Thursday 30 April 2015

Stand – BAC, London

[seen 28/04/15]

Chris Goode’s follow-up to last year’s Edinburgh smash hit firework display, Men in the Cities, is formally about as different as you can get. Where Men in the Cities was a one-man show telling multiple fictional narratives, Stand involves six actors each telling one real person’s story, verbatim. Although, as several of these interviewees point out, it’s not just about them.

It’s also unlike Men in the Cities, in that it’s essentially lovely and optimistic (particularly if you’re a bit of a would-be leftie revolutionary, who, like me, largely never gets round to it, but does however somehow find time to buy property and accrue possessions). If Men in the Cities was about violent, almost suicidal revolution, Stand is about the simple actions and peaceful protests which might or might not work, or even be very “important”, but which nonetheless feel crucial on some much more fundamental level to our society.

Goode’s last verbatim show (his first, I think), collected a range of interviews with children and young people, and before that, he made 9, in which nine members of the community local to the West Yorkshire Playhouse told their own stories. Stand is a verbatim show in which six actors play six people from the community around its own commissioning theatre, the Oxford Playhouse. (If you go in not knowing this I imagine the Oxford-centricity is simply either a little perplexing or largely unnoticable). They are stories drawn from a self-selecting sample of people who responded to Goode’s call for people who have ever taken a stand about something to tell their story.

Throughout all these seemingly disparate pieces, however, is the common theme of a voice being given to the voiceless. “Voiceless” is maybe too grand and too condescending (both generally, and here) for a piece about people who have already volunteered to stand up and be counted. And then volunteered to stand up again and relate that moment or period of standing-up-and-being-counted-ness to members of a theatre company who are going to stand their stories up again and tour them nationally. Nonetheless, it’s the sense that you get. (It is perhaps to this end that Naomi Dawson’s set is such a sober, Question Time-like affair – a sense that these stories are being the national platform everyone deserves, maybe.)

Perhaps inevitably, all the voiceless voices heard here come from a non-defined, compassionate, anarchist and/or left. Were one the critic for the Telegraph or, God forbid, the Daily Mail, one could (myopically) grumble that the “disenfranchised far-right” aren’t similarly represented here (No! Because they’re the people needing standing up against, you dicks). But I think that would be to miss the point. It’s not really a matter of from where on the political spectrum these voices hail – we’re not told a single thing about the politics of the woman who adopts an eight-year-old Russian-speaking girl. It’s merely confirmation bias that makes me think that every word she says makes her full-on left-wing.

[But that’s a bit like that bit in The Last Battle where Aslan claims – in *the most exceptionally racist bit of children’s literature I’ve ever loved* – that basically *everything good* done by adherents of ANY OTHER IDEOLOGY is basically done in his name *really* and *everything bad* done in his name is essentially done in their name. Which is a fabulous way of winning an argument, but an exceptionally starting point for any kind of understanding.]

The fights here are against injustices, on everything from the micro-scale of one girl’s life, through vivisection – the facts of which remain startlingly horrific – and property development, to fracking and the sponsorship of Shakespeare by BP. Cathy Tyson’s character doesn’t specify a particular fight, so much as describe a life of perpetual dissidence, leading to, in the present day, a seat on the local council, which she justifies as a legitimate attempt to do her best to change things for the better.

All these actions are ultimately framed as a question to us in the audience. That if we don’t think things are all right with the world, then what are we doing to change them? The final sniffle-and-gulp-a-bit moment of the show offers the statement that it isn’t about them (on stage), as the lights (Anna Watson) go down on them and come up fully and briefly on us before the curtain call. There’s no more spelling out than that. And there doesn’t need to be. In this, it is a remarkably engaging way of not preaching, and yet leaving a door open as a direct challenge to make things better in the world.

Spalding Suite – Contact, Manchester

[seen 24/04/14]

How much does context matter? On paper (i.e. *in press releases*), Spalding Suite is mostly being sold as the new piece by Inua Ellams. The programme goes on to list five other international poets whose work is included in piece. Nevertheless, this is ultimately a bit like selling the latest piece by Gisele Vienne as “the new Dennis Cooper”. Similarly, this is nominally a piece about basketball, a game about which, dear reader, you will be unsurprised to learn, I have not even the faintest clue. (I mean, I get the self-explanatory titular rudiments – there’ll be a basket and a ball – but...). So let’s chuck most of what we think we know out of the window and start again.

For my money, Spalding Suite is a difficult piece of non-linear, abstract contemporary performance, cunningly disguised as a relatively relatable piece about young men and basketball. By picking a game which already involves spectacular grace and movement, the splintering of movement into abstraction is given a get out of jail free card. In the same way, by having the soundtrack created live by human beatbox MC Zani, the piece gets away again with being able to present texturally dense, sonic soundscapes without seeming impossibly “arty”. And, by tethering the work of the five poets to an overarching narrative about a a five-a-side basketball team, some fiercely complex imagery and writing gets by without seeming wanky. Christ, at one point someone even invokes Prometheus and a raft of classical allusions and doesn’t alienate anyone. Which is a bloody clever trick, if you can manage it.

More striking than this, though, is the fact that this is a piece of performance/theatre/dance that manages to put four young black men (out of five) on stage, in a piece about contemporary life, and not once make them discuss “issues” or patronise them. I’m not sure I’ve *ever* seen a show do that before. Former artistic directors of the Royal Court in particular might want to take a lot of notice. Instead of the usual litany of all-too-familiar casting options and tropes, the *issues* this basketball team have to work their way through are, variously: lack-of-speed, being a boring player, vainty and rage, etc. It’s a relatable range of problems that cuts across class and race, and, mercifully, also has application beyond sport.

But it’s director Benji Reid’s the choreography and stage-pictures that are the real stars here. Inspired seemingly by everything from basketball itself to computer games, slow-motion replays, via architecture, geometary, and probably some abstruse sport theory of which I know nothing, the movement here is precisely everything that I moaned about Shooting With Light lacking.

At the start of the piece I asked about context. And it is an interesting, crucial point. Spalding Suite opened at Contact last week. This week it’s going to the Southbank Centre for its “World Premiere” (their press release: the South Bank Centre really do seem to believe that nothing that happens outside London actually counts). I have no idea how it’ll do there, or who’ll go to see it. It doesn’t seem unfair to suggest, though, that the South Bank Centre is less *at the heart of a community* than Contact. It seems likely that the piece will have a more white, more middle class, much older audience than the majority young black audience it had in Manchester. *And*, if anyone can find a Chicken Tikka Kebab for £3.00 within a minute of the South Bank Centre, I’ll give them a tenner.

Saturday 25 April 2015

Rolling Stone – Royal Exchange, Manchester

[seen in preview 23/04/14]

I last saw Fiston Barek on stage in 2010 in a play called Love the Sinner at the NT, in which he played the gay, African lover of an Englishman in a play exploring the persecution of homosexuals in Africa. I remember it as one of the worst-written plays I have ever seen.
In 2015 at the Royal Exchange, Fiston Barek is playing Dembe, the gay, African lover of a Northern Irishman. Rolling Stone is a play exploring the persecution of homosexuals in Africa, and that, mercifully, is where the similarities end.

Where Love the Sinner was condescending to the point of racism, Chris Urch’s Bruntwood Prize play corrects all its major faults. Instead of being a play about white people in England worrying about Africa, it’s a play set in Africa with an almost entirely black cast (the exception is the token British voice – the mixed-race Northern Irish/Ugandan Sam played by Robert Gilbert (Vronsky in Ellen McDougall’s brilliant Anna Karenina, with which Rolling Stone plays in Rep.)). But more importantly, it’s only *about* the persecution of homosexuals in contemporary Uganda in much the same way that The Crucible is *about* the persecution of Witches in 1700s America.  That is to say, this is a story about characters rather than a spider diagram exploring abstract concepts.

In fact, the Miller comparison feels crucial. As well as clear parallels with the The Crucible, there’s also a fair amount of A View From The Bridge thrown in for good measure – indeed, it was in Rolling Stone that I realised how central to both Miller plays accusations made from within tight-knit communties against other members of the community were. Rolling Stone, in fact draws both plays together, reminding us that it doesn’t matter if the accusations are true (AVFTB) or false (TC) when they’re made within an unjust system.

What’s refreshing about Urch’s approach is that his play treats the situation in Uganda as a given. It’s not a play of white-Western hand-wringing. It doesn’t explore *why* Uganda has such particularly toxic laws against homosexuality: a debated death-penalty for homosexuals, four years imprisonment for anyone not reporting suspected homosexuals, and the titular newspaper, The Rolling Stone, publishing names, addresses and photographs of men accused of homosexuality, leading to some being publicly murdered, one man set on fire in the street watched by a crowd. Even Sam (interestingly self-identifying as British, but calling his hometown Derry), is secondar. All this is good. And, yes, you can see why the play was a Bruntwood finalist. It’s very tightly constructed. Through the tight-knit inter-relationships of just six characters: Dembe’s older brother Joe (Sule Rimi) and twin sister Wummie (Faith Omole); Naome (Ony Uhiara), who has been mute for six months; and her mother, Mama Kyeyune (Donna Berlin), friend and supported of Joe, who is also the local pastor.

From this web of interrelationships alone, you can almost feel the arc of the tragedy that’s going to unfold, with all the inexorability of an Ibsen. I will admit, the play hadn’t really captured my imagination by the interval. A lot of the work done by the first half comes to fruition in the second, but while those seeds are invisibly being sown, there isn’t so much by the way of conflict. Or rather, what conflict there is, superficially rarely seems to rise beyond tensions within Dembe and Sam’s hidden relationship and between Dembe and the rest of his family.

Similarly, while McDougall’s direction and Joanna Scotcher’s design both serve the text admirably, I can’t help wishing that a few more of the sculptural fireworks in Anna Karenina’s design and dramaturgy had also been deployed here. Plainly I don’t mind “straight” productions of plays (See: Little Voice most recently), but the brilliantly municipal plain blue carpet here almost sucks art out of the air (as such carpets tend to). It’s perfect design, even while it’s deeply dispiriting to look at.

As pretty much everyone who knows me said beforehand “It’s not really your kind of play”. But I’m always up for expanding my range a bit, and I think I can say that while, no, it’s not an example of my exact favourite sort of thing, I do think it’s quite a good one of the sort of thing it is. It should also maybe be noted that this production was apparently stood up from scratch in two and a half weeks (as was Little Voice, apparently).

My favourite moment of the show was shortly after it finished, however. I was wandering out the the Royal Exchange for a cigarette, after a Thursday matinee almost exclusively peopled with old white folks. The bloke in front of me was expressing his outrage and I mentally rolled my eyes in expectation at the probable homophobic, UKIPy nonsense I was about to hear.

“It’s the bloody injustice of it that really makes me sick,” he practically shouted.

Really loved that.

Friday 24 April 2015

Shooting With Light – Lowry, Salford

[seen 23/04/2015]

First things first: theatre is an entirely subjective thing. Lyn Gardner has already written a “best case scenario” review of this show. I fear I’m about to do the opposite.

Shooting With Light is a piece of “physicsl/visual theatre”. Idle Motion are a young company. Very young. About halfway through I realised that accusing them of simply ripping off Complicite’s Mnemonic would be idiotic. I saw Mnemonic just after I graduated from Leeds. In 1999. Probably before any members of Idle Motion had started secondary school. So, on one level, why shouldn’t they make retro, nineties theatre? My generation certainly spent far more time than necessary remaking lots of 1970s theatre (Mike Bartlett’s first acting role at Leeds was playing the lead in Howard Barker’s 1976 play Claw, for instance).

On this level, it’s really fascinating to watch Idle Motion’s work as, I think, a product of the “theatre studies-ification” of theatre. I should say, I have no problem with either theatre studies or devised work. But I do have a theory: that there is a drawback in the initial work it can engender (I say all of this with the full expectation that if Idle Motion stay together as a company they will make much better work than this in the future). Put simply, if you’ve ever seen any visual theatre made by recent graduates, you’ll have seen *a lot* of this show before. It’s almost like a Mr Burns scenario: a lot of people my age saw Mnemonic, became theatre studies teachers, and over the years have passed on their memories of it as tools to make theatre, so that now their pupils, and their pupils’ pupils probably, have a kind of default methodology that results in them making Mnemonic without realising.

Nominally, Shooting With Light tells the story of Gerda Taro, a German socialist war photographer who died, age 26, shooting the Spanish Civil War. Her story is told through two prisms – firstly that of her partner’s brother decades later trying to track down his brother’s remaining work (said partner also photographer), and secondly, essentially as a shadow of that brother. It’s remarkable to see a piece whose entire top-tier creative team is female create a piece which so firmly frames the story of this remarkable independent woman in terms of the men around her, gives her so little of a voice of her own, and even fails her at the Bechdel test.

Also remarkable is how *at no stage* does anything we see on stage ring even remotely true. It’s a odd, because it’s a totally watchable piece of theatre on many levels, and it’s entirely successful story-telling, but what anyone says? Or how they say it? Or the *movement*? No. The whole thing needs to be looked at, gutted, and pretty much re-started. Maybe the lighting is good, although again, it’s evocative more of great lighting in a black-box student theatre show than of Europe in the 1930s. On the subject of Europe in the 1930s, this is a story about a German and a Hungarian living in Paris and then Spain. Now, I get that accents can be a no-no. On the other hand, a bit of variation from the uniform “heightened RP” that the cast use would be good: the overall effect is like watching the Famous Five improvise Land and Freedom. With added *movement*.

 And, ARGH. MY GOD. The *movement*. I see from the programme that Dan Canham was their “movement consultant”, but, no, really, I think the company need a lot more than a “consultant” if they’re going to stick this much movement in. I’m not an expert, but I’d say the company’s main problem lies in the purchase their feet have on the ground. They are virtually rooted. Much of the “movement” is from the waist up. And a painful amount is floaty, slow motion stuff with a lot of people watching their own hands (moving, of course, in slow motion) with their mouths slightly open to suggest wonderment (at their own hands moving?). Perhaps I’m being unfair, but it struck me that they needed to see *a lot* more contemporary dance, and also to do a hell of a lot more physical training, before bothering to include *movement* because they felt they had to. There’s nothing wrong with thinking that dance is an ideal medium through with to present a civil war. There is everything wrong with making the people watching (me) think that that’s the worst idea anyone’s ever had. At least the combination of music and photographs was so much stronger, that the five figures running to and fro on the stage and then freezing was largely ignorable.

Finally, re: characterisation – it seems the fact that Gerda Taro went to finishing school and had a boyfriend are the two key aspects of her life that made it into the play. She comes off as someone who should be called Bunty in a P.G.Wodehouse musical. And, similarly, for someone imprisoned in Nazi Germany for her socialism, her values – except for the occasional bit of lip-service – were much more akin to those of a depoliticised noughties arts graduate than someone committed to the workers’ struggle.

Saying all of this feels grotesquely unfair, and more like kicking puppies than reviewing theatre. *Of course* I’d rather be encouraging. Of course, I think Lyn’s review is *also* right. I want to say “of course Idle Motion are a talented company, and...” but I’m not sure what their talent is. Not really acting, not really movement, and not really creating good dialogue. The mise-en-scene is well realised, but not original or radical. It is indeed a brilliant story that they’ve uncovered, but I wish even a scintilla of the anger, and passion, and *need to tell it* had come across. Instead, it felt like pragmatic next-step “content” on a road of relationship-building and Arts Council Application Form filling. However, people only get better by doing, right? So I am glad they’re doing.


Thursday 23 April 2015

Blood Wedding – Everyman, Liverpool

[seen 22/04/15]

Watching this version of Blood Wedding – and *version* it most definitely is – I was struck by the realisation that Graeae are pretty much *the* blueprint for what I wish Mainstream British Theatre was like. Consider this production: David Ireland’s take on Lorca’s text almost entirely does away with any attempt to find an equivalent for the floaty poetic original, and instead replaces most of the speaking with the bluntest possible exchanges needed to move the same plot forward, supplemented with remarkable sexual frankness and precisely the references to Facebook and mobile phones with which modern life is filled. Meanwhile Jenny Sealey’s production – inextriably linked to Lisa Sangster’s design – offers a way of playing the text which nimbly hops between demotic naturalism and a kind of post-Brechtian European arthouse style without ever feeling like it’s doing anything even remotely so wanky. At the same time, the company offers more British national and regional voices than you hear over a whole season at the National, is effortlessly mixed race (but emphatically *not* colour-“blind”), and, oh yes, several of the actors are disabled too. Ireland has also written this into the script with delighted, frequently very funny, frankness, offering the same sorts of jokes, but with infinitely richer returns on them, as last year’s Fringe-turkey I Promise You Sex and Violence.

In terms of putting a bomb under a classic, it almost makes Carmen Disruption look suddenly timid. What we get here is: the plot of the original; an updating of it, a stage picture of the multicultural (and multi-national – Graeae co-produce with Dundee Rep) society we actually live in; and a kind of deconstruction of what the hell Lorca was up to in the first place. After all, the plot is the stuff of Eastenders: man with murdered brother and father is marrying a woman who is having an affair with the nephew of their murderer. In this version the bride’s parents are ineffably reasonable Scots, while the groom’s deaf mother feels like she alone has come, virtually unaltered, from the rural, Spanish, Catholic, almost classical-tragedy original. What she’s signing seems to come straight from Lorca. I’ve no idea if her deafness is intended to double as a metaphor for her grief, but it’s an evocative and readily available reading.

Apart from the obviously updated script and the nicely abstract (if a bit too *clean* for my money) set, I think part of what makes this production so brilliantly contemporary is the way that Graeae use language. Because of their status as “a disabled company”, their default way of treating a stage – incorporating surtitles and signing for the deaf and plentiful audio-description for the blind *as a matter of course* – means that at any given moment about three languages are being used simultaneously. As an approach it simply makes all of us *read* the stage more carefully. As a result, it effortlessly aces the kind of stage semiotics that some “visual theatre” companies are still struggling with after more than a decade. Indeed, the whole reminded me more than anything of Frank Castorf’s celebrated destructions of Chekhov at the Volksbühne.

And the cast are great. Rather than the hideous declamatory thing I imagine trad. British productions end up with – attempts to wring every ounce of “Spanish passion” from a bunch of etiolated RADA graduates – here everyone behaves like the everyday Brits they are; mostly substituting irony, sarcasm and self-deprecation for wild hair-tearing and Mediterranean passion. It’s also brilliant that Ireland’s script directly addresses every “elephant in the room” regarding disability. That this is a play in which two black men are fighting over a white Scottish girl in a wheelchair with what I’d guess is sacral agenesis – essentially, no legs – does not politely escape comment. Nor does the white mother’s deafness, or the black aunt’s height. Indeed, given Britain’s propensity for embarrassment at saying the wrong thing, Graeae and Ireland have almost contrived to give the titular wedding not only a tragic dimension, but also a farcical one, both running concurrently. The deaf mother from Lorca, for example, repeatedly – in sign language – calls the daughter a whore, while the daughter’s father says all the wrong things to the deaf mother. To their mutual incomprehension. Jokes about racism and political correctness abound. And yet, all that is merely window dressing for the actual narrative about forbidden love, passion, the question of who the daughter really loves, and this almost savage blood feud that hangs over the families.

The ending of the Lorca is probably stranger than this – the moon is credited as a speaking character in the original – but Ireland/Seeley nonetheless find a stylish solution to the increasing abstraction. Two tramps on a suddenly miked stage – replete with echo-effect – comment on the action as the jilted groom hunts down his wife and her seducer and reflect on the strangeness of desire. So, yes. I look forward to the day when this level of textual and visual interrogation of a piece, and this extent of diversity-of-casting, comes as standard in British theatre. And I don’t think it’s fanciful to imagine it’s so far off now.

Wednesday 22 April 2015

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice – Kings Arms, Salford

[seen 21/04/15]

As I’ve already said, I’m a bit late to the Jim Cartwright party. Watching Little Voice at the King’s Arms last night, I got another good idea of why: I used to live in London. Apparently LV premièred at London’s National Theatre in 1992, directed by Sam Mendes and behaving as a star vehicle for Jane Horrocks and Alison Steadman. And, well, it’s just too easy to be cynical sometimes. I think John McGrath says it best – referring particularly to the plays of David Storey and Arnold Wesker at the Royal Court in 1960s – when it notes that “this famed New Era/Dawn/Direction of British Theatre was no more than the elaboration of a theatrical technique for turning authentic working-class experience into satisfying thrills for the bourgeoisie.”

Being a bit less hardline than John McGrath, I get the National’s quandry, I get Jim Carwright’s quandry: surely it’s better to have this opening at the National Theatre than another Tom Stoppard play like The Real Thing? But at the same time, when it’s ripped out of its context, it could be seen to amount to little more than selling “grim up north” narratives as poverty porn to the then entirely unreconstructed audience of the NT.

So, yes, before even a word was uttered I was pleased to be seeing this for the first time at a pub in Salford rather than in the Cottesloe; even if, 23 years down the line, parts of it already feel more like a history play than anything to do with present-day Lancashire (the whole first scene revolves around getting a land-line installed. A land line! Imagine!).

I suspect everyone else already knows the plot of Little Voice (from the film if not from seeing it on stage), even I had a basic grasp: withdrawn daughter of brassy mum turns out to be able to do uncannily good impressions of famous singers. Her mother’s latest gentleman caller wants to put her on stage at the local variety club (again, history play). Mother and boyfriend conspire to push child into lucrative stage career. Child is unhappy. Mother’s house burns down. Child goes off to start a relationship with a similarly withdrawn bloke who’s been stalking her. To be honest, despite a touching conclusion, the plot does fall apart a bit in the second half, all getting a bit “and then, and then, and then...” with rapidly spiralling improbability. In fact – let’s get the negatives out of the way here – I reckon with a running time of 2hrs40 (inc. 20 minute interval) I reckon it could probably lose twenty minutes. That said, as a positive, I couldn’t point to anything I saw last night and say, yeah, that’s the bit to cut. Moment to moment you’re completely with the action throughout, and eagar to learn what happens.

So this is weird, right? I’d usually have said – at least on paper – this sort of thing isn’t my bag at all: from the broadly naturalistic set, through the proper story, to the total lack of European anything... And yet, I admit I was pretty taken with this Little Voice (more so before the interval, but I’d been up since half six and was at the Lowry Studio showcase from 12 – 5.30pm, so maybe all the second half really needs is audiences who have had a nap). It’s impossible to single out a particular aspect of the show that made me go “YES”, but it totally happened. The set is clearly a creative labour of love (designed and co-built by director James Baker). Clever eliding the various rooms of the (northern, terraced, back-to-back) house, and with an upstairs level, playing into (what I think is) a reconfigured thrust version of the King’s Arms’s high vaulted space, with a cleverly unfussy way of transforming it into the nightclub of part two...

And then there are the performances. Bloody hell they’re good. Jeni Williams as LV’s mother is a brilliant permanently pissed blizzard of tits and swearing (the character refers to her chest non-stop, ok?), while Josie Cerise, well, she’s good at “being withdrawn”, but she knocks all the covers/impressions out of the park. Liam Grunshaw nails the wheeling-dealing Ray Say, ably supported by Leo Atkin’s Mr Boo – both also turning in fine in-character songs. There’s also excellent comic support from Laura Lindsay as much-teased overweight-friend Sadie, and Ben Sherlock’s Billy is earnest enough to make what could be pretty creepy attention to LV seem sweet and desirable.

So, yes. This is yer proper quality fringe musical, played pretty much exactly where it’s set. Apparently there’s a version opening at the West Yorkshire Playhouse next month (seemingly Little Voices, like Oresteias, come not as single spies...), but it’s very hard to see how a bigger venue or budget will be able to improve on this much care, attention and love.

Monday 20 April 2015

Reformation 9 – The Yard, Hackney

[seen 16/04/15]

[When I wrote this embargoed review, Reformation 9 wasn’t going to be revived again. Now it might be. The below includes the full text of the introduction to the show, which, while not a “spoiler”, might be something you’d rather see live first. etc. Meg Vaughan has written an excellent non-spoilery review here if you’d rather do that.]

Reformation 9 is introduced by Andy Field who some of us might know from Forest Fringe. It is a work by two German artists Luther & Bockelson. In order to introduce them, Andy reads us their manifesto, which they’ve given me permission to also reproduce here. It’s a brilliant text:

1. We are Luther and Bockelson and the first thing you must know is nothing that happens this evening is our fault. None of this is our responsibility. You brought this upon yourselves.

2.What did you do when they first told you God did not exist. Were you angry? Were you disappointed? Did you ask for a second opinion, or burn your church to the ground?

3. We are Luther and Bockelson and this is our manifesto. Initially we were disappointed that you could not read it in the original German but actually the translation really adds something.

4. We are Luther and Bockelson and we are from Europe. Real Europe. Grand hotels and cheap cigarettes Europe. Conceited, war-wounded, iron-curtained, gothic-spired multilingual racist Europe. Rosa Luxemburg Walter Benjamin Ferris wheels and barricades nailing manifestos and heretics to the walls of our great Cathedrals Europe. We are ghosts. We are angels of history.

5. We are Luther and Bockelson but enough about us let's talk about you. You look beautiful out there in the half light. You are so young. So irresistible. You look ready to take on the world.

6. What did you do when you realised this was what you paid your money for? Were you angry? Were you disappointed? Did you ask for a refund, or did you get up and dance?

7. We are Luther and Bockelson and our moment has passed. It’s your time now darlings. Time for a party. Time for a riot. Time to sing of the multicolored, polyphonic tides of revolution. Time to kiss like strangers in the aisles of the theatres of our great European capitals. Time to spit and drip. To twist and shout. Come all you rebels, youth spirits, rock minstrels, bomb throwers, bank robbers, daylight looters, God botherers, poets, plagiarisers, panic buyers and body snatchers: let's toast to the future! Let's toast to the next time! To all the joy rides we'll take along roads that haven't even been built yet!

8. We are Luther and Bockelson and we have travelled a long way to get here so let's not fuck this up.

9. [silence]

10. We are Luther and Bockelson and this is where our Manifesto ends. We hand it over to you now, to do with as you see fit.

Seeing Carmen Disruption the next night seemed like the almost perfect round-off to a week that included two trips to the ROH and this. I’m very pleased that Meg Vaughan went so far as to round this and CD up together. Because I think she’s right. And Michael Billington, with his Crimp reference, is right too. (It’s section 4 that reminds me of Crimp. Section 7 reminded me of Chris Goode’s reading of Howl at Forest Fringe or the end of his own God/Head, and section 8 – in delivery at least – reminded of Chris Thorpe.)

Just the manifesto of Luther & Bockelson (keep wanting to call him Bockelstein) alone strikes me as an important part of Where We Are With “British” Theatre Right Now. After writing this, and a thing about “Three British Playwrights Since 2000” (for IATC website), I’m going back to a piece for the Guardian about “National Identity” in art prompted either by the Identity.Move! Festival in Prague, or by an ongoing discussion with a Romanian colleague about a Hungarian play. In both pieces, as in Britain at large, the idea of of Britain, then “Europe”, then “The World”, feels particularly pressing at the moment. Reformation 9 offers little by way of conclusive answers, but just the text of the manifesto seemed to cover an important spread of ideas, both in terms of how we in Britain create Europe (that brilliant “Real Europe” distinction), and how within that we define it, the landmarks of differentiation for us, and perhaps also for them, who might well view us as an American proxy moored just off the bit that counts, and with a past more catastrophic than anywhere else on the continent except Germany. As we sit and wait to discover which war we’re going to get involved in next, and thereby what course history will take, it seems both interesting and futile to consider who on earth we even think we are.

[run your mouse over the next bit for more definitive spoilers if you’re never going to see the show...]

Now that the show has closed it can be revealed that Luther & Bockelson are figments of the fertile Field imagination. In fact, the action of Reformation 9 is largely determined by the audience and how they interact with the contents of A4 envelopes on their chairs, and with Field returning to the stage a further eight times to deliver the manifesto (hence 9). As such, there’s not really *a show* to review at all (hence my being very keen indeed to have the manifesto to post, in lieu of content). On the night I saw it, my fellow audience members and I had a fine old time recreating various tropes of European theatre – I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to make my own Katie Mitchell camera show with a live-feed video recorder, to put another section of the performance in a solid red lighting state, and to leave an electric guitar propped against an amp making screechy feedback noises. Other people did other stuff. On other nights, totally different things happened. And, well, it made me happy – and doubtless confirmed to anyone else that it’s a good job I only direct one play every ten years as my aesthetic gets ever more calcified. 

Sunday 19 April 2015

Carmen Disruption – Almeida Theatre, London

[seen 17/04/15]

Simon Stephens’s Carmen Disruption is a play of echoes and fragments. It exists in this form because the form precisely mirrors the worldview. It veers between the public and the private; between impersonal facts and personal perspectives. It is a play about Europe that it about the world. Fittingly, then, my relationship with the play is already both public and personal. I first read Carmen Disruption sitting outside a café in the autumn sun in Berlin, 2013; I first saw it, directed by Sebastian Nübling, at Deutsches Schauspielhaus, Hamburg, in 2014. This seems important to mention, firstly because each version has differed so much from the last, and secondly, because it is very much a play set in “Europe”. Watching it at “home” is a very different experience again.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. You want to know the basics: each incarnation of Carmen Disruption is a set of five intercut monologues with a chorus. The voices of four of the monologues are essentially modern versions of four characters from Bizet’s Carmen. The last is that of The Singer, a character “informed by lengthy conversations with the mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham”, who, like The Singer, has played the role of Carmen in dozens of productions in dozens of cities across the world. In the Hamburg production The Singer was played by Rinat Shaham (she’s currently in New York. Two weeks ago she was in Berlin). The chorus, on paper, is something like the voice of the city: newspapers, announcements, trends, zeitgeisty thoughts; the sound of the crowd, the murmur of the Platz der Republik. In this version the chorus is played by the mezzo-soprano Viktoria Vizin and a surtitle machine.

Having seen the text of the piece go through so many iterations, it almost feels like the stories it tells could be anything at all. Of course they couldn’t. The shock of narcissism and violence of the rent-boy Carmen, the near-suicidal despair of the jilted student Micaela, the low-grade criminality and reconciliation with estranged child of the (now female) cab driver Don José, and the criminality on a global scale of Escamillo’s financial career all build – in the same way as Wastwater built – into a very particular elliptical sketch of the modern world. Indeed, it was in Wastwater that Stephens first introduced Habanera from Carmen as a kind of synaptic device, an almost inaudibly hummed motif running between its disparate parts; the tune carelessly hummed by the woman having the affair in the Heathrow hotel room.

Carmen Disruption is, once again, Stephens exploring that vision of Europe that – after the section “A Tragedy of Love and Ideology” in Attempts on Her Life – I unconsciously think of as Crimpland. As I say; echoes and fragments. In Escamillo’s painstaking morning routine we are perhaps reminded of Rupert Goold’s production of American Psycho. In the jarring descriptions of online pornography we’re back to that Heathrow hotel room in Wastwater. Even, eighteen years down the line, we can still perhaps hear Larry from Patrick Marber’s Closer mumbling that “everything is just a version of something else.” Hell, even just as an encapsulation of my last week or so of theatregoing, Carmen Disruption is ludicrously resonant, from the Crimp opera, through to the Hofesh Shechter Royal Ballet show.

Michael Longhurst’s production here immediately joins the ranks of the most fully, beautifully realised productions of *anything* I’ve seen on a British stage. Lizzie Clachan’s design is, by turns, brassy, subtle and glorious; and above all, a great *Almeida* design. We enter the auditorium from the stage, and so see the auditorium has been dressed as one of those great European chocolate-boxy national opera houses of the late 1800s, while the stage itself is almost empty save for additional bricks, rubble, and, centre-stage, the carcass of a dead bull. (Like I said ages ago, bullfighting is definitely This Year’s Image, and *obviously* Carmen has it in spades). Of course, in the context of *Europa*, the bull also has an additional context which also finds its resonance here. The rubble of European capitals also presents that dual sense of the – still – ever-present aftermath of WWII that you feel in any European capital, and at the same time, that allied feeling of property development, of state and nation giving way to globalisation; industry giving way to Capitalism, factories and warehouses becoming desirable loft-style apartments and multi-purpose arts centres. All these ideas present in the text are reflected in the design.

And, as with the design, so is the whole atmosphere of the show – through dramaturgy (Pia Furtado), movement (Imogen Knight), sound (both the sound design: Carolyn Downing and the original score and musical direction: Simon Slater), and light (recent Katie Mitchell regular Jack Knowles here furiously channelling Lee Curran) – somehow a sculptural version of the text. The use of two live cellists alongside the recorded booms and crackles of city life, the use of striking actual dance moments, and the sheer intelligence of the edit done on the script all deserve massive credit.

One could make one or two minor quibbles: the movement feels like it could be a bit more integrated – ; the young student *isn’t how I imagined her* (the dumbest possible objection – Katie West’s performance is perfectly excellent *of itself*, but apparently her German counterpart’s version stuck more than any of the others, being less plaintive and painfully, almost embarrassingly, sincere, even in the midst of her self-ironisation); and occasionally Stephens’s op-ed voice sounds a little too clearly – financial toreador Escamillo does at times sound like he’s just delivering the lecture on the catastrophe of capitalism that Simon would, were he a columnist not a playwright. But these are personal trifles. Things that struck *me*, rather than real or damaging dramatic flaws. Instead, there’s much more to enjoy here – both rent-boy Carmen (Jack Farthing) and banking Escamillo (John Light) are brilliant dramatic creations, and both beautifully rendered here. Light’s reading especially notable for its broad, hilarious take on E’s astonishing lifestyle pomposity.

But really, it’s the way that the whole works, rather than individual elements, that make this creation so strong. The fullest set of ideas and resonances from the script have been picked up and expanded on exponentially, creating an incredibly rich intellectual synaptic tapestry.

In my review of Carmen Disruption in Hamburg I said “with Three Kingdoms, Sebastian Nübling and Simon Stephens changed a generation’s idea of what British theatre could be.” It might be opportunistic to claim that this production is proof of that promise, but it doesn’t seem entirely fanciful. What is spectacular about this as an achievement, is that it feels entirely organic. It’s not “influenced by” Three Kingdoms. At all. (I realised writing this that I saw my first Michael Longhurst show a decade ago this August: the intercut monologues of Peter Morris’s Guardians, and he was bloody good back then.) Instead it feels at once completely British (the acting, the costuming, the attention to realism and detail), as well as completely “European” (the cross-disciplinary verve, the abstraction, the dramaturgy, the precise-yet-conceptual design). Finally, it feels, we are making work that demands work in return. And aren’t afraid of making something that is beautiful as a way of examining the gritty and grubby.

Oh, and the final moments, attributed in the printed text to the Singer, but here delivered by surtitle, seem at once to define the entire production, say something more than just that, to make sense of the whole piece, and yet be saying almost nothing at the same time. Or rather, refusing to spell out what it is they’re edging towards. To have even an empty stage give you goosebumps is thrilling theatre indeed.


And, obviously, *this*:

Thursday 16 April 2015

The Twits – Royal Court, London

[seen 16/04/15]

Where does one’s taste come from? It’s a perplexing thing. I’m reasonably happy to imagine that the very first seeds of my implacable modernism and minimalism (Ha! As if!) can be identified in my infant self’s disdain for Roald Dahl. I’m just not all that into silly words or grotesque characters. It’s like Russell T. Davies’s names for things in Dr Who: bloody awful. “Snozzcumber” just isn’t funny, in precisely the same way that “Raxacoricofallapatorius” is a shit name for a planet. I thought Fantastic Mr Fox was alright. That’s about it.

Another writer I’ve never been as into as everyone else is Enda Walsh. Sure, I admired the energy, verve and obvious talent behind Disco Pigs when I saw it back in, what? ‘97? ‘98? (Original production, second cast, Edinburgh fringe). I thought Alex Swift/Ferguson’s Playroom production of Bedbound in Cambridge 2002 (and NSDF 2003) was a superb achievement, but the actual story left me pretty cold. By 2007, when I saw Walworth Farce, I think I’d worked out that the structure that Enda Walsh was exploring – characters forced into a kind of meta-theatrical trap, forced to re-enact the same story over and over again – left me cold. And his much-admir’d use of language, well, it was a matter of taste, and was all a bit snozzcumber to me.

So, *obviously*, even before not being a child, I was already not exactly the target audience for this, but for various reasons I was still looking forward to it. Theatre is, after all, nothing if not a series of weird alchemies; a load of stuff you don’t like gets tumbled together into something you do...

But, suffice it to say, in the event, I didn’t like The Twits at all. What I’m interested in doing in this review is getting past the point where a critic saying “I hated it” is the end of the conversation.

Oddly, the reasons for not liking it have precious little to do with my infant abandonment of Dahl. Walsh’s adaptation of The Twits takes a very short book about two joyous grotesques and, well, it sticks them into an Enda Walsh play (see description above about meta-theatre). Albeit, in this version, it’s an Enda Walsh play which also has a big neon sign saying THE POSH ARE YOUR ENEMY hanging over the metatheatrical Welsh monkeys, forced by the Twits to enact the story of a fairground being nicked off some Northerners from Leeds.

Weirdly, the meta-theatre doesn’t stop there. As well as being an adaptation of The Twits, and an allegory of how the Tories are shitbags who need to be defeated by a coalition of Northerners and the Welsh, it also seems to have been staged as a daring Christmas show take-down of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem; a devastating critique of the most right-wing play that the Court ever produced. There’s an amusing round-the-Christmas-dinner-table scene which might be a pastiche of Martin Crimp’s “Christmas show” (but doubtless isn’t). And, then, it’s got an set which, if it isn’t directly referencing Andreas Kriegenburg’s design for Der Prozess at the end, then I’ll eat my snozzcumber.

I guess, for my money, there were two reasons this Twits didn’t especially appeal to me, though (both personal taste, obvs, but one much more so than the other to my mind). The first thing was the level of cruelty, or the way the characters were positioned/how the narrative unfolded around them. The other was the way in which the piece tried to deploy its politics.

The former fairground owners (a completely new invention/imposition, as far as I understand it) have a really miserable time before the interval. They don’t have such a great time after it either, but I *really* wasn’t especially into just watching them being done down and picked on. Especially with an audience of children. Certainly in the matinee I watched there didn’t feel like there was enough glee to make it seem much different to sitting down and watching Katyn with some under-tens (ok, I exaggerate, but I’m a sensitive soul). Bear with me, though, because it feels like this is intrinsically linked to why the politics of the piece failed for me.

The whole thing bashes one so hard over the head with a big old leftie message that by the end, even as a card-carrying Marxist-Leninist, I was starting to itch to vote Tory just out of spite. A really useful contrast is the Unicorn’s Velveteen Rabbit. On the surface of it, The Twits is the obvious leftie choice: it’s all grungy, gritty and about the overthrow of some (now) posh gits. Velveteen Rabbit, by contrast should be this twee, toothless, fluffy thing. In reality, ...Rabbit, by taking the apparently docile subject, is far and away more rigorous, interrogated and subversive than this, which just spoonfeeds you precisely what to think without even so much as a dialectic. The Twits, you see, are out-and-out evil, really. They’re so unwholesome that the moral here is something that even the Daily Mail could get behind, it’s so clear cut. Sure, there’s the odd joke about not paying the monkey-actors enough and etc., but ultimately this is a play in support of the small business owner (a fairground) against The Evil Establishment. Hell, last time I looked, that was also Nigel Farage’s pitch.

I dunno. It’s weird. You’d think I’d like The Twits to be pressed into service as socialist agit-prop, turning Dahl’s cruel, illiterate, proto-Fred and Rosemary West types from troglodytes into the upper classes. But somehow it feels like a trick more crude than anything the Twits themselves get up to. When at the end, the victorious petit bourgeoisie sing Morning Has Broken together (yes, that really does happen, and I don’t think it’s meant to be ironic either) in a weird sort-of finale evoking *my* school assemblies (God knows what the youth of today will make of it) and the faint suggestion that Yusef Islam might have the answer?  I dunno. Sorry. No, I really just don't know what anyone was thinking there.


King Size – Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, London

[seen 15/04/15]

Blimey, I’m having a good week. Not only have I seen a brilliant piece of dance by one of my favourite choreographers and an amazing opera by one of my favourite writers, I’ve now just seen my favourite *thing* by Christoph Marthaler since Meine Faire Dame in 2012.

I’m pretty sure King Size doesn’t need a lot of writing about (well, either it needs very little or a doctoral thesis). It’s billed as a Liederabend (song evening), and that’s precisely what it is. On a faintly ridiculous set (a diagonal half of a very seventies looking hotel room decorated in garish, floral blue), four faintly ridiculous figures sing a pretty ridiculous selection of songs (from Wagner to Münchener Freiheit via Stephen Sondheim, Alban Berg, John Dowland and the Jackson Five). There’s a faint theme of sleeplessness and romantic separation, but to call it a story would be pushing it.

What there really is, though, is *a lot* of incredible silliness. Brilliant, brilliant silliness. I laughed until I cried. At least twice. Marthaler really has a talent for the absurd, and when the absurdity is offset by incredibly beautiful music it’s all the funnier.

In the interests of not spoilering it, I suggest you just get a (cheap) ticket and get yourself along. It’s probably the most uncomplicatedly, lovely, fun hour and a quarter I’ve spent in a theatre in an aeon. It managed to completely bypass the normal “critical commentary” soundtrack that seems to run alongside most things I see. It’s even practically *a musical* (!) for heaven’s sake. But, yes, love.

Under the below photo, I might describe a couple of things that happen and arrange a few YouTube videos so that a) I can remember the show in future, and b) people who don’t get to it have some idea what we’re talking about...

So, what happens is, a bloke comes into the room, undresses, takes a quick shower, dresses in new clothes, and then goes to the piano. Two hotel attendants enter, separately, make the bed, then unmake the bed, then lie in it. All this while singing (if I recall correctly). While lying in bed singing an older, matronly woman (old enough to be either of their mothers? Perhaps deliberate Freudian symbolism?) inexplicably crosses the room. From hereon in, the action becomes entirely fantastical and improbable. Like a series of dream-sequences, occasionally retiring to the bed again. The older woman at one point sets up a music stand, at another the hotel minibar is discovered in an impossibly high-up wardrobe cupboard. But, better, at another point she just starts inexplicably spooning spaghetti out of her handbag with a back scratcher, or, later, throwing bit of lettuce out of it onto to floor while the hotel maid lies front-down on the floor singing John Dowland’s Come, Heavy Sleep and eating the lettuce off the floor without any hands. And even in the midst of this, it *still* manages to be incredibly touching at points. I have literally no idea how Marthaler comes up with this stuff, but I think it’s a concept that maybe even borders on genius at times, and I’m bloody glad he does do it, and that the ROH have the guts to transfer something so entirely nuts. Brilliant.


Some of the music (almost all arranged for a single piano, and often in German, in the show):

The Four Temperaments / Untouchable / Das Lied von der Erde – Royal Opera House, London

[seen 14/04/15]

I know zip about ballet. I’ve seen stuff by Cedar Lake Ballet and Pina Bausch, but I get the impression that doesn’t count. The main reason I went to this mixed programme by the Royal Ballet at the ROH was to see the new Hofesh Shechter piece, Untouchable, but I was also curious to see the other two pieces. George Balanchine is famous enough that I’d heard of him before, and I quite like Mahler, so, yeah, interesting. The new work by Hofesh Shechter (receiving its first five performances) is sandwiched between an antique from 1946 (Georges Balanchine (d. 1983) – now on 20 ROH performances) and a fossil from 1965 (Kenneth Macmillan (d.1992) – 104 ROH perfs).

Untouchable is Shechter’s best work yet. Or rather, the first half of it is his best work yet, and the whole still blows Balanchine’s wit and whimsy off stage and makes the Macmillan look precious and irrelevant. Perhaps it is to do with the framing. The last two Shechter pieces (Political Mother and Sun) were full-length commissions shown at Sadler’s Wells, I had press tickets, disgustingly good seats, and the pieces were playing to legions of adoring fans. Here, in more staid surroundings, viewed from a £20 day seat (C20 in the Stalls Circle: a bloody good seat, occasional restricted view notwithstanding), and with the benefit of a live orchestra, it felt far more powerful, dangerous and incisive playing to potential-sceptics than his work does in front of the usual army of acolytes (indeed, the fat old ladies next to us took the advice of the philistine at the FT and buggered off between intervals one and two. And very welcome the extra space was too).

The work itself is, well, *really* like his other stuff. The same trademark loping movements, closely aligned with the “gaga” style of Batsheva, that use of his dancers as something more like a herd, the diagonal lines, the picking off of individual dancers, an overall look somehow reminiscent of a Native American Jewish Wedding (if you see what I mean). What differentiates it, and to my mind makes it his best piece yet, is partly the concentration of his ideas and themes, music and movement feel condensed here into at least fifteen minutes of sheer intensity (like I say, I was so blindsided by its first half, that I don’t think I properly get the second. Would love a chance to have seen it again). It seems to function on several different levels of stage reality all at the same time, both a representation of some unspecified conflict – past, present and/or future – and at the same time, is like a representation of what the dance from the future commemorating that conflict would look like: a kind of Mr Burns for the Isis generation.

I’ve always had a lot of time for Hofesh Shechter’s music too (written with Nell Catchpole). I mean, sure, the thought that it’s not unlike the music on Spooks used when they only have two minutes left to foil an Islamist bomb plot did cross my mind: it shares the same use of “middle-eastern” chromatic scale combined with a driving Western rock sensibility. But *obviously* it’s better than that. It’s music with real colour, light, shade and intricacy. Vocal samples, static and white noise compete with a stripped-back orchestra and massively enhanced percussion section.

But overall it’s the intelligence, the perspective, the sense of something communicating something that really makes it. I’d say that, thanks to its use of endlessly communicative tropes and legible symbols, this theoretically mute piece of work makes its point incredibly clearly. It’s like a protest at mankind’s endless war with itself, and, as such, is both unanswerable and profoundly dynamic.

Balanchine’s Four Temperaments gets away with being on the same programme largely because it comes first. As such, it gets away with being a perfectly witty, charming starter. Knowing, as I say, zip about ballet, I was pleasantly surprised by the more “modern” moments, which seemed to hint at some continuity from GB to maybe Bob Fosse. (Indeed, the no-costume costumes, plain Bob Wilson blue backdrop and reflective floor made me think of A Chorus Line for probably no discernable reason.) The movement worked well with the music, and the GODAWFUL GENDER ESSENTIALISM OF (some, older) BALLET was only really bad as opposed to unbearable. The ballerinas looked like they’d eaten reasonably recently, so all good. (Having written this, I looked the piece up online, and totally recommend the ROH’s brief context-and-criticism page which mades me retrospectively like the piece a whole lot more. 1946! Christ!).

For me, (and, yeah, I know, who needs my untutored musings – if some shit who’d never once been to a theatre before decided to start reviewing by having a go at Katie Mitchell, I think I’d probably make a point of never reading anything they wrote again, and rightly so – however...) Macmillan’s Song of the Earth – a choreography made for the Mahler piece of the same name – was less successful. For a start it’s fifty years older than the Shetchter piece that precedes it, and it shows (again, the ROH page on its history is invaluable). Worse, though, despite the obvious skill of both dancers and orchestra, it also feels pretty twee. And, yeah, the gender thing feels far more enforced with that mixture of sentimentality and brutality which one kind of expects from old ballet.

I’ll admit, I’m not much of a traditionalist. I’d be with the Green Party on abolishing the Grand National, for example. This “Song of the Earth” now seems as dated as someone talking in 1960s BBC English explaining gender roles. It’s strange to consider that this was made the same year as Edward Bond’s Saved. But, also, the whole “universal” story of death stalking a bloke, taking him away, and leaving the woman all sad; well, I guess it’s touching on an individual level, but since Shechter had just given us the end of humanity or something, putting a relationship drama directly after can’t help but make the latter look somewhat solipsistic.

So, yes, entirely subjective. Really surprised that the Balanchine piece hailed from as a early as 1946, knocked out by the Shechter, and slightly irritated by the Macmillan, probably because I don’t appreciate its significance as a turning point in the the form.

Nevertheless, it was great to see all three pieces, and to finally get round to seeing any ballet at all. And to learn that ballet scores seem to function much more like sheet music than play texts. Now quite interested to learn what extent individual dancers, like actors or musicians, can alter a part within a fixed choreography, but much more excited by the piece which didn’t feel like it belonged in a museum (possibly a museum of gender roles from the last century).

[If you want an alternative view, Clement Crisp in the FT seems to have written pretty much the exact opposite review, albeit as a series of text messages; apparently too grand for full sentences.

His whole consideration of Shetcher is this: “In the middle of the evening, Untouchable, a 30-minute commission, the first for the Royal Ballet from the Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter. Here we watch 20 corps de ballet dancers from within the company clad in fatigues. Design clichés of dry ice to fog the air and beams of light from above. A bare stage. The percussive bombast of a drumming soundtrack from Shechter and Nell Catchpole. Mass angst. Regimented grudge-nursing. Anguish by numbers. Nasty attacks of the sullens; Shechter’s blatancies of means and manner and matter.”

– which, if nothing else, makes me feel a whole lot better about my write-ups of the bits either side. His appreciations of the two “masterpieces” are, if anything, even more unconvincing.]

Sunday 12 April 2015

Between Worlds – Barbican, London

[seen 11/04/15]

Let's be honest, as soon as you know this is the publicity image, you kind of know how it's going to pan out.

Between Worlds is an opera about 9/11.

I’ll just let that sink in for a minute.

(Yes. The Twin Towers 9/11, that’s right.)

Still sinking in?

Ok, plausibly it’s not an entirely stupid idea. I didn’t go to this world première in the hope that the thing would be bad. I went hoping that it would be brilliant and that my initial feeling of scepticism would be confounded. It wasn’t.

Opera’s quite a complex thing to write about, on the grounds that this is “Tansy Davies’s Opera”, but she only wrote the music. The libretto is by “poet” Nick Drake, whose biog suggests that his main job is hawking around a lot of unproduced scripts. If the action here is anything to go by, the reason that they are unproduced is that they are trite beyond measure (or, to be charitable, so cleverly post-dramatic and ironic that Britain just isn’t ready). It is directed by Deborah Warner, who apparently used to be good at directing in the nineties.

Between Worlds opens on a large, empty-ish stage, above which hang two further floors. On the ground-floor/stage a fair number of assorted office workers are seated. On the next floor up there is a table and a few chairs dotted about. On the highest floor is a bloke sat in a chair. I have to say, at this point it looks pretty hopeful. It’s an attractive, simple set. Stark and minimal but effective and strong. I’m faintly reminded of Benedict Andrews’s Caligula for ENO.

As the music starts... (the music is perfectly good throughout, fwiw. I’d happily have it on in the background while I make dinner, for example. Whether that should be possible with an opera about 9/11 might be a question worth its composer asking themselves at some point, but, without context, it is perfectly pretty music...) As the music starts, various “main characters” (they don’t have names, just age ranges and genders, or jobs – i.e. Younger woman, Older man, Janitor, etc.) leave their homes on an ordinary day. Mother (I presume) crossly says goodbye to her son, who won’t eat his breakfast; younger woman says goodbye to her girlfriend who wishes she could stay in bed longer. You’ve seen disaster movies before, or even episodes of Casualty, so you know how this doubtless-true-but-entirely-grating, emotionally manipulative set-up goes. IT’S POIGNANT BECAUSE THEY ARE ALL ABOUT TO DIE!!! flashes the big neon sign that someone has forgotten to nail to the back wall.

Incredibly stupidly, at the same time as the music starts, a backdrop of hundreds of sheets of A4 paper which looks faintly like the walls of the WTC is hauled up as a backdrop to be video-projected onto. Video-projected backdrops *still* don’t work all that well, especially when there’s light-spill on them. Warner and her team might have had a word with Katie Mitchell or Simon McBurney about how to do this better, because I’ve seen more competent video work than this in student musicals.

The next bit sees five or six people pootling about their work on the floor up from the stage. Their work is dull, because they work in an office. Oh, and one of them is new, so is freaked out by how high up they are. (the neon sign that isn’t there flashes several underlinings) The audience’s mind collectively drifts. And then after about 20 minutes a group of terrorists fly a plane into the first A4 paper backdrop. Or something. Then the video of the first tower smoking is played. Which strikes me as, well, artlessly blunt, without even the benefits of its own bluntness. It’s literally the worst 9/11 staging you’ve ever seen. Really bad. And I don’t think it’s even clever enough to be being bad on purpose.

The people in the tower are all freaked out and shit. And we get to reflect on the minutes between 08.46 when the first plane hit the twin towers and the whole world mourned the most dramatic air accident in living memory, and 09.03, when the second plane hit, and US foreign policy embarked down the long road to ISIS. But we only get to reflect on that because we have memories. The actual dramatic action remains almost aggressively underpowered, silly, tokenistic, etc.

So, yes, the basic thing here is that nothing at all happens. The music plops along slowly and prettily, the libretto spews the sorts of office-chat banalities, turning into disaster movie commonplaces, and the staging at no stage reflects terror, urgency, drama, pathos, or horror.

Watching, I suddenly realised why the ancient Greeks might have devoted so much of their theatrical energy to writing about a war which, if it took place at all, is thought to have predated Athenian drama by a good 750 years. And why it’s still a useful device for when we want to talk about horrific acts or terror or bloodshed today: because acts of war haven’t really changed all that much, or been initiated due to more or less complex reasons since Troy. But, crucially, it’s been an incredibly long time since anyone complained that someone was dishonouring the memory of the Trojan dead; that it was maybe a bit crass to make entertainment or art out of such misery. Etc.

Also: you can grouse all you like about the fact that – to paraphrase Stalin – 3,000 deaths are a tragedy, but they’re a walk in the fucking park compared to the millions upon millions of deaths that the Americans unleashed on the world as a result. And while, yes, you’d have to have no soul to not feel a shred of compassion for the people who died in the towers (and presumably the Pentagon, but no one ever mentions that. Ever), it’s a bit weird that 9/11 is now somehow a British tragedy (Tansy and Drake are both British), more than, say, the thousands who have died in Ukraine since the start of the civil war, or the thousands murdered by Isis, or the thousands killed in the ex-Yugoslavian civil wars. Yes, 9/11 had a sculptural spectacularity to it (and acknowledging precisely this got Stockhausen into terrible trouble at the time), but surely its longevity as An Event ultimately just carries on al Qaeda’s propaganda work, well past their difficult second album period, their decline, and almost disappearance/eclipse by Isis.

So: as a memorial, this opera, and even less this production of it, is spectacularly misjudged; as drama it is negligible; as entertainment it doesn’t even get out of the starting blocks; and as art, well, no one in their right mind is going to confuse this with art.

I’ve only flicked through the programme, but there also seems to be some really horribly misplaced hippy shit going on there too, which I don’t want my mind to be infected by. But I will say that calling the mysterious figure at the top of the “tower” a “shaman” – hailing, as that position does, from the native American tradition – has the consequence of reminding us that the United States is a country built on a near-genocide, and giving the (I’m sure unintended) impression that 9/11 is just what they had coming for a very long time.

In short: not a patch on this:

Saturday 11 April 2015

Into the Little Hill – Courtyard Theatre, London

[seen 10/04/15]

Shadwell Opera are in fact presenting a double-bill of musical performances under the title Speech Acts, so before the break we also get a performance of Stravinsky’s musically brilliant, dramatically inert, entirely bonkers and somewhat reactionary L'Histoire du Soldat (The Solider’s Tale, text by Swiss writer C. F. Ramuz), the conclusion of which is:

You must not seek to add
To what you have, what you once had;
You have no right to share
What you are with what you were.

No one can have it all,
That is forbidden.
You must learn to choose between.

One happy thing is every happy thing:
Two, is as if they had never been.

Which is, like, WTF? on any number of levels, and no kind of philosophy at all. That the thing came out the year after the Russian Revolution makes it doubly or triply perplexing. The cast all have at least one demonstrable area of enormous talent, although, while having Soldier played by a dancer makes for some excellent movement sequences, one might wish that he’d also trained as an actor. On a similar level, while Temi Wilkey (the Devil) having a more “performance artist”-based skill set is interesting in itself, it also means that all four players seem to come from more or less mutually exclusive productions. The design is also a bit odd. As far as I can make it it’s directed by Jack Furness, who also directs Little Hill, which is a surprise, as Into the Little Hill is about as crisp, atmospheric, ambitious and realised as you could hope for.

Into the Little Hill is a libretto by Martin Crimp for music by George Benjamin, the team who created the Royal Opera House (and Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, Netherlands Opera Amsterdam, Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse and the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino) hit Written on Skin (dir. Katie Mitchell). Apparently it’s not even remotely new (premièring in 2006, commissioned by Festival d'Automne à Paris: UK première 2009 at ROH), but still feels absolutely box-fresh.

Part of the reason for its “timeless” quality is the fact that Crimp has effectively the tale of the Pied Piper and mixed it with the horrific resonances of Nazi anti-Semitism: there is every doubt here that “the rats” that the townsfolk want rid of are actually rats at all. “That one is holding a suitcase, that one is holding a baby” sings the child of the minister in charge of their extermination. And where, for me, the score of Written on Skin slightly got in the way of the humour of the libretto, here Benjamin’s music is perfectly matched to Crimp’s dark vision: swelling and subsiding with unexpected textures and noises, different instruments suddenly taking the lead, or else the whole band creating atmospheric pulsing or jagged soundscapes. *Obviously* George Benjamin is one of Britain’s foremost composers, so the fact that the music is subtle, resonant and incredibly clever shouldn’t come as a surprise, but this honestly does feel like one of the most successful marriages of music and text in a contemporary opera I’ve heard. The whole achieves a kind of almost claustrophobic intensity of purpose that neither words nor music would manage on their own.

Nonetheless, the piece absolutely still reminds us what a great writer Crimp is. Spare, stark, and with an unerring knack for under-the-skin creepiness. The Pied Piper (what is Pied in this case? Oh, colourfully clothed, according to Wikipedia. Funny the things you don’t question until you’re 39...) is here replaced by “a man with no eyes, and nose nose and no ears” discovered by the minister in his house peering into his child’s cot. The final abduction of the children is rendered as a vision of them all trooping off to burrow into the little hill of the title: “And the deeper we burrow, the brighter his music burns”. Somehow incredibly sad and horrible, but a chillingly brilliant evocation of children possessed.

Furness’s production really is excellently, minimally staged. The piece is only a two-hander, with soprano Emily Vine playing the eyeless man and the minister’s child, with contralto Jess Dandy as the minister (and minister’s wife? – there weren’t surtitles, so occasionally it was a tiny bit hard to follow). They’re stood on a tilted white disc that can only be about three metres across, tops. The small orchestra/band behind them, and, excellently, noise from the bar next door filtering through the rear door (just behind me in the back row) whenever there’s a quiet bit, giving an ambient sense of the whole story taking place in a busy town’s community. Sherry Coenen’s lighting is simple red, white or blue states, mostly aiming into the eyes of the audience over the shoulders of the performers (largely because the ceiling was only about a foot above Dandy’s head, and you can’t blind the musicians, I imagine). But, happily, what sound like factors working against the production actually all contrive to make the whole feel that bit more original, urgent and, well, Fringe-y is still a thing too, and a very good thing at that.

Vine and Dandy (seriously? This isn’t some sort of pun on the part of the production team?) duet beautifully. There’s a thing that sometimes happens with opera when voices are independently lovely, but just seem to mesh very poorly in harmony. Here, the voices work perfectly together. There’s also the useful visual fact that Dandy is a good head taller than Vine – emphasised by Dandy also wearing thick soled shoes, so that the minister towers over the imp-like eyeless man and his own child. The acting rangers from subtle to wildly expressionistic with Dandy’s eyes wide like a silent horror film, against Vine’s sharp inscrutable features.

I only saw the thing last night, and it hasn’t actually struck me forcibly on the political level proposed by the pre-election double-billing with The Soldier’s Tale. Nonetheless, as a despatch from the frontline of where contemporary opera is at, and an incredibly impressive display of fringe opera, it’s hard to imagine better. Last night tonight. Well worth a look.

(also, in scrupulous fairness, there’s a much better, Soldier’s Tale oriented review here – five-starring the whole evening too, no less.) ___ Marvellously, the whole original performance (i.e. not this production) of Into the Little Hill is on YouTube:

The Velveteen Rabbit – Unicorn Theatre, London

[seen 08/04/15]

[contains spoilers. suspect it’s only me who hadn’t already read the book anyway]

It would be trite and uninteresting just to gush about how lovely Purni Morell’s production of The Velveteen Rabbit is. It is lovely. Utterly lovely. But where does that get us? It’s for audiences aged four and over (although the presence of several babies and under-fours enlivened the whole experience no end on Wednesday afternoon), and they’re not really my core readership, so you’re going to want something a bit more, well, rigorous, right? And I have to admit I was feeling a bit stuck. Because, well, when something’s lovely, you don’t always want to go all explainy about it, do you?

Do you know the basic story? I didn’t (well, someone once explained it to me, but I’d never read the (1922, American) original). It’s about a boy who loses his china dog, and is handed the long-overlooked bunny toy as a replacement by his nanny. It’s been explained to bunny that to become real you have to be worn almost to bits and loved by your, well, owner, I guess. Boy and bunny become inseparable until boy catches scarlet fever, bunny sits with him until he’s better, but then, being a toy bunny likely to be carrying traces of the scarlet fever, he’s put out to be burnt along with the rest of the contents of the room. Boy fucks off to seaside to convalesce and bunny escapes fiery fate by means of tears, a magic flower, and a deus ex machina fairy who turns him into a real-real rabbit. (Oh, the whole thing of the story is toys only become “real” when they’re loved very much by their owners. Sounds a bit bleugh, I defy you not to get a bit misty eyed.)

As well as being lovely, there were also plenty of bits of what felt like the original narrative to stick in the throat – from the “needing external individualistic validation” thing, through the character of the adventures which the boy and his bunny play-imagine (all pretty colonial-looking to me), to the “in heaven, every thing is fine” ending. On the other hand, they didn’t stick in the throat so much that I didn’t also (at precisely the same time) find the whole thing completely charming. (I also probably spent an improbable amount of time wondering if children these days even recognise, let alone play at, those tropes of Boy’s Own-style mountaineering and arctic exploration and imperial navy stuff, or if the comprehensive Disneyfication and Technologisation of everything had banished all those bad old Imperialist post-war games to the last century in favour of consequence-free Pirates and anti-state-ownership Dragons. And whateverthefuck Spongebob Squarepants is. Or something).

In terms of style, both direction and design (James Button) feel so stupidly effortless, so perfectly judged, that it’s genuinely difficult to know what to say about it beyond description. The whole thing takes place on a wide apron-y stage with large floorboard drawn on it, and with a surprising number of trap-doors in it, in which are stored most of the props – judiciously assembled, nice-looking, vintage toys, mostly. A big raked bed is wheeled on and off, there are some large (also “hand-drawn”) curtains flown in, and the rabbit is revealed by the lowering of a big sock at the beginning.

Similarly, the cast here is so beautifully put together that it’s surprising to discover they’re the second cast for this show (now on it’s third? fourth? Outing). Christian Roe – familiar from Chris Goode’s Monkey Bars – is a lovely presence as the largely accepting, bemused, benign bunny. Ashley Byam as the boy (did he have a name?) is just the right side of boisterous, but neither of them actually get to say much – they’re mostly tearing around the stage like a kind of live picture book (movement – Wilkie Branson), pitch-perfectly narrated Anthony Weigh (yes, also the playwright! Who knew? Probably everyone except me...) as a kind of everyman authority-figure-in-a-suit, forced by early expediency to reluctantly don the apron and old-style floppy maid’s cap.

And so we hop on to What It All Means. And, well, I had a really interesting conversation with Matt Trueman earlier, who swore blind to me that I was mad for completely missing what he saw as an out-and-out gay subtext. Not even *sub*-text, but a full-on queered performance. It’s not a point he emphasises in his Time Out review, which is partly why I flag it up here, away from small-c conservative parents. And while I’ve found it an appealing reading that I don’t want to dismiss our of hand, I can say, hand-on-heart that it never once occurred to me while I was watching. I mean, yes, sure, there are two handsome young men in their mid-twenties bouncing around on their shared bed together, but, like, ONE OF THEM IS A RABBIT. And that was that as far as I was concerned. Christian tells me he’s a rabbit, then a rabbit he is.

My reading was much more of the, well, the sort of socio-political backdrop, or the psychology of the thing – both then, and how that reads now. For my money it was about as stark a Christian afterlife allegory as C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle. *Obviously* that ending can be repurposed by atheists as much as they like toward something about, oh, I dunno, love or something, but (thanks to my upbringing) I reckon there’s something excellent about a big old hardcore “Yes, there is a glorious supernatural force that’s going to totally sort everything out for you in the great hereafter” ending. So I decided that’s what it was. I mean, as an atheist I also had my problems with telling children that. But then the children possibly hadn’t stopped thinking Christian was anything more than a rabbit, and so had overlooked the indoctrination that almost certainly wasn’t going on anywhere other than in my mind anyway. I also wondered if it was some sort of post-WWI make-better equivalent of the Peter Pan quote about dying that apparently echoed through the senseless slaughter.  Indeed, given Matt’s, mine, and my plus-one’s wildly variant, equally valid readings, I think the main take-home message is that Velveteen Rabbits are especially good at confirming biases. Still, this is gorgeous and you should all go and see it.