X, Royal Court

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Everything in X is slightly off-kilter. Literally. Merle Hensel’s great grey box of a set is permanently tilted at an angle. The sort of angle that’s just enough to shift your perspective on your surroundings. The sort of angle that’s just enough to start you questioning things.

The same goes for the psychic world inhabited by the characters in Alistair McDowall’s new play. It’s a physical and mental landscape that is out of joint. It’s also out of time. The collection of crew members occupying this bland, functional capsule are billions of miles away from home and the rest of humanity, clinging on at the far reaches of the solar system. The sun is barely a faint flicker this far out; it is, as one character puts it, “one long night”. No days, no markers, nothing to hold onto except technology. And technology can go wrong.

That’s just what has happened as the play opens. Or, at least, something has gone wrong. After an eighteen-month stay, the first scientists to colonise Pluto are due to be picked up and returned to Earth. Except Earth isn’t answering the phone. There’s been no contact for three weeks and the crew at the research base are starting to get restless. “We’re all a bit … fraught,” says second-in-command Gilda (a nervily hair chewing, cereal chomping Jessica Raine), with delicious understatement.

At first, X is essentially a workplace drama – if one with heightened stakes and shrunken surroundings. Imagine being trapped in the same featureless space with your workmates for months on end and you begin to get the picture. The situation is desperate, but also banal. Colleagues bicker over contracts and kill the time with games of Guess Who. There are arguments about who hasn’t done the cleaning. Nerves are frayed.

But then McDowall’s play mutates. Just as it threatens to drag, its pulse – and ours – quickens. Ray (Darrell D’Silva), the captain of the crew and the astronaut who shipped them all out to Pluto, starts seeing things in the empty gloom of the not-quite-planet. Cole (Rhudi Dharmalingam) notices that the clocks have been going back by themselves. There’s a glitch in the system, a ghost in the machine. No one knows how long they’ve been stranded here, and no one is coming to pick them up. Suddenly we’re in the realm of psychological thriller, the confined research base (packed with provisions that will outlast them all) becoming a pressure cooker for the crew’s fears and tensions.

And then things get stranger. And stranger. And stranger. As the display on the digital clock scrambles, so too does time and memory and identity. Ray’s not the only one who’s seeing things. Or is he? There’s a crew member who’s maybe a crew member, or maybe a ghost, or maybe an echo of a memory, or maybe their rescuer. Maybe. False memories multiply and compete. Months or years or decades slip by. Nothing can be trusted. Eventually, even language breaks down, fracturing into single syllables and then just a vomited stream of ‘X’s. All that holds it together at the centre is Gilda, who’s sent spiralling further and further into herself.

It’s baffling and bewildering, but then it’s meant to be. The whole point of X lies in the same ambiguity that characterises its title. X can mean many things. A kiss. An error. The elusive answer to an equation. X marks the spot. In McDowall’s play it is all of these and more. And it’s distinctly, thrillingly theatrical. Sat in our seats at the Royal Court, watching these bodies on stage in front of us, we’re more aware of time passing than we would be behind a screen, where the pause function is always just a tap away. We feel time, which is crucial to this play about time dissolving.

Vicky Featherstone’s production, meanwhile, makes equally canny use of the space of the theatre to tell this fractured narrative. Prolonged blackouts dare us to see our own fears in the enveloping darkness. In between, Lee Curran’s lighting casts a queasy, subtly shifting synthetic glow, under which the characters sweat and squirm. Nick Powell’s sound design, with its nods to sci-fi, gestures towards the cinematic while working with the performances to slowly turn up the tension in a way that only a live art form can. And when things fall apart, Tal Rosner’s video designs transform the dull walls of this enclosed space capsule, twisting the strange world of the stage that bit further out of alignment.

What’s most haunting about X, though, is not the exhilarating theatrical effects or the familiar hint of space horror: the little girl at the window, the spectre of something scary in the deep, deep darkness of outer space. The production is having fun with these elements – and temporarily spooking the hell out of its audience in the process – but what lingers afterwards is the exposed fragility of time and memory. That out-of-joint-ness that doesn’t quite go away after walking out of the theatre and allowing the world to right itself.

Because we might not be on Pluto, but our senses of self are no more robust, really, than Gilda’s. Strip away clocks and relationships and familiar places and things and what are you left with? As McDowall himself has pointed out, in some ways it’s not really all that significant that the play takes place on Pluto; it’s the extreme distance of this place from home and all things known that really matters. And time is both as artificially constructed and as inexorable in its passage for us as it is for this imagined crew. The implicit questions raised – about what we remember, and what we don’t remember, and how we hold onto an idea of who we are – resonate far beyond any sci-fi setting (and the best sci-fi does, after all, have a habit of playing on our deepest fears and preoccupations).

The other thing that haunts is the pervasive atmosphere of loss. X isn’t just a play about being far from home. The home these characters yearn for is one that has already been lost – ravaged for profit and rapidly consuming itself. The snippets of information we gradually glean about this future Earth are horrifically bleak: birds have fallen from the sky, whole continents have been swallowed by the sea, trees have disappeared. It’s ecological crisis writ large. The skill of McDowall’s writing, though, is to imbue these horrors with a chilling normality. This is just the way things are. (And, I sense with a shiver, it is just the way things will be if we continue down our current track of blithe environmental destruction.)

Then again, that’s just one way of seeing it. Tilt your head at another angle and other interpretations reveal themselves. That’s the beauty and the occasional frustration of McDowall’s play, which refuses to narrow possibilities. Like that huge, off-centre grey box, it’s a container for meanings and fears and memories. X, after all, can mean many things.

Photo: Tristram Kenton.

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The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas, Royal Court

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The repeated central question of Dennis Kelly’s dark allegory, emblazoned in giant letters at the back of Tom Scutt’s set, is a troubling one: “goodness or cowardice?” Are supposedly moral decisions just a case of taking the easy road? Is a decision really the “right” one if no “wrong” alternative occurs to you? Are virtue and fear simply one and the same? But beneath it, running in a thick, throbbing artery through the metabolism of the play, is an even more troubling question: is there really any such thing as truth?

In an interview with Maddy Costa for The Guardian, Kelly states his preference for plays that ask questions over those that provide answers, admitting that he’s “not really sure” what The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas is about. I would, for the most part, agree that asking questions is more productive – not to mention more interesting – than offering solutions. A question leaves audiences thinking, while a firm conclusion can immediately alienate those who don’t agree with it. When everything is questioned, however, the provocation to look for answers is neutralised. Why search for a version of the truth if all truths are exposed as relative and ultimately meaningless?

Life’s stark absence of meaning is a revelation that forms the hinge of Kelly’s play. His eponymous protagonist, Gorge Mastromas, starts out as an essentially moral human being. When offered a choice, he takes the decent option, be it standing by a mate at primary school or remaining faithful to hastily voiced promises. Kelly and director Vicky Featherstone offer us this series of early incidents in Gorge’s life via an extended sequence of collective storytelling: the six cast members sit in a line of chairs at the front of the stage, sharing the history of Gorge’s life from the moment of his inadvertent conception. And my use of the word “history” is no accident; this simple but striking opening deliberately foregrounds the construction of historical narratives, offering a fragmented, unreliable and polyvocal account of Gorge’s life, told from a perspective that is never quite acknowledged or qualified.

Our protagonist’s Faust moment arrives when a ruthless businesswoman briskly informs Gorge that life is not what he has until that moment believed it to be – “it is not fair, it is not kind, it is not just”. But if he’s willing to sell his soul to the demons of cutthroat capitalism and merciless self-advancement, he can have whatever he wants: power, money, sex. The trick is simply to lie from the bottom of his heart, heedless of the consequences of those falsehoods. Embracing this new philosophy with only the lightest flicker of hesitation, Gorge is swiftly mounting the ladder to unimaginable wealth and power – an unstoppable capitalist juggernaut. Be it a company, a house or a woman, Gorge always gets what he wants. What follows is acquisition at the expense of all else, painting a sorry picture of our society’s trajectory and the lessons it implicitly instils in us.

It’s an old story, but one that is drenched in the giddily unfettered capitalism of the 80s and 90s, playing on the myth of indefinite growth and the conviction that everything is there for the taking if only individuals are willing to grab it. The main commodity to be traded, however, is not property or shares, but narrative itself. Gorge is a spinner and seller of stories – most explicitly with his fabricated bestselling memoir, but also in the fibs he blithely tells those around him in order to get ahead. And people want to believe these fictions. When speaking of “people”, that necessarily extends to the audience, all of us eager to grasp onto something solid, some narrative structure that makes sense of this world. By drawing attention to this, and to the lies that even our narrators are incessantly telling, the play makes us immediately doubt anything it tells us, as well as doubting our own interpretations of these versions of the truth.

The shifting ground of Kelly’s play is shaken further by this production – if, indeed, we can speak of the two separately, which is always a slightly disingenuous project. The dynamic division of Gorge’s story between the cast, delivered with an edge of irony, is reminiscent of now ubiquitous techniques of poststructural performance, at once bringing to mind the likes of both Forced Entertainment and Martin Crimp (useful reference points for the disruption of meaning and narrative). This engaging, teasing mode of delivery is contrasted with the far less compelling – and often overlong – “scenes” that pepper the play, offering an ever-so-slightly heightened variation on naturalism. Which offers the picture that is closest to the truth is left down to us, as the performance style of each in turn subverts its own stated veracity.

The figure of Gorge himself, meanwhile, is a tight knot of contradictions. When Tom Brooke first shrugs on the role of the anti-hero, he is a quivering, deferential employee, eager to please and anxious of hurting. After offering such a detailed portrait of this meek, decent man, it is difficult to dismiss his ghost, which hovers over all of Gorge’s subsequent deceptions. Never is he quite as convincing as when still in possession of his morals. Alongside the fleshed out emotional detail that Kate O’Flynn’s compassionate performance offers Louisa, the unlucky object of Gorge’s affections, Brooke’s mercenary entrepreneur is a skeleton of a character, at times nearing a caricature of capitalist greed. Yet this thinness seems oddly apt; it could be argued that it shows up the absurdity of this Game Theory style of self-serving logic in both life and drama. Human beings are strange, irrational creatures, and to drain them of that irrationality – be it by a capitalist logic of acquisition or a notion of drama that is built upon clear character motivation – leaves only empty shells.

The empty facade is also a recurring feature of Tom Scutt’s intelligent, thematically excavating design. His self-contained naturalistic spaces, which form the backdrop for the correspondingly “realistic” scenes, always offer a hint of superficiality, from the calculated blandness of a corporate office to the moneyed sheen of a hotel suite. By the time the scene shifts to Gorge’s lakeside palace and a dilemma that will test just how far he’s prepared to go to protect this painted paradise, any attempt at substance is abandoned, leaving only a flat simulacrum of a landscape on a screen behind the actors – the shimmering mirage of Gorge’s life, concealing only emptiness. Elsewhere in the design, the stubborn search for a pattern is offered visual expression: the constellations of a life are brightly dotted on an image of the night’s sky, paper is pinned to the walls in imitation of the detective’s evidence trail, and neon lines are traced over a graph.

Through this kind of detail, The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas offers much to chew and puzzle over, for the most part sustaining intellectual vitality over its testing two hour and 45 minutes running time. That hovering question mark over truth, however, niggles at me throughout. While I have other doubts about the piece (it’s far longer than it needs to be, for starters, and Gorge’s moral descent lacks the punch that I suspect it’s reaching for), my main concern is prompted by its political position; or, rather, how it seems to politically let itself off the hook. The questioning of truth is interesting in itself and follows the thread of much poststructuralist/postmodern (depending on how you like to define it) thought in suggesting that there is no foundational reality that we can appeal to, but it is equally in danger of rendering all truths equally invalid, thus making any attempt at morality pointless.

My mind is dragged back to the recent discussion Dan Hutton and I had about hope in theatre, which strayed into similar territory. In that dialogue I borrowed from Liz Tomlin’s new book Acts and Apparitions (a text that I increasingly think could be a vital reference point in navigating post-postdramatic performance practice), and it feels appropriate to return to Tomlin now. Her book traces the postmodern thought mentioned above and considers the possibility of making a radical gesture in theatre today, when any notion of the true or the real has received a thorough battering. To demonstrate how she grapples with this, I want to quote part of the text:

“Accepting that every narrative is implicitly ideological does not equate to the acceptance that any given narrative is thus beyond ideological analysis or distinction. The artist or critic’s choice to propagate one narrative over another will still result in a ‘real’ impact on the artists, the audiences and, to some degree at least, the ideological shape of the historical period in which the work is situated.” (pp.6-7)

In other words, the version of the truth that we choose to tell has an effect, whether or not it can appeal to some original, authoritative, universal truth. This version of the truth might even have the power to change the world, a power about which Gorge Mastromas feels distinctly ambivalent. Individuals such as Gorge can change things, but only for their own gain; beyond the certainty of lying, the universe is portrayed as cold, cruel and chaotic. If we choose to present an image of the world in which there is no truth, only lies, then perhaps there is a responsibility towards the “real” impact of that image. By seemingly refusing that responsibility and falling back on relentless uncertainty, Gorge Mastromas – for all its merits – feels like a bit of a cop out. If the question is “goodness or cowardice?”, I would tentatively suggest that Kelly errs towards the latter.

Photo: Tristram Kenton.

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, Royal Court Theatre Local

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However you do it, there’s something a bit odd about thrusting yourself headfirst into imaginary winter in the midst of sweltering summer heat. As pipe-playing actors stubbornly tell us it is December 2010 while sweat trickles slowly down their foreheads, the prelude to the National Theatre of Scotland’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart has something of the school play about it; well meaning, big hearted and determinedly blind to its own obstacles – but it’s not fooling anyone. Fans continue to whirr valiantly away, while theatregoers gulp down drinks with a fervour not usually witnessed outside the Edinburgh Fringe.

Then something sort of magical happens. As the actors begin their story, we’re instructed to throw handfuls of improvised paper ‘snow’ into the air, settling on heads and tables and floor. Melody Grove (dressed in so many layers I’m impressed she makes it through the show without fainting) sits atop another performer’s shoulders as a mimed steering wheel, a gleefully waving windscreen wiper, and a tax disc, rearview mirror and two torches held aloft instantly conjure a car. It’s the simplest kind of theatrical illusion, but the rough and raucous spirit in which it’s done brilliantly sets the tone for the show that follows. The heat doesn’t abate, and we’re not quite transported to the snow-blanketed landscape of the Scottish borders, but all of a sudden our sweaty environs seem to matter a little less.

This effervescent little firework of a show is the joint creation of playwright David Greig and director Wils Wilson, joyously embracing both the traditional ballad form and the rowdy pub setting – in this instance, the intimate (and uncomfortably muggy) Welsh Centre bar. Greig’s text takes the form of a ballad about ballads, encompassing everything from lively folk sessions to dry academia, but its knowing self-referentiality never sacrifices a vital sense of fun. At the heart of the piece, effortlessly marrying form and content, is a tension between the purity of tradition and the inclusiveness of a form that morphs to appropriate new cultural phenomena – two camps into which Greig’s bickering gaggle of academics are firmly divided.

One of these academics is the eponymous Prudencia Hart, a prim and reserved traditionalist specialising in the topography of hell, for whom fashionable attempts to intellectualise Facebook statuses and football chants are little short of blasphemy. The story begins at a midwinter conference in Kelso, a small Scottish border town, where Pru’s purism is decidedly in the minority, up against post-post-structuralism and theses on Lady Gaga. Tradition is out of vogue. Adding inconvenience to humiliation, Pru then finds herself stranded with her colleagues in a snow-surrounded pub, trapped somewhere between the drunken locals and the horror of the karaoke machine.

Rattling through academic papers and beer-drenched revelry with equal ease, the first half of the show is mostly hilarious scene-setting, affectionately poking fun at its characters and drawing its audience into the circle of the story. This is narrative at its simplest and most familiar: a yarn down the pub. We are made to feel that the story belongs to everyone, as the narrative is shared and passed between the five performers, who in turn pass through the audience. Actors dance on tables and leap up onto the bar, while several audience members find themselves roped in as props or extras (fellow critic Dan Hutton, incidentally, makes an excellent motorbike). Greig and Wilson find a popular form, populate it and turn it inside out.

The action only begins to drag in an extended sequence featuring four drunken locals, who might be realistically hammered but add little to the gathering story; it’s the one point at which the production feels indulgently overlong. It’s not surprising, then, that Prudencia wants to get away, escaping the drink and drug-fuelled hedonism of the pub for the snow-covered town and a suspiciously friendly B&B owner. Nick, it turns out, collects rare books – and souls. As Prudencia’s academic subject swiftly becomes her reality, it soon transpires that she is the devil’s latest prize, condemned to eternity in a tartan-filled bungalow next to the Asda car park.

Pru’s subsequent ‘undoing’ in the second half offers both a transformational narrative of self-discovery and a movement towards reconciling the two sides of the argument established by Greig in the first part. As the verse that has propelled the story thus far is abandoned in favour of prose, Prudencia learns over several millennia that a life without passion and poetry – no matter how many books you surround yourself with – is no life at all. This section of the show, settling into a quiet rhythm after the raucous first half, is certainly strange. But it’s also sort of beautiful. In one gorgeous, startling sequence, the devil (played by both Paul McCole and David McKay in a slick and surprisingly effective bit of shape-shifting) finally surrenders to poetry, melting together with his captive in a slow and intimate dance.

This section also provides an opportunity for the excellent Grove to become a captivating central anchor for the piece, as her Prudencia gradually reveals an unknown, passionate facet of her otherwise reserved character. Her undoing refers less to a tumble into sin than an unstitching of her distant, sedate exterior. This is paired with Pru’s visual disrobing, as her meticulously neat layers are discarded one by one, leaving her in just slip and tights, while her hair cascades down from its prim bun. Transformation runs through the form, too, as prose gives way to a torrent of poetry and the explosive power of a collective football chant unites the ballad with its modern cousins. There’s even a bit of Kylie thrown in for good measure.

Alongside the production itself, it feels worth pausing to consider its context. Prudencia’s specialist subject might be the topography of hell, but the specifics of this production concern far more earthly locations. Like many of Vicky Featherstone’s early moves as the new artistic director of the Royal Court, this programming has the feel of a statement, and a multi-layered statement at that. Firstly, it’s a bridge of sorts between Featherstone’s role with the National Theatre of Scotland – for whom she commissioned this piece – and her new home at the Royal Court. Secondly, the fact that this show from a theatre without walls is being presented outside the brick and mortar of the Court, as part of its Theatre Local season, suggests a continuation of that gesture of opening up that has so far characterised Featherstone’s tenure. More and more I think that only an artistic director with the experience of not being shackled to a building could give as much thought to what a building really means as Featherstone has already.

Then of course there’s the fact that this show from the National Theatre of Scotland, engaging with Scottish folklore, is being presented at the Welsh Centre in London, England (all that’s missing is a slice of Northern Ireland). And it’s a show about border ballads, in which the narrative itself floats, flitting from performer to performer and only briefly settling. At a time when British identity is increasingly under pressure, this implicit stretching and questioning of nationality feels significant, inviting us to reconsider our connection with our country and our past. It’s also fascinating to see this ahead of Northern Stage’s Bloody Great Border Ballad Project at St Stephen’s in Edinburgh, offering another modern, border-crossing take on this form.

The pub setting, too, is vital to the rowdy sense of community that emerges in the room by the end of the night. As already mentioned, the forms that Greig and Wilson are recruiting to tell this story are very much popular forms, from ballads to folk music to karaoke. There is the sense that, wound together in this way and planted in a familiar social setting (ideally oiled with a few drinks), this marriage of popular forms both old and new offers a new and yet old way to share our stories with a group of people gathered together in a room, breaking through many of the stifling conventions that often hamper theatre. The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is, like the tale round the campfire or the roaring anecdote told over pints at the pub, a basic but accomplished lesson in storytelling. And it’s devilishly infectious fun.

Photo: Johan Persson.

Open Court, Royal Court Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

In each week of the Open Court festival, the downstairs space at the Royal Court is dominated by a huge wooden crate. As the house lights go down on the latest weekly rep offering, Chloe Lamford’s design is a closed box, a sealed-off world within a world. But almost as soon as the action begins, this box tips open, its sides dramatically tumbling down. It’s hard to imagine any better visual metaphor for what is happening at the Royal Court under new artistic director Vicky Featherstone.

Lamford and her design team must also take the credit for much of the transformation elsewhere at the Court, where Featherstone’s giddy promises of playfulness are translated into bright splashes of colour. The bar, once gloomily sophisticated, is now a riot of yellows, blues and greens. One whole wall is given over to an image of a bright green hedge, while paper lanterns glow overhead and the childish mischief of the summer festival finds its expression in a big blackboard covered with multi-coloured magnetic letters. Burgers and chips are the order of the day.

The atmosphere being cultivated in the early weeks of Featherstone’s tenure, in which she has boldly handed the keys to the writers, is one of both opening up and discovery. No longer is the drama confined to the two auditoriums, as yellow and red tags offer up brilliant ‘found plays’ for curious passersby (which can also be discovered online, if you have a few hours to kill). Lost in Theatre, meanwhile, offers a truly new perspective on the Court, inviting audiences into its unexplored nooks and crannies. I have yet to find the time to get lost myself, but the bright circles on the floor enticingly beckon me every time I’m there, calling visitors into the unseen depths of the theatre.

In the work itself, the aesthetic is rough, raw and exciting – and, as a result, slapdash. With the need for polish stripped away, there is the room for both thrilling discovery and messy execution. What I’ve seen of the weekly rep shows is a decidedly mixed bag, unleashing a frighteningly skilled ensemble on a pair of underwhelming plays. Lasha Bugadze’s The President Has Come to See Youcertainly kicks off proceedings in the right spirit, with Featherstone’s production and the excellent cast lending a shambolic energy to this bonkers Georgian satire. It would probably help to be acquainted with the Georgian politics being skewered, but in this festival context the freshness and excitement of it all is just about enough to carry it – even if the references do fall a little flat.

The second rep show, Lucas Hnath’s Death Tax, fares less well. Hnath’s string of dense scenes asks big, uncomfortable questions about an ageing population, but the play as a whole feels uneven and full to the point of bursting. Everyone talks too much. There are important issues being chewed over here, such the consequences of life-extending medicine, the privileges money can buy and the selfishness of what motivates us – “no one does something for nothing”, we are repeatedly reminded – but this could almost be several different plays. The cast, however, do their best to inject some life into the lengthy scenes, and it remains extraordinary what everyone involved has managed to pull together in just a week.

One of the most exciting elements of Open Court is also mixed, but it makes up for its patchy variety with glorious unpredictability. Surprise Theatre is just what it says it is: it offers its viewers a genuine surprise. In an information-saturated age when we are used to going into the theatre armed with endless details, it’s novel and disarming to be confronted with the unknown in this way. The configuration of the Theatre Upstairs (once again, credit to Lamford) also plays with this novelty, continuing the colour that is splattered throughout the building and concealing each night’s surprise behind mocking red velvet curtains.

The first offering, Cakes and Finance, is a bold and exciting gesture, immediately asking questions about what a theatre building is and what it should be. In a verbatim piece of sorts, Mark Ravenhill reads from interviews with a number of playwrights about their ideal theatre – from plush red seats to a building without walls. While none of the subsequent surprises I’ve seen have quite met the brilliance of this opener, there are some genuinely startling moments; Lauren O’Neill’s delivery of the final, punishing monologue in Sarah Daniels’Masterpieces administers a bruising blow to the gut, while scenes of piercing poignancy and fierceness emerge from The Ship’s Name, put together by a collection of writers of Somali and Eritrean descent. As a viewer, there is also something particularly engaging about feeling one’s way through a piece without any props (the supporting kind, though the theatrical kind are also in short supply), demanding an active act of spectatorship.

Just in case the festival as a whole was not already engaging sufficiently with what the Royal Court as a theatre might mean and might be able to say, the weekly Big Idea pushes playwrights into addressing the important questions – sex, age, death. Alongside these timeless themes, a more obviously timely subject is found in PIIGS, the acronym referring to five of the countries hit hardest by the eurozone crisis: Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain. Pairing writers from each of these countries with their British counterparts, the five nights of theatre engage with the realities of everyday life for those living on the front line of austerity.

The offering from Ireland, penned by Deirdre Kinahan and Kieran Hurley, feels terrifyingly close to home – and not just in the geographical sense. While Ireland is suffering more than the UK, the plight and the conversations feel familiar, if heightened. Around two compassionate, funny but ultimately stark pieces by Kinahan and Hurley, about an attempted protest at an Irish school facing cuts and the erecting of fake shop fronts in Northern Ireland during the G8 respectively, the pair have made the powerful choice to incorporate a selection of verbatim interviews. Their interviewees range from a financial journalist who quotes debt figures to make the eyeballs bulge, to a woman reduced to selling everything and uprooting her family’s life to Canada. The numbers baffle, but the stories move.

Coming full circle to that gesture of opening up, it is also important to acknowledge how much of this work is being made available beyond the four walls of the Royal Court. Each of the Surprise Theatre shows is being broadcast live online on Mondays and Tuesdays and left on the website to view on demand, while the Royal Court Soap Opera collides theatre and television in a series of nightly episodes that can be streamed online – not to mention the treasure trove that is the Found Plays website. While such initiatives always carry the potential danger of eroding the live moment, Featherstone’s intention seems to have less to do with the theatrical event than with the building hosting it, a building that appears increasingly open. Perhaps because of her time operating a building without walls with the National Theatre of Scotland, under Featherstone the walls of the Court suddenly seem a lot less containing.

Photo: Helen Murray.

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.”