Catch-up

The culture: Many plays in many theatres over many weeks

The cheap seats: mostly cheap, sometimes splurges because theatre is cheaper than therapy

Oh ok so I’ve been bad at writing about what I’ve been to see recently. There are many reasons why but mostly because I’m trying  – sometimes a bit successfully – to write  my dissertation. A few little sentences about each one will have to do…

The Forbidden Zone, Barbican Theatre
I saw this when I was on a Katie Mitchell binge. Being a total fangirl I saw Lucia di Lammermoor at the Royal Opera House not once but twice, then the mind-bogglingly excellent Ophelias Zimmer at the Royal Court in the same month. The Forbidden Zone was created by Mitchell for 14-18 NOW in partnership with the Schaubühne, Berlin, one of my favourite theatres to tell the forgotten stories of the wars’ women and the secret heartaches they kept in their lockets. It was a feat of artistry, making cinema-quality film live onstage, but all those cameras and screens made the stage feel cluttered and mediated between the audience and the action. Mitchell’s work works best when it’s full frontal and meets your glare with a knowing grin before punching you in the guts. Metaphorically, of course.

The Flick, National Theatre
Set in an old cinema between screenings, The Flick is slow-paced and full. of. pauses.It’s a play where nothing much happens – to the point where a man exploding a bag of popcorn becomes genuinely shocking – but it’s somehow heartbreakingly beautiful and I sobbed and fell in love with it so much that I went back to see it again before it closed. My experiences of Annie Baker’s play about millenial malaise, the futility of love and life and the unavoidable necessity of human connection, however awkward, is something I want to write about at some point. But the play made me realise a lot about myself and it’s stuff I’m still working out so I’m not ready to do much else except sum it up with the following emojis: 😍  💔.

A shit-tonne of Shakespeare
I’m doing an MA on Shakespeare. I live and breathe Shakespeare. Sometimes I think I’m getting a bit sick of Shakespeare. Recently I’ve seen so much Shakespeare I had to have a night in binge-watching Game of Thrones to balance things out, only for the finale to have a huge, brilliant Titus Andronicus reference. I can’t escape the man. It’s like he’s haunting me. I saw a horrid King John at the Rose Theatre, Kingston in which the actor playing John had learnt everyone’s lines and kept mouthing them – impressive but distracting. The only things I liked about this seriously dated production were Howard Charles as the Bastard and sitting on the floor on cushions like a child. In the past month I’ve seen the Globe’s Macbeth (directed by Iqbal Khan, one of my faves) but it was disappointing, and then had a week that, had it been a Friends episode, would have been called “The One with all the Shakespeare”. First came Kenneth Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet at the Garrick – another disappointment because although Derek Jacobi was hilarious it was weird casting and Lily James and Richard Madden (however gorgeous they are) totally lacked the passion necessary for a believable star-cross’d pair. Next was a gender-bending Henry V starring one of our greatest Shakespeareans Michelle Terry. You can read what I thought about that here. Then a dazzling Richard III at the Almeida starring Ralph Fiennes as a sexy yet utterly detestable Richard. He’s up there with my favourite Richards and the production was very clever indeed. My bard week concluded with The Shadow King at the Barbican, a visiting Aboriginal take on King Lear that I hated – I  just can’t imagine what audience it was made for. It felt like such a limited portrayal of Aboriginal culture and if I didn’t quite wince when the actors mentioned didgeridoos and boomerangs I certainly did when a kangaroo was name-checked. It was like Aboriginal bingo. No, thanks.

Two Faustuses, not alike in dignity
Confession: I got quite drunk in the interval of Jamie Lloyd’s West End version of Doctor Faustus starring [get your] Kit [off] Harington. It was that bad. Marlowe’s play is great but it’s a tricky one and, yes, it does get a bit dull in the middle. But, as that production proved, the solution is not to totally rewrite it, casting Faustus as a kind of David Blaine figure hooked on fame. I loved Jenna Russell’s Mephistopheles but really did not love the gratuitous rape. Come on, guys, there are better ways to sex up early modern drama than that. Meanwhile, at the RSC, Maria Aberg’s production was pretty standard Stratford fare but won me over with its aesthetic and the opening moments in which the two leads Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan lit matches standing face to face on the stage. Whoever’s burnt for the longest time was Mephistopheles. It was a moment of truly powerful theatre.

The rest
I’ve also seen three shows at the National (a disappointing Threepenny Opera, a well-told and feminist-bent Deep Blue Sea and Sunset at the Villa Thalia, which was not as bad as the critics said). The deeply original Unreachable at the Royal Court made me remember that theatre can be not just funny but side-achingly hilarious, and I also watched some academic theatre including a traditional Japanese take on Ophelia from Hamlet and a translation of a Polish play that used Hamlet as a lens through which to explore religion and nationality after WW2.

And there you have it! It’s been quite a month. Here’s to me jotting more thoughts down more frequently in future…

Katie Mitchell broke my heart (again)

The culture: ‘Ophelias Zimmer’ by Katie Mitchell, Chloe Lamford, and Alice Birch, Royal Court Theatre

The cheap seats: £16 central Balcony seat

My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;
No hat upon his head; his stockings fouled,
Ungartered, and down-gyvèd to his ankle;
Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other;
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosèd out of hell
To speak of horrors—he comes before me.

And he danced to ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart‘ because words failed him (like Shakespeare failed Ophelia [and also did you know that Joy Division is named not after joy but after something really morbid from the Holocaust?]).

Google image search ‘Ophelia’ and your screen will be flooded with Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite beauties, all floating on water, surrounded by flowers, mouth open, at peace (though there’s a dark tale behind that painting, too). This is the Ophelia who has been submerged in our collective consciousness for so long, the Ophelia who floats into our mind’s eye when Gertrude announces her tragic death. This is not the Ophelia of ‘Ophelias Zimmer’, a new play by Alice Birch designed by Chloe Lamford and directed by Katie Mitchell. Their Ophelia (Jenny Konig) doesn’t die in flowery poetry, her skirts billowing around her, nor does she die in oils on canvas. Her death isn’t beautiful. Drowning isn’t beautiful. How horrible that we’ve always assumed it was.

Written in gorgeous, grotesque gut-punches of German, ‘Ophelias Zimmer’ is framed by the five stages of drowning:

  1. Surprise.
  2. Involuntary Breath Holding.
  3. Unconsciousness.
  4. Hypoxic Convulsions.
  5. Clinical Death.

I experienced at least two of these things. I left shaking. I will never watch ‘Hamlet’ the same way again. The next morning I woke up still more heartbroken after a dream of blood spatters and a lone shoe floating around Ophelia’s flooded room.

Victims rarely make any sounds. They are struggling just to breathe.

Her quiet existence is interrupted by her maid bringing flowers and her father calling “Ophelia!” and tea breaks and birdsong and flowers and calling and birds and cassette tapes and flowers and tea and calling and tapes and she leaves the room, she returns. She leaves, she returns.

And so on (and on, and on, and this is when people other than Ophelia started to leave).

She leaves. She returns. She sleeps. And flowers and “Ophelia!” and flowers, for dead things, and footsteps and tapes from Hamlet which she plays over and over, cutting him off mid “To be” and rewinding to her favourite parts instead. He declares his love for her, his plans for their life away from the rotten state, his dreams of her cunt. She stops the tape. She rewinds. His dreams of her cunt. He calls her a cocktease. He shouts “Fick dich” ad infinitum. She stops the tape. Rewinds. Fick dich Fick dich Fick dichFick dichfick dichfickdichfickdich.

The voice of her mother demands that she makes herself small. A sparrow. Little O. A pet name, a gasp, la petite mort avant la vraie mort, a full stop.

O.

But that O never comes. Hamlet is obsessed with the potential of Ophelia, loving her passionately from a distance and violently up close, but their strange affair is really little more than the frustrated fumblings of two separate, and separately tortured, souls. There can be no climax until Clinical Death. Before that there can be no ecstasy, only

  1. Surprise.
  2. Involuntary Breath Holding.
  3. Unconsciousness.
  4. Hypoxic Convulsions.

The rest is silence. Except I can’t be silent because I’m gasping for air and my teeth are knocking together and

O.

Such stuff as dreams are made on

  • I read Sonnet 40 to a group of strangers in exchange for a shot of something alcoholic from a handsome bartender in doublet and hose.
  • A spirit stared into my eyes and smeared glittery sand all over my face.
  • I watched Shakespeare sleep for a bit.
  • Queen Elizabeth I lip-synced Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’.

These weird and wonderful encounters are not extracts from my dreams (promise), but moments from Sedos Theatre’s ‘Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On’ by Sarah Heenan, a dazzling immersive journey through Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

On the eve of the Bard’s birth/death day I found myself in a disused office block in London’s docklands that, from the outside at least, looked like the last place you would find exciting Shakespeare. On the inside, though, it was a whole other story. The space had been transformed into an island full of noises, a maze of rooms filled with sand, the timber of a ship wreck, leaves of paper and ivy, origami boats, and Trinculo’s wine bottles.

I can’t really do it justice in words. It was a beautiful piece of rough magic.

 

“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.”

X, rated

The culture: ‘X’ by Alistair McDowall, Royal Court

The cheap seats: a last minute freebee from a friend

At the post-show that followed the performance of ‘X’ I saw, Alistair McDowall (geeky, anxious, hilarious) said that he aimed for the back of the brain, writing for the subconscious, with his new play ‘X’.

And that’s exactly where it hit me. Or rather, where it crept up on me from. McDowall scatters linguistic tics and rhythms and repetition into his script like seeds which sprout up when you least expect them, take root and then return like Triffids in the second half.

The sci-fi genre put me off booking, originally, but I’m so glad I got to see this exciting piece of theatre. It might be set on a lonely research station on Pluto but ‘X’ is as much about time as it is about space. The team lose contact with Earth before the shuttle that was to take them back can reach. When the rescue ship still hasn’t arrived days/weeks/months later, they begin to feel nervous. As they lose hope and start to lose their minds, Cole (Rudi Dharmalingam) realises there’s something wrong with the clock.

Linear time and linear narratives are shattered and the scenes between black-outs get weirder and weirder. The team start to see things outside, in space, and Gilda (Jessica Raine) is hallucinating – or is she?

There’s a line in ‘Hamlet’ – “the time is out of joint” – that sprang to mind as I watched the unravelling of life and logic in ‘X’. With its clever, crooked set, snappy direction, and excellent cast ‘X’ is provocative and challenging – it had me gripped (and a bit terrified), even when the dialogue broke down into xs
x

x

 

x
X

 

 

xo

xo

:
.

Hansberry vs. Horrocks

The culture: ‘Les Blancs’ by Lorraine Hansberry, National Theatre and ‘If You Kiss Me Kiss Me’ by Jane Horrocks and Aletta Collins, Young Vic

The cheap seats: £15 Travelex National Theatre ticket (front row, side view), £10 Young Vic Under 25 ticket

The best thing about London’s theatre scene is that you can see wildly differing things within a mile of each other. The worst thing is that within 0.6 miles you can see great theatre and not so great theatre. Because the quest for cheap seats involves booking before reviews come out – and sometimes before a show is anything more than a blurb on a booking page – sometimes I end up with tickets for not so great theatre. This week, I saw both kinds.

And so, after discovering a booking in my diary that I couldn’t even remember making, I found myself at the Young Vic watching If You Kiss Me Kiss Me. It’s basically Jane Horrocks singing her way through her favourite new wave songs while a theatre audience looks on, a bit awkwardly toe-tapping (and not the hits, really, either – perhaps Horrocks is trying to prove her eclectic taste, or perhaps the rights to ‘Tainted Love’ were too expensive). The Smiths, Joy Division, The Human League, The Buzzcocks, Soft Cell, they’re all here, beautifully sung and beautifully lit by Andreas Fuchs, with talented contemporary dancers throwing shapes against Bunny Christie’s seriously impressive set. There’s a giant plug socket, a fridge, lots of strip lighting. It’s all very ~conceptual~ and I wanted to like it, I really did. In fact, it reminded me of the recent ‘Macbeth’ at the Young Vic, which I also really wanted to like.

Horrocks is pretty good. The zombie-like dancers in sports gear and suits are really, really sexy. There’s even some cunnilingus choreography that had most of the front row looking anywhere but the stage. It’s pretty out there, but it just doesn’t come together (ahem) into a meaningful whole. There’s a vague, pessimistic theme of the brutality and pointlessness of love which would usually be my thing, but there’s no narrative to hang it on so it flounders. It feels a bit voyeuristic, too, and not just because of the gyrating bodies. There’s a real gig vibe but we’re at the theatre with our hands in our laps, not sure when to clap, instead of sweating and grinding too. There are some beautiful moments, though, especially when a heartbroken Horrocks sits on the giant plug and sings The Smiths’ ‘I Know It’s Over’ and I almost cried because that song hits too close to home, especially during the stresses of essay Hell month.

It would be wrong to call If You Kiss Me Kiss Me a vanity project because there are the seeds of something interesting here. Is Jane Horrocks telling us something (important) about being a woman trying to love past the age of 50? Maybe. The problem is, it’s not clear. It’s all a bit ‘Mum-does-the-school-run-in-a-leather-jacket-with-the-hits-from-her-youth-on-and-then-struts-to-the-school-gate’ (tragic) when it could have been ‘Yes-we-still-want-to-be-wanted-and-look-we’re-still-sexy’ (powerful). Maybe it just went over my (young) head. There’s some great clothes, though. The show got me coveting the copper bomber jacket that Horrocks really rocks, and Fabienne Débarre’s wardrobe/haircut/keyboard skills. And if nothing else it’s reignited my love/loathe relationship with The Smiths. *cue feelings*

 

What really got under my skin this week was Yaël Farber’s production of  Les Blancs by playwright and civil rights activist Lorraine Hansberry at the National. Set in an unnamed African country at the brink of revolution, it’s a complex drama about national ties and dislocated belonging. As “the terror” prepare for war and the colonial settlers prepare to flee, Tshembe returns from England for his father’s funeral and finds himself in a land he barely recognises. Les Blancs is incredibly rich and constantly shifting, with delicate characterisation brought out by a really superb ensemble. It’s powerful from the pungent incense that hits you as you walk in to the shocking conclusion that leaves your mind spinning as you walk out. The production is so brilliantly put together that the revolution feels dangerously real. Despite the clever speeches, it’s the sensual elements that I still can’t shake from my mind – that smell, the smoke, the singing matriarchs, the gorgeous, filmic lighting. Another real highlight is Sheila Atim, who I last saw up at the RSC, whose performance captivates without her saying a word. As The Woman she silently haunts the shattering world of Les Blancs, an everywoman/Mother Africa figure who is both powerful and vulnerable and moves like nothing I’ve seen before. I was breathless by the time they set the old world aflame in search of new hope. Staggering stuff.

 

Will travel for good theatre

The culture: ‘Richard III’ by William Shakespeare and ‘Die Mutter’ by Bertolt Brecht, Schaubühne, Berlin

The cheap seats: €9 stalls ticket (student rate) in the Berlin Globe, €7.50 Studio seats (half price for Theatre Day)

I’ve seen plenty of international theatre in my time but always from the comfort of my own city. While I often have museums and art galleries at the top of my tourist to-do lists when I go abroad, I’d never visited the theatre in a foreign country until last week.

I planned my entire trip to Berlin around Thomas Ostermeier’s Richard III, a production of Shakespeare’s history play that I’ve been desperate to see since Ben Fowler spoke about the Schaubühne’s Shakespeare in a lecture at the Globe theatre. Tickets were pretty hard to get hold of, involving a lot of patience with a difficult German website on the first day of the month. Having failed to nab seats in January or February, I finally got lucky with some brilliant seats in March. It was worth the wait.

Richard III opens with loud music, a live drum beat, beautifully dressed people popping champagne and plenty of confetti canons. There’s a lot to like about this production, including a great cast (particularly Christoph Gawenda, a highlight of the Enemy of the People that visited the Barbican last year), some creepy puppet princes, and a spectacular death scene with a horrible amount of blood seeping into sand and mingling with glitter. Really, though, it’s all about Lars Eidinger, whose Richard is determined to make the play a one-man show.

Pigeon-toed and childish, like a German Jack Whitehall approaching middle age but still trying to shake off daddy issues and his huge ego, Eidinger’s crippled King hobbles about the stage with a club foot made out of black tape and a hump strapped to his shoulder. He’s utterly vulgar. Several scenes involve his favourite dish – “potatoes and soft cheese” – and he ends up with it smeared all over his face like a dairy death mask. He’s also hilarious, refusing to collaborate with the English subtitles and ad-libbing with a playful brand of anarchy, then suddenly heartbreaking and deadly serious. He delivers monologues into a hanging light-up mic with a camera like a comedian crossed with a terrifying angler fish. The production is almost three hours without an interval but it flies by, climaxing in a powerful final tableau. I must confess that I dozed off for a few minutes in the first half hour (a reflection of my early flight and a day of exploring, not of the production itself) but Ostermeier’s Richard III was one of the most exciting Shakespeares I’ve seen recently. On April 1 you will probably find me furiously refreshing my browser trying to secure tickets to the much raved about Hamlet, also starring Eidinger.

Since I was flying all the way to Berlin for a play, I decided to make a holiday of it and to catch another production at the Schaubühne while I was there. Performed in the theatre’s small studio space across the road, I almost missed the beginning after a mix up involving an eager ticket-ripping steward and my own inexcusably bad German. Safe in my seat, however, I was treated to a surprisingly enjoyable rendition of Brecht’s Die Mutter, an overtly political piece made palatable by the addition of plenty of live music, a fantastic young cast, and added scenes including one where the actor playing young revolutionary Pavel dons a glitzy gold cape and lectures on theatre as a capitalist venture before doing a little rap and the German equivalent of “I say Capital, you say ism! Capital! Ism! Capital! Ism!” I struggled a bit without subtitles, but enjoyed the Schaubühne’s trademark playful alternative style nonetheless.

 

An experience of Uncle Vanya

The culture: ‘Uncle Vanya’, by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Robert Icke, Almeida Theatre

The cheap seats: £10 restricted view side seats (mostly fine but a poor view of the characters whenever they stepped outside of the box to soliloquise)

Even bad Chekhov hits me right in the guts. There’s something about the way he writes and effortlessly captures human experience in all its miserable beauty and beautiful misery that just reduces me to a quivering mess of existential crises every time. But the Almeida’s new Uncle Vanya isn’t bad Chekhov, it’s brilliant Chekhov, and I spent a surreal journey home on the Overground staring into the middle distance, hopeless and hopeful, surrounded by St Patrick’s Day drunks.

Robert Icke’s new version of the play updates it and chops it into pieces. The night is three intervals and over three hours long but doesn’t feel it. It opens on a hazy midsummer day with beautiful rich people languishing in the heat at their country house. They’re a middle-class cliché. I know these people and I dislike these people but I identify with almost every one of them. As the set slowly turns round and round (and round and endlessly round, it’s a metaphor, get it?), I slip into the production, lulled into a false sense of something by the sunny lighting and birdsong, and my personality, my being, is picked apart while I’m not paying attention. I see myself in them all. As the night progresses and the characters reveal their virtues and their flaws I’m confronted by myself at every turn of that really irritating creaking set. It’s claustrophobic and disgusting. It’s fascinating. They start to fall apart and so do I. Or at least we all start to realise that we were never ‘together’ in the first place.

There’s a stunning moment in which Uncle Vanya goes mental with a bunch of autumn roses and I want to be him, thrashing everything in sight out of pure frustration. I want to be Elena, beautiful and admired and lethargic and looking on horrified. I want to be Sonya, cowering in the corner, hiding from the sheer sorrow of it all. I am all of them, even the well-dressed great aunt who barely speaks. Even that chicken with a two minute cameo. Especially the grandmother who knits and drops occasional pearls of obscure wisdom. When the hot doctor’s morphine goes missing and the tension is ramped right up to really-fucking-unbearable I realise my knuckles are white and my nails are digging into my hands. It’s really that good. Those 3 hours could have been 3 days, 3 minutes, or 3 seconds. It’s really that good.