Tuesday 27 September 2016

Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) – Royal Court, London

[seen 22/09/16]

“Writing about theatre” is such a stupid medium sometimes. The problem with Suzan-Lori Parks’s Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) is that it’s great, bad, and indifferent all at once. What? Well, while watching, I was alternately fascinated, alienated, Verfremdung-ed, and back to fascinated again, along with a healthy/unhealthy mixture of emotional responses, no emotional responses, intellectual responses, and not-so-much-with-the-intellectual-responses. The next day (last Friday), my head was fairly buzzing with *Thoughts About The Play* (although, tellingly, Thoughts About The Production were far thinner on the ground). Then life intervened, and now, only four days later, I’m having to start from near-cold to write about the thing, with next to no strong feelings left (compared to, say. Cleansed, which took at least a month to stop having strong feelings about).

The question is: at which point would it have been best to write? I suspect if I’ve had to write an overnight review of this production (which is also The Play), then it’d have wound up been a bit of a callow telling-off for the thing.

Jo Bonney’s production is either a) fascinating, or b) too mannered to really land. In-the-watching it often feels like more of a slog than we’re used to in British Theatre. (But, weirdly, not enough of a slog for it to count as European.) The stage is dressed like a Very Old-Fashioned Stage Set (design: Neil Patel). The performances play with a kind of Brechtian naturalism – i.e. the actors are kind of playing inhabited, psychological versions of their characters, but at the same time, turn outwards and verbally comment on their characters sometimes. It’s also played quite slowly and deliberately (*stageily*, in fact).

Then there’s the script. Written in three parts (as the title rather suggests), the first hardly sets us up for what to expect from the second, nor does the second set us up for the third. The parts are indeed distinct. The structure is original (even if the story is nominally nicked), so we cannot watch with genre-familiarity. Instead, we watch genres being torched and our expectations being thwarted. As such, in the moment, it’s quite frustrating. I think I probably came out feeling quite irritable. This irritability is significantly countered by the subject matter. As a white man, you can’t just watch a play about the crimes of slavery (and, by extension, the catastrophic problems of the modern USA, and also UK) by a black woman, and say “Nah, you’re doing it all wrong”. (On the other hand, you can, but you should probably have a good long hard think about what’s made you uncomfortable before putting finger to keyboard.) There is, I think, a level of complexity in both the writing and the production here that seems to anticipate and wrong-foot criticism, though.

[For example, there’s only one “white” character, and he’s both a ludicrous monster, and not a ludicrous monster, and then a ludicrous monster again. There’s no sensible or correct way to portray someone who owns slaves, is there? It’s like portrayals of Hitler – you’re damned if you make him human, you’re damned if you don’t. Appeals for “balance” would be insane in this context.]

Similarly, the language is both anachronistic and vividly textured. It might not be delivered in a way that always makes it seem terribly user-friendly in-the-moment, but perhaps that’s because it’s aiming for a slightly longer-term impact. You took in what was being said, and were able to relate to it and think about it, but perhaps didn’t get dragged over the footlights into the emotional core of the piece, so much as sitting back and thinking about it. (At least, that was were I think I ended up.) Part of the reason for this is also that the characters think, exist, and speak in a kind of multi-temporal reality. On stage, they’re characters in an American Civil War setting. In the room where you’re also sat, they’re also black Americans from the present day. The text of the play relates to both, and to the classical Greek mythology which it is also (sort-of) adapting (Homer’s Odyssey).

Having read no pre-publicity *at all* (not particularly on purpose, perhaps there wasn’t as much as usual. Draw your own conclusions as to why), I didn’t know about the Odyssey thing, so it turned out to be a bit of a surprise when it all went full Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria in Part 3. (And, oh, how I’d love to see the David Marton version of this play.) As such, I can say that in-the-moment it felt like a complete wrong-turn given where the play had been heading. Thinking about that feeling was perhaps the most valuable part of thinking about the play. This idea that I had some very fixed pre-ideas about what American plays by black female writers about slavery *should do* seemed as good a reason to me for them not to do those things at all. Instead of being neat, or direct, the play instead kinda veers off into what feels initially like a quite secondary examination of fidelity (and indeed, into a blood-less (literally) Oresteia, with “Ulysses” – our hero, Hero, re-names himself after the handily-monikered American Civil War General – going full Agamemnon and bringing home a new Cassandra-like wife; after Penny, his wife, has been broadly shunning the affections of his stay-at-home friend Homer).

On slightly more mature reflection, it stuck me that this sudden focus-pull on the idea of “fidelity” was precisely what the play needed to drive home its intellectual work on the ideas of freedom and slavery that had persisted throughout – perhaps because it completely wrong-foots conventional pieties so badly. However, it’s the parallels drawn between the state of slaves in Southern US states Then, and the terrible atrocities (and general state of the place normally) Now where the really heavy blows land. At one point, Hero explains that his being owned by a white man is a form of security, and that he doesn’t imagine the police will just take “I belong to myself” as much of a reason to respect him, as it would if he were property. Which is chilling, and, apparently 100% accurate as an imaginary prediction of the (then) future.

So, yes. In the moment, it feels like a slightly stilted, if extremely clever affair. In the long tail of having seen it, the piece appears to grow and strengthen in character and stature.

Ultimately, it is fascinating to (finally) see a piece from America that is wholly against America. Ordinarily, I think I’d think it was catastrophic that the Royal Court had opened its new season with an American play. In the case of Suzan-Lori Parks, despite coming from the world’s most stultifying theatrical culture, the sheer force of her anti-US propaganda makes this an absolutely vital document. For its real cultural value, it feels like all real judgement has to be suspended until America has voted. Is this one of the last plays from America before the whole sorry mess goes up in flames again, or just something recent from business-as-usual land? We shall just have to wait and see.

Thursday 22 September 2016

Doctor Faustus – RSC at Barbican, London

[seen 19/09/16]

The primary strength of Maria Aberg’s new production of Doctor Faustus is its quicksilver liveness and lightness-of-touch. At the start, while the house lights are still up and the Barbican’s funny auto-close auditorium doors are still open, the actors Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan enter and each pick up a box of matches. Simultaneously, each strikes a match and lets it burn. The performer whose match goes out first will play Faustus tonight, and the one whose lasts longer is Mephistopheles.

Unfairly – as I haven’t seen nearly as much of Ryan’s work – I was rather hoping it would be Grierson as Faustus – normally one of the most thankless parts in Eng.Lit; if anyone could redeem it... – and so it turned out to be.

Ryan leaves the stage and Grierson is immediately addressing us as the bad Doktor from his Wittenberg study, bored of his books, bored of divinity, and driven to distraction by the boredom. He is, as Grierson is, so casual and light in his delivery, and so fluent with *the text*, that Marlowe’s interminable verbiage is made genuinely conversational, comic, and interesting enough to attend to. It has also been *massively cut*. Having seen near-full-text versions, my gratitude knows no bounds.

As Grierson’s rationale-intro ends, he begins to draw a vast pentagram on the stage floor. As Holger Syme notes in his (brilliant) review, it’s almost properly chilling. Like, even as rational 21st century subjects, we can see how superstitious types might worry. Like, you at least think about just how enduring these foundation myths of our forebears were. Like, what if there is something nasty in the woods after all ?

All this would be infinitely better achieved if Orlando Gough’s music were different. Now, he’s written a perfectly intelligent and reasonable description of the thinking behind his new music for the play in the programme, and all I can do is say that, for me, there is a massive gulf between that rationale and the reality; further noting that the music (largely) wasn’t what I’d have done (not that I can do music, but you know what I mean). There are a few bits where it works well enough, or where you just don’t notice it. But too many bits where you really do notice it and it’s (to my ears) not right* at all. (The incantation is ok, but that’s because basically it’s The Stooges’ ‘We Will Fall’, which is good...). Nevertheless, on Naomi Dawson’s Secret Theatre homage set (A Streetcar Named Woyzeck?) (actually, it much more like Teatrul Béznă’s CRIME, but anyway...), with the lights down low, and fires burning in cardboard boxes, it’s a great moment.

Oliver Ryan’s Mephistopheles when he turns up – unshowily sidling in through a tear in the plastic sheeting wall (wearing Secret-Theatre-Blanche’s white suit jacket – I really did think Hyemi Shin had done a greatest hits design here) – turns out to be a perfect match for Faustus. I particularly loved the strange voice he was using, hints of David Lynch’s Small Man From Another Place in Twin Peaks, with maybe a hint of a European accent that wanders from the proto-Yugoslavia right up to where the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had been and back again (my favourite description of the Lithuanian language remains my Czech friend Martin Bernatek’s assertion that it sounds like devils talking backwards). Despite not having a shirt on (and as such, being played by a human actor who had to have his tummy sucked in the whole time), this is a subtle and straightforward Mephistophles. His brilliant, theist lines about hell being the state of having looked on God’s face and fallen from grace remain, and seem to constitute the production’s theology.

Meanwhile, Faustus’s contempt for theology remains weirdly conflicted (I still don’t think I’ve seen a production of Faustus that manages to make the slightest sense out of what Marlowe was hoping to achieve with it. People seem content to struggle with just trying to make any theatrical/dramaturgical sense out of what he wrote. Which is struggle enough, definitely, but I am curious...). I guess the argument here is that for someone who claims to have disavowed religion (by which the play means Christianity), both Faustus and his anti-Christ companion are almost pathologically obsessed by it. Of course, while Lucifer cannot bear mention of Christ, She (Eleanor Wyld) is also essentially proof of His existence. Faustus’s gamble with the future is not that God doesn’t exist, so much as that Hell can’t be all that bad really. Whether or not he is correct sadly lies outwith the bounds of both play and production.

It is striking, though, that Faustus’s adventures – certainly those that remain in this production’s edited text – are largely theist. He is “entertained” by Mephistopheles’s conjuring of the Seven Deadly Sins (and he’s probably the only one in the theatre, but never mind – that bit is all a bit sub-6th-form-Brecht and (as always, because script) goes nowhere at all). Indeed, if there is a major problem of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus that the production still doesn’t solve, it’s the sheer episodic, consequence-free, so-bloody-what-ness of the thing. Not for the first time, I did think it might be time to relinquish our weird nationalistic obsession with the Marlowe and maybe do the Goethe instead, which (unusually for German theatre :-) ) has much more by way of *a plot* (things at stake, conflict, female characters, etc.). Similarly, Faustus goes off and murders the Pope. Because he can. And because he can defy God. And, yes, the sheer so-what-ness of everything he’s doing does create a sort of narrative of listless boredom crossed with militant anti-theism – like, if everything is possible, where’s the actual fun in doing it? But for modern drama I don’t think even this lovely production gives us enough time to really think about anything or explore its meaning.

The one massive, massive exception to this is the scene where Faustus meets “Helen of Troy” (Jade Croot). In this scene, Helen looks all of about twelve years old (which makes a lot of sense when we remember that she was a Bronze age political bride. I mean, if Richard II could marry a six-year-old..., or Henry VII’s mother was all of 13-years-old when she gave birth to him...). Still, to our modern eyes, it’s deeply, deeply uncomfortable, and is played as if there’s a definite sexual tension on Faustus’s part, it seemed to me – a sense of, well, fuck it, she is the world’s most beautiful “woman”, and I’ve come this far, and murdered the Pope, so... Grierson manages to play all this with an additional sense of self-disgust and wariness, which is countered by some brilliant choreography in which it is Croot’s Helen who puts his hands on her; in an embrace, around her neck, etc. In part, it feels like a perfect feminist staging solution to the question of how to stage violence against women without resorting to dumb mimesis. It also recalls the gorgeous, pained, evocative choreography of Bausch’s Café Müller (but, crucially, without being derivative AT ALL). Most of all, it makes us ask what the scene means. Is Helen Mephistopheles? (We know that she can’t be *actual Helen* because Faustus has already explained that’s impossible, and yet the effect for her is different than it is for previous characters from antiquity that he’s conjured.) Is Helen even really there, or is the thing we see on stage a life-size Fight Club style embodiment of Faustus’s tormented soul, asking itself what he’s capable of now? In a way, a definitive answer doesn’t matter. These few minutes of stage-time more than excused all the bits I wasn’t as keen on, even while making one wish that everything had been handled with this sinister, stark strangeness.

But, yes. Especially given the RSC’s production of Revolt... the contrast here couldn’t be more welcome, and after a somewhat wretched first week back in theatres after Edinburgh (mostly), this at least gives us hope that mainstream British theatre hasn’t completely sunk back into death after a brief burst of life.

*“right” is obviously bullshit. You know what I mean, though.

Cold Calling: The Arctic Project – The Rep, Birmingham

[seen 17/09/16]

Composer Nick Powell’s Cold Calling: The Arctic Project is absolutely beautiful. It’s a commissioned chamber piece for the CBSO, designed to be presented in a theatre. To that end, there’s a small amount of text, and direction by Anthony Neilson, as well as video by Simon Wainwright.

Reading Powell’s creator’s note in the programme was instructive, as I thought I’d detected a lot of carry-over from Unreachable – on which Powell also collaborated; most audibly (to me) with the song that constituted that show’s trailer, and play-out music. I’ve had that song going round on my laptop’s MP3 shuffle all summer, and it feels that there’s so much continuity here between the song’s lyrics about the past, childhood, snow, the face of your mother, and the material here. And, well, yes, there absolutely is continuity, but from which party it comes is now impossible to tell, suggesting a previously unsuspected level of fellow-feeling between Neilson and Powell.

In Cold Calling's programme notes, Powell recounts a recurring dream he’s had about being in a place in the dead of night where it is eerily still light. He thought of this dream when asked to write this piece, which he then composed in Tromsø, Norway, during the season when the sun never sets. The piece is also dedicated to his mother, who died at the end of August, 2014, and to his child who was born at the beginning of that month. There is a similar circularity in the piece, which begins by musing that a mother’s face, looming moon-like over a child’s cot might account partly for why humans like looking up at the sky, and at the moon in particular. The not-constant video design switches between the “snow” on a TV screen, to a kind of arctic landscape – almost certainly made of white bedsheets throughout. At the end, like the text, it reflects on the way that ultimately, it is the child’s face that looms over the wondering parent’s bed. In between, Neilson creates small phone dialogues, largely between people who haven’t spoken before (a play on “cold-calling”), ranging from the unsettling to the amusing. It’s all very readable and agreeably suggestive (not *that* sort of suggestive).

But it’s Powell’s music that is both the main event here, and – problematically – the aspect which I’m by far the least qualified to review. I can say a bunch of composers of whom I was vaguely reminded, with the qualifier that I’m not saying the music is derivative or unoriginal. I will say that that it has a kind of pop sensibility, insofar as, over the 55 minute length of the piece it felt more like an album’s worth of tracks, than a smaller number of longer, more drawn-out movements. But each “track” tended to be more symphonic than anything like verse-chorus, verse-chorus. In terms of possible forbears or influences, I thought it sounded more like that point in the 20th century where romanticism/nationalism met modernism. The bit where we go from Grieg and Sibelius to Britten and Vaughan-Williams. That is to say, for the most part, this is music that has little to do with the atonality, serialism, and chromatic-scales. There is one part that sounded a bit like one of Michael Nyman’s pieces in Drowning By Numbers, and elsewhere there was a piece that I imagined might even be an chamber-orchestral variation on Powell’s own song 'The Light Disappears', from Unreachable. But I was probably imagining that, because I already knew it.

So, yes. Thanks to the heavily pregnant images on the screen, the suggestive title, and the snippets of imagistic dialogue from Neilson, I spent a lot of my time listening to the music allowing myself to be influenced into believing it was all very Arctic-y, and evocative of the freezing oceans of the North Pole. Whether that’s actually true – if you replaced the video images and the programme notes with images of something else, would the music read differently? – is possibly too impossible a question to ever answer. I’m not even sure why I’d want to ask it, except that when being so affirmative about a thing, you kind of want to question why you’ve allowed yourself to so entirely fall under its spell.

The music has a certain romanticism to it, but also a crispness (thanks to the size of the orchestra? Thanks to the writing? Thanks to Jonathan Bloxham’s conducting?) that stops it ever getting near schmaltzy or syrupy. I mean, it’s never Helmut Lachenmann. It’s not the sort of modern music where you fear for the instruments, or where – say – the actual strings of a violin are disregarded in favour of scratching the wood for minutes at a time, but I don’t suppose that’s compulsory in contemporary music, even now.

Instead, Cold Calling does something that very little else I’ve experienced in modern theatre ever has. It paints a lyrical picture of the world, based largely on landscape and the most basic, primal human interactions – even while mediated by the newest technology. And it makes you *feel* an absolutely indescribable set of sensations and emotions, all quite precisely pinned to certain ideas and areas of life – it’s not just free-associative, but *about* something. Because dialogue, video projection and chamber music aren’t *new* by themselves, I’m wary to describe this as completely original, but I think it probably was. 55 minutes in Birmingham city centre on a drizzly Saturday afternoon, and we’ve found possibly one of the most important pieces of work made in 2016. And it was only on for three performances. ARGH. Bring it back. Someone find a way for this to tour, please.

Cold Calling is beautiful, original, and – weird word to want to use – kind. It felt like seeing it actually does your soul a bit of good.


Monday 19 September 2016

Platonov – National Theatre, London

[seen 16/09/16]

After seeing Dead Centre’s brilliant Chekhov’s First Play, I was curious to see Platonov done “properly”.

Now I have.

They Drink It In The Congo – Almeida, London

[seen 15/09/16]

The basic point of Adam Brace’s new play, They Drink It In The Congo, is that we’re essentially the Nazis. Well, no. We’re not even that impressive any more. We’re the Nyilaskeresztes Párt or the Ustaše or something. A nasty-but-nothingy ally of the great imperial power.

When Rome obliterated Carthage and essentially took over its trading empire, rather than allowing countries to exist self-sufficiently, they turned the various countries of their empire over to growing a particular crop in order to supply it to the whole empire. Of course, this also had the neat additional effect of making the conquered countries dependent on the empire. Imperial Britain’s adoration of Imperial Rome can of course be observed in the almost embarrassingly fawning architectural tributes scattered throughout central London. Of course, Fascism comes from Ancient Rome-worship too. But that’s a very “European” lens; the Kindom of Kongo, prior to the Portuguese invasion, was also a slave-based Empire covering a vast amount of central and Western Africa, and indeed the first slaves traded with the Portuguese were conquered enemies of its king...

But, yeah; to watch They Drink It In The Congo is to watch that play that reminds you, forceibly, unequivocally, that you are the bad guys. Sure, you’re probably not The Very Bad Guys. You’re a real humane person who cares, and all that. But, nonetheless, you pretty much don’t care. Or can’t care. Or don’t know how to begin to go about caring effectively. And what would your caring achieve anyway, *even if it were to be effective*? And because of where you’re based, even if you could bring yourself to care, your care is patronising, toxic and ultimately harmful.

Sure, there are things that are wrong with TDIITC as a play* – it’s at least a bit too long, maybe a bit too interested in minor points of procedure in meetings, and is at least two plays fighting with each other in a sack – although I’m not sure I’d want it ironed out much more than it has been. It’s also a very Proper Play. It’s got a subject and discussion of that subject, and a lot of information about the subject. It’s a pretty good one of those, though, for all its structural inequities and inelegances. There are also some very clever touches to the structure too – perhaps the best is tying the structure of the play to Jon Bausor’s set and the whole shape of the room and the evening – a vast hole at the centre of the stage that opens up for the kind of originating event for the central character Stef’s whole journey. Shown as flashback, we see a Congolais family suddenly invaded and attacked by a rebel militia (or maybe government-backed troops), and then our central, problematically-white heroine almost stumbling across the scene while she’s attached to an international medical team. It’s perfectly, horribly staged and acted and Fiona Button (whose performance as I found infinitely more convincing and compellingly watchable than either Peake or Piper this week) does shock and trauma and panic absolutely “right” (She also does the rest of the play with just the right energy, timing, and matter-of-fact brilliance too, but no one seems to car about those things any more).

What’s kind of great about the play, though, is that the text is at least as clever as any “yeah but...” criticism that anyone can try to throw at it. It might not be *the* best play written this year, but it’s a strong contender for the most astute and self-aware. *Of course* it’s a problem that it’s a play about white people feeling guilty about the Congo (or “Africa” generally, if they’re even less aware), of course it’s problematic that it’s written by a white man and directed by another white man. Of course it’s a problem that it’s on at the Almeida in London’s fancy Islington (I swear it gets fancier every time I go. This time there was a “sugar-free cake shop,” of all things). I think both play and production play with these problems-as-tropes. So much so, that making the actual objections would seem ridiculous. We are where we are. It is what it is. History and current affairs are what they are, and at the end of the day, we are still the Nazis or the Romans, sitting in our comfy theatre, watching a play that isn’t even trying to change anything, because, realistically, none of us care enough for anything to change. We’re shown a simulation of the violence that is either a direct or indirect result of our complete failure to care. We’re told enough statistics to allow us – if we try – to imagine just how often that scene plays out on a daily basis, and we basically sit there, and harden our hearts, and accept that that’s the way the world is. And accept that even if we’re not powerless to change it, we’re not really sure how we would, or whether we’d even be able to change it for the better.

We’re shown some London-based, Congolais-diaspora terrorists, with excellent rhetoric, Four Lions-level ineptitude, and an act of violence that is squalid, selfish and ultimately irrelevant to their struggle. Even their idealism is held up as hollow. But, moreover, futile, as the forces governing even a festival of #CongoVoices are nothing to do with their will, and everything to do with NGO cashflow and beneficence. And the NGOs are being run by British people who “have their careers to think about” (Crucially: “British people” not “white people” – Brace would probably acknowledge that racism does play a part in the methodology of colonialism, but ultimately the problems of the Congo are national/geographic/geological, while the ranks of British/international politics are (obviously) multicultural, and that “black” and “white” are pretty petty distinctions when someone of Ugandan-heritage can look down on someone Congolais and vice versa).

As I say, theatrically it’s a bit of a mish-mash. There are pointers to liveness and sur-realism – the heroine is followed about by the Banquo-like, Caesar-like bloodied ghost of a man she saw brutally attacked in DRC; who, in a pointed bit of anthropomorphism, also plays her increasingly erratic, coltan-reliant mobile phone – but also to something like the naturalism of David Hare and the manic farces of Richard Bean (suggested as the traditional leading exponents of their respective genres). The performances are excellent. Richard Goulding is still one of the most likeable actors on the British stage, with perfect comic timing. Richie Campbell is charismatic and strong as Luis, the leader of Les Combattants des Londres. One could wish (again), that Longhurst had put his Carmen Disruption hat on, rather than his pragmatic and effective hat, but then, if you’ve got a pragmatic and effective hat, why wouldn’t you, perhaps? It’s only me that ever complains anyway.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t resort invidious hierarchies of misery, but it has been striking to me that several days after I brought up Yerma on Facebook people were still arguing about it. No one argues about They Drink It In The Congo. No one I know who has seen Congo is even dedicating any time to talking angrily about it. If people think there’s a conspiracy of silence around women’s reproductive issues they should try getting people interested in complaining bitterly about the Congo. Ultimately, that is the piece’s genius, I think. To sit what few English people (any race) who can even be bothered to pay for a ticket to see it down and point out to them that this is where 99% of them are at with their ethics – essentially fine with unimaginable suffering; hardened to the plight of pretty much anyone except themselves or someone with the same problems as themselves or a close friend. Of course, the counter-weight to this problem, is that “white people” (or just people living in UK/USA generally) *can’t* solve the problem. Neither by withdrawal or by greater involvement. The play doesn’t suggest solutions – partly because it’s a play, of course, but also because there aren’t any. Withdrawal seems like a start, but where’s even the lobby for that? Thanks to 500-odd years of meddling, the region has essentially fallen apart (although, obviously, the autocratic, slave-based imperial state it was “discovered” in would probably perturb people nowasays too, just as feudal Europe would).  It is an unanswerable question.

So, yeah. The Congo is an appalling mess, and we’re all very sad about it. In the abstract.

Now, on to something else...

*“wrong” – you know what I mean. Things that I didn’t think worked, but I’m not the dramaturg, so...

Yerma – Young Vic, London

[seen 14/09/16]

“1934 – Yerma, the second of the ‘Rural Trilogy’ is performed. The first performance is interrupted by right-wing groups. It is praised by the left for its honesty and modernity.”

These are the basic facts. (As offered by the YV Yerma programme)

It’s rarely the job of the critic to be conciliatory, but Simon Stone’s new production of Lorca’s Yerma, seems to necessitate it. This perhaps says more about the state of “critical thinking” on the English internet, than it does about the play. Despite knowing that the production had been near-universally hailed when it opened in August, I instinctively disliked it; but without any solid or meaningful critical reason. So the morning after I saw it I opened up “Did anyone else not really like Yerma?” as a bit of a discussion on Facebook and Twitter. There was an interesting split in the (mostly London) audience who’d seen it (or, in one case, boycotted it). The most vociferous argument centred around the play’s perceived feminism or misogyny. The Anti- side included noted feminist critics like Meg Vaughan, Maddy Costa, and CPT Executive Director Amber Massie-Blomfeld; while noted feminists like the Evening Standard’s Jessie Thompson, Soho Theatre’s Deidre O’Halloran and critic [don’t know which handle to credit review to] were very much Pro-. Essentially, either: a) the play “IT IS ABOUT A WOMAN WHO LOSES HER ACTUAL FUCKING MIND WHEN SHE CAN'T PERFORM THE APPARENTLY PERFECTLY ‘NATURAL’ PHYSICAL FUNCTION THAT A PATRIARCHAL SOCIETY EXPECTS OF HER.” Or: “Going balls to the wall with the most extreme reaction possible to infertility felt like a cathartic thing, something that women of lots of different ages and situations have talked to me about really connecting to.”

Annoyingly, I can completely see/hear/understand both points of view. (Doublethink or genius; you’ll have your own opinion, I’m sure.)

Beyond this, there was Jana Perkovic’s critique of writer/director Simon Stone’s previous Wild Duck, which certainly filled in some production back-story/context for me, and resonated with what I thought I’d seen at the Young Vic.

For Yerma, designer Lizzie Clachan has created a central traverse stage in the centre of the Young Vic’s adaptable space, and blocked off both sides of the audience from each other. The action takes place behind slightly mirrored/highly reflective glass walls. As such, we can see into these imaginary living-spaces inhabited by the couple, but can also see their reflections in the stage-wall farthest from us, and beyond that, either our own reflections, or the faint shapes of those watching in the banks opposite us.

It’s the sort of set that one could read any number of ways. You could love it, for its evocative critique of contemporary new-build, luxury-flat living (even though the characters have a brick house which has three floors and a garden), or you could decide that it’s just a rather hackneyed (no gentrified pun intended) rip-off of the sorts of sets that Ostermeier made his stock-in trade over a decade ago. Or maybe it’s a clever critique of those sets. I never really arrived at a conclusion. Into this set, Stone pours his very modern take on Yerma.

Yerma’s not a play I know, but it’s fascinating to try and imagine it, after seeing this production, as ever being part of a “rural trilogy”. This is obviously a play that’s been ripped so thoroughly out of its context, and apparently set in the modern world, that even reference to the original feels slightly futile. As Perkovic observes: “[Stone] has read and found these plays, and he would love to bring them to the general public, is how he often speaks in interviews and program notes. He will do what it takes to bring them closer to the average man, because he wants to convey the beauty of the classics. But Stone appears to understand these works primarily as stories...”

As such, Stone has taken something a bit like the plot of Yerma, updated the milieu, possibly improvised the dialogue, and plonked it before us in all its it-is-what-it-is-ness. There is fine acting of a certain type (close-up, radio-miked realism). Everyone has raved about Billy Piper’s performance as “Her” (Bechdel eye-roll). The performance does what’s required to make this version feel zippy and watchable, but I don’t know much about acting. Australian actor Brendan Cowell playing John is also pretty good, but bears an unfortunate resemblance to Stewart Lee that caused me to think “Oh, General Ratko Mladić has let himself go” (1.50) every time he came on stage. I’m sure a better briefed critic than I could compare the effect of a play “about fertility” set in a community that grows things *as work*, and a play about infertility set in a barren modern city, amongst a non-community of people who (you can practically feel Stone’s scorn here) “write blogs” and “do business”. In this production, infertility would seem to be the logical response to the environment.

Productions like this maybe function as a litmus test of confirmation bias, perhaps revealing to us what we actually want/expect out of theatre. Unfairly and irritably, I found the broadly naturalistic style, when matched with the entirely vapid, smug, over-wealthy central couple, somewhat grating. I know, I know; I should work on my humanity. It’s still sad when bad things happen, even to wankers. It shouldn’t be, as here: strangely satisfying. (Oddly, Piper’s character makes a similar point on her blog and gets crucified for saying as much. But let’s not get into Simon Stone’s silly ideas about “journalism” or there really would be blood.) Really, though, this felt like a bloodless, tame critique of almost exactly nothing. Maybe that’s the challenge? Maybe it’s about grading our ability to still empathise with the people who have destroyed London (the opening dialogue is such a grade-a example of people who are only-funny-to-themselves-obnoxious that the characters never really recover from it).

There was also the problem, for me (a person without a womb, or the slightest interest in children), that the thing relied an awful lot on our total complicity and empathy for its effect. Piper’s character says “I want a child” and proceeds to reiterate this claim throughout. We just have to believe that and then kind of identify with her? And then, as the pro- point at the beginning suggests, we then have to interpret the end as a kind of extremity-of-metaphor. Contrariwise, reading the whole play as either realistic or symbolic, we see either a woman or women being pathologised and then destroyed by a plot that is completely contrived and overwrought. It’s fascinating. I’d love to claim I had a definitive answer, but, like fuck am I going to try to explain who’s right about feminism to disagreeing groups of feminist women.

What I will say is that Stone’s text and production definitely aren’t my favourite sort of thing. Not because of gender (or even milieu, *really*), but because, to me, it felt endlessly glib and superficial (I mean, if you’re going to do milieu to the extent that it’s grating so hard it puts people off the play, the characters, and even off basic human empathy, at least get put in some effing *details* – what paper/website does Her even work for? for instance). And all this even while its central character is meant to be plumbing the very depths of her soul (albeit in a way that no one is really meant to believe as real? Is that right?). So, yeah: unnatural naturalism, literal symbolism, possibly rubbish feminism, but nice set and nice acting.

But, yeah, I’m basically stumped by the popularity.

A Streetcar Named Desire – Royal Exchange, Manchester

[seen 13/09/16]

Thesis: The tragedy of all Tennessee Williams’s characters (at least in his early major plays, e.g. Streetcar and Glass Menagerie, which seem to be the ones of which we have a glut at the moment), is that they live in 1940s America. And that’s pretty much it. (Well, no. Their tragedy is really that Tennessee Williams lived in 1940s America when he was writing them, and as such, his miserable life, conditions and concerns became their miserable life, conditions and concerns.)

Thesis: Thanks to his depression, alcoholism, and illegal homosexuality, Williams appears to have been entirely blinded to the fact that he lived (and set his play/s) in a country practising apartheid. At. No. Point. in A Streetcar Named Desire (script) do you ever even begin to feel the shadow of some proto Rosa Parks not even being able to ride on the same part of said streetcar.

Thesis: The plays of Tennessee Williams should be put out to pasture until they are out of copyright and directors are free to cut at least a few hours of his interminable dialogue, or replace it with stuff, and deconstruct the fuck out of these hideous relics of American drama?

Well, yes and no. In light of the above, Sarah Frankcom’s new production of Streetcar for the Royal Exchange is an interesting halfway house of a production.

To limited, English eyes (hello, Dominic!) it’ll look frightfully whizzy and “European”; to anyone used to actual Europe, or indeed current UK theatre, it will feel somewhat timid and old-fashioned. It’s the full text, and with the “proper” accents, but played in modern-ish/non-specific/timeless-but-generic costumes, and on a stark, ugly set (“ugly” is not a criticism). It feels like it might have been compromised both by the Williams Estate and an unnecessary deference to the finer feelings of the Royal Exchange’s more conservative regulars (whose imaginary feelings could have been ignored, since the production sold out before it opened). At the same time, Frankcom and Peake have clearly decided that there are some things on which they are not prepared to compromise. This is an intelligent, modern, Manchester, working class, feminist production of Streetcar, albeit one that won’t annoy reasonable traditionalists. The feminism is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the production. As I’ve said before, I don’t really think I even like Tennessee Williams plays. And, increasingly, I particularly think I don’t like Streetcar.

You know that stock cliché of experimental theatre companies where they turn on the audience and say “WHY HAVE YOU COME? WHY HAVE YOU COME TO WATCH [the appalling thing that they have just shown us]?” (most recently seen in the execrable Expensive Shit at the Traverse)? Generally I find it embarrassingly naff (the answer is usually: “because you begged us to come, with flyers, and advertising, [and (in my case) press comps,], and we didn’t even know what was going to happen in the show until it just happened. You dicks.”). Here, though, I really think it’s an important question. What the hell does anyone get out of seeing this? What the hell is this play? I mean, most people know Streetcar, right? And the end-game is always the same; this is a play where the tragic female lead character always “goes mad” and always gets raped (until the Williams estate can’t legally require that it happens any more). So, when we think “Ooh, I’d like to see [such and such actress] in Streetcar,” what are we actually thinking?

Is a question that Frankcom and Peake (appear to) have done their level best to answer, attacking the traditional dynamic as much as it’s possible to attack it without actually changing anything anyone says, or really being allowed to attack it. I don’t think Streetcar is a feminist play, but I do think this is a feminist production. This tension is fascinating. For example, Peake’s Blanche appears to be more self-reliant, and together, and just plain sturdy than any other I can think of/remember/imagine in the play’s production history...

– “I’ve just been flirting with your husband” says Blanche to sister Stella, “Not in this production you haven’t!” thinks everyone in the RX –

It’s interesting that there are pre-publicity interviews with Frankcom where she says her main way into the play was Blanche’s clear alcohol addiction. This doesn’t especially show either. I mean, the play is kinda cagey; on one hand, it clearly legislates for a certain number of drinks and the first scene ends with her throwing up, but Peake here hardly gives the impression of having had too much. There’s not that completely jarring, worrying sense of someone who is really in trouble. Indeed, as Trueman also notes, there’s a distinct air of Thatcher about Peake’s Blanche. That blue jacket, that hair-do, that attitude of superiority, that denigration of “Polacks” (so, ok, Thatcher-with-added-Brexit-nastiness).

[I do really wish everyone had just done the play in their real accents, but maybe with Peake putting on a bit of an airs-and-graces voice. (Fuck it, I just wish everyone had had a Manc accent. That would be best.)]

While Peake is doing all this great work with Blanche, rehabilitating her from “boozy floozy” to glimlet-eyed, alcoholic racist, I thought Ben Batt’s Stanley was just great (but, again, wish he’d been allowed to retain his real accent). Whereas Peake’s path through Blanche felt like it was trying something distinctly new and against-the-grain, Batt’s Stanley feels like a triumph precisely because of the effects this has on their relationship. Every single insult Blanche flings at Stanley seems to land, and wound, and be borne with dignity. I mean, he’s still also a wife-beating thug, and Blanche’s concern for her sister’s safety and happiness in the face of blithe assurances remains accurate. (Less legible in this production the scene where Stanley’s violence towards Stella first manifests [in the time-frame of the play], which adds in the lights that elsewhere signify Blanche’s state of mind. Perhaps this is an intelligent suggestion of some kind of PTSD trigger for Blanche, but it does also have the effect of making it seem like – equally – she could be imagining the violence as much as she is imagining the ghostly figures that seem to haunt her.)

More inconclusive are the production’s attempts to solve the play’s race problems (“some of the ideas and imagery (particularly in regards to race) feel underdeveloped,” Tripney; “a troubling hint of exoticism,” Love). As I say, in Williams’s original, we’re being asked to feel a slightly complicated sympathy for the last daughters in a long line of plantation owners. In the many decades since the play was written, it seems only reasonable to note that this is now a bit like being asked to feel sorry for the grown-up children of factory owners in post-Nazi Germany feeling the pinch once the endless supply of Jewish forced-labour dries up. I mean, yes, we can sympathise with the mentally ill and people with PTSD, and maybe even alcoholics and those in reduced circumstances up to a point, but slave owners whose money has run out? Not so much.

On this note, I did wonder about the colour-blind casting of a black actress as Blanche’s sister (but not because I don’t understand how she’s Blanche’s sister, Dominic, you fucking idiot). It’s just, in the context of this play, it feels a bit like getting Natalie Portman to play Ralph Fiennes’s sister in Schindler’s List in order to stop the situation ever feeling too anti-Semitic or something. So, while: yay! jobs! diversity! It’s also several steps back from Ellen McDougall’s brilliant solution when acknowledging the same problem in Headlong’s Glass Menagerie. Worse, though, is not really knowing who/what the two unspeaking non-white actors, who stalk around Blanche when she’s particularly ill, are all about. For almost the entire play. For a while there’s the awkward suspicion that Blanche is being haunted by a Tia Maria advert from the 1980s or something, especially since she tends to take a swig of something alcoholic whenever they appear. Indeed, even by the end, I’m not completely sure their role is ever properly resolved. But then, who am I to take it upon myself to express concern or try to solve this?

But, in short, as you might expect, the aspects which are feminist and working class seemed, to me, to fare far better than the attempts to solve the racial dimensions of an apartheid play for post-migrant Britain. Williams wrote a play (as Cavendish, again) notes, “shored up the American commercial theatre”. He did so by writing about some poor old white people whose lives really just haven’t been the same since some bugger abolished slavery. Their unhappiness is little more than window dressing for a (still unresolved) national disgrace of epic proportions. I honestly don’t think you can stage this play now, with Southern American accents, and not make it about American racism. Still, that’s just me, really. It’s an ok production. Not quite as advanced as Secret Theatre’s from 2013, but not the terrible, terrible mess of Benedict Andrews’s 2014 YV one either.


I like Michael Billington’s courteous and appreciative review of it very much.

I like the fact that Natasha Tripney latches on to things that I don’t see, and makes them illuminate the whole completely afresh.

I like Dave Murray’s candour about just how much the first half dragged and seemed oddly off-kilter (and his subsequent astonishment at the second half).

Frankly, I’m just jealous that Matt Trueman says everything I’d have said, but does so first and with a great deal more elegance and concision.

And, similarly, I think Catherine Love’s elegant excavation of the pieces problems is beautifully done.

Meanwhile, Dominic Cavendish’s pursuit of his editors’ right-wing agenda – purely in order to hang on his job at all, one hopes – is pretty despicable whatever the reason. Imagine actively trying to become the poor man’s Quentin Letts. What a wretched place to find yourself.

Saturday 3 September 2016

Deep Blue Sea – NT Live, HOME, Manchester

[seen 01/09/16]

My  problems:

First: unlike Matt Trueman (whose excellent, five-star review of this Deep Blue Sea, I wholly recommend), I’d not seen (or even read) Deep Blue Sea before. I know, I know, Dan Rebellato’s vigorous rehabilitation of Rattigan in 1956 And All That is compelling, and I was completely seduced by Thea Sharrock’s After The Dance, but I’d somehow managed to be out of the country, in the wrong city, too young, or just too wisely disinclined, to see any earlier productions (“disinclined” on the grounds that back in the day, things were awfully chocolate boxy for a while, ftr).

Second: I did watch this from the comfort of HOME, in their #1 cinema as an NT Live broadcast. I can imagine all sorts of things about how this differs from seeing it live in the Lyttleton. It’s not my first NT Live show, but it was the first which forced me to experience the whole at a kind of Brechtian remove. One could examine all the elements in this production, and even understand that there was A Lot of Emotion going on, but one never felt caught up in it. It seemed – in this context – that Deep Blue Sea is an incredibly depressing and frustrating play, but never one where you’re in danger of caring. Instead, you (I, at any rate) end up sitting back and feeling rather judgementally toward its principal characters: Hester Collyer (Helen McCrory) Freddie Page (Tom Burke) and Sir William Collyer (Peter Sullivan). I’m pretty sure this isn’t the intention of either play or production. They hardly hold up as any kind of Lehr-Stücke – after all, what can anyone really take from this wretched situation?

[Edit: indeed, looking at the NT production photos after writing this, I discover that the camera had tightened to frame on Tom Scutt’s set to exclude the bits of stage you can see poking round the sides in the theatre. Compare the top photo – cropped to the cinema version – with the bottom photo (theatre version).]

The play opens, as you probably know, with Hester passed out in front of a gas fire (or oven?) having botched a suicide attempt (the gas meter ran out). Over the course of the first scene, as her solicitous neighbours and landlady fuss around her, we gradually learn that she’s a not-quite-divorced, well-to-do type, who left her husband – now a high court judge – for an apparently feckless former-RAF test pilot. They now drink too much, don’t have enough money, and he apparently doesn’t love her as much as she thinks he should, which is why she’s just tried to kill herself. Neither did her last husband, apparently, which is why she left him.

I watched with the vague knowledge that this is Rattigan’s “most personal play” (possibly because the NT Live filler sections told me so), but not who was a cipher for whom. (According to Charles Spencer in a review of an earlier production: “The Deep Blue Sea was inspired by the suicide of a former male lover [of Rattigan’s].”) Without knowing who’s the stand-in for Rattigan, the play seems to pull in several directions at once. On one level, it feels like a rather juvenile celebration of being so “passionate” that you try to do yourself in at the slightest disappointment – a searing insight into depression it is not (although it might be quite a good forensic examination of the crap the depressed mind tells itself). On another level, it also feels like quite an ugly and self-pitying swipe at Hester/Rattigan’s dead ex. It’s not clear whether Rattigan fancies himself as a the straight-talking, but still besotted judge, or the dashing – but similarly suicidal – Freddie. No one comes out of it well. Indees, it feels more like one of Chekhov’s “comedies” (“It’s funny because they’re ALL miserable, Konstantin!”), than a near-miss tragedy.

Third: my third problem is a really stupid one. I got totally distracted by the accents. The cast were definitely “doing accents” of some sort, but they didn’t feel period-accurate (to me, the accent expert. Pfft). Indeed, McCrory added at least one question-inflection to a statement, in that way that modern people just do? I don’t think I’ve suddenly started believing that every period piece be played as a museum-accurate rendition of itself, but here it feel like you can hear a kind of ghostly Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard between all the cracks. In every line where someone doesn’t express themselves fully, or *does* express themselves fully, but in such an understatement that it could almost go undetected, it feels like our modern accents just fail. I mean, I think I even quite liked what the cast were doing, it still just felt weirdly off-kilter (with the exception of Nick Fletcher whose period German accent sounded pretty spot-on). Maybe because of close-ups and radio mics, as much as anything?

This problem of distraction (and I’m sure it is because I was watching at a cinema that I had all this space to worry about such things), then carried through into a whole load of other areas. I couldn’t work out what we could be meant to do with a play whose ostensible problems seemed to be so entirely period-specific (WWII, “Society,” “Reputation,” etc.). Tom Scutt’s mildly impressionistic set (rendered in deep blue-y-greens so we feel indeed like we’re at the bottom of the sea, and with gorgeous semi-transparent walls, allowing for beautiful inter-scene movement sequences, á la Alles Weitere..., and Written on Skin, for e.g.), as well as being expressive, is also incredibly, minutely period-detailed. But, at the same time, *we* – the audience – *aren’t* in the period. There’s a line at one point where Kurt Miller, the German former-doctor, says that he hasn’t spoken German since he left in 1938, “except for a year on the Isle of Man.” This gets a laugh, because, with no context at all in the audience’s minds, it’s quite a funny non-sequitur of a claim. Of course, he’s most likely referring to Britain’s shameful practice of internment camps for “enemy aliens” – essentially, re-imprisoning all the German Jews who had fled Nazi Germany just before the outbreak of the war. But, no. Now that’s funny because we have no cultural memory. Still, to write in a German (Jewish?) character into a play about someone gassing themselves, only seven years after British soldiers liberated Belsen, well, one *could* say that takes a pretty special sort of insensitivity. I dunno. Maybe that’s an over-read too far, but it seemed possible from the way that DBS seemed (to me, in the cinema), most like a play of massive self-absorption, to the point of impenetrability.

But, this is all monstrously unfair. Actually Rattigan is (mostly) interesting and even-handed (if snobbily arch at the expense of the lower-class characters). And I guess we do have a sort of interest in Hester not doing herself in again, even if experienced second-hand through the magnanimity of Dr Miller (i.e. I think we don’t want her to die mostly because it would be upsetting for him).

So, yes; a really hard watch in many different ways. Punishing, gruelling, accurate-seeming replicas of severe emotional distress from Britain’s last austerity period, with undiagnosed PTSD and depression sitting at the root of most of the characters’ emotional problems, unbeknownst to their creator, whose insight into the human condition feels somewhat chilly and vain on this showing.


There is a brilliant, brilliant meta-theatrical casting gag by having Nick Fletcher as Dr Miller, of whom Hester says (something like, I don’t have the script handy): “No. He looks too much like a blackmailer to actually be one...” After Fletcher’s turn as the blackmailer, Krogstad, in Cracknell’s A Doll’s House.

Alt. introductions:

i. Oh, bloody hell.

Back To School after Edinburgh is always a bit of a weird wrench. After a month of What Could Be the Glorious Present (or is at least The Hopeful Future) of Theatre, it’s always a bit odd being pulled back into the reality of what actually is The Present of Theatre, and having to adjust to how weird it looks by comparison.

To be fair, being in a cinema probably doesn’t/didn’t help...

ii. What a weird, weird thing Deep Blue Sea is. I have literally no idea what it was for. A 1950s public information film about how it might be nice if we all communicated better with each other, and if society wasn’t so dashed rotten for gals?. Lord knows. The Lord might also have a better idea why it was being done now, and being done in this way. Being NT Live, we had Kirsty Young introducing/explaining the whole thing to us, albeit in platitudes so flimsy and meaningless that not a single thing she said made any sense at all. It was very effusive, though. What we were watching was definitely “WONDERFUL,” just not for reasons that Young saw fit to articulate.

[And, before the show proper started, we were also shown The London Audience; presumably so that we in the regions could gaze upon them in their finery, and wonder how they can both afford to live in the Capital *AND* buy tickets to the theatre. The couple having a surreptitious snog were quite funny, though; they got an “Aw” up here in the grim, heartless North.]

[[No. I *really* don’t think the stuff *around* NT Live does NT Live any good at all. But then, it doesn’t do it enough harm to make them stop. I will tell you all, though, that that trailer for the Ivo Van Hove/Patrick Marber/Ruth Wilson Hedda Gabler made EVERYONE IN MANCHESTER giggle with its sheer, unadulterated, perfume-adverty uselessness. Which is a shame, because it might actually be ok when it turns up. As long as Marber doesn’t fuck the script up too badly.]]