Sunday 31 July 2016

Επτά επί Θήβας (Seven Against Thebes) – Ancient Theatre, Epidavros

[seen 22/07/16]

Ok. There’s basically no point in me just trying to review Lithuanian Cezaris Graužinis’s new production of Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes with/for the State Theatre of Northern Greece in isolation. It doesn’t exist in isolation. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a theatre that is more nakedly a part of everything around it, and you just can’t ignore that.

The Ancient Theatre of Epidavros is approximately 2,400+ years old. Cut, by the ancient Greeks, into the side of a mountain, and apparently, according to recent archaeological finds, a part of a larger complex including the world’s oldest discovered hospital/health spa.

The view from your seat in the theatre is first of the people around you, then of the stage, then of the forest around you, then of distant mountains, and beyond the mountains, the darkening sky.

The 2hr journey from Athens to Epidavros takes you past an almost dizzying number of places famous from ancient history, ancient myth, ancient theatre. There in the bay, is the island on which the Persian commander Xerxes based himself to command the Battle of Salamis. The imagined aftermath of the Persian defeat in this battle forms the basis of Aeschylus’s The Persians. It can also be (dubiously) claimed as the beginning of “Western”, “European” civilisation. Over there is the mountain on which the child Oedipus was said to have been staked out and left to die. Here is the turning in the road toward Corinth. Over those mountains is where Thebes is thought to have stood. And then, further, here is the tiny village of New Epidauros where the first Greek constitution was signed in 1822, and in front of the building, another amphitheatre.

And then there’s the landscape and the climate itself. I realise I’m not the first person to have ever gone to Greece, but I’ve never really heard anyone talk about the climate or the landscape. It is hot. Incredibly hot. The sort of heat that stops you thinking. The sort of heat your body can’t really resist, but has to somehow give in to. The ground looks baked and bleached by the sun too. The earth is a kind of pale colour you just don’t see in England. And rocky. From an English perspective (an ancient, hard-wired sense of your homeland’s fertility), you’d say it looked barren, and yet there’s this profusion of hard green trees. Fig trees, olive trees, orange trees, and these light green pines. Thousands of them, stark against a sky so blue it looks hazy and bleached too.

It’s the most alien landscape I’ve ever seen (partly my fault, I’ll admit). At once, so familiar from TV, film, and picture books, and at the same time, completely unexpected. Like, sure, that’s what the pictures of it looked like, but standing in it?

And then there’s the sound, the non-stop crickets. So many crickets that you tune out this constant white noise of them.

This is all crucial backdrop for *this production*, any production at this Festival (at least, as seen by an Englishman with a reasonable classical education and next to no experience of travel to hot countries). But it’s more than that. Essentially, going to the Peloponesian peninsular is like suddenly discovering you can visit Narnia.

Seven Against Thebes is, in English terms, a *difficult* play.

Essentially it’s: a bit of set-up, a list of six armies led by various generals outside the gates of Thebes being reported to its ruler, Eteocles, and then the punchline that the seventh and final army outside is led by Polynices, his brother. There is a fight, and both brothers – the sons of Oedipus and his mother, Jocasta – die. There is then an epilogue (apparently added later following the success of Sophocles’s Antigone), which essential sets up the action of Antigone. I’m not sure it *ever* gets performed here (the UK). And it’ll be gazumped now (you’d hope) by Martin Crimp’s STILL unproduced-in-UK adaptation of the same story in Euripides’s Phoenician Women. Indeed, one of my main reactions, even while watching it, was wincing at the thought of what an English version would be like, even in the Olivier – an auditorium apparently inspired by Epidavros.

Part of the reason it works so well here is down to Graužinis’s superb, unfussy physical production. Without feeling laboured or like an overdone trope, the chorus inhabit the space plausibly enough like people, like Ancient Theban citizens (albeit in modern dress), but their constant, restless movement around the space has the effect of making both text and action feel real and lived, rather than stately and ancient. More than this, though, their outbursts, their acts of speech, feel urgent rather than scripted. Part of me wonders how much of this is also a language thing.

The play is being performed in translation. From ancient Greek to modern Greek. And then I’m also watching the English surtitles. But, even translation from ancient to modern Greek means that the terrible, terrible dryness of posh-English with which these plays are so often performed is completely removed. It’s completely fascinating to see an ancient tragedy played out in something like its original setting – albeit at night, under floodlights, not in the blazing heat of the modern-day Greek daytime sun – and in something at least related to the original language.

I’m resistant to national stereotyping, but it doesn’t seem reasonable to observe that, comparatively, “the English” are quite stiff and vocally reserved; even when they’re trying their best not to be. Perhaps especially so then. And, cliché though it may be, it doesn’t seem entirely stupid to link this to (among other things) England’s climate. In this Ancient theatre in Epidavros, it would seem ridiculous for the performers, for the plays, not to be somehow *elemental*, just as, in England it feels faintly odd not to be dry and ironic. What *is* fascinating, is the way that this marriage of Lithuanian and Greek seems to make perfect sense. I’m not familiar (as far as I know) with any of Graužinis’s other work, but this sense of *The Elemental* is also common to the work of Lithuania’s perhaps most famous (or joint most famous director) Eimuntas Nekrosius. (If I were going to pursue this climate-as-temperament-destiny thing to its logical conclusion, I might note that Lithuania gets jolly cold in the winter, but...) But, yes, it’s interesting how well-matched the two theatre cultures seem to be.

Another thing that fascinated me was the legendary acoustics of the Ancient Theatre. They really are remarkable. Nothing was miked, and yet, you could hear a guy just rubbing his hands together on the stage from halfway back in the auditorium. Is this the case for the Olivier? (And, if so, why do so many actors in there shout so much?) It feels like maybe roofs are the problem? (Although I know from plenty of other places that this isn’t the case.) But, yes; remarkable.

And, yes, in this setting, running for 90 minutes, the drama itself was hugely, hugely watchable. I *think* it would have worked, even in a decent indoor theatre, á la that Slovenian Iliad. The scenography (Motley-trained Kenny MacLellan) is spare and subtle – a bare doorway, a pair of ladders, and a pile of old armour from across history – but somehow, I can’t help feeling that almost everything not ruthlessly dependent on a building having a ceiling would be better seen in this auditorium. Hell, it even makes the Globe look fussy.

I was also surprised that I even found the piece moving. I did also look, as if my wont, for contemporary resonances, but nothing really chimed with my Brexit-laden preoccupations. It’s not a completely alien story. Wars happen, civil wars happen, but this didn’t appear to be being used as a commentary on any specific ones. More as an exploration of this sort of conflict and ethical questioning that it engenders. Perhaps the fatalism of the original story is part of what holds up its procession to the modern world, but stripped deferrals to the Gods, I can almost even imagine it being used as the post-Brexit play of choice – two rulers who should be on the same side achiving mutual destruction in a battle that should never have even been fought? I can think of less relevant stories...

So, yes, this first encounter with Greek tragedy in its proper setting genuinely shocked and threw me. And made me re-think everything (which isn’t a huge amount, I’ll admit) I’d ever thought about classical Greek drama. I was *incredibly grateful* that I’d finished my chapter on Katie Mitchell’s productions of Greek plays before I’d seen Epidavros, because it feels to me like this new information is going to take some assimilating. It interests me, though, thinking back, that Mitchell’s early Greek productions must have been far more closely influenced by the originals, and by this landscape, and gradually moved away, into the discovery of her current, modern, Northern European idiom. And I wonder, if theatremakers/directors/dramaturgs who arrive at the classics, first by Mitchell’s current productions, will have to claw their own way back to the Ancient Greek landscape to rediscover the plays properly for themselves.

Mitchell’s productions (for example, but also Rob Icke’s Oresteia), make perfect, perfect sense as a way of presenting the plays in England (and as being about England/for the English/anglophone world). And, there’s the difficulty – because of our climate, and our theatre architecture (and our national terperament?) – that we can’t simply try to recreate “original practice” in England. But I might predict that a return to experiencing and trying to recreate/reimagine these conditions for our stages, might be the next movement in the cycle of English productions of the Greeks. Although *how* you effectively communicate this heat, this climate, this landscape, the endless crickets, without just being trite and literal (here a painted backdrop, there a tape of crickets playing in the background) is for someone with a brilliant theatre-brain to show us, and certainly not for this critic to dictate.

But, what a stunning first encounter with a country and a culture. Astonishing stuff.

Saturday 16 July 2016

Beyond Caring – HOME, Manchester

[seen 14/07/16]

Alexander Zeldin’s Beyond Caring is essentially a very straight, naturalistic play which shows time spent at work by three women with zero-hour agency contracts cleaning a factory – Grace (Janet Etuk), Susan (Kristin Hutchinson), Becky (Victoria Moseley) – as well as the one (male) cleaner on a permanent contract, Phil (James Doherty), and their immediate team leader Ian (Luke Clarke).

I say “essentially” as, very sparingly, Zeldin – who also directs – interrupts the detailed naturalism of his text with lighting or sound interventions – here a flickering of the lights, there a sudden blast of music on the sound system. Otherwise, it is nearly Dogme95 theatre-making, save for the scene breaks and the inauthentic location (although, my God, Natasha Jenkins’s set and Marc Williams’s light are grimly effective in transforming HOME’s often rather unprepossessing studio space into something grimly utilitarian, alien, and discomforting).

There is one inexplicable “plot denouement” moment very close to the end (the Deus Sex Machina, if you like), that I could have happily done without; it added nothing, and risked subtracting rather a lot, I thought.

Generally speaking, though, the piece impresses through its steady refusal to really conform to dramatic diktat. Not so much postdramatic theatre as “a-dramatic”. Nothing really happens. And nor should it. If anything, it’s probably still too eventful a piece to be truly effective, and the scene changes do offer slightly more comfort than the audience has any right to expect.

From all the buzz around the piece/pre-publicity, one gets the impression that the play is *about* zero-hour contracts, the pushing of the disabled back into work, and about the in-work poverty trap. And, yes, all those things are touched on in the piece. And about as heavily as something trying to remain realistic can hope to. (The problem with near-realism is that people in reality don’t tend to explain their socio-economic circumstances all that clearly, or if they do, in the context of a candid conversation with a co-worker, the chances are that they’d do so far too explicitly for drama. Here we’re stuck in a sort of agonising half-way house, that perhaps consciously pays attention to both the fact of its being “a play” and its attempt on “real-life”.)

Coming to Beyond Caring after seeing 12 of the most forward-looking pieces of European Theatre imaginable at Baltoscandal I will admit that it took me a bit of time to tune back into the idea that all five performers were going to be pretending to be someone else somewhere else for the full 1hr30. After you’ve stepped away from naturalism for a bit, it really is the strangest thing to walk back into. [As an aside, I also think it’s the belief that naturalism is “normal” or any sort of a reasonable “default setting” that’s the reason much British theatre fails. Naturalism only really works as an interrogated abnormality, cf. Mitchell’s best work. Here it eventually does succeed, partly because of the Herculean efforts of the cast to make it work, and partly due to a similar effort on the part of the audience.]

The other reason that Beyond Caring works, though, is because there’s so much more than “naturalism” at work in the piece. Really, it’s more of a meditation than a play. Consciously and conspicuously so, I think (though it might not self-describe as such). It contains an awful lot of silence. Dead time. Not the dead time of the audience, though, but of the characters in the world-of-the-play. And through that silence, we are forced to think about their situation. It’s why the bare bones of the “story-telling” is so effective. We fill in more, and more effectively than being lectured, from our own knowledge and understanding of their situation, and perhaps our own experience of similar working conditions, if not necessarily the same overall precarity. It would take someone with a severe compassion bypass to suggest these working practices are even remotely acceptable.

Now, set against all this meditative compassion, there is a certain amount of character detail with which one could quibble. Is Phil’s fondness for Dick Francis novels and Phil Collins-era Genesis really in keeping with his character, or are they slightly snooty and wildly out-of-touch ways of painting his social class? I don’t know, so I can’t judge – maybe they’re verbatim lifts from someone someone met – but, well, I dunno. They seemed slightly too “knowing” for my taste.

Overall, though, this is a sobering piece. Yes, it’s problematic that tickets cost more than an hour’s minimum wage (in fact, minute-for-minute, it’s probably about the same ballpark figure), but then, *probably* this sort of thing is only informative for people who don’t live it. There’s an intesresting conundrum as to what anyone in one of these jobs would get out of seeing it, very possibly a sense of validation and recognition, and a quiet sense of satisfaction at having something approximating their life dramatised (after all, who’s immune from wanting to identify with things they see in the theatre)? Maybe there’d be some itchiness around the fact that people are getting paid more to pretend to do the work than the people who actually do it, but I don’t think the piece itself ducks this issue especially. It’s not hidden. It’s a piece about injustice. It can’t solve *everything* just by existing, and it wouldn’t be better if it replicated the appalling working conditions of the characters.

As has been widely discussed, all the more urgently post-Brexit, if theatre is to stake any claim to urgency as an artform, then the characters of this play are clearly a constituency it needs to reach. And, as the play makes clear, it won’t do that by charging them entry. So, yes, very good as far as it goes, but maybe it should also tour towns without theatres and play for free. And see how it stands up then. Maybe that’s the acid test we need to be asking of all our theatre. Yes, let it be whatever it wants, but take it out of its concrete bunkers and take it to the people who can’t afford to come to it.

Tuesday 12 July 2016

Unreachable – Royal Court, London

[seen 11/07/16]

It’s odd, isn’t it? Very few playwrights seem to write “comedies” any more. And, indeed, calling a new play “a comedy” almost feels unkind. Like, it would be nicer if we called them “plays with jokes” or something. Like, “a comedy” can’t be all that good; let alone “Art”. It’s maybe worth remembering that Shakespeare, Moliere and Chekhov all wrote comedies; and observing that Antony Neilson’s Unreachable follows in the tradition of all three.

Nominally, it’s a play about a guy – Maxim (Matt Smith) – trying to make a film in impossible conditions. The impossible conditions stem partly from his neuroses, partly from his attempts at self-sabotage, dressed up as artistic vision, and partly from actual integrity and vision. In the first scene, we see Natasha (Tamara Lawrance) performing an audition speech for the film. It’s an extended monologue in which a mother appears to kill her baby in an attempt to protect it from soldiers in some sort of death camp in from the near-future. This mercy killing then appears to turn out to be a ghastly mistake. It’s almost too cruel a scene to imagine, but at the same time, we’re always acutely aware that it’s only fiction. She’s standing on a bare stage a light snaps on when she starts and off when she ends. Smith’s voice says a funny little thank you. All the time we know it’s only an audition speech, but it’s hard not to get involved, to imagine the scene, to also believe in the reality it describes...

In the next scene we meet the producer, Anastasia (Amanda Drew), and camera-man, Carl (Richard Pyros), who are despairing of Maxim who has decided that “Child of Ashes” needs to be shot on film stock not digital, with a consequent massive hike in cost. Through this one scene we discover almost all of the underlying conflicts that drive both the characters and the comedy in a masterclass of concision and imperceptible exposition: Maxim is essentially an orphaned Konstantin with a Hamlet-sized talent for procrastination – perhaps dropped into a contemporary nest-of-vipers every bit as venomous and self-serving as those in Moliere. These parallels are not entirely coincidental, I’m sure, nor are the comparisons meant lightly. Alongside the comedy – line after ridiculously funny line of it – there’s that same sense of a play gnawing at the human condition, the condition of art, and how people even begin to relate one to the other.

In order to fund the film’s spiralling costs, Anastasia finds £6m’s worth of new backers, but they have the rider that one of their associates sit in on the rest of the filming. It turns out that Eva/Ewa/Ava(?) (Genevieve Barr), who they send, is deaf, but this doesn’t actually constitute an issue, unlike the very fact of her presence for Maxim’s “creativity”. However, because Maxim’s problem with the film stock has been solved, he needs to find a new way to stall the filming until he “finds the right light”. To this end, he recruits his longstanding collaborator, Ivan “The Brute” (Jonjo O’Neill), an absolutely ludicrous monster of a human being channelling every anecdote about Klaus Kinski you’ve ever heard, and more.

And, well, the play keeps on being deliriously, joyously, riotously funny. The style of humour impossible to pin down, from the faux-gnomic proverbs spouted by the Telegin-like Carl to the turned-up-past-11, bombastic, space-rock-velocity invective of the terrible Ivan. There are acid one-liners and elaborate farcical set-ups; almost every sort of funny is thrown at the wall, and most of it sticks hard. Frankly, I’m still in a good mood the morning after, my cheeks still a bit sore from all the grinning. Yes, many of the jokes are in incredibly bad taste, but this in itself feels welcome, important, and even politically astute.

Underlying all these gags is this tender, melancholic story about these lost, sad people, every bit as compassionate and cruel as the tragi-comic collections of misfits who populate Chekhov. The orphaned Maxim who seems to have contrived to turn everyone he’s met since into a parent; his doting, condescending, self-sacrificing “mother”, Anastasia; his blokey, matey, but jealous and would-be usurping step-father-figure Carl; the rapacious, cold, cruel, but ultimately tender Ivan; the near sociopathic Natasha who finally discovers a kind of dangerously misguided altruism; and the interloping Ewa, who subverts every cliché about her position as a financier, before perhaps both conforming to type and exposing our comforting illusions about “Art” and “genius” in the process.

The shape of the narrative is both familiar and strange. We know this sort of journey of self-discovery and inner-turmoil from Hamlet, The Misanthrope, Platonov, whichever, but Neilson makes the structure firmly his own – particularly with a final transcendent image which is both preposterously kitschy and OTT, and that at the same time feels entirely sincere and actually beautiful and true (set designer Chloe Lamford, on precise form all the way through, delivers a knockout coup in tandem with Chahine Yavroyan’s lights); also including what I took to be a brilliant nod to that other petulant, impossible manchild film director, Lars von Trier.

The performances here are vast, generous slabs of raw feeling. If you missed stage-Matt Smith before he went and became Doctor Who, you’ll be reassured to find him back on top form here. It’ll be annoying to almost everyone to compare his Doctor to Maxim, but, well, if you like the former you’ll find much to warm-to in the latter. Against this beautiful, subtle model of outward-self-as-character, Jonjo O’Neill’s Ivan ought, by rights, to break the play. That he does not, instead seeming to suddenly draw in the audience across the footlights and through the 4th wall, suggests a stage presence of magnificent dexterity. That on top of this he and Smith endlessly spark off each other in real live time, while appearing to inhabit entirely separate dramatic universes, speaks volumes about Neilson-as-director’s real feeling for theatre. Tamara Lawrance’s performance is similarly pitch-perfect. Having been gifted the potentially lethal part of an actress who is generally completely deadpan unless she’s acting, which she always does brilliantly, she inhabits it with such conviction that you forget as an audience member that this is her character’s hang-up; we are as startled as the other characters of the play when she seems to flicker in and out of role. Amanda Drew is also brilliant, as ever, in the slightly more thankless, straight-forward role of Anastasia, one of the play’s tri-partite beacons of feminine sanity. Richard Pyros does beautiful work as the “cameraman who wants to be seen”, and Genevieve Barr is a revelation as a comic actress after I was the only person in the universe who didn’t get on with The Solid Life of Sugar Water. It still strikes me as astonishing today that there were only six people acting in the show. The stage feels like it is constantly alive and teeming.

Unreachable is a remarkable play. Even ignoring the circumstances of its creation, or its pitch-perfect response to the national mood – that, now more than ever, we need a) a fucking good laugh, b) a reason not to kill ourselves/a bit of perspective, and c) something transcendent – this is perhaps one of The Great Plays of this decade. Chekhovian scope and ambiton, Hamletian in its storming the gates of the sublime... Except, I’d have far rather seen Unreachable than Hamlet. It may at times tap into a similar vein of problematic male self-entitlement (so it’s a relief to see Ophelias zimmer designer Lamford also on board with this latter-day Dane), but it takes place in an entirely different universe; a universe where, crucially, the women have voices, agency, power, the upper-hand, and, frequently, the last word. It may not offer concrete answers to urgent contemporary questions (or slavishly just set abut documenting what those questions are), but to suggest that this is a dereliction of duty is like worrying that Ivanov is a bit thin on details of the Russian-German reinsurance treaty of 1887.

Unreachable is instead a massive, humane, beautiful play. Heart-bursting stuff. Remarkable work. Much-needed, and also very silly.

The Spectre of Fascism

[Baltoscandal 2016 & 1,000 Postcards...]

This is the 1,000th post on Postcards From the Gods.

[And, yes, this year’s Baltoscandal also felt like a consolidation of eight/nine years of European Festival-going; made strange by Britain having just voted to leave the EU...]

Watching Dead Centre’s Chekhov’s First Play, I was reminded of the story that during the holocaust, Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz put God on trial: when they had finished the trial, and God had been found guilty, the prisoners prayed to God.

Much of of the theatre at Baltoscandal this year felt to me like it was about The Failure of The Left, and The Failure of Theatre. These are perhaps my own post-Brexit UK preoccupations as much as the Festival’s. But, without wishing the parallel to be offensive, in this failure of The Left and Theatre, we festivalgoers still only had The Left and Theatre with which to attack Theatre and The Left, and through which to find any hope of salvation.

If there is a spectre haunting Europe (and beyond) now, it is the spectre of fascism. Festival director Priit Raud’s programming this year was exemplary. Not just because I happened to like/get-something-out-of 11 of the 12 pieces, but because of the conversations that the pieces seemed to be having with each other. Conversations that, perhaps, are about the need for a radical change on The Left and in Theatre, and the rise of the far-right in Europe and beyond

One crisis of The-Left-as-it-currently-stands, may be best exemplified in both the struggles at the Volksbühne in Berlin and within the Labour Party in Britain. In both institutions, we have the new spectacle of The Left being painted as “reactionary” by a cosmopolitan, neoliberal “left”. The desire, on one hand, for continuity in the Volksbühne’s admirable, historical, Marxist interrogation of what that theatre means now in Berlin – the only theatre to be dealing at all with the de-historicised reunification of Germany, and the East’s immediate, no-choice, forced integration into Western Captialism as “freedom” – and on the other hand, for the theatre to be (seemingly) re-purposed as a shiny international venue, celebrating multiple cultures from across the globe – clearly, in itself, quite a benign objective, and yet, when applied to a building/organisation so political, so precise, and so specific as the Volksbühne (which, lest we forget, is already international and multicultural, just much more Marxistly so), an objective which also can’t help but feel like a neoliberal snowjob.

[And so it is with the Labour Party, with Corbyn’s return to *actual Labour policies* being viciously rejected by the British media from day one, even unto the point where an atrociously timed, and appallingly fluffed leadership coup painted as a kindly and reasonable attempt to make the party “more electable”.]

Similarly, the most “embarrassing” thing about the UK Brexit/Leave vote, is the fact that it primarily reads as a fascist rejection of cosmopolitanism, emanating mostly strongly from Britain’s working class. A rejection of the high-handed lecturing of political and cultural elites, into contact with whom these disenfranchised voters have never come; and vice versa. We have the ludicrous situation of an urban(e) neoliberal “Left” appearing to have rejected the sub-urban working class.

It was Lond/Malborg’s 99 Words For Void which also best summed up for me the paradoxical double-bind of this situation, revealing, as it does, the hidden reverse of this cosmopolitan multiculturalism as also ultimately fascistic in character.

So, yes. You’d think you’d find it depressing, to be confronted with this fact that on one hand the working class in deprived areas are defecting to fascism, apparently in droves, while an artistic elite hold their nose and refuse to compromise artistic principles enough to even meet them, instead preferring a gated community of ideological purity. But instead it feels like a galvanising and urgent problem.

*Of course*, only a couple of hundred people will read this essay (if that). And my relaxedness about that is – of course – a perfect example of this problem of Left Artistic Complacency. But, equally, preparedness to recognise a problem, and to name it, and to begin to think about strategies for fixing the problem. That is what makes these “interesting times” so vital.

Shows in order seen:

La Nuit des Taupes – Philippe Quesne

Charm of the Burnt Fields

Limewire (v. 3.0) – Andros Zins-Browne

We Are Still Watching – Ivana Müller

Suite N°2 – Joris Lacoste

NaziSuperPeople Are Better Than You – Showcase Beat Le Mot

NO42: El Dorado... – NO99

99 Words For Void – Lond Malmborg

Looping Pieces – Tim Etchells (which I missed, due to transport/scheduling issues, but see here and here for reflections on related pieces. Wish I’d seen this one here in Rakvere, though. Such a good curatorial choice for the Festival.)

iFeel2 – Marco Berrettini

Chekhov’s First Play – Dead Centre

Lazyblood – Erna Ómarsdóttir, Valdimar Jóhannsson (an Icelandic black metal performance duo. Not reviewed, as it started at midnight and I was knackered and I didn’t see the whole thing, but it seemed pretty glorious...)

We Are Still Watching – Proovisaal, Rakvere

[seen 07/07/16]

Ivana Müller’s While We Were Holding It Together was one of the highlights of Baltoscandal 2008, and indeed it’s a piece I *still* talk about (but which, criminally, I never got around to writing about), so I was thrilled (and a bit nervous) that the follow-up was at Baltoscandal 2016.

While While/Together was a pretty abstract piece of work (five performers held themselves in exactly the same position for an hour while saying lines which may or may not have reflected on their position), it at least had performers. In We/Watching, the audience are the performers. Which, generally speaking, I absolutely loathe. I hate reading in public, I hate performing, and I’m not even over-keen on having to watch anyone else do it.

Mercifully, both the set-up of We/Watching, and the particular group of 40 I happened to see it/perform it with, are exemplary. The piece itself immediately makes a virtue of our irritation, embarrassment and grudging complicity. The scripts are distributed in such a way that no one is overly burdened, and they are passed on with the possibility of demurral, relatively regularly. At this Estonian international festival it was performed twice in English – pretty much the default second language of almost every international festival I’ve ever been to, thanks to American imperialism – and once in Estonian. As such, it felt particularly churlish to mind reading some bits out in my mother tongue.

There’s also the thing, that the piece almost benefits from being performed by an international audience, mostly working in their second language. There’s a hesitancy and non-acting-ness that actually allows the lines to resonate much better than when native speakers read them – coupled with the fact that we’re not reduced to being a roomful of people silently assessing a judging one another’s class backgrounds and regional backgrounds as we would be in UK. But all this is peripheral detail (mixed with some subconscious stuff about how much I hate England at the moment).

So, what happens in We Are Still Watching? Well, maybe the title is a good place to start. It’s interesting; like The Author is interesting, in that we’re arranged here into an in-the-round audience, two rows deep, but that nothing ever happens in the middle. The title seems to refer to this – that we are still watching *something* in this space, even though it’s a combination of staring at the floorboards, looking at other audience members, and maybe looking at the person reading, if they’re not sitting two people down from you and essentially invisible. It’s fascinating to me that Müller is a choreographer(!) and has created this piece. It’s interesting to think of it in terms of ‘a movement piece’/‘choreography’ rather than as ‘theatre’.

The things we read out are mostly discussions of our situation. The paradox of people performing – scripted – resistance to the script is gently explored. The whole tone of the piece (although I’m sure this is more performance dependent than I recognised at the time) feels both gentle but also direct. The Big (if peripheral-to-this-performance) Contemporary Questions feel like they’re addressed, albeit side-on, with special reference to the peculiar relationship of the audience to this performance. Perhaps inevitably for me, Britain’s teetering social fabric and forthcoming divorce from first Europe and then reality loomed large. The sort of gentle, careful, humane response to thinking about life that this piece represents has certainly been lacking in the Big Bold Statements of UK Politics of late. That said, the finale (it has a finale!) also suggests an interest in the paradox of collective action versus Fascist mass control (i.e. they’re pretty much indistinguishable, and that’s hard...).

I wish I had a copy of the script so that I could re-read it and quote specifics and talk in a detailed way about the actual, textual journey that it takes its audience/participants on, but because at the time of seeing/doing/experiencing the show you’re all *inside* it, that kind of dispassionate analysis feels impossible on one viewing. (At least, impossible for me; I’m sure other critics would manage), but all I’ve got is this bundle of impressions and feelings. And it doesn’t feel like a bad way to be at all. It felt like a joyous thing to have been a part of. It did manufacture a strange little bond within our group, and made the world feel that bit friendlier and more thought-about than hitherto. No bad thing at all, last week, when – from all available evidence on social media – my homeland seemed intent on self-destruction.

Throughout Baltoscandal it felt like that programming was testing the faultlines between the false consolations of affirmative art, and the potential for deepening depression of analysis. It was a brilliantly put-together schedule. Irrespective of the order in which the pieces were viewed, the collective weight seemed to offer the best possible cross-section of almost “contradictory” forms and genres of work that could be collected under the banner of “theatre”, and some of the sharpest political content I’ve seen in performance.

We Are Still Watching, as the title suggests, can be taken as a positive and a negative. The idea of eternal vigilance opposed with *only* watching, bystanding, not getting involved. It feels like as pertinent a view on present-day Europe as any: “still watching” being both absolutely necessary and never enough.

Monday 11 July 2016

NaziSuperPeople Are Better Than You All – Küün, Rakvere

[seen 07/07/16]

Right. This review is going to involve a lot of trust. First you’ll have to trust that I’m not some sort of a Nazi, and that, yes, *of course* I take the crimes of the Third Reich seriously. Second, you also have to trust that my instincts are absolutely spot-on (which, as always, they are.) So, with all that in mind, I can tell you that Germany’s ‘Showcase Beat Le Mot’’s NaziSuperPeople Are Better Than You All – The Horror of The Ordinary is an incredibly funny 150 minute show about time-travelling Nazis.

The piece is playing in a venue simply known as “Barn”. The reasons for this name become perfectly apparent when you see the venue; it is indeed just a barn. The night I saw it the weather in Rakvere was unseasonably foul, and so the venue was accessed by a 100 yard walk across a muddy field, in the driving rain, in the dark. All of which was a perfect set-up for this post-everything piece.

The performance style is, what? “Shambolic”? “Inert”? “Laid-back to the point of horizonal”? It’s hard to say. None of that is meant as a criticism. It’s a very definite, and unexpectedly compelling/relaxing performance style. Indeed, if this piece had been made with “proper” acting, it would have been completely unbearable. Instead, the atmosphere most closely resembles something like a ramshackle wedding party, and the performances something more like a mate telling you a ridiculous story in the pub.

I would say the “narrative” owes most to maybe The Goon Show or perhaps Mighty Boosh if I thought either thing were a likely reference point for this five-strong performance group who trained at Giessen University (home of Hans-Theis Lehmann and Rimini Protokoll among others). The inclusion of Sharon Smith off of Gob Squad’s recorded voice as “She-Wolf Sharon of the SS” maybe points toward some affinities with the Volksbühne-based performance group, and the tone of Northern camp reminds me repeatedly of David Hoyle. But really it’s completely its own idiosyncratic thing.

So, on one level, it’s just silly, straight-faced camp fun*: our SuperNazi time-travellers go back in time to visit Caesar, Christ, the neanderthals, King Arthur, and so on, setting up the essential components of Nazism throughout history at the behest of Alfred Hitler, before returning to their own time, only to discover they’ve changed history and have to kill Adolf Hitler because he’s evil.

In a way – although you’d have to excavate pretty hard to get there – the piece is a knockabout illustration of Adorno’s point that the Enlightenment laid the foundations of Auschwitz. Indeed, the company’s blurb is adapted from Walter Benjamin’s The Destructive Character. Indeed, the more you think about the piece, the more you appreciate that the jokes are partially just window-dressing for a serious point worth making repeatedly. I wonder if the use of humour is also a partial reference to Freud. Whether perhaps exposing our desire to laugh is a device to make us think more carefully after the event about why we might want to do so.

On the other hand, the bits with Jesus especially are very funny indeed:

Nazi: Why are you so popular with the people?

Christ: Because of my magic tricks...

[Christ performs conjuring version of the Eucharist, pulling wafers from out of thin air and magicking up red wine, which is then distributed to the audience]

The Nazis then find Christ buried in his cave and revive him in their time machine, thereby effecting the resurrection... Etc.

So, yes. Blimey. Is this a review yet? I dunno. The show was good. I liked it. I think you could claim that it also had a serious intent. It didn’t actually “make light of” the actual Nazis. Instead, perhaps most usefully in Estonia, it maybe forces them to recognise their own difficult Nazi-as-anti-Soviet past. But in the current climate, with far-right on the rise once more, in Europe and the middle-East, perhaps just taking the piss out of the idea is no bad thing.

There’s perhaps an interesting coda about whether this show could exist in the UK. I think it *probably* could. Certainly in Edinburgh, but almost certainly not in an ACE-sponsored International Festival like LIFT. And, even though it’s also a thing that the Far-Right also say, maybe that is down to a climate of “fear-of-offending” on the cosmopolitan left, that puts them in the ludicrous position of actually being incapable of taking the piss out the Nazis. On the other hand, that very attitude is pretty much my own default position. Which is interesting to me.

The Charm of Burnt Fields – Koolisaal, Rakvere

[seen 06/07/16]

[Ok, so, I saw The Charm of the Burnt Fields in the evening of the day we travelled to Estonia (3.30am waking time, about four hours sleep, and not much more on RyanAir or the coach from Tallinn to Rakvere). I’m not complaining at all, but I think it’s only fair that my physical state be taken as a mitigating factor in how I watched/found Charm of the Burnt Fields...]

Charm of the Burnt Fields is (I think) narrative choreography. It’s not *quite* as linear or clear a narrative as ballet tends to be, but it feels like its on its way. Or, if not narrative, then sketch-choreography. Imagine if Smack the Pony was a dance show (but with consistent characters)?

Young auteur Renate Keerd credits herself here as author, director, designer, musical designer and 50% of the lighting designers. It is not unfair to say that she could have done with an outside eye at some stage. I’m all for a rigorously pursued artistic vision, but equally, it’s possible to get lost inside your own work sometimes, and not be able to see when some darlings need killing. The piece runs at a superfluous 80 minutes when it could be a blistering 55.

The piece is maybe *about gender*? I mean, it could be about lots of things, but it’s got the three performers (Liisa Tetsmann, Taavi Rei, Gerda-Anette Allikas – 2W, 1M) first dressing in high heels, bras and short shirts and running round in circles, and then later putting on trousers and getting into a fight; and, well, if that isn’t the essentials of gender binaries, what is? In between there’s a ukulele-and-triangle cover of Queen and Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure’, where the performers have their long hair tied in pony tails over their mouths. It starts off with two of the performers wearing traditional Zimbabwean wooden masks spearing the other performer from a boat they’re pretending to sit in; it ends with the same two performers wiping shaving foam off each other’s naked, silhouetted bodies, while their mate who was the fish turns up under a carpet, so they can all get under it and get dressed before the dance-off finale. There’s a lovely candle-based back wall.

I’m not fully sure what the piece *actually says* about gender, or owt else, really. There’s a generalised sense of life cycles, perhaps, and of human evolution, and the evolving of reactionary gender roles, maybe? Because there are three performers, it also feels like there’s a continual sense of one person being excluded from a hetero-normative couple, but maybe I just imagined that – there’s plenty of time where they’re also all chucking each other around and standing on each others’ backs in high heels. And it’s worth saying that at its best the dancing is superbly executed, making violent acrobatics look effortless, and with wittily choreographed “fight scene” that every fight director in UK needs to see post-haste.

It maybe took me half an hour for my cynicism to fully melt, but once gone, it was clear that this is a nicely made piece, open to almost infinite interpretation, boasting some exemplary movement skills.


The Baltoscandal programme offers this remarkable excerpt from Katrin Maimik, Andres Maimik review of the show in Eesti Ekspress, which I’ll just leave here for balance(?):

“The production provides the viewer with a chance to kick over their brimming bucket of inner shit, to cast off the burden that has weighed down their soul - their position, their obligations, the inevitability of life, the anxiety of language, the dishes piling up in the dishwasher, dead-end thoughts, the birthday of the mother-in-law. And tear off their clothes and get down to their underwear, and rampage, roar, wallow, ram, pound, leave behind the stupid thoughts and poisonous emotional fumes circulating in their systems and escape into pure bodily ecstasy. And then, having exhausted themselves and cleansed themselves at of the altar of love, they can go back to their homes with grey walls and white ceilings, switch on the dishwasher and lie down next to their spouses, without soaking their pillows with longing.”


iFeel2 – Spordikirik, Rakvere

[seen 08/07/16]

Watch the above trailer.

iFeel2 is basically that for an hour.

If you want to imagine it properly, in the Baltoscandal performance(s) at the Sport-Church (a venue I love very deeply, and not just because it’s a church that got converted into a sports hall in communist times and was thus renamed Sport-Church, but also because it was here that I saw Gisele Vienne’s I Apologize in 2008 – still perhaps my favourite theatre memory of all time...) it’s lighter than the above video suggests. The basketball hoop still stands at the back of the “stage”. You can see the court markings on the floor beyond the performance area.

From the ceiling hang seven models of plants of varying sizes at varying heights.

There is a six- by six-lantern lighting rig hung stage right, with alternating red, green and blue lights, calibrated to a cast warm, near-colourless glow over the stage (plus pretty, multi-coloured shadows. Yay!).

The music continues lounge-y.

The dancing continues lounge-y.

The performers continue topless.

For a good forty minutes without significant change.

There are some different songs, but basically it’s all very much the same sixties swingers party “relaxed” vibe.

I really didn’t *get* this show,. I could go on describing it, with varying degrees of bemusement. I’m trying to avoid letting my puzzlement slip into outright contempt, because it was totally focused, and the performers were clearly committed to their arduous relaxed dancing, and it wasn’t “bad”, per se. Or objectionable (yes, the dynamic felt *a bit* queasy, but actually the whole seemed so mutual/consensual/whacked-out that it equally felt like finding it questionable might be our problem).

There ain’t half some blurb in the programme:

iFeel2 displays the mutations, the evolutions, the metamorphosis that the individual and the social "bubbles" practice in real life. There is a real emerging need to once again ask the question: Why are we here, on this earth? And what value can we assign to the birth of life? Berrettini has been working with some texts and books from the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk for many years. For iFeel2, he has selected You have to change your life (Du mußt dein Leben ändern), published in 2010. The current dance extends from a certain desire of acrobatic virtuosity to some more spiritual streams flirting with psychoanalysis, religion and the search of inner consciousness, the Jungian shadow. The performance is a mix of this multitrack life.”

Suffice it to say, none of that was remotely legible to me during the show. Moreover, I’m not particularly convinced that even if it had been, I’d have been all that into it.

The best two things that happen in iFeel2 (genuinely the worst title of anything ever), are that a) after forty (40) minutes, the hanging plants all start vibrating furiously. Nope. No idea. But it happens. And then, b) gradually a bloke, dressed as another plant, gets out of the largest hanging plant thing, unfolds a picnic table and proceeds to unpack a sort of ecological Happy Meal. The two dancers nick his burger and have a stab at feeding it to each other while still jigging about the place, but when he offers them his McEcoCoke or whatever, they don’t fancy it, so he goes round to the next biggest hangy plant thing and mimes giving it a sip.

And blackout!


C’est tout!

Non. Je ne sais pas.

Sunday 10 July 2016

Chekhov’s First Play – Suur Saal, Rakvere

[seen 09/07/16]


One of the least useful things in writing about theatre is that your most recent experience of any given piece is the ending, the effect it has on you. In the case of Chekhov’s First Play this effect is a massive, massive sense of elation and of having been moved. Forcibly moved, almost. Christ it’s moving. But that’s the end. Who starts telling a story at the end? Idiots. Idiots and postmodernists.

Dead Centre’s Chekhov’s First Play doesn’t start at the end. In fact, it starts before the beginning. Director Bush Moukarzel walks onto the stage holding a microphone and begins to explain the concept of the show; he did it last year and “people didn’t really get it” so if we could all put on our headphones he’ll explain it as it goes along. It’s worth noting that this offer doesn’t come across as condescending or arch, it’s more humble and sad than that. Moukarzel is seems to be blaming himself as much as anyone. He offers us the fact that in art museums he spends more time reading the than looking at the art. Art is hard, he says. Dead Centre are postmodernists.

He explains the themes of the play (as he sees them) a bit; property looms large.

The curtains of the massive Rakvere theatre main house open (and, yes, I feel incredibly privileged to have seen this piece in such a perfect setting, amongst such a lot of Russian-second-language speakers, in a country where one of their theatrical landmark-productions – like maybe their Peter Hall Oresteia – is a Platonov), and we’re looking at the naturalistic outside courtyard of the __ estate, with a laid table and chairs in the foreground... Halfway, maybe, between Johannes Schultz Symbolism and Alex Eales Naturalism.

Anna (Clara Simpson) and Triletsky (Paul Reid) begin to play Chekhov’s First Scene (I’m assuming it’s the first scene; I’ve not seen another production yet), while Moukarzel haplessly tries to annotate on-the-fly (obviously, all his interjections are printed in the Oberon-published script. This seems quite crucial, actually – on one hand, this is definitely a play called Chekhov’s First Play, it’s not Chekhov’s “Platonov” (although that’s just a title we [the English, according to Wikipedia] give it). But this is a largely new thing built round an original. But another way, it’s almost just the most amazing production of Platonov imaginable given a new title to excuse that fact that it’s a bit more *Regie* than the UK generally allows under the title of the original...). There’s a slight sense, in the beginning, that neither The Director, Moukarzel (actually co-directed with Ben Kidd), nor we, his audience, are all that interested in the play itself. We’re all interested in the meanings and what we can get out of it in today’s world, but we’re not “investing in the characters” or any reactionary nonsense like that, we are incredibly effectively Brecht-alienated from that sort of identification-with the characters. We’re watching them critically as symbols of tendencies. Dead Centre absolutely have their cake and eat it here: we’re offered the character of this director, whom we do judge or identify with, and he in turn removes the illusion of agency from the world of the play. We know he’s also in the world of the play, but he sneaks past the V-Effekt.

Do you want the spoiler-version of what happens in the show? I think I can probably limit it to this paragraph, so read on for full account, or skip to next para for me going on about why I think it’s awesome...

Around precisely the point where you’ve settled into this exchange between voice-over interjections and watching radio-miked live actors, the whole is disrupted. Now, only a day later, I’m not precisely sure of the sequence in which the events take place, but: a giant wrecking ball comes and smashes into the front of the house; the cast all stand, looking out into the audience under a purple-y lighting state; a stranger is picked out of the audience with a spot-light and mounts the stage, essentially taking the place of a voiceless Platonov. This last touch especially is genius. As a result, we clearly have two Platonovs: both the director and this audience-stranger. Both the director and the stranger also seem to embody qualities of the dead author as well...


The net effect of these interventions is – counter-intuitively – a renewed sense that you really are watching Chekhov’s Platonov, interpreted and distilled to the nth degree, sure, but it’s suddenly like seeing an incredibly clear version, rather than something Other.

At the same time, the play has completely come alive as this living, vital example and critique of post-crash Ireland (and by extension, EU). This sense of end times, so vital in Chekhov (and correct, even if the October Revolution was still 39 years off when he wrote Platonov), feels completely relevant to the crashed and slumped economies of present-day Europe. The sense Triletsky talks about of there not being anywhere better than *here*, certainly seems to resonate in Rakvere, but also works perfectly as a description of *somewhere else* (plays are, I think, allowed to both be about where they are, and about somewhere else, which can resonate with the audience as they see fit). The action is suddenly transposed, seemingly, to Dublin. The script is suddenly modernised (though I didn’t quite notice it properly while watching). To call it the play’s Blasted moment would be lazy, critically, but not wholly incorrect. It’s fascinating, partly because just this simple act of dishonest honesty – they’re still no more in Dublin, here in Rakvere, than they were in Russia, and they’re still actors on stage... – makes the action feel suddenly vital. I don’t know this particular play well enough to comment exactly, but you get a sense that it cleaves very closely to Chekhov’s original where necessary, and diverts largely in modern example and occasional attitude. The substances of the relationships and observations remain in the same dynamic – despite the fact that the director has cut all the servants, which in itself feels like another a brilliant comment on (some/much) contemporary theatre.

As such, we’re suddenly plunged into this loud, exploding, recognisable world where everything is falling apart, and Chekhov’s gun is already on the table, so to speak. There’s something almost Howard Barker-ish about the figures whose shadows cross the windows on their way into the courtyard, like terrible Greek messengers. Around the table the party has broken down into a chilling game of Russian roulette. There’s something appalling and horribly recognisable even in this extreme gesture. The stranger/Platonov approaches, purposefully. We know Chekhov’s law of stage guns, and we know what often happens to his male protagonists. But, then, just at the fatal, fateful, crucial moment, the figure of the director re-emerges, and takes the gun from Platonov/the stranger’s hand, explaining that eventually, in his final play, Chekhov stopped putting guns on stage and making characters fire them (and blimey, how that resonated given the current situation in America). Moukarzel takes the gun from the stranger and pushes him forward. The stranger walks out onto the front of the stage, as behind him The Director shoots himself in the head and slumps onto the table. The curtains close, the stranger steps forward, and says the first word he can:


[‘Wrecking Ball’ cover by Death in Rome, whose political allegiances I’m choosing to view as Laibach-like radical over-identification.]

NO42: El Dorado: The Clowns’ Raid of Destruction – Rahu Hall, Rakvere

[seen 08/07/16]

God. 2012 feels a long bloody time ago, doesn’t it?

Back in those old days, there was once a play called Three Kingdoms and it was written by Simon Stephens, directed by Sebastian Nübling, and designed by Ene-Liis Semper. And it was a joint production between Munich, London and the Tallinn-based Estonian company NO99.

I’d somehow contrived to miss NO99’s NO88: Hot Estonian Guys in Wiesbaden in 2008, so this is the first non-Nübling show of theirs I’ve seen, and it’s directed (and presumably devised) by Ene-Liis Semper. (The company will make 99 productions and then stop. Obviously they’ve already made loads, and it’s hardly *expertise* to come in after 57 shows and mention the one co-pro you’ve seen...)

Anyway, well, I don’t mind saying that I absolutely loathed huge chunks of this. Well over 50%, I reckon. Weirdly, however, by the end, I kind of loved it. All the more powerfully so for having hated so much of it...

The style of this piece is a kind of deconstructed dark clown show, which, through a series of knockabout routines, gradually gathers force as a kind of narrative. I think. After an agonisingly slow start, it seems to kick off with an extended allegorical skit on the Biblical Garden of Eden story. I mean, the start really was agonising. Maybe ten minutes (felt like twenty) of the seven performers dragging themselves and various heavy props around the outside of the slowly revolving circular stage. If you want a rough visual shorthand, imagine someone had made Frank Castorf do Mother Courage. (Or, if you want a more readily available one, imagine devised theatre made by students who had spent too much time mainlining everything at St Stephens in the early 00s. Basically, think: trashy costumes and failed spangle.)

Once the routines kick off, it feels like; Oh, right, ok, story! And, being English, I perked up again for a bit. [That cliché about the English/British theatregoing mind being addicted to narrative still holds absolutely true, no matter where I take myself or try to shift it.] The stories being told – in dark clown-routine form – seem like a scattergun collection of Biblical and maybe off-beam Just So Stories – one “How The Bloke Got His External Testicles” is particularly grim. There’s a bit of gurning and squeaking but mostly concrete action, not so much playful as dogged. Now, I spent quite a lot of time trying to thread the stories together; from the Garden of Eden to something starting off like Jacob and Isaac, there seemed to be a definite God figure, and the presence of a massive wooden cross revolving round the stage like everyone else, lending proceedings a definite churchy feel. Philosophically, aesthetically, and perhaps even theologically, El Dorado... is definitely not within my comfort zone. It is pagan and Catholic where my tastes tend to be modernist and protestant; minimalist rather than abundant and decadent. And there’s the fact that the company seem to be *trying* to make the piece a hard watch. (And, y’know, succeeding admirably. Well done, guys, it was a Really Hard Watch.) And for a long time (show length: 2hrs) you resent that. Obviously. I still haven’t come up with a strategy for what to do with shows that deliberately want you to suffer. Other than succumbing to the intended suffering. And, well, then you’re suffering, and (perhaps counter-intuitively, given the protestantism) you’d rather be enjoying yourself. [Perhaps culturally this is the root of Britain’s problems; the belief that fun is no kind of art, but that no fun is, well, no fun.] ANYWAY...

So here we are, watching the grimness and the gurning, and this depiction of a squalid cruel world – one female character seems to have her mouth permanently held open by some sort of device, and is constantly getting pregnant, “giving birth” and then having her cushion-baby taken off her and bashed to death with a frying pan – and it just feels unrewarding and relentless.

Then there are a couple of gear shifts. It starts to rain around the stage (cliché, sure, but still visually effective when done right, as it is here) and just this simple fact seems to focus the stage picture, lending it a visual coherence and weight previously lacking. That everything quickly becomes waterlogged, lending all the absorbent props and costumes actual weight, may even be significant. It feels like the piece could have ended here (the latter part of the piece feels like it has about half a dozen such false/potential endings) and it would have felt like it got *somewhere*, but actually, where it goes next somehow forces a reevaluation of everything that went before. The central God/Clown figure is dying. “He” lies back on his table/mortuary slab, and His chief acolyte seems to be crouching over him, perhaps pissing or defecating. And then the hitherto unexplained giant circus tent-style ceiling (ok, it didn’t need much of an explanation to just hang there, tbf) suddenly, unexpectedly opens. Hundreds of golden ball-pool balls rain from the ceiling, and suddenly you have this stark contrast with this life lived to excess in an impoverished world. The episode of a golden egg-laying goose (well, person, here), slaughtered to discover the eggs inside it, is suddenly rendered even more pointless and squalid. The irony that now the stage is littered in golden eggs when previously one had led to murder and madness seems somehow incredibly profound. And the God-clown also has a remarkable speech (from something?). Suddenly he’s Baal, Colonel Kurtz, the Marquis de Sade... The evil and excess somehow reconfigured as heroic. And it feels almost cathartic. Heavy and poisonous too, but somehow cleansing. And, well, blimey, you don’t see something like that every day. So, yes, ultimately – for me – remarkable. Obviously there’s no answer to the question of how you make something like that more “palatable”, and suddenly you really don’t want to know, and feel stupid for wondering. It is what it is, and, in the end, it pulls back the entire room. Yes, it’s tried your patience, and been horrible and boring, but ultimately, it feels, it’s done all this in service of a total experience. A carefully managed emotional journey to enable you to feel the ending in this way (I realise I’m crediting Semper et al, with having micro-managed my subjective response, and I know that’s wrong, but at the same time, it’s an accurate reflection of how it *feels* in the moment). So, yes, remarkable. The piece is something of an outlier in the Baltoscandal programme, I think, in that it seems quite rooted in The Human, rather than The Political. And I realise I don’t tend to get very excited by plays about “People” compared to plays about “Ideas”. (Yes, I know they’re all flip-sides and interconnected, but you know what I mean. There can be emphases.)

But, yes, yet another genius bit of Festival programming, providing perhaps the Festival’s scathing human heart.

Saturday 9 July 2016

99 Words for Void – Väike Saal, Rakvere

[seen 08/07/16]

Now this is more like it.

You know that “problem of theatre” (/performance/Live Art/whatever) that we never really talk about? You know the one, the one where it’s essentially a privileged club for the liberal elite, in which “You Can Say What You Like” and “Freedom of Expression” come with some unspoken riders, and it turns out that most of the actual people we’re “concerned for” and meant to be “liberating” hate us. (Oh, and how it absolutely reproduces capitalism down to the absolute last detail, even though it’s “anti-capitalist”..., And maybe how it reproduces racial inequality too...) Remember now? Cool.

99 Words For Void is as good a stab at destroying that paradigm as any I’ve seen. It’s clearly fiercely intelligent, and – since this review is liable to go into rhapsodies about the theory, it’s worth remembering that it’s also – beautifully performed.

The set-up is this: The space is in pitch darkness. For a while. We hear an almighty clanking moving towards us. We hear two voices addressing us out of the darkness. Nice voices. Kind voices. Charming voices. Voices speaking English beautifully, with charming accents.

Iggy Lond Malmborg and Malke Lond Malmborg say they’re brother and sister, and who are we to dispute this? Even if one (Malke) is Estonian and one (Iggy) Swedish.

They tell us that the show is 90 minutes long, and that we can’t leave once it’s started, but they’ll give us four minutes to decide. They play this black metal song while we decide. The lights flash on occasionally. They are dressed in full suits of armour.

And this is perhaps the best, and most constant clue to how the piece might be operating. This idea of Old Europe, this idea of old, medieval, white Europe, set against this left-liberal rhetoric of inclusion and tolerance and workers’ rights. Even just visually, it’s such a stringent critique of either Art’s hypocrisies, or it’s tolerated duplicities.

Perhaps as an illustration, they show us photos of “their grandmother” and “their mother,” projecting them onto a little screen and passing round the originals in their frames, while they make themselves a little cup of coffee and talk about how their grandmother used to work 14 hour days six days a week in a factory and how she used to drink coffee and how she founded a workers’ rights movement, and how everything improved... And then, how their mother started a Fair Trade coffee plantation in Ethiopia... The photos being passed around reach us, and we see that they are still wrapped in their “Made in China” wrappers.

They talk about how their mother’s workers have now rebelled, and about the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and about the Royal Museum for Central Africa outside Brussels, and how when they were visiting it, Brussels was full of armed police, and there was a sculture of their mother with massive claws instead of fingernails, and how it had turned out that this statue had been made by one of the Charlie Hebdo terrorists, and so it was taken out of the museum and destroyed...

It’s kinda brilliant, no?

What perhaps propels the piece that bit further towards incision than most is the way that it constantly plays with that sense that we’re always meant to agree with the things that artists are saying. (And/or, possibly, that if we’re not, then the fact we’re not is usually so heavily signalled.) Instead, here, they’re all charm and plausibility, even while gently flirting both with us and with fascism. Or maybe they’re just satirising the ineffectuality of leftist art from the right. Really, though, the critique itself is most effective not because it successfully proposes an alternative, but simply points out that the current model is broken.

In their story, their mother is dying of cancer, and she tears off a necklace she’s been wearing with the word “Hope” on it, and says that if it’s hope keeping her alive then hope merely prolongs the pain, and she’d rather die now. They are proposing the end to leftist art. Or perhaps, demanding of it that it rethinks everything that currently compromises it.

At the same time, their critique of white Western Europe offers no answers. Perhaps it gently raises the spectre that, given our history, it’s only logical to expect some comeback at some point. This, combined with the knightly armour and the black metal almost invites us to see theatre as a kind of far-right mechanism. Even everything they say early on – about it being nice that we’re all in the room together, breathing the same air, committed together to watching the piece – has distinct fascist possibilities; this crunchy disparity between “our” (Artists’, theatregoers’) tolerance and our intolerance of intolerance. We’re made to feel very acutely how we’re actually a very small, self-selecting elite. And our platitudes about the essential goodness of art are almost played back to us verbatim, sounding distinctly more sinister than when we said them. But, unarguably, they’re the exact same things about identity and community and society and so on that we always hear.

The piece never labours its point (like I just have). Instead, it kind of keeps everything playful and light, and never really lets it feel like a major point has just been landed. Instead, these ideas, and parallels, and problems just keep being raised, in this problematic setting, in this problematic audience of which we’re a part. And suddenly the whole idea of everyone “just sitting together being connected in a fractured society” feels every bit as suspect and Nazi-sounding as it always should.

Again, this should be transferred to UK post-haste.

(Oh, and it had a really beautiful, simple lighting design too. (“Technical solutions: Kalle Tikas; Technical support: Taavet Jansen, Revo Koplus”))

((Oh, and I haven’t mentioned the banjo or electric guitar yet! There was a whole Magnetic Fields-style song!))

(((Three brackets is Nazi too, now?  What?)))

Suite N°2 – Spordikirik, Rakvere

[seen 07/07/16]

Ok. So Baltoscandal 2016 turns out to be a bumper year for Seeing Great Things. As an analysis this is liable to get tiresome Very Quickly for you, dear reader. Suffice it to say, Suite N°2 is stunning. Absolutely stunning. Please. Someone. Transfer. Suite N°2. You will make your money back, I promise. It is must-see virtuosic stuff. Truly.

What Suite N°2 is, is essentially a five-person live performance of falling down a YouTube rabbit-hole. It opens with the introduction to a 1997 World Championship boxing match, and from their seems to circle the world*, catching and replaying an astonishing array of speech acts. Everything from George W. Bush’s announcement of the invasion of Iraq to the American people, to a sermon in Kinshasa; from a Portuguese Finance Minister’s 2012 economic statement to a Japanese management training speech.

Performed on a stark black stage – performers also wearing muted, concert-soloist black – with a projected black backdrop within which the surtitles appear, perhaps the first thing that we notice is the way that the text is being performed, as if as music. On occasions, the five performers all converge in the same piece of text, speaking – or sometimes even singing – the words in chorus.

The second thing we notice is just the sheer vocal skill here. Dozens of languages are delivered, with near-perfect precision – I (naturally) wondered if they were just fudging the detail slightly, but when one of the performers does a 2010 speech by a young British student involved in the education protests of that year, his accent is spot on. This is essentially verbatim theatre, almost weaponised and “art-ised” to the nth degree. The level of complexity and sheer skill in the performances here is something else.

And then there’s the text itself. No, you never really get over the fact of the performances, but there is a real compelling picture of the world* painted here.

*I’ve now twice asterisked “the world” now, and it needs to be admitted that this is a picture of the world taken from mainland Europe. The production has been made by French artist Joris Lacoste with the company Encyclopédie De La Parole, and this snapshot of the world they offer in 90 minutes is necessarily selective. As such, Asia, Australia, Africa and South America maybe only get one or two entries each, while various European *countries* get roughly the same. And then the United States of America dominates everything. It’s worth noting as well that all the performers are white Europeans. But then, we are in a country which is 99.1% white**.

Nevertheless, thanks to some excellent dramaturgy, it felt like a comprehensive enough picture of how we (white people in Europe) see the world and perhaps all the fuller for essentially underlining the biases of Western/European media. The amount we are saturated with statements, news, ideology, economics, and even wars from America felt especially prevalent. [And horribly topical, given that I saw this the day the Chilcott report was published.] Elsewhere, we hear a radio station narrating a Wall Street stock market crash in 2010 in real time. We hear the last messages between air traffic control and a plane that suddenly stops transmitting. We hear a relaxation meditation from YouTube. We hear a black American who has been stopped by armed police for no apparent reason; we do not know why that tape cuts out when it does, but we can guess. We hear a woman in Bogata in hysterics at a phone company who cannot seem to reconnect her wi-fi. We get how all these things are connected and not connected. We get how “the only difference between before and now it that now there are cameras” (or other sources of recorded sound, in the case of this piece...) We, perhaps crucially, don’t hear much from China, Cuba, North Korea or Venezuela, for example.

The emotional effect of the whole is quite strange. Bush’s Iraq speech, now with hindsight highlighting the sheer absolute wrongness of every claim to be making the world a safer place, is almost impossible to listen to. As is the performance of the tape of the black American man about to be shot. All the more so for having read the news just before the show. And from knowing that neither those incidents, nor the one in the show, are isolated. And at the same time, thinking of the extra-judicial murders (and “accidents”) carried out by the American military outside America’s borders.

Given the current state of British politics, it’s the speech by a student in 2010 promising that there will be more resistance to the government’s austerity plans that is most personally resonant. (Obviously this is subjective. It’s a great speech, and rousing, but I’m not sure it’ll mean as much, especially contextually, to anyone outside the UK.) It comes at a climactic moment in the piece, deliberately, I think, and resonates beautifully with the other material, about the need for resistance. But it’s from 2010, and we all know the coda – six years of austerity and now a successful Brexit campaign apparently orchestrated and led by a resurgent far-right nationalist tendency, and the stepping up in a campaign of street violence.

And, yet, even though, in writing this review two days on, amidst the turmoil of news reports from Britain and America especially of the world tearing itself apart (and how vain, to even think that this is bad, compared to the ongoing comflicts in Syria and Iraq and Sudan and Palestine and etc.) it’s easy to make it sound like this is a dispiriting and depressing piece; in fact, somehow, perhaps due to the talent and brilliance on display too, it somehow manages to be completely energising and hopeful.

So, yes, to reiterate: please everyone in UK – transfer Suite N°2

** (and we still managed to have a racist cab driver from the airport, complaining about the EU and immigration)

Friday 8 July 2016

Limewire* (v3.0) -- Väike Saal, Rakvere

[seen 06/07/16]

If I’ve understood it correctly, part of the argument of Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism is: in the invention of the internet, capitalism’s unstoppable force has met its immovable object. Capitalism, with its apparently infinite ability to adapt and absorb everything else into itself (if in doubt, go buy a copy of Das Kapital or Urban Guerilla Concept on Amazon), has apparently created the world’s most popular, successful medium, and essentially it can’t be monetised.

Belgian choreographer Andros Zins-Browne’s Limewire* (this v.3 made with Estonian dance students specially for the festival) is a piece of contemporary dance that explores perhaps the cultural fall-out of online culture. Specifically, it asks: “Youth movements, counter-cultural and sub-cultural movements have always embodied a spirit of Against. In these social, political, and cultural movements, bodies of collision, reaction, and volatility have always been characteristic. In a choreography made from practices of networks and peer-to-peer file-sharing programs, Limewire* questions the spirit of Against when the strongest counter-cultural tool becomes the ability to copy. What is the status of this youth movement that disseminates authentic and inauthentic alike; which corrupts or bugs, but never dies, which never creates anew but proliferates a ‘mass movement’ only by reproducing and reassembling itself?”

It’s a fascinating question for a dance piece (for any piece), even if you’d maybe want to see its premises questioned a little more rigorously. Like: *is* file-sharing the movement itself? (I guess with something like the Pirate Party, it sort of is a bit, but...) For me, Limewire feels more like an interrogation of the very foundational problems of this way of seeing “youth movements” as “against”. Or, perhaps, the difficulties of their “against”ness never having really been satisfactorily formulated into a programme of demands and actions. (And, indeed, the necessarily transitory nature of “Party” membership for any *Youth* movement – I mean, theoretically, once you’re not young, you can’t still be a member of a youth movement, can you?) This is, I think, a simple problem of the programme notes, though. I think, at least in this version of the piece, it misunderstands Music Genre Tribalism as a Youth Movement in and of itself. Actually, I think there’s possibly more to be said for the idea that one might sign up for n number of musical tribes when young, but you maybe then carry those along with you even unto death (Once a post-punk, always a post-punk, kinda thing).

So, the piece. What happens? Well, there are about ten student dancers on the stage. Dressed in satisfyingly various colours, mostly in t-shirt and jeans. And Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ plays. And they dance to it; violently, appropriately. The song comes to the end. And then starts again. They dance again. This time, fractures in their approaches to dancing to it becoming more and more apparent. Is there a game of follow-my-leader here, where one performer will move a certain way and then others copy them? Are the moments where the whole group have been primed to re-sync; pogoing in time to chorus? (Yes, clearly.) And what does it all amount to? The second run-through of the song was mixed to last longer, and eventually faded out into a tinny transistor radio sound playing out of only one speaker at the back of the hall, and eventually into silence. The dancers kept dancing; trying out – discovering – new rhythms, new dances, new routines.

Here, it felt like there was a disjucture between stated area-of-interest (P2P sharing, MP3 downloads) and what was happening. Instead of feeling like an inquiry into that phenomenon, it felt instead like a culture being obliterated by the boot of Nirvana stamping on the face of the music industry forever. It doesn’t feel like either Nirvana or The Kidz are to blame for this, but then, it also doesn’t feel particularly new or relevant to UK music consumption. It’s worth bearing in mind that Estonia’s formally recognised independence from the Soviet Union almost exactly the same time as ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was released. What maybe felt to me like a particular chapter in UK/US musical relations (the streamrollering of shoegazing under the onslaught or grunge, pre-Britpop...) maybe feels very different here. The lack of a Beyonce routine in the piece felt, to me, like a real missed opportunity, but then I’m not sure whether Estonia even has a relationship with her music. But, yes, all fascinating stuff.

As with much dance, it struck me that this was a perfect medium for exploring these ideas of youth movements (no pun intended, at least not by me); being able to visually appreciate the ripples of ideas and changes of direction passing between actual bodies in space and time. The space it creates for directed meditation of specific themes felt well-managed and practical. This – for me – felt like exciting, almost futuristic work. Not a “perfect” realisation of the future, but 40 valuable minutes for thinking about it, watching something clearly packed with ideas.