Monday 20 March 2017

A Decade of Postcards: Attempts on Her Life – National Theatre, 2007

[posted 20/03/07]

It is ten years (TEN YEARS!) since my review of Katie Mitchell’s NT production of Attempts on Her Life was posted pre-Postcards, on (the now-defunct)

Here it is (just in case CultureWars ever disappears):

Written ten years ago, Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life represents one of the high points of experimental theatre, of any theatre, written in the last quarter-century. As the play’s subtitle – Seventeen Scenarios For Theatre – suggests, Attempts... is not a linear narrative. The ‘scenarios’ take various implied forms, from monologues, adverts and pop lyrics through to numerous negotiations between unnamed speakers in unspecified locations, all trying to pin down the nature of an unseen central character: ‘Anne’. This ‘Anne,’ or Anny, or Anushka, appears variously to be a suicidal singles-holiday hostess, an international terrorist, a porn actress, a suicidal modern artist, a refugee and a make of car, among other things. Like I said, it’s non-linear.

In script form, the play is partly an exercise in examining the way words on a page create the ‘reality’ on the stage and the way that directors and actors assign meaning to dialogue. As Crimp does not allocate specific lines to a particular speaker – indeed the script doesn't even indicate the number of actors in the cast – there is no sense in which any production of the piece can ever be definitive. The writing itself is by turns witty, perceptive, cynical, beautiful and cruel. It is so stylistically accomplished that the play is at once both an open invitation to a director and an entity with a clearly defined aesthetic of its own. It is a perplexing, wide-ranging, inconclusive exploration of seemingly endless concerns; simultaneously very English, comfortably European, necessarily trans-Atlantic and truly global.

Katie Mitchell’s production is a logical next-step from her recent devised piece suggested by Virginia Woolf'’s The Waves, seen in the Cottesloe last year. But, where Waves worked on a human scale, and much of the fun was watching the actors close-up creating video and sound effects being projected onto the screen above the stage, Attempts... is altogether more totalitarian in its aesthetic. The screen here totally dominates the stage, to the extent that occasionally performers are playing direct to camera, with their backs to the audience, in near-darkness. It suits the play perfectly; Attempts... is overwhelmingly concerned with the media image - the power of the screen - and this vast, Orwellian display powerfully demonstrates the hold that the projected image can have. The presence of the actors remains vital, however. This is very much a live performance. The fact that you watch the performers create the images live remains absolutely central throughout.

It is rare to see so many outstanding performances in what is ostensibly an ensemble piece; almost every actor shines. They are, by turns, compelling and charming, playful and terrifying, while the negotiation of their relationship to the text, to the stage, to the screen and to the audience is fascinating. The scene changes, controlled by an abrupt alarm siren, suggest performers suddenly forced to improvise their way through telling each portion of the script. Each scene seems to begin with its first speaker off-camera, lost on the stage having to start unexpectedly, as if caught unawares, but knowing that once started they must continue.

The style of the ‘films’ and images created on the stage and projected live onto the vast screen varies wildly, from scenes reminiscent of David Lynch through daytime television chatshow interviews and news bulletins, to the X-Files and press conferences, with a cop show thrown in for good measure. Elsewhere the postmodernism gets cranked up a notch with a brilliantly funny pastiche of well-known pop videos. There is also pitch-perfect Newsnight Review parody with Liz Kettle offering a hilarious impression of a certain Australian feminist critic. Another scene - ‘The Camera Loves You’ - has been turned into a rock song [see above], complete with brilliantly absurd video in which Paul Ready strikes Hamlet poses, while Zubin Varla slips into a full-on post-punk growl and Claudie Blakely proves an astonishingly good drummer. The moment she sits at the drum kit and kicks off is electrifying. It’s not often you find avant garde theatre that makes you want to stage dive.

The production is unafraid to veer wildly from extremes of parody to genuine horror. The overall effect is like being hit by a force ten gale. It is so concentrated, there is such a media overload, that it is nigh-on impossible to process all the ideas with which you are assaulted.

This is, without a doubt, the best thing currently showing in a theatre in London. It is also the first production in the National’s excellent Travelex £10 ticket season. To reiterate: if you can get a Travelex ticket before they all sell out, the best show in London only costs £10. It is essential viewing. Go.

Re-reading it now, I’m pleasantly surprised that I still stand by pretty much every word (except “Orwellian”. Tsk.) I’m struck by how differently I’d probably write about the show now – probably with more detail and less insistence on its excellence in every single line – but back then I think I was probably still engaged in a project of just trying to write “proper” reviews, but with better opinions in them. Not such a dishonourable project, although I notice that my economic wordcount means there’s less detail than I’d like now.

In my short piece “Martin and Me” (Contemporary Theatre Review, v.24, issue 3), I tried to explain why the production meant so much to me:

“Thanks to the sheer poor taste of Britain’s professional critics in 2007, the National Theatre didn’t have much by way of ‘good notices’ to post on their website, so they led with mine. It was the first time anything I’d ever written had been used for publicity. A few weeks later I was reading Encore Theatre Magazine’s piece about the Dead White Males debacle and there was a comment – written by someone I’d never met – saying that my review was more intelligent and perceptive than the rest of them put together. That was the first time I’d ever had a sense of anyone beyond my friends reading what I wrote, let alone thinking it was good...

“As such, I’ve always felt I owed rather a lot to that performance of Attempts on her Life. It wasn’t that it gave me a bit of confidence in what I was doing; more, it gave me a sense of purpose. Here was the best thing that I’d ever seen in a theatre and Every Single Broadsheet Critic had disliked it. I accept not everyone will love the same things as me, but this was a situation where the views of myself, most of my friends, and clearly a huge number of other theatregoers, were entirely unrepresented by the critics. The situation needed to be changed...”

But, really, it’s not the review that means a lot to me, it’s still the show. Obviously. (What kind of idiot/ego-monster prefers their review to a show they loved?) It still feels, ten years later, like it was the first time I saw a “mainstream” show in England and thought FUCK, YES. THIS IS WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT. I don't think that feeling ever goes away, really.

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