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.
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 the 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.
Sticking 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.
There are few playwrights whose output is as prodigious as Simon Stephens; since 2010 he is credited against 15 works either as writer or adapter. He has built a fertile partnership with Katie Mitchell leading to a new translation of The Cherry Orchard arriving at the Young Vic in the autumn and, like Mitchell, he is highly feted abroad; working with Patrice Chéreau and Estonia’s Theatre NO99 on audience-challenging work that utilise multiple levels of abstraction and woozy dreamscapes to threaten the entire disintegration of narrative. However he is proved himself equally adept at producing crowd-pleasing adaptations and enjoyed great success with Mark Haddon’s A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night–time and his translation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.
Around Stephens’ swirls this air of the unknown, which makes any new work by him an enticing proposition. However this inability to pigeon-hole him has also led to him becoming one of Britain’s most divisive playwrights and Birdland is no exception to this.
What’s On Stage has pulled together how it has split the major newspapers, the blogging world has been generally united in criticism and it has been left to the always insightful Matt Trueman to attempt a passionate and cogent defence of the play.
Having been intrigued by Three Kingdoms and its radical Lynchian take on cross-border crime drama – possibly the only bright spot of the otherwise dire attempt to produce a theatrical ‘cultural Olympiad’ – Civilian Theatre has always been prepared to give Stephens a degree of slack. However it is troubling that flaws evident in Three Kingdoms crop up again in Birdland.
Three Kingdoms portrayal of female characters and sexual violence came very close to glorification rather than dispassionate reportage and whilst the work of multiple hands in the authorship of the piece made it hard to assign responsibility, it is depressing to see that three years later Stephens’ female characters remain ciphers for his fascination with charismatic men.
His work also remains far too long, Three Kingdoms was a punishing three hours whilst Birdland clocks in at an interval-less 110 minutes. It is slickly directed by Carrie Cracknall and the plot bounces along but as Andrew Scott’s rockstar Paul ends up in yet another European city, you do wonder if they could have shortened this endless tour by just a little.
It is down to the magnetic and compelling performance by Andrew Scott that the evening did not feel even longer. Whilst many of the audience may be drawn to this by his work in Sherlock (and one can see echoes of Moriarty in Scott’s dangerously charismatic Paul), he is no novice to the stage and took the lead in the (unfortunately woeful) Emperor and Galilean at the National. The snippet of Angels in America, shown as part of the National Theatre’s 50th birthday celebrations, also provided a chance to see an unusually intelligent and sensitive actor at work.
He turns Paul, on the surface a rather two-dimensional rockstar damaged by the sudden accumulation of wealth and fame, into a living creation. Scott finds a kernel of humanity within Paul’s increasingly disaffected personality; that part of his soul that led him to create the music that first brought him to people’s attention and which he is in the systematic process of destroying.
Read…people in defence of Birdland
Read…people criticising Birdland
Three Kingdoms – Hammersmith Lyric, playing until 19 May 2012 [With Munich Kammerspiele and Estonia’s Teater NO99]
Three Kingdoms is an ambitious collaborative work that pulls together the best of Britain, Germany and Estonia in the shape of playwright Simon Stephens, director Sebastian Nübling and designer Ene-Liis Semper. If Simon Stephens is a well-known name on the British stage thanks to critically-acclaimed plays like Wastewater and Punk Rock, the general lack of recognition for the other two is more a result of our insular Anglo-American approach to theatre rather than any lack of talent on their part: Sebastian Nübling works with Munich Kammerspiele, whilst Ene-Liis Semper co-founded Teater NO99 in 2004, and I am reliably informed by Estonian cultural emissaries that they are generally regarded as being towards the top of a vibrant (?) theatre scene in Estonia.
This trio of talents have rather curiously taken it upon themselves to work with a narrative that would not seem out of place airing on ITV in three parts on successive Tuesday nights. Three Kingdoms begins by giving every impression of being a staged version of a TV crime drama; bleak scenes of cold, stained police rooms, dysfunctional domestic relationships and stereotypical Russian gangsters.
As the narrative begins to open out the ambition of the play starts to be revealed. Increasingly the action takes on a woozy, slightly sickening feel as the audience watches events as the alienated Detective Inspector Ignatius Stone (Nicholas Tennant) sees them, rather than his bi-lingual partner, Detective Sergeant Charlie Lee (Ferdy Roberts).
Watch the trailer below:
Well the big news of the day is the announcement of some major theatre projects that will be heading our way in 2012. One of the elements of the Olympic legacy that never really seem to have caught the public imagination is the Cultural Olympiad – something aptly skewered in the BBC’s painfully accurate picture of life as a middle-manager on the Olympics (something that I have at times had the questionable fortune to view first hand).
World Stages London is (and this sounds does sound a little to close to the clip above for comfort) “…a once-in-a-lifetime celebration through theatre of the exhilarating cosmopolitan diversity of London’s people and culture”. Well okay, in fairness London is one of the great international cities of the world – and what sets it apart on the cultural stage is it is ability to be a melting pot that blends the ingredients of the art and world view of different cultures to create something unique – in a way that only New York can really claim to challenge..
With talents as varied as Peter Brook and Jonathan Dove, and pieces including a 500 strong site-specific work about Babel and the first-ever production of Wild Swans, it seems pretty certain that there will be something for everything in the run-up to the Olympics (where it will be wall-to-wall British sporting patriotism for the best part of six weeks).
Reasons to be cheerful…
Peter Brook, in a collaboration with Marie Helene Estienne, continues his exploration of fables and the art of story-telling and myth-making with this adaptation of a short-story by Can Themba. Now personally I have found Brook’s last two outings at the Barbican insubstantial and well below the standards that he is capable of. Lately his reduction of the stage to its barest essentials have taken on the feel of an ascetic. However one always lives in hope of a return to the form that made him a colossus of 20th century theatre.
It runs from 21 May to the 16 June. More details can be found here
In what looks like a very special production and the possible flagship event of the whole project, Battersea Arts Centre and WildWorks (responsible for the critically acclaimed The Passion at Port Talbot) are teaming up for Babel, which includes a cast of 500 community and professional actors, musicians and performers. It is site-specific and the location is yet to be revealed, but it seems likely that a famous London landmark is involved and one imagines that it will have to be somewhat tower-shaped (my personal hope is Big Ben but one imagines security concerns may make that one tricky)
It runs from 08 – 20 May. More details can be found here
A literary classic and a world-wide best seller (no hyperbole here, over 30 translations and 10 million copies – thanks Wikipedia!), Juna Chang’s novel looks set to be one of the more popular smash hits of the festival. Telling a story of one family’s multi-generational struggle against the backdrop of an ever-changing China, it effectively contains the biographies of three generations of women in the Chang family.
I must admit it has never held any interest for me whatsoever. I haven’t read it and can’t imagine doing so soon. No doubt it is my loss but then so are many of the other books I have never, and sadly will never, read. It is almost certain going to be a complete sell-out and if you want to go, you should get your tickets soon.
Despite being one of the more mysterious offerings on the programme, its sheer intriguing nature has me hooked and will be what I will be most looking forward to this spring. Written by Simon Stephens and exploring the trade in trafficked women and organised crime across Europe, it doesn’t profess to being the most uplifting evening you are likely to spend in the theatre. However a new play by Stephens is always worth catching and it is interesting to see a plotline that seems more suggestive of a film being given the stage treatment – throw in the puzzling trail picture (above) and you can count me in.
It runs from 03 – 19 May. More details can be found here