YOUARENOWHERE, Shoreditch Town Hall

YOUARENOWHERE, all one word, can be read two ways. It can be a statement of certainty, of being decisively placed in the world: you are now here. Or it can be a revelation of nothingness, of uncertainty: you are nowhere.

Andrew Schneider’s glitching mindfuck of a show is sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both. It is, in every sense of the word, disorientating. It jolts its audience out of time and space – or maybe it just makes us realise that time and space are one and the same, and that everything is happening all at once.

From the moment we first see Schneider before us, the rules by which we usually order world and stage are violently disrupted. Schneider doesn’t enter; he suddenly materialises. The lights snap on and there he is, shirtless and panting, as if vomited up out of nowhere into this bare white space. In appealing disarray, he begins to talk to us, but the mechanics of the show around him keep interrupting. Coloured lights flash on and off. Huge swells of sound swallow his words. Technology glitches.

You think of time like a line, right? Or like a road, stretching out behind and ahead, you gliding along in the driver’s seat. Wrong. In his quick-fire, cut-up lecture – stories are abruptly truncated, ideas diced up and thrown back together – Schneider rapidly unsettles popular, shared notions of time. The references whizz by so fast it’s almost impossible to grasp them – Einstein’s theory of relativity gets a nod, I’m pretty sure – but the overall sense is of a sudden unmooring from the certainties of seconds, minutes and hours.

It’s about form as much as, if not more than, content. There are moments in the show when we feel time, we note its passage (even if “passage” is just another flawed metaphor for a false, man-made construction). At other points, we can see its signifiers – the clock rapidly counting down, the lights flickering on and off – but feel somehow wrenched out of it. Or at least I do. As Schneider makes clear, different perspectives create different realities.

Death, as well as time, is a constant preoccupation. If there’s any way in which we can individually grasp time, after all, it’s as an inexorable movement towards our eventual demise. What if, Schneider poses, every time you thought about death there was another you, in a parallel reality, who had actually died in that moment? Like a morbid take on Sliding Doors, or a version of Constellations with a rapidly mounting body count.

And there’s more. There’s all this stuff about missed connections, fate, love. The loneliness of being trapped inside your own head, your own existence, trapped outside the perceptions of others. Forever separate. “We exist in each other’s realities,” says Schneider. “But not in the way that we think we do.”

Those words might read as a thesis of sorts, if it were possible to boil YOUARENOWHERE down to anything as simple or straightforward as a thesis. As a demonstration of its own ideas, Schneider’s show refuses to slot into any kind of linear logic, impressing itself on the consciousness as a disconnected series of images and sounds and thoughts. But, whatever physics might say, we humans are meaning-making creatures, and so meaning emerges nonetheless.

Schneider, though, has a few tricks to unsettle that instinctive dot-joining. The second half of the show is a series of dazzling, gasp-out-loud rug pulls, each more audacious than the last. Just as we think we’ve found our footing, Schneider sends us stumbling once again. The last reveal in particular robs me of my breath and makes my stomach fall entirely away. I feel dizzy, discombobulated, as lost as the man on stage.

But what’s really there beyond the trickery? Is it, I ask myself, just a load of superficially clever posturing dressed up in the kind of pulse-raising stagecraft that makes me go giddy? There are definitely bits of YOUARENOWHERE that feel like the “gobbets” Irwin encourages the Oxbridge hopefuls to use in The History Boys: chunks of borrowed cleverness, plundered with little care for their origins. And yet. Whether it’s the startling precision of Schneider’s staging or the cumulative effect of the show’s snippets of physics and philosophy (most likely both), something about YOUARENOWHERE lingers. Days later, its echoes still intermittently rupture the rhythms of the day like a shiver down the spine – or, perhaps, like the unnerving feeling that I’ve been here before.

Presented by Shoreditch Town Hall, Gate Theatre, Notting Hill and LIFT. Part of LIFT 2016.

 

 

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.

Medea, Gate Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

“They were here,” insists one of Medea and Jason’s two ill-fated sons. “They existed.” He’s talking about mammoths, a disputed answer in the boys’ animal game. But the comment applies equally to the pair of tragic children at the heart of Euripides’ play, integral to the plot yet not allowed to assert their own existence. Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks’ version of the tragedy refocuses events, offering us the children’s perspective and in the process making them more than simply the victims of fate. They were here. They existed.

It’s a compelling conceit for adapting a tragedy that is stubbornly problematic. Here, for a change, the concern is less with explaining how a woman could possibly kill her children and more with what those children might make of it all. Leon and Jasper are, like so many children of divorce, trapped between warring parents. They are also quite literally trapped, locked inside their bedroom while Medea and Jason thrash out their differences downstairs. Amy Jane Cook’s detailed design – all toys and clutter and a constellation of glow-in-the-dark stars tacked to the walls – invites us into that bedroom, limiting the boundaries of the drama to the four walls of the two boys’ imaginative world.

And so we watch them being two young brothers. They’re playful and cruel and silly and serious. The sibling squabbles – especially as cheekily, unaffectedly performed by the fantastic Keir Edkins-O’Brien and Bobby Smalldridge on the night I attend – are beautifully observed (and I write with the authority of a sister of three fiercely competitive younger brothers). They pelt each other with plastic ammo from toy guns and try to outdo each other in games and contests. They call each other names: “idiot” and “nincompoop”. They taunt and tease. Most important of all, they’re ordinary, more human being than myth.

There is, though, a subtle undercurrent of danger that Mulvany and Sarks play with throughout. Thanks to the notoriety of those three little syllables in the title, as an audience we can be relied upon to collectively hold our breath, waiting for the storm to break. The show opens with Leon splayed out on the floor, playing dead. The scene is chilling in its prescience even as we laugh at Jasper’s tactics to rouse his brother – everything from dragging him across the floor to farting in his face. Later, when the two boys play at war, it’s with a lingering awareness on our part of the conflicts raging beyond their locked bedroom door.

Mulvany and Sarks’ take on Medea, though, runs the risk of becoming too ordinary. Like the Belvoir’s determinedly prosaic version of The Wild Duck, this production transposes the classic into the everyday. It’s Medea as divorce play. Emma Beattie’s desperate, broken Medea is just a mum faced with the unthinkable prospect of losing her children, the sons just two regular kids caught in the crossfire. When the mythic does intrude, in playful references to the Golden Fleece and the Argo, it feels oddly out of place. That choice, of course, asks questions in itself. What’s so special about these two boys and their untimely deaths? What, after all, is the significance of myths and tragedies? What can these ancient narratives tell us about how we live now?

But where The Wild Duck was devastating in its shattering of an unremarkable family, this Medea gives itself nowhere to go save the inevitable. We know what’s coming. “We’re completely powerless,” says Leon, gazing up at the glowing stars on the walls and speaking more truth than he realises. While the children’s perspective is a novel one, though, its limited scope can offer neither explanations for nor ramifications of the terrible act that ruptures the world this production carefully builds around Leon and Jasper. It’s just a horrifying full-stop.

Photo: Ikin Yum.

Image of an Unknown Young Woman, Gate Theatre

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What’s in an image?

The power and potential deceptiveness of the image has become something of a recurring theatrical theme over the last few years. The most interesting thing by far about Chimerica was its ambivalent relationship with the iconic photograph at its heart, set against the backdrop of an image-saturated world. It followed The Witness, a play in which an image comes back to haunt the man who captured it, and was followed in turn by The Body of an American, which again revolves around the act of witnessing and the images that come to stand for entire conflicts.

Now, in Elinor Cook’s new play Image of an Unknown Young Woman, one small snippet of video footage both sparks and stands for a whole revolutionary movement. A woman – a young, beautiful woman – a young, beautiful woman wearing an eye-catching yellow dress – is shot during a protest. Video images of this act of brutality go viral, concentrating international media attention on a nation whose sufferings had previously been ignored. One pretty girl, one instantly iconic snapshot, does more than hundreds of deaths.

Cook’s revolution unravels in an unspecified country under an unspecified oppressive regime. While that device of “unspecified country” (especially when “Middle Eastern” or, as was the case a couple of decades ago, “Eastern European” is nestled in the middle) can often carry a whiff of racism, here the vagueness feels justified for a change. Although the play has echoes of various protests and revolutions across the world in recent years, it feels as though it could just as easily be happening on the streets of a Western city. The point is both closeness and distance – as hammered home by the parallel narrative of a wealthy Londoner’s frustrated desire to help.

In fact, Image of an Unknown Woman is constructed from a series of parallel narratives, all running along neighbouring tracks but – with one exception – never quite meeting. Ali (Ashley Zhangazha) and his girlfriend Layla (Anjana Vasan) deal with the fallout from uploading the video that sparks the uprising; lonely, rage-filled Candace (Susan Brown) confronts an ethical dilemma as she gets tangled up with a charity – fronted by Nia (Wendy Kweh), an activist who has escaped the regime under attack – that is not what it seems; and one woman (Eileen Walsh) simply picks her way through the carnage in search of her missing mother. Running around and between them is the three-strong chorus (Oliver Birch, Emilie Patry and Isaac Ssebandeke), taking on the murky, shape-shifting roles of leaders, protestors and commentators.

When I spoke to Cook about the play, she uncomfortably described “the girl in the yellow dress” – as the nameless subject of the video becomes known – as a sort of brand. As grotesque as the idea may be, it speaks powerfully to what captures the collective imagination in an information-flooded, fiercely consumerist age. People need a catchy slogan, a bitesize backstory, a striking image. This is also an idea that Christopher Haydon’s production and Fly Davis’ design have latched onto. With the audience configured in traverse, sliced down the middle by a catwalk-like stage, the entire space of the Gate’s auditorium is decked out in hazard-tape black and yellow. Aside from the costumes, the yellow of the young girl’s dress – and subsequently of the popular protest movement – is the only colour permitted to pierce the gloom. Armbands, balloons and scattered sheets of paper are all in keeping with the revolutionary “brand”.

The whole thing is as stylish and carefully coherent as the design, remaining immaculately consistent in its concept even as it evokes the noise and chaos of revolution. On the one hand, the pleasing sharpness of the aesthetic feels a little obscene, as if cleaning up the mess and blood of violent conflict into something almost pretty. Yet for that very reason it’s a brilliant artistic choice. This is what we as observers clutch at, what catches our attention: narratives that knit together, images that are neatly ideological, colours as bright and as vivid and as far away from those troublesome shades of grey as possible.

Haydon’s production is also effortlessly, unshowily diverse in its casting, both reinforcing the everywhere-and-nowhere quality of the play’s unspecified setting and actually looking something like the world beyond the Gate’s walls. Seeing Image of an Unknown Woman on the same day as reading Stephen Berkoff’s comments about the supposed “reverse racism” of ring-fencing the role of Othello for black actors, I was doubly aware of the importance of such a simple act. Sure, let’s have conversations about theatrical representation, but those conversations can’t be stripped of context. Until there’s real representation at all levels – until all theatre reflects the make-up of the UK population as a matter of course – any suggestion that the few roles reserved for BAME performers should be up for grabs for their already over-represented white counterparts smacks either of wilful ignorance or veiled prejudice (and that’s before we even consider the cultural history of blackface and all its racist connotations).

Representation is equally a concern for the play itself, which interrogates not just the impact that images gone viral can achieve today, but also the nature of the images that go viral in the first place. It’s no coincidence that the emblem of this revolution is young, female, attractive, blonde. As Nia puts it, this is an image of violence that is “palatable”, clear-cut – even titillating, as hinted at in the frenzied social media hubbub that opens the play. It’s a stark illustration that only some representations of suffering provoke a response and certain lives continue to be valued over others (as countless news stories in just the past few months alone have demonstrated). Indictments of twenty-first-century society don’t come much bleaker than that.

Photo: Iona Firouzabadi.

Eclipsed, Gate Theatre

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The worst things are always unseen: the bloodshed just off-stage or -screen, the implied atrocity, the imagined worst case scenarios. The same goes for Eclipsed, a violent play in which violence is more a texture than a series of acts. Set in a warlord’s compound during the Liberian civil war in 2003 and focusing on the women scratching out a living there, Danai Gurira’s play and Caroline Byrne’s production keep all of the worst horrors out of sight, but their shadow is ceaselessly cast over everything else.

So we see guns, but we never witness anyone being shot; we see the aftershocks of battle, but never the moment of impact. The daily reality of sexual violence, meanwhile, is gestured towards with little more than the clanging of a door and the sudden, obedient formation of the commanding officer’s “wives” into a line: a ritual as regular as clockwork, broken when one is selected and silently offers her body in exchange for her safety. The microcosm that Eclipsed depicts is a man’s world populated by women, with the forces controlling their lives always just around the corner, their presence oppressive but invisible.

“Violence,” writes Lucy Nevitt in Theatre & Violence (part of Palgrave Macmillan’s excellent Theatre& series), “tells us things about the culture that produced it: the kinds of power relationship on which it is built, the attitudes and values that it takes for granted. A representation of violence can reiterate or challenge normalised social structures.”

This raises a knotty and regularly asked question: does the representation of violence (and especially violence against women) simply reinforce the structures and ideologies that allow that violence in the first place? And is a representation of violence on stage indeed an act of violence in itself? Here, violence has become habitual in the lives of these women, but its destructiveness is never normalised. When a nameless new arrival turns to guns rather than her body as a tool of survival, we feel the full, horrific weight of that (non-)choice, as well as the power structures that force it upon her.

Violence also turns things upside down, unsettling reality. Beneath the routine brutality, there’s a strange tedium to conflict in the experience of these women. Eclipsed brilliantly captures the precarious yet mundane rhythms of their existence, in which war has become a constant, faded backdrop. It’s not the atrocities that demand stage time so much as the long expanses in between, dead hours to be filled with joking and squabbling and reading eagerly from a battered Bill Clinton biography (the States always distant yet near). Humour is punctuated with horror.

Much like Palestinian drama Fireworks (another of the best new plays I’ve seen so far this year), life in Eclipsed has a flat yet brittle texture, one that threatens to be shattered by the yearned-for but terrifying promise of peace. It’s become impossible to imagine a time beyond the conflict – as one character puts it, “I don’t know who I is out of war”. When your identity is so wrapped up in violence and instability, how do you get a hold on who you are?

For all of its vital wider critiques, it’s the five complex female characters who emerge most powerfully from both Gurira’s play and Byrne’s assured, compassionate production. They’re all known by role rather than name: the commanding officer’s wives numbered by rank, the visiting outsider simply identified as one of Liberia’s Women of Peace. Yet in the hands of Byrne and her brilliant cast, each is distinctly and humanely individual. Wives number one and three (Michelle Asante and Joan Iyiola respectively) bury fear and anxiety in affectionate quarrelling, jostling for the CO’s favour. The former discovers a glimpse of herself when she scores her real name – Helena – into the scorched earth; the latter finds meaning in the birth of her daughter.

Lingering on the edges of the compound are Faith Alabi’s diamond-hard wife number two, now going by the name of Disgruntled and toting a gun, and Rita (T’Nia Miller), a woman on a mission for both peace and her missing daughter. But it’s the astonishing Letitia Wright as the new girl – we never learn her name – who leaves the most shattering impact. Tough yet vulnerable, there’s a determined stillness to her suffering, everything contained behind the eyes. When that exterior finally cracks, the shockwaves reverberate long after the curtain call. We don’t need to see what has happened to her to feel the depth of its horror.

Photo: Helen Murray.