Archive for May, 2011

Dear readers …

May 31, 2011

Apologies if you’ve been feeling underserved lately, but due to the excess of bank holidays in the last six weeks I’ve been taking rather a lot of holiday. I’ve been to Sicily (two weeks) and America (10 days) and while I have every intention of writing up the two marionette shows I took in, the Steve Martin gig in Memphis shall remain forever unreviewed. However, I do owe you a Betty Blue Eyes (enjoyable, expect it will close early). This month will include London Road, Delicate Balance, Coco, Emperor and Galilean, and some ballet.

Meanwhile, please enjoy this great video of the citizens of Grand Rapids singing “American Pie.”


Review – One Man, Two Guvnors – National Theatre

May 19, 2011

18th century Italian comedy reset in 20th century England … what could go wrong?

From the print ads for “One Man, Two Guvnors,” a rewrite of Goldoni’s original The Servant of Two Masters, plenty of missteps seemed likely. 60s era thugs, maybe not so comic. Brighton setting, maybe a bit overdone. And, seriously, since when do these plays “modernized” for our tastes really ever work? I mean, come on, Man of Mode, did anyone really buy the romance?

Based on the gales of laughter blowing out of the Lyttleton’s doors, it looks like all questions of “does this work modernized” have been firmly answered yes. A plot revolving around a male gangster’s twin sister (Jemima Rooper) masquerading as her brother in an attempt to get some much needed money from a criminal acquaintance (Fred Ridgeway) seems entirely plausible. The “tough” recruited by the sister (James Corden) – who turns out to be an out of work musician – explains his situation to us in a logical enough fashion. In fact, as the comedy get cranked further up, our connection with reality starts to become more and more tenuous, carrying us with it as it drifts away form the stage into the grid and up to the rafters. It’s funny. It’s supposed to be funny. It mostly makes sense. And we want to go along for the ride. Comedy cream-pie gangsters straight out of Some Like It Hot, people running screaming across the stage from different directions a la “Carry On,” and a plot hinging on opposite sex “identical” twins? The obvious response is, “And why not?”

Typical of commedia dell’arte, the characters are really just “types:” the young lovers (Claire Lams and Daniel Rigby), the sexy serving wench, the buffoonish underling ruled by his appetites. But the playwright has chosen types we can relate to … the fatuous young actor (Daniel Rigby as one half of the shockingly stupid lovers), the crime lord attempting to keep it clean, the competent (but flirtatious) bookkeeper (Suzie Toase making her “wench” role even better by being smart as well as phwoar). By using types, we have expected jokes to laugh at – of course the lawyer is going to use big words – but because of the new setting, we get to laugh at new things. The old waiter has a pacemaker that can be dialed to nine; the crime lord’s old prison pal (Trevor Laird) makes references to his love of his life being found in prison; the cross-dressed sister’s lover (Oliver Chris) is into S&M. And the fresh script by Richard Bean delivers joke after joke – some of them passing by unheard or unloved, but most of them right on and in every way making the dialogue worth listening to.

While the buffoonery does pass right into panto-land (the end of act one made me think Clive Rowe was going to do a dame turn), this show makes no apologies for turning the comedy volume to eleven. This kind of cross-gender “ooh er sir” farce is never going to be everyone’s favorite type of theater, but if you enjoy it, I say this show gets it just right. I loved The Servant with Two Masters in its orginal form back in 2001, and I think this version is even better, with characters we can more easily relate to but all of the humor firmly intact – in fact, I think it’s been broadened. My prediction: this is going to be the show you want to go to when you want to have fun, and if you want to see it, you’d better buy your tickets now.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Wednesday, May 18th, 2011. For a more enthusiastic review, see the West End Whingers; a contrary review should be appearing soon from farce-hating Ought to be Clowns – my date for the night. Opening night is the 24th and it will run at the National through July 26th, then tour starting at the end of September at the Waterside, Theater Royal Plymouth, The Lowry, the New Alexandra Theater, finishing at the Kings Theater Edinburgh October 25-29.)

Ticket deal – Royal ballet’s mixed rep (Scènes de ballet, Voluntaries, Rite of Spring) – Saturday matinee stalls for £30

May 19, 2011

The Evening Standard has published a juicy deal for the final production of the Royal Ballet’s spring 2011 season (a mixed bill with Scènes de ballet, Voluntaries and Rite of Spring). Orchestra stalls seats normally £61 can be had for a mere £30, though the kicker is that it’s only good for two matinee performances on Saturday 28 May (2 pm) or Saturday 11 June (12 pm). Still, it’s a rockin’ deal.

To book, either call the Royal Opera House Box Office on (0)20 7304 4000 and quote “Evening Standard Special Offer” or do it all online at and enter the promotional code “scenes” when picking seats.

Review – Ecstasy – Duchess Theatre (transfer from Hampstead Theatre)

May 18, 2011

So you’re stuck at a party with people you don’t really like, only you can’t leave without causing a big scene … so there you sit … only you’re actually at a theater and you’ve paid for this experience. What do you do?

Nearly a year to a day and, despite the parallel misery of watching an overly long onstage party with alcoholics, what a difference between my trip to Ingredient X at the Royal Court and Mike Leigh’s ironically named Ecstasy in its West End transfer. I decided to buy tickets late rather than early (during the Hampstead run) as there was a lot of Twitter chatter about how good it was; and as I like Mike Leigh as a film director I really wanted to see what he’d do with a live cast. A hookup for £20 weekday stalls seats and we were in!

Unsurprisingly (if you know Leigh), this play meanders and seems to not really be bothering either with plot or character “development,” though its characters are so pitch-perfect it’s difficult to imagine them actually having real lives off of the stage. The play takes place in the tiny two-room Kilburn flat of Jean (the rather too-pretty Siân Brooke), who keeps booze in the wardrobe, heats the bedroom with an ineffective tiny radiator (Jean says to Len, “Don’t worry about turning off the heater, let it go until the meter runs out ….” leaving her to wake up in darkness and cold), and uses a shared toliet in the hall. When guests come to visit her, their options are the chair next to the table the TV sits on, the one armchair, or the bed. It’s crowded, crowded, crowded, a far more effective depiction of poverty than the National managed in its expansive set for Men Shall Weep. Despite her old friend Len (Craig Parkinson) kindly saying that it is tidy and compact, to me it seemed a soul-killing environment. Life in London at the bottom of the economic ladder – as the working poor – never seemed so real.

To lighten this up, there’s no “double bed and a stalwart lover,” it’s a broken bed and wanna-be rapist (Daniel Coonan as Roy) and the shiver of gin drunk alone for company when he leaves to go back to his wife. Jean’s life is orderly but basically a pile of misery; even the sex is the complete opposite of the “Ecstasy” of the title. She has a friend, Dawn (the shimmering Sinead Matthews, who could have lit all of the smoked cigarettes with her own energy), who comes over to cheer her up with tales of her screwed up children and gifts of the clothes she’s stolen for Jean. The two of them spend all of the second act with Dawn’s husband Mick and said friend Len, drinking endlessly, rehashing what were somehow their glory days, dancing to Elvis, and having a little singalonga. And is all of this convivial?

No. It is depressing. These people are probably barely 30, and their lives seem like they’re already over. Their socializing with each other seems a desperate attempt to drink away their ability to face up to their the present. With exception of the key question of where the next booze-up is going to happen, they don’t really talk about the future; and why would they?

It’s hard to believe the interminable second act could be billed as a party scene; it all seemed like a long waiting game, either for the rapist to return, the soup to boil, the taxi to show up, or Dawn to wake up after she passes out on Jean’s bed. Mostly it seemed like drinking for the purpose of making the wretched minutes that cause each day to pass so slowly have some sort of purpose; that is, of getting drunk. Me, I felt trapped and frustrated, stuck in a tiny room with people who were fighting to find something to say to each other while the finished their drinks. When, I wondered, would they get as bored as I was? And while we finally had a tiny reveal from Jean, pretty much nothing does happen in this play at all. My suspicion is that we could stay with this group of people for years with nothing ever really changing – thank God after two hours and forty five minutes we at least got to walk away from them and get on with our real lives.

Overall, I have to admire the perfection of dialogue, characterization, and staging of this play – everything really is pitch-perfect. But I have to question the point of it as a work of theater. It has all the makings of something that is going somewhere but then doesn’t. While I can admire the acting and directing skill, there is still that boredom factor – this show outstayed its welcome 30 minutes before it ended, and I can’t really forgive it for this. There’s a lot of great about Ecstasy, but at its core it’s a flawed play. I’m glad I saw it, but I don’t advice it for people who want structure in their shows. Frankly, you could get much the same at many a bar – drunks going on about nothing while you wonder just why it was you bothered going in the first place.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, May 16th, 2011. It continues through May 28th. It’s probably actually really good so if you like top notch acting and can live through the boredom you should go.)

Review – dual premiere mixed bill (Balanchine’s “Ballo della Regina,” McGregor’s “Live Fire Exercise” plus Danse a Grande Vitesse) – Royal Ballet at Royal Opera House

May 14, 2011

Last night was a fabulous evening of mixed short productions at the Royal Ballet – not just a world premiere (Wayne McGregor’s “Live Fire Exercise”) but a new Balanchine (“Ballo della Regina”) for the Royal Ballet, plus a remounting of “Danse a Grande Vitesse” (from 2006). To think that this wealth of investment in dance comes on top of a brand new full-length ballet earlier in the year (Alice) – I’d like to thank Monica Mason and whatever magic she has that has made this kind of money show up to grace our stages with new art. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

For “Ballo della Regina,” I’m pleased to report that the Royal Ballet has chosen a delicious, tender and exuberant Balanchine to add to its repertory. I was spoiled with Balanchine back in Seattle; I find the Royal Ballet is suited to its disciplined style. Marianela Nunez was (save one bobble) graceful and delicate turning by an unusual lifting and dropping of the toes (rather than a pirouette); Sergei Polunin was strong and effortless when partnering her. I was struck by the contrast with the Dutch National Ballet’s von Manen bill of the night before: his “Adagio Hammerklavier” seemed to have the Balanchine style but was utterly lacking in emotional connection. Yet in this piece, Balanchine had Polunin not just making constant, intent eye contact with Nunez while executing the complex signature hand-turnings; he also at one point leaned forward for a second to rest his cheek against her arm. It was a tiny, human gesture that perfectly captured what was missing the night before; a connection between the two leads that spoke of universal humanity rather than just being bodies in space.

Of course, what I will take away from Ballo was the just brilliant work Polunin did in the air. The height! The daring! I don’t even have the words for all the different crazy things he did with his legs and the way it all looked like he was born to spend his life springing off the ground as if, perhaps, in his other life he might have been wearing blue tights and a red cape. “Ballo della Regina,” perhaps; I dub this ballet “Ballo della Rex*.” It was unmissable and I felt like my whole night had hit such a high that if I saw nothing else it would have all been worth while.

Next up was Wayne McGregor’s “Live Fire Exercise” in its world premiere. It started with a big video on stage showing animated trucks and equipment moving around on a desert landscape; then a ball of fire exploded upwards and the dance begun. At first, watching the initial pair of dancers clinging to each other and struggling, I thought perhaps here we had a response to the Japanese tidal wave and the Fukushima disaster; I was excited to think he’d went for something so topical and so contrary to his normal technophilia. (And no, I didn’t read the program notes – I think I should be able to understand ballet without having to be told what’s going on. If you have to spell out what happened that extensively, you’re doing it wrong. I’ll go back and see what he said it was all about once this is published.)

But as the dance went on, the movement seemed to disintegrate into … random movement with no context, simply one pose after another, as if Cunningham had taken the wheel and people were no longer at the center of the event. The dancers slid across the slick stage on flat feet; they occasionally seemed frantic; the girls were held upside-down; at one point a woman slapped the stage with her hand. The ball of fire seemed to have no connection with anything; it was only interesting when the dancers stood so close to the projection that they became silhouettes. At one point one of the men covered his partner’s eyes with her hands; and truly, it was all too terrible to bear watching. The fire ended, the screen went to black and white, the little video trucks drove away … and it was over. Such a let down. Much like David Bowie, I feel like Wayne McGregor has run out of new ideas. Maybe he’ll get lucky and Lady Gaga will do a piece with him – God knows she’s got innovation to spare.

This over, my speechless companion and I decided to head into the night, skipping Danse a Grande Vitesse, which I found dull when it debuted and didn’t care to see again. It was a beautiful spring night; I’d seen Sergei Polunin rise to the stars in “Ballo:” it was now time for visiting and relaxing and drinking some nice wine and trying to put “Live Fire Exercise” behind me.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, May 13th, 2011. Performances continue through May 25th. Travelzoo has a deal using the code PZOO for selected dates of this ballet – 24 quid amphi tickets for 10 pounds. I’d say it’s totally worth it just for Ballo alone, and to be honest I do like the Michael Nyman score for “Danse a Grande Vitesse” so you’ll probably feel like it was worth it in the end.)

*With a better control of the language, Ismene Brown calls this “Ballo dello Re.” Ah well, I really ought to learn Italian.

Review – Hans von Manen program (Adagio Hammerklavier, Solo, Trois Gnossiennes, Concertante, Grosse Fuge)- Dutch National Ballet at Sadler’s Wells

May 13, 2011

Blogging dance is a challenge for me. I like to write about everything I do, but for dance I find it hard to put things into words. In part this is because I lack a specialized vocabulary to discuss it; dance for me is often experienced without the socialization that enables me to learn how to talk about it better (though I don’t want to start blogging it in a way that makes me harder to understand). And for abstract dance, I find the experience tends to be extraordinarily ephemeral, slipping away from me just hours after the show is over. And as I’ve been trying to be more “into” the experience of a show (meaning that I’m spending the time I’m watching it thinking about what is going on and not thinking about how to describe it in words and am therefore often not taking notes while it’s happening), it’s getting harder for me to hold on to those few words that capture what happened. On the other hand, I think I’m having a better time sitting there without a notebook, scribbling away instead of giving the stage all of my attention, so I’m doing something right, but I’m not really going to be improving too much as a writer. Anyway, apologies in advance for this somewhat abbreviated review.

The impressions I took away last night of the Hans von Manen program at Sadler’s Wells were mixed. The first piece, “Adagio Hammerklavier,” featured three couples moving about in a way that reminded me a lot of the abstract work of Balanchine, but with some crucial element missing. Arms were lifted, women danced on pointe and were, in their turn, lifted, each couple took a turn on their own. Sadly, I failed to engage (although I did seriously gawk at the shirtless men, their torso development was so strong that I felt like I was at Chippendales for the intelligentsia). I think what was missing was the emotional connection that Balanchine’s pieces always seem to have even when they lack any narrative whatsoever; it always seems like there’s something going on between the dancers despite the fact they never seem in need of having an enchantment lifted from them. This made me wonder if von Manen was a Balanchine disciple doing his own version of the master’s style, but I’m not sure and that may just be me imposing my own American view of 20th century ballet on a choreographer who may have had nothing to do with him at all.

This piece was followed immediately by “Solo,” which was actually a trio, but as solos, as a piece for three men to show off, as they bounced around, spun, but somehow failed to act like traditional ballet dancers. It felt entirely improved. I was kind of pained by the horrible colored t-shirts they each had on under their dark overshirts, but it was hard to say no to the energy and enthusiasm, and it was a great showpiece for the very strong men in this company.

After a long break, we went into my favorite piece of the night, “Trois Gnossiennes.” Amusingly, I had just been telling my companion that everytime I saw a performance in which an instrument was on stage, the whole thing was gimmicky, and yet here we were with a piano and pianist on stage with five dancers. I had a brief flashback to shows gone wrong, but then the beautiful music pulled me in, and I was hearing the swirling strange sounds of the symbolist era, and watching the bending and turning of the lead couple (the other three dancers just pushed the piano about on stage, rather like a float at a parade) and losing myself in the beautiful movement and the ponderous slide of the piano, and suddenly it was all over. Well, hell. My entire theory about gimmicky musical instruments was just blown to bits.

However, the final piece, Grosse Fuge, brought back another favorite trope, this time from the Brady Bunch. There’s an episode in which Marcia (the middle sister) decides to audition for a modern dance group, and she does this very abstract (and probably Martha Graham-like) dance with a scarf. At the end, the cruel female impresario says to the always brow-beaten Marcia, “Do it again … without the scarf!” And of course without the scarf there is no dance for her to do. In this case, Grosse Fuge was a dance about belts, great big wide things clutching the hips of the male dancers and nicely decorating the Japanese-style trouser-skirts they were wearing (again, shirtless!). The girls, meanwhile, stood poised in simple, elegant peachy/pinky dresses with comical hair combs; I was reminded of one of those Star Trek episodes in which Kirk goes to a planet where he once again falls in love with one (or many) of the space-age ladies.

Here, though, the women seemed to have very little to do with what was going on, which seemed to involve a lot of posturing and further display of the tasty pecs of the male dancers. Their interactions were almost entirely with each other, giving the whole thing a Tom of Finland-like hypermasculinity. When the women finally started dancing, they seemed such afterthoughts that it seemed impossible that the men cared at all for their presence; they were just feminine “beards” diluting the butch energy of the guys just enough for us to NOT think they only had eyes for each other.

And then … the guys ripped their trousers off to reveal the hot pants they had on underneath, which they were now wearing with these great huge belts. HOLY COW. The women now started working with the men by grabbing for their crotches and having the fellows swing them about on stage using momentum and the belts as focal points. I admit there was a fair bit of technical work going on here and most certainly an unusual skill being learned by all of the dancers, and I was reminded a bit of the Trisha Brown ’70s NYC dance experiments where they were working with dancing in different dimensions (in particular the dance involving clothes strung up horizontally on a web of rope, the dancers “dressing” themselves during the piece). I was impressed by the audacity of the piece overall, but I couldn’t help but think, “Now this time do it without the belts!” And yet at the same time I was laughing SO HARD because over and over again I was seeing ballerinas lunging at men’s crotches. Oh dear dear dear. It was all going so badly but then von Manen jumped the shark and had a terrible success, and I will always remember his “belt dance,” but I suspect not for the reasons he intended.

Overall I can’t say I was convinced that Hans von Manen is “Master of Dance” (as the program said) and its a bit of a sad sign that I forgot the fourth piece as quickly as I did, but the grace of “Trois Gnossiennes” and the wild extremes of Gross Fuge was enough to convince me it had been a good night.

Review – They Came to a City – New Actors Company at Southwark Playhouse

May 11, 2011

This is my fourth J.B. Priestley play, and I chose to see the production at Southwark Playhouse not because of their attractive pricing policy, but because I’m interested in his themes (much as I am for Shaw’s work). An Inspector Calls nicely captured the effect that the actions of the rich have on the poor within an extraordinary compelling narrative; what, then, would a playwright with these concerns chose to do with a play about a group of people discovering a “brave new world” outside of the limits of the class-bound (and money-obsessed) society we live in?

The results, I’m afraid to say, were rather like Major Barbara meets Atlas Shrugged with a touch of Waiting for Godot, with Shaw providing the politics, Rand the dialogue, and Beckett the dramatic tension. The plot has a group of people of various classes (seemingly dealt out of deck of Standard English Types) show up in a nowhere zone, spend most of the first act trying to figure out what to do with themselves, then the second act deciding if the fantastic city they all visited (while we were off having ice creams or, in my case, a much needed stiff drink) was the best or worst place they had ever been to. Seemingly every word that came out of their mouths was preordained; they were “types” dealign with a “situation,” what was the point of developing them as characters? Yes, there was a bit of a romance, there was tension between a few people, but the point of it all was to get people in situations where they could make the points the author wanted to make about our flawed capitalist society, and that wasn’t any more interesting than John Galt’s mind-numbing speech at the end of Atlas Shrugged.

My “suspension of disbelief,” necessary to deal with a show in which nine people magically show up in a limbo-land (kind of a purgatory, actually), was made even more difficult by the cloddishness of the lighting and sound effects. As each character appeared, they got a spotlight shone on them and a bit of dramatic music was played. Only … it wasn’t dramatic, it was funny, tinny and weak, like a recording of a radio play. It made me laugh. And every time a new character appeared, the same sound was repeated. It made it impossible for me to take the premise seriously right from the start. And while the smoke that filled the auditorium was supposed to add to the otherworldliness of it all (I’m assuming), in fact it just enhanced the sort of moldy atmosphere of the Southwark Playhouse Vault space. (Not recommended for asthmatics.) Then the “glow” of the city over the wall, the glaring bright light of the exit at the end of act two … it was just lacking in subtlety at a level I hadn’t experienced in a play in London in rather a while.

Many of the individual performances were quite fine (I think Thomas Shirley was completely believable as banker Cudsworth and Jean Perkins wonderfully submerged in her Mrs Batley), though I giggled at the Victoria Beckham look chosen for the controlling Mrs Stritton (Jessica Francis). However, not a one of them managed to be dramatically compelling, to evolve – well, okay, Daniel Souter (as browbeaten Mr Stritton) actually developed a bit but not enough to make me engage with the show. I think this is very much Priestley’s fault. I am afraid to say that They Came to a City is really of interest to Priestley fans, and not too much at that, but despite its flaws I did feel like I got my £8 out of it. That said, it was still a struggle of an evening overall. I may be more particular about what Priestley shows I choose in the future after the disappointment of this and When We Are Married; apparently his work is much more variable in quality than I expected.

Unexpected comedy moment (not verbatim): banker Mr Stritton is asked, “You sure were popular down there! What was it you were saying that got such a big laugh from all of those people?” To which he replies, “I was explaining how our financial system works.” Oh how we laughed!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, May 10th, 2011. It continues through May 28th. Running time is about 2 hours but it feels much longer. For another take on this show, please see The West End Whingers.)

Review – Pagliacci – London’s Little Opera House at King’s Head Theatre

May 9, 2011

I am a reluctant opera goer: while I enjoy music and singing, and plays in which people sing and there is music, when presented in the opera context I find myself too often bored and disengaged long before the performance is over. Frequently this is because of the topics or characters: I don’t like weak women and rather a lot of 19th century opera centers around dull women who make bad choices (a big exception to this is Carmen, my favorite opera – she may make bad choices but she is never dull!).

However, I keep going and hoping for a winner, and the King’s Head Theatre production of Pagliacci seemed very promising. I figured an opera set backstage at a theater centering on clowns seemed very novel, and, per the website, this was their “most successful” production. Well, alright, and it was being done in English, and was short, and I was interested to see what the producing group was doing with this opera lark … so what harm could a little opera do on a Sunday afternoon?

As it turns out, this wasn’t too bad of an outing. I hadn’t really done much research on the show itself (in keeping with my normal desire for surprise, but let’s say a manic clown declaring in the first act that he’d kill his wife if he found out she was cheating on him kinda spelled out where the show was going from a story arc perspective). The production focused on Nedda’s (Katie Bird) extra-marital romance with Silvio (David Durham), but they seemed like cardboard cutouts (or Star Trek “redshirts”) and were given little time to flesh out their characters enough to make us care about them. Nedda grabbed her stomach constantly as if she was worried we’d not gather she was pregnant based on her costuming (it was a mild bump admittedly); Silvio had a lovely voice but just did not have the stage time to explain why his relationship with her was something we should care about. The two of them were nice to listen to but I found them not compelling.

Against these two ciphers we had the much more exciting characters of Pagliacci (Paul Featherstone) and Tonio (Dominic Barrand). Tonio was supposed to be Iago crossed with Caliban; ugly, lecherous, and vengeful. Except, as it turns out, Barrand was actually an extremely handsome man with a rich bass voice; I loved watching and listening to him on stage. He was a fun villain with a powerful presence – I only wish they could let him be more evil!

By comparison, the anti-hero Pagcliacci was a weak and ineffectual bad guy, about what you would expect of a cuckold (and with a voice that seemed rather worn out for my matinee performance). Yeah, sure, you give him a knife and he’s a murderer (in fact I suspect this show is the origin of all examples of clown fear), but you couldn’t see any love in his interaction with his wife – she is (as the text makes clear) just another puppet for him to control. Yet in spite of this, Nedda isn’t able to build sympathy either. So you end the play with two unsympathetic characters coming to a homicidal head, meaning the focus of the action in act two is watching the Punch and Judy show taking place at the back of the stage and laughing at its comedic commentary on the live actors. Fortunately it was all short enough (not even ninety minutes) that my attention span wasn’t stretched – but I would have preferred it have a bit more dramatic – dare I say – punch. Ah well. This show didn’t capture my imagination, but it did show the potential of the company, so I expect I’ll be back for more later.

(This review is for a performance that took placy on Sunday, May 8th, 2011. It continues in rep through the end of May.)

Review – April 2011 Secret Cinema – Waterloo Tunnels

May 5, 2011

The first question you’re probably asking yourself is, “What movie are they showing at this month’s Secret Cinema?” I’ll give you a spoiler / hint: I’m not going to say until it’s over. In fact, I think you can figure it out if you try hard enough, so I’m not going to make it easy for you.

It’s getting to the point where the Waterloo tunnels are becoming old friends, layered with meaning and memories from my many visits. It doesn’t hurt that the productions I’ve seen there have been really intense experiences that burn into your brain, and that the layout of the rooms and passage through them have been inextricable part of the creation of my emotional map of the various chambers. I was pleased to see that this was where the complimentary tickets I’d received from the latest incarnation of the Secret Cinema directed me to go.

The whole thing was very mysterious. I had heard of a few people going to Secret Cinema before and that it meant an immersive experience before a showing of a movie great. I wanted to know if this was actually going to be a movie I wanted to see and did quite a bit of online searching beforehand to see if I could figure it out. The first clue I took as the dress code. I went for a floral outfit with a scarf. To me, the clothing outfits gave me a time period for the film. Combined with the second clue – it was a foreign language film (people online were complaining about the subtitles) – I chose a national origin for the film. The third clue was the requirement that your national registration papers needed to be with you at all times. This to me indicated a time/place in which there was a police state instituted. Hmm. I managed to do a bit of thinking about how all of these things fit together and came up with the film correctly in one guess, but as the show is going until May 8th and the secrecy is part of the fun, I won’t give the answer away. Let me say, though, that in terms of timeliness, this film is spot on with today’s news headlines and concerns and a highly relevant film to watch; in fact, I’d chosen not to see it before when it had gone out in a nicely restored version (due to my general dislike of its topic) but now I wanted to get a better understanding of this period and how it relates to today. It was banned for years in its country of origin; for this reason alone it’s worth viewing in my book.

I arrived and was pretty immediately bothered by “border guards” checking my papers (I hadn’t bothered printing any out as I’m sort of horrible about remembering to read past highlighted information, i.e. the location of the event). They spoke to me in the foreign language I expected to hear; I responded in kind. I was allowed to pass without my papers.

Inside, I walked into a world of plastered white walls, elaborately latticed windows, tea stands, chess and backgammon games, shifty-eyed policemen, and white-robed women standing in doorways or engaging in various mundane tasks (i.e. making bread). We walked around enjoying the environment, then were beckoned inside a curtained doorway. Two women started talking to me, asking about my papers – then a policeman showed up and started hassling me very hard because I didn’t have them. How was it my husband had them (he is American) and I did not? I told him he’d gone one so that he could do research at the university and that I was simply travelling so carried no national identity papers as Americans don’t have them! I did however have my real passport with me (as it happened) that day. This seemed to flummox them and the game they were playing. Unfortunately as they spoke to each other in a third language I was unable to keep up with the dialogue.

The policeman left and another man quickly wrote me up some identity papers. Then one of the women hustled me out the door to what I think was a clandestine identity paper creating location. We walked through “streets” filled with food stalls (affordably priced, too, I could have eaten nicely for only £6) and many more obviously European types who seemed unaware of the political chaos simmering underneath their eyes as they made their ways toward bars and cafes. It all seemed very appropriate and reflective of how these things work: the locals are harassed and abused by their own and the cops/army while the Europeans are playing by completely different rules, like the most important decision of the day is whether or not to have a second glass of wine and not whether or not to risk your life by harboring a fugitive.

This bit of the evening I enjoyed very much. It was excellent interactive theater, like what I’d experienced at Masque of the Red Death only so much better. The “audience” did a much better job of creating an overall environment and rather happily slipped into their roles. Even later as the cops went for door to door searches and we were hidden in little back rooms, the “Europeans” were silly and “it’s all a game” ish: I mean, it was, but to me, the reenactment of this experience felt far more real than almost all of the Iraq war experience I got when I went to see Stovepipe.

Outside of this part, there was quite a lot of environment to experience and move around in; a bar where your door coupon could be exchanged for a white Russian; a much busier “real” bar; live military bands playing at random to keep our spirits up; a room where a man was being tortured. These things all fit well into the themes and scenes of the movie we were about to see; I wasn’t really able to understand this at the time, though. People seemed to be entertaining themselves pretty well. I manged to locate at least one of the places where the film would be shown; my husband told me there were a total of three.

We began to wonder just when the movie would start. Then, at about 8:15, a big speech started that we were all herded toward; some military type was telling us that they were really there to protect and help us. Then, it seemed, there was noise/chaos/smoke and we were all hurried away to safety amidst the screaming. We would up ascending a very narrow staircase, walking along a catwalk with a railing, then through a false wall to a spot where we could get to yet another walkway and then down again inside a cinema. It was a good experience for what it was really like to try to survive a police raid in closed quarters and a pretty intense lived prequel for the film.

Then, for about two hours, we watched our movie, in a fairly pedestrian manner, with popcorn, and with well-behaved (and well-dressed) fellow cinephiles. Toward the end, I could hear strange crunching and clattering noises outside the nice little area where we’d been passively entertaining ourselves; when we emerged, it was to an utterly changed landscape. Was it Tahrir Square, the streets of Beirut, the shattered city of Misrata, or even Abottabad? The misery and devastation seemed timeless and stateless; in these battles between citizens and the power of the state, even when you achieve your goals, devastation is what is left behind. It was a sobering message. I walked out feeling, not changed, but emotionally ravaged. In short, it was a more powerful experience than anything Punchdrunk has come up with in some time. The effect of taking such a powerful film and putting the audience into a situation where they could move beyond passivity into a living experience was quite remarkable. I was grateful to have had the opportunity to have been there, just as in my life I am grateful I’ve had the good luck to not have this be a part of my daily existence. Recommended.

(The April 2011 Secret Cinema continues through May 8th, 2011. I consider £25 a good price for this event.)