Bakkhai, Almeida Theatre

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As an essay on theatre, Bakkhai has it all. There’s doubling, role-playing, one thing standing in for another. There’s the clash of complex psychological insight and the wild, raw and visceral. There’s dressing up and fluid identities. And there’s the god of theatre himself Dionysos, shrugging on human form for a performance of his own.

As theatre itself, though, it’s another question. It’s not that the Almeida’s production, directed by James Macdonald, is untheatrical. There are some brilliant visual snapshots, usually heralding the arrival of Dionysos and accompanied by Peter Mumford’s vivid bursts of light, while there’s an implicit, self-aware acknowledgement of the audience throughout. That’s not to mention the uncanniness of the whole thing, its determined strangeness. But the driving narrative of Dionysos, in a holy rage and determined to get his own back on the family who snubbed him, often feels oddly underpowered.

That said, the two central performances are hard to fault. From the moment he saunters on stage, throwing a conspiratorial glance to the audience as he discloses his godly identity, Ben Whishaw is utterly in control. His long-haired Dionysos is sinuous, snake-like, ready to shed this latest skin at any moment. And damn he can rock a dress. This vengeful god-turned-human is slippery and androgynous, oddly delicate in his might. He doesn’t need the borrowed authority of masculine aggression; he is power divine, effortlessly enchanting his scores of female devotees and crushing kings with the lightest flick of his wrist.

One such king is Bertie Carvel’s Pentheus, young leader of Thebes and a politician through and through. Where Dionysos is wild and uninhibited, Pentheus is rational and repressed, as buttoned-up as his immaculate suit jacket. Carvel, however, slips the suggestion of something else beneath Pentheus’s slick exterior, so that he bristles with latent curiosity even as he condemns the frolics of Dionysos’s followers. There’s a delicious scene between him and Whishaw in which the latter – posing as Dionysos’s human messenger – is persuading the disgruntled king to slip on a dress and spy on the bakkhai. Hesitancy barely masks eagerness, while a sly grin curls across Whishaw’s lips.

When Carvel drags up, though, first in disguise to infiltrate the Bakkhic rites, then later as Pentheus’s blood-drenched mother Agave, there are unfortunate echoes of his revelatory Miss Trunchbull in Matilda the Musical. I was half-expecting a cry of “maggots!” as Agave rages in her grief. Whishaw, too, fares less well when he steps into other roles, his distraught and helpless messenger not half as compelling as the scheming god who pulls all the strings. In a nod to the conventions of Greek tragedy, the trio of actors is completed by Kevin Harvey, smoothly metamorphosing from old man Kadmos to younger citizens of Thebes, though often in the shadow of Whishaw and Carvel’s sparring partners.

Then there’s the chorus. At first, the ivy-garlanded crowd of singers are startlingly other-worldly, their piercing, discordant wails a little reminiscent of the sculptural song of Return to the Voice. Just as Whishaw is an effortless deity, they really do sound like beings in communion with some strange elsewhere. After an hour and a half, though, their persistent chanting and spookily synchronised speech grates. There’s simply too much of their musical Dionysian worship, sharply putting the brakes on the momentum built up in each of the scenes between Whishaw and Carvel and never quite integrating with the rest of the action.

The issue is essentially one of tone. Bakkhai is a collision of the civilised and the elemental, of the familiar and the strange. We get that here, but often those two conflicting registers don’t so much lock horns as awkwardly jar. And beyond Whishaw’s performance, there’s never a full, unleashed sense of the wild, whether in Antony McDonald’s tentatively earthy design or in the over-polished (and over-used) chorus. The ideas are all there, but theatrically it lacks the impact it’s straining for.

Photo: Marc Brenner.

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Carmen Disruption, Almeida Theatre

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Carmen Disruption had me at the bull.

Entering the once again reconfigured Almeida auditorium, those of us with seats in the stalls are directed through dingy backstage corridors, emerging onto a rubble-strewn stage. We’re in a crumbling opera house, winding our way past the huge stricken bull that dominates Lizzie Clachan’s design. It remains there in the centre of the stage – hulking, symbolic, breathing its last – as the fractured lives of Simon Stephens’s play circle it, step over it, snap photos of it on their ubiquitous, glimmering smartphones.

The bullfight metaphor has mileage. In Mike Bartlett’s Bull it provides the entire form for the play, as two suited-and-booted matadors savage their doomed colleague. In Islands, the violent ritual is once again symbolic of capitalism, described in extended, gory detail by a grinning Caroline Horton. Here, the dying animal oozes tar-like blood across the stage, an ever-present image of devastation.

It’s also a reference to the bullfighting backdrop of Bizet’s opera, which Carmen Disruption explodes and pieces back together. There’s a moment right at the start of Michael Longhurst’s production – discordant strains of cello, darkness pierced with splinters of light – which somehow feels like a shattering of glass. The rest of the play is spent gathering those shards, fingers bloodied, jagged reflections glinting off the multiple shiny surfaces. It’s Carmen smashed, Carmen refracted, Carmen disrupted.

At the play’s centre – if it can really be said to have a centre – is an unnamed Singer (Sharon Small). She arrives at an unnamed airport, travels through an unnamed European city, arrives at an unnamed opera house sat on the edge of an unnamed river. All she really knows is that tonight she’s singing Carmen, the role she has performed in multiple productions in multiple cities, each shading into the next. And as she traverses this strange yet familiar urban landscape, the opera becomes more real than the faces and buildings sliding past her, imposing itself on the contours of the city.

Carmen becomes Jack Farthing’s swaggering rent boy, all leather jacket and sex appeal. Don José (the quietly astonishing Noma Dumezweni) is a driver for a shady character, trying to pay off old debts and right old wrongs; Escamillo (John Light) has traded bullfighting for investment banking, with a huge bet riding on the canned beef market in China, while Micaëla (Katie West) is a lost, lonely student. Their lives overlap, intertwine, glide past each other, as they all catch glimpses of a mysterious woman with long, curly black hair.

It’s a lot to take in. Longhurst’s direction is swift and sharp; miss a sentence and you won’t get it back. But while these intersecting stories are occasionally hard to follow, you can’t miss the distinctly 21st-century loneliness that throbs through all of them. Instead of speaking to one another, the broken individuals of the play talk out to us. As in Pornography, or in the never-quite-connecting monologues of Barrel Organ’s Nothing, Carmen Disruption offers a portrait of atomisation. The only respite from solitude and heartache is found in the glowing rectangles of smartphones – “should I look it up on my phone?” Small’s floundering Singer keeps asking, eyes darting wildly – while fleeting identity is invested in the things people buy: shirts, espressos, opera tickets.

There’s a thick vein of alienation and global dislocation running through Stephens’s more recent plays. The Singer is Paul in Birdland. She’s Iggy in Three Kingdoms. The world has fallen away from her, sloughed off by countless airport departure lounges and identical hotel rooms, disappearing along with any sense of self. Directors tell her where to stand and how to move her arms, but “they never tell me who the fuck I’m meant to be”. There’s a line repeated from Birdland: “none of this is real”.

That’s one way of reading Carmen Disruption. None of this is real. But that loss of reality is less to do with the Singer’s disorientated mental state and more to do with the identical, antiseptic spaces of late capitalist cities; the global simulacra of hotel rooms and lobbies and shopping centres. It doesn’t feel real because there’s nothing distinct about any of it. We might as well be anywhere – and in Longhurst’s production we are. This is a shadowy world, one eschewing the shiny coloured surfaces of Carrie Cracknell and Ian MacNeil’s Birdland in favour of the crumbling alternate reality of the opera. Theatre has become more real than life, but even that illusion is dissolving at the edges. The only constant is the low hum of electronic alerts, a peripheral stream of information scrolling on the surtitle screen mounted in the back corner of the stage.

The result is smashed-up and bruised and bloody, but breathlessly beautiful nonetheless. There’s a murky, eroding grandeur to Clachan’s design, with occasional bursts of glitter and dust, while the disjointed monologues are laced with echoes of Bizet’s score courtesy of the two onstage cellists. As that other, shadowy Carmen, glimpsed out of the corners of characters’ eyes, Viktoria Vizin is a haunting presence, her voice layering gorgeously over everything else. In the programme, she’s listed simply as Chorus, and there’s something about her constantly observing presence that seems to anticipate the Almeida’s upcoming season of Greek tragedies.

This tragedy, though, is not one of a fallen individual, but perhaps of a falling continent. No matter what the unspecified country we are in, this is clearly a Europe in crisis, its people worshipping at the feet of money and technology while failing to engage with – or even see – one another. The sadness that seeps into every pore of this production speaks of a wider malaise, a crisis that might be averted if only we were capable of reaching out to one another. There’s an insistent humanity to this scattered collection of characters, who yearn for intimacy while shunning it in the same movement. Again and again, they can’t connect. The tragedy is collective, but the pain is isolated.

Photo: Marc Brenner.

Stories About Stories

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Originally written for Exeunt.

In my first year of studying English at university, we were all enrolled on a course titled ‘Literary Transformations’. The blurb on the website mentioned the story of Troy, literary tradition, The Iliad, mediaeval literature. I was less than enthusiastic. In the end, it turned out to be one of the best courses I took in three years of my undergraduate degree. Because actually, more than any of those things on the website, it was about the ways in which we tell and retell stories.

I was reminded of that course twice recently at the theatre. The first occasion was during Mr Burns, which over the course of 80 odd years in the wake of an imagined global catastrophe mutates an episode of The Simpsons through a similar series of transformations to that undergone by the Troy legend. The second was at Idomeneus, a playful exploration of the fate of the eponymous Cretan king after travelling back from war in Troy. And in between I saw Adler & Gibb, a piece about narrative appropriation of an altogether more disturbing character.

These shows are all stories about stories about stories; stories that are at once about the centrality, instability and dangers of narrative. We need stories, but stories can curdle and corrupt just as easily as they can comfort.

Much of the critical response to Mr Burns has fastened on playwright Anne Washburn’s use of The Simpsons as the cultural foundation of a fledgling new human civilization. Some shook their heads at the thought that pop culture would survive over great literature, while others suggested that an intimate knowledge of the television show was required to appreciate the play. There is a certain cultural snobbery to these criticisms, as Mark Lawson has pointed out, but they also miss the point spectacularly.

The reason The Simpsons works so brilliantly as the focal point of Washburn’s game of post-apocalyptic Chinese whispers is because it is already a gleeful mash-up of different cultural references. The Cape Feare episode that gets retold in each act (first as campfire tale, then as primitive performance, and finally as a gloriously gaudy opera) is a parody of the Robert De Niro film Cape Fear – which was itself a remake of an earlier film – and also contains allusions to numerous other sources. What better starting point to demonstrate how humans recycle and repurpose culture? There is also the suggestion that our cultural inheritance is as much a product of mistake and reiteration as anything else – a troubling thought for some, perhaps, but also a liberating one. Suddenly the behemoths of high culture look a little less indestructible.

For evidence that this habit of narrative borrowing and transformation is as old as the idea of civilization itself, just swap one Homer for another. The story of Troy that we see a partial glimpse of in The Iliad and that has filtered down through Western culture over thousands of years in countless different forms is perhaps one of the most mutable myths we have. In its intelligent, multi-layered retelling of one small facet of this myth, Idomeneus – both Roland Schimmelpfennig’s script and Ellen McDougall’s playful production – is sensitively attuned to the processes by which stories become solidified and then dissolved again into countless possibilities.

As realised by McDougall, the whole thing is an inventive modern riff on the Chorus of Greek tragedy. A collection of awkward, displaced strangers wander onto the stage and begin to tell us about Idomeneus, a Cretan king and general who has been away for years fighting the Trojans and has made a terrible bargain to ensure his safe homecoming. But where tragedy usually presents us with fate and inevitability, here the story is told in all its shaky contingencies, pausing and rewinding to offer an audience all of its possible permutations. This is no longer one story, but many, the once firm outlines blurred over the centuries. And now, Idomeneus appealingly implies, we have the choice to tell it how we like; we can change the outcome.

But there is a darker side to the playful, potentially democratising stories of Mr Burns andIdomeneus. In the recovering society of Washburn’s ravaged near future, an embryonic form of capitalism is driven by the desire for stories. Half-remembered lines of old television episodes become commodities to buy and sell, while competition between storytellers is cutthroat. And there is an even more crucial way (only lightly touched upon by Mr Burns) in which the stories that provide the foundation for a new civilization can shape what that civilization eventually becomes – for good and for bad.

The danger circling the multiple stories of Idomeneus is more elusive, only occasionally glinting beneath the grins and giggles of its mischievous players. Violence – conveyed in striking visual metaphors of water, ink and chalk – always sits just underneath the narrative, insistently saying something about how we tell stories of conflict. There is an implicit comment on the insidious ability of stories like this to rile and rouse, with their undercurrents of glory, honour and destiny – an ability that is unsettled, but remains exposed.

In Adler & Gibb, which is much more critical of our storytelling strategies than either Mr Burns or Idomeneus, narrative is both a tool for manipulation and a commodity to be traded. Tim Crouch’s knottily self-referential play shows us a pair of actors representing (at first cursorily, and then increasingly naturalistically) another actor and her coach, who are preparing to make a film about a fictional pair of contemporary artists, the eponymous Adler and Gibb. Supposedly on the hunt for authenticity, they break into the house shared by the two artists in their later years, only to be confronted by an ageing Gibb. This is all framed by another story in another time, as a nervy student delivers a presentation on the lives and work of the artists. Got that?

Throughout the show, Crouch repeatedly aims his fire at the ways in which artworks and the stories surrounding them are commodified by a fiercely acquisitive capitalist economy. Scorn is poured on the art dealers, critics, journalists, filmmakers and obsessive fans who all want a bit of Adler and Gibb – not just their work, but them as individuals, or at least the romanticised story that has been cultivated around them. Everybody wants a scrap of the myth.

There is also an important comment on the shapes that our stories take. Extending the focus on theatrical form that has characterised all of his work with co-directors Andy Smith and Karl James, Crouch needles once again at representation. Throughout the first half, dialogue is directed blankly out at the audience, while two young children disrupt the workings of the theatrical machine, standing in for various elements of the narrative and substituting props – a spade for an inflatable bat or a gun for a lobster (one of many sly nods to modern art). From this base, the piece moves progressively through realism towards a kind of Hollywood hyperreality, asking difficult, brow-furrowing questions about our artistic efforts towards “truth” and “authenticity”.

In one of the show’s crucial moments, we see a screen wheeled onto the stage and witness the first kiss between Adler and Gibb cruelly snatched for the sake of cinema – or, as the actor would insist, art. “Is this the way you want your stories?” Crouch finally seems to ask, as we watch brutality in the flesh morph into high definition passion on the screen. And the answer, uncomfortably, is “well, yes”. The high stakes drama and hyperreal film that emerge in the second half of the evening are far more gripping than the cool, distanced intellectualism of the first – a high risk but brilliant strategy from Crouch, Smith and James. If we stick out the frustration of the opening scenes, we get our pay off, but at a mind-twisting price.

In all of these stories about stories, there is a further comment to make about the presence or absence of irony – one of the most familiar characteristics of the way in which we mould our narratives in the 21st century. In his chapter in Vicky Angelaki’s excellent collection Contemporary British Theatre: Breaking New Ground, Dan Rebellato intriguingly suggests that a “turning away from irony” characterises a certain strand of British drama in recent years, pointing to examples such as Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London and the work of Simon Stephens. He argues that in these plays, irony has been replaced with “a self-consciously naive sincerity”, or “radical naivety”.

While the cultural bricolage of Mr Burns might share many traits with postmodernism, what struck me about the play’s central retellings was their sincerity. Here are a group of survivors, completely without irony, piecing their world back together through the recovery of pop culture. Even the final act, with its knowing blend of references, is played remarkably straight. Irony is not exactly removed from Idomeneus, but again there is often a startling sincerity in the possibilities that the performers put forward for the characters whose story they are telling. And while it is difficult to know what to grasp onto in Crouch’s slippery play, the postmodern irony that suffuses so much contemporary art is given a ribbing at the same time as its strategies are appealingly deployed, leaving it in a problematic place. In these stories, are we turning, finally, to a new mode of sincerity?

Taken together, what these three pieces of theatre amount to is an ambivalent affirmation of storytelling. Ambivalent because stories emerge as slippery, dangerous things, as capable of betrayal as redemption. Affirmation because their very existence performs once again the importance of stories to human culture and their inherent possibility. Perhaps it’s all in the telling.

Photo: Manuel Harlan.

Mr Burns, Almeida Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Remember the one with Cape Fear? The parody of the film – the one with Robert De Niro, not the other one. There’s something about a tattoo. Maybe two tattoos? And a court case, there’s definitely a scene in a courtroom. Anyway, the Simpsons end up on a houseboat. They’re running away from something … Bart is receiving death threats, that’s it. They’re written in blood – no, tomato ketchup. Sideshow Bob is trying to kill him. Or is it Mr Burns?

This is the kind of stuttering, stumbling salvage that forms the patchwork fabric of Anne Washburn’s play, which mutates one iconic episode of The Simpsonsthrough a game of post-apocalyptic Chinese whispers. It’s cultural memory as mash-up. Gilbert and Sullivan by way of Bart and Lisa.

In the aftermath of an unspecified, civilization-splintering disaster – the hints suggest part pandemic, part nuclear catastrophe – a group of survivors are clustered around a fire. For comfort, they turn not to religion, but to pop culture. As flows and eddies of misinformation swirl around them, The Simpsonsbecomes a collective life raft. Memory is salvation.

Seven years later, as society is starting to wonkily slot itself back together, the television programmes (and commercials) of Before are big business. The characters we met in the first scene are now a makeshift theatre troupe scratching a living from the sale of nostalgia – and competition is fierce. Arguments erupt about which wine is most unchallengingly evocative (Chablis, apparently) and which pop hits to include in the ad-break music medley.

By the final act, which fast forwards another 75 years, the campfire story has gone through countless iterations and its batshit crazy telling has become a giddy whirl of cultural fragments. Director Robert Icke and designer Tom Scutt construct a teetering edifice of narrative and aesthetic bric-a-brac, from tattered scraps of Americana to oddly distorted movie allusions. Opera bleeds into Livin La Vida Loca. Eminem meets Britney. It’s blink-and-you-miss-the-reference fast, equal parts dazzling and disorienting. Where was that snippet of a melody from? Was that a nod to Peter Pan? How does the rest of that line go?

This kind of chaotic cultural bricolage will be familiar for 21st century viewers, but here it receives a crucial twist. Mr Burns is, as per its subtitle, post-electric rather than post-modern. There is no irony; this is a society earnestly retelling its founding cultural myth. And while some may shake their heads at the idea that it is The Simpsons rather than Shakespeare that survives the fall of civilization, Washburn has found a canny focus for teasing out the ways in which humans recycle and repurpose stories – a habit as old as the species. It’s just another kind of Homeric epic.

And there’s some intellectual weight behind the cultural cutting and pasting. Washburn’s imagined post-apocalypse is both a hymn to and an uncomfortable indictment of the artistic detritus that resiliently endures. Civilization, Mr Burnssuggests, is built on stories – but so is commerce and exploitation. Narrative sells.

It’s a thread that could be stretched further in Icke’s production, which sometimes gets distracted by its surface. The overwhelming range of references can obscure the fascinating cultural mutation at work, while the closing act is so shimmeringly strange that it is easy to get lost amid the woozy throng of pop culture. But while it may be a head-rush of a show, its ideas remain fizzing away for long after.

Photo: Manuel Harlan.

Chimerica, Almeida Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

The photograph has always been something of a paradox; a record of ephemerality, the fleeting present moment arrested for posterity. It is a document of disappearance, the deceptive capture of something already lost, a lie and an irrefutable truth wrapped up in one. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger even suggests that the invention of the camera irrevocably altered our mode of perception, therefore changing the status of the image itself: “the camera isolated momentary appearances and in so doing destroyed the idea that images were timeless”. Yet still we cling to photographs as incontrovertible vestiges of the past, investing one image with the weight of an entire event – an entire ideology, even.

In Chimerica, Lucy Kirkwood fixes her lens on just one of these historically burdened snapshots. In fact, that’s already a lie; there are at least six known versions of the iconic image that provides Kirkwood’s inspiration, implicitly refuting its uniqueness and by extension the irreproachable “truth” it is assumed to offer. The photographic catalyst for Kirkwood’s play is the ubiquitous visual encapsulation of the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square and the subsequent massacre by the Chinese military: the image of a man standing defiantly and defencelessly in front of a line of advancing tanks. It’s become one of the most hauntingly familiar images of the twentieth century, a symbol of non-violent protest and of the chilling opposition between the fragility of man and the might of machinery.

Around this one recorded act of heroism and the enduring mystery of the anonymous “Tank Man”, Kirkwood has crafted a taut, complex and nuanced thriller, with exhilaratingly ambitious scope. Her imagined American photojournalist, Joe, is fixated on this unknown icon of defiance who he photographed 23 years ago from the window of his Beijing hotel room. Spurred on by hints from his Chinese friend Zhang Lin and a cryptic clue in a Beijing newspaper, the quest to discover this man and the story behind the photograph quickly takes on the character of an obsession. It’s a detective story, of sorts, but set against the backdrop of a nation developing at frightening, breakneck speed. As one character puts it, this is a country that has gone from famine to Slimfast in the space of one generation.

If the glorious mess of Three Kingdoms queasily exposed the British view of Europe as Other, then Chimerica goes a long way towards skewering the hypocritically exoticising Western view of China. Although the title (borrowed from Niall Ferguson’s study of the economic dominance of this pair of superpowers) might inextricably link China and the USA, the play itself repeatedly demonstrates that we equate the citizens of these two nations at our peril. While consumer insight consultant Tessa highlights the pitfalls of treating Chinese shoppers like their counterparts in the West, Americans bemoan the Westernisation of Chinese culture in the same breath with which they sigh relief that the Chinese are becoming more like their capitalist cousins. They want authentic Chinese cuisine, but only if there’s a credit card machine at the till and a Starbucks round the corner.

The idea of the photograph, beyond providing the plot’s primary impetus, also reflects these strained perceptions that nations cultivate of one another. It’s all about how we see things. This currency of images decorates Es Devlin’s exquisite set, a revolving cube that recalls Tom Scutt’s brilliant design for 13 at the National Theatre and conjures similar ideas of being boxed in – by a restrictive state, by the photographic ghosts of history, by a consumer culture that would slot individuals into neat, easily targeted pigeon-holes. The surfaces of this cube become screens for various projected photographs, creating a constantly shifting backdrop of visual truths, lies and suggestions. These ever-present images also hint at the pervasive infiltration of visual media into our homes and lives, creating a world in which, as Joe cynically puts it, photographs of atrocity are no more than “clip art”.

For all its richly layered interrogation of economics, politics and the culture of images, the play remains motored throughout by a constantly engaging narrative. In his dogged mission to track down “Tank Man”, Joe increasingly jeopardises his job, his friendships and his burgeoning relationship with Tessa, yet somehow his obsessive investigation remains unfailingly compelling. This is largely down to the riveting precision of Lydnsey Turner’s tight production and the absorbing performance of Stephen Campbell Moore, who preserves a shred of empathy for Joe even at his most self-centredly illogical. His argument that “people need to know there’s heroism in the world” is an appealing one, but as journalistic curiosity morphs into unhealthy fixation, Joe’s pursuit is one of a strange kind of personal redemption rather than any real public interest.

As Joe races across New York and racks up his long distance phone bill on the trail of “Tank Man”, his disillusioned friend Zhang Lin, played with compassion and poignant weariness by Benedict Wong, faces mounting difficulties in Beijing. Alongside the central pairing of these two men, Kirkwood and Turner build a sophisticated cast of supporting figures, often achieving vivid characterisations in just a few quick strokes. Claudie Blakley’s blunt, businesslike Tessa has an edge of vulnerability and a nagging but never simplified social conscience, while Joe’s newspaper colleagues resist being wrestled into generic boxes. The evidence of the play itself would seem to counter Tessa’s glib assertion that in the age of mass communication and sophisticated consumer profiling there’s “no such thing as an individual”.

While focus is inevitably drawn to the impressive scope of Kirkwood’s writing, it’s equally hard to deny the visual beauty of Turner’s sleekly revolving production, bringing more excitement to the stage of the Almeida than it has witnessed in years. The staging is striking in a cinematic rather than a visceral sense, however, placed at an elegant remove from the audience. With its rapid succession of often short scenes and its gripping thriller plot, it is easy to see Chimerica working on screen, a medium that this production already seems to have at the back of its mind. If early whispers of a future life are realised – as they deserve to be – it would come as no surprise if a film adaptation is not far behind.

Resisting the cinematic vocabulary of the whole, the production’s one sharp injection of thrilling theatricality comes courtesy of a ghost from the Tiananmen Square massacre. Puncturing the realism of the scene, this figure unfurls from Zhang Lin’s fridge in a way that immediately brings to mind the performer springing from a suitcase in Three Kingdoms, providing a similarly startling physical interruption. At the close of the first act, this fragile, bloodied form bears a glowing red orb, passing the pulsing sphere from performer to performer in a sequence of captivating yet ominous beauty. This lingering moment recalls the poisoned apple of fairytale – a sinister metaphor, perhaps, for a deadly political fruit that Chimerica suggests is just waiting to be bitten into.