A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lyric Hammersmith

A scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream @ Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. Created by Filter and Directed by Sean Holmes and Stef O’Driscoll (Opening 25-02-16) ©Tristram Kenton 02/16 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com

I was ready to give up on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In fact, I pretty much had; after the last uninspiring production, I made a personal vow not to see it again for at least five years. It’s just too familiar, its contours too well-trodden. I studied it multiple times, acted in it at school, saw production after gimmicky production try to put a new sheen on it. I was done, I decided, with fairies and mechanicals.

So I surprised myself slightly by going to Filter’s version at the Lyric Hammersmith. I think it was the words “riotous” and “irreverent” that appealed. And never has marketing copy been so spot on. Filter don’t just rip up the text – they douse it in beer and pelt it with food. It’s Shakespeare meets panto meets Secret Theatre.

Filter, together with directors Sean Holmes and Stef O’Driscoll, have latched onto the play-within-a-play conceit, playfully multiplying the meta-theatrical frames. At the start of the show, Ed Gaughan’s Peter Quince steps out between the curtains to say a few words – a prologue, if you will. There’s a special guest playing Bottom tonight, he excitedly tells us after some hurried preliminaries. But when said special guest gets stuck backstage shortly after, it’s up to a game audience member to step up and save the day.

So this Dream is a play within a play within a play, and Bottom is actually an unprepossessing (if enthusiastic) amateur, jumping up on stage with shopping bags in tow. Except, of course, he’s not. This is scripted chaos. Yet the extraordinary thing about Filter’s production is that, for all the knowing meta-theatrics (and despite being a remount of a production first staged in 2011), it manages to retain a feeling of real seat-of-the-pants improvisation. As performers crash through walls or tumble down holes, there’s a constant feeling that this could all go horribly wrong.

In that sense, then, it’s absolutely in keeping with the clumsy craft of the mechanicals, who here become Gaughan, his backing band and their last-minute Bottom (Andrew Buckley). They’re just about holding together both the fiction of the show as a whole and the play within a play that exists inside it, easily flipping between Shakespearean dialogue and twenty-first-century colloquialisms. Elsewhere, there’s a lycra-clad, cape wielding Oberon (Jonathan Broadbent), a poutily unimpressed Titania (Cat Simmons), and four of the most demonstratively lustful lovers the play has ever seen (special mentions to John Lightbody’s hip-thrusting Lysander and Hammed Animashaun’s soulful, Marvin Gaye-style wooing as Demetrius).

Filter also have a unique take on Puck, played here by the company’s co-artistic director Ferdy Roberts. No airy sprite, Roberts is instead a scruffy, sardonic handyman, keeping the wheels of Oberon’s enterprise rolling through elbow-grease more than magic. It’s a nod to the hard work for some that usually sits beneath the fun of others, though this Puck also gets his fair share of mischief. Cracking open cans of Fosters, he lets the lovers’ quarrels unfold like a soap opera, watching on with a grin and only reluctantly intervening to undo the mess he has made.

Like Dmitry Krymov’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It) – another twist on Shakespeare’s play that has little interest in the text – Filter reveal to us the magic, the trickery and the silliness of theatre. Sound plays an important role here: the supporting fairies are nothing more that zooming, zipping sound effects, yet still you want to follow the noise in spite of yourself in hope of snatching a fleeting glimpse. Everything is mixed and produced on stage, but the absence of illusion only makes it all the more theatrical. Look, Filter say, this is how it all works – and still we as an audience want to be taken in by it.

The stalls are full of teenagers on the night I attend, and I find myself wishing I’d been taken to Shakespeare like this as a schoolkid. It’s full of joyous, ridiculous moments: spontaneous bursts of song, Oberon descending from above on a wire, a rapidly escalating food fight. And unlike any of those other productions I’d seen, this Dream feels full of life. Filter are irreverent when it comes to following the letter of the text, perhaps, but they create a theatrical experience with all the fun, mischief and pandemonium that the cheekiest of Shakespeare’s plays seems to demand.

Photo: Tristram Kenton.

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Herons, Lyric Hammersmith

A scene from Herons by Simon Stephens @ Lyric Theatre Hammersmith. Directed by Sean Holmes. (Opening 21-01-16) ©Tristram Kenton 01/16 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com

The herons of Simon Stephens’ play are vicious. Vicious and beautiful. They swoop down to catch their prey, still and composed until they go in for the kill.

There’s more than a hint of the animalistic to director Sean Holmes’ and dramaturg Joel Horwood’s new version of Herons. In the soggy Darwinian playground that designer Hyemi Shin has created, everyone gets dragged underwater at one point or another – though categories of predator and prey are never quite as simple as in the natural world that both play and production evoke. The footage of primates that plays constantly on a large screen above the action dares us to watch the unfolding events like a David Attenborough documentary, but it’s far more complicated than that.

If the landscape of the stage is a playground, then teenagers are its main inhabitants. While adults lurk on the sidelines, this is decidedly adolescent territory. As well as the playground, with its garish roundabout and bobbing sit-on horse, Shin’s set suggests all the abandoned, concrete spaces that kids flock to. This one happens to be a canal lock, water gradually trickling through its gates, but it could just as easily be a deserted car-park or grubby underpass. It’s an in-between sort of place, a no-man’s land for those stranded between childhood and adulthood.

One such stranded individual is Billy, the child of a broken marriage and the butt of his classmates’ jokes. A year ago, his dad found a dead girl in the river and reported the boys who killed her. Now Scott – the young brother of one of the murderers – is promising revenge, tormenting Billy with the help of his two guffawing sidekicks. They are cruel in the way that only children are, ruthless and cunning in pursuit of their prey.

The fragmented, out-of-joint aesthetic of the set extends to Holmes’ production, in which scenes jut sharply into one another and the rules of time and space are frequently disrupted. Horwood has cannily chopped and rearranged Stephens’ text, creating the breathless sense that everything is happening at once. What might be calm, quiet exchanges between Billy and his Dad, fishing at the water’s edge, become truncated and immersed into the all-pervasive brutality of schoolyard bullying. Scenes never quite end, the performers remaining on stage to watch what comes next, their presence looming and ominous.

There’s more than a hint of Secret Theatre, its legacy shimmering like the light reflected off the water. It’s unsurprising, perhaps, given that Holmes, Horwood and Shin are all involved. Yet here some of the most interesting aspects of that project – bold design, a resistance to naturalism, a sense of exploration and surprise – are married to another of the Lyric’s core purposes: its commitment to young people. Two Bugsy Malone alumni (Max Gill as Billy and Sophia Decaro as Adele, the young girl who befriends him) return in this production, while impressive performances are delivered by all of the teenage cast (alongside Ed Gaughan and Sophie Stone in compelling turns as Billy’s parents). We see, for a change, young people actually played by young people – and with nuance and complexity to boot.

There are aspects of the play that are inevitably jettisoned by Holmes and Horwood’s short, sharp shock of an approach. The tenderness that tempers the cruelty – in moments between Billy and his alternately tough and gentle dad, or in the delicate connection that Adele finds with Billy – only briefly glimmers through the darkness in this version, while there are few moments in which to pause or reflect. What it does do brilliantly, though, is blur the fine line that separates bully from victim, particularly in its portrayal of tormenting and tormented Scott (a fantastic, production-stealing performance from Billy Matthews).

Unlike in the animal world, here the food chain is forever shifting. Predator becomes prey. The heron swoops. The cycle of fear and violence starts again.

Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Keeping the Secret

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Originally written for Exeunt.

There has always been a certain tension at the heart of the Lyric Hammersmith’s new project. One manifestation of this tension emerged in the opening lines of Sean Holmes’launch speech, which was paradoxically required to contain both arrogance and humility – “Arrogance because there is definitely something provocative and cocky in the gesture we are making, and humility because we are aware of that arrogance and hope that it reflects a desire in our audience”. Secret Theatre is a project that strives to both explode and build, to create something new while drawing inspiration from past endeavours, to maintain secrecy at the same time as being inclusive, to challenge the supremacy of the text while not entirely departing from its spirit. It’s no easy task.

There is also something a little disingenuous about assessing this task now, after the first two shows have opened. Secret Theatre is taking place over a year, establishing a permanent company of ten actors and ten creatives to work on a series of shows in repertory, through a process that is continually adapting to the space, the people in it and the audiences coming through the doors. It is a structural shift over many months, and its real value lies in its impact as a whole endeavour rather than in the individual shows that are emerging from it. So the current view is necessarily a limited one – just the first glimpse of a much wider picture. This response, therefore, must also be a glimpse, an early set of impressions rather than a comprehensive critical overview.

The element of the project to receive most attention at this stage is embedded in its very name – the “secret” part of Secret Theatre. One of many risks the Lyric is taking with this season is the decision not to release the names of the shows, instead referring to them as Show 1, Show 2, etc. The stated aim of this decision is to “counter a prevailing culture saturated with information”, allowing theatregoers to experience work without the burden of expectation. Since its launch, however, the secrecy of the project has come to acquire lots of other connotations, many of them highlighting that central tension. It functions as a sexy marketing tool, but it is also in danger of implying exclusivity. It erodes at the notion of theatre as commodity, yet it is problematic in the risk it asks audiences to take in shelling out money on an unknown.

It remains uncertain just what effect this secrecy will have in the longer term, although it’s unfortunate – not to mention a little ironic – that this has so far overshadowed the shows themselves. To approach the work in the spirit of its creation, however, I’ll be keeping the secrecy intact as far as possible. Whatever the other implications of the “secret” tag, it feels churlish to deprive anyone of the heady thrill of sitting in an auditorium buzzing with the kind of anticipation that only comes from going in blind. Anything might happen.

And this spirit – this breathless sense of the unexpected – runs right through the metabolism of both productions, even once they reveal their titles. Show 2 does not remain a mystery for long, with an early line clearly determining the familiar classic text, but the revelation takes nothing from the vitality of this interpretation. It might not be quite the theatrical hand grenade that Holmes promised to lob in his interview with Matt Trueman, but it somehow manages to strip itself of the kind of baggage that its iconic female protagonist drags on in a towering collection of suitcases.

In common with the troublingly clinical, synthetic eroticism of Three KingdomsShow 2manages to be at once achingly sexy and stylishly cold. The plot is centred on two sisters (Nadia Albina and Adelle Leonce), both of whom find themselves far from their privileged rural upbringing in the cramped claustrophobia of the city, and both of whose lives are shaken by the impulsive violence of the younger woman’s husband (Sergo Vares). In this version, sexuality is repeatedly foregrounded, as performers undress at the front of the stage and Leonce suggestively licks ice-cream from a spoon. But any sensuality is underscored with a hard edge of menace. No one exemplifies this better than Vares, whose muscular presence hints at the animalistic traits attributed to his character, but who maintains a deeply unsettling aura of control even in the fiercest of his rages.

Alongside themes of sex, gender and violence, this production also draws out a thread of fragile hope and imagination. Hyemi Shin’s clean, pleasingly minimalist set is something of a blank canvas, onto which Albina’s delicate, damaged escapist can project her desires. Brightly coloured balloons are symbolic as well as celebratory: hopeful and captivating, but easily punctured and deflated. The aural landscape of the production, meanwhile, is filled with a series of intoxicating Motown tunes, each truncated as abruptly as the protagonist’s dreams. It all makes perfect sense, but as metaphor rather than literal representation. As Albina declares “I don’t want realism, I want magic”, it’s hard not to nod emphatically.

Show 1, while grappling with an equally revered play, has the benefit of reimagining a text that is already fragmented and incomplete. This is where the non-literal, symbolic approach of the Secret Theatre team really pays off, exposing an ugly, oozing wound right in the middle of a play whose implicit social critique is suddenly painfully explicit. Here, the central character (Billy Seymour) is stuck on a punishing treadmill, trapped in a life of unremitting poverty and toil. To eliminate any doubt about the impossibility of his situation, Seymour is tethered to the middle of the stage, able only to go round and round on a pre-determined path, always running but never getting anywhere. The only way to sever this tie is through violence, an answer that is really no answer at all.

The dark, desperate world presented on stage is one in which individuals like the protagonist have been mercilessly dehumanised by the system they exist within. This is clear right from the captivating animalistic struggle of the first scene – as startling an opening as you’re likely to witness – and is insistently compounded by the images that follow. In one of the rawest, messiest moments of the show, the cast pull on animal onesies and dance furiously under flickering strobe lights, flinging water across the stage. It’s a thrilling yet devastating stage image, capturing both the giddy intensity and the furious despair of this hedonistic release.

The real punch to the guts, however, is reserved for the conclusion. In the aftermath of the play’s climactic scene of violence, Albina – who has spent most of the show hovering above the action like a mocking angel – steps up to a microphone. In the most haunting of the show’s many striking music choices, she launches into a bitter rendition of a song that suddenly shifts the nature of what we have been watching for the past 75 minutes; something previously abstract is made uncomfortably specific. Through the insertion of these bile-coated lyrics into the text, a brilliant and disturbing new reading is revealed.

One of the great joys of both shows is to see unexpected ingredients of the text wrenched out and realised anew. In place of literalism, a rich symbolic language illuminates new facets of the plays. In Show 2, a repeated line about metaphorical “coloured lights” is visually translated into gorgeous, colour-shifting neon bulbs; the grim, relentless cycle that is implicit in the narrative of Show 1 finds expression through Seymour’s compulsion to walk in endless circles. Rarely does theatrical metaphor combine such careful thought with real visual excitement.

My initial thought, on emerging from Show 2, was that this is theatre that turns the text inside out. Theatre that grabs something from deep inside the guts of a play and holds it up for an audience to see; theatre that excavates from within rather than imposing from outside. But on reflection, perhaps even to distinguish between internal and external is a misguided project which continues to implicitly judge a production based on its relationship with the text. It might be more accurate to say that this is theatre in which the text is in dialogue with the rest of the stage vocabulary, neither raising its voice nor dwindling to a whimper.

And here is where the much discussed secrecy that surrounds the project suddenly seems vital. The first two shows are productions of famous, frequently revived texts, each carrying not just baggage but voluminous trunks of the stuff. Some have expressed surprise that Holmes has opted for two such behemoths of classic drama, but in the light of Secret Theatre’s aims, nothing could be more logical. How better to challenge the structures of literalism and “serving the text” than to reimagine a pair of plays with a long lineage in this tradition?

The names of these plays, however, inevitably conjure a whole range of associations and expectations, influencing their reception and perhaps even putting some people off entirely. In the case of such well-known plays, the decision to keep their titles under wraps is more than a mere gimmick; it allows for a viewing experience that does not immediately hold the production to the example of the text. Instead of measuring the show up to an imagined ideal, we are freed to watch what is actually happening on stage, in this moment, now. Whether we enjoy watching that or not, central to the gesture is a refreshing liberation from pinning the entire production down to one supposedly fixed element. All of a sudden, everything is up for grabs.

Of course, none of the work that has come out of Secret Theatre so far is perfect. Much of the emerging aesthetic remains in the swaggering shadow of Three Kingdoms, from the drenching of water to the abundance of suitcases, while the promised explosiveness could still do with a bit more of a bang. The secrecy is perhaps mishandled and the right vocabulary to discuss it is still being shaped. But this is theatre that is not afraid to be messy, theatre that refuses to be quiet and well behaved. It’s theatre that demands to be watched – really watched – and that respects its audience’s ability to think and interpret. It’s rough, it’s sexy, it’s interrogative, it’s thrilling. It’s theatre to make the heart beat a little faster. And that, surely, is something to get excited about.

Photo: Alexandra Davenport.

Secrets and Surprises

Originally written for Exeunt.

As our huddled group of partygoers shudder upwards in an industrial lift, headed towards the Lyric Hammersmith’s secrecy-veiled launch, a woman behind me compares the experience to seeing a show by Shunt or Punchdrunk. There’s that same sense of an event, of the unexpected. Walking across Lyric Square, we’ve been directed around the side of the building, to its concealed, warehouse-like innards. While waiting in this space, we have an opportunity to see the building – and our relationship with it – from a different angle. The very walls seem to shift.

Artistic director Sean Holmes’ plans for the Lyric over the next few months, announced on Monday night, are about transforming the theatre from within as much as from without. At the same time as the building itself is completely renovated in a huge capital project, a group of theatremakers are occupying its heart. The auditorium, which will remain untouched for the duration of the building work, is to become the flexible home of Secret Theatre, which is exactly what its name suggests. In a bold and teasing move, the Lyric is not releasing any details of the plays it will be producing over the next year; instead, audiences will come to be surprised.

But this is not simply about returning a sense of the unexpected to the theatrical event in a society saturated with information. Mirroring the work that is taking place around them, the Secret Theatre company are engaged in challenging and changing structures. Resisting the rapid turnaround of an industry used to dishing up end products and swiftly moving on, the company of ten actors and ten creatives will be working together in the space throughout the year, collaboratively making and performing and sharing. As Holmes put it in his speech, “the company we have assembled is an attempt to create a new structure that might lead to a new type of work”.

There are a number of ways in which Secret Theatre is shifting the structures of how the Lyric – and many other institutions like it – make theatre. The ensemble of actors is evenly split between men and women and includes black and disabled performers. This immediately erodes the structure of literalism, which has become something of a straitjacket for much British theatre. The set-up is also designed to create a different conversation in the rehearsal room, allowing those involved more time to create work in true collaboration and for a specific space. One niggle is that everyone involved is still assigned a rigidly defined title – writer, director, actor – but one suspects that in rehearsal these roles will be much more fluid.

Surrounded by the vivid red of the Secret Theatre launch party, I’m reminded of the similar injection of colour that has just been administered to the Royal Court by new artistic director Vicky Featherstone. Even the bar is bursting with yellows, reds, blues and greens. The Court is another established building whose existing structures are being challenged, in this case thanks to a sharp burst of fresh air that Featherstone is blasting through the theatre over the summer. Open Court, while guided by different principles and very much organised around playwrights, cultivates a similar atmosphere of experimentation and surprise. The sense is that anything could happen.

As Andrew Haydon notes, it’s clear that, even without the kind of construction work taking place at the Lyric, Featherstone has given careful thought to the building she’s inherited. As well as the changes to the bar, which now feels like a place you might actually want to hang out in without worrying you aren’t wearing the right shoes, the season itself kicked off with a telling reflection on the theatre building. In the first “Surprise Theatre” offering, Cakes and Finance, Mark Ravenhill read from the transcripts of a series of playwrights talking about their ideal theatre, musing on everything from the idea of 24-hour theatre to the suggestion that cats should be incorporated into more performances (surely one of Chris Goode’s contributions).

Alongside the obvious similarities between Open Court’s surprise shows and the secrecy around the Lyric’s new season, there are other shared experiments. Like Secret Theatre, the main house plays during Open Court are operating using a rep system (which is as much a return to the past as a new innovation), with an ensemble of actors rehearsing next week’s show by day while performing this week’s show at night. In some ways this offers the complete opposite of the Lyric’s project, driving at energy and a quick turnover of plays rather than extended rehearsal periods, but it equally fosters that sense of the collective at the same time as bringing a vital roughness back to the stage. Also, while the gesture of Open Court honours the mythology of the Royal Court’s status as “the writers’ theatre” – a mythology that Featherstone’s launch announcement was drenched in – this has been done in such a way that it explodes in the same movement in which it preserves. Clever.

And it’s not just these two venues. While exciting developments have been pushing at the outside for years, it feels increasingly as though some change is beginning to seed itself on the inside. I think of the scarlet structure of the National Theatre Shed, shouting its presence on the South Bank – again, a dash of colour – and of the ongoing developments at Battersea Arts Centre, as it too undergoes building work that will open it and its brilliant work out even further to the surrounding community. It’s not everything, and there’s a definite danger of getting carried away and falling back into complacency, but it is a start. Perhaps most importantly, there’s a rare and much-needed whiff of optimism in the air.

To encapsulate some of that optimism, it feels right to conclude with Holmes’ galvanising words from Monday night. Speaking about the vision for Secret Theatre, he expressed his hope “that even if you hate it, you can’t ignore it. That even if you love it, it scares you. That you will believe it’s an honest attempt to change. To delight. To question.”

Desire Under the Elms, Lyric Hammersmith

Originally written for Exeunt.

Property is a flimsy, fleeting, yet enduringly seductive object of desire. There is a bitter irony contained in an object over which lives are lost but which, as attested to by proverb, you can’t take with you. This empty basis on which possessions possess is laid startlingly bare by the Lyric Hammersmith’s new revival of Eugene O’Neill’s lust-laden study of ownership and desire, claustrophobically bound within the confines of a farm both built on and fought over with sweat.

The farm in question is under the disputed ownership of Ephraim, an aging but tough espouser of hard work whose joyless mantra is that “God’s hard, not easy”. As elucidated by O’Neill’s script in a laboured collection of expository scenes, this farm has become the subject of squabbling between his three sons, the youngest of whom, Eben, eventually buys out the stake of his two brothers. It is only when Ephraim returns, with pretty but fiercely acquisitive new wife Abbie in tow, that the friction between conflicting desires – material and physical – begins to emit sparks.

While O’Neill’s text is laden with words, lilting to a lazy rhythm that seems born from the slowly emanating heat of the earth, it is the visual landscape of the Lyric’s stage that seduces our attention. Ian MacNeil’s gorgeous design has realised the house at the centre of the characters’ alternately violent and petty disputes as a tellingly insubstantial structure, a plywood skeleton that dismantles into a series of self-contained domestic spaces. Its deliberately flimsy cladding and the abandonment of any pretence to cover its inner workings speak of both fragility and artificiality; the prize at which Ephraim, Eben and Abbie are all grasping is as creakingly hollow as it is ephemeral.

There also seems to be a recognition within Sean Holmes’ intelligent staging of the labour on which this coveted property has been founded, a labour that its “purdy” exterior would seek to elide. The wooden shells that house the various scenes are wheeled around the stage by figures in overalls, pointing to an act of labour by which the inhabitants’ comfort – or discomfort – is secured, an exposure of economic relations which in turn highlights the uneasy exchange that Denis Gough’s increasingly desperate Abbie is engaging in. As she initiates an inevitable affair with Eben, the acquisition at stake might shift from property to love, but payment must still be made.

Recurrent threads around these themes are insistently sewn by O’Neill and plucked at by Holmes’ production: the creeping threats of cold and poison, a “lonesome” chill that creeps through the house, the greedy, lingering promise of “gold in the sky”. The air of O’Neill’s world is as heavy with imagery as it is laced with desire – too heavy, it often seems, for his narrative to support. The melodramatic tint of the unfolding drama allows Gough to tear herself apart in a blistering, ferocious performance, but something in this strange, overburdened play seems to be torn along with her.