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Mini-review – Les Blancs – National Theatre

May 11, 2016

So big surprise isn’t the National Theatre (RE this one time to distinguish it from the one in Washington DC) doing a play by Lorraine Hansberry, but that they’ve chosen to do Les Blancs – an play that this fantastic American playwright left unfinished at her early death. And the National hasn’t just revived the Broadway version cobbled together from her manuscripts, but has developed a new text with involvement from the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust. This is more than a revival: it’s a substantial investment in an American writer dead some forty years …

Did you want to know the plot? An American missionary has just arrived in some unnamed country Africa to write about a group of missionaries who are holding on as the world around them is slowly turning into civil war – a war where those the missionaries have helped will come to exact vengeance against them. This play looks at just what exactly has this help been, and the answer is not pretty. And instead of taking the white American as the protagonist, we are sent to focus on a different outsider – Tshembe (Daniel Sapani), a man who was born, black, in this country, but has lived for years in Europe. So this story is not about who “we” as a European (or American) theatrical audience might focus on, but what the true story of this country is, and what the true story of colonialism is.

Hansberry struggles with pulling this tale out of its historicity (people’s thoughts about colonialism have evolved since it was written), unable to become unAmerican in her viewpoints and (per the script presented) not entirely able to develop the characters out of viewpoints and into three dimensionality. (I found A Season in the Congo much better because of its historic specificity but also because of its choice to plunge deep into character.) At the time, though, I think her revelations about the kind of atrocities the white settlers exacted on the black populace – i.e. cutting off the hands of the locals – would have been real news to the people attending this play.

Despite its shortcomings, however, this play is clearly still relevant, and to an audience that was of varied ethnic and national origins. The house wasn’t full (shamefully), but it was hugely diverse, with maybe as much as 50% non-Caucasian audience the night I went. This programming choice makes me think the National got the gist of my point about the lack of diversity in UK theater audiences: it’s about subject matter and (possibly) casting. Does this show speak to the black audiences of London? Oh yes it does. And I, a white member, benefitted from being in this more diverse audience, because I was able to hear laughter and rumblings and all sorts of (polite) responses to what was being said, responses that were coming from people who had had a different experience of the world than I have, who saw the relationship of white settlers to the people they colonized much more clearly than I did, people who knew a hell of a lot more about the self-delusions of racists than I did. (Note: as an American I often find myself laughing or not laughing entirely off synch from audiences here: in some ways I always know where I do not fit in, but in the case of this show, I felt like I was getting an insight into Hansen’s play I would not have had if I had watched it in a room by myself.) This show is really a high note in the National’s programming for the year, and, as an American, I can’t help but feel grateful that they went to so much work to ensure the work of my compatriot could get the attention (and investment) it deserved. Thanks, guys!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, May 5, 2016. It continues through June 2nd.)

Guest Review – The Duchess of Malfi – Punchdrunk and E.N.O. on location

July 18, 2010

(There is now also a mini-review of this show done by this blog’s usual author available here if you would like to read it.)

Promenade is all the rage, remember? And when it comes to promenade performances, Punchdrunk productions are acknowledged masters in creating sprawling, immersive environments around a story, and so the announcement that they would be collaborating with English National Opera on a new production of The Duchess of Malfi this year, it was clearly going to be event of the season. Demand was so high the day tickets went on sale that the E.N.O. ticketing system crashed, and the entire run sold out in short order.

So how is it? Well, keep an eye on the classifieds: you may see more tickets going cheaper as the run goes on.

It’s the standard Punchdrunk rules: audience members are given white masks to wear and are free reign to wander a bulding full of meticulously created environments which give various clues and information about the story, and often later become locations for specific scenes. Crew and ushers wear black masks, and performers are the only ones who have faces exposed.

This time the space fills a new-but-empty multifloor office building in the wilds of far East London. As usual, there is a forensic level of detail: notes left on tables and in drawers connect in fascinating ways; labels on medicine bottles are for characters we meet later; every love letter of hundreds crumpled in a corner is a genuine text, addressed to a different person. Where they’ve taken the time to fill the space, it is done with mind-bending completeness.

The problem, though, is that they’ve not been able to take the time everywhere. The building feels simply too big to fill. Empty space is used well in a few places, creating a grand sense of scale in a forest of trees, but elsewhere we find long stretches of nothing, which end up being reminders that we are just in an empty office building – particularly when in transit between floors, either via the internal stairwells or the elevators, both located in hallways which have been almost completely ignored.

As with most opera, it’s worth having an idea of the story beforehand, or at least the big idea. I think that’s key for any Punchdrunk production, actually, as it really helps to be able to put things back into context when you see them out of order. It adds to the experience. E.N.O. provides a synopsis on the website, but reading it after the fact I think huge sections of it are backstory which we never get in the performance. And there’s stuff which never quite made sense: There was something about lycanthopy going on in many of the notes and files found in the set dressings, which I saw incorporated visually in the performance but never really figured out. Librettist Ian Burton has distilled the entirety of the story into about 40 minutes total, presumably so they can run through it all twice before the finale. This is similar to the format Punchdrunk used for Masque of the Red Death, which gives the audience more opportunity to see more of the show. But as usual, things happen simultaneously, things appear and disappear (was that bar there the entire time? I’m sure I’d walked past that door before…) and there’s really no way you can or will see all of it, and it doesn’t actually matter.

Or does it?

The biggest question I had in thinking about this piece, before and after seeing it, is whether opera can work in a non-linear environment.

Now, I found this musically challenging in the first place. The production features a new score by Torsten Rasch which is largely in a twiddly, post-modern style I find unmusical and grating anyway – most notably the seemingly random octave leaps up and down, within a single sung line. Why? I admit I’ve not studied atonal composition theory so I’ve never really understood this particular school of music, but you know what? I don’t think I should need graduate-level academic knowledge to enjoy something created for public performance. And, while our singers were quite good (most memorably Claudia Huckle as the duchess and Andrew Watts as the falsetto Cardinal brother Ferdinand), more often than not the vocal fireworks meant I lost words and frequently entire lines of text, and I ultimately found myself frustrated, with very little verbal information about the story I was supposed to be following. There’s a reason E.N.O. still runs supertitles at the Coliseum even though their productions are sung in English.

That said, I also think there’s an inherent conflict in the structural requirements of an opera – or at least of this score – and the free-form, choose-your-own-adventure format of the production. A Punchdrunk narrative provides few clear stopping and starting points but instead creates a sense that something is always happening, and as a viewer you step in and out of the continuum as you move through the world they create. If you’re ever feeling out of the loop at a Punchdrunk show, the thing to do is just follow a character and interesting things will happen along the way. Music, by contrast, fundamentally relies on developing and exploring themes in a time-based, linear fashion. Following the tuba player between orchestral movements just doesn’t have the same effect. Watching the musicians set up and play kills the whole feeling that something interesting is happening elsewhere. It’s clearly where we’re meant to be at that moment in time, and that is in direct conflict with the best part of a Punchdrunk experience.

After roaming around for a couple hours, I decided I was done. I knew they’d be running things twice, and as I stumbled into a scene I’d already seen, I decided to head for the door. I didn’t like the music, I wasn’t getting much story, random moments of “neat” were few and far between, and combined with a long journey back to civilization it just wasn’t adding up to making me want to stay longer.

Heading down and trying to backtrack to where we came in, I was turned back at the next-to-last door, with the usher saying they were just about to do the finale so he needed me to go back in. I couldn’t leave! That unfortunately took me from “done” to “downright grumpy,” but I figured at least I knew it would soon be over.

As happened at last year’s Masque of the Red Death, the finale takes place in a space we’ve not seen before, large enough for everyone to be all at once and for a truly “big” finish – in this case a sizeable warehouse attached to the building. And, as I could have expected, the finale is indeed marvelously theatrical, the few bits of story I did have kind of came together into a clearer view of the whole, and there is a truly grand moment of spectacle. But it wasn’t enough of a payoff for me, and I didn’t dally after the lights went up.

All due credit for a valiant effort at something extraordinary. You can’t win if you don’t play, as they say, but for this gamble we get nothing extraordinary, or even particularly new. If you’ve seen Punchdrunk before, you’ve seen this before, and done better.

(This is for a performance which took place on July 13, 2010. Performances continue through July 24. Though the info page on the ENO site says it’s completely sold out, the ticketing system is showing some availability, and there’s of course gumtree…)

Guest review – Hotel Medea – Arcola theatre, Zecora Ura, and Urban Dolls on location

July 17, 2010

If there’s one trend in London theatre right now, I’d go out on a limb and say it’s site-specific and promenade productions. From Punchdrunk to the Bush to the National Theatre and the Old Vic and across the country, theatres are exploring how to break more than just the fourth wall. Taking the audience out of a traditional theatre venue opens huge opportunities to create fully immersive experiences, to challenge viewers to become real participants, and to take a theatrical event beyond simply theatrical and make it truly memorable. It’s a tremendous task for both artists and audience, and it doesn’t always work.

Fortunately for those of us who went for the dusk-to-dawn experience that is Hotel Medea, it works pretty darn well.

Starting at 11pm from a pier near the O2 Arena, with very little detail of what’s to come, participants begin the evening’s journey on a boat and are ferried to a “secret” location. In reality it’s pretty much just across the river, but the unique situation seemed to break people out of audience mode and into conversation, so in served a dual purpose of both separating us from the “outside” world and bringing us together a bit into what would be a shared experience. Once on site, we were sent in small groups towards the main building, making several brief stops for bits of coaching on some of the interactive bits we might expect – a few dance steps, a call-and-response song, and the like, and presented ways which further helped to both relax us into and make us wonder about what was to come.

In stark contrast to the sprawling and immaculately detailed worlds Punchdrunk creates, the building was basically empty of scenic dressings, with only a few small platforms and a bunch of plastic chairs scattered around what looked to be a former boathouse. Once the action really got underway, evocations of place in part 1 were minimal, mostly relying on costume, some lighting, and audience arrangement to shift scenes.

As suggested by the title, the backbone of the evening is the Greek myth of Medea. (I realized at some point in the wee hours that the word “hotel” in the name seems to simply stem from the fact that we’re staying overnight.) The first part, entitled “Zero Hour Market,” takes us through the story of how Medea allowed Jason (of “and the Argonauts”) to capture the Golden Fleece on the condition he marry her and take her from Colchis back to mainland Greece with him. The vital pieces of the narrative are in place, but from the start we are thrown into a frenetic world layered with sound (provided live by DJ Dolores), multiple languages, violence, modern technology and Brazilian tribalistic ritual. The opening moments so successfully and simply evoked the rich melee of a middle-eastern market bazaar that it was almost worth the price of admission alone. From there we are party to a military invasion, a football game, ceremonial rites, celebration, murder and betrayal. The audience is at once viewer and participant, being manoeuvred by the players as needed to stay out of the action (clearing a path for the invasion of the Argonauts), confine and control it (“don’t let them leave the circle”), or actively become a part of it (hiding Medea from her captors, Spartacus style; preparation of the bride and groom). Even though a fair bit of the spoken lines are in Portuguese, it doesn’t hinder at all, and in fact prevents the production from getting bogged down in words. No long passages from the chorus while something happens offstage here. And, while there’s occasionally a bit too much going on, the key elements are all in place, and the whole cast is fully committed, the result being a fantastic and engaging telling of the tale.

After a break for coffee/tea and cookies (gratis), Parts 2 and 3 then go on through the night to follow Euripides’ dramatic version of the story, where Jason falls in love with a younger woman and Medea exacts her revenge for the betrayal. Part 2, “Drylands,” is in three sections, presented almost as a song would be sung in a round: as audience we are also split into three groups, and each group experiences all three sections but starts at a different one. Here, Jason is cast as a modern-day politician on the campaign trail, and his aspirations to power are superceding his obligations to home and family. One section explores Jason the politician, the second the changing nature of the love relationship between he and Medea, and one places us into the powerless, outside role of their children. Happily, given that it was by this time 2 in the morning, the children’s segment actually involves bunk beds in which we are made to rest. We share the room with the Jason/Medea scene, but are actively compelled to close our eyes and let it take place without watching. We can hear, but not all of it, and by design we cannot view what we will later see – or in some cases already have seen. In conversation at the next break (including with the Tyro Theatre Critic who happened to be there as well), most seemed to think the order they got made perfect sense, but I’m not convinced that Jason’s actions in scene with Medea entirely make sense without the context of his political campaign. My group saw the third iteration of the scene where we discover Jason’s infidelity, and I’m pretty sure we got a much deeper presentation of Medea’s pain as an end to the act.

It’s worth noting here that neither the flyer we got at the show nor anything online appears to match the names of the performers with the roles they play, so the best I can say is that the actress playing Medea came across as 110% emotionally invested in the part, and every moment of anger and arrogance and pain and cold, calculating, vengeful wretch was absolutely right. Other cast members were very good as well, but as many of them played several roles as well as being audience shepherds, and didn’t need to plumb the same emotional depths.

After more coffee and cookies, part 3, “Feast of Dawn,” takes us on a journey through the broken heart of a woman and into a mind twisting on revenge. On the way, we are confidantes and collaborators; we again assume the role of children; we mourn. We are not shocked or angry; is it because we know the story, or because by this point we emotionally understand Medea’s actions? If we understand, then the entire evening has been a success. And maybe, just maybe, it’s been enough of a success that we also feel some pity for Jason, who we abandon as a weeping wreck – a man who has lost everything he didn’t realize was at risk until it was too late.

Apparently, while the company (Brazilian collective Zecora Ura and the London-based Para-Active/Urban Dolls project) has done the entire show a variety of times, part 1 can stand alone, and it’s kind of clear that it’s been worked through a bit more. While parts 2 and 3 expand to use other rooms in the building and other parts of the site, the flavor of the interaction shifts somehow, and later in the evening I more often felt like I was watching a scene rather than being involved in a moment. I was never disengaged, and was in fact being handed props right up until the end, but the interaction did at times feel less integrated, more window dressing than foundational stone. But not often, and it’s a minor quibble on what was otherwise a truly unique and marvelous night.

(This review was for the performance on July 16, 2010. Shows run weekends through August 7. Part 1 is available as a separate ticket for the soft those who might want to get the night bus home at around 1:30am – a shuttle bus returns leavers to the nearest transport hub. Breakfast is included for all-nighters, as is the same shuttle starting around 5am.)