Encountering States of Mind

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“Our sense of time is an arrow, moving in a pitiless, irreversible, horizontal motion towards oblivion, but in truth we don’t really know what time is.” Marcus du Sautoy

Louis Darget took photographs of thoughts. At the turn of the twentieth century, Darget pressed unexposed plates to the foreheads of his subjects, hoping to capture some fleeting substance of consciousness in visual form. James Roberts suggests that the resulting images – abstract, murky, inconclusive – are “articles of faith – expressions of a desire for the existence of another dimension”.

Darget’s photographs, like most of the items in the Wellcome Collection’s States of Mind exhibition, are art and science and faith and philosophy all at once. You need imagination, after all, to push at the boundaries of the known. There are intricate, spidery drawings of neural pathways; a visual representation of Nabokov’s synaesthetic alphabet; artists’ vivid impressions of nightmares and altered states. From the concept of the soul to the boundaries of sleep and memory, it’s a fascinating and occasionally terrifying meditation on what we know – or, in most cases, don’t know – about the workings of our own minds.

Because thoughts, as Darget found, are slippery things. They evade the fixity of photographer’s film or scientist’s lab. At once clinging to and unmoored from our own individual senses of self, we all know and yet don’t know what it really means to be conscious, to form thoughts, to move through time.

The Encounter is a mind-altering piece of theatre. It’s hallucinatory, disorientating, synapse-fizzing stuff. Yet Simon McBurney gives away its game right at the beginning. Engaging in deceptively simple ‘pre-show’ chitchat, he tells us that everything is a fiction. Certainly everything we’re about to see and hear is, even if it’s based on real events. The solid certainties of our existence, the things we live and die and kill for, are all just collective fictions. Stories. As present and yet as intangible as the wisps of thought snatched at by Darget.

McBurney’s show prods at those shared fictions: time, perception, faith. It is, first of all, a stunning piece of storytelling. Using sense-tricking binaural technology, McBurney and sound designer Gareth Fry build a rich, multi-layered soundscape, transporting us to a rainforest that is patently absent from the wide, sparse, yawning stage at the Barbican. The trickery is right there in front of us, exposed with no apology, but our ears say otherwise. We see a microphone, bottles of water, a box full of recording tape; we hear the chirping and humming and rustling of an entire ecosystem.

The rainforest is in the Amazon. The year is 1969 and our protagonist is Loren McIntyre, an explorer in search of the Mayoruna people. He finds them, but loses his fragile grasp on modern civilisation in the very same moment. Excitedly following the tribe, he forgets to mark the route back to his camp. Plunged into the depths of the jungle and soon stripped of both his camera and his watch, he becomes entirely dependent on the Mayoruna, a people with whom he shares no means of verbal communication. McIntyre is cut off from both time and language – two of the compasses by which we navigate our sense of ourselves and the world around us.

The Encounter is, at one level, “about” McIntyre’s experiences with the Mayoruna and his brief dislodging from the passage of time as most of us know it. But it operates on multiple other levels simultaneously. At the same time as The Encounter is a show about McIntyre and the Mayoruna, it is also a show about McBurney making a show about McIntyre and the Mayoruna (got it?). And it’s a show, too, about time, sensation and consciousness – the very fabric of human experience. McBurney, like the Wellcome Collection, is interested in states of mind.

One section of the Wellcome Collection exhibition that (ironically) lodged itself in my mind and niggled away there was artist A. R. Hopwood’s False Memory Archive. For the last four years, Hopwood has been collecting false memories from members of the public. He says that submissions to the archive tend to follow a pattern: “a memory is described, only to be undone by evidence that the recollection is faulty or by a suspicion that the experience never actually happened”. The memories themselves are usually vivid, despite being known to be impossible.

The memories in the archive range from the hilarious (“I remember running away from the hospital as a newborn baby”) to the faintly disturbing (“I always think I have a little sister that I love so much. And I can feel her presence”). But what’s terrifying, even reading the funnier submissions, is how flimsy our grip on our own past is. Memories are all that root us to time (we can only conceive of a present and a future if we possess a past) and to our sense of self (we are, clichéd though the saying may be, the sum of our experiences). So if our memories so frequently fail us, what do we have left?

Memory and time are both in flux in The Encounter. For McIntyre, his experiences with the Mayoruna lift him out of time, or perhaps just into a different relationship with it. The people of the tribe, who recognise the growing threat to their way of life from the destruction wreaked by oil giants, seek to return to “the beginning”: a time before the white man, before the deforestation, before what we call modernity.

McBurney is also tussling with time. Speaking to us, he is both now and not now. We hear his voice speaking to us from stage and speaking to us from the past in a series of recordings. These recordings overlap with other voices from the past: experts on time, people who knew McIntyre, and – most strikingly – McBurney’s (then) five-year-old daughter, who keeps interrupting him during a sleepless night while making the show. By layering those voices on top of one another, like the sounds of the rainforest, they become an indistinguishable hubbub, evoking the way in which we often experience memories. Just the odd thing jumps out: a sentence here, an idea there.

Listening to Tim Bano’s brilliant audio review of the show, there was one thing that struck me – or one thing that protrudes, several days later, from my unreliable memory of it. The podcast is framed as a conversation between two selves: his present (now, of course, past) self two weeks after seeing The Encounter, and his past self sitting in the auditorium watching the show. Reflecting on this situation, Tim describes all the past versions of himself as distant and inaccessible – as separate from who he is now as any stranger.

It’s that impossibility of really knowing ourselves, our minds, our memories that resonates in both the States of Mind exhibition and The Encounter. I’m also reminded during The Encounter of Greg Wohead’s exquisite, dizzying Hurtling, which meditates on the impossibility of ever truly being in the present. There’s something in that piece about our minds connecting, catching up, so that we can never be truly present to ourselves. In The Encounter, that feeling is amplified (quite literally, in the case of the sound): we have to connect moments in time and disparate voices; we are always coping with the incommensurability of the sounds in our ears, the images forming in our minds, and the contrasting bareness of the stage in front of us. We are – like McBurney, like everyone all the time – all forming our own fictions.

“I am convinced that great works of art tell us about shape-shifting, about both the world and ourselves as more mobile, more misperceived, more dimensional beings, than science or our senses would have us believe.” Arnold Weinstein

If everything is fiction, there’s still a question of whose fictions get told. Just a couple of days after seeing The Encounter, still vibrating with its sensations and ideas, I was stopped in my tracks by Stewart Pringle’s review on Exeunt. He describes the show as “an absolutely spectacular and absolutely state-of-the-art framework for one of the oldest colonial narratives – the white man’s journey into the unknown”. Oof. Am I so inured to the white male perspective, so adept at translating the “universal”, “neutral” narratives of white masculinity into my own experience, that the more troubling aspects of McBurney’s show just passed me by?

Writing this, I’m thinking about the awards fuss around The Revenant, and about how little of a shit I give about it. Hearing about the film – even hearing glowing reports of it – I just keep thinking about how done I am with stories of heroic white men on quests for survival, asserting their masculinity along the way. Even Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is framed in those terms: as an act of endurance. As Mark Kermode put it, discussing Leo’s chances in the (of course) overwhelmingly white-and-male ceremony of self-congratulation that is the Oscars, “Academy voters like to see their actors suffer”.

But then, I fretfully ask myself, is The Encounter really all that different? Do I just ignore its reproduction of a dominant white, male perspective because I’m blinded by its art? I’m still not entirely sure. Annegret Maerten, though, makes an interesting counter-argument to Stewart’s. She argues that, thanks to the use of technology and the multi-layered, many-times-mediated storytelling, The Encounter in fact makes a point of and problematises the positioning of the (white, male) artist. She concludes that “it’s stunning and exhausting and baffling but it’s most definitely not unexamined privilege or racist (if well-meant) stereotyping”.

I still wonder about the voices of the Mayoruna in this show; about the fact that it is first McIntyre and then McBurney – powerful white men venturing boldly into the unknown – who carry and relay those voices. Whether or not McBurney’s storytelling needs reexamining, though, The Encounter does at least make us alert to the importance of the fictions we tell and the ways in which we tell them. The show closes (spoiler alert!) with McBurney reading to his daughter from Petru Popescu’s Amazon Beaming, the book about McIntyre’s journey on which The Encounter is based. The story he reads aloud is the story of the Mayoruna’s origins, passed down from generation to generation, and then passed from the Mayoruna to McIntyre to Popescu to McBurney. And now McBurney is telling it, in the fashion of a bedtime story, to a new generation. They may be fictions, as fragile as the foundations of our thoughts, but the stories we tell still matter.

Louis Darget's photographs.
Louis Darget’s photographs.
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The Body, Barbican

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Originally written for the Guardian.

Theatre rarely engages all of our senses. Even the words that refer to us as theatregoers – audience, spectators – emphasise sound and sight alone. But The Body, as its title suggests, is interested in every last muscle and fibre of the live experience. Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari’s show, the recipient of this year’s Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust award, is theatre that asks us to feel – in every sense of the word.

Narrative, therefore, is abandoned for sensation. Instead of scenes, Barrett and Mari have created a series of fleeting impressions, each as strange and vivid as the last: lights brightly flare; sounds assault us from all angles; images flash on a screen while vibrations shake us in our seats.

The one connecting thread is the constant “thump-thump” of the human heart. We enter designer Myriddin Wannell’s intimate black cube and are instructed to attach heart rate monitors. Performers Barrett and Jess Latowicki whirl in and out through revolving doors, handing each of us a doll that has its own uncanny heartbeat.

This feeling of the uncanny pervades the show, which is littered with dolls – plastic, mechanical and sometimes unnervingly lifelike. Manoeuvred by Barrett and Latowicki, these disturbing synthetic figures are a counterpoint to the messy biology the show explores. They also pose the question of what really makes us human in an age of advancing artificial intelligence.

Arguably more installation than theatre, The Body is bold in its rejection of story and embrace of technology. Those hoping for plot or character will be disappointed, but as a set of images and sensations it’s often breathtakingly beautiful.

The show’s ambition of sensory overload is to interrogate something of what it means to be human and all too briefly alive. Like life itself, The Body is confusing, fragmented and sometimes overwhelming. But, also like life, it’s a strange yet extraordinary experience.

Photo: Richard Davenport.

Krapp’s Last Tape and All That Fall

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How do you solve a problem like Beckett? Or maybe the question should be: how do you solve a problem like the Beckett Estate?

Since his death in 1989, Beckett’s plays have been vigilantly policed, with new interpreters required to be scrupulous in their following of the playwright’s detailed instructions. One example: in his excellent book Drama: Between Poetry and Performance (2010), W. B. Worthen cites a Performance Licence Rider from February 2000 attached to a licence to perform a number of Beckett’s short plays:

There shall be no additions, omissions, changes in the sex of the character as specified in the text, or alterations of any kind or nature in the manuscript or presentation of the Play as indicated in the acting edition supplied hereunder; without limiting the foregoing; all stage directions indicated therein shall be followed without any such additions, omissions, or alterations. No music, special effects, or other supplements shall be added to the presentation of the Play without prior written consent. (p.208)

That doesn’t leave much room for interpretation. There’s also a certain irony involved in the issuing of a rider like this. It is, in Worthen’s words, “writing meant to constrain the implementation of dramatic writing already said fully to constrain its proper use in the theatre” (p.208). The purpose of the Estate is to protect the authority of Beckett’s texts, yet the necessity of such protection points to a chink in that authority that Beckett’s gatekeepers would otherwise seek to deny. The authority of the theatre text is limited; to borrow a favourite phrase from Michael Goldman, performance always materialises something “in excess” of the words on the page, no matter how detailed those words might be.

But watching some Beckett productions, you’d be forgiven for missing that “excess” of theatricality. Perhaps out of fear of the Estate, perhaps out of reverence for the playwright, too often “new” versions of Beckett’s texts surrender to deadening fidelity. In trying to be slavishly loyal to authorial intention, theatre-makers rob the plays of what has made them enduringly brilliant. Beckett’s world is one of theatrical images that startle and bruise, not raise weary yawns of familiarity. When David Jays explains why he and Waiting for Godot have parted ways, I get it. As he puts it, new interpretations of plays should be about “creating acts of theatre rather than acts of worship”.

I’ll ‘fess up to a bias here. As a researcher, I have a fair amount of intellectual investment in the idea that text is not a prescriptive set of instructions for performance. But I don’t think I’m making a particularly controversial argument. As a director, Beckett himself made changes to his own works in performance, the cutting of the Auditor from Not I being perhaps the best known example. This suggests that he understood – in a way his Estate sometimes seems not to – that each new performance context shifts the relationship with the text. Without that understanding, we might as well banish Beckett’s work to the page, treating it as literature rather than material for performance. Too much reverence does neither playwright nor audience any favours. And it doesn’t exactly help to dispel the persistent idea that Beckett is hard work: impenetrable, fenced off and reserved for the faithful few.

The pretext for banging on about all of this is the Barbican’s International Beckett Season, which just came to a close over the weekend. As well as the Sydney Theatre Company production of Waiting for Godot that finally put an end to Jays’ long, ambivalent relationship with the play, the season offered a reading of the short story Lessness alongside new(ish) renditions of Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby, Rough for Theatre, Act Without Words II, Krapp’s Last Tape and All That Fall.

I caught the latter two on Friday night and was immediately struck by the contrast between them. They are, for a start, two very different pieces of writing, if both recognisably “Beckettian”. In each there’s the silence, the loss, the absences; the pairing of comedy and melancholy; the unrelenting fucking loneliness of being alive sometimes. But while Krapp’s Last Tape takes place in a gloomy, sealed-off space, its protagonist all alone in the darkness, All That Fall is a rich aural tapestry of rural Ireland, full of voices and landmarks.

More than that, though, the productions from Robert Wilson and Pan Pan Theatre respectively have tackled the restrictions of staging Beckett in intriguingly different ways. Wilson’s production layers onto and stretches out Beckett’s structure, the essential shape of which is left (naturally) intact. The opening sequence, before Krapp begins listening to the voice of his younger self, becomes an extended prelude. Face white and hair on end, every feature down to his red socks evoking the clowns of silent cinema, Wilson stares out at the audience while a storm rages outside the box-lined walls of Krapp’s study, the sound almost deafening. It goes on. And on. When finally Krapp (past and present) begins to speak, the words are all carefully in order, but they’ve been given a strange, cartoonish gloss.

Wilson’s production is crisp, precise, consistent. The aesthetic, monochrome apart from that teasing glimpse of red, is part-comic strip, part-silent movie. The light is stark and exposing, in sharp contrast with the surrounding darkness – much like the juxtaposition between clowning comedy and gnawing despair. This is Krapp as deathly, fearful and purged of depths; a pale shell of a man, condemned to the folly of missed opportunities and playing to an audience long gone. Conceptually, it all adds up. But I don’t feel the play. Watching from my comfortable seat, the chill of loss and loneliness never touches me. By painting on top of what’s already there, Wilson’s version becomes all surface.

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Pan Pan Theatre’s All That Fall, on the other hand, adds in order to strip away. Conceived for radio, Beckett famously said that the play was “written to come out of the dark”. Here, the darkness remains, but it’s given intermittent illumination. Rather than staging the play as such, Pan Pan Theatre have created an experience that attunes its audience’s attention. The Pit at the Barbican becomes a listening installation, a landscape of wooden rocking chairs, glowing lights and dangling bulbs. It is astonishingly beautiful, a cocoon of a place that I wish I could escape into every time I listen to radio drama.

Seated in our rocking chairs, we listen to the shifting voices and sounds of All That Fall with the delicate accompaniment of Aedín Cosgrove’s lighting design. Stripped of other visual references, our focus is directed in a way that it rarely is today when we listen to the radio (I’ve even taken to making myself close my eyes when listening to radio plays as a precaution against distractions). Unobtrusively evocative, the brightening and darkening of the lights, forming ever-changing patterns, subtly hints at the play’s narrative and themes, coaxing us into different emotional states as the journey of Maddy Rooney winds its melancholy way to the station and back. Even the gentle rocking movement of the chairs is in tune with the piece, the repetitive rhythm mapping onto the lilting Irish accents and the tides of loss, time and memory. It might no longer be a radio play in the precise way it was originally intended, but Pan Pan Theatre’s version feels in many ways like a purified, distilled experience of All That Fall.

My opening question is the wrong one to be asking, really. Plays aren’t problems to be solved; the very idea of a solution, with all the definitiveness implied, goes against the ever-shifting, ever-transforming nature of theatre texts. So does the iron rule of an Estate for whom honouring a text can only mean strictly obeying it down to the last letter (it’s possible even to ask what “obeying” really means when moving from one medium to another). To borrow once again from Worthen, texts written for performance are “designs for doing”. They beg for enactment, not exhumation.

Or, in short: Love Beckett. Hate the rules.

Top photo: Lucie Jansch.

Archives of grief

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“Our cancerous culture atrophies through the very real lack of a will to live: to idolise death is to reinforce that.” – Jon Savage

I’m reading about Ian Curtis and I’m thinking about death.

Last week, in a moment of impulsiveness – the kind that always seems to seize me in bookshops – I bought a biography of the Joy Division frontman written by his widow Deborah Curtis. My fascination with the band and its lead singer was reignited by the BBC’s excellent documentary, in which Curtis’s absence gaped like an open wound, and by seeking out Jon Savage’s review of Unknown Pleasures immediately afterwards. Like so much that was written about Joy Division during their short life, it now feels eerily prescient, its question “where will it end?” having been provided with its devastating answer.

As Savage wrote following Curtis’s death in 1980, “Death is romantic, exquisitely sad; it provides an easy package, an easy full-stop”. This is the narrative not just of the rock’n’roll mythology that Savage is critiquing in the aftermath of Curtis’s suicide, but of a whole culture that stretches from Thomas Chatterton in the eighteenth century to the so-called “27 club” in the twentieth and twenty-first. Why else, after all, would I be sitting here writing this? There’s a continuing, irresistible fascination that surrounds all these short-lived figures: Romantic poets Byron, Shelley and Keats, youth icon James Dean, too too many musicians. Their names – Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse – have become a roll-call of romance, fame and tragedy.

It’s dangerous, yet alluring. Unlike Curtis, who spoke from his teenage years onwards about dying young, I’m far too giddily in love with life to understand this impulse, but I’m captivated by it nonetheless. There’s a stubborn romantic streak in me which is apparently drawn to the morbid as much as the beautiful. Or maybe it’s just intensely human; a heightened instance of that odd, doubled attitude that we have as a species towards death. I’m reminded of the chilling yet matter-of-fact opening of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family, in which he writes about “the collective act of repression symbolised by the concealment of our dead” at the same time as death is everywhere in society, decorating newspapers and television screens. We’re fascinated by those who die young, perhaps, because they represent a confrontation with the reality that the rest of us simultaneously stare down and avert our eyes from.

Knausgaard continues: “If the phenomenon of death does not frighten us, why then this distaste for dead bodies? Either it must mean that there are two kinds of death or that there is a disparity between our conception of death and death as it actually turns out to be, which in effect boils down to the same thing: what is significant here is that our conception of death is so strongly rooted in our consciousness that we are not only shaken when we see that reality deviates from it, but we also try to conceal this with all the means at our disposal.”

The reality of death gets covered up by the myth. Premature death becomes cultural immortality.

This contradictory attitude towards life and death is right at the (still beating) heart of 27. I’ve seen and written about Peter McMaster’s show twice now and still it haunts me, the sudden memory of images from it catching me out and leaving me slightly breathless again. It’s full of astonishingly, agonisingly beautiful moments, as the bodies of McMaster and fellow performer Nick Anderson embrace and struggle and support one another. In this physicality, it feels at times as though the show is a demonstration of being alive, together with all the joy and pain that involves.

But it’s also about death. The title is a reference to the “27 club”, the show in part acting as a sort of homage to all those artists. Their music forms the soundtrack, from “Break on Through to the Other Side” to “Back to Black” to the heart-punching “Cry Baby”. And it’s about McMaster, also 27 and teetering between past and future. There’s lots about growing up, letting go, moving on, but also – as McMaster makes explicit early on – about wanting to die. It’s a show about wanting to die and it’s a show about wanting to live.

The signs of death litter the stage, which is carved out as a space of ritual and liberally scattered with ash. McMaster and Anderson begin the show in skeleton bodysuits, a gesture both macabre and playful, before later stripping to their bare skin. For all its fascination with the ceremonies and myths of dying, though, 27 can’t get away from life. In a generous (and often, let’s be honest, squirmingly hilarious) sequence, the two naked performers invite us to touch parts of their bodies, to feel their hearts pounding in their chests. It’s a moment that seems to say “look how alive we all are”. Look how alive we all are, together, in this space.

“I’m a strange new kind of inbetween thing aren’t I
not at home with the dead nor with the living” – Antigone

In tragedy, death is a certainty. Throughout Ivo van Hove’s new version of Antigone at the Barbican, though, it’s even more of a constant presence than usual, hanging like a shroud over everything else. Van Hove’s is a production – and a protagonist – half in love with death. In Anne Carson’s precise, poetic translation, Antigone is repeatedly a bride to her grave, wedded to her end even while still alive. Clothed head to toe in black, from the moment she steps on stage Juliette Binoche gives the impression of being not quite of this world, as though she is only passing through on her way to the other side.

At one point, a member of the chorus (who all double interestingly as other players in the action) lingers over the word “uncanny”, pronouncing each syllable with conspicuous care. And this Antigone is uncanny. It feels oddly suspended, hovering on a plane between life and death. Initially, what I take for its cool detachment and flat delivery is distancing and frustrating. Instead of visceral immediacy, van Hove gives us poise and elegiac calm. Even when the outbursts of passion do arrive, as they must, they feel oddly controlled, as if every last word and gesture were carefully measured.

It’s easy to see, then, why it reads as lacklustre, but it’s all too deliberate for that. For me, the distance and control speaks of a shadowy elsewhere, a place saturated with grief and already half swallowed up by death. The cut-out circle at the back of Jan Versweyweld’s sleek, spare design is sun and moon and a bright, gaping portal to the next world. The same sense of ritual that frames 27 pervades Antigone – most obviously when Antigone defiantly buries her brother Polyneikes, but elsewhere too. And in a piece of doubling that is surely not accidental, the dead come back as messengers for the living.

It takes its time, but I find this controlled, funereal approach gradually tightening its grasp, and by the end I’m scrunched forwards in my seat, utterly compelled. But what is it that’s engrossing me? The supposed romance of a woman consumed by grief and obsessed with death? The uncanniness of this meeting between life and death, both painted in beautiful if muted colours? The possibility of taking aesthetic pleasure from something so painful?

There’s something stultifying, if strangely compelling, about this romantic myth of early death. It speaks of a culture in which the only conceivable future is one of oblivion and individual fame, rather than one that people work together to construct.

At the end of Antigone, after the drama has reached its devastating climax, the chorus detach themselves from the tragedy, gradually becoming dispersed individuals. The portal between life and death is closed up and these figures resume the busy, self-contained activities of modern life, oblivious to the suffering of Patrick O’Kane’s Kreon as he writhes on the raised surface of the stage, while the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” plays hauntingly underneath it all (“I’m gonna try to nullify my life,” Lou Reed sings). It’s a snapshot of atomised 21st-century life: we consume, we forget, we move on. Death is just another form of entertainment.

There’s more ambivalence at work in 27. If Antigone is detached and distanced, McMaster’s show is thrillingly – sometimes claustrophobically – close. We are never allowed to forget that we are in the same space, participating in this strange ritual alongside one another, whereas there’s a sense of a huge gulf between us in the audience and the small figures on stage at the Barbican. 27 doesn’t deny the appeal of dying young or the fascination of all those idolised dead, but it’s wrestling with something that is in many ways harder than that “easy full-stop”: the challenge of living, of moving into the future together.

Writing in response to Unlimited Theatre’s Am I Dead Yet?, I suggested that “if we can get better at dying, maybe we can get better at living too”. Our view of death – the ways in which we confront and conceptualise our inevitable end – says a lot about the culture in which we do our living. Perhaps, in order to really move forward, we need to rethink both.

“Turning around to the next set of lives
Wondering what will come next.” – Joy Division, “Passover” 

Joy Division

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It)

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In Stage Fright, Animals and Other Theatrical Problems, Nicholas Ridout writes about the moments when theatre breaks down. His book investigates all those glitches – the stutter, the laugh, the unexpected interruption of a creature on stage – when the theatrical machinery temporarily halts and we see the true nature of the event unfolding before us. In Ridout’s words, “something of our relationship to labour and to leisure is felt every time the theatre undoes itself around the encounter between worker and consumer”.

Dmitry Krymov’s take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream – or more accurately, on its play within a play, Pyramus and Thisbe – looks a lot like Ridout’s thesis writ large. This is not really about love or fairies or Shakespeare; this is about theatre. Theatre in all its pretending, its failure, its illusion, its beauty, its exquisite silliness.

It is also theatre as work. It is more than just comedy that has drawn Krymov and his company to the Mechanicals in Shakespeare’s play; they also represent, as their collective title suggests, the labour that goes into stage illusion. In a programme note, Krymov says that he couldn’t see himself in either the courtly or the magical worlds of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “I am not a fairy,” he explains, “I am a craftsman.” Theatre is not magic conjured from thin air – it is craft.

And yet …

Recently, while interviewing playwright Alistair McDowall, we talked about the idea of theatre as magic trick. We agreed that the reason this particular analogy works so well is that it suggests both the thrill of illusion and the strings that make everything work. As audience members, we at once want to see the workings – the workings that we know to be there in the background – and to be taken in by what we see before us. To contradict myself, theatre is magical, but magical in the sense of a magic trick; we know that skill and work goes into it.

As in the usual staging of the play within a play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Krymov’s production positions us both as the audience of Pyramus and Thisbe and as external observers of another audience: the courtiers the Mechanicals have been charged with entertaining. In this imagining they are haughty and distracted, checking messages on their smartphones and interjecting with their derision, disapproval and occasional outrage. If we see a picture of ourselves, it’s not a flattering one.

As for the players, they’re a suitably ragtag bunch, trussed up in scruffy black tie like children playing dress-up. Their set and props, meanwhile, are crudely thrown together, even down to the sawdust coated scaffold on which their audience are directed to sit. There’s no forgetting that these are labourers and that the show they (eventually) present is as much a construction as their wonky, makeshift auditorium.

So it’s all the more extraordinary when we do, by some strange theatrical alchemy, get drawn into the tale being told. After a lengthy introduction, lightly touching on ideas of art, entertainment and intention, Krymov’s Mechanicals finally get around to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, who take the form of two towering, mismatched puppets. Pyramus has a portrait for a head; Thisbe balances precariously on one ballet shoe and one boot. They are fragile and ridiculous – not all that different from their human operators, then, or the theatrical event itself.

At first, what charm us are the tricks. Acrobats balance and somersault; the Mechanicals’ dog – the indisputable star of the show – even turns a backflip. We are at the circus, operating in an economy of gasps and giggles, occasionally ruptured by an interjection that causes a stumble, a mistake. Then something unexpected happens. Under just the right light, with just the right musical accompaniment, there is something incredibly tender about this pair of ungainly figures, and something happens that pretty much never happens in other Dreams: we feel for these star-crossed lovers. But these moments are brittle – easily snapped.

One sequence from a long procession of images stands out. In the glow of their initial ardour, Pyramus and Thisbe dance. This is no effortless waltz; the meeting of the two puppets’ bodies is a frenetic feat of manoeuvring, requiring a large team of performers. Watching the rickety figures spin around the stage, two opposing things become simultaneously true: the moment is both beautiful and oddly moving, and at the same time conspicuous in its feverish craft. Labour and illusion at once – the magic trick.

“This is the nature of theatre,” Krymov states elsewhere in the programme, “this is how theatre is created.” Precisely.

Photo: Ellie Kurttz.