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.




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