Anything but slick

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.

April 13, 2009 12:11 AM | | Comments (0) |

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This page contains a single entry by Performance Monkey published on April 13, 2009 12:11 AM.

I blame the parents was the previous entry in this blog.

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