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 best and worst of experimental theatre

Ring – Fuel @ Battersea Arts Centre, until 11 October 2014

Karaoke – Sleepwalk Collective @ Battersea Arts Centre, until 18 October 2014

It is presumably with a sense of playful creativity that Battersea Arts Centre has paired Ring and Karaoke as an unofficial double-bill, meaning the adventurous theatre-goer can head straight from Fuel’s Ring in the Council Chamber in time to catch the start of Sleepwalk Collective’s Karaoke in the Staff Recreation Room.Ring_NEWWEB

Even the anodyne room names, a hangover from the BAC’s municipal past and a world away from the bright lights of the West End, are appropriate for two shows that, in very different ways, explore the nature of theatre as performance. For Spanish-English company, Sleepwalk Collective, this exploration is at the very heart of its show but for Fuel it is a by-product of their production.

David Rosenberg and Glen Neath worked with neuroscientists at the UCL Ear Institute in order to grasp how the human brain manages to map the location of sound and have put their learning to good effect in Ring. Set in complete darkness and told to the audience through a pre-recorded audio track via headphones, there is no live performance but we are a long way from the world of the Radio 4 afternoon play. The sound design is very impressive and, in the darkness, through the headphones, you get a fully-rounded 360 degree performance that could easily be mistaken for live action.

KARAOKE-Sleepwalk-Collective-600x350The darkness is integral to the plot and so there is not a disconnect with the fact you are sitting in a room with the lights off. The functional surroundings are also important because for the concept to work people need to forget they are an audience member and believe that they could be part of the story. Dwelling on this would spoil the experience but the play hinges on ideas about group therapy and what people may share in the anonymity that darkness provides.

There is a creeping menace within the action that plays on the best type of horror – not one of shocks but a genuine psychological unease. It is that moment of quiet realisation that can be terrifying; the end of The Vanishing or the rich seam of Japanese psychological horrors through the late 90’s. You become, it seems, a central player in the story; it revolves around you and the room itself becomes alive with an action that you know can’t be there but that becomes real through the connections the brain will force you to make.

Ultimately Ring will work to the degree that the individual invests in the concept, any feeling of unease will only come from your own mind. The words and sounds are played directly into your head, and whilst everyone is listening to the same story they are listening to it within their own world. As the narrative unfolds, and scenes are played out, it is still only a sketch, it is the responsibility of the audience to colour the picture in. The success with which you do so will determine how successful you find the show.

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Adler and Gibb

Bafflingly brilliant Adler & Gibb presents a conceptual challenge

Adler & Gibb – Royal Court, until 05 July 2014 (tickets)

There is no way, easy or otherwise, to describe Tim Crouch’s latest play, Adler & Gibb, so that it makes sense to the reader. Despite seeing more than 100 plays over the last three years I cannot recall another production that feels so elusive that I am left suggesting that the only way to understand it is to experience it. As a play it is defiantly high-concept, deliberately infuriating and fully aware of the challenge it makes of its audience. Having roundly trashed Mr Burns for pretty much identical reasons it suddenly becomes apparent how fine the margins between success and failure really are.

Denise Gough and Brian Ferguson in Adler and Gibb at the Royal Court, LondonNot only is it difficult to describe, it is hard even to talk about it in a way that doesn’t make it sound like the most appallingly self-indulgent piece of pretentious, beard-stroking metropolitan claptrap. If it sounds to readers that I damning Adler & Gibb with this review then I can only echo Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony eulogy and the dubious claim that he comes ‘[… ] to bury Caesar, not to praise him’.

Tim Crouch does not tend to make plays with easy answers. In Adler & Gibb he has made a play without easy questions. Like a magician he lays subtle clues with one hand – a neat reference to the Maine lion that gives a hint to the identity of the actor – whilst at the same time misdirecting with the other – the changing story behind the napkin.

Yet the crucial factor is that despite arriving at the interval with a general sense of befuddlement and feeling close to displeasure at the opaqueness of the first half, Crouch has still built an atmosphere of trust; that this a play worth persisting with. It has an intangible quality that nags away at the back of the mind that you are on cusp of something quite special, and that if does fail then at least it will fail spectacularly.

To start with a description; Adler & Gibb is about a conceptual artist, her relationship with Gibb, their retreat from the world and what happened after. Or Adler & Gibb is about a student looking for scholarship funding through a study of Adler and Gibb. Or Adler & Gibb is about an actor who used to be a student who is making a film about Adler and Gibb. Or Adler & Gibb is about an actor playing Adler who meets Gibb, who tells us the story of Adler and Gibb. Or it is about different mediums of art, the tones they employ and how it affects the narratives they tell and the stories heard by the audience.  Or it is about all of this and none of this.

To start at the beginning; the play opens with a presentation from a student about Adler and Gibb. She is eager, passionate and delightfully gauche; instantly recognisable as someone who has been inspired but lacks the articulacy and the knowledge to present her views as we might expect. She tells us the story of Adler and Gibb but through it is digressive, fractured and jarringly myopic.

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