Saturday, 30 September 2017

Lokis – Lietuvos Nacionalinis Dramos Teatras

[seen 29/09/17]

Polish director Łukasz Twarkowski’s production of Lokis – a Very Free adaptation of Prosper “Carmen” Mérimée’s horror story of the same name – is about the most impressive use of video that I’ve ever seen on stage. The whole thing lasts around three hours (plus interval) and for long stretches is almost hypnotic in the way it operates. The plot of the original is apparently some insane French confection (which *was* originally set in Lithuania; hence the interest, presumably) about a woman who is attacked by a bear, and nine months later gives birth to a son, who in turn goes on to kill his bride on their wedding day. Or something.

Twarkowski, and writer Anka Herbut, have taken this original story, added a much more recent (true?) story of a French film star who was also murdered her husband after she was filming in Vilnius, and turned the whole thing into a compelling, horrifying, hallucinogenic meditation on violence against women. There might even be a third murder. If I’m honest, details/clarity (at least when here coupled with surtitles) weren’t the piece’s strongest point. But in the same way as “please explain the plot of Inland Empire” isn’t really a thing, neither is it here. Instead of linear narrative clarity, we instead have this nightmarish journey into the heart of these murders, and into the minds of these men who murder women. Towards the end, there’s even this attempt to try to reconstruct the thoughts of a man about to murder his partner – an attempt deliberately doomed to failure. Of course. But the piece itself reflects on and revolves around this unknowability. [I should add/reassure that it absolutely doesn’t glorify violence against women, nor needlessly fetishise it for entertainment. (There is one shot of a woman – presumably dead – lying naked on a bed, which could have been lost, but maybe even this is a comment on that trope, rather than an example of it).]

What’s really compelling here, however, is the stagecraft. The thing opens (a bit like Dead Centre’s Lippy) with “the director,” and eventually his whole team, talking about their rationales for making the piece. While interesting in its own right, this also sets up the audience perfectly and effortlessly with a way to approach watching it. There then follows one of the best bits of lighting-design-as-performance that I’ve seen. Again, reminiscent of the David Lynch aesthetic, but at the same time completely theatrical. From this, the thing starts to move into a version of the Katie Mitchell camera show, as if reimagined by the Frank Castorf/Gob Squad camera show (as it were). I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it’s the best video work I’ve ever seen on stage. If anything, it’s more like Sebastian Schipper’s film Victoria than anything you’re used to seeing on stage: there’s both the fluidity and anarchy of Castorf but with the eye for a decent shot of Mitchell’s video collaborators, but without the static painterliness.

As it happens, a fascinating thing happened the night I saw Lokis: about twenty minutes from then end, the live-feed went completely dead. The entire rest of everything continued, and someone came out into the middle of the stage – as if totally intentional – and told a strange story/joke about a rabbit in a wood(?). Or something. Then the scene that had cut out started again. Given the rest of the show, it was genuinely impossible to say for sure whether it was a real mistake, a slightly odd dramaturgical decision, or actually great. I’d have been happy with any option as the “correct” explanation.

Similarly, while it’s not a piece which really draws attention to its actors (the style and anti-narrative really militate against it), you do eventually notice just how great they are – just really subtle, understated, naturalistic-but-not kind of acting that communicates everything you need to know without somehow making communication the point.

So, yes: while in places at time-of-watching it felt slightly “over-long,” on reflection, I don’t think I’ve have wanted them to cut anything to “streamline” it. I was never bored, and it was great just to be able to sit back and have the senses assaulted by this maelstrom of smoke and strobes and music and video, executed with rare panache, exploring something curdled at the heart of humanity.

Antichrist – Menų spaustuvė, Vilnius

[seen 29/09/17]

I was quite taken with Artūras Areima’s production of Unter Eis at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, much to the surprise of several Lithuanian colleagues, who were several shades more sceptical about the extent of Areima’s talent. With Antichrist – entirely devised, as far as I can make out; possibly based loosely on Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1895 book of the same name (definitely zip to do with the Lars von Trier film) – I began to see from whence their scepticism came.

Antichrist is, to put it simply, a series a shock gestures, mindless sloganeering, nudity and excess. It *might* be about various things, including the result of the American election, geo-politics, Russia, and maybe The Internet. I think it also cleaves pretty close to Nietzsche’s rejection of Christian virtues in his daft quest for proto-fascist perfection. It’s not remotely clear whether Areima envisages Nietzsche as the originator of our current problems, or the best tool with which to combat them. It feels very much like the work of a 15-year-old boy who’s been saturated with “shock” images from MTV, CNN, etc. but wants to outrage their theatre studies teacher (here the teacher could be left- or right- wing. Either way they’d find plenty to complain about).

Perhaps, then, the most interesting thing about this piece is that it actually ends up feeling rather like the perfect theatrical expression of something like 4chan. A completely random assemblage, with absolutely no meaningful political allegiances, prepared to make whatever gesture will be most “shocking”. Antichrist “says” nothing, and we’re maybe reminded of that early Laibach interview in socialist Yugoslavia, where they repeatedly refused to deny that they were fascists. In this respect, I suppose I found it quite useful, insofar as: there’s always something quite good about having your assumptions about what it’s “ok” to put on stage challenged. I mean, sure, on a technical level the format of scene/total energy loss/scene/total energy loss/etc. was pretty witless, despite the four performers’ obvious commitment. But actually trying to criticise it on that score might be missing the point entirely. Maybe, like punk, it’s technically bad on purpose, because technical proficiency is bourgeois, or something. (Tbh, it’s very hard to know who or what the targets were, or who – if anyone – is actually meant to be being “shocked,” rather than a usual international theatre audience registering that the piece is using all the tropes of “shocking” to deliver something that, if it is shocking at all, is mostly shocking on the level of “blimey, I didn’t realise anyone was still making this show!”)

There are some “nice” moments in it, but – call me old and out-of-touch – I would have been quite interested to have seen what could have been achieved if there’d been a dramaturg and a discernible point. Two hours is quite a long time to watch people just throwing shit at a wall to see what sticks.

director/scenographer Artūras Areima | actors Monika Poderytė, Giedrė Žaliauskaitė, Andrius Mockus, Valerijus Kazlauskas

The Stage: The Shed Crew – Albion Electronics Warehouse, Leeds

[seen 22/09/17]

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Written for The Stage. Click here.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Our Town – Royal Exchange, Manchester

[seen 19/09/17]

What to say about American playwright Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town? It’s apparently the most performed, most loved, most well-known play in America. And, well, just look at America.

On a superficial level, it’s very nice. In three meta-theatrical acts, the audience is genially walked through birth, marriage and death – all taking place in a New Hampshire town (population 2,000-ish) – by a folksy “Stage Manager” character.

On the next level down, it’s less nice. Sure, Wilder notes the almost mysterious “disappearance” of the native Americans*, but more than that – possibly due to the state America’s in now** – you become aware of the way that division is hardwired into the place. Here, it’s the Polish Catholics on the other side of the railroad tracks, of whom we see nothing, and of whom we hear only what our on-stage WASPs occasionally deign to mention. So the claim of “Our” becomes pretty pointed pretty quickly. Although, as I say, it’s a such a genial, “universalist” play, that you pretty much let that point go. (Or at least, I – a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant – let it go. The Catholics *are* always “over there,” as far as I’m concerned, so why would I notice or particularly care when a play confirms this impression to me?)

And, of course, this could well be Wilder’s intent. There’s a very fine essay in the programme by Steve Bottoms of Manchester Uni, which quotes Edward Albee brilliantly describing it as “a real tough play” which “everybody performs like it was a fucking Christmas card.” (Although I’ve never seen a “Christmas card” production, I can well imagine it – just like Twin Peaks, as soon as David Lynch and Mark Frost stepped away, turned into a succession of fucking idiots putting kooky things on screen, because that’s what they thought it was about.)

These textual levels are, of course, complicated by the fact that this is a play-script, and so there’s also a production. And, as is customary with the Royal Exchange, the production is about as utopian, inclusive, and non-divisive as you could wish for. Which is lovely. Of course. But it also makes things *quite complicated*. For example, let’s take the relatively simple issue of the accents used here: Youssef Kerkour as the Stage Manager speaks with an American accent (his own?). Most of the rest of the cast speak with various Manchester accents (probably mostly their own)***. What does this really say? Sure, I think I can read what’s intended: a nod to the play’s American heritage, but with the nitty-gritty transposed to the here and now, but with all the words, idioms, events and traditions still intact. With an overall message that backs up one possible meaning of the play: that people the world over aren’t so different. Which is both comforting, and probably a tool of American imperialism. (I mean, I don’t suppose people are so different either, but it’s telling that I’ve seen several productions of this play, suggesting we’re all like people in New Hampshire, but no plays suggesting that we’re all like people in Kinshasa or Tehran or Pyongyang.****)

Anyway, that’s the over-thinking part done with.

The production itself is very nice. It’s a good production of a play that’s still interesting and has lots of good things in it. Frankcoms’s direction is good, the cast are very good, and Fly Davies’s set suddenly includes a theatrical coup which was (for once) completely unexpected, which I didn’t see coming, which worked brilliantly, and which also introduced a level of problematic Sarah Kane kitsch***** that – and I say this admiringly – added about 100 extra levels of difficulty to the whole. Max and Ben Ringham’s sound design was great, as was Jack Knowles’s lighting – particularly in Act One, where lights are shone through the frosted glass walls of the Exchange’s weird pod-theatre from outside it to create the sunrise...

If I’ve a reservation, it’s that I wonder if last night they didn’t slightly throw away the ending. The Third Act, after the interval, felt to me like it could have supported more silences, more pauses, more slowness; the audience felt primed for that, and could definitely have lasted longer than they were asked to. But that’s an entirely subjective feeling. Conversely, I also appreciated the unsentimental performance of something is that still, to me, unarguably sentimental.

But, yeah, it all works well. It’s modern (for England). It’s about as progressive as it can be (while remaining faithful to the script). The cast seem lovely. It’s a credit to Manchester. Etc. Etc.

* best joke ever written about America: “America sure is having some bad luck; it’s almost like it was built on an ancient Indian burial ground.”

** Or, more accurately: the suddenly-made-explicit/visible state that America has always been in.

*** Everyone in New York director David Cromer’s English remount of Our Town at the Almeida in 2014 spoke with their own accents too, so no prizes for Shock of the New here, but thank Christ anyway. I think – particularly after Benedict Andrews’s ATROCIOUS Cat On A Hot Tin Roof – fake American accents should be banned for at least a decade.

**** While I’m in complete support of equal casting rights, I do wonder again about actors of colour effectively neutralising the play’s potentially problematic all-white origins. Again, there’s no simple answer to this. It certainly wouldn’t be any better to stage it with an all-white cast just to show how bad that looked. (Not least because, as per the Catholics above, far too many (white) people probably just wouldn’t mind/care/notice.) But, I dunno, on some level, just making it nicer without acknowledging the problems seems too easy. Similarly, while a year ago, Dominic Cavendish made himself no friends by questioning the logic of casting Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Maxine Peake’s sister, part of me does wonder if the “colour-blind” casting-logic here just winds up inadvertently signalling “all these characters are actually white”.
[No animosity intended here. I just wonder if there is a way that theatre can do any better than it’s currently doing. And whether there’s any way at all of redeeming old American drama.]

***** Who even knew that that was a thing?