Friday, 21 April 2017

Twelfth Night, or What You Will – Royal Exchange, Manchester

[seen 20/04/17]

Jo Davies’s new production of Twelfth Night opens interestingly: the body of Viola (Faith Omole) is brought on stage, borne aloft by four anonymous figures, dressed in the all-too-familiar ragged clothes and bright orange life-jacket that have come to symbolise The Refugee Crisis. The rag-tag band of on-stage musicians (an accordion, a euphonium, a fiddle (or is it a viola? ho ho)) play a haunting, ersatz, all-purpose-Balkan lament.

And then that idea seems to vanish forever. Pfft! Just like that.

Viola is dumped on the small patch of pebbly beach-sand that has poured from the ceiling, and begins to speak, much in the manner of someone who has been given a lot of words to say, and insufficient direction as to how. She is answered in kind. A fairly simple exchange about where she is (“This is Illyria, lady[!]”) and what she should do (“I’ll serve th[e] duke. Thou shall present me as an eunuch to him[!]”) stretches on into eternity.

Next we spring up in the court of notably approachable Count Orsino (Kevin Harvey), a genial scouser who doesn’t seemed terribly troubled by his insane commitment to wooing bereaved Lady Olivia (Kate Kennedy). Similarly, three years later when Orsino has been introduced to his random new eunuch, ‘Cesario’ – an event that he takes in his affable stride – and sends ‘him’ off to bother Olivia with his latest suit, her own melancholy doesn’t appear to extend much beyond her wearing a black dress and saying some words about being bereaved that she has learned. Kennedy is very tall, so the line “Some mollification for your giant, sweet lady” lands an enormous laugh.

No one really seems to know who they are, where they are, what they are saying or why. Much of the production very much lets the 400-year-old text ‘speak for itself’. Or else, many of the performers here are delivering very much the York Notes version of the script; whereupon, having been told what all the words mean themselves, are all at pains to make those meanings as clear to everyone else by being as demonstrative with them as possible. The idea of internalising the lines as things that real people might say in some sort of credible world has been put on the back burner. That this production opens mere days after Rob Icke’s Hamlet closes seems inconceivable. Indeed, it is odd that they can exist in the same country or century. This is Shakespeare of the old school. Indeed, it is reminiscent of many a school production.

The drunks and fools of the sub-plot seem to fare better. What Simon Armstrong’s Sir Toby Belch lacks in nobility – he dresses, drinks and curses more like a grizzled tramp than a “Sir” – he more than makes up for with credibility. And, while Harry Attwell’s Aguecheek is a cardboard cut-out hipster caricature aging posho hipster (Nathan Barley meets Boris Johnson under a lank ginger wig), he’s certainly got the measure of his lines.

Anthony Calf’s Malvolio is also good. It’s hard to shake off the memory of him playing David Hare, but playing Malvolio absolutely straight makes a welcome relief (as does his command of the text). Indeed, reading the more discerning reviews of the NT’s recent version, it seems they really came a cropper not by re-gendering Malvolio, but by then indulging in the gleeful persecution and mockery of a newly sympathetic lovelorn lesbian [and Antonio’s love for Sebastian]. Here no such solecism is committed. Calf is a quiet, pained, white, middle-class man, who is sick of clowns and drunkards taking the piss and accusing him of being puritanical. As such, he can expect no sympathy whatsoever from anyone. What an absolute bastard.

As far as Antonio’s love for Sebastian goes, well, the words are all still there, but it’s literally impossible to imagine a story of male-male unrequited love played more blankly or more straight. Against this, we do have Feste played by trans* cabaret-activist Kate O'Donnell, who’s not bad at all. Maybe a bit cowed by having to use someone else’s [mostly terrible and impenetrable, old] jokes – there’s a bit after the interval where she gets to do her own stuff, and the difference is phenomenal – but there have been far, far more tedious fools.

Leslie Travers’s set consists of a lovely riff on Cornelia Parker’s Cold Dark Matter (you know, the exploding shed). It doesn’t really *do* anything – except, at one point, the middle bit comes down and imprisons poor old Malvolio Hare – but that’s fine, right? There’s also a swishy blue-green floor, which reminds us all that the play begins with a shipwreck, but doesn’t really explain why everyone walks about on some bluey-green floor for the next three hours and ten minutes (minus interval). But very few elements of what happens on the stage appear to connect meaningfully with any of the other things. The naughty midnight party scene, for example, is quite fun. Toby Belch comes in – as pissed as a childless baby-boomer – and straps on his old electric guitar, looking for all the world like a missing member of Pink Floyd (now). But these resonances attach to nothing, and so disappear into the exploding shed, or trickle away through the little pile of pebbly sand, which still sits in the middle of the swishy blue-green floor, in Sir Toby Belch’s room.

We know that Twelfth Night is currently considered A Problem[atic] Play. As soon as subjected to any degree of logic or psychology most of the characters are revealed to be very seriously mentally ill indeed and many of them are clearly alcoholic. To laugh at them would be monstrous. The “happy resolution” of marriages – each entered into with barely a minute’s thought – seem destined to only exacerbate this unhappiness and reproduce patterns of abuse. Davies’s production neatly sidesteps these concerns, by returning the play to the realm of absolute nonsense. *Of course* it makes no sense that Viola’s twin brother Sebastian agrees to marry Olivia within minutes of meeting her. Of course it makes no sense that – upon seeing the woman he loves married to the twin of his eunuch; who turns out to be a girl – Orsino proposes to Viola, particularly here, where there has been not one second of any sort of erotic tension whatsoever. Perhaps the one coup Davies does achieve is for this not to feel like a sickening early-modern gloss over gross gender politics, but just more nonsense. No character has felt real. Nothing has ever been at stake. People have just said words, and now they’re saying more words. What you will, indeed.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

My Country Matters (or whatever) – HOME, Manchester

[seen 19/04/17]

There’s about half an hour of Do You Think I Meant Country Matters? – National Theatre artistic director Rufus Norris’s “rapid” “response”, “verbatim”+ Poet Laureate off-cuts Brexit piece – which in other circumstances would be fine. (The whole is only 1hr15.)

Six actors – one each from Scotland (white, male), Northern Ireland (white, male), Wales (white, male), the North East (white, female), the East Midlands (South Asian, female), and the South West (white, male) – perform short snippets of things that people from their part of the country have said on some of the myriad subjects thought to be contained in Brexit. The actors are talented. Hearing things that some people think and say is interesting. Sometimes people even say funny things; intentionally (“Have a [Newcastle?] pizza: it’s a pizza base. With chips on it.”), and unintentionally (“‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ as it says in the Bible.” – says a racist, knowledgeably). Mostly they say things that we’ve all heard before, none of them is an expert (of whom – we’re reminded by the seventh actor, “Britannia,” who is repeating things we’ve already heard people from Westminster say – we’re sick), but hearing them all mashed up and close together at least allows us to hear what all the things we’ve already heard on the subject of Brexit are said right next to each other sounds like. A kind of short-form sound collage of thoughts agreeable and disagreeable. Something for everyone. Food for thought-lite. It doesn’t really pretend to comprehensiveness or opinion-poll accuracy (ha!), but it might just about trick you into thinking that you’ve got the measure of the mood of the country in these exciting post-Brexit times of ours. But it’s fine. In and of itself, it’s not bad. It’s at least watchable. It passes the time.

Now – you might think – this sounds like Any Answers, but edited, and with all the real people replaced by actors. Or like the audience bits in Question Time, but ditto. And of course, you would be absolutely right. But those things happen without Rufus Norris having been seen to Do Something.

What that “something” could have been appears to have been given thought for precisely the amount of time it takes to say: “Let’s do a verbatim show about it, but let’s also have some excruciatingly shit poetry in it too. And some ‘theatrical’ bits. Are Frantic Assembly free to do the movement again? No? Oh well, we can just cobble something together there.”

So, what We’re All Country Matters Now is really all about is Rufus Norris Doing Something. And – for this reason alone – it is without a shadow of a doubt, the most insultingly insufficient thing I have ever seen in a theatre.

Since talking about the show, at least two very senior figures in British Theatre have said to me – in answer to my sceptical face – “at least he’s doing *something*.”

But, HE’S THE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF THE NATIONAL THEATRE OF GREAT BRITAIN, FOR FUCK’S SAKE. The whole point is that he has resources the rest of us can only dream of. He could stage ANY PLAY, ANY WAY HE WANTED TO. And this was his response to Brexit. So, yeah, on those grounds, I reckon actually doing nothing would have been a lot better than doing this. So much noise about closing the empty stable’s door so meekly.

I’ve got a vague sense that when it opened in London he [Le Rufus] did the odd earnest interview where he said some head-scratching, soul-searching things about “wanting to stage voices from outside the liberal bubble” (leaving aside that the Royal Court already did precisely that before Brexit even happened, and with infinitely greater style). I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d heard pretty much every single sentiment expressed on Norris’s stage a zillion times before, so whoever’s in charge of the filter on that bubble he’s talking about really needs to get the thing locked down.

Rufus, WE ALL KNOW THERE ARE PEOPLE IN THIS COUNTRY WHO DON’T AGREE WITH US, AND WE EVEN KNOW HOW THEY DISAGREE AND WHAT THEY DISAGREE ABOUT (and yet, annoyingly, because this piece is largely unattributable sound-bites, we don’t even get an insight here into the interesting ways in which people with whom we think we disagree turn out to have loads in common with us, and people who we think are “on our side” turn out to be total country matters). But, yeah, I think pretty much everyone in the UK already knows everything in this show. And could stage it better, too.

Don’t even get me started on the design.

Or the awful, awful poetry (of which, to be fair, there’s mercifully little).

Or the bits with the pretend remote-control of the house lights.

Or the “fun” bits.

Oh God.

The absolute worst thing about this show about Brexit, though, is the tragic, tragic irony that even though perhaps the point of the EU Referendum was to ask Britain about its relationship to the EU – and, I think it’s fair to say that in some quarters this was taken to mean “our relationship with Europe” – this show barely touches on Europe or the EU at all.

This is Hard Brexit distilled into theatrical form. As a nation, we’ve just done something which, to the casual observer, looks a lot like an act of immense violence and stupidity, largely because of ignorance coupled to high principles that have no foundation in reality or fact. And yet, really, this “play” is nothing more than Rufus Norris/the National Theatre staging a nation staring up it’s own bumhole. “Ooh, I’d never seen this bit before!” says You’re Being a Total Country Matter. Rather than take any kind of a political stand at all, Rufus Norris, the artistic director of the National Theatre of Great Britain, has made a piece that concludes, “some people think some stuff”.

What a complete and utter country.

Jane Eyre – The Lowry, Salford

[seen 15/04/17]

“To see two excruciating Brontë adaptations in a week looks like carelessness...”

But Sally Cookson’s Bristol Old Vic/National Theatre touring production comes with promises that it’s good from everyone from Matt Trueman to Quentin Letts.

Suffice it to say, I disagree with the former. I already knew I disagreed with the latter. I should have stuck with my instinct: if it’s alright for Quentin Letts, anyone else who also likes it has made a category error.

I only made it through the first half and then bailed. No apologies. Nothing anyone can say is going to convince me that the second half of a story I already know and don’t much care about, is going to be improved upon by a style which was grating, twee and unwatchable all the way through the first half.

Worse than that, though, is the strikingly Brexity tone of the whole thing. It might as well be called Farage: The Musical. Or My Victorian Fountainhead, or something.

Sure, I’m being completely unreasonable, but since when was art about being “reasonable”? What happens in this Jane’s-eye-view adaptation is that she goes right through life being pious and insufferable, and no one much likes her – basically because she flatly refuses to shut up about how right she is the whole time – and then in the second half she’ll be rewarded with a misunderstood bloke who only locked his black wife up in the attic because she was mad. Aw.

Someone somewhere has probably also suggested it’s super-feminist. It isn’t. Unless the definition of feminism is: one woman is better than all the other women, and she should have all the nice things. All the other women in the play are mad or, worse, servants, and Jane hasn’t really got any time for them. She’s just a monomaniac with a Rochester fixation, and everyone else is bitches.

Very little of all this is the fault of the cast, who are quite good at standing, shouting, making “physical theatre” shapes, and providing the paint-by-numbers emotions that each short scene requires. Yes: this Jane Eyre has all the emotional impact of a Brecht play about some naughty robots.

Once again (as with Tenant of Wildfell Hall), it wouldn’t be difficult to suggest that the casting breakdown by race isn’t remotely progressive, and possibly even offers succour to bigots (black woman is mad, mixed-race woman is servants, hero and heroine are white).

No wonder Quentin Letts spent the whole thing gurgling with pleasure. It’s his worldview presented in a way that’s at pains to pretend it’s cutting-edge. (It’s not. It’s the set from the BBC Shakespeare Histories directed by Jonathan Miller in the 1970s, it’s the Berliner Ensemble from the 1950s, plus PERIOD COSTUME, FFS.)

Now, look, I’m a big old pluralist, ok? Sure, I wish the NT wouldn’t resource this sort of reactionary hogwash, but Rufus Norris’s fatal misunderstanding of his job is that he has to make every cunt in the country happy, rather than demonstrating any kind of progressive artistic leadership. So, basically, if The People like this old-fashioned crap, then who am I to tell them they’re wrong, and that it’s pure theatrical right-wing bubblegum wearing “radical” chic? (Maybe that’s what they wanted in the first place, and who am I to question the will of the people?) Who am I to recall that it’s basically no different to that godawful Shared Experience Jane Eyre that I saw in, like, 1999 or something. And, if someone makes basically the same adaptation 18 years later, there’s no semantic possibility that you can call the second one “new” or “experimental” or “cutting edge”. In fact, if anything, this one is even less “risky” and “bold” and et bloody cetera.

This production has all the appearances of “radicalism,” if “radicalism” is a design choice dating from the mid- last century, and then NOTHING ELSE AT ALL.

I am so endlessly disappointed by English theatre.

But, hell, whatever. I really don’t mind if some people liked it. I think I just resent the way the idea of it was sold to me by some colleagues who I thought knew better*.

/rant over, as they say in the internet.

A Girl in School Uniform (Walks Into a Bar) – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds 

[written for The Stage]

Review (slightly paywalled) under text above.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Octogan, Bolton

[seen 11/04/17]

[I was asked if I could review The Tenant of Wildfell Hall for The Stage when it opened in York. It so happened that I could not. I did see it with the Greater Manchester New Critics Group on Tuesday night, though. I wonder if The Stage would have printed what I thought*...]

If there’s a problem with The Tradition of English Theatre Criticism [aside from its current infatuation with 250-word wordcounts] it is the imperative to be “fair;” to assess the piece of theatre “on its own terms.” It is therefore impossible to write the following review:

“Elizabeth Newman’s production of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (adapted by Deborah McAndrew) is dead theatre. It should never have been made; or, once seen in preview, it should have been cancelled immediately. Neither writer nor director should be allowed to work in theatre ever again**.

“In Bolton’s Octagon, the piece is played “in-the-round”. This is the one clue – other than a bit of colour-blind casting*** and electrical lighting and sound – that we’re watching a piece of theatre made some time after the death of Queen Victoria. In all other respects, this is the sort of repertory costume melodrama – played with full period costume and acting – more closely associated with the 1940s.

“The plot of the novel is faithfully served up, with nothing to upset anyone who wishes to spend their evening forgetting the 20th century ever happened****. The cast act as if trapped in an abstract idea of how heritage theatre should behave. Even in The Olden Days, this wouldn’t have been a particularly good production; now, it is purgatorial.”

That’s what you can’t say about this production. So: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is nice. It’s fine. If you really force yourself you could probably even find it quite absorbing.

Three Stars.

Verdict: Brexity period-Brontë adaptation pretty much succeeds on its own terms, if you let it.

[250 words]

[As you can see, the REAL Stage reviewer was much more fair.]

* No. Of course I wouldn’t have filed this to The Stage, which is interesting to me, re: the expected levels of self-censorship/“responsibility” “expected” of critics/criticism.

** No, of course I don’t *really* mean this. I’m sure they can do better. But why do we tolerate people making work like this? Why isn’t there a sanction for this sort of ill-faith?

*** That said, I really do hope the “colour-blind”ness of the casting was absolutely blind, because otherwise, it would look *questionable* that the only person who didn’t get to double-up a role (apart from the white heroine and white hero) was Marc Small, who only played the misogynist abusive husband – the irredeemable villain of the piece, while Nicôle Lecky played only an insipid sister and then the nasty bit of work that the abusive husband has an affair with. There’s no earthly reason that they shouldn’t have been playing Helen Graham and Gilbert Markham, but they weren’t, were they? Why not? “Colour-blindness”?

**** Of whom there clearly aren’t that many if the small audience in Bolton was anything to go by. I mean, the one thing that stops “us” (critics) really laying into work like this is this idea that other people probably quite like it, and we don’t want to be snotty about other people’s tastes. Except, here, it felt like the whole thing had been made for an imaginary audience who would appreciate it, but in reality, even the people to whom seeing a new, quite trad. adaptation of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall appealed looked tired and bored. :-/

[counter to all this, the Observer’s Clare Brennan (whose tastes are not mine) has now four-starred it. Tynan spins in his grave.]

Bekannte Gefühle, Gemischte Gesichter – Volksbühne, Berlin

[seen 09/04/17]

Apparently the genesis of Christoph Marthaler’s Bekannte Gefühle Gemischte Gesichter (Known Feelings, Mixed Faces) lies in an earlier piece, Murx den Europäer! Murx ihn! Murx ihn! Murx ihn! Murx ihn ab! – the first piece that he made for Frank Castorf’s Volksbühne, premièring on 16 January 1993 and closing over a decade later in February 2006.

[I say “apparently” because I didn’t know the first thing about the piece when I got tickets. I knew I loved a lot of Marthaler’s work; I spotted that there was a performance on my “day off” in Berlin last week; and we were lucky enough to get the last two returns/day-seats. So my primary experience of the piece was as a massive stroke of good luck; seeing this lovely, lovely piece of work almost as serendipity.

*Of course* I know all about the whole Castorf last season thing, though. Of course. So, even without knowing that there was a specific previous show to which Bekannte... referred, it was obvious that the whole thing was valedictory in tone. But, knowing now what I didn’t know then makes me realise that I’m wildly under-qualified to really comment on the thing. I can describe it though...]

If you’ve never seen a Chrisoph Marthaler show before, well, you should. He tends to work with the designer Anna Viebrock (read: never works with anyone else(?)). Her sets tend to be large “waiting room” type spaces. The forecourts of institutes; the insides of language labs; here, a large, high-ceilinged old museum, reminiescent of a school-room – grubby white walls showing where pictures once hung, dusty parquet flooring, and huge frosted skylights, through which Johannes Zotz’s remarkably evocative “naturalistic” lighting states pour. Apparently Murx... evoked something of the recently passed DDR, and it’s true Viebrock’s sets and costumes do always seem to hark back to an earlier time, somewhere indefinite between the 1950s and the 1970s. It’s worth saying, they still feel evocative of that past, even for me who never once set foot in the DDR. They still evoke the post-war British uniforms and overalls familiar in everything from the Carry On films to Open All Hours, the post-war architecture of (say) the Royal Festival Hall, right through to any office building or shopping precinct of the 1960s. Viebrock evokes the architecture and fashions of hauntology-land better than anyone.

[i.e. sitting within this very specific theatre, watching this specific show, I still found it “relatable” and “evocative” of a whole raft of things that were almost certainly unintended. I think a lot of people would argue that this proves it’s brilliant art, and a lot of other people would say it proves I’m a narcissist. I would say that it proves anyone who can recognise 60s/70s fashions and be moved by music, pathos, and old people is in with a fighting chance of loving this show.]

The other big thing about Marthaler’s work is that it is very often a kind of Devised Jukebox Musical. That is, he often seems to arrange a bunch of songs together, and then create a situation – within the Viebrock set – in which the cast sing them. This was true of his radically, radically deconstructed My Fair Lady (which introduced Wham!, DÖF and Wagner into Lerner and Loewe’s Shaw adaptation), it was true of Oh, It’s Like Home and King Size and even true-ish of his expanded take on von Horváth’s Glaube, Liebe, Hoffnung.

What happens in the piece is this: basically, a lot of mostly “old people” are wheeled onto the stage in various wooden packing crates, on trolleys under blankets, and in cardboard boxes. They seem to be exhibits in a museum coming out of storage. They seem to be singers or musicians – the chap wheeled in on the trolley under a blanket, with a spinet, is forever trying to sing and play some aria by (I’m guessing) Handel or Purcell.

Once wheeled in, the (mostly) old people, essentially refuse to stay put, and the comic caretaker figure has to keep wheeling them out again, rearranging them, or trying to re-box them. It’s a comedy that often verges on the outright slapstick (which – cf. Herbert Fritsch – I normally loathe, but, as always with Marthaler, often find just about the funniest thing I’ve ever seen).

The music here (as ever) seems amazingly chosen, and dizzy-making in its width and breadth of references and styles, all re-orchestrated, mostly for piano and voice(s). There was less pop music that I recognised, and indeed, less classical music that I actually recognised too, which (cheap, I know) does make a show different to those where you recognise the stuff. I imagine that the rest of the (German) audience did much better than me and knowing what things were, what they might mean, and how they resonated. Certainly, I’d never heard Ernst Busch’s Brüder zur Sonne, zur Freiheit before. I daresay most of the Volksbühne’s audience had. [Incidentally, re: that song – as well as writing revolutionary workers’ songs, Berlin’s (and indeed Germany’s) most important theatre school is named after him. Effectively, imagine if The Internationale had been written by Mr Rada.] In a way, it’s those historical threads which weave through the piece that makes a similar piece in England impossible. The Volksbühne on Rosa Luxemburg Platz run by ex-DDR director Frank Castorf is a phenomenon irreproducible in Britain, and, now also in Germany. That this show is part of the season that sees the sun set on such a remarkable administration, it is remarkable not only for how moving and tender it is, but also for its good humour and lack of bitterness.

[selected tracks]

Show trailer:


Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Democracy in America – Schaubühne, Berlin

[seen 08/04/17]

Democracy in America is Romeo Castellucci’s adaptation of the two-volume 1835 (& 1840) classic French text by Alexis de Tocqueville.

It is the kind of adaptation that would have Michael Billington and/or David Hare reaching for their brownings.

I’ll describe it for you [obviously spoilers]:

The first thing we see is a stark written description of the concept of “speaking in tongues”. It is projected, in English, onto the large widescreen plastic sheeting that fills the entire proscenium before the darkened stage.

Lights come dimly up and an 18-strong troupe of [performers dressed as] majorettes (is that still a word? That’s the thing they’re dressed as, anyway) half-march/half-dance in swirling, abstract shapes, before unfurling their single letter flags to spell out D-E-M-O-C-R-A-C-Y--I-N--A-M-E-R-I-C-A. They then disassemble these words, and continue their “dance,” only to reveal an anagram. They do this several times. The anagrams seem variously pointed, amusing, pregnant. (“caiman marry ecocide” “aerodynamic ceramic” “yardarm cocaine mice” “academic cream irony”). One of the performers drops to the back and begins to remove her costume and then covers herself in stage blood. The remaining performers stand to the side and form only single words – the names of countries which can be made using the letters. There is a moment where they try to make “Yeman” but the performer with the “M” is standing naked behind them covered in blood. Again, it is pointed, but not *the point*.

There’s then a brief sequence when we are played a sound clip of black men breaking stones in the 1960s(?) singing an older song, which dates back to the period of actual slavery (rather than the de facto slavery practiced by the American penal system). On stage, a large model of some neoclassical carved stone facade slides on and slides off again.

This is followed by perhaps the most surprising (for Castellucci) element of the entire evening; a whole long scene of what we might call “drama”. A wife (Elizabeth) and a husband (Nathaniel) discuss the state of their crop of potatoes. It feels like something out of The Crucible, but it’s not. It might be adapted from A Classic Of American Literature, or it might not (and the freesheet programme didn’t help). But it’s fascinating to see. It feels like real A-Level Text *Big Themes* Drama. And it is played (in Italian) with a kind of agonising slowness and deliberation. It perhaps needs explaining to English readers that the sort of theatre we take for granted in our commercial theatres (and many regional playhouses) is seen as hilariously old-fashioned, even at the Schaubühne; so there’s a real disconnect for this English reviewer, trying to work out if this scene is pure kitsch, or also intended as “heartfelt”. I imagine there’s room for it to be both. What seems most crucial is what it adds by way of textures to the whole. (I’m assuming, having not read it, that de Tocqueville’s book itself doesn’t include dramatic vignettes. Yes, lest we forget: all this is still an adaptation of de Tocqueville!) I mean, maybe my English A-Level Big Themes reading is a bit simplistic, but it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to think that this depiction of puritans farming the “New World” – their almost-medieval fear of witchcraft, their superstitions, their belief in God – is meant to add to our understanding of what “Democracy in America” might mean. It certainly resonates.


When the lights come back up on the stage after the interval, Elizabeth is alone (I think?). She seems possessed. There has been talk of her having sold a child. Of her having been watched by an old woman (a native American?) in the woods. Of having sold the child in the woods? Now she tears off her clothes – it’s worth saying at this point that all this is happening behind one gauzey screen. I don’t know if there’s full nudity or not. It looked like it from the back, it doesn’t look like it from the photos. It’s not such a huge deal either way, right? (We’re not in England, so everyone’s fine with it anyway.) The gauze screen (present throughout) adds a visual unity to the stage picture; it sort of flattens everything together; instead of depth-of-field, the field is flat, and things further away from it are simply fainter. I’m pretty sure this sort of thing is virtually illegal in the Big English Book of How To Do Theatre. This production makes a fine case for burning that book...

Behind her – upstage, behind a further gauze – four(?), nude(?), shadowy figures dance a dance of obscure meaning/purpose/intent.

Then – in Elizabeth’s portion of the stage – she is surrounded by twelve(?) red-robed dancers – curious crosses between Time Lords and The Spanish Inquisition(?).

During this sequence, there is – perhaps – the head of a giant ostrich-like bird bobbing up and down stage-right. (I’m pretty sure I didn’t just imagine that.)

Next, Elizabeth (and the child?) are lying prone on the ground, and the action consists of watching two huge non-naturalistic puppet shapes (basically two articulated versions of the thing on the cover of Tubular Bells, oddly enough) which twist and writhe, suspended magically in space.

Then(!) there’s a scene of two Native Americans who stand in front of the reverse of the earlier-seen neo-classical façade and discuss having to learn English. And note that the new arrivals in their country aren’t learning an awful lot of Native American. The two performers (all the performers are women, btw) playing these two men (we know they’re men, because we can see their dangly, prosthetic penises occasionally) retreat to the hollow, fibre-glass rear of the neo-classical monument and remove their prosthetic skin, and hang both skin-suits over a conveniently (re)appearing beam than descends from the flies.

And that’s that.

That’s Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville adapted for stage by Romeo Castellucci.

In a way, it feels almost redundant to offer “an analysis,” partly because it’s already present in what I’ve managed to remember and relate above, partly because I think other people will do it far more elegantly than me, and partly because the piece resists single-position interpretations. A full “analysis” or exegesis would take longer to read than the piece takes to watch. And would necessarily be less than watching the piece itself.

That said, it would be mulish not to offer at least a characterisation of the things I took from watching. The most striking things in the evocation of nascent “America” are a) as a contested piece of land, and b) in the insane levels of superstition present in the puritan “founding fathers”. (Another thing that happens in the piece – I know not when in the above sequence, but quite late on – is a section where various dates in American history are projected. The contrast between these now-iconic laws and events taking place, and the worldview of the superstitious Europeans making them neatly undoes the accepted view that America is somehow a product of “the Enlightenment” or even anything we’d really accept as modern civilisation. It makes so much more sense of America, almost immediately...)

It really shakes up the accepted narrative of “American history”, perhaps even the contentious myth of “progress” in de Tocqueville’s story. It reminds us that the “civilised” Europeans who are in the progress of genocidally depopulating “America” when de Tocqueville was writing, weren’t even all that “enlightened” themselves, quite apart from the slavery and the murder and the genocide.

However, I think to just view the thing through this utilitarian-political analysis would be a mistake. I wonder if it’s even “saying” those things at all, or whether those aspects are just inescapably present to anyone who’s not a C19th Frenchman. It feels like the strangeness is also key, and I just plain don’t know how to go about “interpreting” that. But, again, it feels like “direct” interpretation would be the wrong approach. I think this is the thing I took most from the performance, that the kind of “pinned-down” “this = this” interpretation – the frame through which most English work seeks to be understood – simply doesn’t work. Things are deliberately illusive. You can’t ask a simple “what did X mean?” question and expect a straight answer. It’s a kind of play of textures, and an offer. It’s not a map, it’s abstract art.

Even saying “I loved it” or “This is great art” seems pretty facile. I did and I think it is, but that’s beside the point. What I took most strongly from the piece was how much I wished that we had anything like this being made in the UK, and with the educational, cultural, economic and critical apparatus around it to allow it to survive. Not only did watching it provide far and away the best critique of where America is now that I’ve seen since the election (Saturday Night Live? Fuck off), it also functioned as a damning critique of where most of British theatre is now, and how much more it will suffer after Brexit.

[No trailer for Democracy in America that I could find, but if you’ve never seen any Castellucci before, this maybe gives you a slight idea...]

[Self indulgent intro (cut from top of piece. Clearly teaching a course on criticism is finally having a (slight) positive effect on me)

I feel like I'm finally getting somewhere with the work of Romeo Castellucci.

I started out struggling with his work, eight years before I saw any, with my then partner praising Giulio Cesare to the rafters after she saw it at LIFT.

I *think* I started with off with his actual work seeing two of Societas Raffaello Sanzio’s Tragedia Endogonidia cycle shown as films in Munich’s Nazi-built Haus der Kunst at the SpielArt Festival in 2007.

On reflection, starting by seeing Strasbourg was unfortunate. Because it made completely sense to me. This memorable ballet-for-tank (as I remember it) captured something so precise about the place it describes, that I felt I *got* Castellucci straight away. Seeing London (above) straight after was at least a more helpful taste of what was to come.

I saw only Purgatorio (of his full Divine Comedy cycle) at SPILL in 2009, was bemused, and didn’t write about it. I saw his Hey, Girl at BaltoScandal in 2010, was bemused again, and again didn’t write about it.

Then in 2014, I saw his Hyperion: briefe eines terroristen at the Schaubühne. My review there perhaps glosses rather too successfully over just how unfit I was to have an actual view on the piece. I would say that I almost entirely and comprehensively failed to understand (or even remember) very much at all, and I covered it by conjuring up some associations with fascism too much.

Then we get to Doktor Faustus in Poznań, I think this show represents a real point of reconciliation between myself and Castellucci’s work. I don’t think I even pretend to have understood it, but here I felt like I grasped something more fundamental about what “understanding” might mean in the context of his work. I’m inclined to blame England, Eng. Lit. degrees, and the degree of literalism we were force-fed in theatre, and resultantly came to expect from anything calling itself “an adaptation of”. Here, a cello suite played in a soundproof glass box (with the sound on a five second delay) was “an adaptation of” Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus. How absurd. How abstract. How beautiful.

And so we come to...

[return to top]

Friday, 7 April 2017

Hamnet – Schaubühne, Berlin

[seen 06/04/17]

What is the status of shows at the Schaubühne’s F.I.N.D.? Last night I saw both the [second night of the] world première of Dead Centre’s Hamnet, and something like a lovely victory lap for Sherman Cardiff’s 2015 show, Iphigenia in Splott.

I ask because Hamnet feels a teensy bit like it might still be a “work in progress”. Lovely work. Incredibly *realised* progress. But something that feels like there could still be *more* waiting in the wings.

Which puts me in a silly position. Because, a) it’s not the job of theatre criticism to provide a glorified version of an audience feedback form saying: “Having you thought about maybe doing this a bit more, or doing this a bit less?” Instead, our mantra is supposed to be “describe what it is you think you’ve just seen,” with the rider: “...for people who might go and see it, people who won’t get to go and see it, and also for posterity. Thanks!” So, b) in the light of the above, given the fact that it might evolve further, is it fair to “fix” this embryonic form of the show in the form of “a review”?

Having considered all this, I reckon in view of b); yes, it’s fair; I’ve disclaimered how definitive I think this “review” is. There’s defintiely a “public interest,” and the piece I saw last night was definitely billed as a World Première. So, gentle reader, proceed at your own discretion. And in view of a); well, let’s see how it goes, shall we?

Ok, so;

Dead Centre’s Hamnet [Director – Bush Moukarzel, Ben Kidd; Text – Bush Moukarzel, Ben Kidd, William Shakespeare; Dramaturgy – Michael West; Hamnet – Ollie West] takes literature’s most arresting biographical detail as its starting point – the fact that William Shakespeare had a son, called Hamnet who died aged 11 three years before Shakespeare wrote Hamlet.

What Dead Centre do with this fact is surprisingly low-key for Dead Centre. I mean, I can’t be the only person who, upon hearing the words “Dead Centre’s Hamnet,” imagines *everything*, up to and including the moon on a stick, right? It’s their fault for taking an actual wrecking ball to the second wall in Chekhov’s First Play.

What Hamnet actually is, is a monologue for an 11-year-old boy (played here with preternatural ease by Ollie West). It takes the idea of Hamlet – a young man who’s lost his father – and lets it play out again, but with us, the audience, aware that “really” it’s the father who has lost the son. From our ghost’s side of the wall – from the point of view of the dead son, left thinking and feeling as an 11-year-old boy forever – the effect is exactly the same as if it was the father that has gone away. For him, it’s the father who’s effectively died. A fact made all the more acute for the father’s prolonged absence before his (Hamnet’s) death. Some of it is almost unbearably poignant. [There are other moments that feel a bit *on-the-nose.*] [And, while West is a brilliant performer, he can necessarily only be an unwitting agent for some of the moments of postmodernist irony that he’s required to pull off, which is to say, 11-year-olds are an odd match-up for “knowingness”.]

Being Dead Centre, it’s not *just* a monologue, though.
[rest of this para. and the next are a bit spoilery]
Throughout the first half (or so) of the piece, we’re acutely aware that there’s a live feed video filming from the back of the stage, and the result is projected on the back wall of the set in the Schaubühne’s “Globe” studio (originally converted for Richard III, but working beautifully here). So far, so good. There’s even a bit where he gets someone up from the audience to stand in for his absent father, and play the part of Hamlet’s dead father, the Ghost from Hamlet. (Replete with sheet!) Again, there are moments of it where it’s almost unbearably poignant. And – as always with poignancy? – it’s the silliest things that nearly set you off. The little details, the inappropriate motifs (No, ‘A Boy Named Sue’ put a lump in your throat.)

There’s also VIDEO TRICKERY! Now, I *really* don’t know how much I should say about this bit. Maybe it’s enough to note that it exists, and that it’s very clever (if not 100% “realised”, but, y’know, live green-screen really is in its infancy. As such, it’s bloody impressive to see, regardless of its imperfections...)
[come back now]

So, yes. As it stands, Hamnet is a lovely little show. The thing is, I can imagine an even better version of this show – built on precisely these foundations. One that I imagine being a little longer, that gives its themes time to develop, and doesn’t do the on-the-nose thing so often. Heretically, I reckon it could probably even lose a few of its Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead style jokes. But, y’know, that’s just me. The thing with audience feedback is that someone else will think precisely the opposite (“lose five minutes, add more jokes!”).

I imagine the fully realised show will actually materialise at some point too. At which point, perhaps it is this “review” that will then be the ghost. Or the snapshot of a ghost; a fleeting image of something intangible that doesn’t even exist anymore...

The Conquest of the South Pole – Everyman, Liverpool

[seen 01/04/17]

[Still thinking about it, but I have now totally nailed the concept for the review, so, posting asap...]

Thursday, 6 April 2017

The Kid Stays in The Picture – Royal Court, London

[seen 30/03/17]

What a strange play to see at the Royal Court. What a *deeply* strange “play” to see at the Royal Court a couple of months into the Trump presidency and a couple of days after the Article 50 triggeration.

The Kid Stays in The Picture is essentially (nay, actually) an adaptation of Bob Thing’s Hollywood memoir of the same name. From modest beginnings as the child of a Jewish dentist father (and a largely invisible mother) in New York, through a faltering, and short-lived career as a “Latin lover” movie star, to his sudden and fortuitous storming the gates of Hollywood (or rather, being catapulted right over them into the chair of Paramount Studios in the late 1960s), Simon McBurney’s live action re-creation appears to hop faithfully from anecdote to anecdote with the ragged but casual energy of someone with only 2hr30 left on earth to recount their life story (inc interval).

It is a hugely engaging piece of theatre. Rich in incident, and (particularly in the first half) somehow incredibly rewarding, in terms of hearing the stories behind how some of the era’s most famous/successful films (Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather, Love Story, Chinatown) came into being. (And more chillingly, how much like some grotesque Greek Tragedy it feels when Sharon Tate is first introduced, and we all know precisely where that thread of the story is going to end up.)

The manner of its telling is also engaging. Essentially building on the techniques pioneered by things like Katie Mitchell’s Waves, over a decade ago, or Beware of Pity last year – and feeling strangely cramped on the tiny stage of the Royal Court – the piece features a bunch of microphone stands, a few inter-cut live-feed videos, film clips, and a large glass case on a trolley.

[Fwiw, I don’t think there’s ever going to be a “use of video” show that “breaks the camel’s back” for me. To me it seems as natural as kitchen sinks must have in the 1960s and anal rape did in the 1990s. Microphones and live-feed videos are simply the theatrical world we live in now.]

Kid...’s use of video is interesting. It’s interesting because it’s clearly not often very interested in virtuosity, and yet it remains hugely watchable. Sometimes it even carries the odd joke (some bloke’s hand clearly holding the model of the plane he’s “flying in” as the footage of the plane is projected onto the main screen). It’s interesting, because despite often what’s being projected is dead/stock/non-live footage, the cutting makes it feel full of kinetic energy.

Similarly, the performances here aren’t exactly about “virtuousity”. The whole feels much, much too fast to have a single scene in which two characters meet and do something as old-fashioned as act at each other. This can be read as a smart decision relating to the way that the narrative itself moves. And it works. Although, occasionally, you do find yourself wanting to see a whole scene. Maybe just all the dialogue that took place in one particular incident played out in full, rather than being commandeered in narration by our guide through all this, Robert Evans himself.

Except, maybe this is the hard-to-grasp-in-the-moment point. That what we’re watching is a stage version of the experience of a memoir, not an actual biopic. It’s a sophisticated thing to do, but I suspect we subconsciously learn very different things to what we’d maybe be thinking if the presentation here wasn’t so postmodern (which is to say; contemporary).

Indeed, it is maintaining this presence of the authorial voice that also saves the show from becoming a simple exercise in hagiography, and with it a disquieting echo of perhaps another, later, force-of-will New Yorker’s narrative, full of topical incident and sudden reverses of fortune.

That is to say, it is a good job that McBurney’s The Kid Stays in The Picture feels capable of distance and criticism, or it would feel like a first draft of Trump: My Struggle, or similar.

So, yes. It’s good. Really good. Fun and watchable and everything. But, oddly, I think I missed the wider point, if it was trying to make one. Possibly it wasn’t, which would be totally fine, obviously. But it makes you realise how much the general English Theatre Experience leaves you with a neatly packaged take-home message. If there was a message here, it appeared simply to be “this shit really happened!” Which is almost fine and exciting as a message. And I daresay its Ayn Randian Will-To-Power/Triumph-of-the-Will will inspire a bunch of people who saw it to be more proactive. (And possibly less troubled by their consciences...)

[It’s interesting, isn’t it? You spend your whole career so far complaining that everyone makes theatre with too-clear messages, and then when you come across something without one you go to pieces. Either that, or this really is The Great Right-Wing Play everyone was looking for in 2007/8.]