Destruction and Renewal

manuel-harlan

Originally written for Exeunt.

A cacophony of voices drowning each other out. A pulverised culture retelling its stories. An ear-splitting scream of sound. A beautiful howl of despair. A giant subterranean drain. A devastating downpour of blood. Oddly, sounds and images of destruction dominate a year that has been characterised – theatrically if not otherwise – by reinvigoration and renewal. Often the most thrilling theatre I’ve happened to experience has also been the bleakest in its take on where we are right now.

Pomona, with its stark diagnosis that “everything bad is real”, epitomises this strand of shows. Alistair McDowall’s Escher staircase of a play was exhilarating, it was intelligent, and it was pitch black in its outlook on the modern world. Sending a violent jolt through the Orange Tree Theatre, it dazzled with both its ambition and its swirling mind-fuck of a plot, tangling up fiction and reality in a way that was at once disorientating and unsettlingly familiar. Here was a dystopia of a distinctly uncanny flavour.

The dark undertones of Pomona echoed a mood that had already established its hold on the year’s theatre. In The Body of an American – an early highlight of my theatregoing year at the Gate – the devastation was found in faraway warzones and much closer to home. Alice Birch’s blistering Revolt. She said. Revolt again. ripped up both patriarchy and the rulebook, suggesting flawed and angry responses to a broken world. And two parts of the great “Chris Trilogy” (completed by Chris Thorpe’s knotty Confirmation), the beautifully furious Men in the Cities by Chris Goode and Chris Brett Bailey’s mind-blowing, eardrum-destroying This Is How We Die, offered two different but equally excoriating critiques of late capitalism.

Then there’s master of bleakness Beckett, whose swirling, cyclical monologue Not I – most famously performed by the late great Billie Whitelaw – was given a mesmerising (and astonishingly speedy) new rendition by Lisa Dwan at the Royal Court at the beginning of the year.

While much of the new work I saw in the last 12 months was unsurprisingly shadowed by dismal visions of the world, the attitude also stretched into some of the year’s best revivals. Ivo van Hove’s production of A View From The Bridge scratched decades of dust and school assignments off Arthur Miller’s 20th-century classic, transforming it into a muscle-clenchingly tense tragedy, Jan Versweyveld’s black and grey design matching the gloom of its dramatic atmosphere. Katie Mitchell’s version of The Cherry Orchard – paired with a scrape-your-jaw-off-the-floor gorgeous design by Vicki Mortimer – was exquisite in its quickening decay. And two Ibsen productions at the Barbican – Thomas Ostermeier’s An Enemy of the People and Simon Stone’s The Wild Duck – wrenched the playwright’s work devastatingly into the 21st-century.

Another of 2014′s great revivals was Our Town at the Almeida, in a US-imported production from David Cromer. It arrived billed as a bold reimagining, but much of what made it work was – apart from the stunning final reveal – determinedly ordinary. Thornton Wilder’s characters appeared to us as unremarkable yet remarkably real, making their everyday sufferings all the more heartbreaking. There was a similar sort of quality to Robert Holman’s Jonah and Otto, a play that made a quiet art out of conversation. Both productions gently asked us to pay attention.

Other shows demanded the attention of their audiences rather more forcefully. Dmitry Krymov’s Opus No 7, visiting the Barbican as part of this year’s LIFT, had me from the first of its giddying procession of images. The same director’s wonky take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream was perhaps not as beautiful to look at, but just as enchanting, capturing something of the strange alchemy of theatre. In the National Theatre’s newly reopened Dorfman (i.e. the theatre formerly known as the Cottesloe), meanwhile, glittering new musical Here Lies Love relentlessly swept me along with it even in its naffest moments. Most recently – and in spite of its flaws – the dazzling to look at Golem made me understand all the fuss around 1927′s wittily precise animation.

One of the aesthetic offspring of 1927 is Kill the Beast, a company who marry visual detail with grotesque narrative flair. This year their latest show, He Had Hairy Hands, had me roaring along twice to its tale of werewolves, cops and arse-kicking monster hunters, as well as offering hands down the best gag of the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s also up there grappling for most jofyul theatregoing experience of the year, in a close-fought tussle with Secret Theatre’s A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts. The latter just about snags the prize, stealing my heart over and over with its flailing hopefulness – and its joy-drenched rendition of “Proud Mary”.

A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts is also, in part, about how we tell stories. There were lots of stories about stories this year. Coincidentally running at the same time, Mr Burns at the Almeida imagined how our culture might be passed on after a future apocalypse, while Ellen McDougall’s production of Idomeneus playfully traced the same process of narration and mutation over previous centuries. The dangers of narrative appropriation were disturbingly outlined in Tim Crouch’s multi-layered, head-scratching Adler & Gibb; in Wot? No Fish!!, storytelling was a simple source of charm and love.

Along with all the theatre that filled me with joy, plenty that I saw this year also left me filled with tears. Spine‘s double-whammy of the personally and politically emotive forced those tears to spill over, as did James “the vacuum cleaner” Leadbitter’s overwhelmingly intimate Mental. After the small but exquisite experience of Greg Wohead’s headphone piece Hurtling, I walked the streets of Edinburgh with heart thumping and eyes stinging; ditto Hug, Verity Standen’s “immersive choral sound bath” (there’s really no better way to describe it than she does). Then there was Kim Noble’s brash but bruised You’re Not Alone, which took a long time to relinquish its haunting hold.

Elsewhere it was the lulz that stayed with me. That giant ballpond and the IRL memes in Teh Internet is Serious Business. The smart silliness of funny women Sh!t Theatre and Figs in Wigs, turning their humour to Big Pharma and online narcissism respectively. The funny-sad sequence of cheesy song lyrics in RashDash’s Oh, I Can’t Be Bothered. The sheer joy of watching Jamie Wood and Tom Lyall clown around with what appeared to be an alien haggis in Chris Goode’s remounted Longwave. Chris Thorpe and Jon Spooner being punk rockers in their pants in Am I Dead Yet? (the most funny-yet-thoughtful show you’re likely to see about kicking the bucket).

With the requisite predictability of the end-of-year round-up, no survey of 2014′s theatre can seem to get away without a mention of King Charles III. Mike Bartlett’s concept – a future history play in iambic pentameter – sounded like a potential disaster, but turned out to be a slice of genius. It was thoughtful, it was witty, and it was as much about our theatrical heritage as it was about the traditions of monarchy. And to top it all off, it was designed by the brilliant Tom Scutt, who once again came up with one of the designs of the year with his dizzying visual concept for the Nuffield Theatre’s excellent revival of A Number.

Now from the big to the small. I’m still unapologetically head over heels for one of the most intimate shows I saw this year: Andy Field and Ira Brand’s fragile, heart-fluttering put your sweet hand in mine. Seating its audience in almost uncomfortable proximity to one another and to the two performers, it gently prodded at closeness and distance and love in all its different forms. Just gorgeous.

Also small – in staging if not in ideas – was Barrel Organ’s debut show Nothing. This series of intertwined monologues, performed in a newly improvised order each night with no set or props, was just as bleak in its way as some of the year’s more explicitly dark offerings. For a confused 20-something, it also terrifyingly captured the anger, uncertainty and disconnection of a whole generation. It feels like one of the real discoveries of the year, as does Chewing the Fat, Selina Thompson’s glittery but difficult look at weight and body image.

After opening with destruction, I want to end on a slightly more hopeful note. For all the darkness and devastation, few pieces of theatre have stayed with me quite so insistently as Duncan Macmillan’s not-quite-monologue Every Brilliant Thing, which was indeed brilliant. For once, cliched claims of “it’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you laugh” were entirely justified, as I giggled and sobbed – sometimes at the same time – throughout.

Quite how a show about suicidal depression can be so life-affirming I’m still trying to fathom. It probably has a lot to do with the irresistible warmth of performer Jonny Donahoe, without whom I suspect it wouldn’t be half as good. But it also plays, as many of the best shows of the year have done, to theatre’s strengths: the unpredictability of live performance, the thrill of proximity, the possibilities of all being together, now, in the same space. Here’s to more of the same in 2015.

Photo: Manuel Harlan.

King Charles III, Almeida Theatre

KC3-3894-web-Cast-of-King-Charles-III-by-Johan-Persson

Originally written for Exeunt.

It is apt that King Charles III, Mike Bartlett’s brilliantly ambitious “future history play”, is opening in a week that has seen newspapers plastered with photographs of the Royal Family. As William, Kate and baby George embark on a tour of New Zealand, the media fascination would suggest that the monarchy is far from unwanted. If anything, their stock is up. But does the ceremonial head of state really have any role to play in how we define ourselves as a nation in the twenty first century? Or is monarchy today nothing more than a brand, with Wills and Kate as its glossy poster boy and girl?

It is these questions, and a wide assortment of others, that King Charles III thoughtfully and entertainingly poses. The play opens in the near future, at the funeral of the long-reigning Queen. After a lifetime of waiting in the wings, Charles is finally out of his mother’s shadow and thrust into the glare of the spotlight. But while, as he puts it, “potential holds appeal”, the long-awaited throne is a formidable prospect. Barely hours into the job, Bartlett has the tragic figure of Tim Piggot-Smith’s stubborn Charles take issue with a privacy bill that lands on his desk for royal assent, refusing to sign as a matter of conscience. With the wavering of a pen, a whole nation is suspended in uncertainty, poised between the collapse of Parliament and the overthrow of the monarchy.

Bartlett’s deliciously smart invention is as much about our theatrical heritage as it is about the threatened traditions of monarchy. Taking Shakespeare’s histories as its model, the play’s form is wrapped up in the same contradiction as our Janus-like nation: both new and old, looking backwards and forwards at the same time. His script is a witty amalgam of Shakespearean rhythms and sharp modern colloquialisms, threaded with light allusions to some of the Bard’s greatest hits. We get unyielding royal ambition, a free-spirited, Hal-esque Prince Harry in the form of Richard Goulding (who just wants to live like common people), and a Kate (Lydia Wilson) whose backroom manoeuvring has more than a hint of Lady Macbeth – even if her weapon of choice is more Dolce and Gabbana than sharpened dagger.

Rupert Goold’s assured production is cast in the same mould, delicately attuned to its Shakespearean echoes. History is subtly inscribed on Tom Scutt’s simple set, which marries candles, a wide dais decked in plush maroon carpet, and a fading mural of faces that hugs the exposed brickwork of the Almeida’s curving back wall. The figures who anxiously pace under the glare of these painted eyes have all the poise of Shakespearean heroes and the polish of modern politicians, flitting with ease between elegant blank verse and slick press conference spin. And there’s a glorious bit of Bard spoofing (and Daily Express baiting) with the ghostly appearance of a black-shrouded Diana, a contrivance that is both utterly ridiculous and absolutely faithful to the logic of Bartlett and Goold’s chosen form.

It’s often said that retellings of history reveal more about the time they emerge from than the era in which they are set; the same can be claimed for visions of the future, which have a habit of reflecting contemporary anxieties. Perhaps, then, Bartlett has found the perfect form for grappling with some of the doubts clouding our immediate national horizon. With the referendum for Scottish independence looming, British identity is suddenly up for grabs, and with it the whole hodgepodge of tradition that makes up our national character. King Charles III might not offer any answers, but it’s a compelling start to a fresh national conversation about monarchy, democracy and that most elusive and problematic of qualities – Britishness.

Photo: Johan Persson.