Tuesday 10 October 2017

Victory Condition – Royal Court, London

[seen 09/10/17]

Chris Thorpe’s Victory Condition is brilliant. It’s such a simple idea that I’m staggered it hasn’t been done before now.

The action of the play is this: a couple arrive back at their quite nice flat after a short holiday (weekend break?) with their little wheelie suitcases. They open their post (a new computer game from Amazon); they open a bottle of white, airport Marks and Sparks wine; they discover they’ve run out of fish fingers and order a pizza via some app on their iPad; he puts on the computer game; she takes a shower. His little guy runs about on screen killing wizards or something, the flat fills with steam from the shower. The pizzas arrive. The couple sit down and eat the pizzas and drink a bit more of their warm white wine.

While they do this, however, the man and the woman are each narrating a completely different person’s point of view. In this version, the man (Jonjo O’Neill) is telling us about his position as a regime sniper looking out over a square where there’s an anti-regime protest. For a few chillingly prescient minutes, it could just as easily have been about Las Vegas. Hell, it might still be Las Vegas, a few years from now. But for now it’s probably Syria, or Ukraine, or Egypt. Etc. Etc. Those places. Those reassuringly far away places. A long way from this flat. And from this couple. And from their easily obtained app-ordered pizzas. The woman (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) is telling us a more fractured story, a story about being some sort of advertising executive, or designer (I think. I don’t really understand semi-proper jobs), who is both at their office and imagining having a brain haemorrhage on the platform of an underground station. At one point she describes the logo on a can of fizzy pomegranate juice. Which is a little bear with a rapier. The can seems to be scattered throughout these realities, like how something you saw during the day recurs in a weird context your dream that night. At another point, it seems like she is speaking for a child who is imprisoned in a bathroom – perhaps in another part of the city not too far from the advertising company, from this flat. The child has been imprisoned in the bathroom so she can be sexually abused. And everything else we hear about might be in her imagination. Possibly even the flat we’re looking at. But at the same time, they’re completely accurate imaginations*.

That’s the mechanical description of what happens.

[It’s really beautifully directed and designed by Vicky Featherstone and Chloe Lamford, btw. There’s not an elegant way to talk about it, but the attention to detail in the *visible reality* part of the show is *so good*, both on the level of how O’Neill and Duncan-Brewster interact with each other, and on the level of *their things.* I don’t remember the last time I saw a naturalistic play so well done, let alone a supernaturalist play like this. I mean, by the time one of them got the Flora out of their small fridge, I think I knew everything it was possible to know about this couple. I mean that wholly admiringly.]

But what actually happens is more complicated than that. There should be a handy pre-agreed term for theatre that operates on the synapses like this. Chris Thorpe’s plays do it a lot. Simon Stephens’s Wastwater did it, Rita Kalnejais’s This Beautiful Future does it, Nina Segal’s Big Guns... It’s theatre that you move through in your mind, receiving continual new information about the situation you’ve been asked to imagine. And the new information radically alters how you can imagine the situation. Theories and ideas seem to form and disappear like phantoms of this kind of imaginative fog you’re in. Here the seemingly neutral-but-information-loaded visual context is the perfect foil. It’s *so* grounded in recognisable (middle-class, “kidult”) reality, that the harsh descriptions of anything/everything else are at once completely alien, but also as familiar as listening to international news or documentaries about child sex slavery in the safety of your own home. With the pointed difference that you – as a member of this theatre audience – get to reflect on just how those different realities are unimaginably incompatible. It’s interesting, perhaps, that the piece doesn’t also make you [well, didn’t also make me] reflect on the further incongruity of going to a theatre in Sloane Square to undertake this sort of reflection [at least, it didn’t make me think about it until I was on the train home last night typing this]. But maybe that’s a thread we don’t want to start pulling on too hard just yet [EDIT: Ok, the published script *does* deal with that too. But, on balance, I think the stage-edit is probably wise to quit where it does]. Maybe it’s enough for now to look at this apparently quite nice, happy-seeming couple, and their (sort-of) blameless holidays abroad (let’s not think about global warming, maybe they were on Eurostar?), and the simulated violence of the computer game contrasts with the obvious tenderness and mutual support of the relationship.

Indeed, this is the actual genius of Victory Condition; it goes a step further than Sarah Kane’s Blasted, which located the seeds of the explosive violence in ex-Yugoslavia’s civil wars in the workaday racism and domestic rape and violence of an ordinary English couple. Victory Condition hints that the seeds for the savage civil/proxy wars now raging in Syria (&c.) are also located in Western work, leisure, and even kindness and comfort. It doesn’t even matter if we’re being nice to each other in that expensive hotel room in Leeds (or this nice flat in Dalston or Castlefield or wherever), us just being nice to each other also has consequences; maybe along the lines of “all the evil needs to flourish is good people just being nice to each other somewhere else,” and maybe partly in the ways that Katie Mitchell’s 10 Billion made clear. (The other dramatic touchstone I’d invoke here is several plays by Wallace Shawn, which this production also goes further than, not least in terms of finding a dramatic form with which to make the ideas really resonate.)

So, yeah, Victory Condition strikes me as a real step forward for British theatre. Granted, it’s a sort of “writer’s regietheater” (i.e. the brilliant directoral concept has been supplied by the writer, so the director is serving the text...), but in its defence a) it’s a brilliant concept, b) it gets the much-blunted ball rolling again with non-literal, completely counter-intuitive text/production relationship, and c) I daresay there *are* other ways to do it (in chorus with a whole stage-full of people in a naturalistic restaurant, maybe?) which will be discovered in subsequent productions (and doubtless a zillion -student productions which think they’ve discovered chairs and microphones for themselves... :-/ ).

Oh, and, because I hardly ever remember to say this, I should say that O’Neill and Duncan-Brewster are both really brilliant too. I mean, sure, I do think the play is very clever, and the production looks brilliant, but all that would be absolutely for shit if D-B and O’N hadn’t found a way to deliver some pretty dense poetic thought clearly, hypnotically, intelligently, compellingly, and – ultimately – hauntingly. (And all this while credibly carrying on like a couple who have just returned from a city-break with a bottle of airport wine and have had to order pizza because they’ve run out of fish-fingers... They’re bloody geniuses, people. I know we knew that about each of them already anyway, but it doesn’t hurt to say it again. Geniuses.)

But, yeah, this is about as exciting a play as I’ve seen this year in England. So, of course, it’s destined to go on that ever-lengthening list of “insanely underestimated Royal Court classics” along with everything from Blasted to Wastwater et al. And, honestly? I don’t think I can imagine a higher compliment to pay Victory Condition than this.

*I’ll refrain from mentioning Twin Peaks: The Return and its question “who is the dreamer?” from the main body of this review, but I do think that question is definitely present in Victory Condition. I don’t have any particular answer as to what it means in this context. Perhaps a close relative of the “England’s dreaming” from ‘God Save The Queen’ here?

Monday 9 October 2017

(The fall of) The Master Builder – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

[seen 09/10/17]

It strikes me that WYP’s new adaptation/production of Ibsen’s The Master Builder is a good example of where British Theatre™ has got to in 2017. A good place to take its temperature, so to speak. It’s worth saying at the outset that it’s good. Very watchable. (“Enjoyable” wasn’t ever going to be exactly the right word, but despite that it *is* enjoyable; in the sense of “dramatically satisfying,” at least.)

The first half cleaves pretty close to Ibsen’s original, played naturalistically in a realistic set, updated to present day Engway/Norland (insofar as everyone has Yorkshire accents, Norwegian names and place names, and HRH Prince Charles is down to open the new shopping centre (with a spire!), which Halvard Solness has designed). In the second half, there is some polite adaptation. Clunky chunks of expository scene are binned in favour of snappy, to-the-point monologues. The cast – still in character – talk into microphones in a downstage mini-orchestra pit, while Reece Dinsdale’s Solness alone stays in/on the office set stage, the rear wall of which gradually advances on him as the net of accusation/evidence tightens around him.

So, what do we get? I think it’s fair to say that we get a decent account of Ibsen’s (relatively rarely performed) classic play, The Master Builder. It is an account that both highlights and solves the problem of Ibsen’s 1892 original; that it is basically the tragedy of an heroic nonce. Which we maybe don’t find so heroic in 2017. We now have modern words for the sort of relationship that arose between Solness and Hilda Wangel, words like “inappropriate” and “grooming” (in much the same way that we can now bear to say “syphilis” as they never quite manage to in however many pages of Ghosts). Zinnie Harris goes a long way further toward removing any doubts we might have about what Solness’s behaviour really means. Here he is revealed as a serial offender. As such, it’s perhaps a bit of a shame that Harris hasn’t updated Wangel a bit more too, since she alone seems to have come straight from 1892, only stopping to change into some modern clothes, which don’t suit her any more than her six-year virginal wait until she can come and bother Solness some more, or her anachronistic unfamiliarity with the concept of child abuse.

It feels like a very British solution to a “problematic” text; re-writing it, so that it now acknowledges our modern need to condemn inappropriate behaviour unequivocally wherever it is found. There is precisely no ambiguity left in the play by the time Solness (do we really need to “spoiler warning” this?) chucks himself off his spire; now to escape justice at the hands of a baying mob below, bathetically shouting “kiddie fiddler” at him.

Similarly, the microphones‘n’modernity set feels like a very British compromise with the need for theatre to innovate and move forward formally. A modern set and microphones are in. no. way. actually innovative, or new, but they are excellent signifiers of the need for innovation; and, in a city theatre that has been largely without innovation for many, many years, they’ll do as a symbolic representation of actual experimentation, and doubtless strike many people watching as very daring, but, crucially, not off-putting. They are the ideal compromise solution for signalling radicalism without alienating the core audience. I’m not sure how much actual intellectual sense any of it makes, but that’s maybe an unfair bridge too far. And why not just chuck *some stuff* at a staging? The overall piece doesn’t suffer too badly for it. Because...

The main event here is the acting. Ultimately, this is not “writer’s theatre” or “director’s theatre,” this is very much actors’ theatre. Reece Dinsdale is properly, properly brilliant. (Ok, it took me maybe five minutes to adjust to the stage-shouting volume here, but once I was past that...) It’s almost impossible to pin down why it is you’re worried by him from the minute he steps on stage, but he’s just lethally threatening, without threatening anyone at all. If anything, at face-value he’s more needy than anything, it’s just the sense that Solness is the sort of person who might suddenly snap and get very nasty indeed, which rolls off the stage in waves. And he co-opts us, the audience, too; often furtively looking out through the fourth wall, to catch our eye, as if to share a look with us that makes us complicit in dismissing whatever’s been said to/about him on stage. It’s a very clever device indeed. It also works perfectly as the wholly credible character trait of an abuser with a public profile. Not only going about his abuse in plain view, but enlisting observers as both complicit and forgiving. The supporting cast is (almost) uniformly excellent (_ _ as Hilda is dreadful and not even remotely up to the standard of everyone else. Sorry).

So, what’s not to like? Very little. What *is* strange, and what this production highlights, perhaps, is the strange place we seem to have got to with Plot and Meaning in the early C21st. In Ibsen’s original, Solness ambiguously falls to his death, and it’s somehow mysterious, slightly supernatural, and both “tragic” and also a kind of final judgement-ex-machina on his conduct. Where I say above that the plot has been updated to placate modern norms and niceties, it’s the ending that now sticks out like a sore thumb. What do we actually want from endings these days? This one suddenly feels a bit too pat. Where the actual business of the play itself feels acute and perceptive, the ending now feels like a daft device. Perhaps it always did, but without any belief in anything more than postmodernity and capitalism (or whatever it is we do actually believe in now), neither accidental death nor suicide seem like a satisfying ending.

Perhaps the real answer is that we now demand another 12 hour-long episodes of painstaking trial and imprisonment drama on Netflix, stretching on into 2nd, 3rd, and etc. series in which we slowly get to know Solness or Hilda more and more (while allowing for discrepancies between individual episodes and writers), even unto what feels like an infinity...

Friday 6 October 2017

The Stage: A Nazi Comparison

[written for The Stage]

For a couple of days I’ve been trying to remember where I’d previously heard A Nazi Comparison as a title, then [and I swear I’m not making this up; my German isn’t that good] I remembered. It was the song from the end of Leopard Murders, shown as this years FLARE festival (scroll down for rough English translation). And I slightly wish I’d just filed it as my review:

Der Nazivergleich

Der Nazivergleichist
die Schwäche der eigenen Sachargumente
ist der Versuch, Verbrechen aufzurechnen
relativiert die Nazis,
verunglimpft die Opfer
ist typisch Deutsch

Der Nazivergleich
ist eine rhetorische Ungeschicklichkeit
ist was für Schwächere
bringt inhaltlich nicht weiter
ist stumpfer Populismus
zerstört den vernünftigen Diskurs

Der Nazivergleich
ist ne Geschmacklosigkeit,
diskreditiert sich selbst
ist eine Unverschämtheit
steht unter jedem zweiten Online-Zeitungsartikel
vereinfacht ein komplexes Problem.

Der Nazivergleich von Rechts ist Geschichtsklitterung
Der Nazivergleich von Links ist nicht hilfreich
Der Nazivergleich ist das Totschlagargument


The Nazi Comparison

The Nazi Comparison
is the weakness of one’s own argument
is the attempt to settle crime
relativizes the Nazis
disparages the victims
is typical German

The Nazi comparison
is a rhetorical stumble
is something for weaker ones
brings nothing of substance
is obtuse populism
destroys reasonable discourse

The Nazi comparison
is tastelessness
discredits oneself
is a brazenness
is found after every other online newspaper article
simplifies a complex problem.

The Nazi comparison from the Right is a historical misrepresentation
The Nazi comparison from the Left is not helpful
The Nazi comparison is the thought-terminating cliché

[for the Press Gazette story about this review, click here

Dehli Dance – OKT / Vilniaus Miesto Teatras

[seen 01/10/17]

To survive in a modern, multicultural English context, I rather imagine Ivan Vyrypaev’s “Delhi Dance” would need a different production to the one which it has been given here by leading Lithuanian director Oskaras Koršunovas...

[to be continued...]

Tuesday 3 October 2017

Sun and Sea – Nacionalinė dailės galerija, Vilnius

[seen 01/10/17]

[Ok. This is going to be a very short review. I guess, for form’s sake, I’ll try and do it as a 250-word Stage-style piece, if only to keep my hand in.]

Sun and Sea is a contemporary opera made by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė. This presentation at the Sirenos festival is in its “installation” form, at Lithuania’s National Gallery. To this end, the piece is played at the bottom of a wide stairwell, and we – the audience – watch leaning over three floors of bannisters, looking down on it, with the surtitles projected (in white, on white) onto the staircase. Initially it is visually arresting, but we’re soon let off with a caution.

The form of the piece is essentially a kind of psychic seagull’s view into the minds of various sunbathers on a foreign beach: we hear their (sung) frustrations, petty grievances, and trivial satisfactions, set to an undulating electronic ambient score (played live? Who knows with electronic music?). Some of the bits are more interesting (both musically and emotionally) than others. There’s a bass whose Nietzsche-for-Businessmen approach to life is clearly driving him into an early grave, and a mezzo soprano whose bitching about other people leaving rubbish on the beach is a real musical pleasure.

On one hand, this set-up feels incredibly modern, and perhaps even a teeny bit iconoclastic, but it’s basically Lithuania’s answer to London Road, without the narrative drive. And, while I’m all for ironic postdramatic detachment, if there aren’t going to be chairs, then I reckon we might still need a more compelling reason to stay standing than *some musings*.

As it was, you could hear the music round the entire gallery, so I *might* have wandered off and looked at the paintings for the last half hour.

Director and Set Designer – Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė
Librettist – Vaiva Grainytė
Composer and Music Director – Lina Lapelytė

Soloists: Aliona Alymova, Svetlana Bagdonaitė, Auksė Dovydėnaitė, Saulė Dovydėnaitė, Leona Kairienė, Artūras Miknaitis, Eduardas Paciūnas, Vytautas Pastarnokas, Eglė Paškevičienė, Violeta Savickaitė- Paciūnienė, Ieva Skorubskaitė, Jonas Statkevičius, Alfredas Tamulynas, Lukas Vaičiūnas, Eglė Valčiukaitė, Povilas Vanžodis, Šarūnas Visockis, Stasė Žaltauskaitė-Malūnavičienė

Keyboards – Tomas Dičiūnas
Sound Director – Valdas Karpuška

Three Sisters – Lietuvos Nacionalinis Dramos Teatras

[seen 30/09/17]

Initially, the most striking aspects of Yana Ross’s new Trys Seserys for the National Theatre of Lithuania were the similarities and differences to Simon Stone’s idiotic version of the same at Theatertreffen this year.

Both are updated to the present day, and to the country where the producing theatre is located. Both end with von Tuzenbach (or his analogue’s) suicide (rather than death in a duel). And both are considerably less than “the full text in translation” – but where Stone’s rewrite managed to be about as long as a full translation, even with half the characters missing, Ross’s keeps almost the full compliment of characters, but looses about an hour and a half of script. The result is that while the story is still moving here, we’re kept such a long way from the characters – meeting each of them only fleetingly – that it is pretty difficult to get too involved in their personal woes. For me, this wasn’t such a huge problem; I mean, we can all remember what each of the three sisters wants, and why Andrei is such a shame generally, etc. What Ross brings to the table to compensate (more than adequately, I’d argue) is the sense of impending military calamity in Lithuania/the Baltic States/Northern Europe.

This Three Sisters is set in a kind of aircraft-hangar-y mess hall for the NATO troops stationed in Lithuania (a very real and present thing). The three sisters are indeed Russians, left behind from ‘Soviet Times’ after Lithuanian independence. The only thing that’s dodged here is that, realistically, the real reason they’d be going back to Moscow would be because Putin had successfully reinvaded and NATO had failed to stop him (see: current military exercises all along the Lithuanian border by Russia’s massive armed forces).

Within this promising comment on the real, actual state of the world right outside the theatre, the story of the play makes complete sense, but – even more so than in Chekhov’s original – seems to matter less. Ross – as per Chekhov – seems to be playing most of it more as bitter comedy than bourgeois tragedy. While the stakes might be life and death for the play’s self-absorbed characters, they are the tragedies that Stalin compared to statistics.

As such, the really moving parts of the production are just as often the footage of Russian and NATO forces firing missiles in the snow; of helicopter gunships and fighter jets flying low over beautiful pine forests. There’s a sense in the production (if not quite yet in reality) of the inexorability of war; of the sheer instability of the current Pax Europa. Against this backdrop, yes, sure, it’s still sad if husbands and wives grow apart, if people don’t fulfil their potential, if people are unfaithful to their partners, if love is unrequited, etc. But, Christ, it doesn’t half put things in a sobering perspective. 

What is perhaps cleverest about Ross’s show is that it really does give back the sense of the trivial and the uselessness that Chekhov always seems to be driving at, but which is often just sentimentalised away in production (particularly in UK). Here we get everything back, the hurt feelings, boo hoo, but also the futility and meaninglessness of the hurt feelings. As a result, while not always directly pleasurable, this is perhaps the most bracing Chekhov I’ve seen in a good long while.

In this, it is the exact reverse of what Stone attempts (and fails, even on his own terms) to deliver. Here instead of smug complacency and childish point-scoring at the expense of the characters is something which gives us both the hilarity of personal tragedies and the seriousness of comic futility.

Director — Yana Ross
Set designer — Simona Biekšaitė
Music by — Yana Ross
Video designer — Algirdas Gradauskas
Light designer — Vilius Vilutis
Cast: Rimantė Valiukaitė, Vitalija Mockevičiūtė, Monika Bičiūnaitė, Marius Repšys, Paulius Tamolė, Dainius Jankauskas, Daumantas Ciunis, Toma Vaškevičiūtė, Tadas Gryn, Miglė Polikevičiūtė, Ramūnas Cicėnas, Vaiva Mainelytė, Valerijus Jevsejevas,

B – Royal Court, London

[seen 02/10/17]

Note to self: next time, maybe don’t go to an English “International” offering when you’ve just come back from abroad. It only makes you cross.

By pretty much any available measure, B is not good. Or rather, this entirely divorced-from-context production of Guillermo Calderón’s B, translated by William Gregory, directed by Sam Pritchard, designed by Chloe Lamford, lit by Lizzie Powell, and performed by Sarah Niles, Danusia Samal, Aimée-Ffion Edwards and Paul Kaye, isn’t very good.

The set-up is fine: two deadpan teenagers are planning a terrorist attack. In Pritchard’s production it comes across as Harold Pinter’s Four Lions meets Baader-Meinhof Komplex (with additional material by Eugene Ionesco and Joe Orton). For about half an hour, it’s quite passable. For the next half an hour, much less so. And then until the denouement (including an explosion appallingly rendered as sixth-form expressionism) it’s pretty much dead.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a play so thoroughly defeat a director, much less the last time I saw such a shrug of a production. If you don’t have an idea, don’t direct the play. It’s as simple as that. There’s literally no point in young directors being made to stage unperformable scripts, while being forced to “serve” them. And, given Pritchard’s outstanding Pygmalion, it just makes the Royal Court look like a place where talented directors are neutered (see also, Michael Longhurst’s barely-passable Linda). (In mitigation, I should note that B is playing in rep./double bill with Victory Condition, so has almost certainly also been hamstrung by that.)

Re: the script – I’m sure it’s perfectly good in Spanish, so maybe perform it in Spanish, and let us do the work with the surtitles? Because having English people flatly deadpan their way through a bunch of unsayable sentences about how someone is someone else’s white horse or something doesn’t work one bit. I daresay even some Chilean actors could have made a bit more interpretative sense of it, but, dear God, not native Englishers doing their most deadpan accent thing. Not that.

Ach. There’s not much more to say, really. There is interesting stuff to think about in the play, but the production doesn’t incline you to do so. Edwards is quite funny and good as one of the terrorettes and Paul Kaye is actually very good indeed as their enigmatic bomb-maker. But, y’know, theatre’s a bigger artform than that, so the presence of some functioning parts in a malfunctioning whole isn’t even slightly enough.