Event theatre is a curious phenomenon that is hard to predict and can emerge from a number of paths. Most often it is due to an attachment of a star name that turns a popular play into a must see; the Cumberbatch Hamlet being an extreme examples of this. Sometimes, such as with Jerusalem or Constellations, word-of-mouth and press reviews suddenly turn an unknown new play into the thing people are queuing round the block for. Most gratifyingly is when it assigned to a theatre company on the basis of their hard graft built over many years; Complicite gained this status, and surely Headlong have now joined their ranks. Among those versed in theatre, Headlong are a by-word for theatre that promises endless invention built on energetic staging working in harmony with high class visuals.
People, Places and Things is without doubt pure event theatre – it matches a theatre company that can sell-out a show before it opens with a lead performance that is rightly being described as career-making. You leave the theatre feeling that you have seen a very special production, with an exhilaratingly powerhouse piece of acting from Denise Gough at its heart. It is the highlight of Rufus Norris’ early tenure at the National, and a production that reminds you how truly invigorating theatre can be.
By pure chance I had seen it within days of seeing the devastatingly powerful Song From Far Away at the Young Vic. They work as superb companion pieces, and anyone who sees both cannot help but reflect on what they tell us about the mental outlook and wellbeing of the younger generations in affluent, western societies.
Both cover individuals at the point of crisis, but touch on different ends of the spectrum. In Stephens’ play, Willem is unable to articulate his need for help and his crisis reaches a more acute phase as he exists outside of supportive systems. In Duncan Macmillan’s play, we have Emma (or possibly we do, even her name remains ambiguous), another white, privileged and mainly unsympathetic character.
However, unlike Willem, she is vocal and able to recognise that there is a point where she must ask for help. Yet even at that this stage she uses her facility with language to keep people at a distance; she uses words as a defence mechanism to keep people away from her true self. Her extrovert nature is the polar opposite to Willem’s introvert, but ultimately her personality finds her unable to find ways of expressing herself in order to avert a significant crisis.
Denise Gough’s performance as Emma has drawn deserved plaudits. Her role in Tim Crouch’s Adler & Gibb hinted at her vast potential, and was one of the performances of the year. It was fluid, totally unselfconscious and demonstrated an assured facility for portraying characters on the edge of mania. She brings this and much more to Emma.
In the accompanying text to Headlong’s adaptation of 1984, they state that ‘Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan […] explore how Orwell’s novel is as applicable to the here and now as it ever was’ whilst the online trailer (below) draws on quotes from Bradley Manning and The Telegraph to make a clear link between the book and the current debate over surveillance culture.
In light of this the most surprising, and indeed pleasing, thing about Headlong’s production is how little it explicitly aligns itself with a modern world environment. Whilst Icke and MacMillan have played with form and function to add to a richer audience experience than would be allowed from a book that channels itself through the perspective of just one character, it is set within a world that far more closely resembles that imagined by Orwell than our current technology driven present.
This comes as a relief, as the idea of merging Orwell with modern society seems wholly too obvious and more than a little trite for a company who have carved out a reputation for purposefully innovative takes on heavyweight texts. Orwell’s book may have something to say about the dangers of allowing any one party to exert control over society but to try and parallel this with the use of modern surveillance techniques in democracies is facile and only serves to undermine the potency of his argument.
Indeed if the examples that Runciman highlights in his review of The Snowdon Files is an accurate picture then it may be possible for governments to gather information on pretty much anyone but the idea that they have any sort of competence to use it to manage history and through it control society comes across as laughable. The reality is that our general contempt for politicians is so great that the only way that they could get us to believe that 2 + 2 = 5 is to insist upon us that 2 + 2 = 4.
The entire existence of the internet – and with it websites like Wikileaks – serves to undermine the notion that Orwell’s book could become reality in a society as it currently exists. The world is too globally networked to allow a political organisation to control the flow of information in the way that Orwell envisioned; even in countries that use firewalls it is still relatively easy to get around censored sites. Big Brother may well be watching us but that does not mean that Big Brother is controlling us.
So it comes as a relief to discover that the computer on which Winston toils away to reshape history is an item that seems strangely out-of-kilter within Chloe Lamford’s set design, which evokes that late-Communist feel of a country industrially advanced but only holding its infrastructure together with threads. The communal canteen at the Ministry could be from any 1970’s public sector building whilst the grainy feel of the video through which we watch Winston and Julia’s secret trysts, and the voyeuristic overtones it brings with it, inevitably recalls The Conversation and the paranoia that runs through Alan J.Pakula’s The Parallax View and Klute.
That we may be reminded of the likes of Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda brings home a deliberate and brutal reality about the lives of Winston and Julia; that ordinary people, the archetypal Party drones, are rather bland and uninteresting, that desires and thoughts are mostly mundane and not the unique, world-changing inspiration that we like to believe. They may yearn for change but they will make do with chocolate and real coffee.
As we rail isolated against the system and plot great change from within who would want to admit to being more like Winston, with his ill-fitting vest tops and sweaty lank hair nervily considering whether or not to write a diary, rather than Beatty’s journalist, immaculately coiffured and square-jawed, uncovering conspiracies that go all the way to the top.
All of this is brilliantly exposed by O’Brien (Tim Dutton) who shows Winston the sad truth about his grand love affair; its furtive and grubby nature feeding a narrative that saw their radicalism only leading as far as their own desires. O’Brien levels the charge of solipsism at Winston, and the real terror of Headlong’s production is the struggle to disagree with the accusation. Their love, so important and all-consuming moments before, now seems so small; the world may have moved for them but they did not move the world even an inch.
Watch the trailer
There is no doubt that Decade, Headlong’s collaborative theatrical response to 9/11, reaches moments that are powerfully affecting, even for those with no direct ties to the event. The strongest of these in Decade are where we see the butterfly effect in action; the ripples that change the course of someone’s life, years after the event.
We witness a woman engaged in an increasingly manic speed dating event, plagued both by eczema and a need for security and strength, ultimately unable to commit as she is unable to let go of her husband who died. A group of survivor wives meet every year at a coffee shop within sight of the Ground Zero. The audience are shown the scenes in reverse; a tricksy device suffers from the law of diminishing returns in its final scenes but does function as a powerful reminder of the long shadow cast by 9/11. The wives are unable to grieve in any understandable way, holding on to brittle bonds artificially-forged in the tragedy; held together by a sense of duty and continually reinforced by the sight of presidential candidates solemnly appearing at the site as part of carefully stage-managed campaigns.
Also outstanding is Tobias Menzies portrayal of a man recollecting his account of watching the Tower’s collapse after booking the day off. The audience’s awareness of events lends Menzies’ flat affectless delivery a heart-breaking quality. As we hear, with an Alan Bennett like focus on the absurdity in the mundane, a description of the day before and an ensuring phonecall to the office just after a plane hit the first time, there is a tragic inevitably in the growing awareness there won’t be Hollywood happy endings. Later we find that as a result of his experiences he has edged close to the ‘Truther’ movement; desperately trying to find meaning in his unanswered questions.
Not everything was crafted so successfully, a muscular, Mamet-ish duologue between journalist and a soldier involved in the death of Osama Bin Laden, began promisingly with the conversation hurled across the audience in staccato bursts reminiscent of machine-gun fire. However the contrivance of building a link to a relative who died in the Pentagon began to pull the characters apart at the seams and strain credulity. Continue Reading Here