Sunday, 30 December 2012


Will add some words and thinking when I’m not doing something else, but here is the click-through-to-original-review-able list (yes, it's more than ten):

Three Kingdoms

Reise durch die Nacht

Three Sisters


Meine Faire Dame

Gods are Fallen and All Safety Gone


In The Republic of Happiness

Monkey Bars

There has Possibly Been an Incident

Small Narration

Scenes From an Execution


Sam Halmarack and the Miserablites

Plus a special mention to The Trial of Ubu, which was the first play I saw this year, after the longest break I’d ever taken from theatre.

So, yes; more soon...



[“this is just a scene change to inconvenience Mark Lawson”]

Hello, I’m Andrew Haydon. A “tired reactionary-in-waiting”, thank you, Sean.

Embarrassingly, Sean has just said a lot of what I’m about to say.

So: “How is critical discourse keeping pace with contemporary theatre?”

My initial reaction was: “It. Isn’t”.

I expect that’s what a lot of you have come here today to hear people say.

But, then the Bush asked me to come up with a title for my bit of these talks, and I offered them “Interrogating the Terms”. Having a fag outside just now, I realised I now want to call it “Alan Bennett: Our Contemporary”, but anyway. “Interrogating The Terms”:

Because, In a way, that’s my job.

Because I think it’s a good idea to interrogate terms.

And because, I thought, if the worst came to the worst, I could probably do it off the top of my head.

So, interrogating the terms:

What do we mean by “contemporary theatre”?

And: what do we mean by “critical discourse”?

Do we mean “all the theatre that is being made today” and “all the reviews that are written about all the theatre that is being made today”?

Interrogating the question:

what I take the question to be asking is not about the means by which “critical discourse” or “theatre criticism” does or does not keep pace with contemporary theatre, but the extent to which it manages to do so.

And, if that’s what we mean; actually, the answer is that not only does “critical discourse” keep pace with “contemporary theatre”, most of the time it’s ahead of it.

Contemporary British Theatre is not such a complex and rapidly moving creature that it is constantly out-pacing the critics.

Indeed, if we’re picturing this in terms of a race – as the question seems to invite us to – then, most of the time, the critical discourse is standing-about having a bit of a natter while contemporary theatre runs backwards and forwards over a very small section of the track from about 50 years ago.

Let’s think about contemporary theatre:

I would argue that most of it is pretty easy to keep pace with.

What’s opened over the last week?

There was a new, modern, updated version of Euripides’ Women of Troy at The Gate

There was a new, modern, updated version of Chekhov’s The Seagull at the Southwark Playhouse.

There was Lucy Prebble’s new play about updates to the modern world, The Effect, at the National Theatre.

And there as Hannah Silva’s new-ish piece of “experimental theatre” about modern political rhetoric at the Oval House.

And, well, actually, the “critical discourse” is pretty much on top of that... They know what that stuff is. [with the possible exception of Silva’s Opposition]

“Critical Discourse” is generally up-to-speed on “Contemporary Theatre”.

For the last month I’ve been writing a chapter for Methuen’s Modern British Playwrights: Decades series. I’ve been doing the Oh-Ohs. The book has chapters on: Simon Stephens, David Grieg, debbie tucker green, Tim Crouch, and Roy Williams, which is interesting in itself.

My introductory chapter deals with The Rest of Theatre in the Oh-Ohs.

In 20,000 words.


While writing it, I noticed a few things that are relevant here:

Firstly: it made me think about the extent to which criticism does and does not frame the terms in which we think about theatre.

[hint: journalists are quick to parrot terms from interviews and press releases. I’m not sure they make up labels half as often as they repeat them.]

Secondly: I thought about where that where criticism (the “critical discourse”) could be found. And how that has changed over the last 12 years.

[hint: it’s gone from Time-Out-and-Lyn-if-you’re-lucky to an explosion of blogs, plus Lyn-if-you’re-lucky, and Time Out online only, unless you’re incredibly lucky.

The overall result is that there is A LOT more coverage now than there was in 1999

And it’s both more obscure and more accessible than ever before in terms of both location and availability. This is also perhaps true in terms of its contents.

Thirdly: I realised how little of “contemporary theatre” some people actually mean when they talk about “contemporary theatre”.

And it’s important to address this last point.

There’s a passage in Aleks Sierz’s book Rewriting The Nation – a survey of – capital N, capital W – “N”ew “W”riting in the Oh-Ohs – where he totally dismisses Alan Bennett’s The History Boys for being – and I quote – “simply not contemporary”.

He also dismisses all newly-written history plays as – quote – “mostly costume drama”. We might wryly note that it’s a good job Shakespeare’s editors did not make the same distinction.

His book; his rules. Fine. Whatever.

In Michael Billington’s book, State of the Nation, there’s a bit where – having laid into Shunt’s 2004 show Club Topicana for a couple of pages – he concludes: “In the end, the future of the theatre rests with its playwrights.”

Again: his book, his rules, his taste. He’s free to say what he thinks and to be judged on his judgements.

I’m also troubled by the assumption that seems to be contained within the question we’re here to hear about today: that “critical discourse” is not “keeping pace” with “contemporary [British] theatre”

[I keep adding the “British” because I think that’s what we’re really talking about here]

I’m troubled by the idea that it’s a critic’s job to “keep up”.

I mean, yes, on one hand, basic comprehension should be a minimum requirement for the job.

On the other hand, to understand something – to have kept pace with it – is not the same as endorsing it.

Long-windedly, the conclusion I’m aiming towards is that this isn’t a question of “critical discourse”. And it isn’t a question of “keeping pace”.

I believe Michael and Aleks are both pretty much up-to-speed with almost all of what goes on in Contemporary British Theatre.

No, I do.

About once every year, every other year, once every three years, they might see something that they totally fail to get. We all might.

A Blasted, A Romeo Castellucci, A Forced Entertainment, A Three Kingdoms.

One a year, I reckon. If that. And I notice that two of those aren’t British anyway.


In each case, I’d argue that there was a valid case to be made that these were not failures of comprehension resulting in poor reviews, but differences in taste between director and critic. Or maybe between writer and critic.

The question raises a question about the extent to which theatres put faith in the critics.

The extent to which critics have a “chilling effect” on the work that theatres are prepared to risk their necks making.

And then there’s the question: is it really the critics – in the case of these rare cases of incomprehension/differing tastes – who make the crucial difference?

“The critics” loved that West End Show about a pig, which closed early.

“The critics” loathed that show with Queen songs that is still running about a million years after it opened.

The critics can be surprising in their tastes.

Theatre managements can be less surprising.

After all, critics go to the theatre night after night. They can be quixotic. They can like Benedict Andrews’s Three Sisters but not Nübling’s Three Kingdom’s, they can prefer the Russian Vanya to the British one with people off the telly in it, that people might have expected them to prefer.

So, to an extent, where applicable, I think theatres should stop blaming their own timidity on the imagined tastes of old men and ignore them.

They should grow their own audiences, and should just make work that they believe in.

There are a lot of critics and if there’s a discourse at all, it’s because they are a more catholic bunch than they’re sometimes given credit for.

In the mean time, I’m looking forward to seeing more contemporary theatre that is also genuinely *New*.

So, from my perspective, you run faster, we’ll keep up...

Volpone - Schauspielhaus Bochum

The German town of Bochum lies roughly 55 minutes outside Köln if you take the high-speed ICE train. And what a strange little place it is. Low, mostly new-build buildings; it looks like the kind of places you wake up in if you fall asleep on a night bus home in London: a one horse town with an open stable door. And a very well-hidden theatre. Doubtless, if you know Bochum, or live there, the location of its theatre makes perfect logical sense. Even if you bothered to take a map with you, it might be relatively easy to find, but if you happen to only look at Googlemaps before leaving the house, then it’s harder than you’d think. But more than this, it’s a surprise to find that a) it has a theatre at all, and b) it’s hosting a production by the internationally acclaimed director Sebastian Nübling (première March, 2012).

I was also interested by the fact that the production was of early-modern English playwright Ben Jonson. Shakespeare’s contemporaries don’t seem to get done an awful lot in Germany. And there’s no especial reason why they should be; strip out the language and the direct sense of historical precedence and you’re left with some pretty odd plots and a lot of archaic knob-gags to translate, right? So I was intrigued to see what Nübling had found in this piece to make all the extra effort worthwhile.

Perhaps unfairly, I expect a rather a lot from Nübling. As we might have established now, I loved Three Kingdoms just a bit too much. And I was totally seduced by his production of Pornography, which I saw in Nitra. In between, however, I also saw Alpsegen at Deutsches Theater in Berlin, which I didn’t much go for. Although I also should add that that production also marks the only time I’d ever seen a German audience boo a playwright.

Anyway, my new theory on Nübling is that I’m going to love one, then be a bit meh about one, then love one, then meh, and so on. Either that, or it’s only his productions of Simon Stephens plays I really like. We shall see. I certainly don’t intend any kind of boycott any time soon. And I am being unfair. Because on lots of levels, this Volpone is pretty good. Just not half as good as either the photos or Three Kingdoms might have led me to hope. And the photos are good, aren’t they? (one at top, one a bottom.) Also a bit misleading.

The actual set for Volpone (bühne – Dominic Huber) is essentially a rough wooden staircase flanked by a kind of false-perspective set of receding proscenium arches painted to look like, what? Seventies wallpaper? It probably looks better from the centre of the auditorium about half way back. I was on the relatively extreme right near the front.

It’s not a *bad* set by any means, but nor is it especially inspiring. Apparently the rising flight of steps motif is common to *a lot* of German stagings of tragedy. This is perhaps a slightly steeper set of steps than those, but then Volpone isn’t a tragedy either, so perhaps there’s some sort of ironic concept going on here that I’m only on the periphery of understanding. Perhaps, thinking about it in connection to the costumes, there’s a bit of Ost/ex-Ost-knocking also going on – the costumes might have come straight from Goodbye Lenin, or perhaps just the seventies in general).

Then there’s the matter of the play. Now, obviously pretty much anyone who reads this blog probably knows about the attendant discussion about misogyny that followed Three Kingdoms. And those readers will also know that I put up a fairly strenuous defence of why I didn’t think it was misogynist. Which I think I’m still pretty happy to stand by. At the same time, it was impossible not to take what others were saying on board. I don’t know about anyone else, but I have a terrible habit of being able to carry on an argument believing in what I’m saying, even while the premise of what I’m arguing against somehow gets into my bones and my bloodstream and makes me think after the argument that it was me who was being unreasonable. I offer to as background to the mindset with which I went into Volpone.

Which is problematic, since Volpone isn’t exactly a play which treats its – relatively few – female characters well. Wikipedia dispassionately summarises their places in the plot thus: “Mosca mentions to Volpone that Corvino has a beautiful wife, Celia... Volpone insists that he must have Celia for his own. Mosca tells Corvino that Volpone requires to sleep with a young woman to help revive him. Corvino offers Celia in order to please Volpone... Volpone is left alone with Celia, and after failing to seduce her with promises of luxurious items and fantasies, attempts to rape her.”

“There are episodes involving the English travellers Sir and Lady Politick Would-Be. Lady Would-Be annoys Volpone with her ceaseless talking.”

Lady Would-Be has been cut.

So we’re left with the awkward proposition of just a beautiful wife and her attempted rape representing womankind for the 2-hour passage of this play. For what it’s worth, Celia is played by a perfectly normal-looking member of the ensemble and not an unreasonably pneumatic Estonian (one of the objections raised re: 3K). Yes, she’s dressed in some pretty high heels, but this is largely for comic effect. And she doesn’t seem to be picked on for especially poor treatment because she’s a woman. This is a cast made up to look like grotesques – one of Volpone’s retinue wears a body stocking under some skimpy Vegas-style outfit and a beard. Others include a skimpily clad overweight man and a kind of devil-clown-dog (really similar to the one in Oskaras Koršunovas’s Hamlet - it this a *thing*?). There’s also a rather pretty man dressed as a woman (I don’t know if in the play he’s a man-dressed-as-a-woman or a woman, like the Trickster in 3K he might not even be *in-the-world-of-the-play* at all) who sings a number of songs.

So, no, it doesn’t feel like it should be seen as sexist, much less misogynist. At the same time, it doesn’t feel either as careful or as carefully constructed as it might be in Britain. On the other hand, given the sexism that is rife in so many of our domestic productions, especially of early-modern plays, I’d feel a long way outside my comfort-zone condemning this production on any such grounds. It’s an odd thing: I’m generally pretty keen to call sexism out when I see it, but this doesn’t feel even like Everyday Sexism. At least, not the British variety. This is more *about* sexism, than sexist. It’s also worth noting that Jonson’s Celia has plenty of lines, and here is funny in her own right and a long way from being presented as mute or servile. Actually, I can imagine a lot of British productions doing this a lot more uncomfortably and getting it under a lot more people’s radars. And yet, coming off the back of the 3K debate, this doesn’t exactly sweep all the charges about representation away half as tidily as I might have wished. Perhaps theatre in general needs to take a good long, hard look at the way it deals with representing women on stage and to start making a few changes pretty sharpish.

Beyond this, I was at the usual disadvantage with the language – something which you feel a lot more acutely with a comedy than with something that depends more on urgent, painfully, emotionally-charged exchanges – especially when the comedy is verbal – and it’s only right to report that the audience at large seemed to find the whole thing perfectly amusing. But, so far, this is hardly a review at all, so what of the rest of the production?

Well, it’s lively, it’s engaging, it talks to the audience more-or-less continually. There’s no pretence at a fourth wall – indeed it feels like there’s no barrier between the audience and the players at all. The piece opens with the players descending the stairs on their side of the stalls to assail a vast metal safety curtain at the front of the stage. Once this is prised open, with much “comic” gurning (not my bag), the breach between audience and cast is hardly re-established. Indeed, while Volpone (a superbly ill-looking and sleazy Matthias Redlhammer) addresses us, most of the figures of the play who are not members of his retinue emerge from the auditorium as if members of the public – which, given that this is a play concerned with Volpone’s duping of the public, makes perfect sense. There is much extended comic business when Celia scrambles or strides over the seats and audience members of the stalls to get on and off stage.

[returning to this review after an almost two-month break to finish an post it, I find that my basic recollection is that it is a sound, competent production. But, lacking, for me, the modernity and real *attack* of Pornography or Three Kingdoms. It’s fine, and might still knock spots off a number of other productions of Volpone, but compared to the imaginative excesses of which Nübling is capable, it feels distinctly under-powered.]

White Noise

[originally published by The Stage]

So, earlier this month, provocative white US playwright Bruce Norris withdrew the rights to perform his play about racial tension, Clybourne Park, from Berlin’s Deutsches Theater. He did so because he was concerned that the director had cast a white actor in one of two parts where the character is specifically black.

Norris said: “After much evasion, justification and rationalising of their reasons, they finally informed me that the colour of the actress’ skin would ultimately be irrelevant, since they intended to ‘experiment with make-up’. At this point, I retracted the rights to the production.” An open and shut case, you might think, but I would argue that this obscures several issues which are worth trying to understand.

We might first note that there’s nothing to indicate that the Deutsches Theater director, so far as we’ve been told, did actually intend to use ‘blackface’ at all. “Experiment with make-up” could just as well have meant precisely that. The actor in question could have ended up naked and painted blue to signify the ‘Otherness’ that the white playwright’s script demands. Equally, having “experimented with make-up” the production team might have concluded that none should be used, and that the actor would have gone on stage white, and his character’s properties of ‘blackness’ would have had to have been imagined by the audience. I have seen both things done – an Asian actor at the West Yorkshire Playhouse playing Ariel to Sir Ian McKellan’s Prospero was painted blue, while two white Germans – one male, one female – played Othello (at the Schaubühne and Deutsches Theater respectively) without any make-up at all.

But what if he had intended to use ‘blackface’? It is worth making a few clarifications. When Bruce Norris says ‘blackface’ he specifically invokes memories of the US and Britain’s recent, racist past. A vaudeville act in which white performers would ‘black-up’ specifically in order to present burlesques of ‘blackness’. When a German theatre director says ‘make-up’ they might intend any number of non-naturalistic devices.

It is worth noting that, for historical reasons, Germany has no such tradition of ‘blackface’. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Germany had few colonies in Africa, and played an all but non-existent role in the slave trade. As a result, Germany has a small black population compared with the UK and US. Also, while Germany committed racist mass murders in the 20th century, the Nazi genocide was directed against Jews and gypsies, not black people.

The second crucial point is theatrical: German theatre tends not to be naturalistic. The basis of this is also historical. Partly it is due to the enormous influence of Brecht, but also to history and the fact that Hitler’s favourite playwright – and Brecht’s teacher, against whom his plays were a reaction –Hanns Johst, was a committed naturalistic playwright (and the man who originally wrote the line “Whenever I hear of culture… I release the safety catch of my Browning”). For the German directors that I know, naturalistic theatre is regarded in the same bracket and with the same contempt as torchlit parades and book-burning. This isn’t an artistic choice, it is the burden of serious history.

As such, with no history of racist entertainment based on white people painting their faces black, with an anti-Nazi theatrical tradition eschewing realism, and with precious few black actors, the German position at least becomes more clear.

Indeed, at this point, Bruce Norris’ insistence that every theatre in the world that ever performs his play does so in the exact manner he has prescribed starts to look like the worst sort of tactless cultural imperialism. It also strikes me as regrettably short-sighted.

Let’s imagine briefly that the boot is on the other foot. Let’s imagine that for some reason Germany has a rule against telling racist jokes on stage and that Clybourne Park (which includes such a joke) had just been banned, or at least censored. We’d be up in arms in support of Norris’ artistic freedoms.

And let’s consider Mark Lawson’s piece in The Guardian last week in which he blithely asserts:
[blackface] would be unthinkable in Britain and America, at least in straight theatre. (It is still common in opera, where Verdi’s Otello is frequently sung by white tenors – perhaps because operatic drama continues to be regarded as a more artificial form).
At a stroke Lawson destroys any notion that this is about race and makes clear this is entirely to do with how we imagine theatre works.

Germany suffers from the same problematic casting issues as other Western nations – see the current furore over the casting of the RSC’s The Orphan of Zhao (News, page 5, October 25) or the production by La Jolla Playhouse, California, of a new musical based upon Hans Christian Andersen’s The Nightingale; both of which have been criticised for putting white actors in some of the relatively few parts written for east Asian characters. This is the problem that we need to address. There is still a tendency to unconsciously view white actors as the norm and neutral, while non-white actors are often seen as ‘other’. It might also be worth observing in passing that Norris doesn’t appear to be half as touchy on the subject of the casting for the deaf character who appears only in the first scene, and who, thanks to having to double as a hearing character in Act II – and a lack of directorial imagination – has hitherto always been played by hearing actors.

It is now impossible to know whether the Deutsches Theater production was going to use make-up to intelligently deconstruct the problem of a white playwright writing a white play about racism (mostly for white audiences); and making black actors say his words to demonstrate his single-viewpoint, white, perspective on the world; or whether it would have transpired to be some baffling, literal-minded representation, along the same lines as a child painting their face grey and drawing whiskers on in order to symbolically represent a cat.

The furore does, however, usefully give us pause to reflect on the state of the industry at large. What does Norris dictating the terms by which his naturalistic comedies about racism are produced really tell us about the uncomfortable facts around casting? And is a naturalistic comedy written by a successful white playwright, and sold on the names of famous white actors appearing in it, really challenging anything at all?

In an interview with the Evening Standard when Clybourne Park opened in the UK, Norris said: “There’s nothing better than coming into a room and feeling that something dangerous is happening”. Unless, it seems, the dangerous thing happening is someone staging his play in a way that draws attention to the inconsistent means through which it operates.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Das wohltemperierte Klavier – Schaubühne

[reclaiming musical theatre:
 revolutionary and counter-revolutionary]

Director David Marton is The Big New Thing in mainland Europe. I caught his production of Die Heimkehr des Odysseus in Berlin last year (one of the enormous file of “unsent Postcards”) and thought it was pretty cool (it’s still in the repertoire if you’re around: light, bright and well worth a look). About this time last year he’d opened shows in Hamburg, Munich and Berlin. This Das wohltemperierte Klavier comes from Paris and opened in January this year.

Marton’s big new thing is basically opera-for-theatre. What he does is propose (or get given) an opera to do (Die Heimkehr des Odysseus was originally Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria by Montiverdi) and uses members of the theatre’s ensemble to perform it, with maybe the addition of a couple of professional musicians and maybe one or two actual opera singers for the most difficult or important parts.

His productions are also very deconstructed. Heimkehr... was accompanied, I think, by an electronic keyboard, a bass guitar, an electric guitar and maybe a couple of orchestral instruments. And the score had been, well, Nüblinged at the very least. Totally Castorfed might be more accurate. There were shreds and fragments left, and it still made total sense, but it had also been hacked around a good deal. Reverence isn’t Marton’s strong suite. Production-wise Heimkehr... looked not unlike the Marat/Sade I’ve just reviewed, albeit with much better stage-pictures and a far surer hand on the dramaturgy.

This is a bit of a departure, though. Not least, for the simple reason that Bach’s WTK isn’t an opera (it isn’t even an oratorio), and therefore doesn’t have a storyline. So, I was completely fascinated to see how he would stage 48 solo pieces for, well, for a Clavier – which tends to be a piano these days.

To help solve this non-narrative problem, Marton has added Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai’s 1989 novel Az Ellenállás Melankóliája (The Melancholy of Resistance) to the mix. Naturally, I haven’t actually read the novel (have you? No? Well shut up then); so, I decided to go in totally blind (à la le criticisme Anglais). Reading through the vague synopsis of the book on Wikipedia afterwards, however, it seemed that I’d pretty much kept up with the general spirit of the thing despite my German. Indeed, I was delighted at one point to instantly recognise Slavoj Žižek’s routine about tulips which had been translated into German and copied and pasted wholesale into a dinner party conversation.

Das wohltemperierte Klavier (as I shall/should continue to refer to this work – or at least as WTK) opens onto a remarkable wide-screen set (click on the “cover” photo, above, for full screen version); three rooms wide and at least two rooms deep, with walls simply demarcated by metal frames. In the background is a beautiful polished grand piano, and in the foreground, another grand piano without its legs is sat on the floor.

It’s intriguing; we’ve got the piano(s), but we’ve also got several bedrooms, sofas, bookcases, and piles of other bits of furniture packed up. A matronly woman enters and sets about straightening a runner. She is softly, operatically warbling tunelessly to herself. “Immer Allein”, she carelessly sings.

And from this off, it all feels like a slightly offbeat version of the Cherry Orchard. (And so it proves to be). The characters – there are eleven – gradually enter, and waft about the rooms. They seem to be house guests in a house that is being packed up and moved out of. They seem trapped in their lives, in their relationships – there appears to be a strangely loveless relationship between some manner of army general in a wheelchair and his wife. She may be starting or carrying on an affair with the son of the house. The mother of the house (not the matronly figure, I don’t think), seems worried about the dinner, about her guests. It feels like classic Chekhov country.

Of course, all these “seems”es are partially down to my still-patchy German. I’m sure the production is a lot less vague about the relationships than your reviewer (and possibly his companions – Mark and Jana – were). Although Jana, whose German is infinitely better than mine, did explain the substance of a long close-to-final speech made by the son about his joining a mob involved in some sort of revolutionary mob violence, with long descriptions of brutality, I think). So, there was also more going on outside this comfortable middle-class home than merely the drifting sense of impending change that one gathers from Chekhov; here were walls insulating the inhabitants from something very real, violent and current. Though, from the production, it feels like this insulation is incredibly effective. One doesn’t feel from the way they are acting, from the way that they behave and interact, that they are in fear of their lives, even their way of life. Neurotic, yes; endangered, no.

I notice that as soon as I start discussing the action on the stage, I immediately start to relate the “plot”. Which means that a huge chunk of what actually happens on stage is suddenly cast by the wayside. That is: the Bach. And, actually, it feels remarkably integrated. How, and to what end, I’m not fully sure – which could equally be down to either my language skills, or something altogether more mysterious or opaque about how the piece operates.

Put simply, sometimes – the first instance is shortly after the start – someone comes on and just plays a bit of one of the pieces from Das wohltemperierte Klavier; other times, bits of them get sung (with no piano accompaniment; other times, with); an on one occasion, more or less the whole cast chip in to a rendition of one of the pieces (I’m sorry, if you wanted to know exactly which pieces they play, you should have sent a musicologist or Bach expert) on a surprising array of electronic keyboards and other noise-making apparatus. The effects vary as widely as the methods of relaying the music. The first performance, on the full grand piano, is as posh and shiny as the piano itself, and you almost sink cosily into the virtuousity (and also – I’ve never been to a piano recital myself – marvel at just how good a piano can sound). Other pieces, where the cast sing music as a round, or where they perform the various chords and frills across the wide, open vista of the many-roomed set, are exciting by virtue of their sheer playfulness (almost silliness at times) as much as the prettiness of the music.

There is a sense that this music – I won’t call them musical interludes – are as much a part of the dramatic landscape and psychological geography of the characters as the passages of speech, or indeed the near-silences where characters are just inhabiting rooms, singly or in company. What is interesting is that being pre-existing pieces of music – many of them quite well known – the extent to which we as an audience really hear the way in which the piece might be intended to supplement our understanding of the characters’ perhaps falls slightly by the wayside. At the same time, despite the lightness of the piece, it does feel like rather a lot of high-quality thinking has gone into the selection and arrangement of the music.

It is interesting to note, cf. Marat/Sade, that WTK forms a part of the Schaubühne’s building-dramaturged season concerned with revolution (see also: Ostermeier’s The Enemy of the People – brilliant review of it in Melbourne by Alison Croggon, who in turn links to Jana’s essential review seeing it in Berlin – which I *haven’t* seen), albeit as a “guest production” from Paris. It also makes for interesting comparison with Glaube, Liebe, Hoffnung at the Volksbühne, which I happened to see the previous night, but which is, theoretically at least, otherwise unrelated.

On the strength of this and Marat/Sade, I think I probably find myself somewhere between the two camps. On one hand, while not thinking much of Marat/Sade, I liked WTK enormously. On the other hand, I think I see here again some of the same corrosive “non-politics as political comment” that Jana sees in Enemy... As such, this is great bourgeois intellectual entertainment theatre. It is beautifully made, talented, tasteful (and not tasteful in the sense of prissy and inoffesnive, but actually displaying really good taste – Bach, Alissa Kolbusch’s spartan set, Erich Schneider’s guilelessly over-bright, too-white lights; the “difficult” (but not-too-difficult) aesthetic), obviously intelligent and incredibly original.

At the same time WTK is again drilling through to the idea that revolution is undesirable and impossible. Which, in the immediate analysis seems demonstrably true (at least for Western Europe). Plus the fact that there isn’t a revolution in the world that hasn’t led straight to a bloody dictatorship within five years. But here these productions Krasznahorkai’s Hungarian novel of ‘89, Weiss’s meta-theatrics of ‘64, and Ibsen’s questioning pessimism of 1882 seem to become fait accompli arguments for the impossibility of meaningful change of any sort. Pitched somewhere between the wry smile and the resigned shrug, what is the Schaubühne really trying to say?

Part of me hopes if more than half the argument isn’t just some sort of theatre-cool cynicism but is in fact a desperate attempt to prick consciences with *their* inaction. But perhaps they really are just sick of the idea of the change, and find heart-on-sleeve optimism and a desire to at least try to challenge the status quo a bit, well, old-fashioned. In this, perhaps it is Marthaler’s slow, unshowy, intelligent staging of Glaube, Liebe, Hoffnung after all that shows us the face of the present, as well as of the chilling past – a society not quite managing to care enough to make a difference.

It raises all sorts of interesting questions; most pressingly, those related to Chris Goode’s question about what we make in a room when we make theatre. The above-named productions seem to divide into making a depiction of a revolution as a statement of its failure, and a depiction of complete inaction as a quiet indictment of such behaviour. If “the point is to change it”, then it seems Germany, and beyond, need to see something new.

As well as seeming to tap into Chris Goode’s concerns in UK, this question also seems to lead on from what Wojtek Ziemilski told me about the state of Polish State theatre, and then on further into the further problems of state-funded theatre discussed at EEPAP.

But I think those questions will have to wait for another day.

(Briefly, leaving aside the question of changing the world, however; Das WTK really is a lot of intelligent, well-designed, musical fun – and definitely three million times better than most of what passes for musical theatre in the UK. Irrespective of this particular show’s politics, as a new (at least to me) form, or format, I think this kind of intelligent, playful, deconstructed, musical theatre needs to been seen in the UK and soon...)

Friday, 26 October 2012

Glaube, Liebe, Hoffnung – Volksbühne

[in which Haydon fails at some German theatre]

There is a world of difference between understanding and feeling and much of German theatre inhabits the faultline. Ödön von Horváth (born somewhere now in Croatia into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, writing in German)’s 1932 play – literally Faith, Love, Hope but plainly adapted from 1 Corinthians 13.13: („Für jetzt bleiben Glaube, Hoffnung, Liebe, diese drei; doch am größten unter ihnen ist die Liebe”) – briefly tells the story of Elisabeth, a young woman who has lost her job in the recession, and opens with her trying to sell her body to the Anatomischen Institut.

Apparently – according to Mark Ravenhill, who also saw the show last night [Sunday 21st] – the physical text of the play is about 45 pages long. Christoph (Swiss, actually) Marthaler’s production manages to somehow stretch this into a 3hr40 running time (including interval.  At least 3hrs45 if you also include the applause).

Having loved Marthaler’s Meine Faire Dame so much this summer, I think I knew I could only love this less. So, let’s begin with Mark’s short Twitter review, which presents the positives about the production remarkably neatly – “Marthaler & Horváth at the Volksbühne = a perfect marriage: wry, unhurried, cheap/potent music, calmly political. See it if you possibly can.” – and expand outwards.

Marthaler’s take on the text is indeed unhurried; this is definitely the scenic route. Witness the first ten minutes: lights up on an orchestra pit, in which a range of vintage speakers are seated on a number of chairs before music stands. The speakers “tune up”, emitting scapes and squeaks of both orchestral instruments and electrical pulses (Musik: Clemens Sienknecht, Christoph Marthaler, Martin Schütz; Sounddesign/Realisierung Lautsprecherorchester: Klaus Dobbrick). Just before this starts to ellicit giggles and restlessness an anonymous and, it turns out, completely irrelevant (he isn’t seen again throughout the next 3hrs35) workman wobbles onto the stage precariously carrying a too-tall ladder. He totters over to the back wall of Anna Viebrock’s set and props the ladder against the concrete awning of the imposingly drab bit of beige sixties architecture.

It is interesting to note that the set (and costumes – Sarah Schittek) here, as in Meine Faire Dame, is another absolutely perfect reproduction of 1960s New Europe architecture. The sort of thing you might find on a vintage postcard advertising the futuristic times in which the sender found themselves. The exact same yellow, beige and concrete palette. It is perhaps less clear why this is the case here than it was in ...Dame, with its associations of Marthaler’s generation’s experience of learning languages. But it feels none the less charming for again suggesting that the director is mining the Europe of his youth for the place in which to situate these even older dramas, perhaps choosing it not as a neutral staging post, so much as bringing the play over the huge chasm of WWII.

The workman is attaching modernist capital letters to the building, getting as far as “ANAT_M ______ INST...” before his ladder gives way scattering splintered rungs and sending him crashing to the floor. All to the accompaniment of the accompaniment of this strange modernist “orchestra”.

The workman exits. A conductor enters, and attempts to tame the speakers. Gives up. Sits in the pit. A prologue (or perhaps it’s the stage directions) is spoken. The small(ish) ensemble cast enter (includes: German Joss Ackland, German Jim Broadbent and German John Candy; perhaps also German Lesley Manville). Elisabeth is play by two similar-looking brunette actresses wearing complimentary-but-by-no-means-identical dresses, sometimes speaking in chorus, sometimes speaking in turn, sometimes taking a majority of a scene solo, while their opposite number seems to hide behind a wall on the far side of the stage observing the action.

And this is now the process of the play for at least the next two hours. It’s slow, sometimes repeats itself, and frequently breaks off into even more abstract musical sequences, which either accompany the action or intervene in it. Chopin’s funeral march, played live on the piano by the disconsolate conductor figure, features over and over again as the scene in which Elisabeth tries to sell her body for medical research plays on a loop.

The original text contains something like 35 characters, Marthaler’s ensemble numbers 14. However, as the characters of the original mostly serve (I think) to provide local colour, rather than really driving the plot – such as it is – so having them either omitted, condensed down into types, or doubled without registering as such, does not feel (with no knowledge of the original) like a terrible liberty has been taken in the name of Regietheater. Nor is the music bleeding from the pit out of place. Apparently the original text also suggests that there are the ever-present sounds of cheap music and Chopin being played from various radios, cafés, bars and etc. in the city through which Elisabeth wanders.

Actually, it does feel worth noting that this sort of play feels quite specifically “German”. If we think of great big sprawly things like Woyzeck, Baal, and even Mother Courage, we see a sort of drama with a central character encountering a huge array of peripheral characters which just doesn’t seem to happen in the roomlocked British drama of the same period (nor in Chekhov, or the Ibsens that are actually popular). (Although, oddly, it does seem to happen in Simon Stephens’s plays like Harper Regan and Motortown, and, now I think about it, in Mark’s own Some Explicit Polaroids. And maybe some Howard Barker. (although all three are notably German-influenced))

What’s strange about this production is how little one feels. Granted, Mark’s more patient than me (oddly, he and I both wrote on this subject in 2009 – Mark’s piece on Lupa here, my response about that year’s Spill here), and I was a bit tired, and it was nearly four hours in a theatre on a Sunday evening after a long week... But, it was interesting to me that while it was performed in German, without surtitles, when Mark and I discussed it at the interval I seemed to have been following the “plot” adequetely. It was just that somewhere between the lack of urgency in the performances/dialogue, and probably my lack of being actually able to pick up on the creeping nuances (if there were any *inside* the play/production), I wasn’t so engaged.

Horváth’s play is now of additional historical interest as, besides being a drama of a desperate, jobless woman in a recession – making it an obvious candidate for revival – it is also a document of a country sleepwalking into fascism. Horváth always claimed to be apolitical – which in 1932 Germany, with the benefit of hindsight, feels disgusting; but then how many of us could imagine what happened in Germany after 1933 happening before it had happened? The play was apparently banned by the Nazis until 1936 when “a version” reappeared with the appropriately fascistic new title Liebe, Pflicht und Hoffnung (Love, Duty and Hope). However, the production mitigates this historical interest by setting the piece in some sort of post-war western European hinterland – a kind of liberal wet-dream of hope, underscored still by recession after recession.

Perhaps, on refection, this is precisely the political point Marthaler is making, although much reflection is required to even imagine that. And, from reading his introduction to Meine Faire Dame, one got the impression that his chief interests were those of someone concerned with people, loneliness and emotions, all of which this productions seems to demonstrate in spades, much more than in grand political narratives, which I suggest you’d have to dig hard to perceive anyway. And yet, even these emotional narratives felt strangely buried and abstracted. What with the doubled actresses for the protagonist, and the wan music and design, there was still some of the post-Brechtian distaste for “empathy” or “feeling”.

So, what am I doing here? I think I’m dangerously close to reviewing the play in terms of a different (British) theatre culture, and saying that it doesn’t really work according to its rules. Which I can’t stand. On the other hand, I am also British and can only say what I saw, so: this is plainly a very intelligent, beautifully crafted, crisply designed production, which I admired rather than fully engaged with.

[post script: in case the above review left you in any doubt that it should have been Ravenhill and not me reviewing this show, he kindly tweeted after reading to point out that: 'central character walks around landscape meets others' is a German form called 'station-drama' (after stations of the cross). Bit more on Stationendramen at Wikipedia. I'm now going off to a) read some more books, and b) to drop my new found phrase into every damn review I write...]

[That said, the Volksbühne remains probably one of my favourite theatres in the world and a full-price, not-preview, one-price-bracket-off-top-price ticket only set me back €22 (£17.50). So, eat that, Travelex season. Volk indeed.]

Marat/Sade – Schaubühne

[also: On Directors' Theatre]

As we know, German theatre has some ways of doing things differently to British theatre. As may also have been observed before, I have quite a lot of time for those ways. That said, such a wide spread as to be as meaningless a label as “British Theatre” – there are perhaps some broad national characteristics, but plenty of exceptions too; plus a lot of nuance and difference between types. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the primary difference between British and German theatre is The Position of The Writer. Although it was pointed out to me in Poland last week that the difference between Germany and America is infinitely more pronounced as far as position-of-writer and position-of-director goes. Go on, how many American theatre directors can you name? (Now minus Robert Wilson. Now how many? Who directed the premières of Arthur Miller’s plays? Or David Mamet’s?)

The chief difference between a “director-led” theatre and a “writer-led” theatre appears to be the way a production looks. How much “Directors’ Theatre” is actually “Designers’ Theatre” might make for an interesting discussion one day. In writer’s theatre – so the old fashioned view goes – a play set in a living room tends to wind up being acting on a stage-set that ostensibly resembles a living room. In director’s theatre – so the caricature runs – a play set in a living room will end up set on a vast muddy plain with all the actors suspended on meat hooks above it. Of course, the same could happen in “Writers’ Theatre”, the the writer would have had to have described it precisely so in the stage directions, and the director would have to be carrying out her wishes to the letter. The difference, then, is that in director’s the director has to bring a concept to the text in the same way that the author did/does in “writers’ theatre”.

Indeed, in the past week of my travels I think I’ve defended both Scenes From an Execution and Three Sisters from various mainlanders who’d seen them who were disparaging them for not having concepts. And, it’s a fair point. They were both essentially beautifully made serve-the-text productions with some beautiful ideas about stagings. They didn’t have *concepts*. “But the concept is in the play” I try arguing. They don’t buy it. That’s fine, I guess. I still like *both* schools of thought when the productions are that good.

I find the two labels to be needlessly confrontational and binary, and I’d like to hope that they are on their way out in Britain, even amidst a lot of confusion over whether, say, Benedict Andrews’s Three Sisters or Sean Holmes’s Desire Under The Elms are examples of Directors’ Theatre or not.

And so we come to Marat/Sade at the Schaubühne. Now, for my money, the Schaubühne doesn’t really produce that much “concept” director’s theatre. But it isn’t a writers’ theatre or an actors’ theatre either. On a snippy day, I might suggest it’s a furniture salesman’s theatre, given the Elle Decoration-type lifestyle-envy a lot of Ostermeier’s sets induce. But I suppose in the general run of things it’s more German and directorsy than not.

Taking all this into account, Peter Kleinert’s new production of Marat/Sade is an interesting proposition. It seems to be neither writer’s theatre nor director’s theatre. That is to say, approximately fifty per cent of Peter Weiss’s suggestions/stage-directions have been ignored. But they haven’t really be replaced with anything either.

Ok, that’s unfair. Despite the enormous title of the original – retained in full here – the Persecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Marat in this new production doesn’t really seem to be being performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton but by students of the School of Performing Arts »Ernst Busch« Berlin and members of the Schaubühne ensemble. Actually, I have to say, this fact – another example of young people being given stage of a big theatre, cf. the Lyric’s Morning – along with the rather cool trailer was part of what drew me to the production.

However, dramaturgically, the co-option of the acting students here serves a more annoying purpose. Now, I have to confess, despite having seen it a couple of times (although sadly not in Anthony Neilson’s Mail-baiting RSC production last year), I’m not sure I even fully get the point of Marat/Sade as written. I mean, it’s sort of meta-theatrical – i.e. it makes a big thing of the play being performed Live! before-your-very-eyes. But then, at the same time, the cast (at least as far as the text is concerned) also have to be doing some totally method, invisible, naturalistic acting as 18th Century asylum patients. I think the play probably had a very specific reason to exist in the 60s when it was written, and it became a big hit both in Germany and in Britain as part of Peter Brook’s famous Theatre of Cruelty season for the RSC. I imagine its strange sidelong atomisation of revolutionary politics made a lot more sense in Europe in the decade heading toward 1968, the Paris riots, the RAF and the Prague spring, although I don’t think I’ve fully grasped the precise symbolism of this critique being framed as written and directed by de Sade or why his cast are insane.

Kleinert, however, has staged the play solely as an exercise in proving why the play is no longer relevant and doesn’t or can’t speak to our own times. The Ernst Busch students here instead of playing Inmates are essentially playing themselves, or everystudents. I confess I even (surprisingly) found myself missing Chris Haydon’s detailed, psychological performance as the depressive-playing-Marat in Cambridge ADC’s ‘01 production. (It’s not that his acting was especially stellar; but there was a real commitment to the premise of the role and detail in it. And plainly it was also memorable.) That layer of meaning and detail has been totally steamrollered here.

In this, I suppose Kleinert is introducing a concept at the expense of the play; in much the same way that Frank Castorf’s incredibly long Nach Moskau! Nach Moskau! machine-guns Chekhov’s Three Sisters in the water for five hours. However, where Castorf is at least thoroughgoing, serious and critical, Kleinert seems content to be flippant and non-committal. There are not one but two different planted interruptions from the audience: one man storms out, shouting angrily at the cast, before taking off a wig to reveal that he was an actor all along (!), while a woman shouts occasional objections about the text and revolution in general from the centre of the back row.

This is meta-theatricality as zero-sum-game. The sight of a production bashing its head, repeatedly, hard, against its own postmodernism. And its politics seem particularly uninspired and uninspiring.

Thesis: re-casting any random mob from an extant text as the Occupy Movement is proof of a production’s reactionary tendencies. Discuss.

Of course there is not only room, but a need for critiques of the Occupy Movement. This isn’t one of them. At the same time, the production demonstrates the limits of its horizons by discussing “whether revolution is possible now” without a single reference to Tunisa, Egypt, Libya, or Syria. And all the balaclavas worn are black – although, given the direction of the production, I can’t help thinking that actually its co-option of Pussy Riot would have just felt like another umpteen nails in its coffin.

Need I say that there are also plenty of likeable moments in the staging? Nothing especially original – ensemble dunking their heads in buckets of red, white and blue paint; stripping off for showers on stage; aggressive live music played on bass and electronic drum pads; revolutionary songs in the style of Rage Against the Machine (I would question what decade they even think they’re living in, but having now spent a few days listening to German mainstream commercial radio, I realise that they are at least entitled to that confusion) – but lots that still works. The young actors are clearly talented – the permanent members of the Schaubühne ensemble don’t stand out like sore thumbs of talent.

But at the end of the day, you do wonder what has actually been achieved. I left the theatre mildly irritated that people had dedicated time to making this theatrical brakes-on statement. “Nothing can change, resistance is futile, or childish” this Marat/Sade seemed to say, its complacent arms folded, sat in its comfy space in West Berlin shopping street Kurfürstendamm. In that moment, even a meticulously-faithful-to-the-script production of a play about a boarding school by David Hare, directed by Jeremy Herrin, might have seemed more revolutionary.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Reise durch die Nacht – Schauspiel Köln

[Katie Mitchell, Joy Division, Germany; Heaven]

Katie Mitchell’s collaborative adaptation of 84-year-old Austrian Friederike Mayröcker’s 1984 novel Reise durch die Nacht is possibly the best thing she’s ever done.

If you know Mitchell’s work at all, then you’ll know that it could be divided into ultra-naturalistic productions of plays and operas and productions which have increasingly experimented with live-feed video technology and foley.

Reise durch die Nacht is the most fully realised example of the latter category I’ve seen. It feels like the (so-far) apex of this trajectory that Mitchell’s (and her collaborators’) work has been following.

My own journey with this trajectory has been a slightly shakey one. I absolutely loved Waves when I saw it. It was the first time I’d ever seen any production do anything like it and I was completely seduced. (Briefly: it was an adaptation for stage of Virginia Woolf’s modernist novel The Waves in which the performers made a live film adaptation of the novel’s stream-of-consciousness technique, creating the sound effects and almost improvising the screened images – a sheet quickly thrown over a table so that the actor could lie on it for a close-up shot of them in bed, for example).

After this there was her version of Attempts On Her Life, which used the same live-feed video technology, but functioning to provide close-ups on scenes being played on the big black empty expanse of the Lyttleton stage.

The next examples I remember of her video work were ...Some Trace of Her and After Dido, neither of which I thought were terrifically successful. ...Some Trace of Her seemed to be treading much of the same ground as Waves to less effect and After Dido, at the time, I didn’t quite see the point of – a visual accompaniment to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas set in three (?), ultra detailed four-walled (?), contemporary rooms in which some women came and went, possibly underlining the idea that Dido and Aeneas is about someone getting dumped and moping.

After this, I think (think) the video work took a bit of a back seat, and Mitchell seemed to go back to doing proper stage versions of The Pains of Youth, A Woman Killed with Kindness and the Mozart opera Idomeneo (I’m aware this list is a bit partial. And misses the occasional show. I think, most criminally, I dropped the ball on seeing both The Cat in the Hat and Beauty and the Beast, but this is more a map of my understanding of the career arc than a definitive study).

But then, I went to Berlin and saw Fräulein Julie, Leo Warner and Mitchell’s staggering adaptation of Strindberg’s misogynist car-crash. I was stunned. Not only had Mitchell done the impossible and presented a successful feminist (or at least plausible, sympathetic female-viewpoint) production – the entire piece is presented from the perspective of the maid, Kristin with much of the written action of the play consigned to noises off – the video work involved seemed to have leapt forwards thanks to the resources available at the Schaubühne. The film was clearer, beautifully framed, and was shot in a incredible, perfectly-lit, beautifully-designed, ultra-realistic period set. It was an absolute triumph of a piece of work, although I suppose I still had niggling questions about this strange combination of everything being done live, and increasingly apparently solely for the purpose of what we the audience were seeing on the large screen suspended above the stage. (Ian Shuttleworth addresses the same questions forcefully and dismissively here.)

Having, subsequent to Fräulein Julie, adored and enjoyed Wastwater and The Trial of Ubu respectively in Britain, (and having missed her most recent previous Schauspiel Köln piece, Rings of Saturn) I was excited to see what this new piece would bring.

And, well, what it firstly does is suggest a glorious culmination of all Mitchell and Warner's previous experiments in live-feed video productions.

In short, this is a great film. Seeing that it is made and performed live in front of you also makes it great theatre. You don’t really worry about the “why” of it being done live in front of you, but the fact that it is definitely adds an extra dimension. Perhaps that dimension is risk, the dimension that all liveness contains. Perhaps also it humanises film. You could watch a recording of the end result in a cinema, and while I’d contend that would still be excellent, it wouldn’t be the same knowing it was a recording. And, unlike NT Live, you actually are in the same room as the actors, and breathing the same air, which is just a qualitatively different human experience. You can applaud them when it’s over and they can look you in the eye and know you mean it. So what is Reise durch die Nacht (Journey Through/During the Night)?

Apparently Mayröcker’s novel is a dense, beautifully-written splurge of consciousness, with not much by way of a plot. From it, around it, into to, British playwright Duncan Macmillan (whose play Lungs recently opened in London), has spun an expanded narrative over which selected passages of the novel are read as voiceovers, while the actors mouth inaudible (to us) dialogue from the book.

The story concerns Regina who is taking a train from Paris to Vienna. Her father has just died. She has with her a scrapbook of photographs and her husband (?/Partner?) Julian. They have booked a sleeper car with bunk beds. Judging by the look of the train, their clothes, and the fact that at one point in the piece Julian smokes a cigarette in the corridor of the train carriage, Mitchell has set the production in roughly the year of the book’s publication, or slightly earlier. Although the couple could equally have just been landed with old rolling stock, and it might be last year, with Julian taking an understandable-given-the-circumstances risk smoking the cigarette indoors.

What unfolds is a mental journey of a woman coming to realise – through a series of flashbacks to a certain moment in her childhood – something about her mothers’ relationship with her father. And [spoiler alert] having a sudden, violent fuck with the train’s ticket inspector [/spoiler].

Perhaps the two most striking things about the production are the success of the cinematography and its feminism. Or rather, the success with which it feel like it inhabits the mind of the (female) protagonist, and tells the story entirely from her perspective. It is perhaps the best example of such a viewpoint I have ever seen. And this could well be to do with the way in which Mitchell, Warner and co. use the video cameras. As well as having the opinion of looking wherever we want as theatre spectators, we are also offered an “authored” journey of focused images on the screen. Close-ups on Regina’s face as we hear her the jumble of her thoughts.

Something else that struck me is that it’s the first roughly contemporary thing I’ve seen Mitchell tackle with this method. Yes, recently there have been Wastwater and Ubu without video technology, but this is the first non-costume-drama piece I’ve seen with video. And, oddly, that also seemed to make a difference. Perhaps partly because of the films that it situates the work amongst. Instead of “just” looking like a most-than-usually-arty/gritty Merchant Ivory film, Reise... Nacht reminds us of, say, the photos of Nan Goldin, or the films of Krzysztof Kieślowski. (In fact, just checking I hadn’t misremembered the latter aesthetic on YouTube just now, I discover instead that at least the opening of A Short Film About Love now looks to me like a live feed from a Mitchell/Warner production). (Similarly, looking at the Wikipedia entry on Kieślowski – mostly to ensure correct spelling of his name – his early work is characterised as being tightly “focused on the ethical choices faced by a single character” – which is a fine description of what’s going on here.)

The production has also got two songs by Joy Division in it. Which just makes it even more perfect. I’d argue it could hardly have been any other band. What is more strange is that the production itself seemed to suggest a Joy Division sort of aesthetic even before the band’s actual music was overtly used (though who can say what suggestive, remix-y, trickery, sound designers extraordinaire Melanie Wilson and Gareth Fry had been tinkering with prior to that point). Partly it’s just that footage of moving through European cities in the night in the late 70s always irresistibly reminds me of this famous video of the band performing Shadowplay (not one of the songs included. Those are Transmission and New Dawn Fades – that said, New Dawn Fades turns out to be a bit much for the sex scene; a bit too cinema-perfect/overwrought. I’d have gone for something a bit more offhand and less overtly elegiac myself. Ideally with a change of song half way through, since the song is playing in the world of the play, not over it).

And, I’ve done that thing where I’ve even got to discussing nit-picky stuff about the soundtrack before even mentioning the actors. Again. This is ridiculous. Because the actors really are stunningly good. Most of Reise... ends up being carried by two female performers – Julia Wieninger as Regina and Ruth Marie Kröger as both Regina's silent mother in flashback sequences, and the extraordinary voiceover. Not carried because the men aren’t good – everyone is excellent – but because between them, Wieninger’s face and Kröger’s voice feel more or less constantly present. It’s strange to reflect, looking back, that by the end, we’ve never actually heard Wieninger’s real voice; only this version of her internal monlogue voiced by Kröger.

I should also praise another so-good-they-make-it-seem-effortless soundscape by Melanie Wilson and Gareth Fry. This appears to be mostly pre-recorded. And I have no idea whether it’s triggered in episodes by someone at a sound-desk, or whether, like a recorded score for a dance piece, it just rolls relentlessly on, and all the performers have to run to keep in step with it. Either way, it is another of those experiences where you can almost hear the quality of attention that has gone into capturing a sound just precisely so, so that you don’t notice it at all, until you perhaps look away from the screen and see something that reminds you that it’s all being created on the stage below it and so that all the sounds are also synthetic – at least at point-of-delivery, if not origin.

Indeed, there’s such a power to this combination of screen and sound that at one point, where Regina is sticking her head out of the window of the moving train, and another train suddenly slams past, fast, in the other direction, you involuntarily wince, even as you notice the person on stage turning the mechanism used to created the lights of the other train flashing past her train, and see the person holding the thing that made the wind in her hair. There’s also a beautifully developed visual language – a richness to the cold, nicotine-stained, seediness of late Cold-War Western Europe. Beautiful little touches, like close-ups on Regina’s husband wiping vaseline off his little finger after his morning toilet.

It’s been commented before (though not especially by me), that Katie Mitchell’s work – and I do feel increasingly daft subscribing to this single-name model for referring to the work, since Mitchell is clearly also an incredibly astute collaborator – is a bit surface-y, cold, and apolitical. This feels increasingly untrue to me, especially as we consider her body of work en masse. Apart from anything else, this is perhaps the most explicitly, importantly feminist body of work for theatre since Caryl Churchill’s collected works, and in a far more practical way. Rather than just writing plays that say some feminist things, Mitchell is exploring ways to present female perspectives, even from within problematically “male” (and sometimes deeply misogynist) texts. Here, thanks I would guess to Mayröcker's core text, rather than fighting against something, the piece feels like it is immersed in female experience.

Credit also, then, to Duncan Macmillan, whose adaptation this is (although the credits on the website (no programmes in evidence) also name Lyndsey Turner in the same breath, so, I don’t know exactly who did what). The terms of the Mayröcker literary estate forbid any additional actual words (although interestingly the interpostion of a whole made-up sex scene was fine), but if anything, this just makes me admire the adaptation all the more. There are moments when we can see the characters talking in the sleeping compartment of their railway carriage, but we cannot hear what they’re saying. And everything they’re inaudibly saying is also dialogue from the book.

This adaptation has to be one of the smartest and most original I’ve ever seen on a stage. Anywhere.  It feels like it has taken a thought process and made a totally fitting physical manifestation of it, and one with narrative interest and wit to boot.

Having just read back through what you’ve read so far (unless you skip straight to the end, you bloody weirdo), it feels like I’ve got so bogged down in trying to say what there was and how good, and how well done it was, that I’ve totally failed to communicate how artistically exciting, and how actually exciting the thing was. For what was essentially a small budget, theoretically slow-paced arthouse movie, Reise... gives a real buzz. No tools for analysing how on earth it manages that, but it does. As well as being intelligent, progressive and experimental theatre, this is also a seductive, engrossing and thrilling night out.

Trailer for the production here:

And: “to the centre of the city in the night waiting for you” (Shadowplay – Joy Division)

(I dread to think how many of these blogs I’ve concluded with that video. Still, if it ain’t broke...)

Pocztówki z Warszawy – Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej

[this is just a place holder until I've finished the text]

Should be along shortly...

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Pocztówki z Warszawa – Teatr

[with many thanks to Wojtek Ziemilski, for both the conversation, and for checking and correcting my recollections of it]

Everything that follows is essentially a direct product of Northern Stage at St. Stephens, of the Polish programme at Summerhall in Edinburgh this year. Of Chris Thorpe’s collaboration with Mala Zadora and also Third Angel. Ultimately it’s a product of me going to Leeds University, and Wojtek Ziemilski once moving to Portugal, and both of us giving a big fuck about theatre.

In short, it’s a perfect example of the way that an ecology can function at its very best. And it reaffirms my commitment to embeddedness – of getting to know people properly. Because, at lunchtime last Sunday in Warsaw, you unexpectedly find yourself getting a top-to-tail breakdown of the problems currently facing Polish theatre, the Warsaw theatre ecology, and an unexpected detour into the imminent closure of a gallery of contemporary art, which in turn is going to impact on TR Warszawa.

What follows is, in the first instance, just me writing up as quickly as possible as much as I can remember of what Wojtek just explained [mostly written that afternoon in bus to Lublin, then finished in Berlin, yesterday].

WZ is a contemporary Polish theatremaker. I was introduced to him in the St. Vincent pub opposite St Stephens by Chris Thorpe, who had just seen his piece Small Narration, and recommended that I go and see it, because he thought it would be right up my street. Which it was. Review here.

Something I remember Chris reflecting on at the time – something that hasn’t made it into my review yet – is the fact that WZ’s piece contains a number of excerpts from contemporary performances – in Britain, I think we’d classify most of them as “dance” pieces. The one exception is the Kings of England piece Where We Live and What We Live For. Every other piece is accompanied by the words “The critic wrote:” and an extract from a review of the piece. In WZ’s deadpan delivery, it is unclear whether he quotes these reviews approvingly, or slightly mockingly. Either way, the words of “the critic” are given weight. Chris’s follow-up observation to this was that WZ had had to write the critical appraisal of the Kings of England piece that he wanted to include himself, because there was either no review, or at least no review with enough analysis or detail to make it worth including. This spoke plenty to both of us about the state of British criticism.

So that was WZ, and Edinburgh. Anyway, we got on. I loved Small Narration, and I was in town, and had a few hours spare, so I suggested we had coffee. My train to and from the Airport was from Warszawa Śródmieście, which spits you out right at the foot of Pałac Kultury i Nauki – one of those Eastern Bloc “Stalin Wedding Cakes” – on the Kinoteka side (1).

I’d been to Warsaw once before for a glorious ten days in 2009 of Warsaw Theatre Meetings – the Polish Theatertreffen, basically. It was a brilliant festival. I even wrote a glowing Guardian blog about it – or at least tried to fit a glowing report around the inevitable “pose a stupid question” format that was the only way to persuade the [insert adjective] Guardian Theatre Editor to take any piece for a blog.

[In fact, in passing, in case I never write that particular J’accuse article in full – and I’m not going to name names – if you want to know why the Guardian Theatre Blog got shit, lost readers and then died, it seems largely due to someone’s belief that all the blogs all had to be 500 words long, had to ask a really dumb question, and that fewer than n readers was the cut-off point of unacceptable failure: irrespective of who those readers were. Someone who could not see that there was a possible readership of well over that lowest acceptable figure, if intelligent writers about theatre were allowed to write intelligently about theatre and to cultivate a readership. And more and more contributors got pissed off trying to fit the article around the non-question, tired of trying to fight down the stupid, unrepresentative headlines and the general dicking around with their prose. So the writers fell away anyway, surely followed by the readers. Still, that doesn’t matter, because now they all come here, go to Exeunt, to Maddy’s blog and Matt’s blog, and Catherine’s blog and Andy’s blog and Dan’s blog and Dan’s blog.   
FWIW, none of the above has anything to do with why I stopped writing for the Guardian’s Theatre Blog. I stopped for health reasons, and that’s all the euphemism you’re going to get. And the Theatre Editor in question was actually very understanding about it. So, no. No personal axe to grind whatsoever, just an ongoing sadness and frustration at the sheer level of wasted potential for the site.]


So Warsaw: I’d been there before. The Pałac Kultury/Stalin Wedding Cake was only a ten-minute walk from my hotel, and I knew where I was with the Kino entrance – it is, after all, fucking imposing. Soviet, Stalinist, imposing. There’s no pissing about with modesty or good taste here. There’s none of Dennis Lasdun’s ludic, postmodern Where’s The Fucking Door Anyway? attitude.

So, yeah. Wedding Cake, Kino-side. 12.30.

We go and have cappuccinos (8Zl – maybe €2? Not *cheap*, but not nuts either) in the Teatr Dramatyczny's lovely café (2) and WZ outlines Polish theatre for me.

As well as the Kinoteka, the Stalin Wedding Cake houses two of Warsaw’s main theatres. The Teatr Dramatyczny and Teatr Studio. The Dramatyczny was run for several years by Pawel Miskiewicz, and hosted the likes of Krystian Lupa, who is is pretty much Poland’s Peter Hall, Peter Brook and Peter Stein all rolled into one. Despite being dwarfed by the Wedding Cake’s vast central tower (30 floors up to the open air viewing platform near the top, up which I unwisely once went – I lasted about five minutes, before going green, and having to sit down) the entrance to Teatr Dramatyczny is imposing. Currently it is hung with vast posters advertising the new season – all typeface, haircut and leather. And apparently without and Laibach-like irony. It suggests a similar unfussy modernity to the design of the Schaubühne’s publicty stuff, albeit substituting the grungy modernity for a totalitarian one.

The theatre is now run by Tadeusz Słobodzianek, who is known mainly as the author of Our Class, which was performed at the NT in 09.

I remember thinking it was an effective piece of drama, at the time.

WZ disagrees.

It’s fine. He concedes, but it doesn’t really say anything. The play is an oversimplified story loosely based on Jan Gross’s book about the Jedwabne massacre. So, for me, it did say *something*. But it’s about evil, right? Argues WZ. About the sources of evil. And yet Słobodzianek’s play never attempts to dig into them. Instead, if you look at the play, it makes the naïve claim that it all starts in a classroom when one person picks on someone else. But why does that happen? The children’s ideas and prejudices seem to come out of thin air.

Put like that, I concede he has a point. There are a lot of things that play doesn’t do.

I suppose, I suggest, I was watching it only a few months after I’d been to Poland; had had a half-Polish girlfriend and so knew a lot of the back-story anyway. I mention Chris Thorpe’s work about Conformation Bias – that we see things in work that confirms how we are thinking about something anyway. So, perhaps I filled in a lot of the blanks in Our Class for myself. Perhaps I liked it because: competence + subject = interest. Who knows what it was, to be honest. But I was willing to hear an alternative point of view.

It’s very safe work, he was saying. It’s not bad. It’s actually technically very good, but it’s not new. And if there is anything controversial about it – it’s that it presents an extremely shallow vision of human nature and society.

But now this approach has spread.

Because, not only is Słobodzianek running Teatr Dramatyczny, he’s also got two more – Laboratorium Dramatu – a small stage of the National Theatre, and Teatr Na Woli – a city theatre with two stages (Scena Przodownik is actually a separate theatre again).

At which point, even if you’re the biggest fan of his work going, then you’ve got to concede there’s a problem.

Another problem facing Poland is funding. Theatre has been doing all right compared to many other countries up until now, WZ says. Theatre people have been finding stable jobs at the tens of municipal theatres across the country (Warsaw has about a dozen). However, there have been downsides to this. There’s been a complacency. It hasn’t been developing audiences.

You’re really good at it in Britain,. You really care about getting more people to come and see stuff. You have people whose job it is, he says.

I wince slightly. After all, the argument about audience development has been a pretty contentious one in recent years. A non-core activity pointlessly siphoning off funding that could be going toward making new plays, commissioning new writers, etc. (I paraphrase the arguments of, well, Mike Bradwell is probably a good example.)

But isn’t this just you [the Poles] pursuing the German model of not giving a fuck because you’ve got the funding? I wonder. Isn’t it good to be able to do what you like?

The difference is, Germany has a huge class – and I will call it a class – of people who are educated to a very high level and are interested in that, he says. We don’t have that, and that is a big problem. This is actually Slobodzianek’s explicit argument in favour of changing the model to what he calls the “British” one – instead of doing everything for the elites, lets have large shows for the masses and small experimental performances for the more picky spectators.

But it’s not that the work is alienating an audience through risk-taking and being difficult, He describes the work of Grzegorzewski who used to run the Studio in the 70s and 80s. Just this total surrealism. Very popular.

Oh, that anti-Communist thing where they made plays so that the Communists couldn’t see that they were being criticised?

No. This was art for art’s sake. No criticism of Communism as such, just total surrealism.

OK. But this new work?

Oh, very safe, very arty, very uninspiring. Four naked people in a children’s swimming pool screaming about their angst.

That sounds OK, I suggest.

WZ gives me a look.

Well, we [the British] haven’t had that yet. I argue. Not at our National Theatre, certainly. It’d be good to have it once if only so we could move on.

Yeah, sometimes not having had something can be a good thing. What they’re screaming, mainly at each other, is for most part incomprehensible. Also, it always seems to turn out to be a beautiful young woman who ends up naked, he says. And in blue light, and… What was it they wanted to tell me about? The human condition? Really? This is my condition?

He shrugs.

[I’m struck, for the first time of many during the past week, the extent to which since being back in Britain I’ve been being very cheer-leadery about a whole swathe of different sorts of high-end national/state theatre work. I wonder if I oughtn’t to be getting a bit more dissident again.]

We also talk about the lack of alternative models for working in Poland.

The invitations to perform or create new work expect you to bring in a product, as if it were all created somewhere in my secret laboratory. Artists don’t get together, they don’t watch each others’ work, there is hardly a feeling of community.

We consider the drawbacks of being a solo artist (or indeed a solo critic). I reflect that London is pretty good at the moment as far as being a critic goes, although we could do with admin staff.

We both stare in gloomy contemplation at the mornings’ work lost to admin. I somehow forget to include mornings’ works lost to pissing about on Twitter.

But it’s a thing. One needs company. A company, perhaps.

We discuss the Forest Fringe model. I note how many of those artists are also essentially solo operations. I suggest it’s because of costs and that you can do something yourself for free, but you can’t get someone else to help out for free. Not because other people wouldn’t, but because one doesn’t want to ask.

He says nice things about Britain’s ability to think of this in business terms, but is also wary of this.

We finish our coffee.

What about TR Warszawa, though? I ask.

I tell you what, let’s go and see this art museum now. This will tell you everything you need to know about what’s wrong with Warsaw today...

As cinemas go...

The café in Teatr Dramatyczny - wish this were a better photo

The entrance to Teatr Dramatyczny

The entrance to Teatr Studio