The silent tragedy of Western men

Song From Far Away – Young Vic Theatre, until 19 September 2015 (tickets)song-from-far-away2

Famously Harry Houdini died not during one of his daredevil feats of escapology but due to the after effects of having been caught unawares by an abdominal punch. Twenty-four hours after seeing Song From Far Away the unexpected power from Simon Stephen’s emotionally devastating work has left me as effectively floored as a punch to the gut, and wondering when I’ll be able to regain my footing.

As a translator, I have admired Stephens’ work; The Cherry Orchard and A Doll’s House showed an impressive talent for treading a light path through the works of others. Of his own writing I had been less convinced, I found Birdland – another study of the fragile male ego – a particularly disappointing experience, whilst Three Kingdoms was as perplexing as it was brilliant.

The main draw was a chance to revisit the Ivo Van Hove / Jan Versweyveld partnership that delivered the truly wonderful, A View From The Bridge, and an Antigone; a production that suffered due to the inevitable failure to match the incredible heights set by his previous work. Van Hove and Versweyveld bring the stark, minimal approach that has brought them so much recent success. In a monologue there are fewer options for a director but one can feel the hand of Van Hove in Eelco Smits numbingly superb performance. All extraneous movements have been taken out, action is simplified and becomes mere gesture. Scenes change by a tilt of a head, and a new tone in the voice. Versweyveld’s set naturally echoes this minimalism. It is functional and representative of the rooms that Smits’ Willem finds himself in.

However the brilliance of this play rests in Stephens’ writing and Smits’ performance. It is a very long time since I have seen writing that captures truth so precisely. The evening is a gruelling experience, leavened with only the most mordant humour and sardonic observations, and Stephens’ has surely purposefully chosen a slightly unsympathetic lead character in order to make the impact of the monologue more powerful.

It becomes clear as Willem reveals more (both within the text and on the stage) that he is going through a severe mental health crisis. The trigger of this seems to be his brother’s unexpected death but the relations with his family and his ex-boyfriend suggest that there are deeper issues at root. At the core of this play, Stephens’ is bringing to life one of the silent crises of the Western world – the damaging impact of man’s emotional inarticulacy on his own wellbeing, and the damage caused by a failure to openly communicate in a world that places an ever greater premium on emotional openness.

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Austere Agony in Antigone

Antigone – Barbican, until 28 March 2015 (tickets – returns only)

It seems that London theatres cannot get enough of the ancient Greeks. Last year we were treated to a contemporary Medea at the National and a relatively classical Electra at the Old Vic. The Credit Jan Versweyweld Almeida have announced a season containing The Bakkhai, Oresteia and, tantalisingly, a chance to watch Rupert Goold direct his wife, Kate Fleetwood, in another Medea (and one would love to have Freud’s opinion on that choice!).

Sandwiched between them, but certainly not squeezed out, is what can only be described as a major theatre event; Ivo van Hove – fresh off the universally acclaimed A View From The Bridge – directing Juliette Binoche in Sophocles’ Antigone.

Of all the Greek tragedies it is Antigone that appears the most timeless. The moral dilemma at its heart is as immediately relevant today as it was when it was written 2500 years ago. It is a staggering achievement of simplicity and a constant reminder of the universal nature of human experience. Whilst society is broadly unrecognisable from the small slave-owning city-states of Greece in 5th century BC, the central compelling issue – of whether a person can hold a moral law above that of the state – remains at the heart of many contemporary debates.

Ivo van Hove works with a minimalist’s clarity and sense of purpose to bridge a gap between the ancient and the modern. He is supported through Jan Versweyweld’s set design that splits the large Barbican space into two distinct areas. The downstage is kitted out in a sleek, functional contemporary urban style, whilst the upstage is starkly bare. Both locations give no hint to place to emphasise the universalism of the narrative.

Van Hove further stresses the ageless, placeless nature of Antigone’s dilemma by projecting huge, abstract scenes onto the back wall. A huge circular cut-out at the start of the play gives the impression of a solar eclipse – a traditional signifier of the intervention of the gods – before slowly rolling aside to let light stream in and bath the stage in a clinical brightness. It is a production where everyone’s actions will come under the microscope and be subjected to judgement; by the gods, by the playwright and by the audience.

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The descent into hell is easy but in the return a mighty labour lies

A View From The Bridge – Young Vic, until 07 June 2014

Considering the reputation that accompanies Ivo van Hove the first thing to be said about his production of Arthur Miller’s famous play is that it’s more restrained than might have been expected. This is not to suggest that it is performed in the shadows of the play’s reputation but rather that van Hove has created a singular work of such potency that despite stripping away external features and focusing View from the Bridge timesintently on the performances, it retains the power of the great naturalistic dramas.

Van Hove is a director that appears to relish the challenge of recasting great works in a new light; he is happy to cross cultural mediums and recent work includes the Antonioni Project, which re-enacted the Italian director’s films, and a highly-lauded adaptation of Strindberg’s Scenes from a Marriage. He has demonstrated a desire to bring new perspectives to classic works and this reached its peak with the hugely ambitious Roman Tragedies, which came to the Barbican in 2009. The production brought together Shakespeare’s roman plays and pulled them in to the modern era through an immersive multimedia spectacle that captured the increasingly symbiotic relationship between news and drama in the age of 24-hour reporting.

He is also happy working with the great American playwrights having previously staged Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams in New York and now brings Arthur Miller to London. The influence of the director is clear from the moment the audience enters; Van Hove has used the flexibility of the Young Vic’s auditorium to physically conceal the entire set within a black box. Indeed the raising and eventual sealing of the stage suggests a symbolic entombing of the story and hints to its timeless nature.

The production strips away all hints of naturalism from the setting. It exists as a stark, white rectangle surrounded by a glass bench. The only prop being a wooden chair that forms the essential test of strength between Eddie and Marco; van Hove recognises its significance and frames Marco holding the chair aloft in a moment of absolute stillness. It is reminiscent of a classical sculpture and is one of a number of markers that draw out the links to Greek tragedy that Miller hinted at within the text.

A View From The BridgeThe lack of a setting inevitably directs greater attention towards the actors, and they are uniformly excellent. Van Hove has drawn highly stylised performances out of his cast without losing the grounding in naturalism that is essential for demonstrating the characters’ humanity and for capturing the emotionally draining tragedy that lurks in the background throughout.

There is an expressionistic quality to the performances that adds a strand of universalism to the highly specific nature of the plot. Whilst the story of Italian migrants and working-class longshoremen places it within a time and place, this production leaves the audience in no doubt that the deeper themes are those that have always been with us.

It is anchored by a performance of exceptional power by Mark Strong as Eddie Carbone. He brings a natural physicality to the role that tells a story of sinewy strength rather than bullish power; the famous description of ‘eyes like tunnels’ is entirely apt for his Eddie, this is no knuckle-headed docker, but a man of complexity and internal conflict. We sense that behind those eyes is a torrent of raging emotions that he is intelligent enough to recognise but too inarticulate to express.

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