Measure for Measure, Young Vic

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Originally written for Exeunt.

From the moment the house lights fall at the Young Vic, there’s no doubting that this Measure for Measure is about sex. The curtains – plastic, wipe-clean – part to reveal a writhing orgy of blow-up dolls, painted mouths stretched wide, from which the cast emerge. At the show’s opening, Vienna is soaked in sin. The tight fist of the law has slackened and the people are running amok. In one sense, Shakespeare’s prickly, problematic play is one long tussle to reinstate discipline and restraint. Trouble is, sex – like those miniature mountains of blow-up dolls – is impossible to ignore or deny.

In Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production, everything about the characters can be read from the way they deal with this tangle of plastic limbs. Zubin Varla’s “old fantastical duke of dark corners”, dishevelled and wide-eyed, proclaims to “love the people” in the same movement as trampling his inflatable citizens underfoot. He wants to restore order, but he doesn’t want to be the one to do it. Instead, he appoints Angelo, a man who “scarce confesses / That his blood flows”. Prim as a village priest, Bible tucked under his arm like a comfort blanket, Paul Ready’s unlikely leader picks his way carefully through the debauchery, careful to at once ignore and avoid it. Revelling subjects, meanwhile, throw the dolls from hand to hand, finding pleasure wherever they can.

Then there’s Isabella. The first time we see her, Romola Garai’s nun-in-training wearily pushes all relics of earthly temptation out of her way, murmuring reverent words of prayer as she does so. No hanky-panky for her, nor seemingly any desire for it. When her brother Claudio (Ivanno Jeremiah) is to be executed as an example – his pre-marital sexual exploits here caught on tape in a sly nod to surveillance culture – she finds her voice, making a persuasive petition to Angelo. Garai’s Isabella might be forbiddingly austere, but she’s also steely and impassioned, positively spitting out the words “man, proud man”. Although she’s trapped in what is still, for all the modern dress, overwhelmingly a man’s world, she is not a woman to underestimate.

This is a Measure for Measure full of fascinating if sometimes incongruous character interpretations. Ready’s Angelo is a preening, cowardly tyrant, preaching with new-found vanity one moment and shrinking into corners the next. Overcome by desire for Isabella, he grasps uncertainly at one of the pillars enclosing the stage, desperate for something to hold onto in this new world of dissolving morals. For all his seeming meekness, though, the proposition he puts to Isabella is doubly unsettling for its tentative, insidious abuse of power – an abuse that is still painfully resonant. This Angelo could just as well be a smarmy businessman making advances on a young female employee.

On the side of the more open sinners, unapologetic pimp Pompey (Tom Edden) seems to have arrived in Vienna straight from the streets of New York, conning his way out of trouble with fast-talking, ad-libbing wit. His regular client Lucio, on the other hand, is a cynical and surprisingly clear-sighted transgressor in John Mackay’s aggressive performance, pursuing the disguised Duke with dogged suspicion. Stripping the text down to a slender two hours, Hill-Gibbins and dramaturg Zoë Svendsen have cut or minimised many of Shakespeare’s minor, comedic characters, rolling bumbling constable Elbow into Hammed Animashaun’s uniformed Provost and keeping brothel owner Mistress Overdone offstage. Instead, we see this side of Vienna via a brilliantly daft – if possibly superfluous – pastiche of 90s hip-hop videos, as drug- and sex-fuelled anarchy reins in open mockery of Angelo’s new regime.

There are lots of these bold but silly touches in Hill-Gibbins’ production, some more successful than others. When Cath Whitefield’s spurned Mariana rocks out to Alanis Morissette, it’s hard to know whether to read it as an ironic comment on the angry-woman-wronged trope or just a gag designed for easy laughs. Other stage images, like those ever-present inflatable bodies, are both absurd and articulate, making a statement on the play at the same time as revelling in their own strangeness and audacity.

Aside from all the dolls, the most striking aspect of Miriam Buether’s design is its allusion to the fiery and fantastical imagery of medieval religious painting. The back wall of the performance space, periodically sliding aside to reveal the police cell where justice is clumsily meted out, is laid out in three panels like a triptych altarpiece, projected both with scenes from Christian paintings and live streamed video of the performers (now something of a European-flavoured Hill-Gibbins trademark). In one scene, we see a close-up of Claudio’s desperate, pleading face; in another, a cackling painted devil.

And like those paintings, Hill-Gibbins and Buether draw out both the excess and the religiosity – hypocritical or otherwise – of Shakespeare’s play. For all their holy intent, artworks like Hans Memling’s The Last Judgement or Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights are a riot of colour and bodies and flames, as ridiculous in their own way as the piles of plastic flesh on the stage of the Young Vic. There’s no reason why the bizarre shouldn’t knock up against the Biblical.

Crucially, Hill-Gibbins and his team don’t attempt to solve the problem at the heart of Shakespeare’s play. Their interpretation embraces strangeness and ambiguity, its swirling soup of religious and pop cultural references never subsiding into a neat pattern. This is a dark play, for sure, but it’s also sexy and transgressive and funny and ludicrous. As the final scene awkwardly arranges the characters into their unlikely (and likely unhappy) pairings, that spiky contradiction that runs right through the play is slammed – like the dolls – centre stage.

Photo: Keith Pattinson.

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Song from Far Away, Young Vic

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Willem is a man who never listens to music. He clamps headphones over his ears, but all they play back to him is the sound of his own breathing. It reminds me of something Hannah Nicklin wrote after seeing Carmen Disruption at the Almeida: “I put my headphones in with nothing playing which is the closest I get to this city.”

Willem is the speaker and protagonist of Song from Far Away, Simon Stephens’ latest play, and the two cities whose muffled pulse he hears through headphones are Amsterdam and New York. The old world and the new. Returning to Amsterdam following the sudden death of his brother, disillusioned banker Willem is not unlike the alienated figures who wander through Carmen Disruption, experiencing the city of his youth as “a chorus of rattling trams and bewildering underwear billboard posters and cafés and railings shuttering off unfinished building work”. A noisy, meaningless place.

Walking through Amsterdam, Willem repeats a line uttered by the Singer in Carmen Disruption and by self-destructing rock star Paul in Birdland: “none of this is real”. As that echo suggests, Song from Far Away shares many of the themes that recur in Stephens’ recent work: home, disconnection, the hollowness of late capitalist cities. Even Jan Versweyveld’s calculatedly bland design has the perfect clean lines of every antiseptic, impersonal space that threads through these plays. Whether the room on stage is meant to be the elegant hotel where Willem stays in Amsterdam or the apartment that lies waiting for him in New York, it’s a cool, blank canvas of a space.

On that canvas, Willem composes a series of letters to his dead brother, letters that narrate his fraught and awkward homecoming. After leaving twelve years ago with barely a backward glance, he’s forced right into the grieving heart of his family. Numb and remote, all he does is upset them. Delivering the one-way correspondence as a monologue – always addressed to the invisible ghost of his brother, never to us the audience – Eelco Smits is raw and exposed, both figuratively and literally. Shedding his clothes, he stands on stage stripped of everything his new life has clothed him in, back home with nothing to protect him from the cold.

That coolness seeps right through Ivo van Hove’s stylish but distanced staging – and not just in the flurries of snow that fall behind Smits. It’s also a production that’s very still. Incredibly, precisely, frustratingly still. Whereas van Hove’s stunning take on A View from the Bridge turned Arthur Miller’s play into a ticking bomb, all of us holding our breath as we waited for it to go off, any tension bleeds from Song from Far Away. Though Versweyveld’s deft shifts in lighting move us through the hours, the production has the feel of one of those endless, sleep-robbed nights: slow, static, full of thoughts. It’s numbing, just like Willem moves numbly through his grief.

Feeling sneaks in though, often in the mournful, fractured melody of Mark Eitzel’s music. Just one song ribbons through the narrative, first heard in an anonymous bar and then echoing across the days Willem spends in Amsterdam. We hear it in snatches and phrases, like the half-remembered tunes of the past, until finally it forces its way through – a startling shaft of pure emotion, singing “go where the love is”.

Song from Far Away is a play that echoes with emptinesses. The emptiness of grief with no expression. The emptiness of a city that has long ceased being home. The emptiness of hotels and airports and characterless apartment blocks. The emptiness of the promises we build our lives on: the hollow assurance that it will all be worth it in the end. Like the inky blackness that lies behind the set’s two large windows, such promises are shown to conceal a vast nothingness.

But it’s hard to connect with emptiness, on the stage even more so than on the page. Stephens’ play begs to be re-read almost as soon as the curtain call has finished, yet as theatre it has an oddly detached quality. The first time Willem – the man who never listens to music – hears the song of the title, he says it “caught my heart in its hand”. Song from Far Away struggles for the same heart-squeezing grasp. 

Photo: Jan Versweyveld.

Telling Stories

Written & Directed by Chris Goode. Cast Michael Fenton Stevenes, Kelda Holmes, Christian Roe, Gwyneth Stron, Cathy Tyson, Lawrence Werber

The other night, I got sucked into a general election coverage black hole. Sat in bed, clicking through article after article, eyes fixed wide open when I should have been asleep. I was – I am – terrified. Then, a day or so later, I read this by George Monbiot on the train, hands shaking a little with fury. So much – climate change, the housing crisis, extreme inequality – is fucked, and the media is worrying about what Ed Miliband looks like eating a sandwich.

Likewise, there’s been a lot written about election theatre in the last few weeks and months. And yes, there is a lot of exciting political theatre that’s been programmed ahead of the country going to the polls. But amidst all the uncertainty and spin and sly manoeuvring, what leave more of an impact are those reminders of who the outcome of today’s vote is really going to impact upon. It’s the theatre about people, as much as the theatre about politics, that I find lingering in my mind.

I’m proudly voting Green today (a privilege, I confess, of living in a Labour ultra safe seat and not having the agony of worrying about letting in the Tories by splitting the left-wing vote – fuck first past the post, by the way), but Owen Jones’s argument for supporting Labour – especially in marginal constituencies – is pretty persuasive on this point. As he puts it, there might not be a huge gap between Conservative and Labour, but a hell of a lot of people fall into that gap. Increasingly, it looks as though the coming days are going to be a scrappy, close-fought fight, and the real winners or losers won’t be those sat in Parliament, whatever side of the House they end up on.

Take the characters who populate Beyond Caring. Since Alexander Zeldin and his cast started working on the show a couple of years ago, zero-hours contracts have become a key election issue, but Beyond Caring isn’t really “issue theatre”. It’s just about people. Weary, ignored, cruel, tender, stubbornly hopeful. People making the best of a shitty situation, cleaning up – literally and metaphorically – the mess they’ve been landed in.

Three cleaners on zero-hours contracts work a relentless 14-day cleaning job, alongside disillusioned full-time worker Phil and needlessly cruel night-shift boss Ian, venting his frustration in small displays of power. Ultimately, though, they’re all people who have been let down, forgotten, left out of the “aspiration nation”. But none of this political commentary is explicit. Instead, the hyper-naturalistic texture of Zeldin’s production simply puts us in the same room as these people, watching as they lead their precarious, unremarkable lives. “Just pay attention,” the show seems to be saying. Just look.

A memory: I’m about to cross the road outside Euston Station when I notice a man appealing to passersby. They all ignore him. I walk over, awkward, asking if I can help. He needs money for somewhere to stay tonight but he feels as though he’s running out of options. I listen. He tells me his name. I tell him mine. I try to offer some feeble advice, but honestly I don’t really know what support systems – if any – there are for him to access in the short term. I have to leave, so I give him what little cash I have on me and tell him I hope he finds somewhere. It’s not enough.

I cry, quietly and inconspicuously, all the way to my destination. Guilt itches at me – why didn’t I stay for longer than those few minutes? why, so often when I’m walking somewhere in a hurry, don’t I stop at all? – but mostly I feel a sort of helpless anger. All the talk, all the policies, all the posturing, have suddenly become a sharp kick in the stomach.

But then I think about the inevitability of that moment dissolving into the texture of my day, slowly melting into all the other experiences and conversations and worries. I think about the luxury and privilege of forgetting. I think about how I’m already turning that encounter, that man’s life, into a narrative. I wonder if that makes me just as bad as those who ignored him.

And I think about the long, wounded howl of Men in the Cities.

Tone-wise, Stand is perhaps as far from Men in the Cities as Chris Goode’s practice gets. After I see the show at BAC, Hannah Nicklin suggests that it’s the latter’s gentle counterpart; they’re two different sides of the same coin.

Men in the Cities is angry. Exquisitely, excruciatingly angry. It’s the raw, bruised cry of rage that is sometimes the only response to the world we live in. Rip it all down and start again. The same energy that’s channelled towards destruction in Men in the Cities is directed into positive, life-affirming action in Stand, be that campaigning against climate change, fighting for animal rights, or simply raising children with the strong sense of justice that allows them to take a stand in turn. All of those who share their stories of standing up for something acknowledge all that is wrong with the world, but they continue nonetheless.

Although Stand is a collection of individual narratives, gathered from people in Oxford, I’m struck by how communal they all feel. None of these stories are about us, say the six people sat on stage. It was him, it was her, it was all of us. It feels apt to be sat listening to these stories of action and community in BAC’s Council Chamber, a room soaked in the history of its local people, in a building whose motto “Not For Me, Not For You, But For Us” has taken on new meaning in recent weeks.

Confronted with just how fucked up the world is, it’s easy to feel guilty or helpless or both. My conscience is constantly pricked by the need to do more, while my anger is deflated by the feeling of being too small to make a difference. Handing out a few leaflets for the Green Party, or signing a petition, or spending a couple of minutes talking to a homeless person on the streets – they all feel like miniature, cowardly acts, ways of soothing that itchy conscience without really doing very much. Even the much bigger, much braver acts described by some of the individuals in Stand are just tiny drops in a vast ocean.

But there is something, however small, in stories. Watching Stand with Hannah, it reminds me of a moment near the end of her show A Conversation With My Father, in which someone suggests that what she is doing – telling stories – is the real way to initiate change. It is, at the very least, one way. Stories are how we shape our lives and our place in the world, so if we tell those stories differently then maybe – just maybe – we’re somewhere on the way to acting differently.

And there’s something about who gets to tell their stories and whose stories are told for them – or not told at all. On the same day as seeing Beyond Caring for a second time, I go to an afternoon performance of Turning a Little Further, a show devised with local female carers as part of the Young Vic’s (brilliant, as far as I can tell) Two Boroughs project. Partly inspired by Happy Days, recently in the main house, it’s a shifting portrait of women up to their necks not in sand but in other demands and responsibilities that weigh just as heavy.

“We have not given anyone a voice,” insists the short programme note, “we have simply allowed those voices to be heard.” And that’s the sense you get from the piece, which is filled with this wonderful, poignant, ecstatic cacophony of voices. It’s also properly beautiful – all glitter and soft coloured light and flowing, joyful movement. At one captivating point, bodies shoal and move as one mesmerising mass under a low amber glow; at another, a swing becomes a simple symbol of freedom and play.

It’s difficult too. “I’m choking on my own heart,” says one woman – a line that sticks in my own throat. Often, the struggle of just navigating daily routine is painfully felt, as is the indignity of being swept aside by government and society alike. What’s also felt in the room, though, is the sheer joy of this space of creation and escape, a space that feels increasingly under threat. “This,” I want to shout, “this is why theatre matters.”

Together with Beyond Caring, it’s a sharp reminder of what’s at stake in the fight ahead of us – today, yes, but also in the days after that, and the days after that. So many of the women in Turning a Little Further talk about being invisible, about not being heard. I don’t want to be part of a society where those voices are left to fade away entirely.

Finally, because it’s the sort of day when I either have to be a bit idealistic or collapse into tears, I’ll be singing this in my head on the way to the polling station.

Photo: Richard Davenport.

Ben Kidd

Ben Kidd, co-director of Lippy at the Young Vic. Photo by Tristram Kenton

Originally written for The Stage.

Ben Kidd is puzzling over what it means to be a director. Does it mean being in charge of a production? Is it about getting the most out of actors? Is it to do with serving the vision of another, or being the author of your own work? “Being a director only really consists in making decisions,” he eventually concludes. “You’re trying to assemble as many people as you can who you think are really really good at what they do – designers or writers or actors or whatever – and then you’re basically saying ‘that and not that’.”

We’re chatting in the bar of the Young Vic, something of a spiritual home for Kidd. It’s the theatre where he was given some of his early assistant directing opportunities, where he received the Genesis Future Directors Award in 2012, and where his Dublin-based company Dead Centre are about to present the London premiere of their show Lippy. “The Young Vic was somewhere that I found a like-minded assortment of people who thought about directing as a thing,” he explains.

Kidd arrived at directing via acting after training at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. While training and working as an actor, he was “schooled in this idea that a director helps actors to connect with the text and delivers the play”, an idea that he has progressively broken away from. “There’s a perception of the director as being someone who is either birthing or yielding somebody else’s vision,” Kidd observes, adding that he is more interested in how directing might involve an element of autobiography.

“When I think back to who my gods were growing up, they weren’t theatre directors,” Kidd says. Instead his idols were writers and musicians – he names Bob Dylan and Patti Smith – who poured something of themselves into their work. “It would have been nonsensical if all their work didn’t bear the hallmark of who they were as people,” Kidd suggests. He believes that the same should be true of directing; he wants to “create a new thing in the world”, a thing that bears his signature as a creator.

“If you go and see a Katie Mitchell play, they basically all look the same and feel the same in a sort of profound way,” he offers as an example. “That’s not a bad thing. That’s because she’s in there, her politics are in there, her concerns are in there, and she’s filtered those concerns through artistic practice. That is what real artists do.”

Mitchell has clearly been a major inspiration for Kidd in the process of discovering what directing means to him. He recalls a workshop during which she demanded of the participants: “What do you want to achieve? Find out what you want to achieve and then find out the best way to achieve it”. Whether working with Dead Centre or freelance directing for the likes of the Young Vic and Headlong, this is advice that Kidd has tried to stick to.

He admits, however, that building a career as a director is “really hard”. Despite winning the Genesis Future Directors Award, directing a main-stage tour of Spring Awakening for Headlong last year and gathering a string of awards for Lippy, Kidd still only directs part-time, a situation that is common among directors in the UK. “It does seem to be that directors’ pay hasn’t kept up with pay elsewhere in the industry,” Kidd says, reflecting on the recent research into directors’ fees. “We subsidise the industry because there are loads of us who really want to do it and will kill for a job.”

On the one hand, this lack of money can be liberating and encourage greater risk-taking. As Kidd puts it, “you gain the bloody mindedness to make what you want because you’re not going to make a living from not doing it, so you might as well do it.” But on the other hand, the financial insecurity of making theatre can restrict who enters the profession and impoverish it as a result. “An art form probably is better if a wider section of society is in it,” says Kidd, “it’s going to have more interesting stories.”

Kidd has another thought about the role of the director. “I think that the job is just about returning an audience to a sensation you had when first read a play, or when you first heard of an idea,” he says. The best shows, he suggests, are built around points when that sensation is briefly captured and the mood suddenly changes – what a friend of Kidd’s describes as “David Bowie moments”. “Great plays often hinge on a moment or a series of moments that are a shift in atmosphere, a shift in emotional resonance, a dropping out of the world. Something happens where the world changes.”

Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Golem, Young Vic

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It’s easier, as the popular phrase has it, to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. Perhaps the same now goes for the little glowing rectangles permanently glued to our palms, feeding us an endless diet of information and advertising. The one, of course, is wrapped up with the other, as technology binds us ever more tightly to the corporations that invisibly run our lives: promoted tweets, personalised ads, one-click shopping. All the choice in the world, as long as you don’t want an alternative.

1927’s previous show, The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, was eerily prescient in its anticipation of the 2011 riots. Golem is more responsive than it is prophetic, amplifying an experience of 21st-century living that is – despite the cartoonish cladding – instantly familiar. Instead of iPhones, 1927’s characters have the eponymous golems: clay men designed to do the bidding of their masters. But as with the similarly “time-saving” devices that our lives revolve around, the golems (and the ubiquitous corporation that promptly snaps up the invention) quickly begin to make silent demands of their own.

Ironically, the show itself is founded on the same technology that it regards with suspicion. The stage of the Young Vic is filled with nothing but screens and bodies, which meet seamlessly thanks to the witty detail of Paul Barritt’s projections and the precision of the performances. Awkward nerd Robert – demanding the full, gawky array of Shamira (Little Bulb) Turner’s elastic facial expressions – strides through animated cityscapes, seeming almost to dissolve into the busy backdrop of fast food joints and strip clubs. This is an every-city, a place of crumbling estates, boarded up shops and townhouses owned by absent billionaires.

Robert is, as his narrating sister Annie informs us, a nobody. He was bullied at school, he’s never had a girlfriend and he spends nine to five “backing up the back-up”, drearily pencilling 0s and 1s into ledgers. For fun, he plays in Annie’s band: a ragtag collection of thwarted punk rockers, who would be changing the world if it weren’t for their chronic stage fright. Even the way he stands, shoulders rounded against the world, is unassuming.

Then Robert buys a golem, the latest invention from his would-be entrepreneur friend. The clay man created to serve is borrowed from Jewish folklore, but 1927 are more interested in his 21st-century descendants. Golem doesn’t just cook and clean; he saves money by doing the food shopping online and helpfully suggests which new shoes to buy. Egged on by his new companion, Robert bags himself a promotion and overhauls his image. He’s no longer a nobody, but an everybody. And despite his supposed servility, it is soon the golem who begins to look like master, as Robert and his family fall under the influence of this wonky clay automaton and later his shiny, updated replacement (Golem 2.0).

This is storybook satire: bold, colourful, but not necessarily subtle. 1927’s targets – global corporations, political apathy, freedom sapping technology – loom large and unmissable, with a few potshots at the Daily Mail and anti-immigration rhetoric chucked in for good measure. There are even mentions for Boris Johnson and Benedict Cumberbatch (Robert’s golem is, hilariously, rather taken with the latter).

But if its message is as blunt as the advertising crowding the edges of our screens, Golem gets away with it by dint of sheer ingenuity. There is still something inexplicably joyful about the way in which bodies and images merge on stage, putting to shame the clunky projection seen in so many other shows. It’s the detail, though, that really makes it. From a portrait brought delightfully to life, to Robert’s deliciously Kafka-esque occupation, to a brilliant (and brilliantly observed) sequence on internet dating, nothing is wasted. And when the garish yellow branding of the golems begins to take over, it’s the small and silly quirks that we miss, be they wacky hairdos or idiosyncratic punk lyrics. No golem – or iPhone – can substitute for those.

Photo: Bernhard Müller.