How A Man Crumbled – Mimetic Festival

How A Man CrumbledClout Theatre

Showing as part of Mimetic Festival 2014 (17 – 29 November 2014)

In writing this review I discovered that Daniil Kharms’ 1939 novella, The Old Woman, is available to read online. However I urge anyone to hold back until they have seen Clout Theatre’s wonderful re-invention of Kharms’ surrealist story, as half the fun is putting yourself in their hands and watching how the inspired, frenetic lunacy eventually yields results and tells a very understandable moustachemenweb editedstory in a most absurd way.

Clout delivers a highly stylised piece of physical theatre which draws as much of its inspiration from the innovators of early European cinema as it does from theatrical tradition. We see the expressionism of F.W. Murneau in the careful and controlled use of spotlights to create a sense of dramatic tension through the interplay between light, dark and the spaces in between. Alongside this there runs, in the writer’s relationship with the world, the slightly off-kilter, unreal societal pressure that works to 120707-ptfestival-Tag3-198create the crushing paranoia of Fritz Lang’s M.

It is how this keen cinematic understanding is set against a clear understanding of the demands of physical theatre that is most impressive. It is one of the hardest styles of theatre to get right, and when it goes wrong it is highly noticeable. The credit that can be given to practitioners, like Stephen Berkoff, who did so much to popularise the style in the UK is to point to all the terrible productions that followed in their wake that clearly assumed it was just a case of slapping on some greasepaint and a black polo-neck.

The three actors, Sacha Plaige, Jennifer Swingler and George Ramsa, directed by Mine Cerci, stretch themselves to their physical limits. They understand that to perform grotesques they must reach extremes. Each gesture is exaggerated and each movement is set down with an absolute sense of its purpose and meaning. As a result every action has a function and a reason for existing, no matter how absurd it appears.

One could apply this to any example but particular credit must go to Sacha Paige’s portrayal of the old woman. The intensity with which the clock face is presented and the mugging expressions that accompany her every action are a true masterclass in the art of the physical. I never thought that a dreamed creation would be quite as surreally unsettling as the dwarf in Twin Peaks but Paige’s old woman is a terrifying creation; a deathless force that acts as a constant reminder of the writer’s mortality.

For the full review and much more on Mimetic Festival, please click here

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Cheek by Jowl remove excess fat from aburdist Ubu

Ubu Roi – Cheek by Jowl @ Barbican, until 20 April 2013

It is easy to imagine that many directors view Jarry’s Ubu Roi as the poisoned chalice of theatre. It is a play whose own history has overwhelmed any value the original content may have had. A play that managed to start a riot after just one word of dialogue had been spoken. A play that managed to get itself outlawed from the stage after just one performance. How can a play with that much power ever be resisted for long?

However power relies on content and context, and even directors blinded by its potential must realise that theatre audiences of the 21st century are not going to tear up the stalls upon the utterance of a single swearword. So the question always remains over how to make Ubu relevant whilst maintaining its sense of absurdity; this must be the prerequisite of any company attempting to refresh the play.

So then we must be glad that it is Cheek by Jowl who are the latest in a long line of companies to have picked up the gauntlet, as it is questionable whether there are more potent re-interpreters working in theatre today than the formidable pairing of Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod.Ubu Split -Christophe Gregoire Photo -Johan Persson

Over the last few years they have put their unique design and directorial decisions to plays as unfashionable as Troilus and Cressida and Racine’s Andromaque. They have also delivered stylish but substantial productions of The Tempest, Macbeth and Tis Pity She’s A Whore. Most impressively of all, this has been achieved whilst working across three languages, using British, French or Russian almost on a whim.

One of the joys of a new Cheek by Jowl production is the anticipation of what you are going to get. Each new play feels unique in itself but also contains an essence that is instantly recognisable as Cheek by Jowl; there is a coherence and balance in the interplay between design and direction, style and function, which means that each individual element has a purpose and a decision that runs through and underpins the unifying themes. This ability is particularly noticeable in Ubu Roi where the need to produce unnaturally large characters means that there is a constant tension that they could overwhelm the play as a whole.

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An absurd masterpiece or a masterpiece of the absurd

Rhinoceros – Théâtre de la Ville–Paris, Barbican

Théâtre de la Ville–Paris’ production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros is practically faultless and it is with considerable surprise to discover that it has taken nearly nine years for it to have crossed the Channel; it is very rare for a near-decade old show to appear to contain so much vitality. It is an evening at the theatre that manages to achieve that rarest of blends – an exquisite play meeting an exceptional production. Over the last five years I can think of just two other productions that could lay claim to being of a similar calibre; Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem anchored by Mark Rylance’s ‘Rooster’ Byron and Rupert Goold’s production of Macbeth with Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood.

We are clearly operating in exulted company and it is perhaps telling that despite barriers of style, language and time the three productions share common traits. They all rely on a strong central male character who across the course of the narrative embarks on what we might recognise as an existential crisis that leads them to stand against the forces of change and modernity. To a greater or lesser extent they are the architects of their own downfall, as they each retain a strong moral code that is a major driver for action and embeds a sense of duty that can seem inexplicable to others, and that will cause them to follow a path that can only lead to isolation and destruction.

Each of the productions also share a perfectly pitched casting for its lead character; there is not one moment where Rylance doesn’t fully convince as Rooster, a man whose self-important sense of being part of a grander element of England’s narrative blinds him – metaphorically and eventually all too literally – to the modern culture of the nation. Stewart, as I have written before, captures the transition of Macbeth from the brutally effective soldier to his existential crisis point and onwards to an acceptance of predetermined resolution.

Serge Maggiani as Berenger

In Théâtre de la Ville–Paris’ production we have a central character of equally moral and dramatic weight. Serge Maggiani wonderfully captures the crumpled, unassuming and apathetic Bérenger; a paradoxical figure who is both an everyman and of such inconsequence that his friend, Dudard, feels mindful to provide him with a tie and gives him stern lectures on his social habits. Ionesco has caught in Bérenger a figure that everyone will recognise; the amiable friend who like a drink, and likes an argument alongside it.

Maggiani manages to bring alive a character that is by turns infuriating and charming, capable of great erudition but also a boorish drunk. There is weariness in his actions, a perpetual shrug on his shoulders as he lets life pass him by with a seemingly chronic disregard for the social conventions of those around him. Often striking a rather pathetic figure in sober company, his transformation is a reflection of Kantian virtue as it goes against our sense of his natural manner; where those around him, be they of stronger moral purpose or following a rationalistic instinct, choose to join the Rhinoceroses, Bérenger doggedly becomes the contrarian and rejects the easy path of transformation in favour of humanity.

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