I don’t want realism, I want magic

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Despite being a fully grown adult with the extreme good fortune of doing something I love for a living, there are still days when all I really want from life is to go back in time and work on the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. As an awkward, bookish teenager, those movies – and slightly later on the books, in the form of a battered but beloved doorstop-sized volume passed down from my dad – meant everything to me. I spent much of the time I should have been revising for my GCSEs compulsively watching the DVD special features; my best friend and I had regular and passionate debates about who was better, Legolas or Aragorn (Team Aragorn all the way); and my bedroom was littered with dozens of carefully drawn, sub-Middle Earth maps of dreamed-up worlds for all the novels I was constantly planning (and failing) to write.

Looking back, I think it was about more than just an escapist love of fantasy and the sight of Viggo Mortensen wielding a sword (not that either of those things should be underestimated). I think it also had something to do with the idea of making something; of dreaming up an entire, meticulously constructed fictional universe (not to mention whole fucking languages), or of assembling a mind-boggling number of people in New Zealand to somehow haphazardly piece together a hugely ambitious bit of cinema. My unthinking, unprocessed reaction as a teenager was simply “I want that”. I wanted to be one of their gang. I wanted to make something.

This weekend, I said goodbye to Secret Theatre. The weekend before, some friends and I spent all of Sunday watching the extended edition Lord of the Rings DVDs back to back (that’s just under twelve quality hours in Middle Earth). And I’ve started to think that perhaps my steadfast, pulse-racing love for the two things isn’t all that different.

I can recognise that not everything about The Lord of the Rings is an unqualified triumph. The books are, if I’m entirely honest, a tad longer than they need to be. As for the films, there are plenty of moments where the pace flags; I never fail to roll my eyes at the is-this-the-end-oh-no-it-isn’t quality of The Return of the King‘s final half hour; and I remain irritated to death by Liv Tyler’s underwritten, maddeningly breathy Arwen. In fact, women in general don’t get much of a look in, an absence that isn’t made up for by Galadriel and Eowyn’s (admittedly cheering) badass moments. Similarly, at times I’ve been critical of numerous elements of the Secret Theatre project, from individual shows to its much-discussed secrecy. That doesn’t mean I’m not still bursting with love for both endeavours.

A lot has been said and written recently about fandom and tribalism. Matt Trueman followed up his column on fan culture last year with a new blog on the subject for WhatsOnStage; Megan Vaughan, whose end-of-the-year fanzine was perhaps my favourite Christmas present (it’s between that and my smoothie maker), penned a kind of parting love letter to Secret Theatre; and Stewart Pringle wrote brilliantly in praise of tribes and head-banging. Tribalism isn’t without its problems, particularly in the small world of theatre. At times it can be blinkered and exclusive, stoking the idea that the art form is the realm of an elite few. But I find myself agreeing with Dan Hutton, in yet another piece on Secret Theatre, that “we need some fucking tribalism now and again”.

Tribalism creates allegiances, it makes you feel part of a community, it means that you have something at stake. When you have something at stake, you can’t just shrug off the disappointment of a Show 6 (I can’t quite pin down why, but it just didn’t work for me) or the anticipatory dread of what look like mediocre, money-spinning prequels (I still can’t quite bring myself to watch the Hobbit films for fear that it’s going to be Star Wars all over again; a girl can’t cope with that kind of heartbreak twice in a lifetime). And as unfashionable as it may be for a critic to be anything approaching a “fan”, if nothing’s at stake then what’s the point?

I’ve just finished reading Hatchet Job, Mark Kermode’s latest book, and while it isn’t about to shatter the foundations of how I think about criticism, it does prompt a refreshing rethink of why on earth any of us bother doing it – not to mention offering a lesson (as most of Kermode’s writing does) on how to be at once entertaining, intelligent and accessible. Though nominally about the cruel pleasure of the scathing critical attack, Kermode’s book is drenched in a sincere and at times unapologetically sentimental love of the art form he writes about. He’s a fan in the true sense of the word, someone who melts at the memory of his favourite films and weeps for days after rediscovering a bit of beloved celluloid that he thought had been lost. At that point I wanted to reach through the pages and hold his hand, or at least say “I know. I know.”

Revisiting my two favourite Secret Theatre shows – A Streetcar Named Desire and A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts – yesterday felt a bit like that. I hadn’t seen Streetcar since it was first staged by the company, right at the beginning of their journey together, and coming back to it was like greeting an old friend: discovering that you’ve both changed a bit, but that what you have is even better than you remembered. After all that time on tour refining and inhabiting it, the production just feels that bit more confident and that bit less in the hulking shadow of Three Kingdoms. Things that I liked first time round I loved on a second viewing: the coloured lights, the balloons, the sexy blasts of music. Also, who needs Gillian Anderson when you have Nadia Albina? I seriously doubt I’ll ever see a better or more heartbreaking Blanche.

Then there’s A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts. Deep breath. I’ve adored this show from the start and probably went from critic to ardent fan from the point at which Leo Bill’s name was pulled out of the hat the second time I saw it and I did an involuntary fist-pump, swiftly sacrificing any last shred of professionalism. Yesterday was my fifth time and, rather aptly, Leo was once again the protagonist. So what do I love so much about it? Too many things to list here. But I think the “Proud Mary” moment kind of sums it up. It’s a scene of such bittersweet joy and exhaustion and community and love and sheer, fleeting ecstasy that it manages to capture a whole kaleidoscope of emotion in one brilliantly silly dance. Last night I spent the whole thing with my face stretched in a smile so wide it forbid the tears that sat poised in my eyes, a deluge just waiting to be unleashed.

We try and fail and try and fail and try and fail again. But still we dance. (*wipes tears from eyes*)

If teenage me could have seen Secret Theatre, maybe I would have spent those clumsy, formative years following the company on tour, making bad devised theatre with my mates and agonising over who was my favourite between Leo and Sergo (undoubtedly a much harder choice than that between Aragorn and one-facial-expression Legolas). And I really, really hope that thanks to Secret Theatre’s ballsy, glorious, messy existence there’s at least one teenager out there who’s caught that bug, who wants to be part of that gang, who wants to make something. Even if, as a fully grown adult aching with nostalgia, she only ends up writing about it.

All together now …

A Streetcar Named Desire, Young Vic

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“I don’t want realism. I want magic.”

In Secret Theatre’s version of A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche’s famous line raised a light, knowing chuckle from the audience. The character might have been referring to her inclination towards fantasy and illusion, but her words could well have been a mantra for the production, which turned Tennessee Williams’ play and all its well-worn visual tropes inside out. Those words, spoken in that context, also posed an implicit question. Why, on the stage, do we settle for realism when we could have magic?

I’m reminded of the frustrated words of Eugene Ionesco: “I personally would like to bring a tortoise onto the stage, turn it into a racehorse, then into a hat, a song, a dragoon and a fountain of water. One can dare anything in the theatre and it is the place where one dares the least”. In theatre, where one thing always stands for another – when the relationship is one of metaphor – why do we still insist that those two things look alike?

Partly liberated by the secrecy bound up in the project (show titles are not released in advance), Secret Theatre’s Streetcar somehow freed the play of all its – and particularly Blanche’s – baggage, presenting us instead with its exposed innards. It understood theatrical representation as metaphor in its most playful sense; chunks of watermelon stood in for poker chips, and Blanche’s endless glasses of liquor became liberal drenchings of water. It was not quite magic, but it certainly wasn’t realism.

By comparison, Benedict Andrews’ new production feels sort of drab, dull even. First, let’s be clear: Andrews’ take on Streetcar isn’t exactly realism. There’s a stylishly skeletal revolving set, garish washes of coloured light, scene changes underscored with Swans and Chris Isaak. But in between the vivid flashes of colour and music, it’s naturalism by another name. Matt Trueman has coined the perfect term for it: “realishism”.

That “ish” is apt. This Streetcar is interesting-ish, elegant-ish. It puts a slight spin – both literal and figurative – on Williams’ play, but never enough to leave us giddy. Or put it this way: if you were expecting another classic done in the same vein as Andrews’ storming, vodka-fuelled Three Sisters, prepare to be disappointed.

On the main stage of the Young Vic, Stella and Stanley’s cramped, claustrophobic apartment is a metal husk of a building. Magda Willi’s set strips out walls, leaving only the framework of the rooms through which an audience can peer. The characters are at one level exposed and at another trapped. This is the cage that Blanche knocks against, that Stella has no desire to get out of.

Andrews’ production sets this space in almost perpetual motion, turning it clockwise, anti-clockwise and back again on the wide revolve. It’s slightly reminiscent of Ian MacNeil’s smoothly spinning set for A Doll’s House on the same stage, but while that design offered fleeting, cinematic tableaux between scenes, this keeps everyone queasily turning throughout. The sensation is one of constant shifts, but the only direction in which any of it can go is round in dizzy circles.

Like any repetitive cycle, however, this one begins to get boring. In the first half, the pace is swift and the tension tight, coiled like Stanley’s unpredictable temper. But the momentum drops away after the interval as the production follows increasingly familiar tracks. Andrews might half-heartedly update Williams’ play, kitting it out with Ikea furniture and skinny jeans, but Gillian Anderson’s Blanche is just as we expect her: flirtatious, fragile Southern belle, all carefully composed but rapidly cracking mask. Her downfall is competently conveyed, but never quite tragic.

While Anderson fails to break the mould as Blanche, Ben Foster’s war-damaged Stanley is an intriguing take on the role. Rather than picking up the obvious cues from Williams’ descriptions of the character as primitively animalistic, Andrews and Foster seize on Stanley’s military history, suggesting a man broken by conflict. When his first major outburst arrives, it is truly explosive because it seems to come unbidden; this is not a man of naturally violent passions, but one shot through with an anger he is unable to control.

Stanley’s reconciliation with Vanessa Kirby’s Stella, immediately following this scene, is another of Andrews’ successes. Their bodies meet in a rush of passion, their movements adopting a tango-like quality under the hot red glow of Blanche’s Chinese lampshade. The production is studded with little moments like this, small scenelets that elevate the quality of the rest. They are too sparsely positioned, however, to entirely rescue the bland expanses in between.

It’s unclear, meanwhile, just what Andrews’ updating achieves. His Three Sisters wrenched Chekhov’s play out of any specific temporal context, brilliantly locating it on a timeless, abstract plane. The setting for Streetcar, on the other hand, is recognisably modern, but with few concessions to that modernity in Anderson’s performance. What the time shift does highlight, however, is the play’s gender politics. Watching, I’m more aware than ever of the limited borders of Blanche’s horizon. As she says at one point, her role as a woman is to entertain, to be beautiful. And the beer-drenched masculinity of Stanley’s poker games is not much of an alternative, trapping men within a system of rules and expectations that is just as restrictive, if endowed with a bit more power.

These hints at an implicit gender critique, however, dissolve into obvious and borderline offensive imagery. To leave us in no doubt of either Blanche’s troubled mental state or the pressures of femininity heaped onto her, Andrews puts Anderson into a candy pink dress and wonky tiara, hair ruffled and face smeared with make-up. Southern belle transformed into dishevelled Barbie princess. It’s the crashingly unsubtle culmination of a dismayingly uninventive telling of this character’s trajectory, casting little light on its themes of mental health and sexual politics. From a director whose interpretation of Three Sisters was so bursting with invention, it’s a bitter disappointment.

Photo: Johan Persson.