In the Night Time (Before the Sun Rises), Gate Theatre

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As a child – like so many children – I was afraid of the dark. In those long nights when I was stubbornly holding my eyes open against the threatening gloom, my mum would read to me from Martin Waddell’s Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear? In the book, Little Bear doesn’t like the dark. To Big Bear’s exasperation, he won’t go to sleep at night. What is he afraid of? Big Bear asks, again and again.

“The dark all around us,” he replies.

In the Night Time (Before the Sun Rises) unfolds a little like a storybook. Even its title has a fairytale ring to it. Once upon a time, Man and Woman (nameless urban archetypes) meet. On the street, maybe, or in a bar. They go on dates. He tells bad jokes. They fall in love.

And then they have a baby. A child is born – though, Nina Segal’s play insists, this isn’t a religious story. This child is just another child. And like so many children, it cries. The newborn bawls ceaselessly through the night, driving its parents to distraction. We join them in one narrow, dark sliver of one of these sleepless nights, as fatigued desperation gives way to hallucinatory fears. Slowly, inexorably, all the terrible things happening elsewhere in the world seep through the four thin, brittle walls of the child’s bedroom.

The two sleep-deprived protagonists are at once specific and generic. They’re both invested with just enough personality that we feel we know them a bit (she believes marriage is a misogynistic institution, he smokes though he knows he shouldn’t), yet they remain blank enough for us as audience members to project something of ourselves onto them. A bit like characters in storybooks.

Segal’s dialogue oscillates between third and first person, while performers Alex Waldmann and Adelle Leonce always seem to be both in and out of character at the same time, flickering constantly between narrating and representing. It feels vital that they don’t ever become too particular, too easy to dismiss. This is not just about them, in the same way that fairytales are never just about Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. This is for all of us who have brought or will bring or might bring another human being into this world. This incredible, broken, fucked-up world.

As a teenager, I devoured dystopian fiction. I wasn’t alone. Dystopias seem to strike a chord with those trapped, awkwardly, between childhood and adulthood – perhaps, as Laura Miller suggests in the New Yorker, because “the typical arc of the dystopian narrative mirrors the course of adolescent disaffection”. In all those scorched worlds, seemingly far removed from the one I was growing up in, I found something to identify with.

Those imagined apocalypses, though, have never quite receded as I’ve got older. They remain, somewhere in my own personal store of fears, multiplied by the threats of climate change, terrorism, mutating viruses. The dark all around us.

Again, I’m not alone. In a recent essay on Aeon, Frank Bures argues that the apocalypse has never been easier to imagine in the hyper-connected world that we currently live in, but that it’s also an age-old anxiety. “The apocalypse wasn’t coming,” he realises. “It was always with us.”

In Blasted, a war zone explodes into a Leeds hotel room, violence tearing through Western comfort and complacency. Though In the Night Time owes a considerable debt to Sarah Kane’s play, here the domestic chaos of the child’s bedroom is never completely ruptured by the horrors beyond its walls. Instead they intrude and then recede, and then intrude and recede again.

It’s a small space, the stage at the Gate, and director Ben Kidd exploits that. It easily becomes one of the too-small rented flats that families squeeze into across this city, filled with accumulating stuff. At the start of the show, the two characters and all the detritus of their lives are wrapped up in clingfilm. Tearing through this plastic membrane, birthed into the performance space, Waldmann and Leonce begin to construct the fragile lives of their characters. A picture frame here, a string of fairy lights there. All the things that we invest with the meaning of a relationship.

With a child, of course, comes more stuff. Even the baby itself, a plastic doll with a flashing alarm in its head, arrives in an Amazon box. And littered with all the familiar junk of infancy – nappies and bottles and plastic, so much plastic – the stage already begins to take on a disordered, calamity-hit aesthetic, while the two parents circle one another like enemies in a war of their own. All it then takes to bring fears of conflict, crisis and disease crashing into the room is for this precariously constructed space to collapse entirely, possessions flying like shrapnel.

“The two things are not connected,” the characters repeat again and again about different events – an insistent and increasingly desperate refrain. Of course, it only reinforces the reality that they are. Somewhere, far away, people are dying. Here, in a rented flat in an overpriced city, parents are placating their screaming child with “plastic sacrifices”. The two things are connected. Comfort in one part of the world depends on suffering elsewhere.

Bures suggests that now, in the globalised twenty-first century, the nature of our apocalyptic visions has changed:

“Today our fears are broader, deeper, woven more tightly into our daily lives, which makes it feel like the seeds of our destruction are all around us. We are more afraid, but less able to point to a single source for our fear. At the root is the realisation that we are part of something beyond our control.”

This pervasive, unsettling fear is what reverberates through Escaped Alone, Caryl Churchill’s latest, compellingly strange play at the Royal Court, and it’s also what reverberates through In the Night Time. The Man and Woman feel acutely that imminent destruction is everywhere around them, but they feel powerless to fix whatever it is that has broken. Catastrophe and everyday life, meanwhile, are so closely knitted together that neither can overcome the other. The war zone never obliterates the child’s bedroom. The end of the world is both there and not there.

The apocalypse isn’t coming. It’s always with us.

As an adult, inching ever closer to 30, it starts to feel as though babies are everywhere. Facebook is suddenly full of them: a whole timeline of chubby cheeks and dimpled smiles. Female friends without kids begin, for the first time, to plan their lives within a slim reproductive window. At the same time, news headlines seem to scream the foolishness of bringing a child into a world fraught with so much violence and crisis and pain. Still, there’s only so much time, the world keeps reminding us. Tick tock. Better make your mind up.

Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs cleverly stretched out one couple’s conversation about whether or not to bring a child into the world, revealing how a private decision is also one of agonisingly public responsibility. What justification can there possibly be for placing another carbon footprint on an already overburdened planet? In the Night Time is, in some ways, the “after” version of that play. This couple have already had a child – “for all the right reasons,” they assure us – but are left wondering if in fact they’ve made a terrible mistake.

Both play and production occasionally strain this point. The repetitive rhythms of the play’s speech are apt, echoing both storybook narrative convention and the circular arguments of denial that so often greet situations of crisis, but they can also begin to grate. After the first wave of chaos, meanwhile, the staging gives itself few places to go. Waldmann and Leonce must simply pick their way through the plastic rubble of the set, an image that gradually loses its power as the piece goes on and the momentum begins to slow. With the exception of a tinny chorus of toy sounds, playfully reinforcing the ridiculousness of this plastic shrine the two characters have erected to their child, the second half of Kidd’s production never quite matches up to the first.

In its evocation of present anxieties, though, In the Night Time is pretty damn potent. I might not have a child of my own, or be thinking about bringing one into the world any time soon. But those fears, that feeling that we inhabit a broken world and that – even worse – we are all selfishly failing to fix it, get me right between the ribs. Segal and Kidd manage to create the uneasy feeling that apocalypse is always right round the corner and that we as flawed human beings are each at once responsible and helpless. In the end, the show suggests, all we can really do is confront that dark all around us, waiting and hoping for the dawn to break.

Photo: Bill Knight.

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Jonah and Otto, Park Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

– Robert Holman’s plays are conversations.

– That’s an obvious thing to say. Aren’t all plays conversations?

– Well, yes; they’re a conversation between characters, between the artist and the audience, between sets of ideas. But in Holman’s plays you get the sense that people – often strangers – are reallytalking to one another. So often we don’t really talk to other people; we speak, but we don’t communicate. Holman’s plays, or at least the ones I’ve encountered, tend to put individuals on a journey towards genuine communication.

– And as you say, they’re usually individuals who have no pre-existing relationship, people who simply encounter one another and discover, often via antagonism, an incredible shared intimacy and honesty. At the beginning ofJonah and Otto it certainly feels like it could go somewhere else, somewhere more aggressive – there’s a definite taste of danger there – and what’s so startling is the dissolving of all that aggression into tenderness.

– It feels significant as well that the relationship in this play is between two men, two men of different ages. The play offers these men a space to be vulnerable, their toughened edges sanded down, while at the same time constantly switching the power dynamic between this ageing, lonely clergyman (Otto) and the spiky but bruised not-quite-boy-not-quite-man he runs into on the street (Jonah). Both haunted; one overwhelmed by what has passed, the other by what is ahead. And somehow, in just 24 hours, they come to truly know one another. It’s easy to feel that Holman’s characters exist in a bubble of ideas and emotions, sealed off from the world, but there’s a sort of insistent politics to the presentation of this surprising and ultimately gentle male friendship. Particularly at this moment in time, the simple foregrounding of care, of taking notice of the human beings around you, can’t help but be political.

– You talk about how gentle the relationship between the two men is, but there’s also something slightly strange about it. Not strange bad, just … odd. But odd in a compelling way.

– I think that compelling quality has a lot to do with the performances. Peter Egan brings a sort of comforting gravity to Otto, an appropriately priestlike – vicar-like? – quality, with a wounded, desperate energy writhing just under that composed outer skin. But it’s Alex Waldmann as Jonah who claws at the heart, bringing both unpredictable danger and trembling anxiety to the role. The simple restlessness of his performance reveals so much about this character, the world that has shaped him and the relationship that quietly transforms him.

– But it’s just talking, isn’t it? Gentle, thoughtful, expansive talking, but talking nonetheless. Nothing really happens.

– What do you want, a fucking firework show?

– Well, maybe. Or something, something to make us all sit up and pay attention.

– “Love is paying attention”.

– Huh?

– That’s what Otto says: “love is paying attention”. And Holman asks us to do the same, doesn’t he? We have to slow down, listen, tune in. Pay attention. The whole point is that it’s quiet. No fireworks.

– Like that other one they did at the Donmar a couple of years ago, Making Noise Quietly.

– Yes. That seems to me what Holman’s plays specialise in: making noise quietly. There’s something muted and tender about them, something unobtrusive, yet they have this cumulative emotional volume. They deal in what Otto calls the “drip, drip” of life, in people and relationships, but with an injection of something else – magic, maybe?

– Well Jonah is a magician. In some ways his whole presence in the play, the way in which he interrupts the deadening loneliness of Otto’s existence, feels like a sort of conjuring act. There Otto is, feeling the bricks in the wall – grasping not for real warmth, but the residue it leaves after the sun has already disappeared – and this man materialises like a genie from a bottle.

– And isn’t theatre itself something of a magic trick? A collective conjuring, making something from nothing. It’s one of my favourite ways of thinking about performance, because it suggests that same paradox that theatre entertains. We’re desperate to know how the trick works, to see the strings, but at the same time we want to be taken in and enchanted by the magic. Tim Stark’s production begins to touch lightly on that tension, occasionally reminding us that we are experiencing this together in the space of the theatre, but it allows the two men at the centre of the show to be its simple, singular focus.

– If it is just about these two people and their encounter with one another, then couldn’t the staging be even more spare?

– I thought you wanted fireworks?

– OK, but forget that. If there’s something strange about this space, something isolated from the rest of the world, something almost quietly fantastical, then why do they need all those objects? There’s a hint of the abstract to this world, but then it’s full of these all too solid things. Are the accessories of life really important? 

– Maybe they’re a reminder, a vestige of the real world they’re escaping, the real world they have to return to. I just think that if it’s really about this relationship and about the possibility of revealing yourself more fully to a stranger than to those closest to you, then surely all we need is them. We don’t need the stuff.

– Except the apple. The apple’s good.

– That’s true. And the clothes feel important – as well as allowing for perhaps the most playfully elaborate undressing ever staged. But really, what matters is the two of them.

– Absolutely. There’s something else Otto says that struck me: “If you weren’t here, I’d have to invent you”. It’s a line that speaks so simply to our need for contact and also to our capacity for imagination. Is that why we invent things to believe in? The conversations of Holman’s plays, like that between Jonah and Otto, allow human beings to believe in one another and to speak aloud those fears, anxieties, dreams, guilts that we bury under layers of small talk and distraction. People truly come together. And the coming together has to be followed by a pulling apart; the characters are ultimately left, transformed, hopeful yet sad, to confront the world alone. What do you think?

– Hello?

– Are you still there?

Photo: Jack Sain.

As You Like It, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

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In The Forest and the Field, Chris Goode identifies the forest in Shakespeare as an inherently liminal space. It’s an area where identities blur, gender becomes fluid and appearances deceive; the usual rules are suspended and all bets are off. In an age of concrete jungles, director Maria Aberg has looked around for the equivalent contemporary space for her modern Forest of Arden and landed upon the inspired setting of the festival. In this context – usually with the aid of a few illicit substances – inhibitions drop away, social rules are bent and the real world is momentarily distant. And so it is in Aberg’s joyously liberated As You Like It.

This Forest of Arden is both transporting and transformational. Leaving behind the stylised monochrome claustrophobia of the court, illuminated by harsh fluorescent lighting and presided over by a particularly thuggish Duke Frederick, the transition into the woods is almost a Wizard of Oz moment – a sudden blooming into technicolour. Upon contact with the forest and its merry band of hippies, led by an ageing rocker of an exiled duke, characters experience a sudden, disorientating shift. By establishing this transformational space, Aberg effortlessly navigates some of Shakespeare’s more abrupt plot swerves; here, anything can happen. The only thing that’s hard to believe is why the characters would ever want to leave this woodland paradise.

By offering us Shakespeare’s play in all its untrimmed, anarchic glory, Aberg’s version (running at over three hours but feeling more like one) allows the Forest of Arden to make a strange sort of sense through its stubborn refusal to follow logic. Characters fall in love at first sight or shed personality traits like winter coats, in a plot full of swift handbrake turns. This slippery structure can prove problematic for interpreters, many of whom snip away at the more preposterous elements of the narrative, but Aberg’s approach makes one suspect that those heavily edited productions are sort of missing the point. Arden, this production convinces us, is not meant to make sense. It provides a magical, freeing contrast with the restrictions of the court, its power such that it can remould personalities within moments.

While more extreme reversals occur elsewhere, Pippa Nixon’s captivating Rosalind provides perhaps the most compelling example of the force exerted by the forest’s intoxicating freedom. In court, a gloomy and sinister space succinctly captured in Ayse Tashkiran’s brilliantly unsettling choreography, the exiled duke’s daughter is forced into a role as restrictive as her floor-length black dress – which even in this dark environment has an irrepressible sparkle akin to that of its wearer. In Rosalind’s early scenes and her first encounter with Alex Waldmann’s petulant, hoodie-wearing Orlando, Nixon keeps the character tentative, reined in despite her clear passion. It’s only in the Forest of Arden, where evening wear is exchanged for jeans and bare feet, that she is exhilaratingly freed and her immediate crush for Orlando is allowed to blossom into dizzying, mind-altering love.

Every last element of the production is harnessed to create this sense of giddy liberation that occurs as soon as the characters step through the trees. The wooden frame of Naomi Dawson’s beautifully simple set design initially shuts out the light, fiercely boarding up the court from the natural world outside, before a stunning transformation brings us amid the trees and earth of the forest. James Farncombe’s lighting makes an equally dramatic transition from the stark and anaemic confines of civilization to the warm glow of the wild, while the performers rapidly shed starched suits and rigidly inherited roles. And then there’s the music. Laura Marling’s murderously catchy soundtrack crashes together the folk traditions of an ancient rural England and the messy euphoria of the modern day music festival – two things which, according to Aberg, aren’t all that different. (“I have a hunch that the rural English rituals that are now long forgotten fulfil the same kind of need that we satisfy when we go to Glastonbury,” she says. “I think on some profound level those things are connected”)

While the play is every inch Rosalind’s (and, in this production, Nixon’s), right up to the playfully delivered epilogue, the tangle of interweaving plots offers plenty of work for a strong ensemble. It’s a joy to see Nicolas Tennant on stage again after Three Kingdoms, here embracing another kind of anarchy with his wryly shambolic take on Touchstone and even briefly breaking out of the text to deliver a bit of deadpan stand-up. Waldmann’s initially sulky Orlando offers another dazzling transformation, moving through vain posturing and wide-eyed bemusement before arriving at a true appreciation of Rosalind, while he and Nixon have fizzling chemistry from the off. There’s also impressive support from Oliver Ryan’s other-worldly Jacques and a scene-stealing moment of tenderness from David Fielder as faithful servant Adam.

Yet there remains, for all the sheer joy, a hint of darkness. The frenzied pitch of emotion feels unsustainable, a high that has to be followed by a crashing low – maybe upon return to the court, which this production establishes as a particularly unappealing reality. Given the clear reference point of the festival, it’s tempting to see such events as similar escapes from a bleak and hostile world, hinting at the efforts of a disillusioned generation to ignore the injustice of their society through a haze of drink, drugs and music. I’m not sure this social critique is quite as prominently foregrounded as Matt Trueman credits it with being, but perhaps that’s just because my experience of the production was helplessly dominated by the infectious fun of the closing scenes, to which I found myself willingly surrendering. Maybe it’s just nostalgia for the blissful abandon of the festival, but it was tough to resist the urge to leap around on stage with the cast by the end.

At its fiercely beating heart, As You Like It is really about falling in love, and this version offers us a Rosalind and an Arden to tumble head over heels for. Aberg’s chaotic production might not offer us any answers beyond the space of this ecstatic, muddy celebration, but that’s the essence of the forest. It’s a magical place apart, full of gorgeous anarchy, but – just like the festival – it is essentially a transitory state. While the music lasts, however, it’s impossible to do anything but dance.

Photo: Keith Pattison.