Saturday, 15 July 2017

10,000 Gestures – MIF, Mayfield, Manchester

[seen 13/07/17]

Review for The Stage. (I know, I know. But, I’m contractually obliged not to post them here.)

Possibly the most interesting 250-word review I’ve ever had to try and write. And interesting to compare my review with (almost all) the responses I’ve seen online. Mostly from people who have “never seen anything like it before”. Because I have. But, I really wish I hadn’t, so I could be one of those people, rather than the jaded git thinking “it’s not as good as Alain Platel’s Out of Context, For Pina” (which I happened to see at Kampnagel Hamburg, which is a similar sort of warehouse-y space), or “nowhere near as fun as Un Peu Tendresse, Bordel de merde!”. Which, in turn, maybe I wouldn’t have loved quite so much if I’d seen the things they were like... Hm.

This is (along with With If...) also co-produced by the new administration of the Volksbühne...    

Fatherland – MIF, at Royal Exchange, Manchester

[seen 12/07/17]

I can’t remember the last time I went to the theatre with my expectations so “managed”. Away from the largely positive reviews in the press, there has been *a lot* of eye-rolling about Fatherland – the verbatim, “physical theatre” “musical” made by Simon Stephens, Scott Graham and Karl Hyde – amongst Manchester’s theatre community. And, for much of the show, it’s actually quite difficult to see why. Or at least, if you go in having been primed to expect an absolute catastrophe, you spend a good long while wondering why everyone’s so grumpy. It’s fine!

I mean, sure, there is the fact that – with its narrative of Stockport, Corby and Bewdley’s most famous sons returning to where they grew up for an afternoon or so – it weakly recalls Didier Eribon’s extraordinary memoir Returning to Reims, which Thomas Ostermeier has brought to such vivid theatrical life at HOME. That comparison throws much light on the problems here. Where Eribon has defined a clear set of things to reflect on, Fatherland is far, far too diffuse.

The piece opens nicely enough. We pretty much know what to expect, verbally, visually and even sonically. We’ve seen verbatim theatre before, we’ve seen Frantic Assembly before, we’ve heard Underworld. And it’s exactly that. On a large rusty grille floor, which revolves. The verbatim scenes have been intercut a bit, so there are some bits where people who (presumably) never met seem to give each other looks. And some of it is given physical presentation, be it largely literal (a ladder is extricated from the iron grille floor to illustrate a bit about being a fireman) or largely metaphorical (some post-Hofesh shuffly dancing).

The subject is interesting. Moving even. Sons talk about their dads. Dads talk about their sons (or daughters). Having got a dad of my own, I could relate to this concept. It works partly just because when the verbatimeers ask questions of their interviewees, you can answer them yourself; it’s not like one of those shows where they interview people with a special interest; like terrorism or racism. Of course, this is also why it’s not super-exciting. They do interview someone who never met their dad too, though. Although, perhaps understandably, he doesn’t really have much to say on the subject to three perfect strangers, so that’s a bit of a blind alley.

There’s also the decision to have Stephens, Graham and Hyde played by actors on stage. A lot of people have grumbled about this. And before I’d seen it, I couldn’t really understand why. I mean, it might be a bit clumsy, but at least it’s honest, right? When verbatim theatre hides its constructedness, its interviewiness, everyone grumbles about that too. So – I thought – there’s a certain level of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

However, by the end of Fatherland you do see the problem: that, by choosing to honour – nay, foreground – the (really quite sharp) objections of one of their interviewees, the makers inadvertently turn the piece into a narrative about themselves. Now, again, this *could* be quite interesting. Working-class guilt at successfully-executed class-treachery is, after all, half the subject of Eribon’s perceptive, incisive, searching 245 page memoir. The problem on that score here is, I suspect, a lack of time. And perhaps a lack of substantial enough reflection. And perhaps of failing to see the wood for the trees once in production, maybe.

There’s then also the fact that the piece isn’t just about “Fathers” at all. Indeed, from the title, we can perhaps even guess that it’s not even fully intended to be. Presumably conceived in the aftermath of Brexit, and with Stephens, Graham and Hyde all hailing from working (or lower-middle) class backgrounds, and now all (presumably) earning rather significantly more than the average salary, living in fancy old London. The problem is, because “Brexit” is never really directly addressed as a subject, it seems to come out in the cracks, and the authors have inadvertently set themselves up as “the Establishment”. Which is, I’m sure, not how any of them feel, or especially deserve to be treated, but there it is nonetheless. (There’s also the slight problem that, for my money, Ferdy Roberts’s version of Simon Stephens comes across as snide and patronising in a way that I’ve never once seen Simon be in real life, but maybe that’s a matter of Simon beating himself up in the making process and putting a version of all his worst self-criticisms on stage.)

Looked at as generously as is possible: the creative team met this person who challenged the ethics of their project, and rather than ignore that person or hush them up, they put those objections centre stage. The problem is, they didn’t answer the objections in the interview (as far as we’re shown), they’re not answered anywhere else by the piece, and the fact that they’re the focus of so many of the questions means that Fatherland turns into a piece about Simon Stephens, Scott Graham and Karl Hyde – *because* they want to prove that they’re not above sharing the same information about themselves as everyone else. As a result you have this one extraordinary moment where on-stage Simon Stephens is bellowing “I don’t think I could have written the plays I did, if my father hadn’t drunk the way he did” (I paraphrase) while music and crowds of men swirl around him, and it feels like it’s actually the point of the show. And I’m not sure I understand what exactly that point is.

Yes, there’s still lots of other material, much of it touching. But most of that also fairly inconclusive. It feels like the creative team duck the central challenge of the piece: to name the problems of inequality (in terms of both economics and social capital); to examine the extent to which they are complicit in their making; and beyond that, to look properly at the even tougher problems of working class violence, racism, far-right sympathies (which they touch on), and either find counter-narratives, or to say something about their conclusions.

Cotton Panic! – MIF, Upper Campfield Market Hall, Manchester

[seen 11/07/17]

Well-meaning Jane Horrocks vehicle doesn’t quite hit the spot. (Looks nice in the photos, though.)

Returning to Reims – HOME, Manchester

[seen 08/07/17]

Thomas Ostermeier told me that this review (of his show, Returning to Reims) wasn’t my best work. :-)

Available Light – MIF, Palace Theatre, Manchester

[seen 06/07/17]

A revival (which has been doing the rounds for two years) of a 34-year-old American piece by Lucinda Childs, who choreographed Einstein on the Beach.

Reviewed for The Stage.

What If Women Ruled The World – MIF, Mayfield, Manchester

[seen 05/07/17]

Thursday, 6 July 2017



Today is Postcards' tenth birthday.

This is a placeholder for something a bit more substantial when I get round to it.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Killology – Royal Court, London

[seen 03/06/17]

There’s a repeated motif in Gary Owens’s new play, in which the effect of fear on the male body is described thus: “your arse grips tight shut, but the muscle in your cock goes loose, and you really have to clench not to piss yourself.” This also describes the structure of the piece: the first half is very tight, the second half goes loose.

It’s also remarkably unpleasant. Which is fine, in the abstract, I guess. It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for yesterday afternoon (or ever). But I will say, it’s remarkably well-done unpleasantness, for the most part. The piece consists of three monologues, although very occasionally the speakers interact with each other, but it’s largely direct-address story telling. One of the speakers is telling the story of himself, aged 12, being brought up (badly) by his lone mum, and getting bullied and beaten up. It feels perfectly observed, and it is incredibly horrible.

[spoilers ahead. Impossible to discuss what happens without saying what happens]

Basically, after this poor kid gets his dog murdered by his area’s local hard lads [some real manipulative Amis-style bathos and sentimentality there], he goes off the rails a bit, and ends up riding down the dual-carriageway on a seven-year-old girl’s stolen birthday-present bike; pissing about by slowing down in front of a family car; which also turns out to be stolen; and then being rammed off the bike by the car thieves [more Amis-y stuff about teeth being smashed. I seem to remember teeth being a Drowned World thing as well...], taken back to their flat, and tortured to death, in the manner of a video game called Killology.

Another speaker is the inventor of this game, Killology, who is an unsympathetically imagined, thinly-drawn, public-school sociopath – albeit, interestingly, one from a cynical ex-union father, who made a killing in industry, hiring out protective suits for cleaning out industrial-something-or-other, having successfully sued his former employers for not using them. The idea behind Killology is that no one who plays about video games much cares about the wandering around bits, so he invented one which just focusses on torturing and then killing. With extra points for being inventive.

The last speaker is the murdered boy’s father. At the start – he’s the first speaker – we hear about him gaining admission to an expensive luxury flat with a colleague, and then successfully pretending to leave again, so that when his colleague leaves with the concierge, he’s in there, waiting for the occupant to return.

The occupant turns out out to be Mr Killology, and the dad is there to sort-of avenge at least the inspiration for the manner of his son’s death. He is going to watch the video of his son’s torture with the man who he blames for its genesis, and then put him to death in the same way. (Basically, imagine Denise Fergus turning up at Jack Bender’s condo with a big bag of rocks)

[That’s the first half. In the second half, Mr Posh Killology knocks the dad out, the dad gets put away for attempted murder. In a secure mental facility, the dad resurrects a vision of his son who’d carried on living, who in turn narrates getting a job in the NHS, and then nursing his dying father in his final days. In the very last moments we’re shown the “real” son, back at age 15, behaving like a shit, stealing the little girl’s bike, and setting off on the path that leads to his torture and murder. Posh Killology guy has moved to America and sends a child he adopted back to the agency.]

And, look, now I’m explaining it, it does all come together intelligently and sound quite satisfying. And it is undeniably compellingly written. And, yes, in its unflinchingly sadistic depictions of social and emotional deprivation and violence, it is undoubtedly bang on the money. I don’t even think it’s “bad” (whatever “bad” means). I just didn’t like it. I don’t suppose I was meant to “like” it. And it makes me wonder about myself “liking” Iphigenia in Splott. (Which I really did.) What does that mean?

In reviewing terms, this is really stupid territory, because – having not “liked” a thing – you then find yourself scrabbling round for “reasons”. And then, with those “reasons” you (generally) build a case against the thing being “good”. Except, in the main, I think this is “good”. Just not “like”able.

Although, I then worry that I’m overcompensating for not-liking it, by being too nice about the construction. Basically, some bits are a lot stronger than others. The narrative stuff is very, very well done. The philosophical angles raised by the characters, less so. I mean, they’re only the characters’ moral universes, not Gary Owen’s, but. And I know that the characters are characters, not ciphers, but.

I mean, just I don’t know what we’re meant to do with the piece at all. I tend to agree with the sociopathic creator of torture video games that video games really aren’t to blame for violence or torture. The dad finds one instance in the internet of humanity’s prior incapacity for violence (at sites of American civil war battles, they found lots of unfired rifles, suggesting that Americans didn’t used to be as fond of shooting each other), and proceeds to deduce that wars are now more violent because soldiers have played video games. This is patently nonsense*, but who wants to side with a public-school psycho who ends up the play torturing his own dementia-riddled father?  Also, what is watching this play meant to do for our humanity?

Similarly, sure, some people in some working class neighbourhoods are also violent. And violence probably does sometimes breed more violence in some people. And this is a convincing story of some of that. But presumably Gary Owen isn’t suggesting that we ban video games and incinerate anyone who’s ever been brutalised (by anything, real or imaginary) to stop the spread of the infection. (Because, quite apart from anything else, who will incinerate the incinerators, right?) So is this just a dark story in the midnight of the human soul, to just point out to us that just about everything is particularly shit, and there’s literally no way of even remotely improving it, and not one shred of historical proof that anything’s ever been even slightly better? I mean, it doesn’t offer much else. It certainly doesn’t suggest solutions (although I can imagine thinking it were cheap if it tried).

So is it just *art*, in the way that, say, Kafka and Beckett are art? I think it probably must be, except that it’s so tightly clothed in the outward appearances of social realism (which isn’t art), that it feels on first sight like it must be those.

As always, in this sort of situation, I kind of want to see a German production to sort it out for me. Rachel O’Riordan’s production is well done, and horribly intense where it can be. It’s set in a kind of dank, Aliens-esque set (Gary McCann), but even this still feels more like an abstract set for social realist thinking than something that adds a further dimension. Rather – with an actual pink seven-year-old’s bike tangled up in electrical wires of the ceiling – it seems intent on reinforcing the realist parameters of a dreamlike story, rather than fragmenting them/adding something that disrupts the claimed reality.

So, it seems that what’s ultimately worried me most about Killology are questions of taxonomy and genre. Which definitely isn’t how I felt when I came out for the interval yesterday afternoon (at that point it was more “a bit sad about the sad story”). But, I wonder if it’s a point worth making that I think “*just* upsetting people” isn’t really a very effective strategy (at least, it isn’t with me). Because, a) people have defences (generally flippancy) that they can use to avoid being upset (see intro.), and b) because people can deconstruct the means used to create the upsetting thing, and end up criticising the thing that’s tried to upset them, rather than the things they could more usefully be upset about.

There’s probably also a lot of stuff about Tragedy and agency that’s pertinent here too, but I’m going to stop here, I think.

So, Killology: it’s very well written, it’s pretty horrible, I didn’t like it, that doesn’t mean it’s not good. I didn’t know what it was for. I don’t think things have to be “for” anything. But I do like to have a sense of what’s being asked of me. Which I don’t think I got.

Or: Ok, let’s say Killology is about cycles of violence, and the question of how you stop them once they start – which, let’s face it, isn’t the most remote question we could be asking at the moment. I think I find its thesis – which I took to be you can’t stop it, it’s inexorable, horrible, depressing and real – both credible and pointlessly pessimistic. I mean, yes, on one level that’s right. The if the entire history of humanity is proof of anything, it’s that. And what does the play show us? That being the victor sucks, and so does being the loser. Using force to put an end to the misuse of force never puts an end to the misuse of force. And not using force to put an end to the misuse of force allows the misuse of force to continue. There is no right answer. Life is a sewer. It is irresponsible to look away, and it is grotesque to look at it – and with the chance that just looking at it gets you involved, but you’re involved even if you’re not looking... And so on and so on.


So, yeah: Killology: probably right, but – as per the rest of the play – winning by having the worst argument seems like no sort of victory at all.

Darker Neon sees it the exact opposite way round to me, and writes a much better review for it.

* I mean, wars are now mostly fought by drone “pilots” anyway, who are absolutely just some cunts in Nevada playing video games. And, yeah, sure; boo hoo, Grounded. But compared with being murdered by some cunt in Nevada, the cunt in Nevada feeling bad about it afterwards is pretty small beans.

Persuasion – Royal Exchange, Manchester

[seen 01/06/17]

It does say something about the state of British Theatre, that the headline for every review of Jeff James and James Yeatman’s new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion has to be something along the lines of “Ooh! Look! No bonnets!” I wish I could claim it had anything to do with a lack of imagination on the part of the critics, but no; the sad fact of the matter is that dumb, chocolate-box, historical costume drama is still very much the rule of British theatre when it comes to literary adaptations. But, yes, in line with the higher intellectual standards of the mainland, this version of Persuasion is performed in nicely observed, mildly satirical modern dress.

Similarly, the staging avoids literalism: Alex Lowde – already a shoo-in for designer of the year when Pygmalion is also taken into account – has designed a large white box, on two levels, with a strip of light running round the middle. Unexpectedly [unless you’re reading this review before seeing the show], this – twice – literally shifts on its axis at key emotional moments in heroine Ann Elliot’s life, creating an ongoing, jagged, abstract shape which the performers are forced to negotiate their way around. It works beautifully.

Where the costuming avoids cliché, and the set side-steps stupidity, the “script” is perhaps even cleverer still. Ostensibly, the plot/story of the novel is mostly intact – minor subplot-character Mrs Clay has been written out, so that Elizabeth Elliot ends up marrying her second cousin, William Elliot, which – arguably, heretically – feels more dramatically satisfying than the assumed resolution of Austen’s novel (unfinished when she died, aged 41, 200 years ago). James and Yeatman have created something that feels almost like a completely workable blank slate. Because it’s so deftly done, and so unshowily inhabited – and because it’s Very Funny – the show gets to operate on multiple levels simultaneously.

Obviously, there is a spectre haunting the show, the spectre of the bourgeoisie. James Varney covers all the most immediate objections in his review, here. And on one level, of course he’s right – while the cast here give a fine account of Manchester/England’s multiracial society, in theory they’re “playing” fictional white characters. Except are they? The possibility of believing this has been made available (although more for the benefit of conservative Austen fans, than for Marxist-Leninists, I’d have thought). At the same time, the performers are quite clearly themselves. They are speaking and dancing in the room, in real time, with their actual bodies, and to music* we can also hear. That’s not nothing, and to dismiss it out of hand is disingenuous. In fact, the politics of the piece – looked at theatrically – are fascinating.

I have a slightly unfair advantage/disadvantage, writing this review, as I interviewed James (Jeff James, the director) for The Stage [published in next week’s edition] before I went to Berlin. Disadvantage, because I’ve had far too long to dwell on far too few things that he could say about the production in a wide-ranging, short chat; and these ended up really informing how I watched it. One was: “the principal way that a director can create meaning on stage is the positions of the various actors in relation to each other.” Which is the first time I remember hearing something so fundamental/obvious articulated with such simple clarity. As a result, I don’t think I’ve ever paid so much attention to where actors have stood, how they’ve stood, how they’ve moved. But it’s an unconventional effort that repays your attention. There’s a kind of feline fluidity in the thinking. No mean feat, when a director manages to place actors around a space, who – presumably – *read* as clearly from every seat in the in-the-round house, as they did to my randomly assigned seat.

The other thing that rattled round my head was: “[the novel] feels very relevant to life now; the questions her characters are asking: how should you organise your life? How do you balance these dangerously competing demands of family, sex, money, and craft a life out of it that doesn’t contain inconsistencies that will destroy you?” which, on one hand, I admit I worried about – my life really doesn’t relate to a Jane Austen novel. But when you look at the way James frames the concerns of the novel; those are basic, relatable, human concerns he’s specifically talking about. There’s a stripping back here, an understanding of the basic patterns underlying the surface of the dialogue, that more recalls Rob Icke’s Hamlet, van Hove’s AVFTB, or Nübling’s Three Kingdoms. Or Simon Stephens’s suggestion that “language is noise”.

There’s also another couple of things that he said, which, having now seen the production, I think I understand far more fully: “...the way the adaptation works is really focussing on what I find interesting and powerful about the novel, and in some way reflecting my experience of reading the novel in the production I’m making.” I think this is crucial. I didn’t notice/fully-understand it when James said it – to the extent that that quote is not included in the published interview – but thinking about it now, with the advantage of having seen the show, that idea about the adaptation being a reflection of the experience of reading the novel now, and relating to characters in the novel now – perhaps even in spite of yourself – seems key. I think the production asks questions of its audience about what they think it means to be watching Persuasion in Manchester in 2017. (Indeed, I believe it was this production’s provocative aspects that provoked James Varney’s review in a way that something completely trad. just wouldn’t have done. Interesting, no? ) Also relevant: “I wasn’t interested in updating it or locating it in the present day, because that feels like the jostle between how I live my life and how this character’s living their life is eradicated and it becomes less interesting. If you find an analogous modern situation you’ve flattened that out, potentially.”

These twin ideas – the jostle between then and now and the reflection of an experience of reading the novel – are what shield the actual production from the bluntness of Varney’s criticisms. The production, after all, doesn’t command us to sympathise with any of the characters – it simply places performers “playing” the characters, bourgeois-warts‘n’all, on the stage, and shows us [some of] the situations that the characters in the novel have to negotiate. The stage language used to advance the idea that these situations are taking place at all is delicate; like a fraught, tense negotiation. Which is, after all, what it is. This isn’t theatre that commandeers an audience with pretence and/or misdirection. Instead, I think it’s actually rather subtle in continually asking us if we think it’s ok; offering us a commentary on that as well; and continually reflecting the fact that the performance *is* happening now. And these actors *are* on the stage in front of us. And Jane Austen’s Persuasion *doesn’t* just go away if we pretend it doesn’t exist, any more than a ruling class, or poverty, or war do. (Although it seems reasonable to say The Napoleonic Wars pretty much *have* gone now – even if the street signs of London and Manchester tell a different story).

So, yes, rather than necessarily, uncomplicatedly celebrating a 200-year-old novel – which, sure, could arguably have been yet more acidly critical about the very existence of an aristocracy (and I can’t help feeling that might be some of what the novel itself is driving at) – the production more notes that the novel existed, and that it had the characters that it did, and made the frosty observations that it made, and had the plot that it had, and asks us what it means to be watching that today, in a world that we think of as having abandoned the majority of its social mores; perhaps in fact leading us to precisely the sort of reflections contained in Varney’s review, because of the way this piece has been made.

BUT – because what I’ve said so far makes it sound like a bone-dry seminar – it’s worth noting that while those aspects of the piece operate incredibly subtly, there is also a lot of fun to be had with/on the surface (which isn’t to say that the humour is entirely superficial). But if some people choose to stop there, I reckon that’s fine. This is a hugely intelligent, multi-level deconstruction of the book, which also it puts it back together enough for people wanting some progressive, escapist fun to have it.

It is worth admitting that Jeff James has spent the last three years assisting Ivo van Hove, not Frank Castorf (while Yeatman has been kicking around in a similar way with Simon McBurney). By any normal standards, this is an exceptional show to see in an English theatre – all the more exceptional for having been made by someone English, rather than an imported European. No, it’s not Nach Moskau! Nach Moskau! (Castorf’s Marxist destruction of Chekhov’s Three Sisters – essentially; *exactly* the show Varney seem to wish this had been) But then, it hasn’t tried to be. James, perhaps in common with van Hove, seems here more interested in not alienating an audience with an overt political statement. And yet, through the piece’s paradoxes, it’s perhaps all the more interesting for not telling us what to think with dumb slogans (not that Castorf does that either, but...).

For example, what are we to make of the – clearly deliberate – parallels between Mrs Russell’s advice to the vain, almost bankrupt Baron about cutting back on servants, and George Osborne’s ill-fated “austerity” measures? And what to make of them particularly in a (slightly) state-funded theatre. There’s no comfortable or cosy parallel. Instead, there’s just this strange reminder of the world we live in, and a disconcerting echo of one situation in another. And perhaps that’s also how much of the rest works. Some specifics become meaningless in the real/modern world, or else we choose to transpose them into meaning other things. If anything, this is a piece about readers in a world of unmoored signifiers. Do performers mean themselves, or a character? Does the stage mean the place claimed, or the stage itself? How much of “both at once” can the mind hold concurrently?

Perhaps what’s most exciting of all, politically, is that the piece a) doesn’t try to tell us what to think (hallelujah – isn’t that what we “progressives” have been pleading for, for, like, forever?), and b) the performance/production/adaptation isn’t pleading “relevance” and then forever trying to underline this alleged/crow-barred “relevance” with awful, on-the-nose, nudge-nudge costumes or “parallels”.

All of which argument has rather stopped me talking about what the actual show is actually like. As is common with shows that introduce some level of [what, in this country, could be called] formal experimentation, the temptation is to focus on the director and their ideas. What is increasingly interesting to me (indebted to the work of Holger Syme here), is the extent to which this sort of “directors’/designers theatre” actually makes the actor/performer far more central than work in which the director claims to be invisible. Leading to that great problem-of-criticism; writing about acting.

Lara Rossi’s Ann is a fascinating study of where contemporary British acting is at. On one level, it feels low-key, naturalistic, almost muted. The actors wear radio mics, which – although I couldn’t tell you if they’re switched on when there isn’t music playing – I guess allows for a level of complete normality in terms of tone-of-voice. At the same time, there’s doesn’t seem to be either a Stanislavskian imperative to ignore the existence of the audience when in the world of the play, nor that horrible Lecoq-led compulsion to always be mugging at them. It’s silly to single Rossi out, though. In this tight ensemble cast, there isn’t a weak link, with everyone except Rossi playing at least two roles. The ensemble feels like it does a good job of being representative of what modern society looks like, and without – thank God, at last – feeling like the production believes it deserves a pat on the head for having done so. It’s modernity works because it actually feels modern, rather than politically correct. But more than this, every single actor seems to be inhabiting their character so fully, that they’re interesting to watch even when they’re not the focus of attention, and – going back to the main theme of the thing, which I seem to keep understating – also, incredibly funny.

*It’s also got an outstanding soundtrack with a huge pile of contemporary music (Frank Ocean, mostly, apparently) mixed and designed by Ben and Max Ringham (also Pygmalion, and a bunch of other stuff, including Atmen), which – for once – derailed my usual UK theatre objection that everything would have been much improved for some Joy Division/Suicide/Throbbing Gristle.

So, yeah. To conclude this hideously rambling 2,000-word mess: Persuasion at the Manchester Royal Exchange is an exciting, intelligent, hugely watchable bit of contemporary theatre. A very English take on being European, and one with more genuine, tangible popular appeal than a whole country-load of worthy, traditionalist, costume dramas that are theoretically “what the people want”.

Oh, and Morgann Runacre-Temple’s “movement”/choreography pisses over almost all other UK theatre “movement” from such a great height it’s not even funny**.

And there’s a bit with foam that’s great too.


** honourable exception for Sasha Milavic-Davies’s work for Suppliant Women.

Friday, 26 May 2017

International news: context and clarification


Just a bit of context for the following story:

Marek Mikos to head Stary (Old) Theatre

POLAND/KRAKOW Following a competition announced in March, the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage has announced that Marek Mikos is to take over as general director of Krakow’s Stary (Old) Theatre from Jan Klata, one of the country’s most successful (and most controversial) directors, whose contract ends in August. Klata had been one of seven applicants for his own post. Mikos is a theatre critic and his most high-profile previous managerial experience is running a local TV station in Kielce.

From my colleague Witold Mrozek, theatre critic of Gazeta Wyborcza:

“They should also mention that more than ninety Polish theatre directors of all generations protested against Mikos’s nomination; that he is perceived as political officer of right-wing, nationalistic ministry of culture; that it is the first general-director nomination, when the voice of the artistic team was completely ignored. Even the Communist Party negotiated these kind of decisions with artists, the current Minister of Culture does not.”

This is the latest in a string of government interventions into the country’s theatres – see also: the ongoing attempts to prosecute Teatr Powszeceny for Olivier Frljić’s production of Klątwa, and the governmental de-funding of the Malta Festival, Poznań, for appointing him as a guest curator. Beyond this, it appears that every time an artistic directorship becomes vacant, the nationalist, theocratic Law and Justice Party ensure that a party stooge is given the job.

Just thought this information was worth adding to the rather neutral original report.

Update, 27/05/17:

This evening in front of Teatr Powszechny before the performance of Klątwa:

“This is not a shot of football fans celebrating, nor is it the unions protesting against government. No, this is a protest by Nazis in front of Teatr Powszechny. Today. In Warsaw. In the middle of Europe. With antisemitic slogans and songs, flares thrown at the building, and a vial of something thrown into foyer. And this is a legal protest, authorised in a court of law. How far we are from another Kristalnacht?” – Grzegorz Reske

If this was America it would be on the front of The Stage. Why not Poland?

Photos © Marta Kiel

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

89/90 – Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Berlin

[seen 14/05/17]

this picture really doesn't do the thing justice

89/90 is brilliant. I wish there was the slightest possibility that the Barbican would consider briefly freeing itself from its stultifying addiction to the Schaubühne and bringing it over so that English people could see some real German theatre*.

89/90 is director Claudia Bauer’s an adaptation-for-stage of Peter Richter’s wenderoman of the same name. When I say “adaptation-for-stage,” I don’t mean in the horrible, tedious, English, Jane Eyre/Tenant of Wildfell Hall sense of “lifting the dialogue from the book and making it into *a play*”. 89/90 has been made into a piece of theatre; a full-bodied, glorious, extraordinary piece of theatre, which couldn’t be anything except a piece of theatre. Although at the same time – I won’t say “unusually for Germany,” but – you do get a strikingly clear sense of what the book might be like, and what the story it tells is.

Let me try and describe it: the set (Andreas Auerbach) is a massive wood panelled hall. In Haus der Berliner Festspiele it feels almost like it it completes the high wooden walls that make up the rest of the auditorium. I wonder, slightly, if in Leipzig (from where this production comes) it is an exact continuation. The result looks like a deliberate hommage to designer Anna Viebrock’s work with Christoph Marthaler, evoking that similar look of utopian socialist interiors from the post-war era.

Set into the rear wall, about halfway up, is a large gauze screen and, dimly visible behind it, a small radio-studio like room, in which our narrator is talking into a microphone (yes, of course this is live-projected onto the screen). As we, the audience, file into our seats, he’s repeating a few opening phrases for a good few minutes while we all get settled. He’s talking about life in 1989 in the DDR, when he was a young man. He’s talking about going to the swimming pool after nightfall, and about the girls in his class, and about the fights that used to start where he lived, over low, almost imperceptible music that sounds like it’s from Twin Peaks.

What’s fascinating about the narrative is how familiar much of it sounds. The narrator is only maybe a year or two older than me, and what he’s writing about, as much as the end of the DDR and the “reunification” of Germany, is being young at the end of the eighties. In this, the narrative – written in 2015 – feels weirdly like one of the Stephen King books written in the seventies or eighties where the older narrator tells a story about growing up in 1950s America (easily as iconic an era as 1980s DDR to me). And what’s most striking of all, is that these (yes, yes, straight, white male) narratives are generally as much about trying to get off with girls as they are about the macro-politics of the age.

To get back to the staging: while all the above is clearly legible in what happens over the course of the three hours of the piece (mit pause), the other masterstroke here is the semi-DDR aesthetic used to convey huge chunks of the thing. There is a large choir, and there is A LOT of singing. The songs are mostly ex-East German punk songs, but arranged as if they’d been written by Bach [some examples of the originals at the end, I wish they’re release an 89/90 OST, though]. There are also these “Pinocchio”/baby-headed “bathers” in fat-suits, who evoke both the pool of the narrative, but also just a kind of Brazil-like, flat-out strangeness. There are sort-of parodies of DDR lessons with a focus on a sort of kinaesthetic, athletic learning. These elements mash-up together to create these at once concrete and abstract visual and sonic landscapes, which somehow tell the story with snippets of speech interposed into sequences of movement and gorgeous music.

Frankly, I could have watched all 400+ pages of the book told like this.

Then there’s the bit, just before the interval, where the wall comes down, and the narrator’s friend (already teased for having had a “Kim Wilde” phase) performs a violent, electro-punk version of ‘Kids in America’ backed by the baby-headed swimmers playing strange small sampler machines. The stage revolves to reveal a sort of Frank-Castorf/Bert Naumann-style scaffold topped with a massive neon advertising hoarding. It’s loud, it’s brilliant, and it somehow manages to be incredibly moving – upsetting even – as a representation of the complete massacre of an ideal, as well as the overthrow of an irritatingly oppressive regime. There’s a resolute refusal to really compare the before and the after, and there’s no real way to compare a repressive but idealistic ideology with the abysmal mess that is Western Capitalism, not to compare “life in the DDR” with “life in ‘united’ Germany. One of the narrative’s strengths is its refusal to get into debates, but instead to keep on just reporting events.

The second half is largely the story of a running battle between punks and skinheads in 1990. It’s almost like Trainspotting meets the next series of Deutschland ‘83. I wasn’t sure where the story was set. I imagined Leipzig, but perhaps it was Berlin – they certainly go to Berlin at one point. Although, with a few adjustments, it could have been Leeds or New Cross in 1980 or 1990. There’s partly a sense that with the DDR taken apart – like the destruction of the North of England under Thatcher – this theoretically left-wing place suddenly filled up with a lot of neo-Nazis. And that, even beyond the politics, this maybe wasn’t even so much to do with the actual politics, so much as the politics of boredom and violence and youth, and everyone just picking a side and fighting because there was nothing else to do.

The juxtaposition of this sort of youthful nihilism (on both sides) with the extraordinary beauty of the music and staging.

So, yes. This was gorgeous. Somehow fast-paced and slow at the same time (in a good way). Not really like anything I’ve ever seen before. Made in the city theatre of a minor city in ex-East Germany, and yet looking more expensive than something in the West End. Most of all, though – contra Hytner – it was both artistically ravishing, and deeply and completely accessible. It spoke to real people, intelligently, theatrically and movingly, about things that they cared about; about their lives. (More so than anything I ever saw at Hytner’s NT that wasn’t directed by Katie Mitchell, thinking about it.)  I wish we made things like it here in England; I’m always slightly heartbroken that we don’t.

*This is, of course, unfair. I’m still indebted to the Barbican for bringing over Thomas Ostermeier’s Zerbombt (Blasted), and giving me my first(?) taste of German theatre (aged 30, FFS); so why shouldn’t other people benefit in the same way? Well: a) it’s 11 years later, Ostermeier isn’t getting any younger, and he certainly isn’t getting *more* interesting, b) furthermore, Schaubühne work – certainly the stuff that tours here – is now deliberately *international*. Like Ivo van Hove’s work, it feels increasingly like it’s being tailored to an “international” market, which increasingly means: “New York”. And surely our intelligence and politics haven’t yet become so degraded that we have to stoop that low. But most of all c) when I think of all the work I’ve seen from Germany, from Poland, from ex-Yugoslavia, from Austria, etc. which has been blocked by yet another Ostermeier production, well, if nothing else, it’s not good diversity, is it? People have the impression that European Theatre consists solely of the Schaubühne and Toneelgroep, and gthat makes me sad.

Songs! (with massive thanks to Annegret Maerten):

Machine Children!

Pisse (not sure this was in the show, but...)

Feeling B – Artig

Kids in America – Kim Wilde:

Ficken Fressen Fernsehen:

Unsere Heimat:

Nazi Punks Fuck Off – Dead Kennedys:

--- Fin --- 

Composition and musical direction PEER BAIERLEIN
Chorleitung DANIEL BARKE



Daniel Barke (conductor), Sophia Bicking, Annelie Echterhoff, Dirk Fehse, Cornelius Friz, Antje Herbst, Judith Hermann, Josefine Huff, Thomas Jahn, Berivan Kernich, Meta-Elisabeth Kuritz, Manuel Lauterbach, Ralf Lichtmann, Martin Lorenz, Jonas Lürig , Benjamin Mahns-Mardy, Johannes Martin, Teresa Martin, Katie Mc Cann, Hanna Petersen, Elena Rose, Jule Rossberg, Merle Scheiner, Helen Schneider, Henriette Schreiner, Martin Schulz, Raschid D. Sidgi, Michael Storr, Dominik Triebert, Theosophy Ulbricht, Juliane Urban, Leon Wienhold, Wolf-Georg Winkler, Josefine Helene Zimmermann, Debora Zitzmann

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Five Easy Pieces – Sophiensæle (as TT17), Berlin

[seen 14/05/17]

The surprise, with Swiss theatremaker Milo Rau’s Five Easy Pieces, isn’t that the piece is staggeringly intelligent, nor that it’s ridiculously charming and even funny, nor that it’s incredibly moving. The surprise about Five Easy Pieces is how political it is.

As you perhaps already know, the headline here is that Five Easy Pieces is a piece about the life and crimes of Belgian paedophile and child murderer Marc Dutroux, performed by seven children. [And one adult – Peter Seynaeve – who tends to get overlooked by the headline, but deserves recognition – not least as Belgium’s premier silver-haired David Tennant look-&-charisma-alike – but also a bloody amazing performer in his own right; just the right mix of funny, sardonic, reassuring and unsettling.]

It opens with a sort of Q&A with the young performers. What's their name? How old are they? Etc. *Of course,* knowing the piece’s subject, this can’t help but acquire overtones. Deliberately, I’m sure. At the same time, Seynaeve asking the questions is also allowed to project something of himself (or at least an assumed adult persona) into proceedings. So, not only is there the suggestion of something sinister, but there’s also the usual adult-as-authority-figure. *And* the adult as person-in-their-own-right who wrinkles his nose at the idea of Rhianna being his first interviewee’s singer of choice, but who is wryly amused that her second choice is John Lennon. He also asks her if she can identify the man in the photo. It is Patrice Lumumba, the complex hero of Congolese independence. She can. (It is neatly contrived that she is also Afro/European mixed race, allowing her to also answer questions about how she perceives her identify.)

How does Congolese independence impact on the Marc Dutroux case? The first character we see interviewed in the play – the first of the “Easy Pieces” (the title itself a steal from Stravinsky, but Rau’s performance does also follow a five-act structure) – is Marc Dutroux’s father. Played, yes, by a child wearing old-man make up. The interview is performed to-camera, and live-projected onto a screen the semi-dominates the stage (not as much as one of Katie Mitchell’s, it’s all on a much smaller scale than that).

The first thing to say is just how incredible the child’s performance is. I mean, really. Really incredible. You forget that you’re even watching an actor, let alone a child. But then, the situation itself is remarkable, the situation being described – being the father of a child-murderer – is remarkable (not “Easy”). Dutroux’s father really doesn’t seem “to blame” at all. Yes, Dutroux spent his childhood in the Congo, because it “belonged to Belgium” at the time, and Belgians lived and worked there. That’s not Dutroux’s father’s fault. Indeed, his father reflects that he always thought the situation was unfair, even as he describes how he had “an affair” with a Congolese woman. He also describes how apparently effortless it was for white men to have affairs with Congolese women; in rather the same way that President Trump described how easy it was for him to attract women.

But in the theatre, you’re there watching this interview with the father of Marc Dutroux, played by a child, wearing this overdone “old” make-up that, like John Gielgud or someone would have used to play King Lear in the 1940s. So you have about three or four different levels of “reality” to cope with: the reality of the father, the reality of the child, the reality of the acting talent, and the division of attention between live performance and screen... It’s easy enough to rationalise all the various levels that you see, but having to continually readjust your understanding of what’s real in such a set-up feels like an incredibly important part of the whole. This is theatre that forces you to think, and to deconstruct and reconstruct the way you’re watching it, in a way that produces a critical response and political thought.

In the preliminary interviews with the child actors there is also a lot of talk about acting, which continues throughout. Their views on what “acting” is are elicited. It struck me there that what was also interesting was these Belgian children’s ideas about acting would naturally be different to those of a German audience, and different again to the default English position on the subject. Although the best/most memorable answer “it’s like puppet theatre, but with real people” seems both chilling (in context), but also unlike something any English child would think of (because puppet theatre is hardly a go-to example for anything here, right?).

The piece does also play with ideas of appropriateness and consent. There is one scene where the director figure asks a nine-year-old girl to undress for the part she’s playing in front of the camera. There is absolutely nothing wrong with what happens, or with what we’re shown, but at the same time, it brilliantly demonstrates another strand of the piece’s concerns – namely that even making this piece is somehow wrong, and by extension the entire director-actor dynamic (in any theatre production) can be seen as suspect. And in the background we have the spectre of European colonialism, and the of child rape and murder.

Of course, the piece isn’t suggesting anything as crass as “Belgian colonialism made a child-murderer of Marc Dutroux” (although it doesn’t deny it, but logically it’s no kind of point to make), it does, however, cause you to realise the level of similarity between the narcissistic desires of a child-murderer and paedophile, and those of an imperialist power; the arrested-development of a mind, or a culture, that allows it just to say “I want” and to take that thing and keep it in captivity.

As a whole, the piece is outstanding – lifetime top-five outstanding – in the same way that This Beautiful Future is outstanding, in fact. Primarily because (ironically, narcissistically) you have done so much of the work in making meaning. The things with which we are presented are impressive. A child playing Eric Satie well is impressive. A child somehow managing to snap out of a fit of the giggles, straighten their face, and play a chief of police with uncanny precision is impressive. A piece of theatre managing in 1hr30 to eviscerate Belgian (+ by extension, European) society, its colonial past, its hypocrisy, and so on, is impressive. But what makes you dizzy – and what ultimately makes the piece extraordinary – is the synaptic effort of putting it all together in your head.

What the piece somehow really brings home is not that child murder is bad, and sad, and upsetting, but how inequality is. You come out with the profound realisation that essentially any country, any society, any government that lets children (or anyone) live in poverty is every bit as a bad a paedophile child-murderer. You get an understanding that all the confected outrage about child murder (or affected boredom at this piece of theatre) by papers like the Daily Mail, is part of a much wider distraction from the fact that most of the world is essentially like this. That most power relations are like this. That school, army, church and police are like this. That the purposeful uneven distribution of wealth is like this. That raping and murdering children isn’t so much an exception to-, but a logical manifestation of the learned models of-, how society operates.

By showing us some sentimentally appealing, charming, “cute” children, Five Easy Pieces ultimately shows us how the system we live in is completely abusive from start to finish. How, by focussing obsessively on the need to bring one man to justice, society is distracted from any questions of actual justice in any meaningful sense.

Monday, 15 May 2017

A Decade of Postcards: My Child – Royal Court, London, 2007


It’s the Fifteenth of May 2017. I’ve just got back from nine days at Theatertreffen in Berlin, and what I’m really looking forward to doing is watching Mike Bartlett’s episode of Doctor Who and then King Charles III, both on BBC iPlayer.

So, the coincidence is too much. If Attempts on Her Life was a manifestation of exactly what I wanted out of theatre, My Child was an early indication of the direction in which [some] British theatre might head in the next ten years. It also marked Mike Bartlett’s debut as a professional playwright.

As it happened, I’d first come across Mike Bartlett in Leeds, where he started as a first year just after I graduated. I’d still go back up to see people and shows, and in 2000 my friend Oli did a production of Howard Barker’s Claw. He had cast a first year called Mike from the Theatre Studies department as Noel Biledew, the “Claw” of the title. As a result of this, by the time My Child opened, I’d already seen a few Mike Bartlett plays. And they were *ok*. I imagine Mike is relatively sheepish about them now too. My Child was a completely different ball game. I think some of the (quite genuine) excitement of my review was just how much Mike had knocked it out of the park with this play. After King Charles III, it perhaps seems a bit “normal,” but at the time it felt like a revolution. Credit too to Sacha Wares, who really should be far more fêted.

Yes, now I’m reading the review again, bits of it make me wince: “experimental without seeming obtuse; formally daring while never seeming arty for the sake of it.” Horrible. All today’s young bloggers leave then-31-year-old me in the starting blocks with their willingness to engage and not pretend to Telegraph-style sniffiness and stuffiness, but there we go. First drafts of history are just that, first drafts...

[posted 15/05/07]

If That Face boded well for Dominic Cooke’s new regime as artistic director of the Royal Court, then his bold decision to open Mike Bartlett’s Royal Court debut downstairs (only the third play ever to do so after Look Back In Anger and Jez Butterworth’s Mojo) confirms that promise. That Cooke then allows the auditorium to be utterly transformed into a space which works for the play, with a concurrent massive reduction of capacity, suggests that something very special is afoot at the Royal Court.

The whole building seems to have a renewed sense of purpose. The opening season of first plays by young writers has revealed a sense of real urgency. The topics covered and the politics involved have been far more wide-ranging than previously. There is an air of licence and experiment abroad. Even the bar seems more fun than it did.

The play concerns a perfectly ordinary, liberal, university-educated, early-middle-aged man with a nine-year-old son, to whom his ex-wife is gradually trying to deny him access until he snaps and abducts the child. It is a blisteringly fast, brutal machine of a play: experimental without seeming obtuse; formally daring while never seeming arty for the sake of it. The dialogue is clever, harsh, pared-down – wholly naturalistic, but smartly crafted into pulsing, relentless rhythms, while the plot displays an admirable willingness to go beyond the linear, embracing metaphorical elements and occasional meta-theatrics.

The text is well served by Sacha Wares’ snappy direction. The transformation of the Downstairs theatre into a kind of elongated tube carriage-cum-nightclub, drenched in harsh fluorescent strip lighting, keeps the entire cast trapped in the same small auditorium as the audience throughout the play. Actors suddenly emerge from the gathered spectators. When actors are not involved in a scene, they merge back into the crowd. This happens just often enough, and unexpectedly, that everyone in the theatre starts to look like a potential member of this impressively sized cast. Scene intercuts scene with characters common to both forced to carry on two conversations. The pace is kept astonishingly rapid throughout. It is a bold aesthetic choice. Dialogue which could be played in an obvious naturalistic register is delivered with a stylised, off-hand urgency. The performances are well-observed and detailed. Ben Miles as the unnamed father does an excellent job of portraying a reasonable man trying to suppress his understandable rage, while Lia Williams as his ex-wife manages to maintain our sympathy while being utterly poisonous to her dejected ex. Also excellent is Adam Arnold as the son; far and away the best British child-actor I have seen on stage.

What really distinguishes My Child from any number of similar soap storylines and true life magazine narratives is the way Bartlett uses this simple story to present a ferocious attack on the failure of what used to be considered ‘lefty’ principles – in the sense of nice, Guardian-reading, politically correct, polite, community-minded, kind and ‘good’; at the same time offering a devastatingly bleak view of the sheer nastiness that can evolve between parents in a failed relationship, contemporary consumer culture’s emptiness, and the amorality of modern children. It is perhaps no coincidence that the titular child of the play would have been conceived at roughly the time that Tony Blair took office in 1997.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Down To Earth – Shifting Perspectives, (HdBF, TT17), Berlin

[seen 12/05/17]

Shown as part of the “Shifting Perspectives” strand, I idly wondered if the shift in perspective that Theatertreffen is hoping to effect here is from “typische Andrew Haydon” to “Charles Spencer” or “David Hare” or “Quentin Letts”.

If you’d asked me at 9pm (i.e. just before Down To Earth started) if I liked contemporary dance, I’d have said, “Yes! Quite a lot, actually.” One hour of two naked blokes rolling round on the floor – seemingly with the aim of expressing their gap year – I might have been a bit more frosty.

But let’s not throw out an entire artform on the basis of a particularly mediocre example of it. Contemporary dance is a toughie, right? As I suggested in my Real Magic review:
“Thousands upon thousands of people go to the Tate Modern a year and quite like looking at the Rothkos, I think. And they get something from them. And they don’t all get the same thing. But Rothko’s popularity is such that clearly a lot of people find what they get out of his paintings rewarding. We know it’s ok to get “a feeling” from it.”
But, equally, it therefore follows that it’s also ok to get nothing from them. Or purely negative associations. Or simply iterations of aesthetics that one variously finds witless, condescending, reactionary, and dull. (How I feel about Paul Gauguin, for example)

And so it was here. From my resolutely unshifted perspective DTE was naïve to the point of near-racism (interestingly, the production hails from South Africa), and (super-)narrative-led to the point of stupefaction. Which is interesting in itself, since it was just two blokes rolling around the floor naked, with the contents of a couple of bin liners (various oddments of clothing and kitchen appliances mostly, it seemed).

The blurb for the piece asserts:
“In an interplay of socially coded dance forms, music and cultural artefacts, Down to Earth uses the human body as a projection screen for the investigation of constructed identities. Assuming that the universal questions of “Where do you come from?” and “What do you do?” no longer suffice to reflect the complexity of this issue, the performance examines which effects and actions we can employ to break through the attributions and projections that are levelled at us.”
Their answer seemed to be something along the lines of “we’re all Zulus under the skin!” and looked for all the world like some staggeringly unsubtle and unstable bit of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation which, in this context, felt about as appropriate as that “Africa” party that Prince Harry once went to (dressed as a Nazi?).

I could have happily lived without ever having seen this. Or without it ever having been made.

We Are the Ones Our Parents Warned Us About – Stückemarkt, (HdBF, TT17), Berlin

[seen 12/05/17]

Tanja Šljivar’s new play – We Are the Ones Our Parents Warned Us About – is, I think, probably very good. Stood up as a two-and-a-half hander in a rehearsed reading, with German actors reading an English script, perhaps too much gets lost for any definitive sort of judgement, though. It’s in that narrate-y style that’s become/ing popular (cf. most recently How My Light Is Spent), and I imagine the script gives little clue as to how to stage it.

There are a few characters, who here were played by one man, one woman, and another bloke behind a kind of DJ/laptop/sounddesk/etc. read in some “stage direction” narrations, and maybe even the odd additional character(?). The story itself – the entire thing was relatively hard to follow at the time, and writing up a day later is almost impossible to remember with real clarity – involves a mother at her son’s grave, the voice of her dead son, her dead son when he was alive (telling people he’s going to kill himself), then somewhere along the line there’s a bit where a young man also has sex with a woman the mother’s age (the mother? But presumably not the son) in a disco toilet(?). Maybe the script does that Lynch-y/Three Kingdoms-y fold back on itself to facilitate an impossible incestuous encounter between dead son and grieving mother, but I’m pretty sure I just blinked and missed something because there were only two actors playing more than two parts. (I know, I know; these are Billingtonian levels of incomprehension and apparent refusal to grasp what is probably a really self-explanatory text. I can only promise that in the event, the reading – which did at least look lovely, and have both a smoke machine and banging music – made it less than entirely clear (to me).)

I guess I should probably stop digging my grave here.

Would love to read the script; see a full production; even see a different reading; but this is pretty much all I can say about what I saw in the event.

Zelle Nummer – Stückemarkt, (HdBF, TT17), Berlin

[seen 12/05/17]

Czech playwright Petra Hůlová’s Zelle Nummer (Cell Number) – shown here as a semi-staged rehearsed reading directed by Armin Petras – is a fascinating play. It’s fascinating for its subject matter – an imagined future where Czechia’s political/intellectual elite have withdrawn into cells to consider the question of Czech national identity, particularly in the light of Syrian refugees arriving by the EU-quota-load. It’s also fascinating for its form – a three-handed “debate play,” albeit one which feels more like three intercut monologues; a feeling exacerbated by Petras’s staging here. The English translation – projected as surtitles – lets us know that the play goes heavy on the alliteration (which may work rather better in the original Czech).

The most fascinating thing, however (for me, as an almost-definitively-not-Czech, English outsider), is the extent to which – with the change of only a few place-names and historical details – how loudly and clearly the piece also speaks to the current situation in England (and by extension, “the UK”/”GB”). *Of course* our histories are poles apart, which only serves to compound the frustratingly numerous similarities that spring up as soon as the question of “national identity” is asked. Instead of his piss-poor verbatim nonsense, Rufus Norris should have staged and toured an example of a play about National Identity from every other country in Europe. (And he should have done this *before* the referendum.) (Theatregoing,) UK audiences would have soon seen that there is literally nothing unique about England’s attempts at nationalism, about the vexed questions of what a national identity even is, and that our vanity of infinitesimally small differences was on a hiding to nothing. (None of which answers whether any country should want to be a part of the EU, but it might have taken the edge off the atmosphere of toxic xenophobia – if anyone had actually been to see them. Which, realistically, might not have happened. But heigh ho.)

Would this play do well in England? Not in its current form (a form it was difficult to properly/meaningfully assess, with a “staged reading” in German that obscured more than it elucidated). I think the monologue-ishness of of the structure might be hard to make work (to my tastes), although given that The Vertical Hour was ever a thing, perhaps with a convincing set, and the right actors, it could be given a good go. There’s also a vein of political incorrectness in the piece – a disabled character in a wheelchair who says some pretty hardcore things, another character who is ambiguously, Rod-Liddell-ishly, “liberal”-baiting – which might confuse English audiences used to be being told what to think by playwrights with unimpeachable liberal credentials.

Still, I would be interested to see it. Perhaps full, naturalistic production Downstairs at the Royal Court, with a top-flight cast, for just one week. Maybe in rep with some other nationalism plays from other places (not least The Patriots). But, yeah. Ain’t going to happen, so I’ll stop reviewing it as “Fantasy Programming League” (where every single play gets put on as an experiment).

Will be fascinated to see what the Germans made of it, if anything.

Who Cares? – Haus der Berliner Festspiele (side-stage), Berlin

[seen 11/05/17]

Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they grant them their wishes... Playing as part of the “off-programme,” Swoosh Lieu (best name for a theatre company ever?)’s Who Cares? comes across rather as if all the missing feminism from Simon Stone’s Three Sisters and Kay Voges’s Borderline Procession had been squirrelled away and all saved up to be staged together in one piece. And here’s that piece.

Swoosh... are a new, young company. Very new and VERY young. NSDF-eligible young. As such, it feels slightly unfair to bring the full force of whatever irritation I might have entertained during Who Cares? to bring directly to bear on the piece. It was late. And the piece *is* full of indisputable true things about how women are treated/perceived/oppressed/maligned by the world. So: free pass.

The fact that I’ve seen this very piece pretty much every year since I started going to the theatre doesn’t make it a bad piece. It probably just makes me the wrong person to review it. Certainly not the person to champion it.

In case you’re wondering, that piece is a kind of melange of devised/verbatim/installation/headphones/video projection/several-minutes-of-half-assed-Top-Girls-alike-bit (featuring the Three Sisters, Medea, Antigone, etc. etc..)

The technological elements have changed over time. The pan-historical costumes (the virgin mary, some Renaissance lady, Marlene Dietrich-type in a top hat, that woman off that poster, and some modern female archetype that felt instantly recognisable – short hair, club clothing – but non-specific...) and layers and layers of white washing being hung out have not.

So, yes. I saw this. It existed. What it said was still urgent. The theatrical case it made for saying it, not so much.

[Possible doubt: I’m now so tuned-out of Berlin/postdramatic-theatre that this was possibly a masterpiece and I missed it because I’ve gone all English in my desire for “entertainment” or “narrative” or “satisfaction” or something.]

On the other hand...


Thursday, 11 May 2017

Real Magic – HAU2, Berlin

[seen 11/05/17]

or, How to Explain Real Magic to Kate Wyver

Like everyone else, I really liked your review of Real Magic. It’s funny. It reflects an experience we’ve all had at some point or other. And, more than that, it still manages to give a not-inaccurate impression of the show. So much so, that I’m almost tempted to believe that the face value of your text isn’t 100% true. But let’s assume it is; that you didn’t get it (x100, with slight variations on not getting it). This piece is an attempt to help, if you felt discomforted or annoyed by not getting it. (Please feel free to ignore, or dismiss this, if you weren’t.)

Context: I first saw a piece by Forced Entertainment 19 years ago. It was called Pleasure, I think, and I saw it in the (now closed) studio theatre at Leeds Met when I was a student at Leeds Uni, and the Met Studio was where we went to see the cutting-edge, slightly famous, slightly obscure stuff, that we’d still somehow managed to hear vague rumours about. This was pretty much before the internet. It was certainly before Google. And it was definitely before there was anything useful about theatre (or Live Art, or “performance”, or whatever) on the internet. Not that you could find, anyway.

I flat-out didn’t get Pleasure. *At all*. I vividly remember a lot of the elements of that show: a bloke wearing a funny horse’s head mask, a chalk-board with random words written on it, a record player playing a record at the wrong speed, cardboard signs, someone talking into a microphone (also slowed down?). But I had absolutely no map for how to put any of those elements together for myself. I was 21/22 (or so). Blasted was a year old (and I’d only read it). Simon Stephens was an unpublished graduate playwright writing hopeful letters to Mel Kenyon, Mike Bartlett was studying for his GCSEs. I was studying BA Eng.Lit. and taking the odd module in theatre here and there. The most recent play-text I studied was by Arrabel, or Ionesco, or Genet. (As recent then as Our Country’s Good is now), which might have been more use in this context if I’d really grasped what they were driving at then, or seen a stark linear connection between what those authors and this theatre company were up to. But I didn’t. So I didn’t get it. And I don’t think I saw anything else by Forced Entertainment for the next decade or so, having possibly/subliminally filed them as “absolutely beyond me” in the theatre-ticket-buying/requesting bit of my brain.

When I did next see them (and I have no idea what/when this could have been), a lot of things had happened. I’d seen *a lot more stuff*; I'd seen Live Art, contemporary dance, installation work, durational work, German theatre, Belgian theatre, student dance... Frankly, I’d seen stuff that made Forced Entertainment look as familiar, comfy, and middle-of-the-artistic-road as a play by Alan Bennett. (And, in a way, I kind of think that’s how they should feel to people now. I mean this in a nice way, Forced Entertainment.)

But more important than that, I’d been given a (possible) strategic key as to how to approach their work. Not specifically them, but it works for me. The most helpful thing I’ve ever heard anyone say with regard to this sort of work, and how to “get it” though was Matt Fenton (now artistic director of Contact, Manchester), who in 2004 was a selector at NSDF, explaining the how/what/why of some piece of student contemporary dance that he’d selected for the National Student Drama Festival, which had just been presented to a festival full of perplexed student drama types. He said – and I’m having to paraphrase horribly here, the original was much more elegant: “I find it helpful to think of it in terms of jazz (improvisations?).” I think he managed to expand on how one could relate to jazz better than I’m going to do, but that idea of the freedom of interpretation, the freedom to dip in and out of something, the framing of the work in terms of another artform, have all been crucial to how I’ve approached non-linear, or abstract work ever since.

The term “live art” is also really helpful. When you think about art, say; a Rothko, you don’t (I don’t) worry about “understanding” its precise meaning. Thousands upon thousands of people go to the Tate Modern a year and quite like looking at the Rothkos, I think. And they get something from them. And they don’t all get the same thing. But Rothko’s popularity is such that clearly a lot of people find what they get out of his paintings rewarding. We know it’s ok to get “a feeling” from it. We can think of Forced Entertainment as Art in the same way. Instead of using paint and canvas, they use human bodies, lights, sound, and words. (There’s as thing where we could think of a lot more theatre *as Art,* as they do here in Germany, and it would result in a very different-looking theatre scene, as indeed it has here in Deutschland. Or in Norway, where FE won the Ibsen prize.)

The basic situation in Real Magic is clear: there are three performers – Richard, Clare and Jerry – in a semi-circle of vertical lighting bars, on a small strip of astroturf – and they are playing a kind of quiz show, or magic show. One is the host, one has to the think of a word, and the other has to guess what the word is. The words are written on scrappy pieces of cardboard. There are only three words it could be (Caravan, Sausage, Algebra), and the contestant always makes the same three wrong guesses (Electricity, Hole, Money). The host’s patter is pretty much the same throughout: “What’s your name?” “What’s your name” “Have we ever met before?” “Have you ever met before?” “Can you think of a word?” “Do you feel ready?” “Do you feel safe?” “Not too safe?” “What’s your first guess?” “Is that the word you were thinking of?” “Shall we let him/her have another go?” “What’s your second guess?” and so on.

The piece lasts about 1hr20.

As such, this one simple scene repeats over and over again, with various tonal variations. There are subtle shifts of lighting. There is a repeated applause track (repeated ad absurdum), a repeated laughter track (ditto), even a scrape-y rendition of some Bach(?) (which I’m sure I’ve heard used in something else too. What is it?). They do it fast. They do it slow. But what’s most striking is the near-certainty – rapidly established – that they’ll do it again.

So what *do* you do with all this?

Well, here’s some of the stuff that I got from it: it reminds you of *all the quiz shows that were ever on*. The cadences of anyone from Jim Bowen to Alexander Armstrong, via Chris Tarrant and Noel Edmonds all seem to be invoked. Despite (or perhaps because of) seeing it in Berlin, the thing feels peculiarly “British” – stale smoke in brown wallpapered 70s pubs, right through to the overbright colours of today’s HD TVs. But perhaps all quiz shows in every language have those cadences.

Of course, Real Magic isn’t really “a quiz”. And this also seems key. It’s “magic”. Or it would be, if the contestant in this mad gameshow ever got it right. You are perhaps also reminded of those strange TV psychic programmes. Or maybe of Derren Brown.

Then there’s the small amount of text, and th amount of time you have to think about it. I quite loved that the contestant always wanted “electricity, a hole, money” and all there was was “Caravan, Sausages, Algebra”. If that’s not the perfect description of the disappointments of growing up English, I don’t know what is. You could even (over-) read the former list as abstractions of light, warmth, shelter, and the means to obtain sustenance, a symbol of being valued within modern capitalism, while the latter list is a kind of shabby concretisation of the same things. The reality confronting the dream, if you like. So there’s this mismatch between expectation and reality. But then there’s also the expectation of success against the (apparent) inevitability of failure.

Then there is the skill with which the company play with – bluntly – what’s bearable to watch. I would argue that the thing feels pretty carefully calibrated to keep a willing audience pretty much on board. There’s the simulation (the risk, even the threat) of utter tedium, but it never properly materialises. The constant variations in tone and pace, combinations of performers and even changes of costume (basically vest and pants or chicken suit, there’s also a suit knocking about) keep it consistently, perversely compelling. I find the company’s adeptness at performing, and the clear amount of thought and pre-planning that has gone into the piece enormously reassuring. I think a concern that (wary) “people” have with this sort of work is that, on some level, a joke is being played on them. Forced Entertainment are reassuring; if for no other reason than they’re having to put more effort into playing the joke on us, than we are into it being played on us. At which point; the joke is on them, we’re all in it together, or we needn’t worry about being tricked at all.

Another thing I got from the thing – harking back to those French absurdists (et al.) that I studied at university – was how much it made sense as, say, a descendant of Genet, of Ionesco, of Beckett (even, in places, of Pinter). The sense of figures doomed to spend an eternity repeating the same meaningless reflection of life’s meaninglessness, even futility.

At the same time, I also found it very funny. There’s probably a lot to say about the sheer value of just this by itself.

Anyway. This is already too long.

But, as a short conclusion: I reckon, there’s nothing to “get”, per se, but that’s what I got.

Hope that’s useful in some way?

EXPLORER / Prometheus Unbound – Haus der Berliner Festspiele (side-stage), Berlin

[seen (very late) 09/05/17]

“Reviewing” Urland und Crew’s EXPLORER/Prometheus Unbound seems a fairly futile exercise, since the piece in its current form feels, on one level, more like note towards a scratch performance. Or perhaps a series of demonstrations of what their undoubtedly marvellous technology can do.

Or perhaps that’s just the form of the piece and I shouldn’t be allowing myself to be sidetracked by the fact that it’s designed to feel precisely like those things, but is in fact a thoroughly considered, “finished” article.

In either case, what happens (roughly) is this: a bloke with white hair welcomes us to the performance and introduces us to the narrator, the musician and “the guy who works for him”, who are seated along a table covered in technological equipment. The bloke with white hair isn’t speaking, it’s the narrator. Then two (male) performers are introduced (the number of women visibly involved in this production is nil). They are wearing those black suits with infra-red points on them that allow the wearers’ movements to be tracked/plotted by one of those computer programmes, like what Andy Serkis is always doing in Hollywood... (Or, y’know, like Benedict Cumberbatch wears when he’s playing a dragon.)

A large gauze rises (is winched up) in front of the stage, and the two men are projected onto it, rendered as Virtual Reality-style characters – Bridget and Deacon. Bridget looks (and dresses) like Lara Croft, Deacon looks like, IDK, a stock “male” computer game antagonist, all broad shoulders, muscles, and tight t-shirt. They are both voiced by The Narrator; Bridget by means of a voice modulator that makes him sound all chipmunk-squeaky, and Deacon by much the same means, except deeper, and with an American accent (although I guess that is the bloke, not the machine).

[So, yeah, its feminism isn’t super (see photo, top). In the piece’s possible defence, it is (probably) only describing (and almost certainly satirising) the current(/past) state of online, rather than actively endorsing it. Sure, it’d be better if it wasn’t an all male ensemble – with an attendant sense of boys and their toys – but I don’t cavil at every all-female ensemble, and blokes can be allowed their R&D shed-time too, right? ] [checking the credits, both producers have female names]

There’s an interesting bit at the end where the narrator keeps repeating “Form is nothing, form is nothing”. This is particularly ironic in a piece where *content* has been nothing as well. I think he’s quoting from a Timothy Leary book from 1994. Main introduce-y bloke is certainly one of those baby-boomer that Simon Stone warned us about. Indeed, there is a residual sense that this is a bunch of refugees from the hippy sixties who have somehow contrived to get hold of a lot of impressive tech.

Is form nothing? It’s a bold proposition to table in relation to this piece. Because, formally, on one level it’s still absolutely “just theatre”. We, the audience, are seated silently in a rake facing a stage (albeit a stage behind a screen). There are disconnects between image and performer, and character and voice. (And even between locations, once the thing really gets going, planting the avatars in virtual rooms, on virtual beaches, and eventually – in stripped down, increasingly abstract forms – on a seemingly infinite, brick-textured plain.) Startlingly so, in fact – it’s remarkable how quickly you can get sucked into the cartoon-like reality and forget that you can also see how it’s being constructed.

All that said, it would have been nice if they’d thought about the content *a bit more*. It’s fine. It’s mildly amusing, and it serves its meta-, illustrative purpose well enough. But given that the thing is 1hr20, it could really have done a lot more. And so could the computer animations.

Basically, this is a very fine Beta version of a technique in its infancy – at least as far as its use in live theatre is concerned. One day, I can imagine looking back on this piece, after I’ve just seen a virtual-live Ring Cycle, and smiling at how naïve things used to be back in 2017. I mean, this is clearly game-changing stuff. Not this show, but this tech, will one day knock our technophile socks off in the same way as The Encounter or War Horse... But form is not nothing. And, as per War Horse, technologies (even ones as “simple” as puppetry), need nurturing and an intelligent, purposeful context in which to flourish.

[post-script: OH! It’s by Eric Joris. Whose O_Rex I saw a decade ago at SpielArt. And was pretty much the same shtick: 
...Zlatko is told that the helmet has video cameras on it, which feed into the screen inside the helmet. In fact, what he is shown is the video feed from an entirely separate set of cameras, elsewhere in the building - or perhaps pre-recorded (or both, it wasn’t entirely clear). 
 For the rest of the piece, Zlatko wanders around the stage lost in a virtual world, while the compere talks to him, sketching out a sort of memory/dream sequence for this lost Oedipus. It is fascinating stuff - perhaps most especially for Zlatko - but it is also limited. 
In spite of the extra visual elements on stage - laptops on remote controlled cars showing video sequences of crawling men and body parts - and the occasional live soundscapes provided by a female singer, there is nowhere near enough content to justify the length of time...]