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

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet – Sadler’s Wells

[overdue and grumpy, or: on reading and expertise]

I begin with links and a series of admissions:

Sanjoy Roy and Luke Jennings have been watching and writing about dance a lot long than me. Years and years longer. Without a doubt, they know more than me about dance. To all intents and purposes, when it comes to “dance” I still function at that basically despicable “I know what I like-” level, which makes me hopping mad when it’s applied to theatre by others.

A second admission goes like this: having absolutely *adored* Sasha Waltz’s Continu, and having heard mostly great things about Hofesh Shechter (I’ve heard one dissenting voice; very informed, but possibly compromised by inter-personal relations), I fairly skipped along to Cedar Lake Ballet’s UK debut at Sadler’s Wells. It’s a mixed programme of three fairly short pieces (all around the half-hour mark, with generous intervals between each, making for a very relaxing evening for this smoker), each made by a different choreographer for/with the company. And I did like the Hofesh Shechter piece, Violet Kid – not *adore*, but certainly *had a lot of time for*. Unexpectedly, however, I absolutely *loathed* Alexander Ekman’s Tuplet. But, loathing it was, if anything, a far more interesting experience (intellectually at least) than *quite liking* Violet Kid. Resultantly, I was a bit preoccupied during the final piece, Crystal Pite’s Grace Engine.

I should first have a stab at saying what I think I saw:

Hofesh Shechter’s Violet Kid is a loping, tribal, rangy beast of a thing. Before training as/becoming a choreographer, Shechter trained as a percussionist, and has created/recorded the score of Violet Kid himself. And it’s a kind of percussive concerto. Rising and falling; undulating; speeding up, slowing down, and intricately recorded and treated. There is also a three-piece string section – set in a lit section of the black back wall of the otherwise gauzey, empty space.

The piece [and, boy, should I have written this up sooner – nothing worse than trying to remember choreography precisely a few days on] reminded me again of Continu. It uses the whole company – 16 dancers, male and female – splitting them various into two or three camps or moving them around as a single unit. When split off into groups (not usually along any tangible lines – not about gender, or coloured vests) they inhabit different movement patterns. If you wanted to try to characterise the movement you could do worse than suggest a troupe of orangutans crossed with a street-dance/break-dance party: the most striking movement is a kind of long-armed shuffling gallop across the stage; a terrestrial version of seeking vines from which to swing between trees. At the same time, other dancers jerk robotically.

While there isn’t a strong sense of dramaturgy or story here, there is clearly organisation and thematic elements. If it seems slightly inconclusive, that in itself is no bad thing. It is an enjoyable mood-board of a piece. Perhaps more a calling card than the actual meeting, but a fine display of what Shechter is up to.

So, how, after this promising start and a welcome fag-break (and free fizzy elderflower cordial), did Tuplet put me in such a foul mood? (Well, yes, it is a godawful title, but I didn’t even look at the programme until afterwards). It starts interestingly enough. The black back wall of H.S.’s piece has been replaced with a giant white flat, onto which are projected two square frames of film, one showing various midriffs and the other showing various close-ups of mouths, both in black and white. The mouths are making various rhythmic sucking and hiccoughing noises, a kind of arthuas Bobby McFerrin crossed with a more than usually useful Bruce Nauman.

The piece features six dancers, who come on and stand at the front in six squares of light. They move in time to the odd organic noises. There’s a section in which they dance to recordings of their names being spoken (presumably by them). Thinking back, it seems amusing, clever, nicely made; and the problems I had with it feel almost unfathomably grumpy at this distance from sitting there watching it, but there they were. I could see nothing more than an atmosphere of unbearably smug, self-satisfied self-congratulation, with all the artistry of a Gap advert (which is to say, obviously quite a lot of technical facility, and absolutely zero “soul” or point).

My problem now is: I have absolutely no idea whether this feeling came from the stage or from my imagination. Can a movement be smug? I’d say, yes, it probably can. Were these movements smug? I’m less sure. I’m sure the dancers are sincere, nice people. But then, what even the hell has that got to do with whether this piece was any good? Were their smiles “gratingly ingratiating” or just nice, simple smiles. (And, yes: with every word, I realise I articulate far more than I’m comfortable with, regarding some apparent and previously unconscious set of rules that I seem to have regarding dance.)

Following Continu, I got into a written exchange with leading theatre academic Nicholas Ridout who hadn’t liked the show.

“Dance-wise I found [Continu] pretty objectionably and complacently reproductive of really hateful gender essentialism, as well as offering the most obvious and illustrative relationship between music and dance. Dance-wise also because of its dependence on all sorts of ballet codifications (which are of course bound up with the gender essentialism) which treat the body in ways I find limiting.

“But above all, it was the pervasive tone of the whole enterprise, which, in the context of Berlin museology, is particularly hard to take. The idea that Kunst and Kultur (of a certain modernist high-mindedness) can redeem horror through the consumption of autonomous art. I am thinking here about Adorno’s observations about such work, in Commitment.

Nick goes on to use as an example “...the firing squad sequence” in Continu: “Each crumpling body is so dancerly, the image so strong and clear, the setting so abstract, the political specifics so utterly absent, the executioner and his final victim so equal. The squalid political viciousness of any event it might be thought to represent or allude to is utterly overwhelmed by the beauty of it all and our recognition of that beauty (and in that recognition our belief that knowing such beauty when we see it makes us unlikely to participate in a firing squad).”
(quoted with permission)

Which got me thinking. On one level, about how I’d really not applied anything like that level of rigour to my thinking about the Waltz, but, more productively, about the relation of intent and result, and the position of the critic to both.

Nick and I did however agree that we had in the past both let the ethical questions of work that we’d otherwise been enjoying pass us by, as had happened to me in the case of Continu (if you sign up for Nick’s persuasive analysis), or perhaps in Three Kindoms (re: the enormous discussion of that piece’s gender politics).

Now, on one level, I’m pretty sure nothing Tuplet does even begins to merit the levelling of such critical big guns. It’s a bit of fluff. It seems to seek to do nothing more than entertain and be virtuosic,  and unless you believe that it is the job of the critic to hold every such piece to account and demand that it take the world a bit more seriously (which I don’t think I do believe), then it seems unsporting to have a go at it for that.

But, more to the point, this lack of seriousness wasn’t the problem I was experiencing. I wasn’t feeling its gender (or racial) depictions (if indeed there were any) as especially problematic (though I’m sure one could have found fault. One can always find fault if one wants). And it wasn’t making beauty out of suffering. I just found it preening and self-satisfied. Which are such subjective views that they hardly seem worth mentioning. Except that they were more or less my entire experience of the thing: something I really could not get past/get over.

And yet, just as I’ve been troubled when other critics have described work I’ve loved as “self-indulgent” and thought it the most ridiculous, crass observation, here I find myself coming close to making it myself. It was a combination of factors: the cute, pleased-with-itself, too neat choreography-and-concept combined with a certain attitude of meretricious approval-seeking on the part of the dancers. It was one of those occasions when you kind of found yourself wishing that the performers didn’t seem so keen to be liked. But then maybe the choreography was about that precise desperation, and I just wasn’t reading it in the right way.

Anyway, dissatisfied, distracted and preoccupied was how I came to the third piece – Crystal Pite’s Grace Engine. This is perhaps a half-way house between the occasional beauty and continual opacity of the Shechter and the transparent entertainment of Tuplet. Here the dancers perform the piece dressed as commuters while the lighting and sound suggest a world of metro stations and trains. Variously we might be in that famous photo of Grand Central Station, or watching commuters engaged in post-apocalyptic gang warfare in some dystopian U-bahn tunnels. There seems to be a strong suggestion at a couple of points of someone throwing themselves in front of a tube – perhaps one possible interpretation of the title.

Which finally brings us to the interesting question of what expertise actually means in the MSM. I violently disagreed with Luke Jennings’s (grudgingly I admit understandable) position on Dave St Pierre’s Un Peu de Tendresse..., so I knew he and I plausibly had different ideas about what might constitute “good”. On the other hand, he certainly has knowledge and the expertise needed to articulate his views in a way that I’d be the first to admit I haven’t, necessarily. But I was keen to read his review and see how he wrote about this piece I’d hated.

However, the entirety of Jennings’s review of Cedar Lake – so far as I can make out – is this tweet:

“@cedarlake at @Sadlers_Wells. Fine, fearless dancers & choreography with blood in its veins.”

Which I dare say even a novice like me could have asserted, if it had been what I thought.

More frustratingly, Jennings doesn’t seem to have managed to get any expansion of this thought in the the relevant issue of the Observer, so I don’t get to learn more about what struck him about the dancers as especially “fearless”, or why the choreography had “blood in its veins” rather than, say – in the case of Tuplet – “a smug grin plastered over its stupid face”, for example. Similarly, while Sanjoy Roy has got a tiny bit more space to expand his thoughts – and describes/evokes the piece well – the tyranny of the star-rating and the tiny word count means that that’s all he’s got room to do.

I’m aware this is meant to be a “review” of some dance (and I hope you’ve at least got a sense of what happened and what I thought), but really is is a slightly desperate plea for someone somewhere at some newspaper to stop throttling reviews with ridiculous word counts, and for the public to stop asserting that all they want is a star-rating and a consumer guide (if there actually is a meaningfully sizeable public who do assert this). It is all very well Roy and Jennings being experts, but if they don’t actual have space to flex that expertise, all we get is a series of impressions that someone who knows next to nothing about dance (i.e. me) could have made, backed up only with the theory of their expertise but not the practice of it.

Post script: The best review of the evening by far turns out to be by Maria Lu at Exeunt. She describes precisely and with expertise the show I also saw. Granted she thought Tuplet was good, but she explains it in a way that allows me to see that everything I saw was present within it, and that Lu and I just have really different tastes.

Thank God for Exeunt.

[Yes, that genuinely is a post-script. I didn’t read the Lu review until I’d finished all the above. Nor am I saying it because I write for them occasionally.  Read the pieces yourself.  Make up your own mind.]

50 Acts – Platform Theatre, Kings Cross

[written for Exeunt]

Wendy Houstoun’s 50 Acts is a piece about getting old, being on stage, and the Tories fucking everything up. It appears as part of Dance Umbrella’s season at what turns out to be London’s best new theatre for decades the Platform Theatre King’s Cross (I’d been to the studio before but the main house is somewhere to get properly excited about). I mean, I would say this is now one of the five best stages in London.

(And... Not only is the venue so far benefiting from rather brilliant programming, it also looks and seems to behave like a progressive, European venue and not the ghastly relics of Empire that constitute London's hideous West End.)

(And... As if being the best new theatre space in London isn't enough, there was an exhibition curated by Tim Etchells on the way in. And... a rather neat installation down another corridor called Black Lab...)

50 Acts is the sort of piece that can upset dance purists because it’s got more speaking than movement in it. And what movement there is, as Houstoun herself points out, is being performed by someone around 50 years of age, with no formal training whatsoever. (I’m not making these dance purists up, btw, I’ve heard them grumbling at Sadler’s Wells about Ivana Müller)

However, since we’ve all kind of got over the whole skill thing in dance now (sure, it’s nice to see sometimes, but it’s no excuse for intellectual prostitution – ours or theirs), what we’ve really come to admire here is – well – Great Dramaturgy in Action, as it turns out.

It might be both useful and reductive to note that 50... bears a similarly tangential relationship to “dance” as Forced Ents (with whom Houstoun has collaborated) do to theatre. That is to say, of course it *is* dance. Or at least it is perfectly within its avant-garde rights to categorise itself as such. But it would perhaps surprise the hell out of the unwary traditionalist, who might be expecting something more like this, or even this.

Having been introduced to dance via things like Ivana Müller's While We Were Holding It Together and Dave St Pierre’s Un Peu Tendresse – Bordel la Merde (and seemingly *nothing else*) at “theatre” festivals in mainland Europe, my tolerance of-, enjoyment of-, even affection for- “dance” that perhaps contains more speech than movement; dance that you could probably spend time arguing was as much “theatre” as it was “dance”; is perhaps unusually high for the dance world, but is also perhaps inevitable given my theatre background. In short, this work looks precisely like something that in a parallel world would be being programmed at theatres. (Actually it already has been, but here it is part of a “dance” festival.)

[Diana, feel free to cut all this taxonomical wrangling when you edit the piece for Exeunt. No one needs this shit :-) *]

So what it is? Well, first off, 50 Acts is pretty much an object lesson in just how interesting one person can be on a more-or-less empty stage (of course no stage is ever “empty”, but that’s a different discussion and there’s not much actual stuff on this one) for about an hour.

The piece is divided, as the title suggests, into 50 Acts. There is a video projection on the back wall that accompanies the piece, sometimes flashing up a new Scene number. Or sometimes flashing up the same Scene number again and again to indicate to us that this is still the same scene. From time to time, the projector also shows a bunch of footage.

“This is the First scene” Announces Houstoun from the the front of the stage, unfussily lit from above in a narrow band of light almost sectioning her off in this position at the front of the stage. But then she goes to the back of the stage and the projections take over the responsibility of relaying “her thoughts” into our head.

It’s a curious sensation, but I’ve only really just thought about the fact that she almost certainly wasn’t thinking those thoughts as I was watching her yesterday [it was yesterday when I wrote that sentence] (“almost” since she might run the script in her head, or read in reverse the words in the light as it shines past her from projector to screen). But so complete is our understanding of this mode – the mode of the voiceover or the surtitle narrating the inner life of an actor before us that one is swept along to the end before one necessarily thinks to question it.

Through the following acts – beyond the usual theatre-meaning of acts, there’s also the sense of “Acts” both in the same sense as Shakespeare’s Jacques expands it, and as the kind of line-up of extraordinary “turns” that old variety posters often promised – the mode of receiving thoughts switches often between our reading the written and hearing the spoken, both by Houstoun in person and as a recording. There’s also the interplay of recorded music and stock film footage. At a few points, when she’s running about, old black and white footage of crowds also running about is shown.

Houstoun also makes use of what we might call the “list method”, also beloved of Forced Entertainment and Tim Etchells, Andy Field or Ivana Müller. That is to say, there are sections when she runs through exhaustive permutations of sentences with a certain starting point or theme. It’s a method I admit I find incredibly seductive and appealling when it’s done well, as it is here.

The cumulative effect of the piece is not conclusive, or emotionally manipulative, so much as contemplative and strangely joyful. And without watching again, from an analytical standpoint, rather than simply, notepadless, allowing yourself to get swept along with the feel of the thing, I honestly couldn’t tell you why.

*[postscript: I've just realised, reading back, that leaving notes to "Diana" in the middle of reviews makes me sound like Agent Cooper.  Which I like.  I was, however, referring to a real person.]

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Desire Under The Elms – Lyric Hammersmith

[or: on uncertainty]

I have virtually no idea what to make of Sean Holmes's new production is of Eugene O'Neill's 1924 play Desire Under the Elms. Or, more properly, what I made of it.

Let's work backwards:

Sean Holmes's production offers plenty of clues. It seems faithful to the intentions of the playwright. Hang on. Does it? I don't know the play at all. So what I suppose I mean is that I am happy to take on trust that this is the plot as O'Neill wrote it. That these are the lines that O'Neill wrote. The script here is thick with a vernacular poetry. It takes a while to get the ear attuned, but once you're in there is a strange beauty in the wild, rough tongue the characters speak. It's a dialectal variety of English that recalls rustic Cornish or Irish, perhaps. Unusual possessive pronouns (yourn, hirn, hern) stand out in a play that deals primarily with possession.

On the other hand, Holmes's designer, Ian McNeil (A Doll's House, An Inspector Calls), has created an imaginative, claustrophobic, half-German response to the set. Rather than the usual naturalistic cutaway homesteads we're used to in such domestic tragedies, here we have rooms rolled in as required from the gaping wings, with only half a backdrop standing in for the wide skies and wild vistas of the “New World”. These rooms are stark, suggestively coloured, and cramped; deftly conveying the claustrophobia that the characters still find trapping them in this vast landscape. And, like Hildegard Bechtler's set for Scenes From an Execution, it isn't afraid to be ugly. Strikingly so, in the case of the small kitchenette-on-wheels in which the piece opens.

However, while the set is pulling in one direction, and the script in several others, it feels as if the acting has the casting vote on what sort of a production this is. And, by-and-large, I'd say this is pretty much proper, full-on, in-the-moment, psychological, fourth wall, big-stage naturalism (I think the “big-stage” is a necessary qualification for all audible naturalism in big theatres: no one talks that loudly in real life). Actually, the costumes contribute to this impression, also taking their cue from what – to this non-expert on the period – looks like historical research.

And I suppose it was the performances I found hardest to tune in to. It doesn't help that the chief characteristic of the two main speakers for the first twenty minutes is jammering incomprehensibility. Simeon (Mikel Murfi – nice Equity name, btw (I assume Equity, apols if not)) and Peter (Fergus O’Donnell) are two bearded brothers of the fearsome patriarch Ephraim Cabot (Finbar Lynch) who has either married his way onto this farm or else, as he claims, built it up with his bare hands. Ephraim is the subject of some resentment from the two brothers who, we tortuously learn, have had it with his treatment and are a-heading out west to the California gold-rush. They are explaining this to their apparently half-witted half-brother Eben (Morgan Watkins), to whose mother this farm probably belonged before she married Ephraim and then died.

Turns out the reason for Ephraim's protracted absence is that he's found himself a new wife, Abbie (Denise Gough – doomed to find herself forever trapped psychosexual dramas in small rooms on big stages). He returns with her, the brothers jump ship and Ephraim Abbie and Eben are left to wrangle with fate on their own. Fate, almost too inevitably, takes the form of attraction between Eben and Abbie behind the father's back.

Or at least, that's the gist of it.

Thanks to a combination of what the script's up to, and what the actors are up to, we're unsure (perhaps too unsure, perhaps just unsure enough) whether Abbie has really fallen for Eben. At least, we're not sure until fatally late in the day.

However, the performances of these two central protagonists from Watkins and Gough is curiously blank and lacking in legible subtext. Eben is forthright, but close to being an actual village idiot, and here his emotional and physical responses are played furtively close to his chest, while Gough's Abbie is made of such hard stuff (and is also an actual idiot) that we can never guess her true feelings or motivation. It's a credible reading of the play, but one that makes a lot of extra hard work of it.

In contrast, with Finbar Lynch we have the advantage of believing from the get-go. Here is a man, still tough at 72, who is all plain speaking and stated intent. His is also the driving vocabulary of the piece. A man of simple contrasts, he is hard while his dead wife and her son Eben are soft. The land is hard. God is hard. In hardness there is reassurance, for softness, only contempt.

Given the whacking great sexual undertone of the whole play, little is made of this in Ephraim's case, and notably, when Abbie is seducing Eben, her talk is all of enlarging, growth and trees, and not hardness. It's a notable qualification given the direction in which contemporary slang has headed.

Also interesting is how little discernable heat seems to be given off by the apparently smitten Abbie and Eben. In theory they're smouldering at each other fit to burn, but, perhaps partly as a side-effect of the slightly cold, Teutonic design and lighting, you don't feel it radiating from the stage, exactly. Indeed, this feels like a distinctly wintry take on what might in other circumstances be a rather sultry play.

I found myself watching at a distance. Appreciating the interest of the play's setting, being reminded of Nick Cave's debut novel (Of course, if I'm going to take an interest in C19th American history, it's going to have to be hard-sold to me by an Australian goth. Of course.) Growing to be impressed by the dense poetry of the writing. And getting gradually into the narrative.

On the other hand, O'Neill asks us to take a lot on trust. And in the second half, the plotting has come a bit undone. Indeed, the denouement, the terrible revelation is rendered almost comic in its pathos. Matt Trueman rather brilliantly pointed out to me afterwards (and hopefully will in his review too, it's an excellent point) that by having us see a crucial act take play on stage, we go into that scene with more knowledge than Eben and as such can only see the bitter irony of his mistake, rather than sharing his not knowingness). Even so, The Thing That I Won't Spoiler is such a colossally stupid thing to do, that you hardly know where to look, or what to make of the characters.

It was at this point that I started wondering whether this really was a play about two characters with severe learning difficulties, and wondering how that would be as a dynamic. With Abbie somewhere lower on the IQ chart than that character Juliette Lewis plays in a couple of films who seems almost childlike in her lack of a grasp on things, but at the same time, dangerously, worryingly, precociously sexual.

At this point, one starts to wonder if that mightn't have been a more exciting production, which is unfair, since this is, I think, actually probably quite a good account of a play that I'm not sure I especially warmed to. On the other hand, perhaps a radically different production might have made the play's case more successfully to me.

Holmes doesn't add anything by way of an external reading or take on the piece – more this production just makes us think that bit harder about the play itself through the use of an unexpected aesthetic. Which is no bad thing in itself, except that I'm not sure it's a play that stands up to so much scrutiny. Again, perhaps this is Holmes's intent and I'm falling into the trap of wanting to have a rattling good time when there isn't one to be had.

I'm slightly less sure about the hermetically sealed acting within the context of the deconstructed staging. It's excellent too see further experimentation in mid-North Sea techniques and – post Morning – it confirms Holmes as a thoughtful, interesting theatre-maker willing to take risks. But in this instance, I'm not sure every risk fully pays off to the extent of creating an enjoyable evening in the theatre.

That said, I've been thinking about and puzzling about the production for a good deal longer already than a lot of productions that I have out-and-out enjoyed, so perhaps even this *judgement* is still a long way from definitive and still has to fully play-out.