Sunday, 26 April 2009


24/4/09, King's Place

1hr 45 mins approx. A French pianist, Jean-Bertrand Pommier, described in the programme as a "veteran" though he only looked about 60 to me. Five sonatas, numbers 22 to 26 inclusive, which include no 23, the Appassionata, and no 26, Les Adieux plus three slighter works.

Pommier a heavy-set man with a mild face who put his spectacles on the play and then proved surprisingly ferocious and heavy-handed. Good when called on to be passionate, and when playing the lighter dance-like movements; disappointing when required to be lyrical, and in the slow movement of the Appassionata which is haunting and delicate when played by Brendel but here was rather too noisy.

No 22 has just two movements: first one alternating lyrical and loud in a striking way. Nos 24 and 25 he played in effect together, not leaving the stage between them: 24 also has just two movements, exceedingly jolly; 25 has three, a lovely long first movement in some sort of dance time, then a very short slow movement and a short finale.

Les Adieux, which isn't new to me though I recognised none of it, is chiefly memorable for the half dozen false endings in the final movement, with a crescendo, a climax, what sounds like a final note... and then resumption with a jolly little tune.

I'd happily hear all of them again, though perhaps played by a pianist with a marginally lighter touch than M Pommier.

It wasn't full. We paid £9.50 for unreserved seats: you turn up and swap your ticket for the best available seats remaining. We were half-way back in the stalls. It seems a shame they can't fill the hall for mainstream repertoire like this, but perhaps word simply needs to get around among the concert-going public.

Remained exceedingly impressed by the hall itself and by the public areas.


23/4/09, Donmar

Missed it. Had to work. Athol Fugard play starring Jonathan Pryce. The girls were not impressed. Sounded a rather boring piece of work. Pryce played the part as if he had Parkinson's. S said it could only be a matter of time before he played Lear.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009


21/04/09, National (Olivier)

2hrs 20 mins. A big play (in all sorts of ways) by Wole Soyinka, about the clash of cultures in colonial Nigeria. Reviews were mixed: we thought it was a cracker.

I've left it too long (nearly three weeks) to write this up, so this is an impressionistic account.

Lots of movement and dance, combining the work of a Nigerian called Peter Badejo and the western choreographer Javier de Frutos. Especially liked the white folks' ball, with everyone in 18th century fancy dress and the numbers swelled by dancers bearing dummies on milkmaids' ... things (yokes?).

The principal setting an African market with loads of people, colourful costumes and an extraordinary central bit of set from which at one point long lines off which hung clothes were stretched out to the far corners of the set.

The colonial Brits were played by black actors in white face, in a neat reversal of the old convention that had black characters played by blacked-up whites: it worked well for the most part, not least because the colonial officer was played by Lucian Msamati, a wonderful actor we've also seen as Arturo Ui at the Lyric and in a top-notch play about Rwandan genocide at the West Yorkshire Playhouse called The Overwhelming. They are of course British actors, so the fact that they can do upper-class British accents should come as no surprise. Only one failed to convince: a young subaltern was far too thickset.

At the heart of the play was a nice ambiguity: a month after the king's death, on the day of his burial, the king's horseman is due to commit ritual suicide to escort him into the afterlife. But he doesn't. Is it because the Brits, appalled at the notion, have stepped in to foil him at the last moment? Or because he finds life (and his new wife, taken for the occasion) too appealing to leave? The question is left open.

At the play's tragic end, though, the horseman's son, sent off to London to train as a doctor, commits suicide in his place and the old man hangs himself.

Rufus Norris, the (white) director, apparently spent some years in Nigeria as a young child.

Claire Benedict, an actress I haven't always warmed to, played the part of the wise old woman with tremendous authority. Nonso Anozie (new to me) played the horseman with enormous relish.

The language was poetic, the accents quite thick and it took a while to get attuned to. But once attuned, it was rewarding.

Monday, 20 April 2009


17/4/09, ENO at Young Vic.

1hr 10 mins. A Katie Mitchell interpretation of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. My gob was smacked, my mind was boggled and my gast well and truly flabbered by the sheer ambition and technical achievement. But at the end of the day I was left asking "why?" and wondering what it had added to the original.

A small period band conducted by Christian Curnyn sat off to one side. Above the playing area was a large screen onto which was projected the output of at least six or eight lightweight video cameras. The playing area itself consisted of three interlocking sets: a bedsit in which a young woman, presumably jilted, prepared to commit suicide; a kitchen in which another young woman lamented the absence of her dead husband/lover; a living room in which a young man plotted to abandon his fiancee, leaving the ring on the coffee table: so three simple narratives (like the Purcell) of love, loss, abandonment. The present-day protagonists were played by actors; then there were singers, including Susan Bickley as Dido and Katherine Manley, performing the Purcell largely as written (so far as I could tell) though with some added extras, including a couple of snatches of 20th century verse and a kind of prelude in which a radio announcer introduced the Big Number, Dido's lament.

What made it utterly extraordinary is that actors and singers alike doubled as technicians: camera operators, sound effects operators (at the opposite side of the stage to the band), props handlers, rushing around moving cameras, rustling bags and turning taps on and off in time with the action on stage etc etc. Every set-up seemed to have an accompanying close-up in which the action of popping pills or doing the washing up was repeated by a second crew (often an actor or singer or technician with fake sleeves) and the big screen cut between the two... with sound effects added on top. From time to time the singers would break away to perform a solo to one of the mics scattered about the set... and sometimes the whole crew would stop to sing a chorus, often beautifully.

Not even in the heyday of live television studio drama would a director have attempted anything so insanely ambitious, even with a wholly professional studio crew, with quite so many set-ups and quite so many cut-away close-ups and without using studio natural sound. Yet they carried it off near-perfectly. Bravo. Bravissimi. But... why?

The modern-day parallels seemed to add little to the original; there was clearly a danger (though it didn't happen) that worrying about camera angles and framing and sound effects would compromise the singers' performances; and there was so much happening that it was hard to know where to look or what to marvel at -- the complexity of what was being attempted, and the often ravishing look of the thing on screen (a special mention here for the lighting designer, Philip Gladwell, and the DP, Leo Warner).

Wednesday, 15 April 2009


14/04/09, Westminster Abbey.

2hrs 50mins. The 250th anniversary of Handel's death; live broadcast on Radio 3; the Abbey choir; top-notch soloists (Paul Agnew, tenor; Ailish Tynan, soprano; Sarah Connolly, mezzo; Jonathan Lemalu, bass-baritone); a band, St James's Baroque, we'd never heard of but who did a decent job under the Abbey's choirmaster, James O'Donnell; lots of atmosphere. Yet rather disappointing. "Not the best Messiah I've heard," G said, and he's heard a good few.

One problem was the acoustic, which swallowed the words and much of the detail and decoration. We were sitting about two-thirds of the way back in the Nave, but without a stage or a rake we could see little beyond the heads of the soloists and the back row of the choir, on a dais behind the band and in front of the screen. I could hear well enough, but D, who is much shorter, could neither hear nor see properly. God knows what it must have been like with those acoustics in the days of Handel celebrations in the Abbey with massed bands and choirs: nothing but a wash of sound, one imagines, though I seem to recall Haydn heard one of these extravaganzas and was sufficiently impressed to compose The Creation in imitation. (Half the audience were behind the screen and beyond the choir stalls; after we'd applauded the performers they all went down the other end and you heard them being applauded again. Heaven knows what it sounded like down that end, though.)

There was also a problem with the choir: 21 trebles, plus five each of tenors, basses and male altos. They lacked attack at times: "Their sound has gone out..." actually went out rather feebly, though the Hallelujah went well, if rather dominated by timps and trumpets and some other brass I couldn't see, hidden away behind the pillars. The choir make a lovely sound when soaring in unison, but the combination of forces and cathedral echo did them few favours in some of Handel's more intricate part-writing.

I jotted a few notes in the programme as we went along (having words helps enormously in pinpointing the musicial moments that make an impact). The tenor aria "Comfort ye, my people" was exquisite, the long, quiet "comfort ye" immensely long drawn out but beautiful. "For he is like a refiner's fire" was sung by Connolly, not the bass Lemalu, though he sang the recitative: I think this is quite often done, but it was regrettable because she didn't seem to be in great voice, and his was the only voice that cut through the echo, so I'd have loved to hear him sing it. On "be not afraid" in "O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion" the choir were electric.

"The people that walked in darkness" was top notch: authoritative and stirring. G said: "You won't hear it better sung!" though at the end he also said he thought Lemalu had taken time to warm up, so maybe one might hear it better sung. And when he sang "have seen a great light" one of the lights illuminating the screen behind the choir actually went out; it was dodgy throughout the first half, though they got it fixed for the second.

And the screen featured in the chorus "For unto us a child is born", when two trumpeters joined in from the top of the screen.

The soprano aria "Rejoice greatly" was taken too fast: even so, it sent shivers down my spine. But the energy flagged towards the end of the first half, when the soprano and the mezzo share the honours with some melodic but unexciting writing. I saw one of the little choir boys yawn vastly at one point.

Sarah Connolly finally came good in part two, in "He was despised", with some wonderful decoration in the da capo repeat. But unless I mistake they cut the da capo in the bass aria "Why do the nations?", which is one of the highlights.

The soprano had to cope with not one but two wailing sirens outside the Abbey in the final section, alas, in "I know that my redeemer liveth" and "If God be for us", but it didn't seem to put her off her stride. Lemalu gave "The trumpet shall sound" lots of oomph, which was good, but the tenor-mezzo duet, "O death, where is thy sting?" was, it says here, "odd". I think I meant their voices weren't quite as well matched as they should have been.

Two contrasting reviews here: I agree in general with the Guardian, though not with his detailed assessments of the singers. But maybe it sounded different where he was sitting. Certainly, it was one of those occasions when you felt the radio version would have been preferable.

Monday, 13 April 2009


10/04/09, Almeida

1hr 40mins approx, no interval. A last minute booking for Good Friday. Toby Jones in Jez Butterworth's latest, with Andrew Lincoln and Amanda Drew. Well reviewed.

We liked it. Butterworth owes a lot to Pinter (though, as S said, he is kinder to his characters). There's the same air of unspoken menace; the same exchanges between characters that never quite connect; the same exaggerated fascination with the mannerisms of ordinary speech.

Ned is a demolition expert living in a new housing estate with a view of the motorway. Dale, with his shorts, gold chain and unbuttoned check shirt, is his neighbour, who made his money from a chain of carwashes employing 40 Kosovans. Joy is Ned's sexually frustrated wife.

It was full of nice ideas. Ned and wife play "sexy Scrabble" ("If you can spell it you can have it... I once scored 45 for 'blow-job' on a triple word score"). Ned is a hoarder whose things keep disappearing, despite his best endeavours: he's put a padlock on the garden shed but someone's chiselled it off, cutting themselves in the process... his wife's stuff is still there but the lawnmower's gone. He tells this to his wife who has a plaster on her finger because she claims she cut herself slicing six dozen lemons for lemonade.

Ned seems to know his troubles, imagined or real, reflect the fact that his marriage is in trouble, but seems unable to discuss it with Joy. His responses are indirect. He tries to get fit (cue very funny mime with barbells and weights). He listens to a tape of advice on sexual technique (cue another very funny mime trying to follow the instructions for oral sex). Jones is a brilliant clown and carries this off brilliantly, but they seem to belong to another play, not the slightly surreal, skewed world reflected in most of the dialogue.

Amanda Drew powerfully sexy as the wife, who seduces an uncertain Dale; Andrew Lincoln roguishly engaging as the neighbour, who narrates.

The set a flat translucent back wall, onto which images are projected (note: every play we've seen lately seems to come with video projections; very good they are too and, as A said afterwards, cheap). The wall revolves to reveal two segments behind. Just before each revolve the set behind the wall lights up to show a bed or a sofa.

At the end Ned appears to smother Joy in bed behind the wall (though there seemed to be more than one ending, with Joy appearing on stage immediately after her "murder", leaving me rather muddled as to how much of this was dream/nightmare/fantasy and how much "real").

Afterwards in the bar, where we repaired to discuss tickets for the Edinburgh Festival, there was a Pinteresque moment of confusion. D thought the man at the next table was an actor, George Layton, who used to be in Doctor in the House. Toby Jones was talking to him. As we were leaving Layton recognised me. We established who I was. Then he introduced himself. I left, but behind me A was telling Toby Jones how much she'd enjoyed the show. D asked Jones if the man was Layton. Jones said "No". But it was: I've checked his website.


9/04/09, Donmar at Wyndhams

An elaborate and wordy defence of sado-masochism by Yukio Mishima, whose credentials for writing it include his later ritual suicide. Starring, of all people, Judy Dench and Rosamund Pike (whom I think of as rather virginal, but who has apparently played a Bond villainess, as well as Jane Bennett in Pride & Prejudice and is considered "hot" in certain quarters).

What were the Donmar thinking of? And what did the audience (elderly Dench fans, Donmar loyalists, foreign tourists) make of it?

Three scenes, 18 years apart, from 1772 to 1790 and the onset of the French Revolution. Mme de ade (Pike) and her mother (Dench) discuss her reprobate husband, who is always in and out of prison and never seen, along with her sister (Fiona Button, who reminded me of a former colleague who insisted on playing the ingenue well into middle age), servant and two acquaintances (one, a female roue, played with thigh-slapping relish and fine comic timing by Frances Barber).

The frocks were gorgeous. The set was a chilly stateroom in some mansion, the walls silver, onto which were projected at certain moments images (blood, the moon, snow-covered branches): a nice touch. From time to time the women would recall some vivid memory, at which point their voices would echo and the stage would fill with appropriate sounds. You couldn't fault the production, by Michael Grandage. The performances were fine: S said she thought Pike was "just saying the words" much of the time, but I thought that judgement harsh because they were all just saying the words at least part of the time, with the exception of Barber and the servant (who had little to say).

The problem was the play. Mishima tries to explain the inexplicable, and to justify it. Sado-masochism is irrational and (literally) perverse: that there are people who are drawn to it is unarguable, but that the attraction can be explained through rayional discourse is asking too much. Mishima of course fails, taking refuge in flights of unconvincing rhetoric and rather chilly dialogue. He throws in a few (positively 18th century) dramatic twists in token acknowledgement that this is a play, not an essay, but they do not convince (at the start of one act Mme de Sade's sister runs on with a letter announcing that de Sade has been pardoned by royal warrant; several minutes into the scene it then transpires that the letter is months old; a little while longer and it emerges that de Sade was rearrested immediately, of all of which his wife has of course been ignorant; so we get three sets of reactions from her, the first two on false dramatic pretences).

But it got us talking afterwards. S confided that she'd tried to read the Story of O and failed, and could not understand these poor, benighted women. (I have read it, and I can't understand the women either, but that doesn't mean I don't find the whole subject fascinating.)

We stood in the street discussing why de Sade in his day was considered as big a threat to the social order as the Revolution, with which he was quite erroneously identified (the Revolution had a positive prospectus until it went off the rails with Robespierre, who was perhaps a sadist; de Sade had no manifesto except his own perverse pleasure). And we talked of other representations of de Sade, in the Marat Sade and in the film Quills, where he was played by Geoffrey Rush and made palatable according to A because Rush is so charming. And we discussed Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which had something in common with Madame de Sade (period, frocks, a lot of talking) but succeeded far better according to S because of the erotic charge in the stage version between Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan.

So maybe this play wasn't such a turkey after all.


8/04/09, Barbican

I agree with Lyn Gardner:

Oddly, the same print edition of the paper, on a news page, ran a picture from the production, clearly a space filler, with the most minimal caption (above).

To begin with it felt like watching a film, one of those incredibly slow-moving continental films of the 1970s, an impression reinforced by the amplified dialogue and naturalistic set and inadequate lighting. It was a distancing device, like the captions in a later scene projected onto a front gauze, telling us what the characters are about to do. And the elaborate set-changes: after the first (brief) scene shadowy figures come on and reconfigure the set completely, transforming it from the living room of an affluent middle-class Italian household to a child's bedroom; after the second scene the entire set is hoisted into the flies, revealing the downstairs living room in darkness with a gigantic robot toy, which the child comes downstairs and addresses; and so on.

I was bored and impatient and puzzled. Then, just as we're all completely alienated, coughing and shuffling, the purpose becomes clear. It is all a preliminary to the main event. He forces us to listen to the amplified sounds of a child being raped, off stage. The theatre falls completely silent. (Or so I thought: D said a few people left, though I didn't hear them; I did notice two who left in the scene change that immediately followed. I might have done the same if we weren't slap bang in the middle of a row.) It is breathtakingly audacious, reveals a staggering command of theatrical technique (not to mention a huge budget) and is utterly repellant.

After that... there is more, though I struggle to recall it. The man comes downstairs and sits, exhausted. The little boy comes downstairs and sits on his knee and cuddles him. Then, though I can't quite remember how, the man and the room disappear leaving the little boy in front of a dark curtain with a huge circular window against which he stands silhouetted as huge brightly lit flowers pass across in a fantastical pageant. Visually stunning, and apparently meaningless.

Then the boy leaves, the curtain rises and we find the boy, now played by a grown man in short trousers, and an actor with cerebral palsy playing the father; he writhes and twitches on the floor. As D remarked, "You never know when people are acting." He wasn't. Roles have been reversed somehow, but to what end or for what purpose I could not grasp.

Part of me fears that failure to appreciate Castellucci is a sign of terminal philistinism. He exhibits theatrical skill and imagination of a high order. But part of me thinks such skill and imagination need harnessing to some kind of narrative or argument to have real impact... and that Castellucci's principal aim seems to be to shock and revolt. An old-fashioned example of self-indulgent avant-gardeism with few redeeming features.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009


6/4/09, National (Lyttleton)

A perfectly decent, well-acted, well-crafted piece about the early days of Stalin's purges.

It might have made a bigger impact if I hadn't read Orlando Figes' The Whisperers, a huge and distressing book about memories of the purges. Among the victims of the terror were many Old Bolsheviks like this play's General Kotov, a civil war hero... and victims of another sort like his betrayer, Dimitri, an NKVD man sent abroad to spy for his country for 12 years then brought back and tasked with reeling in Kotov, the man who'd sent him away in the first place and then stolen his beloved. Dimitri stood for all those forced by circumstance to betray those they loved. At the end of the play he shoots himself.

The implausibility of Dimitri's career jarred somewhat. The Party didn't need to make it personal, and surely would not have bothered, preferring to send anonymous functionaries to arrest Kotov, who initially believes his war record and his closeness to Stalin afford him immunity from what's happening to others.

A very good, mercurial performance by Roy Kinnear as Dimitri: an actor who can make quite stagey lines sound natural. Ciaran Hinds equally strong as the General: Irish accent, bluff, no-nonsense manner, fierce drive and fierce temper (generally held in check among his wife's relatives, a collection of bourgeois layabouts straight out of Chekhov). Michelle Dockery a bit colourless as the love interest.

The set an exploded wooden dacha on the revolve: large verandah out front, music room at the back. The second scene takes place at the river bank during a festival, indicated by moving blocks of wooden fencing (close-packed uprights) into position in front of the dacha.

It was Chekhov largely without the jokes, and with the politics made much more explicit (the original was a Russian film of the 90s; this stage adaptation in English was by Peter Flannery, the man who gave us Our Friends in the North). Perhaps it's what Chekhov would have written himself if he'd lived through the purges.

An interesting range of reactions in the posts on the National's "talkback" site. Here's a few:

No sun lotion required. -WillBird (Thu 5 Mar 2009 23:06)
Very disappointing. No-one comes out of this well except perhaps Ciaran Hinds and the little girl who played his daughter. This seems to have divided opinion, with some dazzled by the set and applauding the acting of the West End's two rising stars, Michelle Dockery and Rory Kinnear (yes, you Mr Billington) but I'm sorry, that's where the problems started. The tedious revolving mechanism slowed up the action unnecessarily when much of it could have just been set on the balcony and the scene at the beach with the actors clinging to the edge of the stage looked ridiculous. Kinnear's Mitia is no-one's idea of the dashing hero (from the our seats he looked and sounded like William Hague) and the characterisation was just plain irritating, especially after the most cringe-worthy dance-off scene since "The Office". Rather pleased that the smug Mitia turned out to be the bad guy, but no great surprise. Dockery looked pretty but the character demanded more depth from perhaps an older actress. Worst of all Ciaran Hinds's Kotov didn't actually have anything to do, instead he looks impassively on behind a giant Stalin moustache as his houseful of pet ,self-pitying Chekhovian stereotypes whine on about the good old days when they could go to the opera "twice a week" and his young wife has a mini breakdown. The actual plot kicks in about 10 minutes before curtain, but by this time much of the audience had gone to sleep. It lacked intensity and a sense of a hot sticky summer that the script implied and the ending was cliched, gratuitous and designed to wake up the audience so they didn't miss the night-bus home. A wasted opportunity to bring something bold and cinematic to the stage and another dud after the muddled "Mrs Affleck".

Burnt by the Sun -Valerie Passmore (Mon 9 Mar 2009 12:27)
Comparing this with the film on which it is apparently based misses the point: the play should be judged in its own right and many like me will not know the film.
Criticisms I agree with which presumably are easily remedied are the distracting lights and obscuring balustrade. Aso identifying exactly who all the old biddies and others were.
Otherwise it was a marvellous imaginative staging and Rory K's performance especially very striking. Such talents: acting, singing and dancing!
It's new, has drama, comedy and pathos. Excellent

Re: burnt by the sun -kate beswick (Fri 6 Mar 2009 16:49)
There was nothing terribly wrong
with this production but there was
nothing new, exciting or revelatory
about it either. I kept asking
myself 'what was the point of this?
Burnt By the Sun is a great Russian
film, with stunning performances by
outstanding Russian actors. It is a
classic. What is to be gained or
added by doing an English version
(much watered down and heavily
underlined ) with English actors To
have the leading man made up to
look like Stalin was a bit over the
top - was it in case we didn't 'get
it?' The process of film gave the
story a lot of its power- to put it
on stage dumbed it down - for
examle, the scene by the lake was
eliminated, and ti's a key scene.
As I said, it was all OK but I was
left unchilled and unmoved. What
made the National Theatre think it
wouldl be a good idea to snaffle
such a Russian story, created for
another medium? Did they think they
could do ti better? The answer is
'no, they can't. They shouldl have
used the money to stage a new play
or a seldom seen classic, of any
country.If they wanted to do
something Russian, why not revive
something by, for example
Ostrovsky- too seldom seen here, or
stage a play by one of the present
day young Russian playwrites, of
whom there are many. Russian
theatre does not begin and end with

Burnt by the Sun -Martin H (Fri 6 Mar 2009 09:46)
A tremendous play, starting with echoes of Chekhov and Gorky, and developing into something distinctly more devious, and awful.
I do not understand most of the cavils -- I thought Howard Davies' direction was, as ever with him, exemplary.
Only one small criticism: I was not clear early one who all the people in the house were, or why they were there; only later did I gather this was a dacha and they were down for part of the summer.
But overall, a fine evening, with a gallery of splendid performances. And I loved the set and costumes -- it was worth the ticket just for those '30s swimsuits!


2/4/09, Barbican

First two parts of a trilogy by the (allegedly) famous and revered Italian director/installation artist/impresario, Romeo Castellucci, loosely (very loosely) derived from Dante's Divine Comedy. We have Purgatorio still to come. Alas.

Paradiso a walk-through installation in the Barbican's "Silk Street Theatre", in reality the main performance space in the Guildhall School next door. When configured as a conventional theatre it fills the gap between the Barbican's main 1,000-plus seater theatre and the Pit, which only holds a few hundred. It's been brought into commission for the SPILL festival of performance and for BITE. We are going to see Andromaque there later this month.

For Paradiso it was filled with a huge white box, entered at one corner. Inside, an ante-room, then a short cylindrical tunnel, then a big dark space. In front of you, as your eyes adjust to the darkness, you become aware of a naked man, apparently buried to the waist near the top of the wall and struggling silently to escape. Water cascades noisily to the floor below him. And that was it. Not very paradisaical, really. As we left we were handed a sheet with a pretentious interpretation and review by some Italian critic. I thought the whole thing nonsense. D's view: "Bollocks!"

It didn't help that we'd had to wait, and it wasn't worth it. We had timed tickets for 19.00, and turned up at 18.50, but didn't get in until 19.30 (worrying about getting out in time for Inferno, which started at 19.45). The installation could hold only a few at a time and someone had evidently miscalculated how long people would want to remain (baffling that they should want to remain, but there we are). The front of house woman told me they'd also had someone in a wheelchair, though how a wheelchair-user coped with the cylindrical tunnel (which you had to step up to enter) god alone knows.

Inferno a very different and altogether more formidable proposition. 1hr 10 mins in the main theatre, hugely ambitious and intermittently spectacular.

I knew broadly what to expect because I'd seen some of it on You Tube (where it says of Castellucci: "He himself says that he creates meaningless theatre which has an immediate impact on the spectator").

Individual bits are breathtaking, especially some of the early sections, but "meaningless" is the word (it certainly bears precious little relation to Dante, to judge from the reading of Inferno which I undertook, 30 years too late, as perhaps over-zealous preparation).

The critics were clearly puzzled:

And Castellucci has form. This is from the Observer in 2004:

"In 1999 he divided critics with his extraordinary Cesare, featuring an emaciated Caesar, an obese Cicero and a laryngotomised Mark Antony. In 2001's Genesi he matched a contortionist Adam with a middle-aged, mastectomised Eve.
Castellucci favours disabled or different-looking actors in his performances. His children and other members of his family often find they're written in too. Then there are the animals. A horse turned up in Cesare, and mongrel dogs scooted around in Genesi. (Castellucci's biggest failure to date on this score seems to have been with a cow, which objected strongly when he tried to milk it on stage.)
Targets? The tyranny of the text, naturellement . 'On its own,' he claims, 'text is pure inertia.' The answer is not to write better text but to abandon it in favour of sound, music, randomised and not-so-randomised animatronic and animal interventions and sumptuous, sensuous, visuals."

So what did we get on this occasion?

Castellucci himself is savaged by guard dogs at the start. He dons a special protective suit. They are evidently trained to bite clothing since they leave his exposed hands and face alone. There are three: they run on from the wings and are called off by a whistle. They're watched by half a dozen others, led on by burly handlers and left chained at the front of the stage. My memory is that the the six remained silent while the three attacked; D remembers them as quite agitated.

So that's a startling opening. And then a large black-draped cube is wheeled on and the drapes lifted off to reveal a bunch of toddlers inside, playing with toys. One little boy discovers that if he jumps up he makes a noisy metallic clatter when he lands; another little boy follows suit, a little girl half-heartedly tries it. Another little girl just sits. You worry if they're alright, by themselves. D reckons the oversized teddy bear sitting in one corner was actually an adult, on hand for emergencies. The inside of the (perspex) cube is brightly lit and amplified. As the kids play a vast black sheet billows above them. And then the drapes are replaced and the cube wheeled off. And your point is...?

There's a large cast of professionals and locally-recruited volunteers, dressed in "bright pastels" Benetton-style, who much of the time move silently in a group on and off the stage. At one point they all lie down and roll very slowly towards the back, individuals getting up and walking off. But, perhaps significantly, my memory of the stage pictures becomes much more fragmentary. Is this deliberate? "These fragments I have shored against my ruin", an Eliot-like commentary on the collapse of traditional culture?

Here's a few fragments, in no particular order.

A skull, placed beneath the back wall which has been raised like a paper guillotine. As the weight of the wall bears down on it the skull shatters.

A white horse is led on and its hindquarters splashed with red paint.

There's an old man, and an old woman, and a little girl, and a teenage boy in long shorts who bounces a basketball: each bounce produces an ear-shattering, earth-shattering explosion. They seem to spend a lot of their time standing at the front of the stage, looking out at the audience.

A grand piano is wheeled on and set alight.

Andy Warhol appears and takes polaroid photos of the audience. He is presumably a Virgil-like guide. At the end a ruined car is brought on and he sits in it.

Um, that's it.

Thursday, 2 April 2009


1/4/09, Young Vic.

50 mins. Played in one of the Young Vic's numerous studios, on an almost bare stage with steeply raked seating. Based on Kafka's A Report to an Academy.

An extraordinary tour de force by Kathryn Hunter as an ape in white tie, tails, bowler hat and unruly hair, silver hip flask concealed about his/her person, addressing "the Academy" about life as a chimpanzee passing for a human, or at least a performing monkey in variety. By imitation alone our hero has acquired the rudiments of civilisation (or "reached the level of the average European"), many of them (spitting, drinking, smoking) from the sailors on board the ship that brought him, tightly caged, from Africa.

It's a bleak piece, which has very little positive to say about the human condition or human society. Humanity, indeed, still revolts our hero, who is perceptive enough to know that "freedom" is an illusion, and who only seeks "a way out" from the cage in which he finds himself.

Hunter's performance is little short of miraculous. You watch her becoming an ape. She twists her arm under and behind her, gesturing with the palm upwards. She hangs horizontally from a ladder attached to the wall. She squats, walks, fidgets for all the world just like a chimp. And her face, with eyes wide, brow furrowed, mouth in a chimpanzee's round moue, is uncannily like the real thing. The movement is credited to someone called Ilan Reichel, but with Hunter to work with Reichel must have thought he had all the peanuts he could eat.

There were few props: a suitcase and cane (which with the tails and the bowler hinted at Chaplin's tramp, an early 20th century Everyman), a lectern at the start, a big projection of a chimp, those bananas.

Even the artificial, declamatory nature of Kafka's text, as adapted by Colin Teevan, does not defeat her though you feel it's a little too formal sometimes for her purposes. In moments of interpolated business (offering bananas to a member of the audience before picking through the woman's hair for fleas, for instance) a more informal note creeps in and you feel suits her better.

In lesser hands the piece would be a rather heavy-handed and slight satirical squib. With this team (including director Walter Meierjohann) it becomes a searing and rather moving picture if the ghastly world in which we are all trapped and must all perform.

Some stood to applaud at the end.

It reminded me of Me Cheeta, which I read just after Christmas: the spoof autobiography of the chimp who co-starred with Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O'Sullivan in the Tarzan films. The account of Cheeta's capture in Africa and transport to the New World owes a lot, I should say, to Kafka's version.


31/3/09, Tricycle.

1hr 10mins, no interval. The story of the deaths of four army recruits at Deepcut Barracks between 1994 and 2002, and the succession of (allegedly/deliberately) botched inquiries which leave many questions still unanswered, leading to suspicions of a cover-up. Written by Philip Ralph.

The case is still controversial, as witness this piece in the following day's Guardian:

The story is told in their own words by Des James and his wife, parents of Cheryl James, the second of the four recruits to die; by Frank Swann, a firearms expert the families of the dead soldiers retained, who rubbished suggestions that the soldiers' wounds were self-inflicted; a fellow recruit of Cheryl's, Carol Jones; Nick Blake QC, who conducted a review of the case for the MoD; and a journalist (this last, I take it, an invention of the playwright's, standing as he did for all journalists). Most of the dialogue, delivered straight to the audience, derived from interviews with the participants; Blake's came from his published report and the press conference at which he presented it.

A simple set, the James's living room, with a standard lamp in one corner downstage on which photos of the four were hung one by one; above it a "loft" stacked with boxes and papers, in which the James's at one point stashed away their daughter's things and the documents they had accumulated when fruitlessly seeking answers to why their daughter had died (it took the MoD three months to answer letters); the contents of the loft were brought down when the BBC programme Frontline Scotland began an investigation into the deaths and the James's agreed to co-operate.

We were at the side, and had to cope not only with the scaffolding that holds up the Trike's gallery and with the head of the man in front but with the lamp and the photographs blocking our view. It didn't stop it being a gripping show.

It was the case for the prosecution. Mark Lawson on the radio said it made him deeply angry. I'm not sure it made me angry: for that I would have had to be surprised, and the pattern of incompetence and official obfuscation seemed too wearily familiar. I'm also wary, because this wasn't a balanced presentation of the facts, and it deliberately set out to rubbish the one thing that could and should have been a balanced account, Nick Blake's report. And when all's said and done it's hard to focus a play like this, since so many things went wrong there's a danger of shot scattering everywhere to little effect.

But it kept us talking all the way home; and again next evening when we met S at Kafka's Monkey, so it probably achieved what it intended.

I came away with the following:

1 Deepcut was clearly a badly run establishment where rules were flouted (there was lots of drinking and sex), some recruits were bullied and the army failed in its duty of pastoral care to young people, some only 17, who for the most part were away from home for the first time. Once upon a time recruits did their training at regimental depots; presumably a central training regiment was established as the army grew smaller to save money, professionalise training and probably to create a "centre of excellence"; but I doubt it attracted the brightest and best of officers and NCOs.

2 The deaths remain unexplained and always will. Swann thought suicide was impossible in several of the cases, though given Deepcut's nature it can't be ruled out. It's also possible they were murder and that a serial killer (perhaps a former officer or NCO at the barracks) is still on the loose. Or there may have been more than one killer and perhaps one or two suicides. But unless someone confesses we will never know. The investigations by Surrey Police were, we were told, botched and perfunctory (were they intimidated by having to deal with the army?) and much of the physical evidence has been lost or destroyed.

3 Nick Blake's inquiry, whatever its merits or lack of them, failed to do the job it was intended to do and bring the whole affair to a close. This play implied (without ever stating) that it was part of a deliberate cover-up, commissioned as such by the MoD. I met Blake many years ago, and know of his work as a human rights lawyer. I don't believe for one second that he would have been party to a cover-up. I also read parts of his report when it was published and remember it seemed diligent and thorough. So why did it fail to convince? I imagine he would argue that he merely reflected the evidence, though some of that evidence was challenged in the play (for instance that Cheryl had made a previous suicide attempt -- according to her father she took five Panadol, told a schoolfriend, was whisked off to hospital by the school, drank lots of water and was fine: "End of story"). Was Blake perhaps too lawyerish, too literal, in his interpretation of the evidence, unable to see the wood for the trees? There is an interesting contrast here with Hutton in his inquiry into the death of David Kelly, who was if anything too liberal, to the point of one-sidedness, in his interpretation of the evidence, putting the worst possible construction on everything the BBC did and the best possible construction on everything the government did. Was crucial evidence withheld? We know some was: Frank Swann refused to co-operate with Blake because he was holding out for a full public inquiry with witnesses giving evidence under oath (that now looks like a mistake, as his character in the play admitted). Witnesses and the MoD may also have withheld information or simply lied. But appointing Blake, given his track record, looked like a brave move by the MoD, which could not be certain of what he would conclude; it doesn't look like part of a deliberate cover up.

4 In general, though the play implied a conspiracy, it's a difficult notion to accept. It would need to have begun early, to have involved the army, police, MoD and MPs and would surely by now have collapsed. I prefer cock-up, followed by partial and uncoordinated cover-up. Anxious not to have Deepcut's shortcomings revealed, the army hustled the police through a perfunctory investigation, perhaps deliberately "losing" some evidence, coaching witnesses and so on and reaching the most convenient conclusion (suicide). When Des James started asking awkward questions he was (successfully) stonewalled. When Frontline Scotland started investigating another suspicious death and discovered a pattern, the authorities felt moved to act but did so reluctantly and grudgingly. Surrey Police were told to review their investigations of the deaths but, though they issued a press release, full details of what they found have never been published. When there were complaints about Surrey's handling of the cases Devon & Cornwall were called in to review it: they were critical but, again, though they issued a press release their detailed findings remain confidential. (And press releases, as we know, can be spun and are sometimes a thoroughly misleading guide to the real contents of a substantial document.) Blake was then commissioned. Crucially, demands for a public inquiry were resisted, no doubt for good reasons and for bad: public inquiries are long-winded and costly; their outcome is hard to predict (though I'd have thought the outcome of Blake's review was equally unforecastable). And a select committee of MPs announced an investigation... though it turned out to be a general inquiry into army training, not an inquiry into the four deaths, much to the families' disgust (though what did they expect? A select committee is hopelessly ill-equipped to investigate what might be serious crimes; its job is to identify and investigate systemic failures). It all looks like the establishment closing ranks, not necessarily consciously, to avoid too much embarrassing scrutiny.

5 In the climate of distrust and suspicion thus engendered, the families and their sympathisers are apt to see conspiracy in routine cock-ups and mere coincidences. The inquest into Cheryl's death was rushed. Is that significant? Suspicious? The police suggest she killed herself; but the coroner records an open verdict, implying he wasn't wholly convinced by the suicide line. The families are treated badly and disrespectfully by the system throughout: is that evidence of a cover-up? Or just routine bureaucratic ineptness?

6 By this stage, every possible explanation for what happened (both the deaths and subsequent events) looks implausible or unlikely, because so much dust has been thrown up down the years and so much evidence lost.

7 "Journalism dropped the ball", as the journalist character says, particularly when it came to reporting what was in the Blake report, a massive document which journalists were given only a short time to read before Blake appeared before them. As the journalist says, it's a frequently-used government technique though it's not done simply to bury bad news but to prevent leaks: if the document is to be released, its author questioned and the journalists have time to write and record their pieces, all in the space of a single day, there are few alternatives. Faced with the mass of detail in the Blake report the news media were able to report it only cursorily. On the other hand it's worth remembering that journalism (in the shape of Frontline Scotland) was what brought the cases to public notice in the first place.

8 I fear the play was dishonest, in implying that something more can or should be done. But what? Even a public inquiry would by this stage surely produce little new. For the families this is a continuing crusade. For the authorities it's a pain in the neck and no conceivable advantage, political or practical, would be served by reopening the case and searching for a scapegoat; even Deepcut itself has now been closed.

9 When all's said and done, as D pointed out on the way back, at the end of the day it's the families who are the victims. They will never know for certain what happened. That must be dreadful for them.