April 2009 Archives
A final bulletin from Berlin. Spring Awakening, the American musical which triumphed on Broadway, has settled into London's West End, so it seemed apt to see the play on which it's based - Wedekind's Frühlings Erwachen. The musical is snappily staged, but it smooths out a brilliantly disconcerting play which is all jagged edges. As I had hoped, as produced by Claus Peymann at the Berliner Ensemble, it retains its potential to wound.
For the 19th century, the divide between childhood and adulthood was absolute. Work and wedlock, especially, plunged the young abruptly from one state to the other. Our own culture privileges adolescence, an infinitely extendable period which combines grown up desires with a youthful retreat from responsibility. In the musical, the emo numbers, breaking out of formal dialogue scenes, represent this arena of adolescence. For Peymann's cast, this in-between state is more perplexing - the boys especially, in their shorts and calf-length socks, seemed inappropriately marooned in childhood. All those knees are displayed like a vanished index of childhood.
The adolescent confusion scrawls over a memorably stark set by Achim Freyer. Swivelling black and white panels rotate to carve up the space - closing to form a high wall or opening to reveal a wider world through the slats. They offer moments of release - we first see schoolboy protagonists Melchior and Moritz rushing through them as if cresting the spars of a threshing machine.
What else does the play offer? Little comfort, as you'll see after the click:
After the experience of the lambent Robert Wilson/Rufus Wainwright Sonnets shenanigans, and before we get to grip with adolescent passions in Spring Awakening, a short intermission.
Wouldn't want you to think that the monkey is starry eyed about all things Berliner Ensemble, but furry caps must be doffed and forelocks tugged in the direction of the interval snacks. This is, for many, a vexed question. How substantial is the ideal interval nibble? A morsel? A meal? At the Royal Opera House, where the intervals frequently out-length the ballets, there's time for waiter-service meal options. The Glyndebourne experience, of course, is constructed around the opportunity to enjoy a leisurely fête champêtre, from canapé to after-dinner-mint. Janacek can wait.
Most of us don't think to take a lobster along when we go to the theatre. Let's move swiftly away from the slavering exploitation racket that is the West End theatre bar (hand over your watch, yank out your better fillings and you might just scrape together the cost of a small, sharp white wine). Even more civilised venues don't offer more than the odd nut or crisp, with ice cream and chocs for the sweet of tooth. The oddest interval sight, to my British eyes, was at the Naples Opera House, where a pride of sleek-dressed Neapolitans queued for those dry staples of 1970s cheese and wine parties, Tuc biscuits and Ritz crackers. Elegantly extended fingernails, shaped all the better to rip plastic, tore into the little packages for an ungarnished nibble. La dolce vita could wait.
Nonetheless, something savoury would be good; not heavy but enough to stop your stomach grumbling through the play's most poignant moments. The Berliner Ensemble had some classy offerings - lovely yeasty pretzels and thick cheese straws, soft and salty and strangely satisfying. I like to think the recipes might descend directly from Helene Weigel (Brecht's wife and the first Mother Courage; Brecht Haus offers samples of her Austrian cuisine).
Back in London, Shakespeare's Globe has hazelnut shells embedded in the pit floor, as a tribute to the Elizabethans' snack of choice, while Restoration theatres were known for the orange girls, selling their juicy favours during a performance. But what would the perfect interval bite consist of? I'd put in a word for a cup of soup - something warming, demi-filling, like smooth pumpkin or creamy mushroom. But how about you, belly-rumbling culture vultures? What might sate your hunger and also sharpen your attention?
What has Robert Wilson been up to? Well, he's clearly been busy busy busy in recent years, according to his website, but we wouldn't know that here in London. For a while, his work frequently visited the city: it opened the first BITE season at the Barbican in 1997 (with the splashy but dodgy Monsters of Grace, complete with a score by Philip Glass and whizzy 3D glasses. All I really remember is a polar bear looming into the holographic space in front of the stage).
The Royal Opera staged the odd production (and, for his Aida, odd is the word). And BITE subsequently hosted the superbly achieved Woyzeck (music by Tom Waits) and A Dream Play. The last visit was a revival of The Black Rider, again with music by Waits and one of his iconic shows - but the revival cast was weak, led by an unhappy-looking Marianne Faithfull, who seemed to have been less directed than embalmed, and since then Wilson hasn't been around. I'm told he hates London, so I guess he isn't missing us.
I'm missing him, though, which is why I was excited to be seeing his latest show at the Berliner Ensemble. His work for the company has gathered international attention - the company recently toured his Threepenny Opera to Israel - and Berlin friends told me the advance buzz for Shakespeares Sonnete was immense.
Some of the excitement was in his collaboration with singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, who swims in witty self-torment like a native element. The result of their work is a beguiling, occasionally baffling, but always remarkably beautiful masque. The mood shifts between lyrical, daft, or a baleful cabaret, old chum.
Wilson has made intermittent connections with Shakespeare during his career. His Hamlet monologue (1995) was his last project as a performer, while he staged The Winter's Tale with the Berliner Ensemble in 2005. Sonnete feels like a great summation of Shakespeare's comedies about capricious romance and its associated pains. You'll spot refractions of characters (lanky dolt Aguecheek from Twelfth Night; meddling Puck; even Lear's tragi-comic Fool). There are cross-dressers, twinnings and doubles here (notably, a trio of hawk-faced women in red wigs, in descending height - in one scene, they even brandish a doll-sized replica).
Want to meet a grumpy Elizabeth I, a flying Cupid and the spirit of Shakespeare? Wondering if Rufus' settings sound Rufus-ish? You'll need to click:
Along with Sir David Hare and other theatre groupies, I've been to Berlin. It's a good place for theatre right now - Thomas Ostermeir's chillingly revelatory Hedda Gabler has toured internationally (his Ibsen explorations continue with what sounds like a mighty John Gabriel Borkman).
But I was visiting what was for decades the archetypal German company - the Berliner Ensemble. On the river, its distinctive logo (designed by Brecht acolyte Peter Pabst, himself an inspired director at the Ensemble) revolves in neon at the top of the building. Inside the theatre, the best graphic design I've seen in ages (I came away with whole handfuls of leaflets, and was distressed to discover I hadn't noticed that old programmes were on sale at bargain prices).
The plan: (a) catch a couple of much-talked-about productions and (b) interview artistic director Claus Peymann. (a) was spiffy, (b) not so much - the interview was repeatedly postponed. Which is a shame, because the Ensemble is one of the world's great companies, and I'd like to have known more.
For example: what difference does it make to have actors spend their careers in a single company? We felt that we could spot the deeply embedded nature of the performances, but were we being idealistic? And just how much does a theatre's atmosphere shape its artistic direction?
I was expecting a big, brutalist building - a Communist behemoth pounding out epic plays before the wall came down. But the theatre is intimate and ornate. It's peculiar to imagine that this is the space in which Brecht's questing theatre reached its final flowering, behind the gilt-swirled proscenium with its pleasantly zaftig figurehead.
The size also made sense of the plays: this is an actor's theatre - its dimensions, oddly, not unlike London's Royal Court. The stage space is high, but not deep - there's room for scenic startle, but it also allows an actor to command the bare space, address the audience intimately (just as Claire Higgins did at the Court last night, astonishing in Wallace Shawn's balefully freewheeling monologue The Fever). How does Brecht come over in such a space, Herr Peymann? Does he seem more pointed, less polemical? If you happen to be reading, let me know.
When the Ensemble first visited London, in 1954, they were perceived as revolutionary - an epic theatre with a purpose, in which personality was subsumed into function, and music, design and lighting were all forged together like steel. Kenneth Tynan reported a socialite at Mother Courage sighing, 'I was bored to death.' 'Bored to life would have been apter,' he wrote. In an age of frequent touring, the impact might not now be so great. But, except for Peymann's production of Richard II in the RSC's Complete Works festival in 2006, they haven't been to Britain for ages: why not? Do they not want to come, or do we not want them?
Later this week, hold onto your hats for reports on the outstanding new show by Robert Wilson (united at last with Shakespeare, Rufus Wainwright and a man dressed as Elizabeth II) and Spring Awakening - (not, thank the lord) the Musical.
The small bones are so fiddly - it's easier to play with something bigger. After looking around for a moment, I spot a fibula and start to twist it.
Yes, I'm a critic but, despite popular belief, I'm not actually a serial killer. The bones are made of brown cardboard, and the entire audience is playing with them, standing around tables in groups of ten on the stage at Sadler's Wells. This is You Made Me a Monster, the opening event of the Focus on Forsythe season, celebrating the 60th birthday of the questing American (but German-based) choreographer.
The modelling makes for a disarming beginning. Thin metal spikes on the tables already hold an intricate collage of cardboard bones - folded, twisted, pinned together in shapes no skeleton ever saw. We add to them, skewing and pinning new bones as the fancy takes us: the aim, our chirpy guide tells us, is to make interesting shapes and shadows to provoke the dancers. It's strangely absorbing: I curl a clavicle into a ring, dandle it from the superstructure with a little gold pin. It takes me a while to notice that a dancer has arrived and begun moving, lurching round the tables.
You Made Me a Monster perfectly opens a door on Forsythe's world. The audience becomes complicit with the installation/dance piece even as it is thrown off guard. It's a brainy work, but one in which heart and viscera pump alarmingly. The choreographer's first wife died young, from cancer, and years later he found a gift she had been given, a DIY cardboard skeleton. He began bending and attaching at random, until he made what he realised was 'a model of grief.'
This piece too is about the way illness and grief estrange us from ourselves. The dancers rapidly twist their bodies in uncanny directions, just as we've ingeniously played with cardboard. The three dancers are both patients and mourners: weight is arbitrarily and cruelly distributed, from the face downwards. Limbs twist, jaws sag, shoulders wrench. These incredibly articulated bodies become painfully inarticulate. The dancers groan as they move, too, dragging urgent wordless sounds from deep in their throats. It's upsetting to watch - should we back away, try to comfort them? After our concentrated noodlings at the start of the show, play has turned to wounded reality. Bodies are frail, they lose their functionality, as do the people inside them. And so too do those left behind - is the person twisting beside an intricate cardboard structure using it as a model of their illness or their grief?
One of Forsythe's most moving pieces, Quintett, was also an implicit response to his wife's death: a chamber work of falling, failing helplessness set to Gavin Bryars' grinding tramp lament, Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Forsythe is interested in exposing process in his work, and the bones of this piece are evident. Despite the trenchant material, the DIY aesthetic kept some in its thrall - including the woman who kept on, noisily bending cardboard, adding to her creation, during a silent thrashing solo. And in the foyer afterwards I saw a woman twist her shoulder awry, and bloke in a bunched ponytail throwing fiddly shapes with his arms - trying out the feeling of a body lost to itself.
I do love a stage auteur. The kind of director - Robert Wilson, Katie Mitchell, David Alden - who has a beady eye for every detail, for every moment on stage, in whose productions every element of a work - performance, direction, movement, design - to work towards a particular vision. The level of theatrical intelligence in their shows is so acute that their productions are never lifeless, but you're aware that during the rehearsal period nothing has been allowed to rest to chance.
Even more admired on the London stage - though these are rarely the shows I fall in love with - are productions of matchless proficiency. The National Theatre and especially the Donmar under Michael Grandage produce shows that are utterly classy. It would be disparaging to call them slick, but Grandage's productions in particular are polished till they shine.
The other night, by merry contrast, I saw the latest show by the Cornish theatre company Kneehigh. Their productions have included rousing, cheerily ardent versions of The Bacchae, Tristan & Yseult, Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus and the triumphant Brief Encounter, an adaptation of the Nöel Coward/David Lean film, which played in a bunting-strewn cinema in the West End last year before beginning a national tour (and several American dates are planned for later this year).
What makes the best of their productions, those directed by Emma Rice, so interesting is that they're the opposite of slick. In fact, they skirt with the ramshackle. Rice harnesses a very English sensibility - cheeky, homely, quietly romantic - with a lambent eastern European take on music and physicality. Balkan accordions and giddy aerialist antics are juxtaposed with disarmingly chatty performances.
The productions have included wonderful performances - Ròbert Lucskay unfeasibly tall and unhinged in The Bacchae, Hayley Carmichael's adorable sparrow of an Imogen in Cymbeline, Lyndsey Marshal and Tristan Sturrock hurtling into love in A Matter of Life and Death. But the base note is often set by the choric figures of lumpy, dumpy blokes in skewed specs and ill-assorted knitwear: most memorably as the 'club of the unloved' in Tristan & Yseult. These performances can seem, there's no other word, amateurish: blinking in the spotlight, unaccustomed to attention, stumbling, fumbling, disrupting the main action, letting the elements of the show collide as much as blend seamlessly together.
And life leaps through the cracks. Unlike most British theatre, Kneehigh doesn't place text at the centre of its works. Or, at least, it is often the least inspired element, as is the case with their new show, Don John, a version of the Don Giovanni legend set in 1978, Britain's bleak Winter of Discontent (strikes, power cuts, hideously brown design and Thatcherism prowling at the door). The text, hobbling between poetry and whimsy, is weak, but Rice's staging is kinetic, a full-bodied play of images as her Don John wreaks brackish havoc on the people he encounters, knocking over their quiet hopes and tarnishing their compromises with love. Rice's unabashed amorous pageants here give way to something sour and shabby: John's love may briefly lift you up, but will drop you heedlessly to the ground and stroll away from the wreckage. And the show, unwilling to harness the audience's goodwill, only just hangs together, takes time to bind its ramshackle effects.
Yet only theatre could flirt with dissolution in this way, could set itself against polish with such determination. That's what makes it theatre rather than cinema, and the refusal of slick coherence makes it live. Kneehigh is due to return to heartbreak in 2010 with a show based on The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and I can't wait.
Virtually throughout Tusk Tusk, the piercing second play by 22-year-old Polly Stenham, the only characters on stage are 16 and younger. Maggie and her two brothers are kidding themselves that everything will be alright, even though there's no indication that their severely depressed mother will return several days after her unmedicated flit from their new home. They hide from the doorbell, entertain and infuriate each other, deal with the unfair hand of having to protect their mum and themselves long before they're equipped to do so.
That Face, Stenham's incandescent first play, had a similar vibe, except that the ragingly unstable mother was centre stage, usually in the bed she was reluctant to leave. In Tusk Tusk, the kids are home alone and fending for themselves. For the adult viewer (and the audience at the Royal Court on Monday was full of anxious grown-ups), there's an uncomfortable mix of being returned to nerve-raw childhood, sitting powerless to intervene as pain and chaos spread
Particularly unsettling is the language. Sometimes florid, it's a private register of sibling tease and torment. But although the kids can cuss, Stenham doesn't litter their speeches with buzzy references. Instead there are allusions, more or less specific, to classic children's books and songs like Where the wild things are, 'Nellie the Elephant', Peter Pan and Lewis Carroll's Alice books. What these children want is not premature adulthood, cool, smart and unconcerned. They want the safe swaddle of childhood their parents' behaviour has denied them. They want the scary stuff to be contained in book covers, which can close shut when story time is over.
Stenham's is an extreme take on family drama, adding a panicky apprehension to a common situation.
More lost children after the click:
The Victorian physician John Conolly, who specialised in care of the mentally ill, urged actresses to visit his London asylum when they approached the role of Ophelia and observe his own patients. This would give them, he believed, a better idea of how to assume the role of a madwoman. In 1870, Ellen Terry took up the idea, but found it of little use - the madwomen, she asserted, were much 'too theatrical' for her to mimic.
Ideas of theatricality thread through a sharp-witted, wryly revisionist exhibition at the Wellcome Collection called Madness & Modernity. The Collection has, in just a few months, become my new favourite London gallery. It takes medical history out of its niche and welds it to big ideas. One show featured historic skeletons whose bones contained a chronicle of London's diseases, and by implication a story about economics and urban planning. The previous show was a dizzyingly suggestive exhibition about War and Medicine, digging into the uncomfortable paradox by which shiny new forms of carnage can nonetheless inspire medical advances.
Madness & Modernity explores Vienna in 1900: a place of innovation in psychiatry and treatment of mental illness, in art and architecture. Curators Leslie Topp and Gemma Blackshaw bring the two themes together with lucid, imaginative force.
You'll be expecting Freud. I was expecting Freud. Actually, he's barely allowed a toehold here: the curators clearly consider him marginal to mainstream practise in mental health in Vienna. And it's true that, as we noticed on a visit to his London home last week, the furniture tells the story. Freud's heart was in the well-stuffed home, with dark wood and too many cushions, of the late 19th-century bourgeoisie. The airless press of family history is central to his thought, as to his house. The exhibition does borrow a few of his favoured antiquities (honestly, there's such a clutter of deities in the Hampstead study, no one will miss them), and though the couch itself remains at home, it is mocked up here with a Persian rug and a couple of worn velvet cushions in rich ochre and cherry.
The greatest indication that Freud's centrality has been displaced by this show is the unfamiliar portrait on display, which depicts him without his trademark beard. This seems almost indecent: it goes beyond demystifying and approaches what we can only consider castration. Take that, Siggy.
Is madness 'theatrical'? What sort of décor is therapeutic? More after the click:
Any readers wondering what London is like at this time of year? Well, you and me both. It's been a strange week, most of which I've spent moaning softly and consumed with self-pity in my bed. And this differs how from the monkey's routine? Well, this time I've been unwell. London seems to have been gripped by some seasonal lurgy, and the bravest and best of our generation have been clutching their stomachs, mopping their fevered brows, and calling in sick at work.
Like the trouper I am (or rather, like the unsalaried freelance), I have nonetheless risen from my pillows when called on to review things. I'm not exactly Linda Evangelista, but like her I will leave my bed if the money is right. Which is to say, any money at all.
But does feeling a trifle under the weather impact on a critic's function? We all know that criticism is subjective, however much one resists or hones one's prejudices. But what if your subjectivity is tweaked by a general feeling of seediness? By headaches and intimations of nausea? Performers need to be in peak physical condition - but how about audiences?
I saw two shows this week, my friends. One a roistering promenade production by contemporary circus troupe NoFit State, and the other an epic, six-hour staging of Philip Pullman's anti-clerical fantasy His Dark Materials. I'm still writing them up, so will hang fire [update - a tabu review here] - but both were very effective, both had some spectacular moments, both had some significant flaws. And I'm pretty sure I responded to the effectiveness, spectacle and flaws in the way I'd normally do. But can I be sure?
It was certainly good to have something exciting to watch and think about beyond my own quilt. I guess as long as you're not missing chunks of the show because you're in a coma, or throwing a paroxysm, or hallucinating elements of the production that don't exist and wondering why the purple giraffe wasn't credited in the cast list, then you're fit to describe and analyse as usual.
And I do half believe in the therapeutic power of great art. Not necessarily to soothe savage breast or civilise the barbaric impulse. But simply, by focusing on something pretty darn amazing for a time, you can push physical symptoms to the back of your mind. I remember the first time I saw Pina Bausch's company, in the four-hour earthwork masterpiece Viktor. I had a bad cold and wasn't feeling fit for the marathon ahead, but left the theatre engaged, alive, sniffles banished. There's no room, it would seem, for traumatised women in print frocks, for repetitious torment on a dauntless scale, for sounds and images which seem wrenched from necessity - and for streptococci too. Something had to give, and I'm glad it was the germs.
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