Wednesday 23 September 2015

Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People as Brecht’s Learning-Play – Centre For Cultural Decontamination, . Belgrade

[seen 21/09/15]

[skip first three paragraphs to get to the theatre bit. UK politics/pig-fucking first]

I saw Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People as Brecht’s Learning-Play on what may go down in British Political History as Pig-Fuck Monday. The day that a multi-millionaire who had “donated” £8million to the Tory party in order to buy a job had the first extracts of his toxic revenge-memoir published by the far-right Daily Mail newspaper (owned, as is traditional in Britain, by a multi-millionaire hereditary peer, and registered outside the UK for tax purposes) – the most memorable extract detailed the flimsy, but entirely plausible allegation that, while a student at Oxford University, our Eton-educated prime minister stuffed his cock into the mouth of a decapitated pig-head at a private drinking/dining society event. It was a strange day to to be English abroad, but also instructive because you got a bit of perspective, you saw it at a slight distance. Within England/Britain – judging by Twitter and Facebook – the country went through a rapid version of the five stages of grief, all glossed over in hysterical laughing and giggling. The truism that you only know something’s serious in England if everyone’s laughing about it never rang more true.

The reason that the British (or, rather, English, or English and Welsh – the Scots and the Northern Irish have got their plausible deniability pretty close to completion now) behaved like this relates to what Žižek said about Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning and the files they leaked – that is (paraphrased): we already knew that all these things were going on. The reason people became angry when they were shown the evidence isn’t so much because they’re outraged because they thought such a thing was unimaginable, but precisely because they knew exactly that it was imaginable, likely, probable and yet allowed themselves to ignore it. (I think that’s what he said, anyway).

Similarly, the election of Jeremy Corbyn a week earlier has blown a massive hole in the hitherto neatly stage-managed illusion that Britain had a meaningful two-party system. It didn’t. It had Red neo-liberalism and Blue neo-liberalism, as one article neatly summarised it. But, thanks to the historical circumstances of Tony Blair’s election, the subsequent smokescreen of the illegal Iraq invasion (smoke comprising the ashes of a million burning Iraqi civilians), and the gradual-ness of the change, it always sounded like complaining was maybe a bit too dogmatic. And people gradually got used to Labour not really differing in any significant way to the Conservatives. Before the previous election, the right-wing press even put about the laughable myth that Ed Miliband was somehow “radically left-wing” and to disagree was to be sneered at for advancing the six-form proposition that saying “all the parties are the same”, and people would point to the subtle variations on exactly the same ideological programmes to evidence the wealth of choice offered to the British electorate. In fact, as Žižek (again) pointed out, Blair was actually Britain’s first Thatcherite prime minister (in the same way that Jesus wasn’t a Christian).  In short, you haven’t really got outside the ideological box until you hear someone spit the word “democracy” with the same sarcastic contempt as we always hear used for “socialism” and understand exactly what they mean.

So, it was with all this domestic political fun in mind that I watched Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People as Brecht’s Learning-Play. Theatrically, it’s an absolute blinder of a thing. And could you ask for a better-named venue than Belgrade’s Centre for Cultural Decontamination in which to see it?

The piece takes the form of... Actually, Christ, it’s hard to explain. It’s played in-the-round. Under full house-lights a lot of the time. There are five (or six?) performers, including a keyboard player. A lot of the text is sung. The structure starts out more like a performance lecture, clearly stating why on earth anyone would do Ibsen via Brecht; what a learning play is, and so on. I think a lot of the text is taken from Brecht himself, and from good scholarly work on Ibsen’s theatre. Perhaps thanks to the English of the surtitles, though, it’s also incredibly clearly put. As long as you know what “dialectic” means, you’re laughing. And actually, you’re laughing anyway, because Brecht’s theory set to (ersatz? Real?) Brechtian music is quite an amusing concept anyway.

So, we have these two opposing – if only because of the passage of time – versions of theatre that wants to change the world. And, rather than taking Brecht as a fundamentalist end-point, the piece reclaims some of Ibsen’s strategies through his theory.

The piece does indeed precis the story of An Enemy of the People, although it’s a blessed relief that it pretty much starts at the end, only offers a few of the speeches (one of Stockmann’s brilliantly set to Beethoven/Schiller’s hymn to the Enlightenment in Symphony 9) before veering off to also consider the live relevance of the theory and the narrative on the practice of current Serbian politics, using Brecht’s Marxist theory to unlock/read a live TV interview with the current Serbian President, Tomislav Nikolić, who IN NO WAY had anything to do with encouraging the assassination of the former Serb Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić. The interview is performed by two of the actors, with interjections and a commentary by the others.

Then there is a section where the cast put on clothes worn by Belgrade’s underclass – like, *actual clothes that used to belong to them that they bought off them (I think)* – and tell the stories of these people whose clothes they are now wearing, largely without sentiment, mostly just bare facts. This feels partly like an uncomfortable act of appropriation, but at the same time it feels infinitely more committed to even acknowledging their existence than not doing so. (I think it might feel more ethically tricky in the UK, but even in this context I think I still read it with UK problems, where there may be none.) The actors then perform the last moments of the Ibsen (I think).

It’s a fascinating piece. Not least because, under the guise of talking about theatre-politics and theatre, it actually feels like it completely explodes the idea of theatre on one hand and at the same time constructs this incredibly urgent evocation of the problems of contemporary Serbian politics and society. It also handily blows the complete pantomime of engagement in Ostermeier’s production of Volksfiend sky-high.

Serbia now, of course, is subject to the same sort of neo-liberal overthrow to which apparently every other European country (and beyond) has been subjected. It’s almost a bitter ironic joke that a country still not permitted entry to the EU, thanks to the ongoing dispute regarding Kosovo, has had its economic sovereignty whisked away as surely as Britain has.

On a UK theatre-level, what perhaps interested me most about the piece was the way in which the thing it reminded me of most was the project TORYCORE. The difference here, however – and I think it’s an instructive one which UK companies would find interesting – is that rather than being perceived as reality + music = exorcism/catharsis, I think it uses reality + theory = ? I don’t think you walk out of this feeling exorcised, I think you feel properly politically re-engaged (not that you don’t with TORYCORE).

There’s still something of that hitting-a-brick-wall feeling beyond that, because, well, Christ, how on earth does anyone actually change anything? But this felt like about as effective a way of making you think, hard, about the stuff underpinning left politics as anything I’ve seen. And what those politics need to address. And how far outside the media you need to be thinking to even start. (I know none of this is news to you people, but it did genuinely shock me, even in this short piece, how much underlying ideological stuff we rarely see properly unpicked and destroyed on stage.)

Adieu – Serbian National Theatre, Novi Sad

[seen 22/09/15]

Jonathan Capdevielle is an extraordinary performer. We already knew this. I first read about him on Thompson’s Bank of Communicable Desire when Chris Goode saw him in Jerk in 2008:

“The performance by Jonathan Capdevielle is simply astonishing, in that it manages to yoke two normally incompatible registers: virtuosity ([...]an extended passage of ventriloquised dialogue is pulled off with incredible flair and a genuinely unheimlich chill), and intimacy -- his rapport with the audience is so ingenuously produced and so deftly managed as to become basically irresistible. And so we are pulled into his orbit, into proximity with this profoundly lost and frightened soul: and in the ecstatic derangement of his ventriloquism, we know in an instant and quite candidly that we too contain many different voices, and cannot reliably distinguish those that are us from those that are not.”

My first encounter with him live was as one of the three (non-speaking) performers in Gisele Vienne’s I Apologize about a month and a half later. It is still one of the top five best, most influential, important (to me) things I have ever seen – a spectacular blend of text, dance, incredibly loud music, life-size mannequins, buckets of stage blood and amazing, amazing dramaturgy.

On one – very satisfying – level, Adieu is obviously part of the same (abusive) family as Jerk and I Apologize (both Gisèle Vienne and her long-time musical collaborator Peter Rehberg have Associate credits here). At the same time, it is a completely distinct, original entity too.

It starts like this: Capdevielle stands in the centre of the barn-like stage of SNT’s main house in a soft, left-right strip of light and sings note-perfect snatches of Madonna songs. He is wearing a grey hooded top, baggy blue jeans and trainers. He does this for *a long time*. Or what feels like a long time. The songs are maybe more-or-less chronological for a while. It is curiously reminiscent of Jerome Bel’s T-shirts in Shirtology. A similar sort of dramaturgy. A similar sort of choreography of non-text text. A slightly guessable sequence, the pleasure of the expected and of the unexpected. And other thoughts – like the choice of phrases sung (instead of: t-shirts worn), the words themselves; do they add up to more here? It’s very hard to hold on to them long enough to make continuous sense of them. And maybe the rush to make *sense* is the wrong impulse. Perhaps we’re better off sitting in a feeling; multiple suggestions and meanings all active at once. It’s exciting though, and intelligent. Particularly when you consider that all you’re doing it listening to lines from Madonna songs.

The first deviation from this pattern is the phrase “Cocksucking fucking queer” (or similar). It’s the first phrase delivered as speech and the first delivered French – and consequently using surtitles. The white letters projected on the back of the stage are 100% part of the lighting design, just as they are later when the words themselves are interrupted by smoke machine smoke and then the beams of light from projector to text become visible, solidified shafts of light and smoke.

He goes back to snatches of songs. Longer excerpts now. More development. A loop here, a delay there, a bit of auto-tune now and then. We understand the world of cheap dance music that is being described.

An obscene French drinking song is sung. Then adapted in the second verse to become an obscene drinking song about raping a 10-year-old-boy.

And everyone stops laughing. And there’s kind of a hush. Then we go back to Madonna songs and everything’s back to being fine. Except everything’s shifted. Having seen previous work, I felt oddly relieved to be back in the Vienne/Cooper/Capdevielle (dis)comfort zone. Now there was at least a sense of canonicity. I was reminded of the Dennis Cooper show that Chris is making and wondered what that’s going to be like.

Adieu keeps on getting more and more sophisticated. Capdevielle sings Purcell’s Music for a While (from John Dryden and Nathaniel Lee’s play Oedipus, fact fans) and (an)other baroque standard(?) that also sounds like it’s straight out of a Pina Bausch or a Katie Mitchell. It’s beautiful, and strange and haunting, and the costume of the hoodie and the trainers add all sorts of contradictory frissons. (For what it’s worth, they feel more like gay porn fetish wear than Tory Nightmare signifier-wear).

What’s also been seeping in is additional snatches of dialogue. As well as being a remarkable singer (and puppeteer, though not here), he is also an exceptional vocal artist in terms of “doing the police in different voices”. He gradually sketches a visit to his father – the uneasy prior suggestion lingers – and mention of his dead mother and sister? The lights are all off by now except for the surtitles winking and changing in the darkness and the smoke. He goes and sits at a dressing room mirror-table (this week’s second) and this time performs an entire visit to (the sister character?) in hospital. Do we take this to be a flashback? Or pure fantasy? It scarcely matters. He’s one guy on stage with a microphone doing impressions while putting on make-up and a blonde wig and changing costume. There is (another, cf. Jerk) impressively lengthy, drawn out sequence of choking, phelgm, spitting. This is more medical than about physical violence, though.

Then, now dressed in blonde wig, heels and women’s clothes, Capdevielle returns to the stage to sing a medly of Lady Gaga numbers, and perform all the voices in a kind of concurrent half-acted-out radio play about a group of boys, girls, and queers having a violent, drunken night out in what I imagine as a particularly nasty disco in provincial France. It’s all heading toward vomiting and punch-ups in a mud and gravel car park (in my head).

And this is pretty much where it ends, except for the final coup of a five or six-strong male-voice choir who come out and sing an incongruous but lovely song about French mountains. It’s the sort of Volk song that sounds so right-wing you can suddenly *feel* musically the extent to which France borders Austria and Germany and there but by the grace of God, etc. This might not be the intention, of course. I just find folk music pretty suspect, and I think, given the dramaturgy here, the way it’s positioned must at least partly own this idea/feeling.

It’s – need I say I out loud? – brilliant (I thought). It feels both kind of durational (although only an hour long) and incredibly tightly constructed. It plays with that idea of repetition and boredom, but never to the point of actual boredom. It’s continually charming at the same time as being somehow slightly spooky, scary and repulsive (in the most literal sense). It’s kind of *soft* and hard at the same time. It’s both absolutely Queer and somehow also aggressively straight and masculine all at once.

It feels like it explores almost a whole universe or complex social matricies while a the same time having this intensely *local* feel (perhaps in part due to the universality of Madonna and Gaga). It somehow manages to turn being “about” child abuse, the darkest sort of familial relationships, and small town violence in a drunk disco parking lot into a more far-reaching meditation on more abstract ideas. I think it absolutely plays with both theatre and performance as well.

To resurrect a recent dichotomy: it’s punk, it’s experimentalism, *and* it’s flicking through pop videos on the internet in drag. It’s arty as anything, and completely populist (in the best way) at the same time. I think it’s probably so strange/Queer that it really does alienate a lot of its audience, and sitting there, feeling that happen in a small Serbian town (Novi Sad is an hour outside Belgrade) also feels somehow vital.

[insert inevitable call for a fucking UK transfer here]

(Capdevielle’s notes for the BITEF page on the piece are also excellent and give a more precise sense of what he’s driving at)

Tuesday 22 September 2015

We Are Kings, Not People – Atelje 212, Belgrade

[seen 21/09/15]

The only thing I knew about We Are Kings... going into the performance was that it was a collaboration between the choreographer Matija Ferlin and (some of) the acting company of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb.

Within five minutes of the play starting it became clear that this was, to many intents and purposes, “Croatian Monkey Bars”. Which felt like a complete result.

In case you don’t know, Monkey Bars was a show made in 2012 by British theatremaker, poet and theorist Chris Goode. It was, in British terms, ostensibly a piece of “verbatim theatre” in which interviews with 72 children were performed by six adults, often in short scenes resembling various situations from adult life – memorably, several children discussing favourite sweets and hypothetical superpowers became a job interview (“What you'd do if you were made out of [your favourite sweet]?”).

What’s fascinating (for me, as a British critic) are the differences in approach here. In many ways, it’s almost like the information prioritised has been turned on its head – with Monkey Bars the emphasis was very much on the source of the text and then the name of the editor, who also happened to be the director. Here it was the name of the choreographer, then the ensemble, and then looking afterwards at the programme, the fact that We Are Kings... is “a formal exploration of stage movement and language”.

In terms of how this piece looks, feels and behaves – visually, it reminded me most of Jan Bosse’s Hedda Gabler at the Thalia Theater, but since that probably means very little to most people, imagine instead six (or seven?) performers dressed in designer-chosen maybe-seventies-ish modern-ish dress existing in a kind of wallpapered wedge; a false perspective room with looming ceiling.  Actually, it also really looked (and behaved) like something by Christophe Marthaler, bu with (mostly) text instead of (mostly) music (-as-text),

The movement – the “director” is a choreographer after all – varies enormously. Mostly we’re talking about short bursts of solo-work, expressive, various, oblique shapes stolen, distressed, from classical ballet, or, elsewhere, maybe precise copies of children’s dances copied from video recordings – something of the same strange intentness and half-learnt shapes of adulthood combined with the anarchic impulses of the child’s own body. For much of the time, though, the “movement” is walking or standing.

Textually, it’s both funny and serious. Opening with the bizarre versions of received wisdom on how life on earth began – everything from surreal versions of Intelligent Design and creationism through to even less plausible versions of evolution – mankind’s discovery of fire progresses from finding burning trees struck by lightning with finding matches and a lighter with remarkable speed. Similarly, human reproduction is a mangled and benign process of babies growing in tummies with or without causal process.

Overall it’s a strange watch (more so for me than most, I guess). I think I was probably watching far too much through the filter of Goode’s show to truly take this only on its own terms. And I was also literally reading what the people were saying (excellent translation surtitles, btw) rather than listening to it and watching just the movement – which is, let’s be frank, a completely different way of receiving information.

So, I think I understood the value of listening to how and what children say more because of the “message” of Goode’s original dramaturgy than about anything here. Interestingly, though, ...Not People thematically starts with birth (of the universe as well as people) and end with a reflection on old age, so maybe the “narrative” here is simply more traditional, more A-Z. The ending, consequently, was probably the most moving part, Children’s offhand compassion for their elderly relatives does stop you in your tracks. And, of course, this being ex-Yugoslavia, the lives of the parents and grandparents are more coloured by striking images of war than most UK under-10’s will have been.

But, really, overall, I just really loved it. It was funny, engaging, and at the same time, clearly intelligent and making what felt like a genuinely bold experiment with form(s), somehow managing to suggest a modern staging of an Ibsen classic with the minds of adults replaced by those of children. Some of the performances were properly outstanding, and there was even a (live?) early-Cure sounding punky eighties (live?) band playing the odd musical interlude song.

I think if I’d had my serious analysis hat on, there’d be much more I could have excavated from it, but as it was, it was also wholly enjoyably on a level of simple childish pleasure, which also feels important to have as a thing once in a while.

Monday 21 September 2015

The Iliad – Madlenianum, Belgrade

[seen 18/09/15]

To be honest, I’d never really thought much about the theatrical potential of The Iliad before this year. Now – like Oresteias – three turn up at once (the other two Iliads being The Almeida’s in August and National Theatre of Wales’s version, which opens in two days). This performance at BITEF (Beogradski Internacionalni Teatarski Festival) is a three-way collaboration between the National Drama Theatre of Slovenia in Ljubljana, the Ljubljana City Theatre and Cankar Hall (big performance venue, also Ljubljana).*

The most obvious reason that I’ve not thought much about the Iliad *as theatre* is because it’s primarily “a book”. Yes, of course it’s An Epic Poem, thought to have originated as Oral Tradition, and becuase it’s also one of The Oldest Books In The World, not much ancillary evidence survives about the conditions in which it was originally performed. But it is still *a book* now. And England is nothing if not resistant to regarding anything other than texts-written-specificially-to-be-performed-in-theatre as texts for theatre. (And I’m nothing if not English.)

Directed by Jernej Lorenci, and adaptated for the stage by Lorenci, Matic Starina and Eva Mahkovic from a translation of Homer by Anton Sovrè, this version makes an incredible case for itself; not only as an adaptation of an ancient classic, but as living, breathing, moving, relevant theatre for *right now*.

The human brain is a remarkable thing, and, to all intents and purposes, that is where this production of the Iliad is set. All the more so if you’re watching it via the surtitles projected either side of the stage (no idea whose English translation – presumably from the Slovenian text – is used, but as often with surtitles, the necessity to cut to bare essentials makes for a compelling literary version in itself).

The production is essentially performed on an “undressed” stage, mostly on a thrust in front of a large iron safety curtain. The safety curtain is up before the show begins, and when it finishes. It is raised just once in the piece close to the end of the first half, when it rises to reveal a mown cornfield with freshly baled hay, and the orange light of a sunrise or sunset and thick haze; Achilles’s mother, Thetis, sings a mournful song, while her son sulks in front of a dressing-room mirror (complete with lightbulbs round it) in “his tent” (there are no tents). This, incidentally was also a fascinating revelation – that Achilles here feels like a tragic hero in the mould of Hamlet before his final, fatal duel. This also gives the narrative a pleasing new slant.

I say “undressed”, but actually it’s sort of untidily set up as if for a small orchestra (ho ho, Greek joke?). The performers come out mostly dressed accordingly, white shirts and black suits for the men (except Achilles, who doesn’t bother with a shirt). The women (of whom there are fewer than men 8:4) are dressed more in a range of costumes across the ages – one in ancient robes, one in Greek? Solvenia? “National Costume” looking things, one in maybe 1940s film-star stuff, and one in what could be what women in orchestras wear when men where black suits (a kind of sleeveless adapted suit – fashionable and serious-looking).

At the start a bloke comes on after the other performers, comes to the front of the stage – conductor-like – and just starts speaking the text into a microphone (an approach familiar from the Almeida version, except that here I don’t get any class-information from his voice. Which is an indescribable relief. I have no idea if – if I was fluent in Slovenian – I’d be unconsciously able to pin him down to a particular region, city, and then social class within five vowels. And I don’t know whether being able to do so would make the same difference as it does in UK. Are “The Greeks” “Posh” in Slovenia? Is this not the most ridiculous question in the world? Thanks, England).

Because this is a 2hr30 performance (one interval), the text goes at quite a pace. Gone are the interminable lists of sodding ships and recurring adjectives. We just get what sounds like (and even reads like in English) flinty, fast, verse. Characters and their motivations are unfussily, omnisciently set out. We know who’s who, what’s what and why. It’s lucid, arresting and, necessarily, squalid.

The director’s notes on the production (man, Slovenian blurb is better than most UK criticism) are worth reprinting, not least because having seen the production first, I can say that they represent precisely what the production has gone on to look at. And I’d not put it any better:

“The Iliad is the bedrock of Europe and its primal origin. It is its genesis. Its first seed, its source. The Iliad is Europe’s first epic poem, it is the first novel, opera, the initial spectacle, the first MTV. The Iliad is part of all of us. Everyone knows Zeus and Hera, Athena and Ares, the fair Helen and Paris, Agamemnon and Menelaus, Achilles and Patroclus. Why, therefore, is this mega-work, this excessively long and compulsory read, so deeply embedded within European civilisation? Whence arises this fascination of contemporary man with the ancient story, wherefrom the amazement at the ostensibly long gone heroic feats, doomed love, fatal consequences?

“How it is possible that this great work, of almost divine proportions, is considered a canon, a dogma, an ideal and a model for all posterity, when The Iliad is nothing but a brutal human slaughterhouse? When the basic motives of the protagonists are almost nothing but envy, greed, lust, vengeance, murderous, destructive and violent impulses?”**

Such a good question, and somehow – and I’m not entirely how – this production manages to stage “just the story” as precisely this question.

Obviously, it’s down to the dramaturgy. Let’s just establish that it’s much more sophisticated than reading the whole thing in alternating tones of sarcasm and scepticism and it never once projects a video image of anything at all – no ISIS, no Greek Finanacial Crisis, no refugee crisis, no recent or ancient wars, no ex-Yugoslav conflict footage – and yet that is the exact effect. And at the same time the story retains its dignity. The characters are still taken as seriously as they are by Homer. There are enhancements: there is added music – performed live; everything from Ancient Greek/“generalised (historical?) Balkan/Middle-Eastern” (I’m no musicologist) to Serge Gainsbourg – there are moments of comedy and then moments of profound savagery, and neither encroaches on the value of the other. There’s a lightness about the way that these moments are allowed to co-exist which is brilliantly managed. Being amused doesn’t cheapen the violence or make it less violent. And the violence – crucially abstract, rather than photorealist...

So, yes, there’s this incredible mix of musical styles. From plain speech (as music?), to the drumming of the dactylic hexameter on the microphones, to almost modernist use of harp, through to lounge music, a cover of J’t’aime. And the performances range – in the first half from seated or standing narration, through to pretty much psychological realism, or at leat some sort of embodiment of the part alongside narration duties.

Then, in the second half – essentially all battle – certain elements change. The physicality is more pronounced. We know, more or less, who is “playing” who. One performer becomes “all the characters who are being killed”. The “conductor”/main-narrator plays on an ancient instrument something like an Iranian dotar, but with a single string, and now sings his narration as a kind of ancient Mediterranean/Middle-Eastern lament (I apologise for not being able to be more culturally specific, although I have no idea how much cultural specificity is involved on the part of the creators, and how much is indeed “generalised ancient middle-eastern”). Two of the women punctuate this with that high-pitched trilling wail that I also associate with the middle east/North Africa. In a sense, my discomfort around describing this is largely absent (it felt) from the appropriation-happy production itself. But, as I say, I also don’t really know enough about Slovenian/ex-Yugoslavian/ex-Ottoman Empire culture to known how they’d describe the provenance – it is important to remember in this context that Yugoslavia, as was, was previously divided between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, and Belgrade was pretty much the meeting point of “East” and “West” (scare quotes because, clearly North and South, really). So, the music is incredibly evocative, not only for my modern, Western associations with it, but also for the history of the region and beyond.

The way the violence is staged too is brilliant – a kind of cross between slow-motion naturalism and contemporary dance, half illustrative, and half an abstraction of the pain of dying in battle.

And then there’s the killing of Hector by Achilles. Which is one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen on a stage. Astonishing purely through it’s simplicty and brutality. Hector-performer is curled almost foetal on the floor, under a plain, round metal shield, and Achilles-performer takes a massive metal pole and relentlessly batters it. Hector sobs into a microphone, but you can only hear a fraction over the noise of metal smashing into metal. The thick metal pole actually sustains damage and bends. The thick metal shield also sustains damage. It’s incredibly visceral, powerful, muscular stuff. Hector-performer is then replaced with half a pig carcass, and Achilles continues to beat this bloody lifeless chunk of meat. And then stabs it a few times, until Hector stops making a sound.

The pig carcass is then cradled tenderly by the narrator, also playing Priam.

This is essentially the end, give or take. There is stillness after to allow for what’s just happened. But it’s somehow so stunning and shattering that the standing ovation that follows is entirely spontaneous and almost immediate.

This ending is – more or less – just the story, simply told, and viscerally enacted. Barely without ornament. But, it works astonishingly well. Yes, we think. That is ancient warfare. And it is somehow present in today. The reasons for that war were so basic as to be contemptible, and they knew that even then. Not much has improved.

I know I seem to have started using the end of every review to petition for UK transfers, but, seriously, Barbican, I’m here to tell you people would love this like they love The Roman Tragedies. For real. Book it.

 *It’s crass to point it out – but this is my first time in Serbia, and the route from the airport to my hotel passed enough buildings that were destroyed by NATO bombing in 1999 that it feels noteworthy – but this means we were watching a performance by one Balkan country which only narrowly avoided all out war with the host nation just under 24 years ago. Moreover, any Serbian my age or older could well have actually fought in the war. So, y’know, *war* feels a damn sight less remote here, than in Britain (which is ironic since we’ve actually been at war pretty much solidly since 2001).

[post-script to the above – the day after I saw this performance I went to this syposium on criticism at International Festivals, and it was fascinating to hear the different critics from different regions/countries give their own perspectives on how *related* to the ex-Yugoslav war this performance was. To the American present it very much was, in much the same way as – I guess – anyone talking in this language and with our limited back-knowledge, will think of that first. The Serbian critic on the panel didn’t think it had much to do specifically with the ex-Yugoslav war, while the Slovenian critic there suggested that calling it the “Yugoslavian Civil War” or anything similar was pretty wrong anyway, and we might more usefully think of it as the US War or the NATO War and think of it in relation to ongoing American imperialism. Which, thinking back those bombed buildings, and Bill Clinton Avenue in Pristina, makes a fuck-tonne of good sense.]

** It continues: “Which of today’s heroes could match the ancient ones? Brad Pitt as Achilles? Is our time suitable for heroes and heroism? Has not the world grown so small as to require nothing but a simple, small-scale man who does not make history, but merely life? Temporary, modest, everyday life?

“Yet The Iliad is part of all of us. Is it indeed possible for a body politic called state not to rest its foundations on blood? Not to exist at the expense of another human being? Is not every type of collectivisation dangerous? Then again: I am never alone, neither at the theatre nor in life. One thing remains certain: The Iliad is part of all of us.”

The Ristić Complex – BITEF Theatre, Belgrade

[seen 20/09/15]

there aren't any production photos on Google Image search yet

Right. Let’s go.

The Ristić Complex (Ristić Kompleks) is the new piece made by Bosnian-Serb Croatian director Oliver Frljić, who made Damned Be The Traitor of His Homeland with Slovenia’s Mladinsko Theatre, which I saw at Romania’s Sibiu Festival last year and fucking loved.

The Ristić of the title is Ljubiša Ristić, a very important ethnic-Serb theatre director in Yugoslavia, who in the mid-seventies, began to revolutionise Yugoslavian theatre which was in something of an artistic crisis. He founded the very important KPGT theatre company. Then, when 1991 happened, when Yugoslavia began to disintegrate into the series of extremely bloody civil wars, Ristić became Slobadan Milosevic’s Minister of Culture[? -- or some similarly supported, symbolic position at any rate]. He is still alive, and still working in Belgrade to this day.

So *obviously* this piece is a pretty grenade-throwing bit of iconoclasm, right?

But, Christ on a bike, it’s dense iconoclasm that I’m not necessarily in the best position to appreciate. I *think* I ended up really loving it. I was a bit *hmm* for maybe fifteen minutes. Then a) basically the war starts in the narrative, and consequently b) the stage imagery got a lot more readily comprehensible and just more *moving*. Then it progressed to all-out strangeness that I adored.

A thought I had on the way out: theatre criticism really is an incredibly dumb medium. This whole “I liked it”/”I didn’t like it” shit. Pfft. What Ristić Kompleks made me think it was: well, this leaves you in less of a state than Damned Be The Traitor... Obviously, it does. That was always going to be the case. Just as (say) Much Ado About Nothing tends to leave you feeling less wrung out than King Lear. (Maybe this also harks back to irritability about “Greatness”.) So, well, *obviously* I have an entirely different emotional response – not least because my response to this was much more appreciative/curious about the intellectual means and what some of the stage pictures *meant*.

Yesterday, I also happened to go to a symposium entitled “The Critic is Present (at the International Festival)” [there will be links], in which some IATC members discussed how we deal as a profession with writing about (what is ultimately) unfamiliar work presented in unfamiliar surroundings. I will write elsewhere about that, maybe, if I get time, but the crucial thing in that discussion, which was if nothing else useful to hear someone say out loud, was that: *obviously* local signifiers will get differently interpreted at an international level. *Obviously*. So, there’s a thing where, yes, I’ve been to at least one city in most of the countries of the former Yugoslavia, and was alive when the civil wars happened, so I might do slightly better than someone who wasn’t born at the time, and hasn’t. But a teeny bit of travel doesn’t make me a native or even close. So, as I noted with Iliada the Big Things That We Know About Ex-Yugoslavia rose to the top in this performance. And the things that maybe seemed to be about theatre more generally also stuck out.

And then there was the question of what we might call Current British Morality/Feminism, which meant that I was acutely aware that there were only two female performers out of seven, and the younger one was dressed as a bride throughout, while the five men and other, older woman were dressed as soldiers. And it didn’t escape my attention that the younger woman also at one point reveals her left breast to the audience, and etc. Or that, objectively speaking, she more closely resembled someone you might find in tasteful black and white photograph advertising maybe perfume than not. And, yes, I’m also acutely aware that on one level I think we’re maybe meant to shut up about this information now, but at the same time, when it’s *visual information* that’s being presented on the stage, I’m not convinced you can discuss something that clearly signifies within the performance without referencing the world within which it exists (or substitute that information for saying something bland or euphemistic). Which is not a perfectly equal world at present. (In Frljić’s defence, for this one breast, you do also see six willies. Weeing. On a map of Yugoslavia. So, y’know, something for everyone.)

[I would use performers’ names, but ironically, despite the gendering, it is still very much an ensemble piece; the performers move very much as a unit within a bigger picture, if that makes sense...]

Have I actually said much about the performance itself yet? No. Jesus. So...

Another thing that one of the panellist at this symposium yesterday said was that in terms of trying to stack up what elements exist in the mise en scene (they’re still Very French, the AITC/IATC), she imagines those audio-described performances for the blind, and the way that the people doing those are asked to describe without value judgements so the person listening can make their own associations. Which is excellent and good. (Although I might skip it for this one, and load up everything with my own associations and let you untangle it yourselves. I mean, even my objectivity is pretty compromised, right?)

So. What happened? The seven performers come on, stack up the desks which were at the back with Ristić written on them. The young woman bride-figure sits on top of it. The performers spit what looks like semen into each others mouths until it gets up to her. She then performs a long and elaborate blow job on a bottle of coke while the rest of them run round in a circle in their pants. There is music playing. Music plays pretty much throughout. I’ll try to get a playlist off someone.

The songs change, the movements around the stage changes. There are several costume changes. THEY ALL WEE ON A LARGE MAP OF YUGOSLAVIA ON THE FLOOR. This is then cleaned by the older woman, weeping copiously, before the map is dried properly and carted off-stage by biohazard-suited

At another point, they all come stamping on stage in wooden boots shaped like tanks. (I imagine this is just before the war?) Unsurprisingly, what I took to be the war imagery is more powerful, and also more abstract; less slightly clunkily point-making in how it feels. The company dance with each other while black liquid pours out of their mouths onto their dance-partner’s shoulder, they put small blood bags over their eyes, bandage them up, and them pop them. The means by which the resulting pictures are created aren’t hidden, but the images remain powerful.

Something else that was striking for me – watching this new work by Frljić (and watching very much as an Englander) – was the extent to which, despite the brilliantly detailed dramaturgical notes in the programme, this feels like work that that has at least echoes in our own work. It’s true that as a country the UK suffers for want of a subject as definitive and unimpeachably serious as the ex-Yugoslav wars (see Iliad review for further discussion of this name), but nonetheless, in terms of how this thing actually works – as pictures arranged to move through time to music, essentially – there was something of A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts and something of Some People Talk About Violence. I think Meg Vaughan was right to say that Barrel Organ have changed the game as regards assumptions re: UK dramaturgy, and, if anything, the sense of familiarity while watching Kompleks Ristić is proof. It’s striking also how, as far as I remember, there wasn’t a single word spoken by the performers. Only the words of the recorded music, occasionally sung along to live, but as often not.

Beyond that, there is a category of thing in it that I’ll call “strangeness”. At the end – and in a way that made me grin, if only because it was *exactly what you want to see happen in any piece of Eastern European Avant Garde performance* (worry about this *exoticisation* later) – the whole ensemble put on photocopied masks of Stalin in a frozen tableau. They then all leave the stage except bride-woman-Stalin. Then a kind of skeleton pantomime horse comes on, and Stalin-bride leads it off. Very Slowly. While the legend “This scene was lost when in care of the state” (paraphrase). Which is both THE MOST ALLEGORICAL THING EVER and ENTIRELY ILLEGIBLE TO ME. But it was, nonetheless somehow brilliant.

I think, in order to ever get any other work done, I shall leave this “review” here, and maybe come back to writing about the piece in a different way at a later date once I’ve had a conversation or two with the dramaturgs and so on, so I can maybe present a more accomplished, *informed* persepctive. But for the time being, this is the first draft. The raw account, if you like. More questions than answers, probably. But I really like that as a state after watching theatre anyway.

So, yes: Oliver Frljić. Can someone get some of his work transferred to the UK, ASAP, please. It’s starting to get a bit embarrassing now.

Sunday 20 September 2015

[not very] Shorts: Are We Prog?

[reply to naughty Prof. Rebellato]

In his latest blog on theatre, while praising a new play (which I haven’t seen), Dan Rebellato mischievously suggests that the impulse to write a naturalistic country house play in 2015 is quite punk rock, and consequently, all the Men in the Citieses and This is How We Dies and This is How You Will Disappears are all just so many Yes albums.

Obviously he doesn’t really suggest that at all, but his essay does raise interesting questions, and more interestingly uncovers some fascinating underlying assumptions in the process.

There are various different ways to approach his proposition.

First: speedy rebuttal – Rebellato listens to Roadrunner by Jonathan Richman, credits it to the (historically loose, ill-defined) US “punk” “movement”. Then, without drawing a breath, he notes that punk killed prog. Well, sort of. Except it wasn’t US punk that killed prog (Roadrunner was, after all, recorded in 1972; *before* the height of prog.). As such, the definition of punk he’s using: “connecting music back to the simpler virtues of rhythm, melody, countercultural energy, and youth” is revealed as a false opposition to whatever sins prog/experimental theatre commits/ted.

Yes, there is a narrative in which UK punk “kills” prog rock, but the reasons UK Punk was popular – and therefore able to be described as having killed another sort of music – have nothing to do with the virtues listed in Rebellato’s definition of American punk.

We could go on for much longer about what those things were, but it wouldn’t be terrible to just say “haircuts” and run away.

The second way to disagree takes longer:
*I know* Dan was mostly sort-of joking + being fun-ly provocative (precisely to people like me, who IN NO WAY want to imagine that Chris Brett Bailey is really some sort of Ian Anderson).  But, I think the two poles he offers are instructive. Firstly, I think they’re a mistake. I think they’re a mistake because the theatre I’ve been seeing recently spans roughly 2,500 years. From the Oresteias of Rob Icke, Adele Thomas, Rory Mullarkey and Aeschylus, through Hamlet is Dead... and Lanark, up to, say, Some People Talk About Violence and Seeping Through.

From this, we might at the very least suggest that the musical comparisons demand a similarly long lineage. All the way from guessed-at reproductions of bronze age music through medieval, renaissance, classical, romantic, and even unto modernity.

And, in thinking like this, I’m reminded of that bit in Simon Stephens’s Song From Far Away where Willem describes talking as “just posh breathing,” and remarks that the human animal first communicated by song. (From which, we might also consider the way that original productions of Greek “plays” may in fact have been more like liturgical, or dirge-like operas, than crisply spoken verse dramas.)  Anyway, my point in this bit of the argument is that The History of Theatre might more fairly be likened to The History of Music.

And, similarly, there’ll be a bunch of stuff that got written down, and a – probably much vaster – tradition of stuff that didn’t. And there’ll be a load of oral tradition and folk songs, which did or didn’t get transmitted across the ages *accurately*. And a load of stuff that we know of the past now, which is probably only the most recent iteration of something that had been being passed down for generations before someone thought to invent a system for writing it down, and even then, that system for writing it down won’t have been prefect, and each village or town will have had its own versions, and, and, and, etc.

This not only highlights the inadequacy of the somewhat limited Either Punk or Prog. game, it also resurrects that other perennial binary favourite “play or performance?” And this is why comparing modern music to theatre is tricky. In modern music, a recording can be said to be the definitive article. Particularly in the era of Punk‘n’Prog, where it is as much about the albums versus singles as it is even remotely connected to the live performances. In theatre you can definitely – using Dan’s definition, temporarily – have a “prog” production of a “punk” play. I’m not entirely sure if – unlike in the musical equivalent – you could have a “punk” (i.e. naturalistic country house) version of a “prog” play (unlike a punk cover of some prog, which would be theoretically simple).

This discrepancy, for me, nails down what I find difficult about the comparison. Apart from its imprecision, and mischievous co-opting of decontextualised virtues (in one case) and hazily recalled vices (in the other), what it’s really about is spin that doesn’t really map unless willed to do so.

Is any theatre punk? It depends how you define it. Is any theatre an exhilarating three minute, ear-splitting burst of spirit triumphing over talent that you can throw yourself around to? Very little if any. Is it a short-lived moment from the late seventies that gained a massively disproportionate amount of press compared to the numbers of people who saw it? Probably.

Similarly, does most theatre take hours, is best watched sitting down, and does it involve great displays of virtuosity from everyone involved? Yes. Is all theatre more prog than punk by these metrics? Absolutely.

My third point of disagreement is this: “Is our current distaste for fiction depriving us of something persistently valuable in the surprise we find in immersing ourselves imaginatively in a fictional world and the joy of the surprise, the revelation, the twist, the reversal? What actually is our problem with fiction (or at least fiction that doesn't announce itself to be fiction)? What are the conditions in which we might see - and politically approve - a revival of clunky what's-round-the-corner plotting?”

In theatre terms, I do not recognise *AT ALL* the “current distaste for fiction” described above. I really don’t. I go to the theatre a lot, and I see a fuck tonne of fiction. And I really like it*.

Dan’s argument stripped to its basics runs:

“I and many others have championed the wave of playwrights and theatre companies who have continually striven to be formally experimental, to find new forms for new times, to engage in puzzling, cryptic, complex, metatheatrical reflections on the means of telling more than the story told.”

“nothing in what I am writing here is intended to doubt the virtue and value of formal experimentation in theatre.”

“what punk did in the late seventies was to kill prog.” [see: a long way above]

“prog was a form of formal experimentation in rock.”

“There were some good things in prog, probably, but... something of rock’s joy and power was lost.”

“Are we prog?”

“Are we, in our interest in formal experimentation and metatheatrical sophistication, the ones who are losing track of some of the theatre’s BASIC virtues?”

“Formal experimentation can be emotionally devastating, involve remarkable craft, elegantly elaborated fiction, and extraordinary storytelling”

“The well-made play is not theatre in its rawest state; it’s just another form, but one that offers very particular pleasures and joys in a very refined form”

Which, as we can see, is already a pretty circular argument – which, let’s remember, Dan is kidding about – but...

“Are we prog?”

No. “We” (the enjoyers of experimental theatre as well as other things) are not prog. At least, not the way that I see it. Obviously this tribalism might appeal to the odd naturalistic-play fundamentalist who wants to seem roll‘n’roll, but really that’s an argument about pretension, and arguments about pretension in theatre are as much a zero-sum-game as they are in pop music. Is standing on one-leg playing the flute while dressed as a wizard more or less pretentious than dressing in leather and proclaiming yourself an anti-christ?

In quite a vital way, *all* theatre is about pretending, and, ultimately there’s no way of that not being silly if someone wants to see it that way. All theatre is silly, as are punk and prog, if we want to go down that route.

Punk’s chief (original) virtue, if it had one, was – I think – that it was frightening. Deliberately.

Theatre very rarely frightens anyone *as a thing*.

Once we’re *inside* theatre, it can maybe then sometimes be frightening – either by way of ideas or effects – but you have to have already submerged yourself fully in the wider construct that is theatre for this to work. The idea of theatre is not overtly frightening to people in the same way that punk was.

Moreover, let’s be honest, most of theatre is *really nice* anyway. It maybe afflicts Quentin Letts with its swearing and its homosexuals and public subsidy once in a while, but theatre is very rarely irresponsible. It certainly rarely wears a Swastika for shock value. It doesn’t really hate everything. It doesn’t want to destroy passers by. It doesn’t hate its own useless generation.


In thinking about this (and glossing over almost everything in my screeching need to finally post *something*), I have wondered what theatre that was like that might be like. I wonder, for example, how the fuck it would get funding if it wanted its audience to fuck off. And scrawled “WE DON’T CAAAAAAARE” over diversity and outreach objectives.

I’ve also thought about how white and male both punk and prog are. And how both are phenomena firmly attached to one decade which ended 35 years ago. And how both of these things are problems.

Let’s be honest, nothing can be punk anymore, except by approvingly assuming to the word to be able to move past the musical movement and for the attitude – streamlined – to be applicable to *other things*.

If we’re honest (and let’s be honest, at least), aren’t GodspeedYou BlackEmperor (for example) kinda “prog”? And aren’t they actually more dignified than, I dunno, Green Day or someone?

I think I’ve run out of steam on this front.

So: are we prog?

I think I refuse the premise/s of the question.

[the two versions of the Beethoven adaptation of a Scottish Folk Song, one performed in English, one in Russian, are intended to tie in to a further point I never quite got round to making about the range of music over the centuries and the range of theatre over the centuries, and how much of it was kinda untouched by either binary, but does contain an endless wealth of reinvention and reimagination and transition in performance and so on... ]

* Indeed, I have a borderline morbid horror of the non-fictional. Especially when it relates to personal traumas suffered by the performer. There is a lot of that about too, at least in Edinburgh, and I can’t bloody stand it (there are exceptions which prove this rule, but...)

**Not one punk single ever actually prevented some double concept album about Middle-Earth being made. Did Punk really kill Pink Floyd? No. Did Punk explode on the pages of the music press and the nation’s fashion consciousness? Obviously. Were there all that many punks? Hard to say, now, innit? I mean, it was really a *sub-culture*. And “proper punk” only lasted for what? Three? Four? years, tops (1976-1979).

Bakkhai – Almeida Theatre, London

[seen 03/09/15]

Thanks to Michael Billington, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about “canonicity” and the Greatness of Plays. Thanks to Social Media, I’ve also been thinking about both the ongoing refugee crisis in the Mediterranean (due to, and with consequences for, *everywhere*) and the ideas behind Duncan Macmillan’s new play, People, Places, Things. These are the preoccupations with which I went into James MacDonald’s production of Annie Carson’s new translation of Euripides’s play.

Within a few minutes of the thing starting, you might add to this: remembering I was very glad to be seeing Ben Wishaw on stage again, and how much I generally admire him as an actor. And also it being nice to see Bertie Carvel on stage again, and how much I’d liked him in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell on the telly. And remembering Tim Bano’s masterful review of this production, but also what he said about it outside that review in the bar of the Traverse Theatre. I remember reading another review?/tweet? Which complained that Ben Wishaw didn’t exert enough sexual magnetism to convince as someone who drove Penthius’s mother , Agave, to tear her own son limb from limb. And thinking that I too have to write about this production, and how much *assigning silly reasons to why one doesn’t especially go for a particular production* can be the undoing of otherwise perfectly reasonable accounts of a thing.

[And, now, writing this, remembering how much I resent any other reviews that spend the first two paragraphs not getting to the point at all...]

The facts of the matter are these: ultimately, I was almost entirely unmoved by the entirety of this Bakkhai. I don’t mind being unmoved, I’m just as happy with having my synapses exhausted with the crackle of idea against idea. That didn’t happen either. What I thought about most during this production was “Why am I not feeling anything, or really thinking about anything other than the absence of ideas”.

This *sounds* very damning. It honestly isn’t meant to. I actually felt pretty content. Although I’m not sure if content was how I was meant to feel.

Visually, the stage of MacDonald’s production – designed by __, lit by __ – is attractive, modern, unfussy. A square stage jutting out of black mounds of earth curving round the back wall. Costume-wise, I was a little less sure: the chorus come on like more colourful versions of one of those modern-dress Katie Mitchell choruses – holidaymakers in a sunny place. They sing their first chorus and then dress in fawn-skin (or whatever it is that’s specified), *over* their modern strappy Topshop tops. Which feels sort of fine, but sort of fussy.

When Bertie Carvel as Penthius arrives he’s wearing a politician’s suit and doing a first class impression of David Cameron. Ben Wishaw, as Dionysus in human form, changes costumes several times, generally in close-fitting beiges,; he has long hair, a faint beard and, for one scene, a dress. So we’re in a kind of leg-up-to-comprehension modernity. Nothing particularly specific or mapping onto a particular thing, but recognisable generalities.

There’s something strangely quiet about this Bakkhai. It’s not exactly, well, Bacchanalian. Orlando Gough’s music for the chorus is lovely – a kind of Philip Glass arrangement of the Voix Bulgares, modern, but without quite the atonal savagery that if I’m honest, I guess I was sort of looking for.

I think the trouble here is more that the staging of this music, in particular, is either a) just plain unimaginative, or b) – more charitably – hampered by the demands of making it possible to sing it. That is: the music is sung very prettily. In order to accomplish this, the singers/chorus don’t move a great deal. And there’s a lot of singing. All of which is very static. Which means the chorus of Bacchic women are kinda, well, statue-y. And the music, while nice in the abstract, doesn’t quite do the job of communicating anything about the simmering fury of these religious fundamentalists. The chorus more resembles a choir of Cambridge University Music Post-Graduates on a tour of the Balkans. What’s most odd is that I feel this *could* work brilliant as an idea/aesthetic, but somehow here it doesn’t. It feels like a half-way house where neither thing is fully realised enough (neither wildness nor distance-from-wildness).

The story itself is clearly told, and with this clarity, it feels that – again – any sort of nervous emotional impact has been lost. This emphatically isn’t to say either that clarity or loss-of-feeling is bad, but there doesn’t feel like there’s anything near enough intellectual substance to feel the gap. And so we’re left in the rather draughty halfway house, neither feeling awfully much, or being made to think very much either.

The usual cultural-prejudice-resonances occur to us (to me) – anything from the Greek Financial Crisis to the Syrian Refugees – but I think that is almost entirely down to the fact that we know the play itself is from ancient Greece, and have enough wit to imagine any number of displaced people (in this case Bacchus’s followers) both as the religious fundamentalists of ISIS, and the Syrians whom they have displaced. As I mentioned at the beginning, seeing this late in the run, and as reports were beginning to explode about Duncan Macmillan’s apparently searing critique of too much drinking over the river, it also struck me as interesting/ironic that at root, apart from being the usual Don’t Piss Off The Gods sort of thing that the Greeks went in for, this is a play that says: “Really, Don’t Not Drink. No Good Will Come Of It” (Or: "If you think you’ve got a headache now..."  etc. etc.).

I suppose I should make some sort of comment on the fact that Ben Wishaw wears a dress for a bit, and Bertie Carvel doubles as his own (well, his character’s own) mother, with a long white wig, and a performance that is really interestingly perched on the three-way cusp of drag/parody/near-naturalism. It’s a genuinely uncanny thing. And I wasn’t sure either a) what to make of it, or b) how the hell it fitted into the rest of the thing.

Annoyingly, this performance is undone (/further distanced) by a Very Silly Ripped-Off Head. Which is *obviously* a prop (twice obviously, they were never going to get a real one), but so distractingly obviously a terrible prop, that you wonder why they didn’t either a) get a better one, or b) just use a lump of meat/a watermelon/a pig’s head/a football. Anything but this silly thing which we’re asked to believe evokes horror and pity.

Ultimately, it feels like the dramaturgy here has – like Bacchus’s followers – pulled in many directions at once, and in doing so has made rather a mess of what it was pulling at.  In short, none of the things here are necessarily *wrong*, but as a random collection on not-wrong-things, I didn’t end up getting much of anything from this production.

Shorts: on “Greatness”

[1,118 words, written a while ago now]

Since that article Michael Billington wrote about the selection process for his new book, The 101 Greatest Plays, I’ve been having a bit of a think about the concept of “Greatness”.

Because it’s now the end of the Edinburgh Festivals, and the beginning of the new theatre season (not so much a concept in UK, but I still think in “school years”) [this piece was started in early September], this has coincided with me updating my “The Best of 2015” list (always a silly exercise, but I do quite like having my own one to look back on) and emailing press offices to sort out tickets for the next few weeks (in London, due to external factors, not regional-artistic preference).

A question I’ve arrived at is this: “Is ‘Greatness’ a kind of genre?” Several other questions proceed from this. If it’s a genre, is it – disagreements about “Great*est*” notwithstanding – one that’s commonly recognised? Do we agree on the parameters of what constitutes “Greatness”? And, the most important one: even if it is a genre, is “Greatness” not a rather problematic concept?

After all, “Greatness” is not the same as “Good”, “Favourite” or even “Bestest”. The very use of a different word to those ones implies a different set of standards; a different criteria. So, do we all think of the same sorts of things when the idea of “Greatness” is mentioned? It definitely makes me think of quite a specific sort of play. And, in the first instance, I think my understanding of the concept is probably quite close to the one Michael intends (which makes sense, we’re not so very different, he and I). It’s probably a “public play” – a play that touches on issues facing at least a city or nation (rather than someone’s *feelings*) – and it’s probably the sort of play that fills a stage the size of the Lyttleton or the Olivier. I have to consciously readjust how I think before “Greatness” can mean something else. I think this is *How Hegemony Works*. So, we need to consciously resist unconscious meanings or inferences.

I tackled a similar inbuilt bias around the word “properly” in my essay of the same name in 2011. That, while I really objected to it being used in reviews, I knew exactly what it was getting at. Even while I disagreed, the visual/mental shorthand was still wired in by my cultural upbringing.

To my mind, the way “greatness” *means* is connected to the word’s other meanings in English. “Great” not only means ‘a sort of best’ or ‘most important’, but also a size: Great Britain, great-coat; in Shakespeare, Falstaff’s “great belly”. Etc. So Michael’s list kind of means “The 101 Biggest Plays”. And that idea of “bigness” itself implies not only the physical size that a production of the play might entail, but also its “Big Hits”ness, the number of people who have seen a thing, its popularity, its Big In Japan-ness, if you like.

What’s interesting to me about the idea of “greatness” is also its inflexibility. Be honest; as a gut reaction to the word “great” do we automatically think “fleet, timely, incisive, etc.” are better synonyms than “imperturbable, monolithic, immense, unchanging, etc.”? I think not. Is it not the case that, no matter how well Michael argues his list thereafter, there’s an automatic hamstrung-ness gifted him by his own title? What, after all, could feel more unwieldy than “Greatness”?

At the same time – to return to my own choices of what to request press tickets for, and what to put in my own end-of-year favourites list, I do wonder how well I do at resisting the call of the “Great”.

However, I’ve been arguing a fair bit about my issues with Michael’s list, and I think my biggest issue (I haven’t read the book yet, so I really am only arguing with the list itself, as published by the Guardian) is that, as presented in that stark form, is that it’s got precisely nothing to do with how I ever experience theatre. A list of plays may be interesting for the dramaturg, director, or artistic director – and, God knows, anyone who wants to have a fight on the Guardian Theatre Blog – but it is of next to no use whatsoever to a theatregoer. To take an incredibly easy recent example; at number 10 on Michael’s (chronological) list is: “Hamlet by William Shakespeare (1564–1616)”. And yet, if we look at Michael’s recent reviews we find: “Hamlet – Benedict Cumberbatch imprisoned in a dismal production – Barbican, London: 2/5 stars”. So much for greatness, y’know?

I don’t deny that there are some plays (not ones on this list, particularly, but in general) that I imagine it would be impossible to stage well, although as with everything, it’s a) a matter of taste anyway, and b) I look forward to being proved wrong and seeing astonishing regietheater reimaginings of Off The Endz, etc.

But really, part of me wonders how it is possible to spend 40 years going to the theatre and end up writing about *just the scripts*. Of course they’re important, but, my God, so are the productions. (And I don’t share MB’s view that only single-authored texts are worth thinking properly about.)

I would be *really interested* to read a book which collected arguments amongst critics from every country in the world trying to make a list of the best, or ten best plays ever written in their language – or even the ten best plays from anywhere according to their country’s perspective. But equally I’d be interested, more interested, in a book that tried to establish the same top ten of performances. Because really, isn’t theatre what actually happens?

This has now rather veered away from my initial concerns about Greatness. If I were to make a prediction, however, it strikes me as likely that the list-books of my generation, when we reach our dotages, are more likely to be lists of productions and/or performances. And perhaps selected with greater foregrounded subjectivity. I think “importance” (as we see it) (possibly: to the artform, as much as anything) might feel like a more pressing concern. But I think there’s also the question of just sheer pleasure, or enjoyment, or the visceral rush, or the memory of a feeling, or a changed perspective, as well, that makes things great.

[I daresay, outside the necessary sabre-rattling of the promotional blog, the book says precisely the same thing]

Tuesday 8 September 2015

hamlet is dead. no gravity – Arcola, London

[seen 05/09/15]

hamlet is dead. no gravity is the first contemporary German-language play I ever saw performed in German (and in Germany). I’d seen English productions of German plays, and German productions of English plays (and Ibsen), but this was the first [Austrian] production of an [Austrian] play I’d seen. It was June 2008 and I think it marks the proper beginning of my love affair with German theatre.

[you can read my original review here, if you want. It’s not especially good. Scroll past the German translation of the review.]

So, y’know, after all this time (and a couple of subsequent Ewald Palmestofer plays later), I was curious to see what *the play* itself was *actually like*. And nervous, too, because I had loved the original production so much that I didn’t hold out much hope of seeing past it.

In fact, Andrea Ferran’s production is a model of clarity and velocity. I could nit-pick, but frankly I’m not in the mood and it’s not really what criticism is for. James Perkins’s set is, as far as I can make out, pretty much just the bare steel and brick bones of Arcola Studio One and six plastic chairs. (I apologise profusely if there’s more.) The black metal skeleton of a door has been added. The lighting is spare, stark, and hits the stage from vertiginous angles. There’s also some pretty damn fine sound design whirring away in the background (Alexandra Faye Braithwaite), but more of that later.

To my immense surprise, hamlet is dead... actually turns out to a tightly structured plot/story/narrative (not immediately apparent from its original production). And it’s gripping once it gets going. I will note, lest people buy tickets off the back of this review and want to strangle me twenty minutes in, that it’s one of those plays which starts off with some pretty dense monologues, and imagery, and *stuff*, and it’s only as time passes that a story begins to emerge from this welter of opaque exchanges. I don’t think I’ve frowned (in concentration) through a play so solidly in *ages*. And I loved it. The piece cuts you no slack at all, you just have to think. Hard. (I dunno. Actually, I bet you’re fine just letting it wash over you. What can I say? I like concentrating.)

The plot coalesces around a brother and sister, their two exes who have since married each other, the siblings’ parents, and their grandmother. The brother and sister are, well, *ambiguously close* to say the least, while their mother harbours murderous intentions toward her own mother. The characters have all been reunited by the sudden shocking death of their friend Hannes.

[It is interesting to note that the play already feels like a product of its time – it is definitely a *pre-financial-crisis* play. And, to my mind, it is also Very Austrian Indeed – something worth knowing to contextualise the references to occupying Russians, but also the deeply sardonic sense of humour and apparent dislike for its protagonists.]

What is more interesting to me, is the extent to which – in this production, in this translation (crisp, contemporary, spiky vernacular by Neil Blackadder) – the play does also feel like an off-kilter reflection on actual Hamlet. The characters and situations don’t map exactly, but there’s a kind of *feeling* here, that really makes sense of the title. There is also the odd word or phrase – “rotten” sticks out – which is clearly deliberate, but I don’t know if that’s a direct translation of something that would be equally understood in German, or if it’s a felicitous embellishment made possible because Hamlet was written in English. I don’t know if Hamlet is quite as ingrained in the German psyche in the same way.

Back in 2008, along with finding the production a revelation, I think I was more impressed by the nihilism. This time around, the nihilism expressed by the characters feels more like a symptom of their problems, a reflection of their entirely alienated, dislocated lives. I have at least grown out of thinking it’s also ‘cool’. On one level, it would be nice to be able to say: well, yes, this is a savage satire of Austrian First World Problems a decade ago, and leave it there. But really? The bigger picture, the overall dramaturgy of the text, while not feeling like it especially maps onto specifically British issues as, say, Men in the Cities did, somehow still feels like it does say something very pointed about The West in general. Not so much a diagnosis of “affluenza” (or any equally irritating buzzword), but more the whole, massive, disgusting, underlying sickness. Like, portraits of families such as this just kind of concretize the enormous, ongoing vague sense of unease. Like, somehow, despite the fact it’s nothing like your life, you can point and say, “Yes. There’s something weirdly *true* about this.” I find that fascinating about it.

It is also worth noting that there are also some *really excellent* performances in it. Cary Crankson particularly stands out as the brother, Mani, but Elizabeth Chan and Richard Pryal as the siblings’ hapless exes, and ultimately narrators, bring precisely the right brittle brightness to bear on the situation. The whole (I’ve been reading Patrice Pavis recently, and I’m really fighting the urge to give in and say ‘mise-en-scene’)... The whole combination of text, direction, performances design, lighting and sound – toward the end the sound design just does this beautiful, subliminal, dislocated urgency thing that feels like it’s almost driving the entire narrative, it’s properly gripping – makes this production feel absolutely outstanding. Seeing it on Saturday night with a far smaller audience than it deserves also gives writing it up a certain sense of urgency. Sure, it’s nice to see a hidden gem, but, Christ, don’t miss it. This is a text which I think playwrights need to see performed, and also an outstanding British production of a German-language play that proves they really can have a theatrical life here. And outside “theatre-ecology” reasons, I thought it was just a really great, cynical, brilliant story.

So, yeah; go see it.

/consumer advice.

[Ant Street in Studio one afterwards is also a brilliant production. Review to follow, ASAP. And I’m looking to the two pieces showing downstairs – also as part of the Volta festival – which I’m seeing next week.]

Sunday 6 September 2015

The Oresteia – Globe, London

[seen 06/09/15]

The wasteland outside a city.

Wind whips the robes of an imaginary female figure.

“Michael! Michael! You have summoned me! You have given me life! Your head was my womb!”

A bloodied mass at her imaginary feet shifts, revealing itself to be the broken body of a hapless septuagenarian.

“Bu... ? Whu... ?“ It gurgles, unhappily.

Her imaginary kohl-rimmed eyes flash, as she draws from a concealed pocket a tattered scrap of newspaper.

“What can possibly be the matter with...”

Another flash of her imaginary eyes immediately silence him,

“Allow me” she says; her voice both ancient and modern, speaking to the helpless critic across the centuries. She gazes at the scrap of paper and reads:

“For all its oddities, the production tells the basic story... I was less moved than by the Icke adaptation. But at least the evening shows how ‘justice’ – the word that resounds through Mullarkey’s text like a drumbeat – easily transmutes into blood-soaked revenge.”

The vision fixes the broken man with her imaginary stare. He snaps, pushed beyond endurance.

“HOW IS THAT BAD? HOW IN GOD’S NAME CAN YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH THAT?” his voice a terrible cry in the still early morning.

“Oh, Michael, Michael, where to start?” comes her dreadful, familiar reply. “Let’s start it off easy. How about ‘The Chorus, for instance, are modern figures with trilbies and brollies’...”

“They were!”

Her reply is a daemonic scream “WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME MEN WORE HATS, MICHAEL?”

The critic’s body slumps once again. Of course. When did men stop wearing hats? Damn the world. Damn the Sixties.

The silence outside the city is punctured only by occasional electronic noises from the Radiophonic Workshop.

“Ok, so the chorus weren’t modern, but this isn’t why you usually come” the critic nervously volunteers after some time.

“AND WHY DO I USUSALLY COME?”  The imaginary voice roars its terrible imaginary question.

“because of women,” he replies meekly.

“Exactly so. So this... This...” her imaginary hand shakes the very real piece of paper in front of his face

“ about women?” he asks.


He stares at the bloodied, hard ground before him. Dare he ask another question? He must.

“How is this about women?” He barely gives the words sound, so soft is his voice...

The imaginary figure seems to shimmer in the morning light, her movement barely perceptible as the critic reels from unseen blows. Time passes. The old man’s body lies twitching.

She reads to the prone form: “The establishment of democracy is marked by the parading of a giant penis of a kind we haven’t seen since Peter Brook’s 1968 production of Seneca’s Oedipus.”

“That actually happens” he breathes.

“WHY?” asks the imaginary woman.

“I DON’T KNOW” screams Michael. “Look. Look at what I wrote. ‘The production tells the basic story’. When they establish Athenian democracy in the play...”


“Athena?” the critic whimpers.

“Guess again” commands the stern voice.

“The Athenians?”


“All of them?” suggests the hapless critic.

Once again the imaginary woman shimmers and the critic’s body twitches.

“THE MEN. THE MEN. IT WAS THE MEN” screams Michael at last.



“There, there. That wasn’t so hard, was it?” the imaginary figure smiles. “And what does the production do?

“The production tells the basic story?”

“Try harder, Michael.”

“Is the production about the play’s misogyny too?”

“Why is that so hard to understand?”

“It’s just a play. It’s about the establishment of democracy. It’s a good thing. Aeschylus is one of the great-grandfathers of modern theatre. Rory Mullarkey’s  new version of the play is really vivid and good. I even admitted as much.”

The imaginary female form twitches. The critic cowers away again.

“Alright, alright. The production is making a comment on the play. I see that now. The director might conceivably have had a conversation with Rory Mullarkey. They might have made some decisions together. Some decisions about sexism. Fine. Whatever.”

“Say her name.”

“Whose name?”

“The director’s name”

“I... I...  Adele Thomas.”

The imaginary female critic smiles almost imperceptibly to herself and vanishes.

The old man sits on the ground as the sun finally breaks over the horizon, his long shadow reaching almost to the city wall.

“I still don’t get why it was set in the sixties, though” he mutters.

[cover image by Howard Barker]

Saturday 5 September 2015

Song From Far Away – Young Vic

[seen 04/09/15]

Song From Far Away is a very slow, deliberate piece of art. In Simon Stephens’s script it takes the form of six letters written in pencil, by hand, to Willem’s recently deceased brother. In Mark Eitzel’s contribution to the piece, it takes the form of a song, which, in Ivo van Hove’s minimal production, is fractured across the narrative as an earworm evading capture. In Ivo van Hove’s production, the letters become a spoken monologue, addressed by performer Eelco Smits (Willem) always to that empty patch of air about three metres away from him, never past the notional fourth wall of Jan Versweyveld’s minimal, beige apartment/hotel set. In the lighting plot (also Versweyveld), the piece becomes the six days and multiple locations in time-lapse as the letters describe their author s passage across the Atlantic from New York (formerly New Amsterdam) to echt Amsterdam and back again.

As a piece of theatre it is reflective and thoughtful. “We exist in the gaps between the sounds that we make” says Willem, adapting Debussy. But maybe it’s the notes we hear here, more loudly. We hear, for example, about more of the international flights and hotel rooms that are increasingly a mainstay of Stephens’s work. We hear echoes not only of the death in Sea Wall, but also of a different little child, very much alive. We see a belligerent drunk father. We see his son also drink too much. We hear about another gay man ordering another White Russian in another lonely, anonymous bar. We follow this same man home, trying to get home, trying to discover a sense of home, where his home is. Standing in the house where he grew up, his mother tells him, “Go home”.

In Jan Versweyveld’s set and lights, we see echoes of van Hove's recent (regrettable) Antigone, but also, uncannily, Mitchell’s/Clachan’s Wastwater and/or Mitchell’s/Vicki Mortimer and Alex Eales’ Idomeneo. But beyond the bounds of theatre it most vividly recalls several Francis Bacon triptychs – the endlessly oppressive neutrality of the walls subtly altered by lighting into the sickly yellowy hues of this paintings, in stark contrast to the deep black rectangular windows. The skin of the human figure somehow pinker and more raw, for being trapped against such a background, and often contorted, naked and in agonies of grief.


Maybe, in the printed script you also hear the imagined echo of Stephens’s own voice reading the text, or the voice or Andrew Scott; or see the imagined landscape of Longhurst’s Carmen Disruption, or Nübling’s Pornography; and feel a bit wistful. And maybe in the staging you also catch a hint of A View From The Bridge or The Roman Tragedies and wish Song From Far Away was a also bit more banging. And, depending on temperament, you blame yourself, or the new thing for this. It is interesting, the stillness here. And the performance. You maybe wonder whether because it’s being acted in the performer’s second language, whether there’s more of a disconnect between the words and the delivery. You maybe wonder if in Amsterdam it’s going to be done in Dutch, and whether it’ll feel more connected. Or whether the sense of dislocatedness is a deliberate strategy anyway, to reflect this dislocated Dutchman returning from America (where obviously he’ll be speaking English the whole time, and has learnt to say “route” so it sounds like “rout”).


It’s interesting. It feels at once like “classic Stephens” territory – the recurrent themes, character traits, jobs, reflections, motifs; fed into a blender to create a single speaker, reflecting and recounting himself and the world around him – and at the same time, because of the production, somehow much more calm, resigned, measured. How the text sounds in my head, reading it this morning, is quite different to Smits’s performance of it.

There are beautiful moments – the first moment the song fractures the dialogue suggests how every musical ever should be performed, and there’s a thing where dual lights skitter their light across the back wall moving Willem’s shadow. A performance of his father’s grief. The ever invisible addressee of the monologue. But, yes: very slow, very still, and yet somehow it doesn’t make you (me) really *feel* the sadness.