Friday 22 April 2016

The Seagull – Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne

[seen 21/04/16 at MITEM III, Nemzeti Színház, Budapest]

It has maybe become a bit too de rigeur to knock Thomas Ostermeier. As (still) the UK’s only regular German import, I’ve certainly become more than a little impatient that The Barbican – and now EIF, FFS – move beyond this default Germany = Ostermeier programming and maybe get out a bit more. Deutschland ist größer als Ostermeier, ja? But that’s hardly fair on the man, or his work, is it?

This new production of Chekhov’s The Seagull provides a perfect opportunity to reconsider the man and his work, as the production itself is not from the Schaubühne, and is performed in French. As such, it feels like the director might have been taken sufficiently away from his comfort zone, or his default settings to make a difference.

And, the opening scene of this Seagull is possibly the best I’ve ever seen (of not as many as I’d have liked – didn’t see the Mitchell NT one for a start, goddammit). But, I mean, no, fuck it, it’s one of the best opening twenty minutes or half hours of anything I’ve seen in a theatre for an aeon. It’s properly, properly beautiful.

It starts with the cast ranged round the walls of designer Jan Pappelbaum’s massive grey box (it’s basically a Bruno Schultz set by someone else). At the back wall the performers who turn out to be Dorn (Sébastien Pouderoux) and Nina (Mélodie Richard) play David Bowie’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’. A painter – Marine Dillard – armed with a big sponge on a stick, begins to etch *something* on the back wall. Now, a) we’d all just discovered Prince had died, and b) I’m evidently a sucker for Bowie in Chekhov, but, FUCK, it really was incredibly moving. I don’t think it’s going to stop being for a while. (It’s interesting to think how that’s changed since Volksfiend,)  And, well, the song doesn’t not fit the play, does it? Good old Konstantin and his Todestrieb... So, yeah. Kicking off with a now-even-more-loaded anthem for doomed youth seemed like a master stroke. It’s a beautiful arrangement, too. Played on one guitar, they just leave pauses for *all the other instrumentation*. And your head does fill it in. And Dillard continues to paint the back wall, eventually sketching out the picturesque outline of a mountain... Yes, in a way it’s unashamedly sentimental (although, y’know, fuck it. Why not?), but also astringent enough not to feel soupy or soapy. It’s good. It’s textured. It’s layered. It’s modern and atavistic. It’s Bowie and a painter in a grey box. What, frankly, is not to like?

And the first scene – Masha and her black clothes and why – is INCREDIBLY FUNNY. Cédric Eeckhout’s Semyon wearing a yellow cardigan almost twists it inside out talking to Masha (Bénédicte Cerutti) about his Welt-Angst. This sequence is brilliant supplmented by the addition of a live translator from French into Hungarian, as Semyon worries about the global situation, with Syrian refugees, and everything else. It’s *so good*. Incredibly funny characterisation, and, well, y’know, *urgently contemporary*. It’s knocking spots off all the other Chekhov that thinks its modern... And then Konstantin (Matthieu Sampeur) comes in, and his both beautiful and brilliant, and also incredibly funnily earnest. I love this Konstanin most of all of them. They have to get the translator back on for Konstantin to explain his(very funny, very satirical) vision of A New Theatre. (*Of course* we love Konstantin at this point in the play, bless his earnest experimental socks).

After this, the inventions calm down a bit. Arkardina (Valérie Dréville) and Trigorin (François Loriquet) are both pretty normal. A. is interesting because she mostly manages to do away, or at least underplay, all the normal stage-trappings that come with the character, and Trigorin looks particularly un-prepossessing – oddly reminiscent of Richard Herring, in fact (leading to some really having to believe *very hard* in talent-crushes later on). But, y’know, fine.

THEN!!!! Then there’s Konstantin’s “New Theatre Piece”! And, HA! How brilliant it is! My guess is that the tension for translators and directors here is how much credit you give Konstantin for his efforts. What you put on stage to represent his attempts to invent a new symbolist theatre. The compromise here struck me as generous and perfect. On one level, K. is kind og hung out to dry for his gender politics, putting Nina in a see-through slip, and tying her – Jeanne d’Arc-style – to a stake, while an upside-down live-feed is projected on her as she is covered in blood while speaking into an effects-riddled microphone, as Konstantin suspends a deer carcass high above the stage, cuts its throat, and lets the blood pour over him. I mean, it’s so on-the-money. It’s twenty-year-old boy-theatre at its best and worst. You’d see this show at the Edinburgh Fringe and both love it and hate it. It’s a motorway pile-up of clichés, but *really great* clichés. It’s one Throbbing Gristle/Cabaret Voltaire soundtrack short of *exactly* why I should never be a director. (No, okay, I’d be better on Gender, but, come on, he’s twenty and it’s 1895 or something, live-feed notwithstanding...) So, yes. It’s all awesome. When A. takes the piss, K. stomps off and listens to ‘People Are Strange’ by The Doors in his room... Ha!

Then Act Two. Where suddenly everything just gets significantly more normal. From being this elegant multi-level circus of invention – if mostly very text-based invention – it suddenly flatlines. What’s left of the invention is the occasional musical interludes – now mostly Doors songs, and one Hendrix – and the painter. Which is fine. I promise it’s fine. You concentrate a bit more on the performances. Except that isn’t always a good thing. If I’m brutally honest, I wasn’t really at all sure about Nina, Arkadina, or Trigorin. There was a kind of nothingy-ness about the situations. Like, no one much cared about the lines they were saying, or the things that were theoretically happening “to them”. Or to their characters, if that’s the remove at which the actors were from the action. And I couldn’t quite work out what sort of performance style it was. That said, it didn’t not work. The story moves along. The relationships develop. Occasionally, at moments of great intensity, A Lot Of Acting kicked in. But, more generally, it drifted past while I watched the painter, who was easily the most live, present and consequent thing happening on the stage. I mean, watching someone paint on this scale is awesome. And Ostermeier must have known that this would be the commanding visual motif of the piece, so let’s give credit for that, and think our way into wondering what it means. I think actually *a lot* of how the show did work, and I do think it worked. It was compelling on a load of levels, not all of them immediate, and maybe not all of them aimed at me...

So, yes. Something I did find strange was the motif of The Doors and this one Jimi Hendrix song. For me, that’s my record collection in 1990. At least, the “vintage” bit. Is this a lament for the sixties, or a lament for the lament for the sixties that constituted Oliver Stone’s The Doors? Is it instead my generation’s feeling of lateness-to-the-party? [I should expand this, taking into account The Beach Boys in Hedda, the Bowie in VF, and, what others?]

Certainly the next huge, crucial visual/sonic moment is almost canonical music history writ large. Dorn/Pouderoux plays Venus in Furs (with Nina/Richard on Moe Tucker duties) and Dillard TOTALLY OBLITERATES HER PAINTING. It’s genuinely upsetting. The painting was *really good*! And she just paints black over it (yes, shades (again) of Ein Volksfiend). The black is brilliant, though. It’s necessary for the next scene – a dark night outside with snow falling visibly against it, rather than a daylight pastoral scene – but even so... And, more than that, it feels like The Death of The Sixties(!) Aw! Poor Sixties! All that Peace and Love for nothing. Oh well. We’ve probably all read the version of music history that has the Velvet Underground symbolise White Western Rock giving up on Peace ‘N’ Love, right? (It the version where it’s not Altamont, or The Stooges, or MC5, or all the other things/people...) But, yeah, it’s weirdly compelling and *readable* anyway. If also The Most Hackneyed Version of Music History Ever. But this seems to be a production unafraid to deal in big dumb symbols. And I’m not sure it’s a problem that it does.

And, the last scenes – Act Four – *are* gripping (bleugh. Who says “gripping”?). No, really. They’re properly good and properly, properly sad. But, no, it doesn’t help that Nina’s not really been given much by way of an interior life. Can she ever really claw one out of the stage time she’s allotted? I mean, you can’t not watch this ending through the lens of both People, Places & Things, and Ophelias zimmer, and wish that feminism had already caught up with the production. I mean, yeah, fuck, it’s sad about Konstantin, but there are some *other tragedies* going on here too, y’know? It’s awfully hard not to think Nina is just being punished by Chekhov for letting Konstantin down, even though she never particularly asked for his shit in the first place. Maybe, in other productions, Chekhov gets let off a bit more for simply observing that shit does tend to happen to people in general, but this feels like a Boys’ Own production where the sentimentality and romance conspire to make it look like the secondary meaning of the play – after “boys are misunderstood heroes” – is “aren’t women just the worst?”. *Maybe* – big leap – it’s this sort of creepy, weepy, sentimental, male self-justifying that the production is ultimately critiquing, but, YET AGAIN, White, Male, Western Culture, it does so by mostly focussing in the men. So, GAH.

So, yeah. Some good bits, some great bits. And then this awful unresolved feminism fail.




Sunday 17 April 2016

The Raven – Alexandrinsky Theater, Saint Petersburg

[seen 16/04/16 at MITEM III, Nemzeti Színház, Budapest]

[The structure of this review is as follows:
i  programme notes
ii  my half of a messenger conversation last night
iii  conclusions, if any.]

i) The drama The Raven is based on a “fiaba” – a theater tale with a tragic-comic story – of the same name [Il Corvo], written in 1762 by Carlo Gozzi, the famous Italian dramatist, a contemporary and rival of Goldoni. The director, Nickolay Roshchin, has produced dramas by Gozzi before. In 2001, he directed The Stag King. The production was praised as one of the most striking interpretations of a work by Gozzi ever to have been performed in Russia. It won the Smoktunovsky Prize and the Award of the Moscow Critics Association.

This production of The Raven is free of superficial “Italian” clichés and the playful, carnival, improvisatory style of the commedia dell’arte. Instead, it reveals the deeper interpretive layers of the play, bringing its dramatic quality to the surface. Like Gozzi’s other dramas, The Raven ushers the audience into a world that is rich with complex and fantastic events and unusual passions. The story presents a cavalcade of love, devotion, friendship and magic that is sometimes mirthful and amusing and sometimes oppressive, a procession that is seasoned with scenes involving characters hidden behind masks, strange spectacles, and expressive movements and gestures.

ii) So, plot:

There’s this bloke...

(Oh, this might make it quicker, Wikipedia has the plot...)

Ok, that is *incredibly coherent* compared to what happened on stage... Especially if you don't speak Russian.

So, there's a bloke on a boat. which has a skeleton crucified on the mast, and skulls on spikes all over it...
All the set is made of metal frames like the photo at the top...
And all the cast (male and female) are wearing suits and papier mache half-masks.
They're on this ship...
And then the bloke gives an animated comic-book power-point lecture which possibly ties in to the fairy tale above...
Except that it’s all wildly unclear (to non-Russian-speakers, with Hungarian simultaneous translation)...
Then he goes and visits what appears to be a man he’s got tied up in his cellar or something...
(Maybe that’s his brother?)
((Oh, before all this there's a long introductory business with a translator speaking Italian with a voiceover in Russian...))

So then he meets this guy, who is with a woman in a burqa?
And the bloke invites him to kill some animals in metal boxes!
But as an assassination attempt...
*Large* metal boxes. Not real animals...
He emerges from the first box with a comically giant chicken's foot, and then the second box opens to reveal a horse carcass...
A ridiculous one.
It’s all basically comic...
If a bit on the morbid side.

Oh, way before this he’s executed some woman.
And it seems like this woman is maybe haunting him and trying to get him killed?


So, he’s killed the animals...
and then that bit stops...
And then the woman in the burqa turns out to be the man who was the band leader who was in the pre-show intro bit...
(Oh, yes, sorry, there’s a live brass band and drum kit, and they had a conductor who was also in the intro...)

AND, I’m only about a quarter of the way in...

But... the rest of it can be summed up with: “More of the same.”
More of the bloke killing women...
And more of everyone else killing the bloke.

The bloke gets killed approximately eight times...
(Bizarrely, *EVERYTHING* that happens in Cleansed, happens to him...
Needles, limbs chopped off, tongue pulled out...

Like, when he's gassed...

And when he’s immersed in concrete...

Or when a giant mechanical bird appears to vomit acid on him...


Oddly, it did actually drag a bit in places...

And I have literally no idea what it says about the world.
When I was watching, I did think this is probably the result of what the world feels like when Putin’s in charge.
All the times he died did seem kind of fair enough, since he’d kept on killing all these women...
And then it keeps turning out he’s not even the worst bloke in the world of the play.
It does feel like we’re apparently meant to feel for his situation.
This was maybe stretching things a bit.
I mean, he is, at root, just a psychotic misogynist, maybe?
Ophelias zimmer eat your heart out...

The way he kept on being revealed to be a really minor offender, though, compared to these ever worsening figures he encounters did mean I spent a lot of time thinking about Assad and then ISIS, and how there’s this media cycle of always discovering that there’s “something worse”
But, yes.

Technically, it’s incredibly accomplished.
Brilliant actors.
The design is really beautifully realised.
And the lighting design was noticeably spot-on...
I mean, it had a lot of moving lights, and they were all bang on target throughout, which always feels impressive given that they’d only had a day to plot it in this theatre/auditorium...
(and something else had to get out first...)

I reckon I might just cut and paste that and call it my review...

iii) So, yes. A breathless account of quite the maddest thing I’ve seen a long while. I imagine it’s a good deal less mad when you know what’s going on, but then, I think seeing just the action without the justifications for it does make it easier to condemn the treatment that women receive in the play.

It’s the sort of show that I think will do blindingly well wherever it’s played. It reminded me of a cross between AKHE and Derevo, but *as actual theatre*. It feels, somehow, more like “a theatre ensemble” than “a company”. Dunno if that’s right or not. Maybe like a(n even more) off-the-wall version of Krymov’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It). But no little dog in this one, sadly...

I’d love to say this was “just knockabout fun”, and be able to leave it there, but it did feel like there more than that there, but *more* that I wasn’t unable to unlock. Still, very glad I saw. Names worth remembering.

(It’s really worth going to the MITEM site and looking at the rest of the production photos, it really is a lovely-looking show...)

The Lower Depths – Vaso Abashidze Music and Drama State Theatre, Tbilisi

[seen 15/04/16, at Nemzeti Színház, Budapest]

I’ve only seen one production of Maxim Gorki’s The Lower Depths before – Alize Zandwijk’s production at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1999. I don’t think I even particularly enjoyed it at the time, but, my God has it stuck with me. The relentlessness of it, the faultless naturalism of it, the violence, the nakedness, the tonnes of water being hosed onto the stage. For some reason, I remember more about that production than anything else I saw that year.

[I didn’t catch Phil Wilmot’s 2007 Finborough version. I really did think the Hytner-regime NT had done a production, but can’t find any trace of it by Googling in Hungary...]

Meanwhile, for reasons that I can’t locate on this blog right now, I have a firm and unaccountable conviction that Georgia (the former Soviet State, not the current US one) is amazing at theatre. I can’t believe that this solely stems from ISDF2012’s Our Town, but maybe it does.

Anyway, suffice it to say that, expectedly and unexpectedly, I found David Doiashvili’s production for Vaso Abashidze Music and Drama State Theatre *really* tough going.

I should try to describe the production. Not least, because I do think there’s more than a fair possibility that I’m not *right* to have found it hard going. I will say, though, that it felt like a really fascinating mismatch of national expectations and understandings as much as my own personal tastes (but definitely those too).

It seems likely, given the lack of recent performances in the UK, that you don’t know the play. Have a look at the Wikipedia synopsis, it’s really very good. Short version: 1902 Russian play. A lot of homeless people live in a basement. The play itself is slow, character-based, almost non-narrative, but A Lot of Things Happen. Rob Icke or Katie Mitchell would do it brilliantly; it’s that sort of a play (on paper). (For example, Ellen McDougall would also do it brilliantly, but her version would be more surprising to Maxim Gorki...)

Now, for my money, Doiashvili seems to have transformed the thing into something more like Magical Realism. Which, though it’s not my favourite sort of thing, is a fascinating proposition. Now, I don’t know if this is because magical realism is a default position of Georgian theatre, how Doiashvili himself reads the play, or a misunderstanding of what I was looking at on my part – or a mixture of all three. But, here, instead of “life” just rolling by, it felt as if the character of Luka had been afforded some sort of mystical significance, the pronouncements he comes out with accorded some new level of respect. All this seems to have been underscored with some Very Underline-y lighting and music. If I were prescriptive/mean, I might add that skills with lighting and sound design don’t seem to be big priorities in Georgia on this showing. Sound desks appear not to have a fade-in/out function. And recording sound without bits of stray dialogue accidentally included also apparently not an urgent priority. Similarly, occasionally lights seem to snap on suddenly, sometimes even half-way through a scene, a bit like someone’s suddenly rememembered that they’re meant to be on for this bit... I could all pass for charming if you were in the right mood.

A further problem was that, for me, the performances just didn’t seem to add up to anything. They didn’t strike me as remotely realistic, nor deliberately UNrealistic to any real end. There was some urgency, sometimes, or sound (if rarely fury), but even the “good” performances felt like perfectly good cogs just going round and round without the teeth connected to any other cog in the wider machine. And, again, not like this was a sought-after effect with a discernable purpose. It was perhaps telling that in the few moments where a microphone was used for non-naturalistic moments, the whole thing worked much better than at any other point. But largely, this seemed just to be flailing quietly. And, blimey, the lighting design really didn’t instill any confidence either. There seemed to be three main lighting states: red, yellow and blue. I think blue was night time, yellow was daytime, and red was “other”. Which, y’know...

Suffice it to say that me and this production really didn’t even meet halfway. Which is a shame (obvs). I think, in retrospect (i.e. happily out of the hot and pointedly dusty auditorium – the stage design was mostly dust, to the extent that they handed out those face-masks surgeons wear...) I quite respected the decisions, but couldn’t do the mental gymnastics to fully comprehend where it was going while reading surtitles at the same time. And I really don’t think the aesthetic was every really going to be my bag.

Sorry. :-/

[Not kidding about those lighting states, though...


Iliad – Polyplanity Productions, Athens

[seen 12/04/16, at Nemzeti Színház, Budapest]

Thanks to a delayed flight, and the narrowest of hotel transfer windows, I missed the first half of this stage-version of Homer’s Iliad. And I was a bit hot and knackered [poor me, I know] for the second half (2 hours after the interval), so this *might* have impacted on my feelings for said show. That said...

Pretty much flat-out the most memorable production I saw abroad last year was the production of The Iliad made by Jernej Lorenci in Ljubljana. What’s interesting here (at least in the half I saw) is how much is nominally similar, and yet how much, much less I liked it.

Stathis Livathinos’s production also opts for a largely undressed stage – although here undressed apparently requires a large metal spiral staircase (á la, The [Berliner Ensemble] Suicide) and a huge amount of car tyres, strewn all over the place, also built into a kind of Walls of Troy thing towards the back. The aesthetic sometimes also sees the large ensemble seated on chairs in a semi-circle for a bit, like the Slovenian one. There’s even a passing similarity to the vests and trousers costumes, and to the use of one single Ancient Greek-style helmet. And both versions incorporate live music.

That’s pretty much where the similarities end. Nevertheless, it felt striking how much I took against this production. Was it the radio mics and shouting? Was it the horrible Cats-meets-Mad Max costumes (by way of Brecht and the RSC)? Was it just the shouting and a-bellowing? It might well have been the Epic lack of characterisation, and the apparent complete lack of of tonal feel for any of the words that were actually being said. (There were English surtitles, so I was at least within the ballpark of understanding...)

I mean, there’s definitely an argument that I know less about the Iliad than *some Greeks*. It’s their national heritage; they can do what they like with it, and if that’s Mad Cats, so be it. Nationalism is certainly one aspect of this production. In his production notes, the director pointedly says: “I consider language perhaps the toughest oil pipeline we have. It traverses the ages yet never seems depleted. The Greek language is the only thing that can’t be sold off or mortgaged.” And, yes, it’s difficult not to sympathise with anyone from a country being sold-off, piecemeal, by some forgone neoliberal conclusion reached in Brussels or Berlin.

Sadly, I’m just not convinced that this production made much of a case for itself, either at the level of national-culture, or simply as theatre. One hopes, for Greece’s sake, that this was a one-off. (Although, as usual, disclaimers apply; what do I know? Maybe it was really popular here in Hungary, and even more wildly so at home, and maybe I’m just the wrong person to have seen it.)

[But it did look like Mad Cats:

Friday 15 April 2016

The Patriots – Serbian National Theater, Belgrade

[seen 14/04/16 at MITEM III, Nemzeti Színház, Budapest]

Jovan Sterija Popović’s The Patriots is brilliant. Nominally, it deals with a very specific episode in Serbian national(ist) history in 1848-50 (it was written three years later in 1853, but not performed until 1903). Actually, it presents an excoriating comedy of hypocrisy and doublespeak that would resonate as strongly in Brexit-UK, 2016, as it does through Serbia’s own history.

What’s especially appealing about this performance – the Serbian National Theatre of Belgrade playing the stage of the Hungarian National Theatre in Budapest – is that the subject of the play is a war between these two countries. (It’s also worth knowing that Jovan Sterija Popović (1806-1856) is pretty much Serbia’s Molière in terms of both importance and scabrous satirical approach.)

In 1848 a wave of revolutions swept across Europe (and elsewhere). The list of countries not involved (including of course Britain) is much shorter than the list of those that were. Hungary rebelled against the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire and during that struggle to secede the relatively small Voivodeship of Serbia and Banat of Temeschwar attempted to gain their own Serbian independence from Hungary.

On paper, with this sort of historical distance (if not currently geographical distance for me), it might seem like a bit of a trifle, but Popović’s script in András Urbán’s modern dress production manage – with great economy – to make the conflict seem as brutal and bloody and horrible (and “relevant”) as anything since. There is a moment late on in the play where the Serbian nationalists are singing a violent, rousing song about how their leaders are right, and how the Hungarian oppressors must die, where they point their AK-47s at the (almost entirely Hungarian) audience and name-check Slobodan Milošević, which must rank as perhaps The Most Confrontational Thing I Have Ever Seen In A Theatre. I mean, sure, we trust that the guns can only fire blanks, and they don’t really mean it about Milošević, but, fucking hell...

And *of course* recent history has left a pretty sizeable elephant in the room. How many days is it now since the Hague sentenced the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić? It is impossible to have lived through the nineties without a pretty strong impression of nationalism in ex-Yugoslavia. The effect of the play, in the light of that recent history, is all the more bitter and dizzying. I can’t think of another play that so accurately predicts a cycle of history repeating itself. The vocabulary of nationalism feels completely contemporary, and the futile violence and vainglorious warmongering has precisely the same effects. And not just to Serbia. Again and again I was struck by how much of the play could apply to Britain.

The real coup of the production, however, is that it actually makes you understand the nationalistic urge. It isn’t finger-wagging or preachy. It doesn’t just show a straw target for the audience to dismiss out-of-hand, it offers rousing music, and a terrifying glimpse of how, actually, blaming a bunch of other people for your problems, painting yourself as “the oppressed”, and maybe overthrowing your oppressors with a revolution, might be a lot of fun. And how an armed revolution might be the most fun of all. Imagine the Occupy movement with charismatic leadership and Kalashnikovs for everyone...

Of course, ultimately the play/production is a chilling, bitter satire on the tragedy of nationalist thinking, but for something that seems so obvious, the real achievement here is that this revelation still manages to feel like a rug-pulled out from under you.

I should say, there’s also something incredibly refreshing about how well the play works on stage. It doesn’t have almost everything we’re taught that plays should have, and a load of the things it does instead feel like they’d get Popović barred from most “Playwriting” courses, but it completely works. Perhaps this is in part down to the focus, energy and commitment of the actors (of course it is), but it’s genuinely revelatory to have historical facts/events interspersed with popular song, and for that to feel like more than enough narrative drive, without ever even really getting a grip with who any of the characters are...

So, yes. If I were Rufus Norris, I’d get *this production* on at the NT of GB, PDQ. (No. Please, please, please don’t get *a writer* in to change all the specifics and make it “about Britain”.)

Thursday 14 April 2016

X – Royal Court, London

[seen 11/04/16]

[contains spoilers in order to be able to talk about meaning]

My favourite joke in a poem defines Plutocracy as “rule by the coldest and farthest away” (from Luke Kennard’s The Wolf in Commerce).

Ali McDowall has described his new play, X as “The Cherry Orchard on Pluto”.

It’s a brilliant way of letting fans of his previous play, Pomona – a high-octane spiral into the dark underground of a city – know that they can expect a few more pauses in this one. As it happens, I think you could contend that X actually does much the same sort of thing; except where Pomona winds into the guts of a city in search of meaning, X drills down inside a person’s mind. X is incredibly difficult to pin down as a play. And we should differentiate between X – the play, and X – this production.

Vicky Featherstone’s production offers a pretty clear, fairly faithful reading of the play, but it is necessarily a version, an interpretation. Yes, I know. Intellectually we all know that there’s no such thing as “a definitive production of a play”, but if you think of, say, Katie Mitchell’s production of Wastwater, you’ll understand when I say that some plays lend themselves more to that sort of perception than others. This production – directed by Vicky Featherstone, designed by Merle Hansel, lit by Lee Curran, sounded by Nick Powell and video-designed by Tal Rosner – puts plenty on the table, but also leaves a lot space to imagine other versions. You could stage X at every major theatre round the country, and never once have even remotely the same production. And artistic directors all over the country really should; it’s a genuinely fascinating, brilliant play. seeing it once doesn’t feel like nearly enough.

The nominal set-up is not unlike a whole raft of famous science fiction; the small crew of a space station on Pluto haven’t heard from earth for weeks, and now one of the crew thinks he’s seen something outside the base... We know this story, right? In this instance, the thing that Ray (Darrell d’Silva) has seen is a little girl with an X instead of a mouth.

The scenes appear to occur out of order. Short, slow scenes. Aliens or Ringu meets Darkstar or 2001. One of the reasons we imagine they’re out of order is that there’s a digital clock on the wall showing different times; backwards and forwards. Then there’s a scene in which Cole (Rudi Dharmalingham) mentions that the clock has malfunctioned. That it keeps losing time. Or resetting, or glitching. In the script, it says it keeps going back 1hr43, which I suspect, wasn’t a bad estimate of the running time of the whole piece without interval. Or maybe it’s the length of McDowall’s favourite film... Later, the thing that starts glitching is the language. Words are replaced by the speaker saying “X”. At one point this effect becomes so pronounced, that there are two whole pages of the script simply printed with the letter X.

Maybe we’re reminded of Caryl Churchill’s Blue/Heart, a pair of one-act plays from 1997 – in Heart’s Desire a scene keeps skipping back to the beginning, while in Blue Kettle words are randomly, gradually replaced with either “Blue” or “Kettle”. Or perhaps we’re reminded of Dieter Roth’s 1974 play Murmel Murmel, in which the whole of the script is just those words arranged across 176 pages. At the same time, we’re still completely “in the play”; in the world of the play; interested by the compelling action of the play – both the situation that’s been unfolding, but also in the wider game of “what it all means”.

I have a theory about how meaning works in this play, and it’s similar to how it works in Wastwater. You are led towards certain conclusions. Scenes have implications. Your mind leaps to conclusions. Then you’re shown something new which effectively scraps the possibility that your theory is “right”. But, actually, I think the accumulated theories which build up while watching X all hold good. I think the play *is* about all those things too. Just as Pomona built that sense of a city, of walking past snatches of conversations, of incremental meaning; I think X does something like the reverse. Building a picture of a mind in decay. Or perhaps how a mind stores information. Or perhaps how a consciousness exists.

There was one point where I was ready to swear that it was a play “about” modern communication. Someone, I think, said “X O, X O, X O”, which is txt-speak for “kiss hug, kiss hug, kiss hug”. The sheer strangeness of writing it, let alone saying the abbreviated version out loud in the same room as the person you’re “kissing” and “hugging”... The way that perhaps feelings have become abstracted... (I mean, not the actual feelings. This isn’t that reactionary play saying “mobile phones have ruined everything”.) Gradually, though, in this production especially, it *feels* like the ultimate revelation is that all this action has been taking place in the mind of a woman – a mother (Glida – Jessica Raine) – in a hospital(?) who is suffering from dementia. Her daughter is visiting, both as an adult (Mattie – Ria Zmitrowicz) and as the child the mother sees in her mind’s eye (young Mattie – either Grace Doherty or Amber Fernée). At the time, It has something of the same fractured hallucinogenic quality of Dennis Potter’s final two series for television, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, a cryogenically frozen head of a writer in the future, dead but dreaming. Or perhaps it’s more helpful to think of Life on Mars (Death on Pluto?), replacing the coma with dementia.

As I say, I don’t think Vicky Featherstone’s production is “definitive”, whatever that means. But what’s odd is that it did feel suggestive of a definitive production. What I mean is, while I was watching it, I (irritatingly) kept thinking of things I wished were different about the set (too high), the sound (too musical), the video design (too much like video design), but at the same time, it felt like the Platonic forms of these elements were only just around the corner from what was there. That the elements present were actually suggesting the perfected versions of themselves. Which is maybe better for a play like this. Perhaps it would be incredibly annoying to see a version of X any more definitive-feeling than this. Part of me would have been interested to see a version with Less Acting; the Forced Entertainment version, if you will. Or a version that made more of a virtue of the play’s potential for slowness (there’s a stage direction, not observed here, where someone scrubs a wall for “as long as it takes”. I’d also like to see that version. Maybe at NSDF next year?) I guess I’d also be interested to see a more full-on horror version, and a more full-on bored-of-space/in-a-hospital version. Which is my roundabout way of saying that perhaps this is actually a production of genius – that it lets you fully imagine all these possibilities while looking at it, and while still communicating the play itself incredibly clearly.

So, yes, hard to sum up. The idea of Pluto here seems to stand in brilliantly for all sorts of different states of remoteness. And also for exploring some very English ideas about failure. In fact, in a lot of ways, it strikes me that X is actually almost the same play as People, Places & Things – one woman’s Odyssey through a hallucinatory state to discover the reality of her situation. And while outwardly X appears to offer less by way of direct social commentary, it nonetheless also speaks to a need for care, and about some of the most necessary levels of human interaction. It maybe even begins to (inadvertantly?) hint at why so many of these sci-fi archetypes are archetypes in the first place, maybe. What they’re *really* all about.

Of course, the best joke in the play is that X is named as the unknown property in an equation. Finding out what X is is the entire point. So the simplest explanation for what X is is: it’s the thing we don’t yet know.

X = ?