Thursday, 17 August 2017

From The Ground Up – Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

[seen 16/08/17]


This new piece from the Almeida Theatre’s Young Company is surprisingly sophisticated. Surprising until you see that the “writer” responsible for it is Joeri Smet, of Ontrorend Goed fame. Indeed, in many ways this feels like it is an O.G. Show in all but name, and specifically a follow-up to 2013’s Fight Night.

Where Fight Night explored the frustrations of the political landscape with a series of anonymous votes that led to a bunch of candidates that no one really wanted being whittled down to a winner/leader who no one in their right mind would have chosen (prescient, non?), From The Ground Up seems to focus on the construction of people’s “political identities” or “sense of self”.

Now, I don’t know if the Almeida Young Company or Joeri Smet had a definitive plan for the overarching dramaturgy/architecture of the piece to tell the real story here, but that was certainly my take-home. Essentially, we’re told that we can only answer yes or no to a series of questions. They are “only interested in black and white. There’s not room for grey here.” (Which, as I go ever more grey, and racial politics seem ever more disastrously polarised, seems a horrible acute stand-alone obseervation anyway...). Of course, the way that the questions are phrased leaves a hell of a lot of mental wriggle-room, but the interesting idea here is confronting the sense that ultimately you can only agree or disagree. We maybe spend a lot of time in this life not really committing to any sort of opinion or action but instead spend a lot of time finessing the questions. So in that sense, it is a useful exercise. But then, many of the questions are phrased in such a way as to elicit knee-jerk responses, and there’s very little time to think.

The object of all this is to gradually corral the small audience – here huddled together into a low-ceiled room in a church crypt with whitewashed walls – into a selection of “political parties”: maybe more points on a political compass (old ideas of libertarian left, authoritarian left, libertarian right and so on... feel very present). Old binaries such as “family-loyalty or self-actualisation” rub up against more contemporary sounding questions relating to our opinions on whether sexuality is fixed or mutable (what is the progressive answer to that? Really? What if it was phased differently?)

The piece doesn’t really make points of its own (Ok: there’s a nice enough take-home about nuance being a good thing, I think), but instead mostly leaves us in this room – each audience member feeling incredibly isolated, I think – thinking furiously about what we actually do think, about a dizzying range of subjects. If anything, for me it made me reflect on the deeply unhelpful ways in which certain affiliations being traditionally allied to particular political (i.e. economic) positions has recently flipped, and made modern politics almost incomprehensible with a few astutely volte-faces. (Like, since when was “right wing” the first choice for “free speech,” FFS?)

If I’ve got an issue with From The Ground Up, I expect most of that issue isn’t with the piece itself, but with modern politics, which are, by-and-large, a disgusting farce. (A view I probably share with Steve Bannon. Eye roll.) Lacking any sort of didactic message, ultimately the piece serves partly as an exercise in confirmation bias, and partly as a study in futility: giving us all-too-familiar binary choices from the modern world, and asking us to exercise our meaningless “democratic” choices between two options that we had no say in formulating (and then seeing people whose “party” we’ve inadvertently joined making a mockery of that support. Hello Leave/Remain).

So, yeah.  Loads of fun, until it reminds you how bleak everything in the world is, basically.



Team Viking – Paines Plough Roundabout, Edinburgh

[seen 16/08/17]


It’s worth saying at the outset: Team Viking is one of the best things I’ve ever seen. Period.

And, annoyingly for me, it basically doesn’t fit in with a single one of the things that I tend to think I love about theatre, but there we go; brilliance doesn’t have to fit in. Annoyingly for you, last night’s performance was a one-off this year. But I think Team Viking has a hell of a lot of life left in it yet.

It’s basically a long story. Told in first person by James Rowland, who also “wrote” it. [I happened to chat to him afterwards and I don’t think he’d choose “wrote” as the most honest description of how it came into being – more improvised storytelling, transcription, editing, re-editing, re-telling etc. Director Dan Goldman also deserves much credit here, possibly more for a role as chief dramaturg, than for “blocking” but, y’know, whatever it takes, right?]

I’m loathe to give away a single detail of the thing, suffice it to say that it’s about friendship, love and loss, and it’s got more properly brilliant jokes and comic scenarios than it has any right to. It’s your full-on “I laughed, I cried” (I didn’t actually cry, but it’s definitely good for several wellings-up). It’s certainly the best story I’ve heard since Every Brilliant Thing, and – not that stories should ever be a competition – I might even have loved it more than that.

Traditionally, I tend to put in disclaimers round about this point in a review, where I suggest it’s only my opinion, but here it isn’t. It’s objective fact. It is scientifically impossible to not love Team Viking. It should be prescribed on the NHS, it should be put on the curriculum, it should be shown nightly on television (and radio). And it should be dropped on the United States of America as a matter of extreme urgency.

Team Viking really is that good.

The End.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria – EIF, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

[seen 15/08/17]


Ever since I saw David Marton’s wildly deconstructed version of Monteverdi’s proto-opera, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, at the Schaubühne in 2011(?), I’ve been kind of fascinated by it. Not least because I quite wanted to see *everything else*. [Sure. I’ve got old. I sometimes like to see “properly” as well now. Sue me. (tbf, Marton’s version had removed 95% of the music, and I didn’t want to see historical costumes or anything, so I think my former-self can relax)]

This version performed by the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and directed (brillantly) in a semi-staged concert setting by Elsa Rooke is nigh on perfect. [The cheap seats round the side of the Upper Circle, however, are some of the most uncomfortable I’ve ever experienced, however. Brutally uncomfortable, with no leg-room, to the point of absurdity.] And what a strange piece it is. The first half (1hr35) is pretty much entirely made up of new characters being introduced. The “plot,” such as it is, barely moves forward at all. I think we get maybe one or two returns to *really* central characters, but mostly it’s just “Hey, let’s meet *this* new guy now!” Bizarrely, this completely suicidal (not least because of cost) dramatic structure is actually pretty entertaining. Or at least, quite funny. And not unsuccessful. You do get repeatedly drawn in, wondering who all these people are, and whether the plot will ever really kick off. And the music is pretty relentlessly gorgeous, so there’s that too.

Given how old this opera is (1640-ish), and how much it played a part in inventing the form, I was weirdly reminded of Middle Child’s new forays into gig theatre. Indeed, aside from the complete opposite-ends-of-the-musical-spectrum approaches, there is something astonishing about sitting in a hall in Edinburgh watching what is essentially a (largely context free) recreation of the invention of opera and it feeling similarly exciting and inventive now. The instruments used here seem to be largely authentic, early-modern/Renaissance ones, rather than a re-orchestration of Monteverdi’s score, but rather than feeling like this being museum-y for the sake of it, their very tones and unfamiliarity actually act to make the music feel more strange, rather than “more traditional” (Globe modernisers, take note).

In this original-form, you can maybe hear influences from more unexpected sources (maybe a hint of Arabic and perhaps even Balkan/Bulgarian) as well as the more “traditional” “Western” styles that it itself went on to extert influence over. (Geographically, historically, politically, this all makes a lot of sense – and maybe with current events raging so loudly outside/on-our-minds/etc. it’s particularly good to be forcibly reminded that the crucible of “Western” civilisation in the Mediterranean was (x2; both in classical times and during the Renaissance) not just some monolith of “whiteness” (whatever the fuck that’s meant to mean anyway) but a crossroads of cultures, all appropriating each others’ better ideas with nary a thought to political correctness).

So, yeah. What an incredibly rich experience on several different levels. One might wish that, for all its insides are *evocative*, the good people of Edinburgh might consent to having the seating in the Usher Hall made fit for the C21st, and one might also wish that this concert hadn’t been a one-off [although a) it wasn’t full, and b) it still probably sold more tickets than it’s possible for, say, Barrel Organ to sell for their entire run...]. Nevertheless, a far more convincing example of what the International Festival is for than The Divide, by all accounts.

Anyone’s Guess How We Got Here – ZOO, Edinburgh

[seen 15/08/17]


Barrel Organ’s third show is a slight departure-from/reshuffle-of the familiar elements in this unruly, horizonally-organised theatre company. Written by Jack Perkins, directed by Joe Boylan and Dan Hutton, and performed by Bryony Davies and Rosie Gray, with Ali Pidsley on dramaturgy duties, it still somehow manages to feel entirely like a logical next step for this exciting company...

Jack Perkins’s Anyone’s Guess How We Got Here – directed by Joe Boylan and Dan Hutton – is as impressive a New Writing debut as you could hope to see on the Fringe...

Getting the beginning right is a right bugger. In the manner of Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life, Anyone’s Guess How We Got Here allows itself several stabs at a beginning...

Davies and Gray stand on the empty stage and tell us how they’re in a car, tell us how they know each other (several possibilities, is one ever marked out as definitive?), tell us about Robin Hood, tell us about the ending of Thelma and Louise...

Have you been watching the new series of Twin Peaks? For me, it’s been making almost all the theatre I’ve seen since it started seem wilfully, timidly linear. Like, if you haven’t seen and taken on board Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, what’s even the point... Like, if your characters are still basically the same person (i.e. played by the same actor) at the end as they were at the beginning... Like, if you’re not prepared to spin out a shaggy dog story for more or less ever, and then interrupt it halfway through with the most insane, hallucinogenic interventions, then how can you call yourself an artist?

Anyone’s Guess... admirably picks up that Lynch-challenge ball and runs with it well over the touchline. This is a kind of kaleidoscopic, spiralling, fever-dream of a piece. A haunted house story about household debt. A play that manages to conjure an atmosphere of tension and suspense, and then press it into service as an exploration of he human story at the heart of a socio-economic problem. What’s astonishing about the piece is the way that it manages to work on so many levels at once and, by-and-large, make all of them feel satisfying in and of themselves.

As this is Edinburgh (and presumably touring for an age thereafter), I’m loathe to spell out precisely all the things I got from the piece while it’s still such early days. Suffice it to say, that – oddly – over the course of the “credit crunch” and beyond, I don’t remember seeing all that many stories about the actual human cost of household debt (Dennis Kelly’s Love and Money remains an outlier, unless I’m forgetting lots of somethings), and Anyone’s Guess... feels like an important corrective. At the same time, it fits perfectly into Barrel Organ’s oeuvre – proving (yucky word, but) that they really do have an identity *as a collective* which can withstand changes of both writer and director, which feels valuable and exciting in and of itself. It also fits excitingly into the world of contemporary New Writing – easily standing comparison with the work of Alice Birch or Ali McDowall. Similarly, Hutton and Boylan’s direction is fresh and inventive (enhanced brilliantly by Lucy Adams’s lighting and (once again) Kieran Lucas’s superlative sound design). Davies and Gray are also brilliant (and, as per usual with actors, I have no useful adjectives).

But, yeah; if it’s not already clear: Very Much Recommended. Go And See This.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Sasquatch: the Opera – Summerhall, Edinburgh

[13/08/17]


I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest that (Faith No More keyboardist) Roddy Bottum’s Sasquatch: The Opera is *the* Must-See event at this year’s Fringe. It’s probably the strangest thing here – and yet most comfortingly familiar – by a country mile; it’s got a massive cast, by Fringe standards (six named characters, six musicians, and a further six-strong chorus – I’m sure the heavy metal 6/6/6 configuration is purely coincidental); it’s hugely ambitious; it’s remarkably executed; and it still manages to feel admirably “Fringe-y” – with Ahmed Ibrahim’s staging (not to mention Joshua Rose’s lighting) very definitely not aiming for “polish” (although I dare say, given a less improvised space than Summerhall’s black-curtained Old Hall, it could look a lot more space-age if it wanted to). But the main thing about it is its strangeness.

At a Fringe where much else seems to be tending ever more toward a polite, consensus-driven agreement about “what constitutes good theatre/performance/whatever” (not such a bad thing, in the abstract), it is exciting to see something that appears to neither know nor care. It’s like finding a completely unironic greasy spoon in a street full of tasteful concrete and wood coffee shops. (Again, nothing wrong with tasteful coffee shops, per se. I *like* nice coffee. But it’s pretty exciting to find a show offering the equivalent of sugary Nescafé instant in a polystyrene cup for 30p.)

Musically, it seems to exist in an unexpected intersection between Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and ‘Pretty Hate Machine’. Similarly, the story – which definitely feels like it’s whizzed through to make it fit an hour-long slot, and could easily accommodate more complexity – feels like a cross between the heightened emotions of (say) Romeo and Juliet, and the less-heightened emotions of (say) South Park. There are both some very funny and/or absurd jokes, and also an emotional arc – at least for the Sasquatch himself – that is genuinely rather heartbreaking.

Visually, perhaps due in large part to a lot of footlights, I kept thinking of those photos you occasionally see of the sorts of things they used to put on at Tristan Tzara’s Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich. This feels of-a-piece with that sort of WWI-era surrealism (and now, plausibly coming from a similar sort of psychological place – total horror in the face of the state of the world, and maybe a loss of any faith in rational responses to it: at the end, the group hold a minute’s silence in memorial of Heather Heyer and in protest at the ongoing collapse of the US.)

In terms of deeper meanings actually contained within the show, well, I wasn’t hugely aware of any (not *all* the libretto is entirely 100% audible/comprehensible, let us generously say). I mean, it offers some broad-brushstroke stuff about oppression/slavery/servitude/exploitation being bad (Sasquatch’s nemesis seems to be a sort of travelling showman who keeps his daughter on an actual leash, and makes his son dress up as a parodic Sasquatch in a kind of freakshow?). Also bad is loneliness (Sasquatch is lonely). Love, on the other hand, is nice (if liable to end tragically). But then, that’s pretty much operas, right? It still makes a tonne more sense than The Magic Flute...

So, yes. Despite being (apparently) impossible to write up convincingly – at least as a strong thesis goes – this is one hell of an experience, and quite unlike anything else I’ve seen at the Fringe for years.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything – Paines Plough Roundabout, Edinburgh

[seen 09/08/17]


All We Ever Wanted... is an absolute belter of a show. Big story, big noise, big heart. I bloody loved it. Sure, there are probably a few bits and pieces you could quibble about, but basically it’s brilliant.

It’s by (EU City of Culture 2017) Hull’s (Leave 66%) Middle Child Theatre, who are pretty much still the only company in the UK who make “gig-theatre” – that is to say, the story here (written by Luke Barnes) is told through a mixture of narration, short dialogues scenes (directed by Paul Smith), and punky-poppy songs (music by James Frewer). Songs which, in this fast trot from 1987 to 2017, err toward light-touch period pastiches. There are also some excellent period-piece observations (and the odd old Nokia).

[Quite spoilery for a while, now. Maybe just buy a ticket and read later...]

The story itself starts in Hull in 1987, when Kimberley (Emma Bright) and Brian (Joshua Meredith) are in hospital waiting for the births of their respective children Chris (James Stanyer) and Leah (Bryony Davies). Ten years almost instantaneously pass, through the magic of M.C. Marc Graham’s narration, and Kimberley and Brian meet in a [bookshop?] over the last copy of the first Harry Potter novel. Tony Blair has been swept to power, Britpop [and Brit-Art] and “Cool Britannia” [and the plays of Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane in Germany] are Making Britain Great Again, even if Kimberley’s and Brian’s relationships have gone ass up. They arrange a play-date for their children. Chris and Leah get on like a house on fire and decide they’ll get married. Their parents, more aware of their class differences, don’t quite manage the same thing. Fast forward another ten years to War on Terror 2007 and middle-class Chris is at Manchester Uni hating every minute of it, while working-class Leah seems to be having a lovely time working in Build-A-Bear, but a chance encounter with her old school rival Holly (Alice Beaumont) turns all that around when she decides she wants to make a lot more money...

There’s *a lot* of welcome and unexpected complexity in this class-conscious narrative. From 1987 to the start of the 2007 segment, you’re struck by bleak thoughts on Britain’s sheer lack of social mobility. Then, Barnes pretty much turns those sympathies on their head. Firstly, by reminding us that there’s nothing *wrong* with being working class; second, by suggesting that being middle-class (for this particular character) isn’t necessarily a whole lot of fun; and then, thirdly, by having Leah go on to make quite a lot of money, we’re reminded that class and wealth aren’t inextricably linked (and, fourthly, that it’s kinda stupid putting a bunch of energy into hating the middle-classes at the same time as encouraging social mobility anyway...). It’s fascinating. Essentially, Barnes is both a subtle and a completely unsubtle moralist At The Same Time. And, lest all this sound a bit serious, it’s not even about “morality” (class-based or otherwise). Those ideas are in there to have a think about, if you like, but let’s not forget this is basically a banging episode of Doctor Who with songs. (“Doctor Who? What?” Oh, I forgot to tell you about the singing asteroid that’s about to destroy the earth, BY CHOICE... And the fact that Paines Plough’s Roundabout still looks like the Tardis...)

So, yes. Total fun, and enough *stuff* in it to be worth thinking about too. And moving! It’s really moving! And there’s a bit at the end where Marc Graham gets to deliver a speech that might as well be David Tennant or Christopher Eccleston’s Doctors at their very best. So, yeah. Go and see this. It might be not perfect, but it’s a bloody good argument against perfection.


[Absolutely no reference at all to this, though...

5 Encounters on a Site Called Craigslist – Zoo, Edinburgh

[seen 11/08/17]


As regular readers will know, I absolutely loathe and detest 99.999% of me-theatre, confessional monologues, true-life solo-shows, etc. In general, I fucking hate every self-pitying, sentimental, oversharey, emotionally-bullying last one of them. They are (almost without exception) a terrible, terrible error of thinking, the antithesis of theatre, and should be actively boycotted, if not banned outright. :-)

I’m not fully sure why it is, then, that I thought YesYesNoNo/Sam Ward’s 5 Encounters... was in any way acceptable. I think, in part (assuming that it is all “true” in the first place – insofar as one person’s version of anything can ever be called “the truth”) it’s because a) it’s not really complaining or demanding our sympathy or understanding, b) if anything – a bit like The Shape of The Pain – it is partly about the impossibility of ever really explaining or understanding anything, c) it’s almost like a bleak, black, ironic joke at the expense of “me-theatre”. It offers neither a glib feel-good message nor a sententious telling-off to its audience. Instead, at root, it’s a theatrical exploration of a philosophical problem. Interestingly, it’s also interactive – which is another thing I often hate. Here the interactivity/voluntary-participation is managed tactfully and carefully, rather than as a device for achieving cheap laughs through bullying or ridicule.

The meat of the piece is Sam talking about these titular five encounters. They’re essentially anonymous encounters for sex with other men. The piece basically takes us through each encounter, from the posting of an advert by Sam, through to whatever end-point he decides; sometimes when he physically leaves the encounter, once a couple of emails after that. The descriptions are deadpan, and as matter-of-fact and un-erotic as descriptions of sexual activity can be. Audience members in search of titillation will have to work extremely hard to find any (unless, of course, deadpan anti-erotica is your fetish, in which case: bingo). These encounters are played off against Sam talking us through those “36 Questions On The Way To Love” (Ward has actually done proper research, and traced them back to their 1970s origin point, rather than their 2000s reincarnation as pieces like the that one I’ve just linked to). In this way, alongside the rather bleak, grinding descriptions of loveless, mostly quite joyless-sounding sex, there are also these questions apparently designed to achieve “intimacy” and/or “love”. At one point, a volunteer couple stand in front of a big fan and name all the things they like about each other while Sam drops pink confetti petals into the wind blowing between them while “romantic” music plays. It’s both actually rather touching, and also a) completely contrived/constructed, b) an enjoyably sardonic commentary on at least the bullshit trappings that surround “love” and/or “romance”.

Being pretty-much old enough to be Sam’s dad, I’ll admit that maybe I didn’t fully empathise with this level of Liebesangst, so much as recognise it from when I was much younger. But it’s a clear-sighted, sincere enough piece for that to worry me a bit, rather than make me feel condescending toward it. There is something admirable, I think, about having theatremakers worrying about the quality of truth, or empathy, or honesty that is possible. Indeed, it seems fundamental to the very core of (some of) what theatre’s about.

The Brothers Are But Believers – Summerhall, Edinburgh

[10/08/17]


Have you read Angela Nagle’s brilliant Kill All Normies? Javaad Alipoor’s The Brothers... is almost the hi-tech, multi-media, stage show of the book. Ok, it’s not. Instead of considering the online culture wars from a Left/Right perspective, it instead looks at the “East”/West version. Or rather, the version of violent online “masculinity”that manifests as 4chan (even unto Trump) in the West and as online Jihadism even unto ISIS-membership – kind of also “in the West,” but on into the Middle East. (These highly political “geographical” distinctions are essentially rendered absurd by the piece’s relentless good sense.)

It’s a pretty simple structure – part performance lecture, and part triple-stranded narrative monologue about three very different blokes, who all watch the same video of a girl being blown up by a bomb in Syria – interspersed with some whizzy projections and live texting in a What’sApp group. This last innovation, believe it or not, I’ve never seen used before, and it’s strikingly effective here. Indeed, there’s a bit where Alipoor – echoing Oliver Frljić’s Klątwa – points out that he could just text us all links to what he’s talking about, but in the theatrical context 4chan would probably contravene the Obscene Publications Act, and sending links to ISIS recruitment sites would fall foul of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. But even without, the way that the entire room/audience is suddenly networked, like a little encrypted cell all of our very own, reflects the content, and “the world of the play” beautifully. “The world of the play” being *precisely the world,* after all.

Alipoor writes rather brilliantly, and performs with a northern swagger that I reckon could even make the phone book sound pretty cool. [Incidentally, when are we going to get a new stock phrase for “makes the phone book sound exciting”? Young people won’t even believe that they even existed. I mean, you know this “doxing” thing that the show also talks about? British Telecom used to publish a book containing everyone’s name, address and phone number as a simple courtesy, FFS.] Alipoor is pretty much the ideal poster-boy for solid, sensible, old-left, atheist-Islam; not to mention even making “theatre” seem a whole lot less stale than it may often be perceived as. The form of the thing feels urgent and mobile, and the set (Ben Pacey) looks a bit like something out of Spooks (indeed, even the stories bear passing similarities (I intend this as a compliment; I like Spooks, even if it does have *significant problems*)).

If there’s a gripe, it’s maybe that (like Kill All Normies), it’s so good and interesting that you could happily wish it was two or three times as long. And it’s basically an overview of an analysis that’s very easy to agree with. I’d have been interested if ...Believers had also added a consideration of what the various factions of the disastrous “left” are up to; sitting in their own bedrooms being baited by 14-year-old boys who have learned how to wind them up, while drawing up ever more elaborate LARP-style rules about what people can and can’t say, admiring the thinness of each others’ skin, and codifying “left” politics into the most exclusive jargon possible.

Nonetheless, for all that Billington-style backseat dramaturgy, this is a a thrilling, urgent, blackly funny piece of work that at least makes one of the apparently inexorable impending global conflagrations seem comprehensible, and even maybe avoidable.


Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Lands – Summerhall, Edinburgh

[seen 08/08/17]


Seen the day after Palmyra, it’s difficult to shake off the feeling that, a) Lands is the ideal counterpart to Palmyra, b) they compliment each other beautifully, c) while Palmyra *may* explore the macro, external, “bigger picture” of geopolitics, *maybe* Lands explores the micro, internal, psychological landscape; the first half of Blasted to Palmyra’s second half of Blasted, if you like. I couch all this in “maybe”s, because I reckon – like Palmyra Lands functions on so many levels at once, that it would be just as possible to read it as an exploration of, say, the rise to power of Donald Trump, as it is to accept it at something closer to face value...

What that face value is is two women (Leah Brotherhead and Sophie Steer) and their relationship. Because they’re on a nearly-empty stage they could be anywhere. For some reason, I imagined them into a pretty normal flatshare arrangement – either as friends or partners. But they could just be on that stage (same as Bert and Nasi). Leah has done one jigsaw puzzle and is doing another. She is describing each piece of the puzzle in turn into her iPhone for “documentation.” Sophie, on the other hand, is bouncing up and down on a trampoline. Eventually, it becomes clear that she can’t stop this. Rapidly, “bouncing on a trampoline” goes from being bouncing on a trampoline to anything from drug or alcohol addiction, to mental illness, to physical illness, or even just another person’s irritating habits or quirks that they can’t or won’t give up. Similarly, Leah is maybe *a bit too invested* in her work with jigsaw puzzles.

The way that the piece unfolds (credits: directed and devised by Jasmine Woodcock-Stewart, co-devised by cast, additional devising by Richard Perryman and Nasi Voutsas) is, by turns incisive, tender, tough and heartbreaking. I mean, it really is a lovely, beautifully made show. Yes, it takes a couple of unexpected turns, one or two of which might occasionally seem to make it a bit too on-the-nose for a few moments, but then it somehow seems to turn again, shift our sympathies some more, and return to the sort of “compassionate Beckett”(?) thing that seems to form its core.

Definitely enormously recommended.

Until 20th August. 12.00pm. 1hr. £10 (£8)

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Palmyra – Summerhall, Edinburgh

[07/08/17]


In Palmyra, Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas have created a strong contender for “Best Piece of ‘Political Theatre,’ Edinburgh 2017.” Like their previous hit, Euro House, it is ostensibly a tightly rehearsed set of comic scenes exploring the deteriorating relationship between the two performers. Upon entering the stage to take their chairs, they discover Bert’s plate has been smashed. Nasi’s plate is fine. We don’t know how Bert’s plate got broken. We never find out. They put it behind them and carry on with their thing – here: whizzing about the stage on those little industrial trolley stands, to the strains of ostentatiously Western Classical Music (what precisely I couldn’t tell you off-hand). And this is the way that the piece builds its suggestive relationship to its title. As we know, Palmyra is the name of the ancient Semitic city, in modern-day Syria, which was the target of a massive campaign of destruction by ISIS. Palmyra here seems to stand, plausibly, for the entire region, and all the warfare and politics that that entails.

The dynamic between Bert and Nasi is crucial here. Bert is French, unnecessarily handsome, charming, and also frequently In The Wrong. Early on, he takes Nasi’s plate to the top of a ladder and drops it. Absolutely on purpose. When Nasi – bearded, shorter than Bert, more of a working class accent, maybe – reacts (over-reacts?), Bert appeals to the audience to recognise what a psychopath Nasi is. The entire show is a gradual amping up of this bullying dynamic. In the actual room it’s fine. It doesn’t feel so cruel that it’s no longer funny. It’s played – by both of them – for laughs, after all. Sure, there are set-pieces where it gets genuinely more tense than funny, but always in service of setting up another laugh rather than for the sake of it.

And this is the genius of the thing. Because the surface level of “two blokes making a funny clown show about making their funny clown show” is always there, we never have to get bogged down in mapping specific moments onto particular aspects of global politics. As a result, with that political commentary track running loudly in the background, I reckon we end up working at thinking harder about the links between the two dynamics than we would if all of it were being explicitly rammed down our throats. We’re not “being told what to think” at all. Of course, as a result, part of the reason I think this is the most intelligent show about American/Western Imperialism versus the savage retaliation of ISIS is because the entire thing could be seen to work as an enormous exercise in confirmation bias (or, more, I read onto it exactly what I believe, and then pat them on the back for being so acute). That said, it’s not as if the show is formless or says nothing. And it even throws up some “difficulty”. I mean, in the way I read it, “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys becomes an Anthem for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; the “you” of that song’s chorus suddenly seeming to be America, the “God” suddenly seeming much more present.

Indeed, the whole feels so finely tuned that you can read the piece in relation to any number of unequal power-dynamics, and indeed it feels so accurate (at least, to how I read politics) that it feels like at particularly acute analysis of power and abuse; any situation at all where one power is greater than another, and the ways in which the greater power uses charm and “reason” to excuse their own abuses and pathologise resistance. It doesn’t endorse or excuse anyone or anything. It just keeps on showing us this one analogous situation and, to an extent, it insolubility. As such, it’s a bloody good job it’s also funny, or this would also be the most depressing show on the Fringe too. To be honest, it probably still is. That’s probably what makes the jokes funny.

But, yes. Proper genius, this. Incredible pity it’s not on for longer. Here’s hoping it has a long, long post-Edinburgh life.

Until 13th Aug. 1.15pm. 55Mins. £10


Monday, 7 August 2017

Together Alone – Dance Base, Edinburgh

[seen 06/08/17]


Together Alone is probably impossible to describe usefully. Look at the photo. It’s basically that. But moving around. To (various) Music. For 45 minutes. I thought it was (mostly) brilliant Chen-Wei Lee and Zoltán Vakulya – naked throughout – are in incredible physical condition, and make nearly an hour of intense physical exercise look almost effortless.

The game in this piece is that for the entire duration, some part or other of Lee and Vakulya’s bodies must be touching. There is obvious stuff: hand-holding, swinging each other round, clambering over each other, etc. But there is also stranger contact; heads pressed lightly against shoulders, shoulders pressed into arms, hips against hips.

The musical accompaniment varies, from modernist growls and crackles through to a fully-fledged jazz-dance complete with something like the Charleston. Re: the nudity – vainly trying to find the name of the jazz song mentioned above, I came across this excerpt from an interview with the performers which puts exactly what I thought much more precisely than I’d have managed. “We talked about what we should wear and tried various things. We have this floor-based part we call “Rock.” It’s very slow and difficult, like we’re tangling, wrapped together as tight as possible. You see a lot of muscle tension, how we’re using force to carry each other, but we found that even if we covered ourselves with just thin fabric the dance lost that strength. You just didn’t see it.

I can’t imagine anyone reading this review being overly bothered by nudity anyway, but I will add that it’s fascinating, in the context of a theatre culture in which nudity still often feels difficult, awkward or exploitative, it was a joy to see something where simply not having any clothes on felt like nothing except a practical and aesthetic decision. And also – given that this practicality was manifestly the case – how an entire audience will immediately accept this.

Criticisms: I suppose I worried that some of the music balanced a bit on the knife-edge between being quite good, and “a bit too new-age relaxation tape”. But it never actually tipped over. And maybe other people are ok with new age relaxation tapes anyway.

In terms of “message” or “meaning,” I don’t think I came away with *much*, although there was something palpable about two dancers from such totally different backgrounds and (I presume) dance/training cultures making work together, especially such a) successful, and b) contemporary work together. But it didn’t feel like this was a piece that functioned in that way. I mean, what “meaning” do you get from (wordless) Bach? Sometimes formal experimentation and inexplicable beauty are easily more than enough. Warmly recommended.

Together Alone | Zoltán Vakulya, Chen-Wei Lee | 4 – 27 Aug | 21.45 | 45 mins | £12 (£10 conc)

Not Mondays or Thursdays


The North – Dance Base, Edinburgh

[seen 05/08/17]


Joan Clevillé’s The North is probably as a good an entry-level bit of contemporary dance as you’re likely to find at the Fringe. Theatre-refugees in particular will find much to delight them. For a start, it’s dramaturged by Ella Hickson (I presume the Ella Hickson); for seconds, it’s got a script and honest-to-God dialogue; and then there’s the venue, which... Well, if like me you’re bracing yourself for a month of watching plays, pieces, whatevers, mostly in damp basements, sweaty attics, and dusty back-rooms, there’s something intensely refreshing about a large clean white room, with beautiful concrete architecture, a purpose built lighting rig, and a first-rate sound system.

The piece itself is a lot of fun too, with the added bonus that – as well as being fun, and having bits of dialogue – it’s performed by people who (unless you’re a trained dancer too) can just do amazing stuff that you can’t. And can do it without breaking a sweat, at the same time as doing all the normal stuff you can do. Which is a pretty excellent thing to go and see.

In terms of The Actual Show, well, it kicks off with a bloke (John Kendall) being dragged on stage in a huge plastic bag and emptied out onto the stage, by a pair of women/dancers/shape-shifting-mythic-creatures (Eve Ganneau and Solène Weinachter). He has arrived in The North – essentially an amusing assemblage of tropes. The landscape is represented (surprisingly effectively) by a single small fir tree, and its inhabitants are dressed in gold jeans, Lundpers, and sometimes antlers. They speak an incomprehensible language that sounds like Donald Duck (very funny). The plot (yes! Even a plot) basically sees him trying to get to grips with living in this cold, remote, unfamiliar place; never quite knowing whether he’s “doing it right” or not. In fact, it feels for all the world like a Nordic remake of Anne Washburn’s The Internationalist.

It’s not maybe the absolute “deepest,” “most urgent” or “necessary” thing you’ll see this year, but it’s a very, very well done version of itself, and I imagine might fire the imaginations of more earth-bound theatremakers with the sheer range of additional possibilities offered by dance. Very much worth checking out (maybe especially when you’re completely sick of black drapes hung up in store rooms).

The North. Joan Clevillé Dance. 4 – 13 Aug. 8 – 13 Aug | 16.15 | 60 mins | PG £12 (£10 conc)

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

Decade

[06/07/17]


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.

AT LEAST WITH IPHIGENIA IN SPLOTT WE COULD JUST FUND THE NHS BETTER.

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.



Soundtrack:
















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

Friday, 26 May 2017

International news: context and clarification

[26/05/17]


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 --- 


Director CLAUDIA BAUER
Stage ANDREAS AUERBACH
Costumes ANDREAS AUERBACH, DOREEN WINKLER
Composition and musical direction PEER BAIERLEIN
Chorleitung DANIEL BARKE
Dramaturgy MATTHIAS HUBER
Light VEIT-RÜDIGER GRIESS
Video KAI SCHADEBERG, KATHARINA MERTEN
Sound RALF LUDWIG, UDO SCHULZE

With
ANNA KEIL
ANNETT SAWALLISCH
  BETTINA SCHMIDT
WENZEL BANNEYER
ANDREAS DYSZEWSKI
ROMAN KANONIK
TILO KRÜGEL
DENIS PETKOVIĆ

Choir

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