Destruction and Renewal

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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.

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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.