Thrills and chills enough to satisfy the most capricious of gods

Bakkhai – Almeida Theatre, until 19 September 2015 (ticketsthere are still a handful of remaining)Ben-Whishaw-in-Bakkhai2 Photo credit Marc Brenner

The first notable thing about ‘Bakkhai’, Anne Carson’s new translation of Euripides ancient tragedy, is the missing definite article from the play’s title. Commonly known as ‘The Bacchae’ the removal of ‘the’ feels in itself a significant act in keeping with the indeterminate nature of the play’s leading character, Dionysos.

We use ‘the’ when the person taking in the information will know exactly to what we will refer. Yet in a Thebes that has been brought under the spell of a mysterious interloper nothing is quite as it seems. Dionysos may appear as man or, as seen by Pentheus a ‘bull leading me in procession [with] horns growing out of your head’,  entranced ‘menead[s] sitting happily  working at little tasks’ are also capable of pulling ‘a calf to pieces as it bellowed alive in her bare hands’. Thebes itself is lit by two suns/sons; one for those who see and one those who do not.  In this world how can we be sure enough of what we know for anything to feel definite.

Ben Whishaw and Bertie Carvel face off in Bakkhai Almeida Theatre Photo credit Marc BrennerAnne Carson’s decision is just one small part of a superb translation. It follows her exceptional reworking of Sophocles’ Antigone for Ivo Van Hove. In all the plaudits heading for Ben Whishaw’s central performance and Orlando Gough’s magnificent composition for the Chorus, Carson’s contribution should not be underestimated. If her translation of Antigone stripped backed much of the poetic, Bakkhai feels more of a hybrid. If it uses a simplified language that allows a naturalness of speech within Thebes that is much in keeping with the modern world – Pentheus’ order to ‘go to Teiresias’ little outpost and bulldoze it’ could come from any age – then upon Mt Cithaeron the language changes in order to retain the sense of ancient rites and rituals.

It feels that this approach to the writing is aligned with James McDonald’s vision of the play. Transformation seems to be at the heart of McDonald’s approach. Language transforms depending on place.

The arrival of this mysterious stranger is the catalyst for a series of transformations. Pentheus and Dionysos are both sons of Thebes but equally they are two halves of one person. Dionysos is the explosion of all that Pentheus has repressed, in himself and in the society he governs. We feel the yearning of the populace when the shepherd, despite terror at what he has witnessed, recounts how Dionysos ‘gave the gift of wine to men: why, without wine we’ve no freedom from pain. Without wine there’s no sex. Without sex life isn’t worth living’. This is both act of narration and reproach for Pentheus.

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As much wonderful women as super men

Man and Superman – Littleton Theatre @ National Theatre, until 19 May 2015 (Tickets – day seats & returns only, NT Live on 14 May 2015)Man_and_Superman_poster_notitle

Judging by reviews it appears difficult to talk about Man and Superman without first beginning by highlighting all the intimidating facts that surround it. So yes, it is three and a half hours of densely packed text, cut-down from closer to five, written by a formidably – and forbiddingly – intelligent committed socialist who straddled late-Victorian/early Edwardian Britain. And yes, back in 1903, it was described as ‘unstageable’.

With that introduction it may come as a surprise that tickets are also as rare as hen’s teeth (day seats and returns only). One suspects that it hasn’t been produced because the public have been crying out for a revival of a play that was last staged at the National two years before this critic had even been born. It is possible that the presence of an actor who can plausibly claim to be an A-lister of both stage and screen may be the cause of ticket scarcity.

Stage appearances by Ralph Fiennes have been limited over the last 15 years; he was last seen as Prospero back in 2011, in what was unfortunately a rather interminable production by Michael Grandage (a sentence I seemed to have repeated more and more in the intervening years), but reminded everyone of his talents with a blistering snippet of Pravda’s Lambert La Roux during the National Theatre’s 50 Years celebration in 2013.

'Man and Superman' Play by Bernard Shaw performed in the Olivier Theatre at the Royal National Theatre, London, UKAnd what a performance it is. This is no stunt casting. No director would be foolish to let an inexperienced actor loose with Jack Tanner. The part is as difficult as they come. It requires the ability to enable a 21st century audience to find common ground with a figure who spends most of the play declaiming grandly about the machinations of women and who, one suspects, would only be happy marrying himself (and, as is the nature of such plots this is, in a way, exactly what happens).

The other difficulty is the sheer challenge of the language. The play runs to over 57,000 words and most of those are Tanner’s. Actors cannot rely on lovingly crafted Elizabethan verse-speaking to help settle the lines in the head, dialogue is akin to the densely packed social commentary of Dickens. When one hears Tanner it is hard not to detect the hectoring tones of Bernard Shaw in a room full of weary brow-beaten gentleman thoroughly bored with being told about the inequities of the Edwardian world. This is a challenging part, getting the wrong tone will lead to the comedy seeming tin-eared, or the moralising too earnest.

Fiennes is quite magnificent in the role. His performance fizzes with an energy that is vital for driving the momentum of a plot that seeks to extend a seemingly traditional comedy of manners into an epic spanning more than 200 minutes. Fiennes energy feels justified by the character – his vitality in keeping with the slightly pompous air of the revolutionary driven by ideology but supported by money.

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Knocking down the Berlin (fourth) Wall

An Enemy of the People – Schaubühne Berlin @ Barbican (24 – 28 September 2014)

They don’t make many like they make Thomas Ostermeier. That he is not on the tip of the tongue of British theatre-goers says more about the appallingly low number of productions that make it across the channel and the limited tours when if the even get here. An Enemy of the People was sold out for its five performances at the Barbican and I am certain if there was the bravery to finance a small tour then people would come. How can people71c4ddf9-d738-459e-9cb0-b6f09f73e98d-460x276 learn what they like if they never get the chance to see anything different?

The glorious thing about watching an Ostermeier production is that while you may not know quite what you will get, you know it will still be a quintessentially Ostermeier affair. For, yes, we are back in the realm of the director as  auteur. Cue much huffing and puffing from the comment boards and cue rapturous, and occasionally unthinking, applause from everyone else. An Enemy of the People is the latest to hit the Barbican and follows on from a radical Hamlet that tore down almost every Shakespearian convention and reinvented the play from the grave up.

T1Ostermeier seems to be a man who will be anything but be dull. He brings his own hyperactivity to the text and energises performances far past what audiences should find comfortable; Hamlet clocked in at 168 minutes without an interval, and An Enemy of the People doesn’t fall far short at 150. Yet the quality can be seen that, despite the ridiculous running time, the audience sat in rare rapt attention, with not a rustle or toilet break to be seen disrupting the action.

An Enemy of the People is not without flaws and there is a nagging suspicion that Florian Borchmeyer commits serious logical fallacies in trying to bridge his adaptation of Ibsen’s text with a modern element that draws on the anonymous 2007 paper, The Coming Insurrection. However these flaws don’t destroy the integrity of the play and should be placed in the context of the vitality of the production and the creation of a theatrical experience that genuinely led to an enforced, and welcome, assessment of my own political values.

That the modern element fails is a shame due to the fact that Ibsen’s own play is so strangely contemporary that it barely needs updating to maintain its resonance. The idea of the small, righteous man standing up against a society that does not want to hear his truth has never gone out of fashion and has grown in stature in recent years, with the Young Vic staging a 1970’s set version last year.

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Memories are made of this

Incognito – The Bush Theatre, booking until 21 June 2014

What separates humans from the rest of the animal world? Whilst we have many evolutionary advantages it is surely the way our brain evolved its extraordinary capacity to retain and recall information to such a complex degree that makes human fundamentally different from other animals.

Genetically it may be our DNA that determines that we are biologically human but is it not our memories that are essential in creating personality – in essence what turns a ‘human’ into a ‘person’. Without memories we can be biologically human and be expected to treated as such, but if we lose all sense of our memory and the associated ability to make the connections to identify with our past, can we still be thought of as the same person as we were before?

This argument is a modern conception of the Humean idea of the self. We are made up of instances, of individual perceptions, and it is the continuous linkage that creates the self. Without this ability to tap into these Incognito 2experiences, to recall them, do we retain the same self?

Part of the problem with answering these questions is that, compared to our other organs, we know laughably little about the brain and how it functions. Neurologists may claim, with assured prognoses, that image or area tells us that a person is a serial killer or understands a joke, but this is all inference. We do not know how it works in practice, we cannot say with certainty what is in a brain that makes one person a genius and another a fool.

This is the starting point for Nick Payne’s latest play, Incognito. Payne takes the remarkable story of Einstein’s brain and uses it to frame a complex, demanding but ultimately satisfying investigation into the fragility of humans, both as physical objects and emotional beings.

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