Cleansed, National Theatre

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There’s a moment in Greg Wohead’s show The Ted Bundy Project when the whole audience holds its breath. We’re watching a video – a video that Wohead has already described at (horrifying) length – and we’re wondering if Wohead – lovely, affable, smiling Wohead – is really about to show us this. He wouldn’t, would he? I stare at the screen, feeling slightly sick, yet unable to wrench my gaze away. I can’t stop watching.

“It’s hard to watch,” writes Natasha Tripney of Katie Mitchell’s production of Cleansed. “Yet here we are, watching.” There’s a similar sense of suspended breath in the Dorfman auditorium. I suspect that many of us know, or at least half know, what to expect from Sarah Kane’s play, first staged at the Royal Court in 1998. We have chosen to be here. And we choose to remain in our seats, looking on as horrible things happen to the bodies on stage. What makes us watch? And how, as we watch, do we make sense of what we see?

The first question, perhaps, is what are we seeing? Both Kane’s play and Mitchell’s production make that a difficult question to answer. In both, very specific scenes of torture and tenderness sit within a strange, abstract world. Tom Mothersdale’s Tinker, sadistic and self-loathing, rules over an institution of some kind, where he torments and experiments on a series of subjects: siblings Graham (Graham Butler) and Grace (Michelle Terry), lovers Carl (Peter Hobday) and Rod (George Taylor), and an illiterate boy named Robin (Matthew Tennyson, bringing extraordinary gentleness to this cruel world). What we as an audience experience is more a series of brutal and beautiful impressions than a linear, coherent narrative.

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Several reviews of Cleansed (both negative and positive) have listed the violence: litanies of horrors laid out for the reader like a catalogue of cruelty. Quentin Letts even offers the exact timings of each instance of torture. But violence is more than just the blows of a fight or the blast of a gun. It’s more than the blood and gore which have dominated press coverage of this revival (along with the depressingly predictable headlines reporting audience members fainting and walking out – presumably not at the same time) – and which, in any case, I was braced for as I tentatively took my seat.

Yes, it’s often difficult to watch. Yes, certain scenes of torture and mutilation – described in (sometimes problematic) detail elsewhere, so I won’t repeat the fetishisation of that represented violence again here – make me curl my hands into fists or send them flying to my mouth. But there’s also violence in the constant ringing of bells and the smooth wheeling in of gurneys. It’s the casual, precise, institutionalised horror of it all that strikes me as most violent. It’s the plastic sheets and pristine black suits.

Perhaps the cruelest moment of the production is when, having force-fed Robin a box of chocolates, Tinker gleefully peels away a sheet of cardboard to reveal another sickly layer beneath. He picks up each individual chocolate with a long pair of tongs, careful not to get his hands dirty. Rooted to my seat – eyes held open, muscles clenched – I shiver.

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I could write about Cleansed purely in images. Grace trapped in dreamlike incomprehension on the stairs, her red dress a vivid splash of colour against her grubby, washed-out surroundings. Rod and Carl frozen in a kiss as Grace’s arm slowly snakes between them. A slow-motion mockery of a funeral, as faceless figures glide across the stage clutching lilies and umbrellas. The daffodils that sprout, suddenly, through the floor. A series of embraces: tender, fierce, bodies briefly moving as one. Carl’s silent scream as he’s wheeled backwards on a gurney. Grace dancing to Suicide’s “Ghost Rider”, at first a mirror image of Graham, later alone and compulsively, limbs animated with a mixture of horror and joy.

My use of the word “dreamlike” feels apt, as Mitchell’s production is more like a dream than anything else. It’s a nightmare, often, with its shadowy figures and soundless howls. But it also has the vivid strangeness of all dreams, that sense of a world slightly off-kilter. Mitchell (supported by Joseph Alford’s brilliantly controlled movement direction) has slowed everything down to a pace that feels almost outside of time, punctuated with moments of frenetic activity. Nothing quite operates as we expect it to here. Bodies slow and quicken. Plants burst through floor tiles. The seamless combination of Paul Clark’s music and Melanie Wilson’s sound design, meanwhile, generates a constant, queasy anxiety.

Dan Rebellato is one of the few writers to have commented on the theatricality of Cleansed as much as on its naturalism. Many have argued that this version of Cleansed is too realistic, its rendering of violence too convincing. But it’s the hyper-naturalism of Mitchell’s approach to certain moments that creates the production’s uncanniness, its nightmarish blend of (literally) razor-sharp precision and blurry abstraction. As Rebellato puts it, “This production is both fiercely real and achingly theatrical. It’s what it is and it’s humming with metaphor.” It’s haunted by an uneasy doubleness, common to both theatre and dreams. Everything is two things at once. Dreaming and waking. Real and not real. What are we watching?

Mitchell’s production foregrounds the act of watching, of bearing witness. Throughout, we watch Grace watching; she is a constant presence, hovering on the edges of every scene. While the performances are uniformly excellent, it’s Terry as Grace who is utterly unforgettable. Perhaps it’s because we repeatedly see her, rooted to the spot, watching as we watch. In the very first scene she appears frozen to the staircase in the centre of the stage, unable to wrench her feet from where they’re planted, paralysed as if in a nightmare. And it makes you wonder – this constant, almost invisible presence – whether we should indeed read it all as a horrific dream.

There’s more to Grace’s watchful presence, though, than a straightforward framing of the events as a nightmare. By adding an observer, Mitchell throws light on the process of observing. Tinker, too, is often looking on, but his is a different kind of watching. He’s the sinister voyeur – never more so than when watching a peep show, whose performer seems to both attract and repel him. Terry’s Grace, meanwhile, often looks on with tormented compassion, yet able only to helplessly witness. These are our models for watching, making us aware of our own, far from passive involvement as audience members.

“Picture this,” sings a child’s voice in an unsettling rendition of Blondie’s song (just one in a series of inspired musical choices). It’s an invitation to our imaginations, as is Mitchell’s production, even with all its naturalistic touches. There is still, for all the realistic gore, a mental leap. There’s also a choice: a choice to keep watching, like Grace, or to avert our eyes. Why can’t we look away?

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At home I have a book full of photographs of abandoned spaces. Barren post-industrial landscapes. Forsaken monuments to forgotten powers. Paint peeling from walls and weeds nudging through cracks. The beauty of their decay is breathtaking. I feel uncomfortably drawn to these ruins, perhaps in the same way I feel drawn to post-apocalyptic fiction. There’s something morbidly fascinating about visions of a world that has left us behind. I also think, as I devour image after crumbling image, how brilliant these would be as stage designs.

Alex Eales’ design for Cleansed could be right out of that book. Kane’s script famously specifies a university – a place of learning become a place of torture – but Mitchell and Eales make this institution much more vague. It could just as easily be a hospital – another ironic reversal that finds its echo in the repeated description of Tinker as a ‘doctor’. There are signs on the walls, but these are the only vestiges of its previous use, relics from another era. Time and nature are gnawing away at this place; the walls are shedding their skin of paint, while bare, spindly trees thrust up through the rotting floor. Dirt and rust and mould are creeping in.

Yet it’s beautiful. And as with those photographs, that’s where the difficulty lies. I’m troubled less by the violence in Cleansed (though it is troubling) than by the extreme beauty I find in it. To what end do we aestheticise acts of cruelty and sites of decay? The question of violence on stage is one that persistently nags at me, and one to which I have no easy answer. Even when cloaked in metaphor, the problem doesn’t disappear. Because those metaphors – Ellen McDougall’s bursting balloons in Henry the Fifth, or the oozing bags of ink in Dan Hutton’s take on The Spanish Tragedy – are beautiful too.

As a challenge, though, Cleansed is vivid and confronting and hauntingly memorable. Kane’s play is known for its series of audacious images – flowers bursting from nowhere, rats carrying off severed body parts – that throw down a gauntlet for any director. It seems to me that Mitchell picks up that gauntlet and then chucks it right at us as an audience. Her images leave us feeling deeply, almost painfully, and they leave us asking the questions that keep punctuating my writing. What are we seeing? What makes us watch? Why can’t we look away? And what is it about what we are seeing that is still, in spite of everything, disturbingly beautiful?

Main photo: Stephen Cummiskey.

 

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I Want My Hat Back, National Theatre

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Originally written for the Guardian.

The kids’ verdict on the National Theatre’s new family offering comes in early. “This is a funny show!” exclaims one girl about 15 minutes in, giggles erupting around her. It’s hard to disagree.

Narratively speaking, there’s not a lot to Jon Klassen’s laconic picture book. The plot is mostly spelled out in the title: Bear’s hat has gone missing and he wants it back. This simplicity, though, is part of the joy of both book and adaptation. Around the limited framework, director Wils Wilson and her team have built a mischievous, boisterous delight of a show.

Bear (Marek Larwood) loves his red, pointy hat. But when he leaves it unguarded in the forest, opportunistic Rabbit (Steven Webb, with all the hyperactive energy he has brought to the Lyric Hammersmith’s pantomimes) is quick to snatch it up. Bear’s attempts to track it down lead him through a series of encounters with his fellow forest inhabitants.

Wilson’s version lets young audiences in on its tricks, welcoming them on stage at the beginning and making few attempts to hide its make-believe. Fly Davis’s DIY design has pot plants for trees and animal ears for costumes, while the chorus’s rapid changes of character often happen in full view. It’s a production that gets that kids understand pretending.

There’s plenty for the big kids in the audience too, from Arthur Darvill’s genre-hopping music to Joel Horwood’s book and lyrics, which retain Klassen’s concision and offer knowing winks to the adults. Wryly ad-libbing through the vocal responses of younger spectators, Larwood gives a brilliantly deadpan performance, which plays to two levels simultaneously. A show for all ages is a rarer thing than marketing copy tends to suggest, but I Want My Hat Back achieves that aim with ease.

Photo: Richard Davenport.

An Oak Tree, National Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

I’m currently reading How to be Both, Ali Smith’s latest conjuring trick of a novel. Written in two halves that can be read in either order, Smith has talked about how the structure was inspired by Renaissance frescoes. At first glance, the final image appears to be all that’s there, but behind the frescoes are often under-drawings which are completely different. That’s how the book works: one layer on top, the other peeking through in glimpses from beneath, different but connected.

The fresco or palimpsest is a useful way of thinking about An Oak Tree. It’s theatre of multiple layers, sometimes visible, sometimes not. Sometimes it’s a show about theatre; sometimes it’s a show about loss, grief and absence; sometimes it’s a show about transformations and illusions; sometimes it’s a show about what we choose to believe. Sometimes it’s about all of those things at once. And now, ten years on from its first performance, Tim Crouch’s play has grown yet another layer, as many of its audiences come along having already seen or – like me – read it.

Like Smith, Crouch was also inspired by art – specifically, one particular piece of art: Michael Craig-Martin’s ‘An Oak Tree’. The artwork is simply a glass of water on a shelf, alongside text explaining that Craig-Martin has transformed the glass of water into an oak tree. It’s not a glass of water pretending to be an oak tree; it is an oak tree. “The actual oak tree is present but in the form of the glass of water”.

It could be an essay on theatre, where one thing is regularly transformed into another. Crouch both plays with that idea and constructs around it a delicate narrative about another kind of transformation. At the play’s heart – and it does have a heart, for all its conceptual somersaults – is a father who has lost his daughter. Or rather, he’s found her, transformed into an oak tree on the side of the road where she was knocked down by a car.

And now the father is on stage, confronting the second-rate hypnotist who was behind the wheel. No. He’s in a room above a pub, a year from now. But he’s also here, in front of us, at the National Theatre, and we are both an audience of theatregoers and the crowd at the hypnotist’s show. It’s complicated.

This complex, many layered fiction is all performed by just two actors: Crouch himself, alternately ingratiating and uncertain in the role of the hypnotist, and a second performer as the grieving father. In one of the show’s key devices, the second actor is different every night, brought up on stage with no prior knowledge of the script. This points up all the workings of representational theatre – we can never forget for a moment that someone is being someone else – but also speaks powerfully to the content. As this man coming to terms with huge loss, the second actor (a gentle, softly-spoken Conor Lovett on the night I attend) is appropriately lost and bewildered, feeling their way through the performance.

The play works on two levels, then: the fiction of father and hypnotist, and the theatre of Crouch and his guest performer. But the two registers blur and bleed, blurring in turn the lines between truth and fiction, absence and presence. Is it Crouch the hypnotist or Crouch the writer/performer who is in control, guiding his fellow performer? When the second actor asks of the young girl’s death “is there nothing we can do to stop it happening?”, who is it speaking? And even the framing, as Crouch carefully points out, is all (apart from a couple of ad-libbed asides) scripted. The second actor has no choice in the matter when he/she responds to Crouch’s questions or compliments his writing; it’s all words on a page, pre-determined and yet at the same time not really determined at all.

I often think of theatre as a magician’s trick: we delight in the transformations, but we want to know the secrets of how it’s done. The real magic comes from knowing that it’s not magic at all. Crouch gets that. He lays it bare, riffs on it. Look, his theatre says playfully, it’s just people on a stage pretending, but at the same time it’s something, someone, someplace other. As an audience, we believe and disbelieve the illusion at the same time. Like the punters at a hypnotist’s show. Or like a grieving parent, grasping for a presence inside an absence, searching for something to hold onto.

Photo: Greg Veit.

We Want You to Watch, National Theatre

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Ever since seeing Alice Birch’s searing Revolt. She said. Revolt again last summer, I’ve thought of it as the feminist play for my generation. A generation raised with the base assumption of equality into a world we slowly realise has been cruelly mis-sold to us. A generation oddly cautious about the word “feminism”. A generation that briefly thought maybe the battles had been fought and won, when actually we just have to fight ever more insidious forces. For this generation and the ones immediately following it, this is the play that I want other young women – and men – to discover and have their minds blown by. It’s raw and angry and sad and fierce and funny and lost and searching and hopeless and hopeful.

We Want You to Watch is in the same vein. But where Revolt wrestled with everything it means to be a woman today, from the politics of the bedroom to the ever-present threat of violence, Birch’s new collaboration with performance duo RashDash isolates just one issue: pornography. A deliberate provocation, it starts from an extreme position, as Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen’s characters set out to ban all porn – the good, the bad and the ugly. As one of the pair puts it, “we want it obliterated”. Rip it up and start again.

Of course, it’s not as simple as that. We Want You to Watch is conscientiously self-aware, problematising its demands at every turn. There are interjections, bathed in sudden, glaring light: “Can we just say we’re completely pro sex”; “This has just been about heterosexual porn – that is a failure. This is not an apology”. Greenland and Goalen’s objections to pornography are met with eloquent defences, turning the argument over and over. What hard evidence is there of a link between violent porn and violent behaviour? How can you control the choices of consenting adults? Isn’t the banning of porn just censorship, pure and simple?

This is all explored in episodic fashion, leaping from one surreal scenario to the next. First, Greenland and Goalen are cops in the interrogation room, trying to prove the connection between torture and murder and the watching of violent porn. Then they’re in ballgowns, petitioning the Queen, then confronting the little boy of today who will be the porn addict of tomorrow. Failure follows failure, while the supply of porn – packaged in value cans, cheap and on demand – constantly renews and multiplies around them in Oliver Townsend’s simple but striking set.

Watching it, I think of the bit in Fleabag where Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character clicks joylessly through porn, listing all the different genres with empty, staring eyes: gay, Asian, anal. I think of the ‘Porn Girl’ monologue in Nothing and the speaker’s guilty, scared admission that she was turned on by “the bits where something felt wrong”. I think of Bryony Kimmings in Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, plucking out her niece’s eyes to protect her from seeing all the fucked up nastiness that’s just a swipe and a click away at any moment.

All that and more surfaces in the gaudy metaphor of We Want You to Watch. As ever in RashDash’s work, ideas are expressed as much through bodies as through language. As the subject of Greenland and Goalen’s interrogation rebukes their arguments, the two performers buckle to the ground, limbs contorted in defeat. Later, expressing what watching porn feels like, their bodies thrash violently across the stage, the effect vivid and queasy. The pornography that seeps into everything is never seen, but its imprint leaves an indelible stain on the movement. Birch’s words can bruise too, especially in a heartbreaking speech delivered to the next generation.

The further Greenland and Goalen pursue their mission, though, the more strained and stretched the metaphors become. Eventually, they track down a teenage internet hacker, frantically defending their position while responding to ever more ridiculous demands. There’s only so far the dramaturgy of failure can go, and as the piece goes on it verges dangerously close to tedium, its once fierce arguments now weary and sluggish. There’s an aptness in that, of course, but it increasingly struggles to land. Beginning to feel restless, I wonder if the hard-line starting point is as much of a burden as a provocation.

That said, there’s an appealing boldness in staking out an uncompromising position, in refusing to accept “the shittest consolation prize on the planet”. In the unapologetic yet problematised stance of We Want You to Watch, there are echoes of both Revolt and RashDash’s last show Oh, I Can’t Be Bothered, which tussled just as painfully with the idea of romantic love and the suffocating demand to find “The One”. In the tackling of another feminist issue, I was hoping for a collision of those two approaches, each complex and messy and exhilaratingly theatrical. We Want You to Watch isn’t quite it. But like Revolt, it prises these conversations open, using anger and a stubborn refusal to back down as a way of pushing forward its central debate. And even in its failure, it dares to dream of a new start.

Rip it up and start again.

Photo: Richard Davenport.

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire begins with a feast. In the National Theatre’s new production, the safety curtain opens to reveal a vast table heaving with food. Overstuffed pies; plates spilling over with fruit; a whole, glistening pig. An obscene bounty. Around the edges, heedlessly stuffing their faces throughout the people’s battles and declarations, sit a shadowy host of figures in gowns. The poor scrabble while the rich gorge.

It’s one hell of a metaphor – and one hell of a table, at that. Es Devlin’s raked design spreads greedily across the stage of the Lyttelton Theatre, occupying our entire field of vision. Above, a huge slanted mirror reflects back the candlelit opulence, while a gilt throne looms at the back of the stage. This is what the impoverished idealists and revolutionaries of Caryl Churchill’s Civil War play, dwarfed by the finery that surrounds them, have to contend with.

Eschewing textbook Cavaliers and Roundheads for a focus on the radical far-left groupings of the Levellers, Diggers and Ranters, the sympathy of Churchill’s play lies with those dismantling the banquet. Her history is one of workers persuaded to fight by a fervent belief in the imminent arrival of Christ on earth; of radical thinkers and penniless hopers; of the heady possibilities of a nation without a monarch; and, finally, of those who would freely distribute rights to speech and land being crushed by those unwilling to relinquish their power. In this telling, it’s a war fought on heavenly promises for ultimately earthly spoils.

That’s where, again, the central metaphor comes in. Bit by bit, the opening feast is stripped back to the earth from which it came, as Devlin’s set undergoes an extraordinary transformation. But while the people may till that newly uncovered soil, it soon returns to the hands of a small elite. As revealed by the Putney Debates of autumn 1647, slap-bang in the middle of the play, the Civil War quickly becomes a battle not for freedom but for land. For Oliver Cromwell and his allies, this is the sticking point; democracy is not to come at the price of their privileged property rights.

Churchill’s is a play full of proclamations, of speeches grand and simple. We, the audience, are very deliberately addressed, positioned almost as witnesses. During the pivotal Putney Debates, the house lights are gently raised, daring us to speak up. Later, Steffan Rhodri’s butcher stares right out at us, refusing to sell us any more meat. We’ve had more than our fill.

All that speaking, though, doesn’t always make for compelling drama. Lyndsey Turner’s production is a gorgeous thing to look at, with all the light, shade and careful composition of a series of paintings, yet like paintings the scenes too often feel static and poised. The rawness of anger and revolution has been given a pretty, polished sheen. There are some briefly breathtaking moments of theatricality – the voluminous tablecloth taking on a life of its own, or the wooden slats of the table being made to give way to the soil beneath – but for the most part it’s all talk and backdrop.

There are obvious, though not forced, resonances. We live in a time that feels similarly on the brink of an apocalypse – though one heralded by climate change rather than Christ – and we’re approaching the most genuinely unpredictable general election in decades. Again, we face both possibility and despair. And seeing the show on St George’s Day, the nationalist rhetoric tugs on the ear, speaking of all the ways in which pride for one’s country has been – and continues to be – used to mobilise people. But “for England” (or Britain) only ever really means for a select few.

In a subtle touch, Soutra Gilmour’s costumes suggest that the distance of rulers from ruled is temporal as well as economic. While the aristocratic chorus are got up in period gowns, the non-specifically scruffy Diggers, Levellers and Ranters could have been plucked out of various points in history – right up to the present day. One would-be revolutionary even pulls out a thermos. This has been going on for hundreds of years, Turner’s production seems to be saying, and those at the top still have yet to change.

This plays out on an epic scale, with the already large cast (Leo Bill, Joshua James, Trystan Gravelle and Adelle Leonce all stand out from the considerable crowd) supplemented by a community company of more than 40. There are an awful lot of bodies on stage. This is less the fragmented experience of war suggested by the play’s many small scenes and vignettes and more of a mass event, with a crowd of other players always lurking in the background. While this breadth can give a powerful sense of “the people”, however, the sheer size and ambition of the production – like the lavish spread it opens with – all feels a bit much. It’s a plea for the earth coming from the heart of the feast.