Humanity put on display

The Wild Duck – Barbican Theatre, until 01 November (tickets)

The last time I watched an Australian theatre company was when Sydney Theatre Company, boasting the talents of Cate Blanchett, Benedict Andrews and Martin Crimp, pitched up at the Barbican with a rather underwhelming production of Boho Strauss’ Big and Small.

Two years later Benedict Andrews’ star has reached the stratosphere with a highly-lauded Three Sisters being followed by the smash-hit of the summer; the Young Vic’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Meanwhile it is time for another Australian-import, as the Belvoir Sydney take part in the International Ibsen season at the Barbican, to go alongside invited productions of Peer Gynt and An Enemy of the People. Over the course of a tumultuous ninety minutes they prove they can certainly hold their own against strong competition.

01. Belvoir Sydney, The Wild Duck, Anita Hegh credit Heidrun LöhrSimon Stone has taken scissors to Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and, in stripping out exposition and characters, has created an entirely modern, rigorously taut and emotional devastating portrait of a family in collapse. In short, tightly drawn scenes he presents with discomforting acuity the fragility that surrounds us.

Portrait is a carefully chosen word, and Stone appears to continually have in mind Hjalmar’s job as photographer. Scenes are punctuated by a sharp cut to blackout in a move that apes the flash of a photographer’s bulb, and which serves to sear images into the mind. Direction is highly stylised and all of Ibsen’s naturalism is stripped away. The play is presented within a glass box that suggests a photographic studio and also works as a specific commentary on theatre’s ability to put human beings on display for the audience’s consumption. Trapped within the glass box, the characters come to resemble animals in a zoo – living entirely in their own world but permanently open to an unseen audience.

It is only at the very end of the play that characters venture out of their glass prison, and it is this final scene that will break even the hardest of hearts. After the rapidity of scenes building up to a crescendo that it is inevitable as the gun on Hedda Gabbler’s wall, we suddenly have the quiet calm. The storm has blown itself out and the survivors slowly, quietly regroup to survey the damage and tally-up the losses. Brendan Cowell’s Hjalmar and Anita Hegh’s Gina present the raw reality of humans bereft and broken by circumstance. Here Hakon’s macular degeneration acts as both crucial plot point and metaphor for the way that Hjalmar and Gina must now grope their way blindly towards the future.

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Simon Stephens’ takes axe to Chekov’s orchard

The Cherry Orchard – Young Vic Theatre, Until 29 November (Tickets)

Every regular theatre goer has their blind spots, the playwrights that don’t just pass them by but they go out of their way to avoid. Civilian Theatre will happily spend an evening debating the merits of the musical or delivering a polemic against those who worship at the pedestal of Sarah Kane. However in the dark, locked away from public view, is a secret shame; a failure to comprehend, or even by interested in, the merits of turn of Kate Duchêne (Lyubov Ranevskaya) and Paul Hilton (Peter Trofimov) in The Cherry Orchard at the Young Vic Photo by Stephen Cummiskeythe century Russian naturalism.

Being aware that Chekov is, arguably, thought of as second-only to Shakespeare as a playwright and that the finest writers, dramatists and critics hold the likes of Tolstoy, Gorky and Dostoevsky in the highest regard only increases the sense of a personal failure. Add a disinterest in Dickens and Ibsen and the feeling there is a black hole in my cultural awareness grows.

This is not to deny the obvious talent on display; it is impossible, even if you don’t like them, not to respect Dickens’ sentences or Chekov’s details but appreciating the building blocks is a very different thing to admiring the final structure – take the ArelorMitttal Tower, it is certainly impressively constructed but that doesn’t stop it being a hideous eyesore that is nothing more than a well-captured Freudian representation of Boris Johnson’s ego.

YOUNG VIC THEATRE: THE CHERRY ORCHARD, 2014Sticking with Freud, I suspect the problems spring from childhood – an A-Level interrogation of A Doll’s House through the lens of Stanislavski is enough to break the spirit of anyone. Task, Objective, Super Objective; it may be true, it may be necessary, it certainly sucks the spirit of the unknown out of theatre. It went in hand-in-hand with experiencing a lifeless, long and boring production of Gorky’s Summerfolk at the National (although seeing the cast included Roger Allam, Patricia Hodge and Simon Russell-Beale, I am willing to concede the problem may have been with this particular reviewer).

Whether the production was good or not, it came at one of those moments you only later realise was ‘formative’. In the same year I saw Complicite’s Mnemonic and  a revival of Steven Berkoff’s East – how could a staid, hundred year old drama possibly compete with the vitality of Berkoff or a company showing an impressionable young mind all that theatre could be.

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Radical naturalism in haunting reinvention of a classic

Fraulein Julie – Barbican, until 04 May

Strindberg’s Miss Julie never seems to quite fall out of fashion but even by its standards, London has been awash with the play. This is the third major version in less than a year, and it has been only six months since audiences at the Barbican were left underwhelmed by the high-profile casting of art-house favourite Juliette Binoche in the title role, whilst those who saw Mies Julie were rather more  thrilled by the South African reinvention and the Young Vic took it upon themselves to revive Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie.

For all the different qualities these productions brought to Strindberg’s original they must be regarded to be drifting in the wake of Katie Mitchell’s exceptional production, which contains a lacerating truthfulness that Fraulein Julie in Katie Mitchell's radical reinventionmakes it almost unbearable to watch. The most remarkable element of the exposure of the truth in this most naturalistic of plays is that Mitchell’s deliberately subverts audience expectations of naturalism by introducing many layers of artifice in order to produce a dislocating, alienating experience.

Fraulein Julie contains all of the directorial tics of a Katie Mitchell production; television cameras are used almost continuously alongside the action, a set creates physical barriers between audience and actors, sound booths overlay conversation and Foley artists provide live sounds effects. The audience are left in the position of watching both the back of a TV studio at the same time as watching a radical reinvention of the Strindberg play – and yet despite all this feel no dissonance as the events unfold.

These traits in Mitchell seem appropriate – in so far as there are auteurs in theatre, it is hard to imagine many British directors fitting the bill better. Her natural reference points seem to be from Russian cinema – with the slightly woozy quality of Sokurov’s The Sun and its obsessive focus on Hirohito being particularly reminiscent in the utter focuus on one character even as events of more dramatic significance happen external to the action. .

It is not that Mitchell has a filmic quality to her work but that she has the auteur’s passion for pursing a singular vision with seemingly little regard for the enjoyment of the audience. It expresses a confidence in her own belief, and that if the belief is proved correct then the audience will be taken with her. Fraulein Julie is an experience and rarely a particularly pleasant one; it is draining, august and defiant in its lack of concession to those watching. It seems a rare person who can increase the level of austerity attached to Strindberg but this is what Mitchell has achieved.

A day after performance it is still impossible to attach a sense of how ‘good’ it was – even in tragedy there is usually a way to qualify enjoyment, be it through plot, character or performance. Here the plot is stripped away to focus entirely on one character, but the character is provided with very little interior life and the performances themselves are muted through their heightened naturalism.

However there is something about the whole affair that is undoubtedly brilliant and possibly makes it the most genuinely ground-breaking production of the year. In Mitchell’s previous work there has been an attempt to force her ideas onto plays that are not best suited to the technique. With Fraulein Julie, Mitchell has found the content to harmonise with form.

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