play of two halves. But it’s not: it’s a play of one half and two quarters. Having gotten all my misgivings out of my system in the first half – or perhaps because the second half just feels like it immediately starts heading toward a new trajectory – I liked the second two quarters *a lot more* than I liked the first. Where the first half, in hindsight, feels necessary, I can’t help wondering if maybe the whole plays needs a shuffle (a bit like Country Music, in fact), with the first half of the second half coming before the whole of the first half. Because in the first half you really don’t know where you’re going. It’s interesting enough (misgivings about the performances in this production notwithstanding), but you really don’t get any sense of where it’s going, or what it’s actually about. Apart from *these people*. Which is, of course, fine. If one of my less favourite things (preferring the mythic-metaphorical people who people Three Kingdoms, Morning, Carmen Disrupted or even Wastwater).

What’s interesting is that in the first part of the second half, you suddenly realise *exactly* where it’s going. Way before it happens. “Oh!” you think, suddenly, “It’s Stephens’s seventies Medea!” Which is more or less exactly the first half of the second half. I’m not sure I fully bought it, psychologically – the action, the gesture, or Cathy’s path to it. But then, partly I wouldn’t know where to locate that not-buying-ness (production, acting, or writing?) and secondly it only seemed to matter because the first half seemed to have set us up for realism. I didn’t mind when Stephanie battered the crap out of her boyfriend’s brains in Morning even though it didn’t seem a very likely thing for her to do. And for all I know that bit is based on really impeccable research.

But, even more interesting: this is only the first half of the second half. There’s a second half. Eighteen years later John’s seventeen year-old son goes to visit the grown-up Cathy who is living on the Isle of Man. And there’s half an hour of clawing toward redemption. Which, once you’ve got over any residual Tory-leaning hanging-and-flogging instincts you might have knocking about toward Cathy – and the immediate juxtaposition of child-murder and twenty-year-on murderer does make it hard to switch – you find utterly compelling.

It’s strange. There’s a school of Simon Stephens criticism which seems to chart and then mark the hopefulness of each play out of five. Because Stephens started off writing bleak, bleak tales of ultimate redemption and hope-found-in-the-unlikeliest-tiny-chinks, there seemed to be a certain section who moved against his “bleaker” more “nihilistic” later works. Despite the fact the fact that Stephens is on record as saying that once you have children you kind of write off that sort of teenage nihilism in your thinking. Even without having children, I’d tend to agree that the only real way people can keep getting up in the morning is some sort of hope. Doesn’t mean that hope isn’t bullshit and we’re not all kidding ourselves if we think things are going to be ok, though. Probably, the more nihilistic and “irresponsible” the analysis, the more accurate it is.

What’s fascinating about Blindsided – and perhaps this is where the title comes from? – is that the first part is set in 1979. One of John’s first lines is his lie about canvassing for the Tory party for the forthcoming election. It’s the Winter of Discontent. This is something that they briefly mention. The scene where they attempt some sort of reconciliation with the past – with the horrific thing that happened in 1979, where Cathy murdered her baby – takes place after Blair’s victory in 1997. This is something that they briefly mention. You don’t need to be the sharpest tool in the box to notice the potential significance of this. If, in the most simple terms, the coming Tories in 1979 are the murder of a tiny potential life, and the Labour victory of 1997 is the point at which we wonder if maybe the past might be recoverable somehow, well ... if that’s the metaphorical plane on which we’re functioning, then I don’t think it’s stretching the point to suggest that a lot of what happened after 1997 doesn’t back up the play’s outwardly optimistic ending. “Hope and reconciliation are possible,” Stephens seems to say, giving critics of hopelessness what they want. “Fat lot of good it’ll do, though” he seems to add.

And it’s strange, both Julie Hesmondhalgh as older Cathy and Andrew Sheridan as John’s son suddenly seem to come right into their own as these second characters. Blindsided spits you back out into central Manchester moved, exhilarated, and thinking furiously about precisely the extent to which Stephens is saying we might as well all give up now.

It’s interesting, in writing workshops, and in interviews, Stephens talks a lot about home. It seems to be his starting point for why or how characters exist in the world. I wonder if this is a slightly wonky analysis on his part. I think it’s a locution which disguises the bigger question: how do you keep going? Who or what for? It’s not about where. It’s about why?

At one point Cathy levels the following accusation at Isaac: “I think you're just scared of what would happen if you did what you really wanted to do most of all in all the world. I think that's why you talk about politics all the time. As a distraction.”

It’s an incredibly powerful accusation precisely because it’s so seductive. It sounds like Cathy is the rock‘n’roll one and Isaac is a terrible bore. Except in this moment Cathy is the embodiment of proto-Thatcherite, Ayn Rand-y self-interest dressed up, as it usually is, as “the opposite of ideological”.

I’m now wondering if on some conscious or unconscious level whether Cathy/Medea is even meant to stand as a Thatcher analogy with the irresponsible, working class, cheating shitbag John representing the unions (i.e. what he does really isn’t super all the time, but does anyone deserve *that*?). Probably I’ve just jumped the interpretative shark, but this gives you a sense of just how much further on it is from being “just some naturalistic play about a couple of teenagers having a pretty crappy doomed relationship”.

So, yes.  Interesting play. Not sure about this production of it.  Look forward to seeing it many times again in the future, though...

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I don't know Simon Stephens as well as you but I found Blindsided a bit of a disappointment after Punk Rock and Port. I thought the characterisation was sketchy until, right at the end, we were introduced to the older Cathy - whose back story we obviously knew - and John's son - whose motivation was better described in the short time he was on stage than his father's was in a much more prominent part. I also found the set very frustrating with (unusually) several seats empty in a 'sold out' performance presumably because the tunnels either side of the platform restricted the view too severely to allow those seats to be sold. The warehouse style stanchions also obscured the stage for some people near me who had paid for top price seats in the stalls.