Friday 26 May 2017

International news: context and clarification


Just a bit of context for the following story:

Marek Mikos to head Stary (Old) Theatre

POLAND/KRAKOW Following a competition announced in March, the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage has announced that Marek Mikos is to take over as general director of Krakow’s Stary (Old) Theatre from Jan Klata, one of the country’s most successful (and most controversial) directors, whose contract ends in August. Klata had been one of seven applicants for his own post. Mikos is a theatre critic and his most high-profile previous managerial experience is running a local TV station in Kielce.

From my colleague Witold Mrozek, theatre critic of Gazeta Wyborcza:

“They should also mention that more than ninety Polish theatre directors of all generations protested against Mikos’s nomination; that he is perceived as political officer of right-wing, nationalistic ministry of culture; that it is the first general-director nomination, when the voice of the artistic team was completely ignored. Even the Communist Party negotiated these kind of decisions with artists, the current Minister of Culture does not.”

This is the latest in a string of government interventions into the country’s theatres – see also: the ongoing attempts to prosecute Teatr Powszeceny for Olivier Frljić’s production of Klątwa, and the governmental de-funding of the Malta Festival, Poznań, for appointing him as a guest curator. Beyond this, it appears that every time an artistic directorship becomes vacant, the nationalist, theocratic Law and Justice Party ensure that a party stooge is given the job.

Just thought this information was worth adding to the rather neutral original report.

Update, 27/05/17:

This evening in front of Teatr Powszechny before the performance of Klątwa:

“This is not a shot of football fans celebrating, nor is it the unions protesting against government. No, this is a protest by Nazis in front of Teatr Powszechny. Today. In Warsaw. In the middle of Europe. With antisemitic slogans and songs, flares thrown at the building, and a vial of something thrown into foyer. And this is a legal protest, authorised in a court of law. How far we are from another Kristalnacht?” – Grzegorz Reske

If this was America it would be on the front of The Stage. Why not Poland?

Photos © Marta Kiel

Tuesday 23 May 2017

Wednesday 17 May 2017

89/90 – Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Berlin

[seen 14/05/17]

this picture really doesn't do the thing justice

89/90 is brilliant. I wish there was the slightest possibility that the Barbican would consider briefly freeing itself from its stultifying addiction to the Schaubühne and bringing it over so that English people could see some real German theatre*.

89/90 is director Claudia Bauer’s an adaptation-for-stage of Peter Richter’s wenderoman of the same name. When I say “adaptation-for-stage,” I don’t mean in the horrible, tedious, English, Jane Eyre/Tenant of Wildfell Hall sense of “lifting the dialogue from the book and making it into *a play*”. 89/90 has been made into a piece of theatre; a full-bodied, glorious, extraordinary piece of theatre, which couldn’t be anything except a piece of theatre. Although at the same time – I won’t say “unusually for Germany,” but – you do get a strikingly clear sense of what the book might be like, and what the story it tells is.

Let me try and describe it: the set (Andreas Auerbach) is a massive wood panelled hall. In Haus der Berliner Festspiele it feels almost like it it completes the high wooden walls that make up the rest of the auditorium. I wonder, slightly, if in Leipzig (from where this production comes) it is an exact continuation. The result looks like a deliberate hommage to designer Anna Viebrock’s work with Christoph Marthaler, evoking that similar look of utopian socialist interiors from the post-war era.

Set into the rear wall, about halfway up, is a large gauze screen and, dimly visible behind it, a small radio-studio like room, in which our narrator is talking into a microphone (yes, of course this is live-projected onto the screen). As we, the audience, file into our seats, he’s repeating a few opening phrases for a good few minutes while we all get settled. He’s talking about life in 1989 in the DDR, when he was a young man. He’s talking about going to the swimming pool after nightfall, and about the girls in his class, and about the fights that used to start where he lived, over low, almost imperceptible music that sounds like it’s from Twin Peaks.

What’s fascinating about the narrative is how familiar much of it sounds. The narrator is only maybe a year or two older than me, and what he’s writing about, as much as the end of the DDR and the “reunification” of Germany, is being young at the end of the eighties. In this, the narrative – written in 2015 – feels weirdly like one of the Stephen King books written in the seventies or eighties where the older narrator tells a story about growing up in 1950s America (easily as iconic an era as 1980s DDR to me). And what’s most striking of all, is that these (yes, yes, straight, white male) narratives are generally as much about trying to get off with girls as they are about the macro-politics of the age.

To get back to the staging: while all the above is clearly legible in what happens over the course of the three hours of the piece (mit pause), the other masterstroke here is the semi-DDR aesthetic used to convey huge chunks of the thing. There is a large choir, and there is A LOT of singing. The songs are mostly ex-East German punk songs, but arranged as if they’d been written by Bach [some examples of the originals at the end, I wish they’re release an 89/90 OST, though]. There are also these “Pinocchio”/baby-headed “bathers” in fat-suits, who evoke both the pool of the narrative, but also just a kind of Brazil-like, flat-out strangeness. There are sort-of parodies of DDR lessons with a focus on a sort of kinaesthetic, athletic learning. These elements mash-up together to create these at once concrete and abstract visual and sonic landscapes, which somehow tell the story with snippets of speech interposed into sequences of movement and gorgeous music.

Frankly, I could have watched all 400+ pages of the book told like this.

Then there’s the bit, just before the interval, where the wall comes down, and the narrator’s friend (already teased for having had a “Kim Wilde” phase) performs a violent, electro-punk version of ‘Kids in America’ backed by the baby-headed swimmers playing strange small sampler machines. The stage revolves to reveal a sort of Frank-Castorf/Bert Naumann-style scaffold topped with a massive neon advertising hoarding. It’s loud, it’s brilliant, and it somehow manages to be incredibly moving – upsetting even – as a representation of the complete massacre of an ideal, as well as the overthrow of an irritatingly oppressive regime. There’s a resolute refusal to really compare the before and the after, and there’s no real way to compare a repressive but idealistic ideology with the abysmal mess that is Western Capitalism, not to compare “life in the DDR” with “life in ‘united’ Germany. One of the narrative’s strengths is its refusal to get into debates, but instead to keep on just reporting events.

The second half is largely the story of a running battle between punks and skinheads in 1990. It’s almost like Trainspotting meets the next series of Deutschland ‘83. I wasn’t sure where the story was set. I imagined Leipzig, but perhaps it was Berlin – they certainly go to Berlin at one point. Although, with a few adjustments, it could have been Leeds or New Cross in 1980 or 1990. There’s partly a sense that with the DDR taken apart – like the destruction of the North of England under Thatcher – this theoretically left-wing place suddenly filled up with a lot of neo-Nazis. And that, even beyond the politics, this maybe wasn’t even so much to do with the actual politics, so much as the politics of boredom and violence and youth, and everyone just picking a side and fighting because there was nothing else to do.

The juxtaposition of this sort of youthful nihilism (on both sides) with the extraordinary beauty of the music and staging.

So, yes. This was gorgeous. Somehow fast-paced and slow at the same time (in a good way). Not really like anything I’ve ever seen before. Made in the city theatre of a minor city in ex-East Germany, and yet looking more expensive than something in the West End. Most of all, though – contra Hytner – it was both artistically ravishing, and deeply and completely accessible. It spoke to real people, intelligently, theatrically and movingly, about things that they cared about; about their lives. (More so than anything I ever saw at Hytner’s NT that wasn’t directed by Katie Mitchell, thinking about it.)  I wish we made things like it here in England; I’m always slightly heartbroken that we don’t.

*This is, of course, unfair. I’m still indebted to the Barbican for bringing over Thomas Ostermeier’s Zerbombt (Blasted), and giving me my first(?) taste of German theatre (aged 30, FFS); so why shouldn’t other people benefit in the same way? Well: a) it’s 11 years later, Ostermeier isn’t getting any younger, and he certainly isn’t getting *more* interesting, b) furthermore, Schaubühne work – certainly the stuff that tours here – is now deliberately *international*. Like Ivo van Hove’s work, it feels increasingly like it’s being tailored to an “international” market, which increasingly means: “New York”. And surely our intelligence and politics haven’t yet become so degraded that we have to stoop that low. But most of all c) when I think of all the work I’ve seen from Germany, from Poland, from ex-Yugoslavia, from Austria, etc. which has been blocked by yet another Ostermeier production, well, if nothing else, it’s not good diversity, is it? People have the impression that European Theatre consists solely of the Schaubühne and Toneelgroep, and gthat makes me sad.

Songs! (with massive thanks to Annegret Maerten):

Machine Children!

Pisse (not sure this was in the show, but...)

Feeling B – Artig

Kids in America – Kim Wilde:

Ficken Fressen Fernsehen:

Unsere Heimat:

Nazi Punks Fuck Off – Dead Kennedys:

--- Fin --- 

Composition and musical direction PEER BAIERLEIN
Chorleitung DANIEL BARKE



Daniel Barke (conductor), Sophia Bicking, Annelie Echterhoff, Dirk Fehse, Cornelius Friz, Antje Herbst, Judith Hermann, Josefine Huff, Thomas Jahn, Berivan Kernich, Meta-Elisabeth Kuritz, Manuel Lauterbach, Ralf Lichtmann, Martin Lorenz, Jonas Lürig , Benjamin Mahns-Mardy, Johannes Martin, Teresa Martin, Katie Mc Cann, Hanna Petersen, Elena Rose, Jule Rossberg, Merle Scheiner, Helen Schneider, Henriette Schreiner, Martin Schulz, Raschid D. Sidgi, Michael Storr, Dominik Triebert, Theosophy Ulbricht, Juliane Urban, Leon Wienhold, Wolf-Georg Winkler, Josefine Helene Zimmermann, Debora Zitzmann

Tuesday 16 May 2017

Five Easy Pieces – Sophiensæle (as TT17), Berlin

[seen 14/05/17]

The surprise, with Swiss theatremaker Milo Rau’s Five Easy Pieces, isn’t that the piece is staggeringly intelligent, nor that it’s ridiculously charming and even funny, nor that it’s incredibly moving. The surprise about Five Easy Pieces is how political it is.

As you perhaps already know, the headline here is that Five Easy Pieces is a piece about the life and crimes of Belgian paedophile and child murderer Marc Dutroux, performed by seven children. [And one adult – Peter Seynaeve – who tends to get overlooked by the headline, but deserves recognition – not least as Belgium’s premier silver-haired David Tennant look-&-charisma-alike – but also a bloody amazing performer in his own right; just the right mix of funny, sardonic, reassuring and unsettling.]

It opens with a sort of Q&A with the young performers. What's their name? How old are they? Etc. *Of course,* knowing the piece’s subject, this can’t help but acquire overtones. Deliberately, I’m sure. At the same time, Seynaeve asking the questions is also allowed to project something of himself (or at least an assumed adult persona) into proceedings. So, not only is there the suggestion of something sinister, but there’s also the usual adult-as-authority-figure. *And* the adult as person-in-their-own-right who wrinkles his nose at the idea of Rhianna being his first interviewee’s singer of choice, but who is wryly amused that her second choice is John Lennon. He also asks her if she can identify the man in the photo. It is Patrice Lumumba, the complex hero of Congolese independence. She can. (It is neatly contrived that she is also Afro/European mixed race, allowing her to also answer questions about how she perceives her identify.)

How does Congolese independence impact on the Marc Dutroux case? The first character we see interviewed in the play – the first of the “Easy Pieces” (the title itself a steal from Stravinsky, but Rau’s performance does also follow a five-act structure) – is Marc Dutroux’s father. Played, yes, by a child wearing old-man make up. The interview is performed to-camera, and live-projected onto a screen the semi-dominates the stage (not as much as one of Katie Mitchell’s, it’s all on a much smaller scale than that).

The first thing to say is just how incredible the child’s performance is. I mean, really. Really incredible. You forget that you’re even watching an actor, let alone a child. But then, the situation itself is remarkable, the situation being described – being the father of a child-murderer – is remarkable (not “Easy”). Dutroux’s father really doesn’t seem “to blame” at all. Yes, Dutroux spent his childhood in the Congo, because it “belonged to Belgium” at the time, and Belgians lived and worked there. That’s not Dutroux’s father’s fault. Indeed, his father reflects that he always thought the situation was unfair, even as he describes how he had “an affair” with a Congolese woman. He also describes how apparently effortless it was for white men to have affairs with Congolese women; in rather the same way that President Trump described how easy it was for him to attract women.

But in the theatre, you’re there watching this interview with the father of Marc Dutroux, played by a child, wearing this overdone “old” make-up that, like John Gielgud or someone would have used to play King Lear in the 1940s. So you have about three or four different levels of “reality” to cope with: the reality of the father, the reality of the child, the reality of the acting talent, and the division of attention between live performance and screen... It’s easy enough to rationalise all the various levels that you see, but having to continually readjust your understanding of what’s real in such a set-up feels like an incredibly important part of the whole. This is theatre that forces you to think, and to deconstruct and reconstruct the way you’re watching it, in a way that produces a critical response and political thought.

In the preliminary interviews with the child actors there is also a lot of talk about acting, which continues throughout. Their views on what “acting” is are elicited. It struck me there that what was also interesting was these Belgian children’s ideas about acting would naturally be different to those of a German audience, and different again to the default English position on the subject. Although the best/most memorable answer “it’s like puppet theatre, but with real people” seems both chilling (in context), but also unlike something any English child would think of (because puppet theatre is hardly a go-to example for anything here, right?).

The piece does also play with ideas of appropriateness and consent. There is one scene where the director figure asks a nine-year-old girl to undress for the part she’s playing in front of the camera. There is absolutely nothing wrong with what happens, or with what we’re shown, but at the same time, it brilliantly demonstrates another strand of the piece’s concerns – namely that even making this piece is somehow wrong, and by extension the entire director-actor dynamic (in any theatre production) can be seen as suspect. And in the background we have the spectre of European colonialism, and the of child rape and murder.

Of course, the piece isn’t suggesting anything as crass as “Belgian colonialism made a child-murderer of Marc Dutroux” (although it doesn’t deny it, but logically it’s no kind of point to make), it does, however, cause you to realise the level of similarity between the narcissistic desires of a child-murderer and paedophile, and those of an imperialist power; the arrested-development of a mind, or a culture, that allows it just to say “I want” and to take that thing and keep it in captivity.

As a whole, the piece is outstanding – lifetime top-five outstanding – in the same way that This Beautiful Future is outstanding, in fact. Primarily because (ironically, narcissistically) you have done so much of the work in making meaning. The things with which we are presented are impressive. A child playing Eric Satie well is impressive. A child somehow managing to snap out of a fit of the giggles, straighten their face, and play a chief of police with uncanny precision is impressive. A piece of theatre managing in 1hr30 to eviscerate Belgian (+ by extension, European) society, its colonial past, its hypocrisy, and so on, is impressive. But what makes you dizzy – and what ultimately makes the piece extraordinary – is the synaptic effort of putting it all together in your head.

What the piece somehow really brings home is not that child murder is bad, and sad, and upsetting, but how inequality is. You come out with the profound realisation that essentially any country, any society, any government that lets children (or anyone) live in poverty is every bit as a bad a paedophile child-murderer. You get an understanding that all the confected outrage about child murder (or affected boredom at this piece of theatre) by papers like the Daily Mail, is part of a much wider distraction from the fact that most of the world is essentially like this. That most power relations are like this. That school, army, church and police are like this. That the purposeful uneven distribution of wealth is like this. That raping and murdering children isn’t so much an exception to-, but a logical manifestation of the learned models of-, how society operates.

By showing us some sentimentally appealing, charming, “cute” children, Five Easy Pieces ultimately shows us how the system we live in is completely abusive from start to finish. How, by focussing obsessively on the need to bring one man to justice, society is distracted from any questions of actual justice in any meaningful sense.

Monday 15 May 2017

A Decade of Postcards: My Child – Royal Court, London, 2007


It’s the Fifteenth of May 2017. I’ve just got back from nine days at Theatertreffen in Berlin, and what I’m really looking forward to doing is watching Mike Bartlett’s episode of Doctor Who and then King Charles III, both on BBC iPlayer.

So, the coincidence is too much. If Attempts on Her Life was a manifestation of exactly what I wanted out of theatre, My Child was an early indication of the direction in which [some] British theatre might head in the next ten years. It also marked Mike Bartlett’s debut as a professional playwright.

As it happened, I’d first come across Mike Bartlett in Leeds, where he started as a first year just after I graduated. I’d still go back up to see people and shows, and in 2000 my friend Oli did a production of Howard Barker’s Claw. He had cast a first year called Mike from the Theatre Studies department as Noel Biledew, the “Claw” of the title. As a result of this, by the time My Child opened, I’d already seen a few Mike Bartlett plays. And they were *ok*. I imagine Mike is relatively sheepish about them now too. My Child was a completely different ball game. I think some of the (quite genuine) excitement of my review was just how much Mike had knocked it out of the park with this play. After King Charles III, it perhaps seems a bit “normal,” but at the time it felt like a revolution. Credit too to Sacha Wares, who really should be far more fêted.

Yes, now I’m reading the review again, bits of it make me wince: “experimental without seeming obtuse; formally daring while never seeming arty for the sake of it.” Horrible. All today’s young bloggers leave then-31-year-old me in the starting blocks with their willingness to engage and not pretend to Telegraph-style sniffiness and stuffiness, but there we go. First drafts of history are just that, first drafts...

[posted 15/05/07]

If That Face boded well for Dominic Cooke’s new regime as artistic director of the Royal Court, then his bold decision to open Mike Bartlett’s Royal Court debut downstairs (only the third play ever to do so after Look Back In Anger and Jez Butterworth’s Mojo) confirms that promise. That Cooke then allows the auditorium to be utterly transformed into a space which works for the play, with a concurrent massive reduction of capacity, suggests that something very special is afoot at the Royal Court.

The whole building seems to have a renewed sense of purpose. The opening season of first plays by young writers has revealed a sense of real urgency. The topics covered and the politics involved have been far more wide-ranging than previously. There is an air of licence and experiment abroad. Even the bar seems more fun than it did.

The play concerns a perfectly ordinary, liberal, university-educated, early-middle-aged man with a nine-year-old son, to whom his ex-wife is gradually trying to deny him access until he snaps and abducts the child. It is a blisteringly fast, brutal machine of a play: experimental without seeming obtuse; formally daring while never seeming arty for the sake of it. The dialogue is clever, harsh, pared-down – wholly naturalistic, but smartly crafted into pulsing, relentless rhythms, while the plot displays an admirable willingness to go beyond the linear, embracing metaphorical elements and occasional meta-theatrics.

The text is well served by Sacha Wares’ snappy direction. The transformation of the Downstairs theatre into a kind of elongated tube carriage-cum-nightclub, drenched in harsh fluorescent strip lighting, keeps the entire cast trapped in the same small auditorium as the audience throughout the play. Actors suddenly emerge from the gathered spectators. When actors are not involved in a scene, they merge back into the crowd. This happens just often enough, and unexpectedly, that everyone in the theatre starts to look like a potential member of this impressively sized cast. Scene intercuts scene with characters common to both forced to carry on two conversations. The pace is kept astonishingly rapid throughout. It is a bold aesthetic choice. Dialogue which could be played in an obvious naturalistic register is delivered with a stylised, off-hand urgency. The performances are well-observed and detailed. Ben Miles as the unnamed father does an excellent job of portraying a reasonable man trying to suppress his understandable rage, while Lia Williams as his ex-wife manages to maintain our sympathy while being utterly poisonous to her dejected ex. Also excellent is Adam Arnold as the son; far and away the best British child-actor I have seen on stage.

What really distinguishes My Child from any number of similar soap storylines and true life magazine narratives is the way Bartlett uses this simple story to present a ferocious attack on the failure of what used to be considered ‘lefty’ principles – in the sense of nice, Guardian-reading, politically correct, polite, community-minded, kind and ‘good’; at the same time offering a devastatingly bleak view of the sheer nastiness that can evolve between parents in a failed relationship, contemporary consumer culture’s emptiness, and the amorality of modern children. It is perhaps no coincidence that the titular child of the play would have been conceived at roughly the time that Tony Blair took office in 1997.

Sunday 14 May 2017

Down To Earth – Shifting Perspectives, (HdBF, TT17), Berlin

[seen 12/05/17]

Shown as part of the “Shifting Perspectives” strand, I idly wondered if the shift in perspective that Theatertreffen is hoping to effect here is from “typische Andrew Haydon” to “Charles Spencer” or “David Hare” or “Quentin Letts”.

If you’d asked me at 9pm (i.e. just before Down To Earth started) if I liked contemporary dance, I’d have said, “Yes! Quite a lot, actually.” One hour of two naked blokes rolling round on the floor – seemingly with the aim of expressing their gap year – I might have been a bit more frosty.

But let’s not throw out an entire artform on the basis of a particularly mediocre example of it. Contemporary dance is a toughie, right? As I suggested in my Real Magic review:
“Thousands upon thousands of people go to the Tate Modern a year and quite like looking at the Rothkos, I think. And they get something from them. And they don’t all get the same thing. But Rothko’s popularity is such that clearly a lot of people find what they get out of his paintings rewarding. We know it’s ok to get “a feeling” from it.”
But, equally, it therefore follows that it’s also ok to get nothing from them. Or purely negative associations. Or simply iterations of aesthetics that one variously finds witless, condescending, reactionary, and dull. (How I feel about Paul Gauguin, for example)

And so it was here. From my resolutely unshifted perspective DTE was naïve to the point of near-racism (interestingly, the production hails from South Africa), and (super-)narrative-led to the point of stupefaction. Which is interesting in itself, since it was just two blokes rolling around the floor naked, with the contents of a couple of bin liners (various oddments of clothing and kitchen appliances mostly, it seemed).

The blurb for the piece asserts:
“In an interplay of socially coded dance forms, music and cultural artefacts, Down to Earth uses the human body as a projection screen for the investigation of constructed identities. Assuming that the universal questions of “Where do you come from?” and “What do you do?” no longer suffice to reflect the complexity of this issue, the performance examines which effects and actions we can employ to break through the attributions and projections that are levelled at us.”
Their answer seemed to be something along the lines of “we’re all Zulus under the skin!” and looked for all the world like some staggeringly unsubtle and unstable bit of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation which, in this context, felt about as appropriate as that “Africa” party that Prince Harry once went to (dressed as a Nazi?).

I could have happily lived without ever having seen this. Or without it ever having been made.

We Are the Ones Our Parents Warned Us About – Stückemarkt, (HdBF, TT17), Berlin

[seen 12/05/17]

Tanja Šljivar’s new play – We Are the Ones Our Parents Warned Us About – is, I think, probably very good. Stood up as a two-and-a-half hander in a rehearsed reading, with German actors reading an English script, perhaps too much gets lost for any definitive sort of judgement, though. It’s in that narrate-y style that’s become/ing popular (cf. most recently How My Light Is Spent), and I imagine the script gives little clue as to how to stage it.

There are a few characters, who here were played by one man, one woman, and another bloke behind a kind of DJ/laptop/sounddesk/etc. read in some “stage direction” narrations, and maybe even the odd additional character(?). The story itself – the entire thing was relatively hard to follow at the time, and writing up a day later is almost impossible to remember with real clarity – involves a mother at her son’s grave, the voice of her dead son, her dead son when he was alive (telling people he’s going to kill himself), then somewhere along the line there’s a bit where a young man also has sex with a woman the mother’s age (the mother? But presumably not the son) in a disco toilet(?). Maybe the script does that Lynch-y/Three Kingdoms-y fold back on itself to facilitate an impossible incestuous encounter between dead son and grieving mother, but I’m pretty sure I just blinked and missed something because there were only two actors playing more than two parts. (I know, I know; these are Billingtonian levels of incomprehension and apparent refusal to grasp what is probably a really self-explanatory text. I can only promise that in the event, the reading – which did at least look lovely, and have both a smoke machine and banging music – made it less than entirely clear (to me).)

I guess I should probably stop digging my grave here.

Would love to read the script; see a full production; even see a different reading; but this is pretty much all I can say about what I saw in the event.

Zelle Nummer – Stückemarkt, (HdBF, TT17), Berlin

[seen 12/05/17]

Czech playwright Petra Hůlová’s Zelle Nummer (Cell Number) – shown here as a semi-staged rehearsed reading directed by Armin Petras – is a fascinating play. It’s fascinating for its subject matter – an imagined future where Czechia’s political/intellectual elite have withdrawn into cells to consider the question of Czech national identity, particularly in the light of Syrian refugees arriving by the EU-quota-load. It’s also fascinating for its form – a three-handed “debate play,” albeit one which feels more like three intercut monologues; a feeling exacerbated by Petras’s staging here. The English translation – projected as surtitles – lets us know that the play goes heavy on the alliteration (which may work rather better in the original Czech).

The most fascinating thing, however (for me, as an almost-definitively-not-Czech, English outsider), is the extent to which – with the change of only a few place-names and historical details – how loudly and clearly the piece also speaks to the current situation in England (and by extension, “the UK”/”GB”). *Of course* our histories are poles apart, which only serves to compound the frustratingly numerous similarities that spring up as soon as the question of “national identity” is asked. Instead of his piss-poor verbatim nonsense, Rufus Norris should have staged and toured an example of a play about National Identity from every other country in Europe. (And he should have done this *before* the referendum.) (Theatregoing,) UK audiences would have soon seen that there is literally nothing unique about England’s attempts at nationalism, about the vexed questions of what a national identity even is, and that our vanity of infinitesimally small differences was on a hiding to nothing. (None of which answers whether any country should want to be a part of the EU, but it might have taken the edge off the atmosphere of toxic xenophobia – if anyone had actually been to see them. Which, realistically, might not have happened. But heigh ho.)

Would this play do well in England? Not in its current form (a form it was difficult to properly/meaningfully assess, with a “staged reading” in German that obscured more than it elucidated). I think the monologue-ishness of of the structure might be hard to make work (to my tastes), although given that The Vertical Hour was ever a thing, perhaps with a convincing set, and the right actors, it could be given a good go. There’s also a vein of political incorrectness in the piece – a disabled character in a wheelchair who says some pretty hardcore things, another character who is ambiguously, Rod-Liddell-ishly, “liberal”-baiting – which might confuse English audiences used to be being told what to think by playwrights with unimpeachable liberal credentials.

Still, I would be interested to see it. Perhaps full, naturalistic production Downstairs at the Royal Court, with a top-flight cast, for just one week. Maybe in rep with some other nationalism plays from other places (not least The Patriots). But, yeah. Ain’t going to happen, so I’ll stop reviewing it as “Fantasy Programming League” (where every single play gets put on as an experiment).

Will be fascinated to see what the Germans made of it, if anything.

Who Cares? – Haus der Berliner Festspiele (side-stage), Berlin

[seen 11/05/17]

Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they grant them their wishes... Playing as part of the “off-programme,” Swoosh Lieu (best name for a theatre company ever?)’s Who Cares? comes across rather as if all the missing feminism from Simon Stone’s Three Sisters and Kay Voges’s Borderline Procession had been squirrelled away and all saved up to be staged together in one piece. And here’s that piece.

Swoosh... are a new, young company. Very new and VERY young. NSDF-eligible young. As such, it feels slightly unfair to bring the full force of whatever irritation I might have entertained during Who Cares? to bring directly to bear on the piece. It was late. And the piece *is* full of indisputable true things about how women are treated/perceived/oppressed/maligned by the world. So: free pass.

The fact that I’ve seen this very piece pretty much every year since I started going to the theatre doesn’t make it a bad piece. It probably just makes me the wrong person to review it. Certainly not the person to champion it.

In case you’re wondering, that piece is a kind of melange of devised/verbatim/installation/headphones/video projection/several-minutes-of-half-assed-Top-Girls-alike-bit (featuring the Three Sisters, Medea, Antigone, etc. etc..)

The technological elements have changed over time. The pan-historical costumes (the virgin mary, some Renaissance lady, Marlene Dietrich-type in a top hat, that woman off that poster, and some modern female archetype that felt instantly recognisable – short hair, club clothing – but non-specific...) and layers and layers of white washing being hung out have not.

So, yes. I saw this. It existed. What it said was still urgent. The theatrical case it made for saying it, not so much.

[Possible doubt: I’m now so tuned-out of Berlin/postdramatic-theatre that this was possibly a masterpiece and I missed it because I’ve gone all English in my desire for “entertainment” or “narrative” or “satisfaction” or something.]

On the other hand...


Thursday 11 May 2017

Real Magic – HAU2, Berlin

[seen 11/05/17]

or, How to Explain Real Magic to Kate Wyver

Like everyone else, I really liked your review of Real Magic. It’s funny. It reflects an experience we’ve all had at some point or other. And, more than that, it still manages to give a not-inaccurate impression of the show. So much so, that I’m almost tempted to believe that the face value of your text isn’t 100% true. But let’s assume it is; that you didn’t get it (x100, with slight variations on not getting it). This piece is an attempt to help, if you felt discomforted or annoyed by not getting it. (Please feel free to ignore, or dismiss this, if you weren’t.)

Context: I first saw a piece by Forced Entertainment 19 years ago. It was called Pleasure, I think, and I saw it in the (now closed) studio theatre at Leeds Met when I was a student at Leeds Uni, and the Met Studio was where we went to see the cutting-edge, slightly famous, slightly obscure stuff, that we’d still somehow managed to hear vague rumours about. This was pretty much before the internet. It was certainly before Google. And it was definitely before there was anything useful about theatre (or Live Art, or “performance”, or whatever) on the internet. Not that you could find, anyway.

I flat-out didn’t get Pleasure. *At all*. I vividly remember a lot of the elements of that show: a bloke wearing a funny horse’s head mask, a chalk-board with random words written on it, a record player playing a record at the wrong speed, cardboard signs, someone talking into a microphone (also slowed down?). But I had absolutely no map for how to put any of those elements together for myself. I was 21/22 (or so). Blasted was a year old (and I’d only read it). Simon Stephens was an unpublished graduate playwright writing hopeful letters to Mel Kenyon, Mike Bartlett was studying for his GCSEs. I was studying BA Eng.Lit. and taking the odd module in theatre here and there. The most recent play-text I studied was by Arrabel, or Ionesco, or Genet. (As recent then as Our Country’s Good is now), which might have been more use in this context if I’d really grasped what they were driving at then, or seen a stark linear connection between what those authors and this theatre company were up to. But I didn’t. So I didn’t get it. And I don’t think I saw anything else by Forced Entertainment for the next decade or so, having possibly/subliminally filed them as “absolutely beyond me” in the theatre-ticket-buying/requesting bit of my brain.

When I did next see them (and I have no idea what/when this could have been), a lot of things had happened. I’d seen *a lot more stuff*; I'd seen Live Art, contemporary dance, installation work, durational work, German theatre, Belgian theatre, student dance... Frankly, I’d seen stuff that made Forced Entertainment look as familiar, comfy, and middle-of-the-artistic-road as a play by Alan Bennett. (And, in a way, I kind of think that’s how they should feel to people now. I mean this in a nice way, Forced Entertainment.)

But more important than that, I’d been given a (possible) strategic key as to how to approach their work. Not specifically them, but it works for me. The most helpful thing I’ve ever heard anyone say with regard to this sort of work, and how to “get it” though was Matt Fenton (now artistic director of Contact, Manchester), who in 2004 was a selector at NSDF, explaining the how/what/why of some piece of student contemporary dance that he’d selected for the National Student Drama Festival, which had just been presented to a festival full of perplexed student drama types. He said – and I’m having to paraphrase horribly here, the original was much more elegant: “I find it helpful to think of it in terms of jazz (improvisations?).” I think he managed to expand on how one could relate to jazz better than I’m going to do, but that idea of the freedom of interpretation, the freedom to dip in and out of something, the framing of the work in terms of another artform, have all been crucial to how I’ve approached non-linear, or abstract work ever since.

The term “live art” is also really helpful. When you think about art, say; a Rothko, you don’t (I don’t) worry about “understanding” its precise meaning. Thousands upon thousands of people go to the Tate Modern a year and quite like looking at the Rothkos, I think. And they get something from them. And they don’t all get the same thing. But Rothko’s popularity is such that clearly a lot of people find what they get out of his paintings rewarding. We know it’s ok to get “a feeling” from it. We can think of Forced Entertainment as Art in the same way. Instead of using paint and canvas, they use human bodies, lights, sound, and words. (There’s as thing where we could think of a lot more theatre *as Art,* as they do here in Germany, and it would result in a very different-looking theatre scene, as indeed it has here in Deutschland. Or in Norway, where FE won the Ibsen prize.)

The basic situation in Real Magic is clear: there are three performers – Richard, Clare and Jerry – in a semi-circle of vertical lighting bars, on a small strip of astroturf – and they are playing a kind of quiz show, or magic show. One is the host, one has to the think of a word, and the other has to guess what the word is. The words are written on scrappy pieces of cardboard. There are only three words it could be (Caravan, Sausage, Algebra), and the contestant always makes the same three wrong guesses (Electricity, Hole, Money). The host’s patter is pretty much the same throughout: “What’s your name?” “What’s your name” “Have we ever met before?” “Have you ever met before?” “Can you think of a word?” “Do you feel ready?” “Do you feel safe?” “Not too safe?” “What’s your first guess?” “Is that the word you were thinking of?” “Shall we let him/her have another go?” “What’s your second guess?” and so on.

The piece lasts about 1hr20.

As such, this one simple scene repeats over and over again, with various tonal variations. There are subtle shifts of lighting. There is a repeated applause track (repeated ad absurdum), a repeated laughter track (ditto), even a scrape-y rendition of some Bach(?) (which I’m sure I’ve heard used in something else too. What is it?). They do it fast. They do it slow. But what’s most striking is the near-certainty – rapidly established – that they’ll do it again.

So what *do* you do with all this?

Well, here’s some of the stuff that I got from it: it reminds you of *all the quiz shows that were ever on*. The cadences of anyone from Jim Bowen to Alexander Armstrong, via Chris Tarrant and Noel Edmonds all seem to be invoked. Despite (or perhaps because of) seeing it in Berlin, the thing feels peculiarly “British” – stale smoke in brown wallpapered 70s pubs, right through to the overbright colours of today’s HD TVs. But perhaps all quiz shows in every language have those cadences.

Of course, Real Magic isn’t really “a quiz”. And this also seems key. It’s “magic”. Or it would be, if the contestant in this mad gameshow ever got it right. You are perhaps also reminded of those strange TV psychic programmes. Or maybe of Derren Brown.

Then there’s the small amount of text, and th amount of time you have to think about it. I quite loved that the contestant always wanted “electricity, a hole, money” and all there was was “Caravan, Sausages, Algebra”. If that’s not the perfect description of the disappointments of growing up English, I don’t know what is. You could even (over-) read the former list as abstractions of light, warmth, shelter, and the means to obtain sustenance, a symbol of being valued within modern capitalism, while the latter list is a kind of shabby concretisation of the same things. The reality confronting the dream, if you like. So there’s this mismatch between expectation and reality. But then there’s also the expectation of success against the (apparent) inevitability of failure.

Then there is the skill with which the company play with – bluntly – what’s bearable to watch. I would argue that the thing feels pretty carefully calibrated to keep a willing audience pretty much on board. There’s the simulation (the risk, even the threat) of utter tedium, but it never properly materialises. The constant variations in tone and pace, combinations of performers and even changes of costume (basically vest and pants or chicken suit, there’s also a suit knocking about) keep it consistently, perversely compelling. I find the company’s adeptness at performing, and the clear amount of thought and pre-planning that has gone into the piece enormously reassuring. I think a concern that (wary) “people” have with this sort of work is that, on some level, a joke is being played on them. Forced Entertainment are reassuring; if for no other reason than they’re having to put more effort into playing the joke on us, than we are into it being played on us. At which point; the joke is on them, we’re all in it together, or we needn’t worry about being tricked at all.

Another thing I got from the thing – harking back to those French absurdists (et al.) that I studied at university – was how much it made sense as, say, a descendant of Genet, of Ionesco, of Beckett (even, in places, of Pinter). The sense of figures doomed to spend an eternity repeating the same meaningless reflection of life’s meaninglessness, even futility.

At the same time, I also found it very funny. There’s probably a lot to say about the sheer value of just this by itself.

Anyway. This is already too long.

But, as a short conclusion: I reckon, there’s nothing to “get”, per se, but that’s what I got.

Hope that’s useful in some way?

EXPLORER / Prometheus Unbound – Haus der Berliner Festspiele (side-stage), Berlin

[seen (very late) 09/05/17]

“Reviewing” Urland und Crew’s EXPLORER/Prometheus Unbound seems a fairly futile exercise, since the piece in its current form feels, on one level, more like note towards a scratch performance. Or perhaps a series of demonstrations of what their undoubtedly marvellous technology can do.

Or perhaps that’s just the form of the piece and I shouldn’t be allowing myself to be sidetracked by the fact that it’s designed to feel precisely like those things, but is in fact a thoroughly considered, “finished” article.

In either case, what happens (roughly) is this: a bloke with white hair welcomes us to the performance and introduces us to the narrator, the musician and “the guy who works for him”, who are seated along a table covered in technological equipment. The bloke with white hair isn’t speaking, it’s the narrator. Then two (male) performers are introduced (the number of women visibly involved in this production is nil). They are wearing those black suits with infra-red points on them that allow the wearers’ movements to be tracked/plotted by one of those computer programmes, like what Andy Serkis is always doing in Hollywood... (Or, y’know, like Benedict Cumberbatch wears when he’s playing a dragon.)

A large gauze rises (is winched up) in front of the stage, and the two men are projected onto it, rendered as Virtual Reality-style characters – Bridget and Deacon. Bridget looks (and dresses) like Lara Croft, Deacon looks like, IDK, a stock “male” computer game antagonist, all broad shoulders, muscles, and tight t-shirt. They are both voiced by The Narrator; Bridget by means of a voice modulator that makes him sound all chipmunk-squeaky, and Deacon by much the same means, except deeper, and with an American accent (although I guess that is the bloke, not the machine).

[So, yeah, its feminism isn’t super (see photo, top). In the piece’s possible defence, it is (probably) only describing (and almost certainly satirising) the current(/past) state of online, rather than actively endorsing it. Sure, it’d be better if it wasn’t an all male ensemble – with an attendant sense of boys and their toys – but I don’t cavil at every all-female ensemble, and blokes can be allowed their R&D shed-time too, right? ] [checking the credits, both producers have female names]

There’s an interesting bit at the end where the narrator keeps repeating “Form is nothing, form is nothing”. This is particularly ironic in a piece where *content* has been nothing as well. I think he’s quoting from a Timothy Leary book from 1994. Main introduce-y bloke is certainly one of those baby-boomer that Simon Stone warned us about. Indeed, there is a residual sense that this is a bunch of refugees from the hippy sixties who have somehow contrived to get hold of a lot of impressive tech.

Is form nothing? It’s a bold proposition to table in relation to this piece. Because, formally, on one level it’s still absolutely “just theatre”. We, the audience, are seated silently in a rake facing a stage (albeit a stage behind a screen). There are disconnects between image and performer, and character and voice. (And even between locations, once the thing really gets going, planting the avatars in virtual rooms, on virtual beaches, and eventually – in stripped down, increasingly abstract forms – on a seemingly infinite, brick-textured plain.) Startlingly so, in fact – it’s remarkable how quickly you can get sucked into the cartoon-like reality and forget that you can also see how it’s being constructed.

All that said, it would have been nice if they’d thought about the content *a bit more*. It’s fine. It’s mildly amusing, and it serves its meta-, illustrative purpose well enough. But given that the thing is 1hr20, it could really have done a lot more. And so could the computer animations.

Basically, this is a very fine Beta version of a technique in its infancy – at least as far as its use in live theatre is concerned. One day, I can imagine looking back on this piece, after I’ve just seen a virtual-live Ring Cycle, and smiling at how naïve things used to be back in 2017. I mean, this is clearly game-changing stuff. Not this show, but this tech, will one day knock our technophile socks off in the same way as The Encounter or War Horse... But form is not nothing. And, as per War Horse, technologies (even ones as “simple” as puppetry), need nurturing and an intelligent, purposeful context in which to flourish.

[post-script: OH! It’s by Eric Joris. Whose O_Rex I saw a decade ago at SpielArt. And was pretty much the same shtick: 
...Zlatko is told that the helmet has video cameras on it, which feed into the screen inside the helmet. In fact, what he is shown is the video feed from an entirely separate set of cameras, elsewhere in the building - or perhaps pre-recorded (or both, it wasn’t entirely clear). 
 For the rest of the piece, Zlatko wanders around the stage lost in a virtual world, while the compere talks to him, sketching out a sort of memory/dream sequence for this lost Oedipus. It is fascinating stuff - perhaps most especially for Zlatko - but it is also limited. 
In spite of the extra visual elements on stage - laptops on remote controlled cars showing video sequences of crawling men and body parts - and the occasional live soundscapes provided by a female singer, there is nowhere near enough content to justify the length of time...]

Monday 8 May 2017

The Borderline Prozession: a loop on what divides us – Rathenau-Hallen, Berlin

[seen 08/05/17]

This is more like it.

After what feels like something of a false start yesterday, Schauspiel Dortmund’s The Borderline Procession feels like exactly the sort of three-hour-long, non-linear, multi-media *thing* that I go to Theatertreffen to see.

To be strictly fair, there’s actually nothing especially/intrinsically “German” about The Borderline Procession.

What is is is – essentially – a two-sided, single-camera version of one of those Katie Mitchell Camera Shows. Basically, imagine The Forbidden Zone. In traverse. With sets of rooms facing both sides of the audience (who therefore can’t see each other), and a camera travelling continuously, remorselessly round, with what’s happening in front of it constantly projected on large screens on both sides. Oh, and for Theatertreffen, this is all being staged in a vast converted warehouse on thr outskirts of the city that they’ve done out specially. It has a huge cast – maybe thirty? Fifty? Something in the order of The Suppliant Women (no idea if some of these are also volunteers). And what they’re doing is, well, maybe I should just describe the [“series of tableaux” is an unimspiring description, but not inaccurate]...

Ok. So. On the side of the stage nearest the door, the rooms are all kinds of domestic interiors. From memory, in order, there’s a hot tub, a sort of gym, a kitchen with dining table, a living room, a bedroom (almost hotel levels of minimalism, but with a crucifix above the bed), and a bathroom. Round the side there’s something like a study (maybe shades of private detective land). Then, on the other side, there’s exteriors – perhaps running continuously along one strip of road, often unrelated to the stuff on the other side of the wall there’s a bus stop outside a kind of Amsterdam strip-show type window (all spangly red curtain and metal shutter); then there’s a kind of stockade, almost, with a high metal fence; then there’s a parked SUV, then there’s a kind of burger/kebab bar. This side feels more spacious for not having walls ever three or four metres.

The immediate effect is (obviously) massively impressive. That doesn’t wear off quickly. Eventually you do get to grips with the fact that it’s actually quite a simple set. But it takes a long time of being impressed to get there. And the fact of the camera adds a whole extra dimension. (I initially assumed, sitting on one side, that the audience would never get to see the other side, as per Mitchell’s “hidden rooms”), but in fact there are two twelve minute intervals, so we were encouraged to swap sides.

At the start, the whole cast are processing (as per the title), round the set behind the camera, on the route that the camera will continue to take throughout the show. They sing a nice not-quite-choral arrangement of In A Manner of Speaking (orig. Tuxedo Moon, but this version probably owes more to Nouvelle Vague’s cover – see bottom).

We Englanders have been handed thick(ish) sheaves of stapled A4 in lieu of surtitles. There’s enough light to read along if you want to, but a quick skim confirms that gist-getting will be fine. The text is a patchwork of postmodern quotation, kicking off with the passage from Genesis where God creates the world, and ending up with extraordinary texts by Berlin artbro Jonathan Meese “about” Lolita, Scarlett Johannson, Megan Fox and Claudia Schiffer. In between there are texgts by everyone from Nietzsche to AfD, Goethe to Ginsberg, Shakespeare to Brecht, as well as newly written or improvised list-texts. Last night, there was also the news, broadcast as text on the TV Screens, that Emmanuel Macron had beaten Marine Le Pen in the French Presidential Election. The news was hugely welcome, and greeted with such an audible sigh of relief in the auditorium; although, dramaturgically, it would have been better for part two of Borderline Procession if Le Pen had won.

So. The first part of the piece is quite a pleasant, relaxing affair. The interiors show scenes of generally content, perhaps a little banal, perhaps a little Lynchilly off-kilter everyday life. A mother puts a child in his raincoat and sends him out to the bus stop; a woman prepares to take a shower, takes a shower, her lover comes home and takes a shower, they have a bath together; a man and a woman (husband and wife?) have a tense dinner together... On the other side of the wall/outside, a woman shuts up shop in the burger van and puts her coat on. In the first part, it feels as if these actions are generally repeated. John Cage’s famous quotation “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all” is repeated (though not quite 32 times). Some of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach is played. Once in a Lifetime is played. Revolution 9 by the Beatles is played. Some of these things are played over each other, while one or other of the performers continues to read through the texts that constitute the “script”. The cycles/sequences happening within the rooms gradually move forward. And the camera remorselessly keeps circling the lot, so that the scenes continue to unfold, one after the other, on the main screen.

On one hand it’s a heady effect. The accretion of image, music and text, smashing into each other like so many signifiers in a semiotic superhighway pile-up. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure there used to be an Ariston advert that did something really similar. Of course, adverts aren’t filmed live in front of you, so there is the fact that you can disdain to keep watching the big screens, and instead keep on looking at the few rooms directly in front of you. It’s incredibly strange to think that I remember the first time I saw this new stage grammar introduced (in Katie Mitchell’s Waves, for me, about ten and a half years ago). It now feels as normal as naturalistic sets of lower class houses must have done in 1966. Now that it’s such a clearly established *thing* in its own right, I guess the question now is whether the idea is being moved forward. Here, I’d say it’s a resounding yes. In a way, this feels like the theatrical equivalent of the single-tracking-shot used in the cult Berlin film Victoria.
[In fact, it’s moderately less impressive, since there are two intervals, use of live image overlay, and it’s not exactly like they’ve got a pace to keep up. On the other hand, there are things it does that film can’t, so...]

Given how settled this first half felt, how seductively routine, I was quite prepared for it to carry on in much the same vein for the next two hours(ish). In fact, the thing has intervals for a reason. This is definitely a three-act piece. And if act one is perhaps The Present, then act two is a projected Near Future, or perhaps just the violent bits of the present that we were studiously ignored. Part two is a kind of dystopian nightmare, complete with Nazi zombies, gimp masks and a protracted rape scene which I could really, really, really have done with not having been there.

[This review is already *way too long*, so I don’t propose to discuss the rights and wrongs of simulating rape on stage here. Suffice it to say, it was grimly fascinating to note the extent to which (in the rules of the production) the act seemed to have to be carried on while the camera wasn’t looking at the scene. And the extent to which it looked needlessly violent. And I was interested by the different relationship between on and off, in terms of the performances and the camera in parts one and two. I will add, that the female performer playing the woman being raped did at least get to keep her one-piece trousersuit/70s jumpsuit thing on, apart from gratuitous toplessness.

Did it add to the artistic whole? Yes. How could it not? Was that enough reason to include it? Is it ever? Possibly. Was it here? Impossible to say. It certainly made most impression on me of anything I’d seen up until that point, to the point of erasing much else. Because it was completely horrible. And it pretty much stopped me in my tracks and changed my mood completely. Amyway, ultimately, I’m never going to be able to say enough against it to satisfy people who think that simulations of rape should be banned on stage, and I’ve already grumbled far too much already for the people who don’t think this sort of political correctness has any place in art criticism.]

Apart from that, there was also a lot of talk about the current world crises: terrorism, refugees, all the wars. There’s even a bit where they tried to quantify all the wars currently being fought. That bit went on for a very long time. And there’s a bit about White Western (Male?) Guilt as well. Alongside the rape scene. :-/

It was at this point, I became most acutely grateful that Macron had won the election. There was talk of Trump and Brexit. The Nazi zombies never really looked all that funny. Or all that improbable.

Then there was another interval. I smoked and tried to walk off the worst of the second half.

The third part has least text. It opens (I think) with almost the whole cast dressed as “little girls” – very much in The Shining/Jake and Dinos Chapman mould, but when coupled with the text about Lolitas, no matter how absurdist and political... Well, after Andrey’s Three Sisters the night before, you do kinda wish the three men named on the front of this piece’s programme (Kay Voges, Dirk Baumann and Alexander Kerlin) had between them had a bit of a sit down and a think about the collective effect of their, ahem, male gazes. I’m sure if asked they’d play the postmodern-defence card – it’s *knowingly* *about* the make gaze. Hence the naked woman taking a shower lingered over for approximately the length of time her male counterpart is. Etc.

Moreover, when the third part of a show that was previously about All The Crises seems to bring it all down to fear of being overrun by a burlesque of sexualised “little girls” (many of them admittedly played by men with heavy stubble, but...). Well, you get the picture. It feels like a critique has been thrown, and largely because there’s no stronger driving idea. The more I think about it, the more I *really have no idea what they were driving at*.

Now, on one level, rounding on the piece’s failures of feminism stands as a very convenient get-out clause for my having failed to come up with a more compelling reading of what’s in front of me. At the same time, we haven’t actually given up on feminism, have we? I mean, no, Germany isn’t dealing in the same sort of feminism as the US/UK are at the moment, but this did seem pretty awkward whatever the current ideology.

So, yeah. Visually it was pretty neat. Intellectually it was interesting. Ethically it was wonky as fuck.

And I’m now too tired to think about it any more...

Have a look at the trailer and draw your own conclusions. It’s not wildly unrepresentative of the whole:

And, in a musical nutshell...

*I will add: I was disturbed that I don’t think the scene would have been half as noticeable to the audience on the other side of the auditorium and only watching the “outdoor set” on screen, which is an interesting comparison between how “live” and “screen” differ.

Sunday 7 May 2017

Three Sisters – Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Berlin

[seen 06/05/17]

The central problem with Simon Stone’s new production of Three Sisters for Theater Basel is working out the best position from which to attack it. (You know Simon Stone, he did that awful Yerma for the Young Vic, which won loads of awards.) It’s not that the production itself is unassailable – far from it – it’s just that every possible direction of attack needs careful qualifying, lest the attack be mistaken for the sort of reactionary rubbish that usually gets said in the British press when someone does something modern to Chekhov.

You could start by attacking the production for itself being artistically reactionary: I mean, I thought Yerma was pretty ordinary, but I could at least see what it was that other people admired about it. While the acting wasn’t my cup of tea, you could see that Billie Piper was giving it full-throttle; in the small confines of the remodelled Young Vic main space, she achieved a certain intensity. In the main house of Berliner Festspiele we’re looking a a full-size modernist Swiss chalet – all angular pine and glass – revolving in the middle of a large stage, but trying to function in exactly the same way. Like Yerma, all the actors are radio miked, but from row 9, this means that you’re essentially listening to a radio drama, playing on high-up speakers above the stage, while some performers potter about in a revolving glass house far below.

Does the realistic glass house, with its detailed interiors, remind you of what Thomas Ostermeier was doing over a decade ago? It certainly does! Hell, its the sort of thing even the National Theatre of GB would put on stage – although you imagine that they would have a problem with radio miked actors completely cut off from the audience by more-or-less soundproof glass. But that doesn’t make the sound design radical, it makes it feel like an oversight.

So, what does the production offer? A realistic house and unrealistic sound. Meh. The acting is interesting. Better than much English acting, in that people talk over each other; worse than almost all English acting, because when people are called on to convincingly simulate heightened emotions (as sometimes happens in naturalistic productions of naturalistic plays) the actors are not terribly accurate in their portrayals of these emotions. Which seems odd in something that seems to have taken such pains with its naturalism.

You can attack it for what it’s done to poor old Chekhov: but this is where you risk sounding like a massive reactionary yourself. So, it’s important to explain: I *really* don’t have a problem with directors radically remaking Three Sisters. But this really isn’t that. As per Stone’s established M.O., this is *something like the plot of Three Sisters – albeit with a load of characters cut – with dialogue improvised by the cast*. It is no particular surprise that the cast have failed to come up with new dialogue that’s remotely good. So, what we’ve got instead is literally: three sisters, some modern-day versions of their partners and some other people. Talking. There are some similar affairs, although the soldiers have all been taken out, so Tuzenbach (here called Bruce, or something) has to shoot himself at the end.

Being scrupulously fair, there is maybe one moment where it works. Some character – it really was impossible to bother keeping track of who was talking, but it was one of the male ones – talks about the current situation of the world, with Trump, and Brexit, and etc. etc., and the whole audience actually woke up a bit. You could feel the quality of attention in the room shift. That one bit was then completely sabotaged by a drearily predictable attack on the baby-boomer generation from someone else, and then the conversation drifted off elsewhere on stage, and the audience went back to not really listening...

Elsewhere, there was a bit where a couple of the blokes played/sang Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ (cf. Ostermeier’s Enemy of the People, Icke’s Ivanov), which a) felt tropey as hell, b) felt completely unearned, c) made me want to punch Stone in the face for thinking he’d made anything that deserved to use ‘Heroes’, d) oh, just fuck off.

Oh! And the house that’s kind of the crux of Three Sisters is now a holiday chalet. The three sisters don’t live there; they just go for skiing holidays there sometimes. They’re used to jetting off “to Berlin to take ecstasy all weekend” (more fuck off), so: a) they’re not stuck, b) the house doesn’t mean anything to them, c) they don’t really seem particularly *troubled* by any *problems,* d) by this point in the list, I genuinely don’t know why Simon Stone thinks Three Sisters is a play worth doing at all. It’s pretty fucking obvious that he doesn’t understand it, and – for the avoidance of all doubt – what he’s replaced Three Sisters with is total crap. I wouldn’t be grumbling if he’d replaced it with something halfway good, but he’s replaced it with 2hrs30 of Sex and the City (or something). Without the jokes.

You can attack it for its misogyny: In. So. Many. Ways. Let’s start with the title – even though, in the original, there are a lot more blokes knocking about than here, you do get that it is a play about three women. Stone’s adaptation achieves the rare distinction of taking out a load of male characters, and *still* managing to make his production more about the remaining men. I mean, really he should have retitled it it Some Men (who happen to know three sisters). Predictably, Andrey seems way more important to Stone than any of his siblings.

Then there’s what’s been done with Natasha. I mean, the original is pretty uncharitable to her, but here she’s an unbearable cartoon. Not cleverly done either. The only possible defence is that Stone (erroneously) sees her as a Trump figure (there’s textual support for that reading in a throwaway comment she makes at the end), but really it feels like naked contempt for women of a certain social class. And not by the sisters, but by the director.

Then there’s the reappearance of the “women all go crazy when they can’t have babies” trope, that he made a whole Yerma out of. I mean, *that isn’t even a thing in Three Sisters,* so your ears do prick up a bit when someone mentions it here. Especially after that FT interview Stone did, where he explained he understood women perfectly because he’d once had a relationship with one.

Similarly, the redaction of a rival for Irina’s hand-in-marriage, and Bruce’s subsequent suicide (subsequent, as depicted here, where it does seem to be brute cause and effect), could certainly be painted as further evidence of the dim view of women taken by Stone. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but overall the reduced roles, the reduced inner lives, the reduced capacity of anything for us to hang on to, is pretty damning. This is basically a play about Andrey the addict now.

You can certainly question its inclusion in the programme of Theatertreffen’17: I have literally no idea what it was about this show that appealed to the jury. Particularly as “extraordinary”. It’s the most ordinary thing in the world. And so familiar too. (Again, I’ve nothing against artists quoting other artists, but this is simply old ideas, not even reheated or integrated.) But even here it feels like you have to mount a defence of your reasoning: look, it’s really, really ordinary. You’re just going to have to trust me here. There’s no “in principle” arguing to be done. At the end of the day, there’s nothing at a conceptual level that couldn’t have worked in other circumstances, but nothing that did work in these specific circumstances (at least, not exceptionally – it’s *fine,* but deeply ordinary. And also quite horrible).

Perhaps the best defence of the play is that it is *intended* as an anti-art irritant. In which case, success! It destroys Three Sisters (let’s not give them the satisfaction of saying “which used to be a rather beautiful play”), it replaces it with a corrosive non-entity of a new play (I was very strongly reminded of The Priory – possibly the single worst (professionally produced) play I’ve ever seen at the Royal Court, or anywhere), and then it puts it on stage in a staging that “will do” (at best). Perhaps all this is intended of a critique of theatre, of the audience, of the original, of something. A kind of “the world is horrible, so you can’t have nice things” gesture. This at least makes sense of it. But I fear it isn’t that at all. Rather, just mediocre work by a director with exceptionally banal sensibilities.


(oh, and extra points docked for trying to co-opt The Cure into the whole soggy mess)

[will re-upload proper Cure version when not in bloody Germany, which has got all of YouTube blocked...]

MK Ultra – HOME, Manchester

[seen 06/05/17]

[shooting script]


This is a story about a dance piece

Cut to /

Stock black and white footage of some 1950s dancers

Cut to /


Cut to /

Stock footage of Miley Cyrus sticking out her tongue

Cut to /

Stock footage of Donald Trump

Cut to /

Stock aerial footage of an anonymous American city


It starts in 2016, when the choreographer Rosie Kay has an idea.

She realised that no one ever wrote feature articles about dance,

because dance was thought to be composed of abstract movements.

She realised that to make journalists write about dance,

dance had to tell them a story they were already telling.

So she teamed up with Adam Curtis.

Cut to /

Stock footage of ballerina being caught.

Cut to /

Stock footage of Fleet Street in the 1950s


Adam Curtis had had an idea.

He wanted to tell the British public stories they had already heard

But, he had realised that if you tell familiar stories in a way that appears to blame someone

but never really make it clear who

then your programmes will quickly gather a cult following,

And up and coming choreographers will want to work with you

Cut to /

Crowd cheering at football match

Cut to /

Nuclear explosion

Cut to /

Beauty contest parade

Cut to /

Justin Bieber smiling at the cameras


So Rosie Kay and Adam Curtis decided to make a show about the Illuminati,

a fictional organisation popularised in the novels of cult American authors

Like Thomas Pynchon and Robert Anton Wilson.

Cut to /

Stock footage of American dollar bill

Cut to /

Stock footage of Britney Spears

Cut to /

Stock footage of ballet dancer


Their aim was to create a new sort of dance. One where

Cut to /

Grainy VHS format video of 80s TV programme

Cut to /

Stock footage of Olympic athletes

Cut to /

Stock footage of Saddam Hussein


if you spoke slowly enough...

Cut to /

Miley Cyrus

Cut to /

Justin Bieber

Cut to /

Britney Spears


and punctuated each line with rapid bursts of footage...

Cut to /

Mickey Mouse 

Cut to /

Vietman carpet bombing 

Cut to /

Marilyn Monroe


some people might think you intended to be taken seriously.

Cut to /

Black and white slapstick comedy routine

Cut to /

Russian jet figher test flight

Cut to /

Old film of people reading newspapers in 70s Britain


Kay had realised, that if you made a piece about modern pop stars,

and made the choreography a mixture of recognisable classical ballet,

mixed in with recognisable quotations from pop music videos,

then the reward-triggering functions in the human brain associated with recognition

would make the choreography seem incredibly rewarding to audiences.

Cut to /

Vast cheering crowds in 1970s Iran, probably.

To be fair, MK Ultra is also extremely well choreographed, and [dancer] in particular is amazing. But Adam Curtis is still taken much too seriously in UK. I prefer my German friend’s assumption that he was a video artist, with a sensibility something more along the lines of Bill Drummond than Jon Pilger.