Wednesday 26 April 2017

Nuclear War – Royal Court (upstairs), London


[How to start your own Nuclear War: part 1]

15th January, 2014

“Had lunch with Hofesh Schechter, a choreographer, and Ramin Gray, a director, and we talked about Seventeen. Seventeen is a project that we have been working on together for a year or so. Ramin, who is the artistic director of Actors Touring Company and who has directed three of my plays, brought the three of us together to make something. Hofesh is currently perceived as one of the world’s leading choreographers. We made some decisions about our project in development. 
“We will definitely use dancers that dance to a standard that Hofesh is happy with. This is largely on the grounds that I rather enjoy non-actors speaking my text but he gets very impatient with non-dancers. Sometimes I think non-actors can have an honesty that mediocre actors can’t ever have again. 
“We will make a show about sex. We will make a show from the position of three heterosexual men projecting their fantasies onto beautiful women. 
“It will be like the bits of Three Kingdoms that feminist critics hated, but ten times the case. It will be more unapologetic.”
(Simon Stephens: A Working Diary)

It’s funny what stays with you, isn’t it? All the way through watching Nuclear War last night, I couldn’t stop remembering the above passage. I had misremembered it slightly, but not so much that reading right version again has stopped me wanting to wring Simon’s neck.

Still, time passes. Seventeen turned into Nuclear War (“I came up with the new title of Nuclear War. This is a fucking great title and I can’t believe it's not been used before” – 10th March) and at some point in the years between 2014 and 2017, Ramin and Hofesh fell away, were replaced by current director Imogen Knight, and the unappetising prospect of three middle-aged men projecting their sexual fantasies onto beautiful women evaporated.

To be fair, the description in Stephens’s diary on 10/03/14 – “The piece is a consideration of the human consciousness of the inexorable movement of time... the sole voice of the sexual desire of a woman in her seventies. Keening for one last sexual experience before she dies” – does accurately summarise what has been put on the stage at the Royal Court.

[How to start your own Nuclear War: part 2]

Nuclear War is ‘an open text’. The pre-script says:

“A woman Perhaps others. 
A series of suggestions for a piece of theatre. All of these words may be spoken by the performers but none of them need to be. 
Italicised text denotes thoughts scratched onto the inside of her head. 
Lines preceded by a dash might be read to be choric in some sense.”

Mostly, the italicised text reads like purpled-up cut‘n’paste passages from popular science books about the second law of thermo-dynamics and about the human orgasm. etc.

The Theatre Upstairs has had a beige-walled room built inside it (Chloe Lamford). We, the audience, sit in two rows of mismatched dining room chairs against the four walls. Also arranged round the edge of the room are occasional pieces of old-ish furniture (mass-produced, mid-sixties; the sort of thing that’s just started moving from charity shops to “vintage”/“Retro” emporia; the furniture of generation dying-now). Little china cups feature too. And a pot-plant.

The action of the piece varies quite wildly. The best way to describe the whole is: Harper Regan in the style of Christopher’s trip to London from Curious.  Sure, the *type* of movement differs, but it’s still very much “movement” rather than choreography. You could only call the piece “contemporary dance” if the entire thing was actually a concept about something else. Perhaps it is, really, but it feels very much like a thing that just wants to be Very Clear Indeed. Nothing wrong with clarity, of course, but it does have the effect of making things Very Blunt Indeed. There’s little of the pregnant strangeness (or indeed concentrated monotony) that makes contemporary dance so compelling. A continual thought, given the openness of the text, is: “this could be anything; I don’t feel convinced it should be this, though.” Which is a distracting thought to have running on a loop while trying to watch a thing.

[How to start your own Nuclear War: part 3]

The idea of “open texts” is a peculiarly seductive one. I mean, it’s just poetry-on-stage, isn’t it? Hamletmaschine is one, but, really, so’s The Waste Land (except that it doesn’t ask to be staged). [Of course, in Germany *everything* is an “open text”. In England, it still seems that if you want your play staged like it’s the 21st century, you pretty much have to take out all the character names, and jumble up the scenes into snatches of prose yourself – and then hope that the director can put it back together in a way that people find compelling in some way. They don’t always.]

I’m very much in favour of the idea of open texts (as well as lots of other things). That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m honour-bound to love every example. Much less every production of every example. At this point it’s impossible to divorce the printed script currently sitting in my bag from the production of it I saw last night. I don’t *think* I *loved* the text, and I don’t think I particularly loved the production. I thought it was alright. It was 45 minutes long. Nicely produced, and performed with absolute convinction. It felt like a superior bit of work from NSDF in the mid 2000s. It was a fine stab at doing a particular thing, which – troublesomely – *wasn’t what I’d have done with it*.

Obviously, the minute critics start thinking they want to direct a thing we’re all in trouble (especially the critic). But I think in this instance that’s just a shorthand for “I would like to have been completely steamrollered by a strong vision and I wasn’t. What I saw left me with too much time to think about what else the thing could have been like.” I mean, I thought I had ideas about Cleansed and Attempts on Her Life too. After seeing Katie Mitchell’s productions, I didn’t have those ideas any more. That’s what I want. If I want to spend time wondering what a thing could possibly look like on stage, I’ll read the script. It’s not what I should be thinking when watching it on stage.

It’s tricky, isn’t it? I mean, the Royal Court has produced all of about one piece of dance-theatre (or whatever this is) in all the time I’ve been going to the Royal Court (so, back as far as 1999) that I remember. So I quite want to be encouraging, but this really isn’t the piece I want to encourage.

I mean, probably the most vivid piece of “theatre” I’ve ever seen ( Gisèle Vienne’s I Apologize) was choreography-with-text. (But then, most contemporary dance is -with-text these days (at least, outside UK).) I dunno. It’s difficult, isn’t it? There’s that thing, where you can just imagine that some reviewer will go in and see the piece, and produce a pretty deadening reading of the “play,” which flattens it out even more, and then probably holds it up as an example of why all plays should be more like they wanted all plays to be anyway. I’d love to be able to defend Nuclear War, but while I can defend the genre, the best I can say here is that while I didn’t actually dislike Knight’s production at all, I could imagine about a million better ones (which isn’t the same a thinking I could make them myself – I couldn’t), which is distracting if you’re trying to focus on the one in front of you. Mind you, having once imagined the better productions, I do then wonder a bit why they’re still using this particular script. Sorry, it really didn’t click with me at all, but maybe that was the production. Or maybe the production suffers for the script.

The sound was pretty neat, though.

I don’t want to be snarky, though. I haven’t been, have I? Hopefully this comes across as what it is: an honest account of someone being a bit nonplussed within a specific environment.

[How to start your own Nuclear War: part 4]
“I was synthesizing some of the images that I wrote while in New York in 2013 rehearsing Harper Regan. Lonely erotic images drawn from the loneliness of being away from my family, with some of the theoretical thinking that has sat under Seventeen for the last three years.”

Unlike the passage I quoted at the top of the review, I’d completely forgotten that Stephens wrote this. And, well, I think it shows. (The Harper Regan-ness definitely shows.) I think you can even tell precisely which bit he means (above) in this draft – probably the bit where this older woman starts eyeing up the “most beautiful women I’ve ever seen in my whole life and they’re all gathered together in one block at one time. And all of them look beautiful and they’ve all just washed their hair and...”

There’s an interesting thing that Ramin Gray once said in an interview about how Harper Regan also started out life as a man. With the woman here, you can almost feel the “maleness” of some of her thought processes. It’s a curious thing. I’m not really one for gender essentialism, but nor do I have (much less intend to employ) the sort of vocabulary that negotiates contemporary gender-politics successfully. I will float this observation, though: in drama, with its concrete characters and concrete situations, you can definitely have a female character whose thoughts may well be the pure unvarnished thoughts of the male playwright who’s created her (and vice versa). In this particular abstract staging it feels like it exposes a very real gulf – which is not addressed – between the thoughts of Simon Stephens synthesising some images and the woman standing on stage trying damn hard to say the words like they were a thing she’d ever think. As a result, I spent a lot of time wondering what it would have been like to have seen Nuclear War performed by Gielgud and Richardson in pin-striped suits, in a faded-posh drawing room set, á la No Man’s Land.

Perhaps this is the thing. I’m quite interested in productions that have a combative relationship with their text. When the text is this yielding, the most combative thing to do would surely be to straitjacket it with something. Maybe. Well, it’s one solution, anyway. I’m not sure this was.

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