Tuesday 28 February 2017

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Young Vic, London

[seen 27/02/17]

Set on a muddy promontory, Joe Hill-Gibbins’s Midsummer Night’s Dream promises to be, well, wintry. As it turns out, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

I guess it’s one of those We Need To Talk About “Europe” productions, which David Hare warned us about. As we all know, Hill-Gibbins has been to Berlin, and liked what he saw. And we’ve seen the various fruits of his thefts in his Changeling, his Edward II, his Measure For Measure, and now his MSND. I disliked (what felt to me like) the superficial borrowings in Edward II intensely, and adored the immediate regietheater sugar-rush of Measure For Measure. This Midsummer Night’s Dream sits between those two extremes.

The set is by Johannes Schutz who after Polly Findlay’s Ghosts in Manchester I was ready to swear was a complete genius who could do no wrong. His work here is a useful reminder that even geniuses can’t be brilliant *every* time. It is essentially a shallow field of mud in front of a mirror. It’s a fine, evocative set for A Midsummer Night’s Dream; but it’s hard not to wish it were on a bigger stage. Now, if it were on the stage of the Barbican, or even just somewhere like the Lyric, then we might be talking, but this is the smallest and most constricted I remember the Young Vic feeling for years. Of course, *that* might be the point. But, as with much else here, it’s not an enjoyable point in itself, and the making of it isn’t done with so much flair.

So what do we need to say about “Europe”? Simply this: that Britain is finally making something recognisable as contemporary theatre is wonderful, but – just as in “Europe” – some shows will still be better than others.

Moreover, I wouldn’t even say what we have here is “full Europe”. Or maybe it is, but not the bit I find exciting. I mean, it’s pretty much The Play. It’s not even The Play as a comment on anything very much except The Play. I mean, The Play includes much on Gender Relations (and the caprice of fairies) and so The Production. Comments. on Gender Relations. And it doesn’t say awfully much that we haven’t also seen said elsewhere about The Play, to be honest. Much of the same ground was covered in Nick Bagnall’s Liverpool Everyman version a couple of years back, and there’s always the shadow of Filter’s magisterially funny (and intelligent) MSND looming over productions now.

The biggest idea here is contained in the ending, where the insupportable melancholies of the drugged Athenian lovers, the abducted Amazonian bride, and drug-raped Titania bleed into a kind of wild apocalypse, where the membranes between the fairy and human worlds appear to break down altogether and Bottom and Hippolyta seem to somehow re-find each other, as Oberon/Theseus’s patriarchal tyranny is thwarted. Set on this sort of muddy battlefield, it all feels a bit 1960s, in an odd way. A sort of ‘All You Need Is Love’ on the charnal house of the Somme, or something. But, try as I might, I couldn’t quite make it resonate strongly for me in early 2017. I had a good long look at the mud, and tried to get something out of that, maybe mixing in the blue and yellow costumes of the lovers, as pastel stand-ins for the colours of the Ukrainian flag, but nothing doing. If that was the point, it could certainly have been made more strongly. Or perhaps this is simply two hours illustrating a maxim that Pat Benatar managed to sum up in five minutes.

I guess it sounds like I’m being overly harsh here. There are some fine, fine performances: Michael Gould unexpectedly recalls Matt Smith with his mercurial clarity, Anastasia Hille maybe telegraphs her emotions a bit too emphatically, but you can at least see precisely what her Titania and Hippolytas are up to. And the mechanicals play at the end is probably the try-not-to-laugh funniest I’ve seen*, thanks particularly to the efforts of Geoff Aymer (Stout/Wall) and Dougie McMeekin (Snug/Lion), as well as Matthew Steer’s brilliant patronising Eng.Lit. student director, Peter Quince. Leo Bill’s Bottom is unexpected, but – particularly in Ass mode – genuinely unsettling for having discernible emotions as well as animal lusts and physical deformities.

What I did love about this production was its unsentimental urge to destroy the play, though. It clearly shows, repeatedly and almost pedantically, that there is almost nothing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream which is acceptable. I imagine there are puritanical productions that could go further in this mission. This version still allowed the performers to find comic moments. That didn’t seem necessary. And, while cut, it could still have been interfered with far more – although probably not under the original title in England, sadly.

But perhaps this sort of straight-to-the-point moral-lecture production has had its day, at least for the time being. We appear to be living in a period where the insufficiency of lazy binary thinking – re: “morality” and “left” and “right” – appears to have caught right up with us very rapidly indeed. I’m tempted to suggest that a serious course of radical overidentification is called for – Art that, instead of telling us things of which we’re all very well aware, shows us the “hidden reverse” of the state in which we’re now living. I think that potential is already very much present in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its humorous depiction of what is at root a rape-state. Perhaps apparent over-endorsement is the best tool for calling into question the appalling times in which we now live.

(And, no. For the avoidance of doubt, I don’t just mean: Theseus/Oberon needs to be played by someone in a Trump wig until America gets its act together and has the idiot shot.)

*The Mechanicals are tricky, now, aren’t they? I mean, “we” “all” know that for comedy to be funny/acceptable it has to be “punching up”. I don’t know, but perhaps in Shakespeare’s day, weavers, joiners and the like generally held a higher position in society than “ac-tors”, much less “Shakespeare”. To this end, I wonder if productions shouldn’t be presenting the “mechanicals” are posh-boy “artisan” hipsters. That would be the thought that occurred to me. (But, again, this is me looking at the play and trying to make it acceptable to modern audiences. Perhaps this comedy-of-cruelty – deliberately mocking the poor and the learning disabled – is some of that radical over-identification that I was asking for. Perhaps this is why we Brits are so wary of it as a strategy – we simply don’t trust anyone else in an audience to “get it” or to think as hard as we know we will be doing. Of course, that lack of trust is probably why we seem to be increasingly fucked as a society anyway. But, anyway. I seem to have gone right off topic now...)

In conclusion: go and see this production. It’s not an easy watch. I don’t suppose it’s meant to be. But, in writing and thinking about it, I might have started to love it a great deal more than I initially thought I did. This might be a sign that it’s great, or simply a sign that I like thinking more than I like watching things that need thinking about.  Hmm.


Anyway, thanks for getting through all that.  Have some music as a reward:

Monday 27 February 2017

Pygmalion – Headlong at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

[seen 25/02/17]

Sam Pritchard’s new production of creaky old Bernard Shaw’s creaky old Pygmalion sets a new high bar for revivals of “the classics” in England without appearing to even break a sweat. In terms of tone and style... imagine Clem Fandango was a character in a show directed by Thomas Ostermeier or David Marton.

That is to say, Pritchard and his designers have created a Pygmalion that is at once a performance-of-the-text and a critique of said text; it is both modern-dress and original dialogue, with the disparities between then and now allowed to stand and resonate as they will. It’s set in a kind of contemporary London that’s at once pinpoint-accurate and completely made up. But most of all, it effortlessly mines a very contemporary comic sensibility and makes this comedy by Shaw actually funny.

The first thing that happens after the pre-show state – the words: endlessly scrolling across the wooden back-of-the-fourth-wall lowered at the front of the stage – is a kind of cast lip-sync challenge. It sounds like all sorts of people (across age, class, ethnicity and region) read through the original first scene, while members of the cast mime along “in character”. It’s *such* a perfect way of setting out the production’s stall. It doesn’t even feel alienatingly arty, because a) it’s performed with such panache, and b) it’s funny. [You can sell the English any amount of art (or politics, for that matter) as long as it’s got jokes.]

The effect of hearing these myriad voices is manifold. We’re maybe already conscious that original Pygmalion is a comedy based on the premise that different classes talk different, and that in it a posh bloke teaches a “common” flower-girl to speak “proper(ly)”. (And if we’re not, the scene gets us up to speed in an intelligent way.) It also reminds us just how many voices there are in modern Britain. It (and the rest of the production) slyly undermine Shaw’s simplistic false posh/common binary. Rather than allowing Professor Higgins’s opinions to stand as some sort of bon mot-strewn thesis, he’s instead demonstrated to be something of an irrelevant oddball. This isn’t a production that thinks much of either his learning (portrayed more as hipster noodling) or his philanthropy (essentially the grotesque use of money to manipulate and abuse). Conversely, Eliza’s “common-ness” is never allowed to become the joke. I’m not exactly how Pritchard (and Natalie Gavin as Eliza) manage it, but somehow – perhaps through pointed silences and stares – we’re forcibly reminded of the level of poverty in Britain, and that how other people talk isn’t actually funny. (Although swearing in a posh voice at the wrong moment at an upper class party absolutely is.)

I’m afraid I don’t know the play nearly well enough to tell you the extent to which it’s been cut, and/or changed. What I can tell you is that the thing in front of us presented by Headlong is (at least in the first half) a near perfect mixture of reverence and “brutality”. Alex Lowde’s design places most of the action in a small blue cyclorama which also stands in as Higgins’s “real” sound studio. Sound is crucial here, and reputed sound design pioneers Ben and Max Ringham have gone right to town putting it together here – allowing the characters on stage the agency to fiddle with their own radio mics, changing the pitch and tone of their voices, adding reverb, echoes, all sorts. (By Higgins’s sound studio here, we’re perhaps reminded slightly of the Hungarian language lab setting for Marthaler’s Meine Faire Dame – a production that I worried would entirely eclipse this one, but that in the event I didn’t think of once). Similarly, Pritchard has been admirably unsentimental about all the action having to be live. There are some linking scenes, and they’re simply presented as viceos. Eliza getting a cab. Eliza sitting in her grotty bedsit. Eliza listening to My Fair Lady on her bed...

(YES! How often do you see a show that has the sense to acknowledge that in the modern world where it’s set, there’s already a musical of the story we’re watching? It’s like the question: “What is on ITV at [the times and days when Coronation Street is on] for the characters in Coronation Street?” It should absolutely be Coronation Street, right? Thank God generation postmodernism-is-normal have arrived to make that clear...)

Will Duke (projection designer) has done a largely outstanding job. It’s an interesting thing, because it draws us into the piece and allows it to show a sort of “reality” (a more heightened reality at least than that to which theatre can ever hope to aspire (Eliza running down the road past Green Park station, for e.g., makes use of *actual Green Park station and actress-playing-Eliza running past it*)). It’s also nice because it reminds us of telly and cinema, which are also artforms in C21st, and it maybe reminds everyone that those involve acting and stories and etc., so why be weird about theatre, hmm? What I’m clumsily trying to say is: for something that could be understood as “very arty” (and heavily, heavily Europe-infected), it does a pretty bloody good job of feeling as demotic, idiosyncratic and English as Corrie and Toast.

Yes, for me it could have gone further. The invention dries up a little in the second half in what feels like a bit of a mad rush to get the rest of the plot out of the way. And the second half is also where the plot gets a lot less appealing. Pritchard (and no dramaturg credited) does a fine job of de-centring the “emotional motor” of the piece. We see that – for all Shaw’s attempts to make Higgins’s snobbery and condescension charming and somehow egalitarian – in C21st eyes, the play hangs off insupportable premises. Even if Shaw was experimenting with some sort of “knowing” Victorian proto-hipster irony. And, correspondingly, when Eliza leaves the stage for the last time in this production we’re under doubt that she’s about as likely to be back as Nora Helmer. Correspondingly, I’m not sure what Pritchard’s done with the reams of romantic comedy makes particular sense. He’s stopped them being romantic or comic, which is excellent, but he has left them there. Perhaps to examine the expectations that surround the play. And, actually, to that end, it’s about as stern as the thing can get without just cutting/re-writing/swapping the lines. I mean, the more I think about it, the more I like it, but I can’t help wondering if there was an even better thing that could have been done here, given the radical inventions and irreverences of the first half.

Nonetheless, for all these little quibbles, this production announces Pritchard as a major talent, and one with a discerning eye for collaborators. I should also say that the entire cast is first-rate, demonstrating range, playfulness and ease-with-modernity that still feels sadly rare in modern British casts. Alex Beckett as Higgins in particular is outstanding: brilliantly funny, and unafraid to be unsympathetic, while at the same time being one of the most hugely likeable actors we’ve got.
This production should be the benchmark/default-normal for UK productions of the classics. There’s a lot further English theatre can go, but this is a strong starting point for 2017.

Klątwa – Teatr Powszechny

[seen 18/02/17]

[I have already written a short review of Klątwa for The Stage, but I wanted to write a much longer thing about it here.]

My relationship with Teatr Powszechny goes back to November 2015, when they invited me to review their production Roar, China!. As it turns out, the timing was significant. At the start of that review I note that the far-right, Catholic nationalist Law and Justice Party had won an overall majority in the general election just two weeks earlier.

The next time I was in Warsaw was for Barbara Wysocka’s Juliusz Cezar in January, 2016. By that point – two months later – there were near-weekly protests against the Law and Justice Party’s depredations into the freedom of the Polish press, its challenges to personal, political and artistic liberties, and so on.

By the time I saw Powszechny’s production of Jelinek’s Wściekłość – September 2016 – the Law and Justice Party were gearing up to ban all abortions in Poland. Even those medically necessary for the preservation of the pregnant woman’s life.

This is the context in which Klątwa opens. The situation in Poland is Very Bad Indeed.

[I should say, that this review is aimed primarily at my British contemporaries who possibly won’t get to see the show. On this basis, some comparisons I use might seem a bit parochial to mainland readers. It’s honestly not that we’re obsessed with bringing any given subject back to ourselves here in Britain – no matter how much our politicians may make it seem that way – more; simply that we *are* an island (and vassal state of America) and, as such, remarkably ill-served in terms in terms of European international work . As such, saying: “Oh, this Frljić production is quite like Nicholas Stemann’s Die Schutzbefohlenen...” would be functionally useless even if it was true. (Which it isn’t.)]

My relationship to the piece’s director, Oliver Frljić, begins in 2014 when I saw (and loved) his phenomenally successful international hit Damned Be The Traitor in His Homeland at the Sibiu Festival. (Despite my best efforts, it has yet to be seen in UK.)

A year later, at BITEF’15, I saw his piece Ristić Kompleks, and then again at its Mladinsko home, in May 2016. I have yet to see his (previous) latest piece, Our Violence, Your Violence – an adaptation of Peter Weiss’s The Aesthetics of Resistance, which opened in Vienna, Berlin and Ljubljana last autumn.

Frljić is brilliant. I am a huge admirer of his work and his politics. I might even go so far as to suggest that this year he will be the most important director/maker working in Europe. On current showing, he is absolutely the director/maker best equipped to deal with its coming/ongoing crises. It is perhaps no coincidence that he was a Serb-Croat born in Bosnia and was a teenager during the wars in ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s. I imagine that gives him a far better insight into “civilisation” than, for example, yours or mine.


As I say in my Stage review, this show is nominally a “production of” Klątwa (The Curse), an 1899 play written by Polish dramatist Stanisław Wyspiański. It is “a production” in the sense that would cause David Hare and the dullard he’s talking to in that interview instant heart-failure. Hopefully.

It begins with the whole cast making a phone call to Bert Brecht (!). It’s played as a pitch-perfect parody of Brechtian productions, and does that vital thing of telling everyone in the audience exactly how the evening is going to pan out. This is not – we can be assured – going to be a “straight production” of The Curse, but it also provides vital context about the original text, and about the current political situation in Poland., along with some amusing self-mockery – both of Poland and of theatre.

At the other end of the phone line – it turns out – is a giant statue of Pope Jean-Paul II with a massive erection. One of the actresses rolls a condom onto the papal cock and proceeds to vigorously fellate him for the next five minutes. As symbolism goes, it’s crude but effective. What’s perhaps most striking, though, is how long it goes on for. As it continues, you are actually forced to think about *why* you’re watching this. The obvious “shock”-value wears off pretty quickly, and you start to actually deconstruct it properly. The numerous readings and problems keep on piling up. Both the outward-pointing metaphorical values and the intrinsic ethical problems with making an actress go down on a plaster knob for five minutes. It also seems to function as a comment on trends in contemporary pornography (doubtless a massive growth industry in Poland) and as a comment/question about what is tolerated and what is not under this new Catholic nationalism to which Poland is being subjected. At the end of the five minutes (I’m guessing), the statue is hanged, with a sign round its neck.

This is followed by an early scene from The Curse itself, with naturalistic action replaced by a kind of grotesque chorus of violence. Then this itself is broken out of by the actress playing the role of the victimised young woman, who delivers an angry speech denouncing Frljić’s “feminism” for still somehow requiring women being shown being assaulted.

On one hand, sure, yes, you could say he’s having his cake and eating it here, by first having the scene and *then* having the denunciation. But, Christ! How absolutely brilliant to have the argument about the ethics of this problem *actually on the stage*. As we know, this is also something of a live issue here in the UK – this problem/question of there being real violence against women, and how does theatre talk about that? Especially if some people would apparently censor the appearance of any simulation of violence on stage. This seems to be a good solution. The actress clearly has her agency. She names and addresses the problem directly. No one could be left with any possibility to vicariously enjoy the sadism.

There is also a sense in which the director and the processes of theatre could be start to function as a metonym(?) for the oppressive mechanisms of the church. Which is a kind of genius move – the church cannot come back at the show for smugly criticising from some kind of artistic ivory tower when the show is as critical of itself and its processes as it is of the church. You kind of wish this sort of Brechtian discursiveness were available in the UK. (Why it isn’t is anyone guess.)

I think it was around this point that I started seriously wondering why English theatre couldn’t be more like this in its treatment of the classics. I mean, sure, it’s not “proper”, but it was also a damn sight less boring. And to having a production actually anticipate and argue about the problems of the production, in the production? Well, it would have solved a lot of the problems of Yerma and/or Hedda, wouldn’t it? [written before I saw Pygmalion, which has partially restored my faith in the English ability to make bold, intelligent main-stage theatre in the C21st]

Moreover, lest this sound like I was just enjoying a very relevant seminar, it’s very hard to convey just how *live* and “electric” (terrible cliché review term, but, it’s the cliché we want here) it was. Really. This wasn’t performed in the whiny, entitled, instant-switch-off, strident student voices you might be imagining. No. This was yer proper theatre-trained, top-of-their-game Polish actors really belting it. I don’t think the UK really has an equivalent form of acting at all.

But the most affecting parts of the show are yet to come.


One of the actresses stands up and, bashing a microphone against her stomach to mimic the sound of a baby’s heartbeat, announces that next week she is going to have an abortion. She asks the women in the audience how many of them have had an abortion. She tells us:

“I’ve decided to have an abortion. I’m not going to justify myself. This is my body, my belly, and no one – no country, no church, no politician – will be telling me what to do with it. I have an appointment for a procedure in the Netherlands next week. I’ll spend my hard-earned money on an abortion abroad...”

and sings the Polish national anthem.


The cast, dressed as priests, line up – kneeling – along the front of the stage, and each one describes when they were sexually abused by a priest from the Catholic church. It is quiet, avowedly unsensational, and as each story unfolds in four simple lines, your sense of absolute horror grows. Sure, these might not be the true stories of these particular actors (there’s a disclaimer later about how theatre is fiction), but there’s literally no reason to doubt that they are. And if each of these actors was sexually abused by a priest at some point in their lives, what does that say about the statistics of Poland overall? You got the feeling, sitting in the theatre on Saturday night, that there was a terrible, general assent to the truth of the scene. It’s a horrible, shattering indictment of widespread child-abuse on an almost industrial scale. What it says about the culpability of everyone from parents, to authorities, to priests, right the way up to Jean-Paul II himself. It’s little wonder that they hung his effigy with a sign round his neck – “Patron of Paedophiles” – like partisans put on Nazi collaborators.


The show skips on again. Actress Barbara Wysocka (she who directed Powszechny’s award-winning Juliusz Cezar at the Gdansk Shakespeare Festival) delivers a monologue about how Frljić is just some international professional provocateur and will be off to Munich or Maribor the day after the première, his hypocrisy in his treatment of the actors, and – more than this – the fact that he’s take a job curating the Malta Festival in Poznań this year, even after they banned a show in 2014.

Elsewhere, an amusing actor, apparently known for his willingness to get his kit off/perform degrading roles (that could be made up in his monologue), puts his bits through a colour-photocopy of Frljic’s face.

An actress takes a chainsaw to the large wooden cross that has loomed over the stage all evening...


The whole thing is episodic. All Frljić’s work that I’ve seen is. In UK I can even imagine this being taken (by some) as a flaw. The thing is, I’ve seen a fucktonne of “flawless” work that is boring beyond measure. Work that doesn’t work. Or do anything. Klątwa is never boring. It works perfectly. And clearly it has an intellectual and political reach well beyond the walls of the building in which it is performed. And, really, the choppiness must be deliberate. At one point in the show the actors even announce a two minute break*.

So let’s allow that Frljić, and his enormously accomplished team of dramaturgs, and his actors, have actually thought about what they’re doing. Let’s, instead of reading the episodic structure as “a mistake” let’s read it as a strategy, a device; a device for making the constructedness of the event manifest. Let’s not think of the fact that there’s a bit about two thirds through, after the “confessions” of abuse – where the actors machine-gun the audience with wooden replica guns screwed together from multiple crucifixes to amazing loud music – that would have been a perfect place to end the show on “a visceral high” where the show doesn’t end as “an error”. Let’s honour the fact that Frljić instead steps back from that kind of rabble-rousing, and instead keeps on worrying away at his subject until it’s done to his satisfaction. And all the while, let’s remember that this is “a production of a classic text”.  And that as a piece of theatre it works brilliantly.


Post-script: I am aware that in the week since I saw the show, all sorts of inflammatory lies have been printed in the Polish press, leading to threats of violence against crew, crew, and theatre staff and daily protests outside the building, and a ceaseless campaign of intimidation.

Perhaps, you think, I should address that in this review. The problem is, I can’t. Because the things that are being protested about simply aren’t in the show. The campaign against is – I believe – on the basis that the piece is blasphemous. It isn’t. God isn’t mentioned once in the new material, and only occasionally (and respectfully) in the original script, which has been in circulation since 1899. No “objects of worship” are desecrated in the piece. Personally, I find even that law ridiculous, and wouldn’t mind if they were, BUT. THEY. AREN’T. There is nothing in the show that contravenes even the right-wing, Catholic laws of Poland. It is, what I believe they call here in England, “fair comment”. This is precisely the sort of art that free speech laws were conceived to protect. It is not interfering with or mocking anyone’s beliefs. It isn’t even an attack on Catholicism, per se. It is an attack on man, and the criminals who have turned the Catholic church into the largest child sex abuse ring in the history of humanity, and who seek to exercise control over the bodies of women without consent.

If God is half the Father that Christianity takes him for, it is impossible not to conclude that He would be on Frljić’s side, proudly wearing a “NOT IN MY NAME” badge on His eternal lapel.

Thursday 23 February 2017


[in other news]

The Hungarian theatre magazine, Színház, published a translation of my (ironically titled) piece Against Paralysis from just before there became no point whatsoever in having opinions or making arguments for them.

I guess posting this marks my grudging return to trying to see any point whatsoever in continuing to write about something as piffling as theatre while the world appears hell bent on self-annihilation. Frankly, it makes more sense to me to post screenshots of new Pokémon I’ve caught than trying to pretend that theatre in Britain is going to make the slightest bit of difference to the surging waves of deliberate ignorance and thuggery that now constitute the majority of our national discourse. But on we bloody go, I suppose... 

Postcards plugs – Contemporary Adaptations of Greek Tragedy


I have a chapter about Katie Mitchell’s productions of Greek Tragedies in Contemporary Adaptations of Greek Tragedy: Auteurship and Directorial Visions edited by George Rodosthenous.

None of us will get a penny from sales of this book, so, again, I suggest you steal a copy from a chain store.


[in other news]

The Hungarian theatre magazine, Színház, published a translation of my piece Wir sind alle weißen Männer from back when there was any point at all in having opinions and making arguments for them.

Postcards plugs – Theatre Criticism: Changing Landscapes


I have a chapter about the short history of theatre criticism online in Theatre Criticism: Changing Landscapes edited by Duška Radosavljević.

None of us will get a penny from sales of this book, so I suggest you steal a copy from a chain store.

The Stage: How the decline of criticism led to the rise of Trump