Sunday, 28 February 2016

On Cleansed: Fat White Family – Manchester Academy

[seen 27/02/16]

Disclaimer: dear music fans, and people finding this using Google, I am in no way a music critic. I’m a 40-year-old theatre critic who’s writing about a band I happened to see last night, largely in relation to a play I saw earlier in the week. I mean, Christ, by all means keep reading, I’d love it if you found it interesting, but don’t say I didn’t warn you if you don’t.

So, I ended up watching huge chunks of Fat White Family live largely through the lens of having seen Cleansed on Tuesday.

My first thought was this: here we are again, watching a strange, compelling spectacle – one that appears to have no necessary/specific narrative coherence (other than by virtue of our travelling forward in time though it), one that is fuelled largely by an intensity of spectacle, and by skinny white boys in various states of undress looking like they’re about to get smashed up.

How would it be if we were to transfer precisely this gig to The Dorfman? Because, well, part of what’s extraordinary about Cleansed is what it does to the audience. And what the audience does to itself. The fact of being as good as locked in, and belted to your seat (if only by yourself), *is* interesting. It made me wonder if some of the weird feedback that the show has got comes from that aspect of it: the way that it makes us recognise a kind of genteel institutionalised violence that is visited on the audience.

It reminds me of Minute 7 in Chris Goode’s House of the Future:
“A friend of mine once went to see Fiona Shaw performing Beckett’s Happy Days, and hated it. After the final words were spoken, and the stage lights had dimmed, right then in that little niche of reverent blackout time before the inevitable rapturous ovation, my friend, without entirely intending to, found himself saying aloud: “Utter shit.” All eyes turned on him and he now describes it as the most embarrassing moment of his life. The level of embarrassment he experienced seems to me to reflect the violence of the situation. For some, that violence will appear to be contained in my friend’s exquisitely timed heckle, just as those in the seats around him clearly adjudged his wounding remark – wounding not just to the actress on stage but to the silence that was rightfully hers – to be a violent act. But isn’t it rather that my friend was acting in self-defence, in the refusal of a tyrannical violence that the whole apparatus of that theatre event is designed to uphold? That system demands a total complicity, and our choices are three: silent assent and collusion; tacit distantiation; or to speak, and thus ventriloquize the violence that inheres in the situation.”
Sarah Kane once famously remarked that she found football more exciting than theatre. Having only ever seen the odd football match on telly, I’m not really qualified to compare the two. I will note that at football you’re allowed to stand up and shout at the players. And move about a bit.

There’s a similar level of feedback permitted here. Singer/Vocalist/Frontman Lias Saudi even dives into the crowd often enough that were anyone feeling that they had some feedback to offer, they could do so, eyeball-to-eyeball. There’s a kind of violence that inheres in this situation too, but it’s arguably the exact opposite of repressive.

My second thought was the extent to which the same criticisms levelled at Kane have also been levelled at the Fat Whites. *Clearly* they’re immature, gratuitous shock-merchants, who don’t understand the rules properly. Neither of structure (musically), nor of engagement politically. They write things almost as if they’re trying to get up people’s noses deliberately. Things that there aren’t even necessarily a decent, rational defence for intellectually. Other than the one they use: “an invitation, sent by misery, to dance to the beat of human hatred”. As a result, people seem to have an unusual level of vitriol reserved for them (as there is for Kane. My God, the comments under Michael’s review seem to ignore both the review and the production and head straight for *her*).

If it’s not clear, I have quite a lot of time for people putting that stuff out there and seeing what happens. I’m not sure I think they necessarily need to be able to articulate precisely what it is they’ve put out there. In terms of where critical theory was at (at least when I was at university), the extent to which we’re shaped by our times, and that our reception is also so shaped, means that we’re almost certainly just recycling cultural energy and sublimated institutional violence to some extent. Perhaps the point of the artist is just to arrange some of what’s already around at a fixed point in time.

My third thought was related to how the Fat Whites perhaps extend this idea of cultural reproduction in a period that is so riddled with theories of hauntology, and The End of History, and Retromania, and recycling, and the futility of attempts on originality (and yet still scorn for the unoriginal and the derivative). So, yes, listening to their songs played live (an experience almost entirely unrelated to how they sound on record), is an experience in synaptic meltdown. “What’s that bit from?” “What does that sound like?” was pretty much the whole of my critical thought-track throughout. If pressed, I think I got it down to “an interesting six-way between Throbbing Gristle, the Glitter Band, the Dead Kennedys, Talking Heads, Hawkwind and the B52s”. There’s a couple of chords where they even turn into Simple Minds (specifically ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’). And, of course, for me, they had something early Sisters of Mercy about them. Maybe even The Sisters doing ‘Ghostrider’, which is pretty much Mornington Crescent in this critical game, right?

That Sarah Kane is also an acknowledged literary modernist postmodernist in the mould of Eliot is already well-documented. Not only quotations, but also quotations of style (and styles used in quotation marks). But also quotations of atrocities. The violence in Cleansed is all second hand violence. Kane can’t be accused of making anything up. Every atrocity can be sourced. Similarly, I wonder if the Fat Whites’ use of glam rock stomping and the kind of air of brown suited-ness and the smoking indoors Seventies – also their early The Fall attitude and indebtedness – is a similar, abstract confrontation of something grisly and sordid in the recent British past. They’ve got a song about local Manchester doctor Harold Shipman, but their style repeatedly recalls Jimmy Savile-era TOTP, too. They’re the first band I’ve seen who appear to visually and sonically acknowledge that the history of rock is “now” a deeply problematic thing. This isn’t an homage, it’s almost like a direct finger-pointing accusation. Sounding like The Glitter Band, indeed. In a different way, this almost brings us back to the creepy, distorted electronic screams of Suicide in Cleansed.

A fourth thought was this: it was bad luck that just before I saw Cleansed I happened to re-read my review of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in which I’d quoted something Nick Ridout had said to me about Sasha Waltz’s Continu:
“it was the pervasive tone of the whole enterprise... 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
“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).”
I found these criticisms haunting when I watched Cleansed. What would be my answer to them in that instance? At Fat White Family it struck me that we were more being asked to participate in the brutality. That we weren’t so far away from ugly mob violence ourselves, while at the same time, almost everyone there was manifestly unsuited to such action. And doubtless acutely aware of it. And, what could be less like the reality of mob violence really than a bunch of intellectuals and hipsters dancing about? So, perhaps there’s no way out of our priggish pacifism. Whatever we do with it, we’re condemned to be what we are, and our attempts to think about atrocity are doomed to be facile. And meanwhile, elsewhere, someone else does the torturing. Perhaps both the Fat Whites and Cleansed are helpful insofar as the fact that they at least confront us with the fact that our “confronting” this sort of “difficulty” is wholly futile and entirely self-indulgent. Perhaps at least the Fat Whites then give us something to then do with our self-revulsion.

I was also reminded of a Johnny Rotten quote I used as a blog title nine years ago here:
“The kids want misery and death, they want threatening noises, because that shakes you out of your apathy.”
I think that can be applied to Cleansed. And to the Fat Whites.

There’s an interesting thing about hostility. I can’t pretend that I know what Kane wanted Cleansed to do. What effect she wanted it to have. And I don’t know what effect Katie Mitchell wants this production to have either. Nor do I know what Fat White Family really want to “achieve”. It is – incidentally – interesting to me, that talking about wanting to identify what effect a band want to achieve seems much more unlikely as a line of inquiry. Perhaps that’s a useful thought to hold on to when thinking about Cleansed. *Should* pieces of theatre have any more *aim* than a gig? Can they not chuck a lot of ideas and visions and feelings and sounds at an audience and a feeling of total sensory disorientation be the point? No one minds gigs doing that. Is that only because people are allowed to stand up and shout when they’re at gigs?

The interesting thing about hostility is where it goes, perhaps. If there is something about Cleansed that is an attack on *something*, you can’t just get rid of once you’ve seen it. You can admire the attack, you can take the attack personally, you can dismiss the very idea of attacking things as misguided, but the effect of it happening seems to linger on, haunting the mind like smoke hangs on clothes.

An interesting thing about the hostility and the disorientation for anyone writing about the piece – especially with a wordcount, especially positively – is how to sell it.

On one level, I wonder if this is also a property of the production. That is presents the hostility beautifully, and in doing so makes it into something even more difficult.

There’s definitely something difficult in wanting to acknowledge, or suggest that some of the gestures in Cleansed are violent in this production.

And also something difficult about acknowledging the difficulty of the form. Like there still isn’t a proper language in theatre crit. that doesn’t somehow invoke a model of correctness that Cleansed fails. Without having ever attempted to surmount it.

I’m not sure that discussing the play in reference to the gig, much less the gig in reference to the play has succeeded in shedding much extra light on either.

At this point, I’m more fascinated by the fact I still feel compelled to try than anything.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Uncle Vanya – Almeida, London

[seen 20/02/16]

deliberately pixelated because reasons

“Let yourself go” is the phrase that runs through Robert Icke’s new version of the Chekhov. It’s variously an invitation, a plea, and a terrible warning. It first crops up noticeably – arrestingly – in Vanya, Astrov and Telegin (here John, Michael and Cartwright)’s drunk rendition of David Bowie’s ‘Jean Genie’. Oddly, that moment, halfway into Act Two, is the most moving moment of the production. Three drunk, middle-aged men singing Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust For Life’ and Bowie’s homage to Jean Genet, particularly in the wake of Bowie’s death in January, seems to perfectly capture all the sadness and feeling of lives wasted of the play. Britain’s incomplete mourning for Bowie supplements the men’s endless mourning for the wastes of their own lives. They have “let themselves go” in the other sense. They have one to seed. Wasted themselves. This wasn’t what Bowie wanted for them at all.

The Professor (Alexander, Hilton McRae) and his new, young wife, Elena (the excellent Vanessa Kirby), have returned to the farm of the professor’s late first wife where his daughter, Sonya (Jessica Brown Findlay), and her Uncle Johnny (Vanya, Paul Rhys) have been tending the farm. Their arrival essentially casts a spell of let-go-ness over the whole estate. And the local doctor, Michael (Astrov, the excellent Tobias Menzies), pleads with Elena to let herself go.

What’s fascinating in this study of stasis isn’t so much that nothing happens – lots does happen – but the way that Chekhov wryly suggests that while things happen, nothing really changes. Except that everyone feels worse at the end.

It’s also fascinating to notice again, as with Katie Mitchell’s Cherry Orchard before it, the sheer prescience of Chekhov’s apparent proto-environmentalism. Of course, in real terms, it probably has as much to do with that gradual industrialisation angst that runs through novelists like George Eliot, but sitting in 2016 and watching Tobias Menzies in a beat up Barbour jacket earnestly showing maps of local deforestation to Elena feels like at least a common thread between the two eras.

And it’s fascinating to compare this Vanya with the Gorki’s “post-migrant” version I saw last year. There, the professor was the immigrant returning to his homeland; sympathetic, relatable. Here, McRae’s Professor is almost wholly experienced by us in the audience through the irritation and exploitation of his family. There’s perhaps something about a war between youth and age about it too, Vanya brokenly battling his own approaching fiftieth birthday, after which he only sees another ten years of life for himself. The language used is of suffocation, or waste, or desication. The professor’s ill health and discomforts are sticks used to beat him for his marriage to the younger Elena whom he also wastes. According to the younger men infatuated with her.

But really the main concern of this Vanya is ultimately class. In Nicholas Ridout’s Passionate Amateurs: Theatre, Communism and Love, Uncle Vanya is one of the main texts considered in the book. In a chapter that takes in Marx’s conception of labour, the realities of work in late-Tsarist Russia, the structure of the Moscow theatre and neoliberalism’s proletarianization of the professional class, Ridout describes “the problem” of the end of the play thus:
“With the departure of the idle and unproductive couple of the Professor and his wife, Vanya and Sonya resolve to abstain from theatrical behaviours brought on by the presence of this couple (doomed love affairs, bungled shootings) and to renounce the indolence that had overcome the household during their visit. In this sense, work is the grim but safe antithesis to the risks and excitements of love. It is duty, rather than passion. It might also be understood, coming as it does at the end of the play, as a gesture toward the mundane world that the play of theatrical production temporarily suspends. Let us get back to the dayworld of work after this brief sojourn in the night of play.” (Ridout 2015, p34)
Later, re: work, Ridout notes:
“It is [Astrov/Michael's] recollection of the death of a “railway pointsman” on his operating table that provokes his agonized speculation about how “those for whom we are laying down the road to the future” might “remember us.” Work, toward a future, whether by “road” or “rail,” is established from the outset as a central preoccupation of the play, and its cost, in terms of the loss of the living, be they railway workers or forests, is a recurrent question. Each “working day” is an exhausting step toward the construction of some better world. As Raymond Williams writes of Chekhov’s plays in general, “the way to the future is seen, consistently, in work.” (ibid, p40)
What was more striking for me in this production, however, was the more simple arguments about inequality. Vanya’s ultimate breakdown is framed very precisely here in terms of his having laboured for the Professor. Yes, for other reasons too, and for the sake of work as a means unto itself. But nonetheless, it is his and Sonja’s labour that has essentially subsidised the professor’s ultimately fruitless career. Rather than, as is implied at the Gorki, the professor having emigrated in search of more profitable labour, he has merely wafted around writing books that make no money. [Vanya is also viciously, pointedly venomous on the subject of academia in a bunch of lines that will possibly strike worryingly close to the heart of any theatre blogger.]

But, it’s the framing of the professor as a landowner, as the idle beneficiary of the fruits of others’ labour that really hits home here. This is, I think, as Corbynite a production of Vanya as you could hope to see (or perhaps I chose to understand it that way because that’s what I’d like it to be). It feels almost like a dare to let things continue as they are. “Go on,” it goads us (or, at least those few of us still young enough to have a stake the future, at the performance I attended), “just leave things as they are. Look!”

There is a strangeness to that argument too, though. In Ridout’s chapter, he suggests:
“In a production of Uncle Vanya in the theatre today, at least one hundred years after the moment in which a spectator might imagine Sonya’s words to have been spoken, there is a double contemporaneity at work that undoes or loops back the implicit teleology. The spectator is the future in whom Sonya’s hopes rested. Now is still the moment in which such hopes may be entertained.” (ibid, p53)
Icke’s production is, of course, unfussy modern-dress. The names have been translated, along with the script. We’re not specifically in Russia, but nor are we specifically not. I *think* place names have been avoided altogether. The clothes could as easily be a guide to our feeling the then contemporaneity of Chekhov’s world equivalent in our own, rather than intended to say “This is England. Now.” In a way, though, it doesn’t matter. The meanings are clear, and the few key shifts in between Chekhov’s Russia and Icke’s Britain are worryingly miniscule. The conundrums about labour and exploitation, freedom and wasted lives are common it each.

I’ve talked a lot, now, about the politics, and little about the aesthetics, or the performances, which is strange, since, watching it, it felt like it was these that were the real meat of the occasion.

Paul Rhys’s Vanya/John is brilliantly singular. I’ll be honest, and admit that having seen a couple of his TV villains, I was quite disconcerted by the idea I’d be having to sympathise with him (or at least Chekhov-sympathise). I needn’t have worried. Interestingly, instead, one thing I did find fascinating was his voice, which, here, is curiously reminiscent of Alan Bennett’s (crossed with Richard Wilson’s and David Hare’s). The sound of a sadness quite enjoying the noise it makes, perhaps. It’s perfect for Vanya. Similarly, it’s brilliant to see Vanessa Kirby growing up in another Chekhov. Yes, her Masha was agonisingly superlative, and Elena is somehow a less synpathetic character, but nevertheless, it feels like she completely makes the part her own, and not just by doing similar things. It felt like there was an integrity to these decisions. There’s also the fact that she’s a really brilliant comic actress, which made her monologue (they step off the revolving stage and into a spotlight. You’d think you’d hate it, but actually it’s great) play almost like a really accomplished comedian doing a wedding speech. Although. yes, also having a real-time realisation built *into* that speech is tricky.

For me, though, the stand out performance was Tobias Menzies. (And I’m happy to concede that this is plausibly because he’s the white, middle-class man playing the character closest to my own age. *Of course* he’s the guy I’m rooting for.) What was great here, though, is that Dr Michael pretty much doesn’t or hasn’t resolved his own internal contradictions at all. Or at least, is unconcerned by the fact that he’s carrying on like a selfish dick. On one hand, all full of these high ideals, and on the other, both shallow and mendacious, without giving a toss about the consequences.

Jessica Brown Findlay’s Sonya is a perfect anti-mirror for him. Chekhov’s cruelty to his characters occasionally feels like it’s almost too much. Where in Act 1 it feels almost cruel to perfection, and the lightness with which this scene casually begins to rip everything to pieces is a highlight of the production. the climatic Act 3 row is, by contrast, pretty shouty. Yes, it’s shouting that the show gets away with, but.

The production is set on a fairly conventional room-sized stage, maybe a metre high, and with four posts, one at each corner, holding up a corresponding ceiling. The stage is on a slow revolve, and turns pretty much throughout each scene (which, if it “is [nicked] from the Young Vic Streetcar” I’ll eat my Ostermeier Nora/Blasted/Hedda). Each new act begins and ends with one of the short ends of the stage facing out into the audience, with the black blinds drawn down. (Design Hildegard Bechtler).

So, yes. It’s stylish. It’s intelligent. It’s essentially as brilliant a contemporary production of Uncle Vanya as you could wish to see. It’s very “pure”, it feels like. And perhaps, oddly, not all that emotionally affecting. Which was strange. I mean, I completely *got* that the moment Vanya breaks down and smashes a bunch of flowers against the sofa in frustration and grief and rage was awful for him. But this was knowing, recognising, understanding that it was awful, rather than feeling it. Not an especial problem for me, per se, but it did seem indicative, and strange that it hadn’t moved me more viscerally. And I have no idea why it didn’t. Particularly when three actors, pretending to be drunk, singing David Bowie badly did.

[reason for pixelated cover photo is simply that I couldn't find any pix that even remotely reflected my experience of watching it.  Not a criticism of the photographer: I was in a particular seat that you'd never choose to take photos from, even though it's an excellent seat, and the stage kept turning, and I'd choose what to look at, and none of it looked like this: 

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Cleansed – National Theatre, London

[seen 23/02/16]

Katie Mitchell’s production of Cleansed is astonishing. Obviously. It was never going to be anything else, was it? So what a review needs to do is to quantify in some way the manner of this astonishment.

[I should say that as well as watching tonight’s press night performance, I also saw a run-through maybe a week before the first preview. I’m glad I did, because that rehearsal essentially let me know what the production I was going to would be doing. Seeing the production then allowed me to see those things realised. It strikes me that this is an excellent way of seeing a piece like this. Because, let’s face it, Cleansed is a play that comes with *a lot* of preconceptions, a lot of critical baggage. I wonder if everyone with any taste in theatre already has their idealised production in their head? I think I’m guilty of having had at least three. And, crucially, this wasn’t any of them. So I was glad to get into the rehearsal run and see what this one was about before seeing it. I also listened to the excellent short interview with Mitchell on Radio 4 before seeing the show, and was enthralled by her description of what Tinker in the play is doing – torturing people to test their love. For me, that is “a reading” of the play. It just happens to be an incredibly convincing one. One that I’m happy to buy into and see explored, even if it’s something that I’d never have thought of myself. And in a way, I think that’s...]

What I want from great directors is a way of seeing a play that I could never have imagined for myself. And this is exactly what Mitchell gives us here.

Sarah Kane’s second Royal Court play, Cleansed, is set in “a university”. A man called Tinker is “treating” and torturing Grace’s heroin addict brother Graham, and gay couple Rod and Carl. A young man called Robin is similarly imprisoned. Tinker also forms a kind of relationship with a woman who also calls herself Grace, who seems to be imprisoned in a kind of coin-operated peepshow.

The text itself must be one of the most analysed in modern British theatre history. We seem to “know” so much about the apparent geneses of its various components. We know about regimes using university buildings (or sports stadiums, or schools) as concentration camps. We know about the variant on “crucifixion” of inserting a pole into the anus and pushing it through the body avoiding all the major organs to cause slow, painful death. We know about the mutilation of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus. We even know that at least one line could be a relative of the same line when it was written by Ian Curtis.

It now feels a bit like all that “knowledge” rather gets in between the audience and the play (well, it was a worry for me, anyway). An achievement here is that this production is so thorough-going, such a complete imagining of a world, that you essentially just watch *it*. It erases *everything* else, so that you are immersed in this singular vision of the work.

In terms of the production, it’s impossible to know what to talk about first. Alex Eales’s stage design is utterly superb. A cross-section of institutional corridor with rooms off, old signs, trees growing against windows, and even plants growing up through ruined floor tiles. (And, if the “university” angle hadn’t been so clearly reiterated in pre-publicity, I’d have suggested that the corridor could have been in a hospital, opening yet another vast realm of (mis-)reading.) The way it’s lit (by Jack Knowles) seems perfect. I mean, really, it’s “just” lifelike. But there are so many decisions even there, that they could all pass entirely unremarked just because they work, and you don’t think about them, but, my God, it’s so precise. And pretty much every lighting state perfectly suits the scene that it illuminates.

Perhaps even more crucial than the set and lighting is the sublime sound design (sound design – Melanie Wilson, music – Paul Clark). I don’t think there’s a single moment of silence until the end. The piece is essentially through-scored, not just with “sound effects” (birdsong, helicopters and the like), but with this vast, cavernous echoey *place*, built out of music and noise. I don’t even pretend to know who did what, the music seems designed and the sound feels musical. The show also includes perhaps the coolest use of one of the coolest songs in existence, and frankly, hearing that played at any volume in a show that’s already this good... At the National Theatre of Great Britain... To put it starkly, Cleansed has perhaps my favourite sonic setting for a show since Gisele Vienne’s I Apologize or This Is How You Will Disappear. We’re talking all-time bests here.

The cast are great too. Although, something fascinating is how little dialogue, or even speaking happens in the piece. I think there’s probably more than you register, but this is really not a play driven by either dialogue or exposition. There are exchanges, but they are mostly short and desperate. A real skill here is the extent to which they feel that they could be improvised. So, what the performers are really doing here is performing actions and moving. In this respect, Michelle Terry should get extra credit for her performance as Grace. I don’t think the script stipulates that Grace is present throughout – I *think* it’s a directorial invention – but it’s an inspired bit of thinking. As a result of at least Terry’s physical presence on stage, more-or-less solidly throughout, often fearlessly naked, we are given an additional through-line through this illusive text.

Terry’s presence is also a good way into talking about the way that the production appears to play with what on stage is *actually meant to be real*. For example, there are black-clad and masked “orderlies” or “stage managers” or “torturers” who bring in different tables, chairs, trolleys of surgical instruments, etc. We can see them quite clearly, so we know they’re there. And sometimes they interact with the named, costumed characters of the piece – at which point we (well, I) can also assume they’re “real” in the world of the play? And yet at other times they seem to walk backwards, or in slow-motion, mostly strikingly carrying umbrellas and white funeral flowers; seemingly recreating Graham’s funeral as his entirely corporeal ghost holds his sister. But a lot of the rest of the time, it feels like we just filter them out. Or watch them as if they’re not really there. (I wish I had my copy of the script with me. But I’m pretty certain they’re not in it. [Edit: apparently they are.])

This issue of presence/invisibility is the most naked demonstration that even what we’re seeing isn’t strictly linear or literal. And yet, here, it’s presented with such a realistic conviction, that you don’t fully think to question the lines spoken by someone whose tongue we’ve just seen cut out.

The overall effect of the piece is curiously like watching a piece of dance-theatre. It’s as if Kane was really creating a kind of Pina Bausch-like ballet about torture and love, and it’s only in production that this aspect of the whole can be realised. I should say, I don’t believe for a moment that this is an inevitable consequence of someone choosing to put this play on stage. While appearing to be wholly faithful and a very “pure” version of the script, this Cleansed is brimming with tonal choices and interpretations.

I will also say, I might have got a bit used to seeing this sort of thing in Germany. In terms of Mitchell’s work, this Cleansed feels like a direct relative of her Alles Weitere... in Hamburg. What was perhaps most thrilling about this production was the simple fact of walking outside afterwards and being in Britain. It’s probably cheap and sentimental to suggest, but this feels like a real landmark production: not just Kane arriving at the National (and Mitchell triumphantly returning there), but also British theatre becoming recognisably European.



I don’t think the sheer joy of seeing this played at the NT is going to wear off any time soon.

And this bit is just amazing:

Friday, 19 February 2016

The Suicide – Berliner Ensemble/Theater-am-Schiffbauerdamm, Berlin

[seen 17/02/16]

A confession: for a long time I’d rather written the Berliner Ensemble off. I’d not been especially convinced by what I’d seen of Claus Peyman as a director, I CANNOT STAND Robert Wilson, and much else about the place had struck me as a kind of Ostalgic Shakespeare’s Globe for Brecht: more a museum than a living, vital theatre.

But, well, they had a production of Nikolai Erdman’s The Suicide premièring while I was in Berlin, and I was keen to see it ahead of Suhayla El-Bushra’s new version opening at the National Theatre in April (having cunning missed both Moira Buffini’s 2007 adaptation, Dying For It at the Almeida *and* Deborah McAndrew’s The Grand Gesture in 2013 for Northern Broadsides – interesting Billington/Hickling divergence on how good the play itself is in those reviews...).  In the end, it turns out that French director Jean Bellorini’s Der Selbstmörder is a complete joy. Ironically.

To begin with, I had my misgivings. Georgios Tsivanoglou as Semyon Semyonovich Podsekalnikow is a corpulent clown of the Zero Mostel school. Which is not my favourite sort of comedy. The whole felt like it might content itself to wallow in a stylishly set (bühne also by Bellorini) version of (UK) Seventies Sitcom-land. And so, physically and comedically, it transpitres for the first few scenes. Granted, yes, the set is lovely – wide, low-gradient steel stairs in a shallow frame, rising to the second storey to reveal more of the same behind, with strip lights and neon, and endless different false back-walls – but a great ugly set is not the whole story. The situation, as it is played, feels like the most alienating of all possible takes on post-Brecht, and for a while I wonder if my German colleagues won’t also be feeling that it lacks any sort of “a take” on the play.

Then, in the famous final dinner sequence – which seems to be at least half the play – seated at a stage-wide table before a corrugated iron safety curtain, the whole thing came magically alive. The whole register seemed to change, in fact. The sitcom shtick seemed to be revealed as just that – shtick – and instead Semyonovich is standing on the table singing Radiohead’s ‘Creep’. Mikhail Bulgakov’s letter to Stalin on Erdman’s is read out by Berliner Ensemble schauspielerin of some 53 years standing, Carmen-Maja Antoni. There is *a lot* of *mucking about*. And the whole feels more ridiculous, more comic, more tragic and more desperate.

For the actual final scene, the safety curtain is raised again, and the cast are ranged out on a largely empty stage, with remnants of an iron spiral staircase and a tilted coffin frame, lit like refugees from Complicité’s Mnemonic or Robert Wilson’s Einstein...

I didn’t get the impression that the piece scored any direct hits on contemporary Germany. The production felt (unusually for Germany) too reverential and contextual for that. Instead, it plays, in a contemporary fashion as an unadulterated problem comedy of “then” that we, living in the present, must unravel for ourselves. Oddly, for Germany (but not so much for France), quite a similar solution to so many British productions.

[Also oddly, as this it the final piece I saw in my last, short German tour, worth mentioning that I didn’t see a single show directed by a German in Berlin. Two Brits, one Dane and one Frog. No Germans. Which feels either oddly inclusive on the part of the Germans, or exclusive on my part. I did take one night off, though, and the obvious thing I could have seen instead would have been Nicholas Stemann’s Live On Stage! version of the Danish TV show Borgen...]

I’m now very interested to see what the latest UK version is going to do to this “lost” play. Probably scrub it clean of all the offending social context that got it banned in the Soviet Union in the first place and, ironically, make it a critique of capitalism instead. Albeit a critique of capitalism that is a part of capitalism, and one which helps to paper over the cracks by appearing to criticise it.

But, yes, while nothing especially resonated for me in the present-day moment for Germany (but then, really, how would I know?), what did resonate was the history of the play and the building and the city. But, even without those resonances, this was 2hrs30 with no interval of non-stop interest and engrossment. And that felt like a regrettably rare treat indeed. Next time I’m in Berlin I should go and see more at the BE.

Le Vin Herbé – Staatsoper im Schiller Theater, Berlin

[seen 15/02/16]

It’s fascinating to consider this revival of Katie Mitchell’s 2013 production of Frank Martin’s (1938-1941) opera/oratorio, Le Vin Herbé, in the light of the work she was making at the time and the work she’s making now. (And there’s also a lot more point in me doing that than trying to situate Martin’s music within the development of twentieth century modernism.)

The piece itself is a cycle of 18(?) songs(?) which adapts Joseph Bédiers’s Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut (1900). As such, the piece is fascinating first for its being a (then) new French take on a story that in Germany forms such a cultural cornerstone in the form of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (lines from which even find their way into the equally canonical (and similarly problematic, anti-Semitic) The Waste Land), and for its being written at precisely the time when Wagner-fan Hitler actually went and invaded France.

Mitchell’s staging (which, as always, should properly be viewed as collaborative – chief amongst which, in my experience of this piece, being Lizzie Clachan’s astonishing stage design) sets the performance in a bombed out theatre in France in 1942 (according to a review on the Staatsoper site. I wouldn’t have known to guess specifically France, or specifically 1942; Deutschland‘45 made just as much sense to me as I was watching).

The music itself is Difficult. Capital D. I mean, it’s beautiful, yes. But without even words (for me) to hold onto (performed in French, surtitled into German, plus opera-singing to make the French difficult and, well, after a while, the feeling that there wasn’t much to be gained by my concentrating on providing my own third-rate German translations) it is Hard Work. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind Hard Work, but it would be remiss of me not not mention that it definitely is. It’s slow, sepulchral, icy, haunting, but a-melodic. If I knew it well, it might have been easier, but I didn’t.

The staging adds a huge amount the music, but does so at the music’s pace. This isn’t such an intervention that it feels like an imposition. Indeed, having seen it, it now feels incredible to think that nothing seen on stage is directly ordered by the music – being an oratio, it’s just as plausible for concert performance, and *nothing* about it demands that it be set in a bombed out French theatre with moonlight and snow falling through the ceiling.

I find this thread through Mitchell’s work – the idea of a naturalistic frame around some non-naturalistic performances – completely fascinating. We (apparently) saw it in Attempts on Her Life, in which (I’m told) there was an invisible framing device, wherein the actors were playing actors in 1997. This is obviously a much bigger development of that idea – having real opera singers *playing* French opera singers performing in a bombed out theatre during WWII.

Strangely, it wasn’t until reading an (this, unrelated) interview this morning, that it occurred to me to link the idea of a bombed French theatre with the Balaclan Théâtre attack, but I wonder if that resonance is now another part of the performance now.

Visually, the piece reminded me most of all of photographs I’d seen of Mitchell’s Oresteia, and of Complicité’s Street of Crocodiles. Physically, there is some continuity from the scene-change-“doctors” of Pains of Youth or the sphinxes of Alles Weitere..., but here they’re also subordinated by both the naturalistic frame of bombed France, and by the music, which seems to prevent the usual near-violence with which they intervene.

In the light of all this, and my not having really understood any but the barest bones of the libretto, much less appreciated its literary weight or even the impact of its meaning on any gut level, it’s kind of impossible for me to offer any sort of a final “assessment”. It’s clearly beautiful, and full of brilliant ideas. The music is also performed beautifully. The music remains slow, and beautiful (rather than, say, energising, or sentimental enough to provoke an emotional response – from me, at any rate). Overall it made me realise (not for the first time), that I often have pretty cheap preferences and desires in theatre – that it be adrenalising, and emotional, and fast. And the greatest of these is fast. Which this isn’t. As such, I’m at a massive disadvantage reviewing this. I can see it’s brilliant, but the brilliance somehow didn’t cross the orchestra pit and also move me. A strange and tricky thing to experience, and a stark contrast to her forthcoming Cleansed.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Lohengrin – Deutsche Oper, Berlin

[seen 14/02/16]

Ok. We need to talk about Lohengrin.

It’s tricky, right?

I mean, we know about Richard Wagner. We know who his most famous fan was. We know which film uses the prelude to Lohengrin and why. And we know where Berlin stands in all that mess.

So seeing Lohengrin in Berlin (and on Valentine’s Day! Ha!) was always going to feel complicated.

Regular readers will know I don’t know *a lot* about opera/classical music. I can tell eras apart. On a good day I can spot a composer or at least their period or nationality. And I know a fair amount of the famous stuff. I first came across Lohengrin properly when Christoph Marthaler used In Fernem Land in Meine Faire Dame. I *loved* it. I mean, I loved *a lot* about that musical, but that was a highlight even in an evening of highlights. So, yes. I genuinely do love the music in Lohengrin. I know stricter people than I will probably say that the problems with the opera start with the music. That it’s cheap, sentimental. Too ready to always go for the obvious “stirring” or “moving” bit. But, well, what can I say? I’m not strict. And I find lots of the music incredibly beautiful. The narrative bits could always be played faster, though, I reckon. No exposition or conversation need ever take *that long*.

Not knowing the opera all that well (which I think is the other good way to approach something; at least you get to be excited/intrigued by it as intended), and even knowing something of its past/fan-base, I was surprised by just how staggeringly fascist some of the songs/bits sounded.
For example (all libretto quotations from here), from the first substantial song:
Now it is time to defend the Reich’s honour;
East and West, to all I say:
let every acre of German soil put forth troops of solidiers,
never again shall anyone abuse the Deutsche Reich!
This! In Berlin! No wonder the production looks a bit beige. There’s literally no way you could dress everyone in stark, strong, bold colours to sing that, is there?

Do you know the plot? The plot of Lohengrin is bloody amazing. It’s worth reading the Wikipedia synopsis in full, but in short: A knight has accused a lovely maiden (Elsa) of being responsible for the disappearance of his little brother. She is brought before the King for judgement...

(The other main theme of the story – apart from its fascism – is astonishing its sexism, for instance, this is what the chorus have to say of Elsa’s first appearance:
MEN: Behold! The accused approaches!
Ah! How resplendent, how pure she looks!
He who dared make such an accusation against her
must be quite sure of her guilt!
Amazing, non?)

… Anyway, Elsa turns up and wafts about telling everyone about a dream she had. The king decides that her innocence should be decided by trial by combat, and Elsa says she’d like the knight she’d been dreaming of to turn up and fight for her. Of course.

Then her mystery knight does turn up. On a boat PULLED BY A SWAN. In this performance Mystery Knight is played by Michael Weinius, who is a shortish, portly gentleman of the Simon Russell-Beale school. All I’m saying is that you don’t exactly get the chill of seeing a kind of proto- Aryan SS superman predicted on this occasion. In this production he is also required to wear a vast pair of swan wings on his back. In theory it’s all quite grand and impressive. In practice, they flap about quite a bit as he waddles around and it’s hard not to giggle.

Anyway, Mystery Knight wins the fight; therefore, of course, Elsa is innocent; and she Mystery Knight decide to get married, on the condition that she never asks him his name. (SPOILER: THE TITLE OF THE SODDING OPERA IS A SPOILER.)

In Act Two the bloke that first accused Elsa is in a forest with his girlfriend, Ortrud, and she reveals that she is in fact a pagan witch and *some stuff*. Read the synopsis. This bit was chiefly interesting to me firstly because it makes where you locate any actual fascism in the piece harder to place – everyone’s German, and it’s a play off between Knightly Christianity and Pagan Gods. And secondly because it really wrong-foots the easy diagnosis of sexism from the first part. Ortrud is clearly brilliant, and all witchy and powerful and full of wicked plans etc. I mean, yes, there’s a feminism that would point out (not unfairly) that this just makes her some other archetype in the lexicon of woman-hating, but crucially, she’s neither flimsy nor stupid. Think Lady Macbeth with added back-up from pagan gods (both male and female).

The second part of Act Two, well, I’m afraid it got a bit lost because there was a bit of a kerfuffle in the auditorium...

So, let’s get The Fight out of the way: while we were watching Richard Wagner’s insane opera Lohengrin, the bloke sitting next to me started taking photos with his mobile phone. It was not a discreet mobile phone. It was a big glowy one with a big light-up screen and it illuminated not only itself, but also everything else for miles around. I let the first couple of times go. Sure, I thought, sneak the odd photo. Stick it to The Man. Why not take photos from the 25th row of the stalls? The opera house almost certainly haven’t thought to photograph the production or make those photos completely available online. After about half an hour of this behaviour in the second act, I gave him a bit of a nudge. The next time, I gave him a proper jogged-when-taking-the-shot-nudge. The next time I sharply batted the phone out of his hands into his lap. That got a “Danke” from a couple of people in the row behind us who were clearly sick of his shit too. He continued. I gave up. The people in the row behind us decided that if photo-bloke wasn’t going to take a hint they were going to take his phone. It all rather kicked off after that. At one point I clearly remember him standing up and shouting at them to give his phone back or he was going to make the whole opera stop (yes, all this was being conducted in English, the international language of Philistinism). By this point I was well out of the fray. At one point it looked like everything was going to break into a proper Ukrainian Parliament fight. Eventually they gave him his phone back and he looked all sulky until the interval – mercifully only about five minutes later – when he (photo-bloke) went to complain to the ushers that people had tried to stop him taking photographs, and was promptly asked to leave. I was surprised after all his shouting in the middle of the opera that he hadn’t been ejected on the spot.

The adrenalin that gave us definitely jazzed up the evening no end. But still. Oof. Blimey. Punch-ups, eh? (And, yes, I’ll admit it did worry me that this all took place in Berlin against the backdrop of Hitler’s favourite opera, and was essentially a triumph of a majority over a little bloke who was annoying them. And that the music might have got us all a bit Clockwork-Oranged-up. Still, fuck it. Hopefully he learnt something about consideration for others... :-/// )

Anyway, I missed that bit of the opera.

Read the synopsis for part three. Basically all gets tied up in a fairly vindictive/cruel/symbolic way, and some of the best bits of opera ever written happen. And even if they are cheap and populist and sentimental, I think I still love them.

Now, all this flippancy – Wagner Fight Club notwithstanding – is all perfectly real. You have a thought-track running alongside the text of the opera thinking, ‘Oh, come ON. Really?? This?’ But at the same time, it’s actually quite fun.

Similarly, Kasper Holten’s production was, in many, many ways, terrible. (frinstance, the gathered Germanic soldiery addressed by King Heinrich covered all periods from the thirty years war through to WWI. And then stopped, leaving a big old fuck-off elephant in the room, but probably safer and more acceptable than staging the elefant. The whole chorus are done out in pale khaki and beige and grey blue, which is pretty if a bit a) kitsch, and b) difficult to see. The sets are kind of blocky, and from where I was sitting made the whole thing look accidentally claustrophobic. There’s a big old almost-another-elephant-in-the-room cross that dangles from the flies in Act 2 and functions variously as walkways and ceilings. It’s *almost* very good, but then somehow ended up feeling clunky instead of vigorous (the opposite of the cross in Submission)... The big ol’ flappy wings we’ve talked about. But, yeah, as productions go, it made me feel immensely grateful for all the Richard Jones and Katie Mitchell operas I’ve seen – not to mention making me feel I was incredibly churlish about Simon McBurney’s Magic Flute which is perfection by comparison.)

But enormous fun nonetheless. And incredibly clear and watchable.

And, blimey, the music: if you don’t know the opera, maybe the best way to explain how/why it’s great is by comparing it to the soundtrack of Star Wars (any of the original trilogy, or the last one). You know how there are about three or four *really famous bits of music* for Star Wars? Same with Lohengrin. You know how bits of each of those tunes sometimes plays at a relevant point when the character that the piece of music relates to is having a big scene. Same. You know how there’s a lot of other music that you kind of know is there in Star Wars, but you couldn’t hum it, because it just fits the action where it is and the tune isn't important? Perfect. You totally know how this works. And the Big Hit Number from Lohengrin is better than any of the Star Wars ones. So, yes, about three great tunes, and three hours of music, and by playing one of them right at the beginning and then only hinting at it again until almost the end, it feels like a masterfully constructed work of art. So, yeah. Proto-fascist nutjob tho’ he be, Richard Wagner was pretty good at his day job...

[conclusion forthcoming, once I've thought of one]

Monday, 15 February 2016

Ungeduld des Herzens – Schaubühne, Berlin

[written for the Guardian]

I was lucky enough to get the Guardian to commission a review of Simon McBurneys production of Ungeduld des Herzens at the Schaubühne.

I won’t lie; every time I manage to get a review of something from abroad into the Guardian, it feels brilliant.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Submission – Deutsches Schauspielhaus, Hamburg

[seen 10/02/16]

In early January last year, when “Islamic” terrorists stormed the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, it was a cartoon of novelist Michel Houellebecq that graced the front cover of the week’s edition. The cover was celebrating the publication of his new novel, Soumission (German; Unterwerfen, English; Submission). The subject of the novel is an imagined near-future in which France elects a Muslim Government and becomes a de facto Islamic state. The novel is narrated, like so many of Houellebecq’s novels, by slightly depressed, misanthrophic, middle-aged, white man, whom one probably imagines to resemble Houellebecq himself.

And, yes, it’s a difficult novel to admit to admiring. So much of the surface of it is patently designed to be provocative, and there’s always the concern that the impulse behind its creation is not merely benign leftist provocation. But let’s say this; while all the other consciousnesses in the book are described as secondary to those of the white, male narrator, these include all his other white, male colleagues, as well as the Muslim men and all women. And yes, while the version of Islam that flourishes in the novel’s imaginary future France is an objectionable caricature of, say, Saudi Arabia, so is actual, present-day Saudi Arabia. Nor is present-day France is hardly held up as a paragon.

What Submission really creates is a satire of is patriarchy. The big joke of the novel is that this classically “Western”, emotionally-backward, academic expert on Huysmans ends up quite pleased by modern “progressive” French society being replaced by conservative, polygamous Islamic law. It is possible to read this as Houellebecq making some sort of argument for the essentialism of patriarchy, and its demonstrable, ongoing dominance. But it’s equally easy to see it as a condemnation of precisely such a view. I don’t know how a feminist novel could skewer male self-interest more viciously.

As such, it is reassuring (while perhaps cowardly to want such reassurances) that this first adaptation for stage has been created by Deutsches Schauspielhaus’s artistic director Karin Beier, dramaturg Rita Thiele, and a mostly female production team (Licht – Rebekka Dahnke, Kostüm – Hannah Petersen)

What is then surprising, given this fact (and given my nervous need for reassurance), is that the actual production itself is remarkably *straight*. The novel, narrated by the single voice of a middle-aged white man, is transferred to stage by the cunning means of having a single middle-aged white man stand on stage and say as many of the words from the novel as can be reasonably fitted into an evening of theatre.

However, that’s not all. Yes, the novel transfers well to the stage, and remains compelling and grimly, bleakly funny – perhaps all the more so for having the frisson of lots of people laughing nervously together in public. And, yes, solo performer Edgar Selge holds the attention like a particularly charistmatic eye-magnet; dry, self-deprecating, rumpled, yet still capable of oratorical flights and lyricism. But the thing that really makes this production is Olaf Altmann’s stage design.

The piece is played in front of a vast black wall close to the front of the stage. Set into the centre of the wall is a huge disc, with a large cross set into it. The cross is several feet deep and opens onto a void on the other side of the wall. Once Selge begins to speak, the cross slowly begins to rotate. It takes fifteen minutes for it to be upside down. When it is upside down, what was the topmost part of the cross is now at such a height that Selge can easily sit himself in the now upside-down cross. As I guess we all knew he was going to. The first fifteen minutes are almost all about that wait, as much as anything he’s saying. From the point when he sits in the cross onwards, the sheer beautiful simplicity and fertile symbolism absolutely transform what we’re watching. Yes, dramatically, it’s “just the novel” to some extent, but thanks to the intervention of this design, it’s also much more. As Selge speaks François’s narration, it’s the ever changing, multiple meanings of the turning cross that we wrestle with alongside it. It’s such a clever, perfect image for the story. This little man caught up in the vast symbol of Europe, now unstable, unfixed, and even already reminiscent of symbols of Europe’s horrific past, and, with the slight shadow of a crescent cast on the revolving disc, the image of the imagined future.

That the continual revolutions of the cross necessitate Selge clambering about this constantly self-refreshing symbol is also a brilliant way of keeping the staging feeling physical and fresh throughout. Of course, we’ve seen this sort of thing before, not least in miniature for a couple of minutes during Jude Christian and Fly Davis’s Goya/Asshole at the Gate. But this is the full-size real thing. 2Hrs45 (mit pause) of rotating cross, more akin the Josef K’s continually spinning bird’s-eye-viewed room in Kriegenburg’s Der Prozess. Or, perhaps we’re reminded of the horizonal revolve of Gotscheff’s Persians, or the black wall and spinning cyclorama of Thalheimer’s Faust. It’s that kind of a structural set. Cuplture on an epic scale. And perhaps it’s no accident that it recalls the archetypal work of these white, middle-aged male directors so vividly. Perhaps the set is even self-satirising at the same time as working so beautifully.

I haven’t loved a design quite so much in ages. It *did things*. It was an integral part of the meaning of the production, and one which kept on adding to that meaning. It was the diametric opposite of that shiny white fucking abortion in Linda.
So, yes. I’m not sure I have *conclusions* about the production, or what it means. The Nachtkritik review suggests that putting the novel on stage might attract the wrong sort of interest/audience, fearing a theatre overrun by Pegida fascists, but suggests that the most inflammatory/incediary passages of the novel have been removed, and this production would offer little comfort for their Islamophobia. I agree, but it never occurred to me that racists or white supremacists might go to the theatre to see/hear their views confirmed. But then, it never occurred to me that a talented, internationally respected director would ever fall out with a Hamburg theatre over their pro-refugee stance. Until it happened.

So, as we see, perhaps the pretend paranoid fantasy of an Islamic takeover in Europe is indeed a topic that needs to be aired on our stages, and in as intelligent a fashion as this, so we can actually examine the inside of the mindset that imagines “this is the greatest threat facing Europe”.

And what “Europe” is anyway.

Wit – Royal Exchange, Manchester

[seen 02/02/16]

On paper Wit is probably not my sort of thing. It’s a Well-Written Play (Margaret Edson); it’s definitely smart: imagine a less surreal, playful, American take on writing a Tom Stoppard play and then invest it with a great deal more sincerity. Formula: take a Big Thing (in this case: cancer), take a Big Artist (in this case: 17th century poet John Donne), and use one to excavate the experience of the other.

Dr Vivian Bearing (Julie Hesmondhalgh) is an American English Literature professor. Who gets cancer. The play is 1hr40 of her meta-theatrically acknowledging the audience and telling her story. A story in which she knows she’ll end up dead. As literary critics go, she’s something of an anomaly. Hers is very much a school of mathematical, almost surgical scholarship. She addresses us as she would her students, barking sardonic observations about pain like a drill sergeant at some literary boot camp.

What makes this production (Raz Shaw) absolutely shine, towering above its source-script, is Hesmondhalgh’s performance. But, more than this, it’s an almost indefinable element within the performance, some kind of spark she exudes of *essentially brilliant, lovely human being*. Indeed, part of what makes the performance so remarkable is the way that warmth-exuding actor seems in constant tension with hard-ass character. Of course, part of the point of the play is the stripping away of the character’s layers of hard-assery to some sort of “essential humanity” underneath (an American invention (to my mind), of which I’m not necessarily a huge fan, but one given serviceable enough treatment here to be worth at least giving a respectful listen).

But this isn’t just a three-way exchange between writer, director and lead actor. The supporting cast all throw in apparently effortlessly detailed performances as myriad doctors, nurses, students and colleagues, while Hannah Clark’s stark design – a runway and revolve disk in hospital green is almost too spookily evocative and perfectly-observed, also managing to bridge the gulf between America’s private healthcare and what we’re still currently used to in this country.

There should also be much praise for lighting designer Jack Knowles, whose attention to detail and nuance through is outstanding, but who also contributes in no small measure to the gigantic final gesture of the piece, a kind of transcendent moment of light and humanity, which seems as good a way of imagining death as any.

As I hinted above, it’s a curious play, though. I’ve never been an especial fan of John Donne, but here he is, apparently stripped of all historical context or history. This is a forensic study of poetry where reputations are made and broken over contested punctuation. As such, it occurs to me, that rather than being a piece in which metaphysical poetry is used to understand cancer, it often feels more like something where poetry is almost understood as a cancer, and subjected to repeated attacks as such. In the abstract, this doesn’t seem like such a bad idea, although it’s unclear from this what John Donne did to be singled out for such treatment.

So, yes. I’ve filed this bloody review far too late to be of earthly use to the production, but this was about as brilliant a production of this play as it’s possible to imagine. And one that I thought far out-stripped the clever-cleverness of the original to find a far more intelligent humane core of its own.

Barbarians – HOME, Manchester

[seen 30/01/16]

Hofesh Shechter is now a phenomenon. That’s a given. There was a cross-London festival of his work. His name manages to sell out shows at the Brixton Academy. There aren’t many choreographers who could do that. Even fewer of them are based in the UK. There’s no disputing the quality or ambition of the work. With Political Mother and Sun Shechter redrew the boundaries of what a “dance show” could be; bigger, louder, more live, rockier. More bombastic than anything before.

Barbarians is a much smaller show (despite being longer), but it also feels like an evolution. A slight evolution, granted. Shechter’s trademark post-Gaga (the dance-language, not the singer) moves mixed with Israeli folk dance and drum’n’bass nightclubs still dominates. But, where last year’s miniature, Untouchable, with the Royal Ballet felt like his most dramatically achieved piece so far, Barbarians seems more uneven.

Actually, it’s a fine example of more being less. The first “half” – up to the first interval (there’s a second pause between parts two and three) – was brilliant. Not unreserveredly so, but it was a joy. Inventive, intricate, playful and intelligent. Corridors of light move across the stage, dancers flit in and out of light and shadow. Trademark smoke/haze make beams solid, and prickly baroque music mingles with throbbing drums’n’bass. Shechter’s own voice speaks to the the piece over the PA, asking it/himself what on earth it’s about. His conclusion – that it’s a 40-year-old man’s musings on love felt way off-beam and disingenuous to this 40-year-old male critic, but lying or being wrong about your own work is an artist’s privilege, I guess.

The remaining two parts felt less inventive, less charming, and – interestingly – more “outward-facing”, but less narrative-led. At a couple of points in part two (five dancers in skin-tight gold lamé jumpsuits) it occurred to me that moments were almost like a kind of pop concert than a dance show. This actually made me like it more, as it was such an odd thing to see in a dance show.

The last piece *was* more narrative-y, actually, and opened with a bloke in lederhosen and one of those alpine/Austrian hats and a woman whom we could read as his wife, or daughter, or even mother at a pinch. Their relationship *seems* to be an abusive one – although so much of dance can be read that way that maybe I’ve just got a bad old literalist theatre-brain. I’m not exactly what happened in their story, or why the bloke was Austrian/Bavarian/whatever. One could speculate, but I’m sure it would lead to some particularly crappy assumptions based on nationality and history that nobody really wants. Least of all me. So, yes, maybe I was actively resisting the blindingly obvious at this stage.

So, yes. I was bloody pleased to have been given the opportunity to see it. And, as the first thing I saw in a theatre in Manchester in 2016, it certainly felt like it was giving a few cobwebs a much-needed kicked (see, Unsent Postcards, passim). If only it felt incumbent on theatre to try to be this inventive, every time there was a new show on...

In the Night Time (Before the Sun Rises) – Gate, London

[seen 08/02/16]

It’s a funny thing. I can imagine a time, relatively recently, when I might have found Ben Kidd’s neat production of Nina Segal’s debut poetic text-for-theatre really exciting. Maybe even revelatory. It’s interesting to think about what might have changed since that time.

Theatrically, the piece is reminiscent of Third Angel’s Presumption, which I saw in 2007 – Chris Thorpe and Lucy Ellinson drowing in a sea of Ikea, before we’d even really thought about “German” as a word to describe a set. Thematically, it bears some resemblance to Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs – a young couple are going to have a baby while the world explodes, and burns, and runs out around them. Without those two key precedents, would I have been more gripped?

There’s also the fact that I’ve got older. And there’s no getting away from the fact that most of my peers seem to have survived having babies. So that level of revelation and/or learning just isn’t there for me as it might be for younger audiences. The key action of the play is essentially spread over one night, where the two performers narrate their characters through a maelstrom of incessant crying, frayed nerves, into some kind of vision of an apocalypse and out the other side.

Yes, it rings true. Babies do cry, and are hard work. But it also feels maybe a bit solipsistic to invoke something akin to the destruction of civilian homes in, say, Gaza or Syria, just because your baby won’t sleep. But, like Kane before her, Segal suggests a level of connection that can’t be ignored so easily. Sure, at the level of personal discomfort, there’s no comparison. But, by naively invoking the questions “Why are there wars?” and, “Why are the world’s resources running out?” Segal – perhaps unintentionally – presents the very real answer: because everyone wants the best for their child (and because everyone insists on having as many children as they feel like). Viewed in this light, the play offers a fine, bleak portrait of a world gradually falling to pieces, and doomed by love, of all things.

Kidd’s production is great, really. At the start, the excellent performers (Adele Leonce and Alex Waldemann, who we already knew were both brilliant, but it’s nice to be reminded) tear out of a thin membrane of luggage wrap, holding all their possessions-to-come. Their empty, rented flat – an empty steel frame describes precious little low-ceilinged space – is rapidly assembled, filled, and trashed, leaving a rubbish-strewn floor. The lighting is also kind of brilliant – ranks and ranks of hanging downlights in close proximity to the performers heads  – and the sound design really deserves to win several awards...

So, I should be out dancing in the street about this, right?

And I’m not. Which is stupid. It’s really, really well-made theatre. But somewhere, perhaps between the marriage of script (with it’s ultimate smallness of scope) and production (lacking the killer panache for art, or incision) and maybe a bit too much lenience with the dramaturg’s red biro (there are about ten lines – borrowed straight from the big book of terrible undergraduate poetry – that should just be cut), something happens that means while it’s an entirely “commendable” exercise, it’s hard to think to whom one would *re*commend it.


The piece ends with The The’s chirpy alt.pop classic This is the Day, but this terrible, insane song by Death in June has the same title as the play and it wouldn’t quite go away every time I thought of it.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Escaped Alone – Royal Court, London

[seen 03/02/16]


[Written with the Chichester University “Criticism 101” students in mind. Basically: “this is what one is not allowed to do”.]

It’s an odd thing. I get that Escaped Alone is theoretically pretty good. I essentially like the sort of thing it’s doing. I should be in sympathy with its strategies for doing what it’s doing. And yet, and yet...

In terms of info, here’s what [I think] it is: Escaped Alone is the latest play by the much-loved, much-feted, British “experimental playwright” Caryl Churchill. It is fifty minutes long and is essentially a re-jigged cross between part three of her own play Far Away (2000), intercut with part two of Martin Crimp’s In The Republic of Happiness. That is to say, it’s a picture of “the concerns of modern society” presented as a series of oblique, truncated lines; something like speed-reading a copy of the Daily Mail, while the outrages whizz by, interrupted by surreal, whimsical descriptions of possible apocalypses. It says everything about Britain – British writing, British staging, and this staging in particular – that it’s the conversations that feel interrupted by the apocalypse monologues and not the other way around. The dialogue parts take place in a beautifully realised, fully naturalistic depiction of an English back garden, replete with creosoted 5ft fence, a shed, and an only slightly wrinkly blue sky.

[Because, let’s be honest, as soon as something purports to be “naturalistic” – which I’m assuming this set does, at least in part – it’s the wrinkles between the pretence and the reality that become interesting and the focal points in theatre. I’m willing to bet that *a lot * of people look at that slightly wrinkly sky and unconsciously go, “Oh, yes, there’s the thing that stops this being uncanny,” to themselves.]

In terms of “what’s there”, by and large it’s done very well [except Kika Markham, who is either putting a brilliant performance as someone who doesn’t really understand where she is or what she’s doing, or...]. But it almost feels too simple. Too pat. Too much the path of least [or no] resistance. Like a perfectly interesting half-idea to make us think about *some things*, but staged with no further thought. (Is just how it feels. I’m sure a tonne of thought went into it really.)

Of course, it’s idiotic to jump straight in and start prescribing away – like that Harry Enfield character – before I actually offer an analysis of what *is* there. But, honestly, what is there feels so ludicrously over-legible, so underlined, that it feels almost silly pointing out the obvious possible and potential symbolism of, say, gardens: “from Eden to Homebase in one easy visual metaphor, dwelling on the state of the lawn (not ‘manicured’ like Plath’s, let’s say), and maybe the incidental symbolism of The Shed (representing the absent men? Standing in for Industry opposed to nature? Where there’s something nasty. Etc.). I don’t deny it’s all in there. Or that it adds to the piece that we experience the flashes between the familiar (if we’re familiar with middle-class back gardens, which, if we’ve got a telly, we should be at least a bit, right?) and the motr makeshift set for the unfamiliar.

The monologues take place between two neon frames so that the audience can’t see the garden any more, only the figure delivering the monologue. The frames of neon are arranged to look a bit like huge lightbulb filaments. (No particular idea why.) As I say, of the two elements in the staging, it is these monologues of whimsical apocalypse that feel like the afterthought; the problem to be solved. The garden takes more time and more space. So these “interventions” feel relegated; made unreal in a world where realism takes precedence. I don’t want to prescribe the reverse (although I’d be interested to see the production that did do this), but it still feels like an effect worth noting. Similarly, there are moments in the piece where each other woman in turn delivers something like a brief soliloquy from their garden chair. For these moments too, the lighting is dimmed around them and they find themselves softly spotlit. It feels almost like a pathologically literal approach to the text’s “experiments”. “THIS BIT IS *EXPERIMENTAL*! FFS, WATCH OUT; IT’S AN EXPERIMENT!” shouts the lighting.

So, yes; it’s an odd thing. I get that Escaped Alone is theoretically pretty good. I essentially like the sort of thing it’s doing. I should be in sympathy with its strategies for doing what it’s doing. But for some reason, in this production, at least, it felt like I wasn’t. Sorry.

Unsent Postcards: You For Me For You – Royal Court, London

[seen 17/12/15]

Christ. CHRIST.

It’s a while since I’ve seen a play that’s actually made me question not only the sanity of the theatre that programmed it, but also my own.

There is only one memorable line in the script of Mia Chung’s You For Me For You and it’s the quote from Chung Hyun Shik printed opposite the list of characters and notes in the the playtext.

It says: “For the frog in the well, the sky it can see is the whole world, and so the world appears a small blue circle.”

And, yes, it absolutely describes the exact problem of the whole play. I am reasonably sure that in the mind of American playwright Mia Chung, this frog is emblematic of the North Koreans who are nominally the play’s subject. For me, watching in appalled fascination, it is a very precise description of a playwright who has produced perhaps the most striking piece of American propaganda that I’ve ever seen put on stage.

Perhaps my amazement isn’t entirely down to the script. Perhaps in a less slick, cartoonish production, wherein the play was interrogated rather than served (neatly and brilliantly in many ways, I don’t deny), then the Royal Court might have come away with some of its previous (if always debatable) leftist credentials intact. But as it is, North Korea is endless hell, while America is some amusingly presented minor irritations. A veritable land of fully-functioning opportunity for immigrants and historical racism that we can all laugh about now.

Of course, I don’t deny that North Korea sounds absolutely terrible from what we’re always told about it in the West, and who am I to doubt it? Or to doubt the word of an American playwright, descended from South Korean parents, who has never been there either? It’s this more than anything that sticks in the throat. It’s the fact that this is a dramatisation of nothing more than antagonistic propaganda. *Of course* I’d be interested in hearing from the dissenting voices of North Korea. Who wouldn’t? Just as we were interested in the informed, internal critiques from Eastern Europe of Heiner Müller or Václav Havel. But this isn’t those. This is precisely the impression that the American media hands down to its audience, turned unthinkingly into a stirring anthem to American freedom. Christ knows why we are watching it in England in 2015.

The play’s central thesis seems to be that America is better because you can complain there. There is painfully rudimentary satire of the idea that American #firstworldproblems are perhaps a bit superficial – tell that to the people the Americans execute, torture, exclude and imprison, or to the the millions of victims of America’s military adventures globally, or just to the more than 1,000 people shot by American police in 2015 – but the forceful message, rammed home over and over, is that if you’re in America, you’re alright. You really can’t complain.

If this were the intention of the play, then I wholeheartedly applaud it. It is one of the most comprehensive, chilling critiques of manufactured consent imaginable. A triumph of radical overidenification. Thing is, I can’t help feeling that’s not deliberate. It’s chilling precisely because the playwright seems to really believe it.

Beyond this, the normal grumbles apply. It’s just thing incredibly flimsy-dialogue-reliant vehicle for a sentimental story from which we’re meant to learn something. It would be a pretty poor play, even without the international relations dimension. Director Richard Twyman gives it a flashy, functional, shallow, effective production; Jon Bausor’s mirrored, angular tunnel set looks nice, and makes potentially ponderous scene changes zip by in a flash of trying-not-to-be-too-Orientalist.

The acting is good.


Unsent Postcards: Evening at the Talk House – National Theatre, London

[seen 16/12/15]

Imagine Mme Ranyeskaya throwing a party for burnt-out drone pilots and stage turns-turned-assassins and you’ve got something approaching the measure of Wallace Shawn’s ...Talk House. Dressed up like a kind of off-kilter pastiche of Chekhov, it’s actually about as brutal, allusive a play about contemporary America as you’re likely to see, also standing as a much-needed corrective to the pro-American propaganda of You For Me For You.

In Ian Rickson’s production, set by New York artists the Quay Brothers in an incredibly ugly blue/green, high-ceilinged set, I’m not sure the thing fully managed to find a form that fully communicated itself, with the etiolated atmosphere alienating as much as it intrigued. Nonetheless, experienced as a work of art, rather than a piece of drama, its massive, striking, sculptural form still strikes some horrible hits.

Essentially, it’s a riposte to YFMFY, which recognises America’s condition. That it’s nominally also a piece about old theatrical types reminiscing about their glory days just makes it all the more prickly and horrible. Like theatre could ever have been expected to help anything! Ha ha! The very idea. All this bumbling and burbling is like attending a wake for political theatre, written as a piece of political theatre. Indeed, it’s very tempting to indulge all the indignities of this staging as artistic-satirical blows against bloody theatre.

It’s telling, perhaps, returning to the piece a long time after seeing it, in an attempt to write it up, already very little remains of what happened, particularly not plot-points. But what does linger is a sense of horror and anger about the direction in which America is headed.

If 2015 began with Rob Icke’s production of Shawn’s angry snarling 1980 play The Fever. At the other end of the year, Evening At The Talk House feels like it should have closed it with either resignation or victory, instead it felt just as angry, just as pointed, and even more vicious in form, and if anything, even more necessary. 

Unsent Postcards: Here We Go – National Theatre, London

[seen 16/12/15]

The main thing that strikes you is the brevity. The brevity, and yet still the ripples of bemusement, irritation, affrontedness, or self-back-patting-ness that radiate through the audience. It’s like watching theatre with a bunch of peacocks; alternately shirty and self-satisfied.

The trouble is this: Caryl Churchill’s [then] latest play, Here We Go – a title that neatly anticipates its audience’s eye-rolling response – is “Difficult”. With a capital D. Of course it isn’t really difficult. It’s both easy and short. Very short. 45 minutes short.

It is divided up into three sections. In the first section a nice cross-section of people are at a wake. They speak in truncated sentences, familiar from some bits of Love and Information (for instance). The device doesn’t really work any better here for repetition. Instead it feels like an embarrassingly self-conscious attempt to be arty. Yes, we could volunteer any number of our own “explanations” to account for this weird departure from the normality of people speaking in full, articulate sentences, peculiar to the British stage. That is half the trick of this particular burnished mirror-to-nature. If you stare into it for long enough, it will reward you by showing you whatever you wanted to see in the first place. Even unto a piece of revelatory art.

In the second section, a topless, pyjama-trousered old man bemusedly rails in a void. He is, we suppose, dead. Or in the moment of dying. He muses on his fate politely; middle-classly, ho-hum-ly, recognisably. It is, in fact, quite a charming few minutes of theatre. The contradictory, received ideas that old, white, middle-class, lefties have about the eternal questions are admirably anatomised. It is somewhat socially awkward to be a socialist atheist in the afterlife, it transpires.

Then there’s the last section. The piece has been running backwards, and now we attend upon the dying man’s final days, represented here by an endless cycle of being dressed and undressed and re-dressed in pyjamas and undressed again. I think I counted this taking in three full cycles from jim-jams to clothes and out again. It takes up the remainder of the play, and as such represents maybe twenty minutes of stage time? Maybe thirty.

And it is enormously unsatisfying. Perhaps it’s meant to be. But it feels like they do it just enough times for the audience to get the point, but then be allowed out in time to either to scamper round to see Evening At The Talk House, or to go and get a nice dinner – perhaps at the NT’s nice posh restaurant – and to contemplate their mortality over a nice glass of wine. They’ve endured just enough silent repetition of an action to make them think they’re really worked for their art, a bit.

This brevity in particular made me want to scream. Although, given that the majority of the audience with which I saw the play seemed to be roughly the same age as the old man dying on stage, it would maybe have seemed a bit much to keep them longer.

But it just wasn’t enough. Not even slightly. It should really have been about four hours. *Then* I’d think this was brave, experimental work, rather than a whimsical nod to it.

Beyond that, there was the *really uncomfortable racial dimension*. Now, I’m not going to sit here and deny that old white men probably *are* looked after in nursing homes by young black women. But, my Christ, it’s acutely painful to watch someone being paid to perform only that repeated task as their night’s work as an actor. EVERYONE else in the play gets to speak. Not Hazel Holder. I mean, if this section were longer, than perhaps it would seem more justifiable. And perhaps the discomfort of the racial inequality would become more pronounced. And, well, yes, there’s an interesting question of whether anyone really has any power in this situation (which is easily answered with: yes, one person has the money to pay for the other person’s services, even if their own powers are failing them). Is a parallel being drawn between the helplessness of the reasonably well-off in old age and the poor? (I presume poor, since these jobs are seldom well-paid, although, sure, that’s a hell of a lot of assumptions right there. Maybe a lot of carers work part time and have excellently remunerated spouses.) Perhaps all this has been thought about in great detail, and the thankless labour of performing a character’s thankless labour has been deemed a price worth paying for a point made properly. I hope so. It’s still intensely uncomfortable (as was the fact that a lot of reviews chose to render this labour as entirely invisible, believing that it’s the dead white guy we’re always meant to feel sorry for). (Of course we should all also feel sorry for the dying white guy. I mean, who wants to die lonely, white, bearded and alone?)

Wags could probably take great pleasure from the glancing characteristics that dead white guy (Patrick Godfrey) shares with Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, we learn in the wake scene that DWM was also a socialist. Perhaps the play’s about the death of socialism. Certainly the awkwardness of trendy leftie atheism seems a theme in the limbo/afterlife section is no more bleak than the current battle of a left-of-centre Labour Party with a world that has moved so far to the right that it is perceived to be “extremist”.

But, yes. Taken on its own merits, this is a slight piece, with the germs of a good idea in it. If the final section were played for, say, three hours longer, it would be the boldest piece of theatre ever shown at the National. As it is, it feels like an admission of defeat.