Posts Tagged ‘Barbican’

Review – The Wild Duck – Belvoir Sydney at The Barbican

October 24, 2014

So how do you describe the feeling of suddenly having a realization that means your entire world has just changed?

It is sitting in the pitch black dark of a spaceship’s belly while pinprick galaxies spin by into infinity and noise slams you into your seat. It is complete sensory overload crossed with paralysis. It is how I felt at the climax of The Wild Duck: fear and exhilaration and amazement all hitting me so hard I almost could not think, I could only experience.

I’ve made it my practice for years to avoid both reading scripts and reading reviews so I can have the pleasure of having a play unfold and be a surprise to me, and there was not a single expected revelation in this show (although I had the decency to be surprised by the presence of a duck on stage despite the title – then wondered to what extent it was a seagull-like metaphor – and, assuming it was, raced quickly to determine exactly what it meant before the end, and was wrong).

You see, the thing is, the rich man, his son Gregers, the son’s buddy, buddy’s wife and kid, they weren’t my family; they weren’t my friends. But from the very first strained meeting between Mr Moneybags and Moneybags Junior, I was pulled in to the reality of their lives. This is kind of funny because the whole thing is done behind a glass wall (yes, there is a fourth wall, and a third) with microphones, and you’d think I’d hate it, the artificiality of it all, the fakeness. But instead, I bought the conceit and believed it all, this despite the fact the daughter was both too long in the tooth to be 15 and, well, just not written right. But there was Gregers with his ridiculous chips on his shoulder – practically myself – making sure everyone knew what the truth was about everything (including his feelings) no matter how unwanted or upsetting his “truth” was … “The Wife,” seemingly a throwaway role until she falls in a ball on the stage and stays there for some twenty minutes, the embodiment of every woman who has had to cry all of her tears forever and can never be unbroken … and “The Buddy,” so hung up on his own ego (like Gregers) that he’s willing to destroy everything so he can feel proud of himself. They’re all real people. I know them all.

In some ways, seeing this play was like watching a real-life enactment of the immovable object and the unstoppable force; but with the feeling of tragedy I always get when I think about Schroedinger’s cat. Do you remember hearing about Schroedinger’s cat for the first time? Can you not tell me that, truth or not truth, the whole thing was terribly cruel to the cat? You want it to be a discussion about physics, but you have to step away from life to do that; and life has a horrible way of popping up when you think it’s just become a beautiful abstraction with no relationship to you.

Finally the lights lifted a bit and the fourth wall became invisible, and two of the characters had a little meaningless conversation and I felt broken and hurt for them. And I thought, once again, Ibsen did this to me. He made me believe. He made me feel. He made the people matter to me, wisps of text and thoughts that they are. Nicely, Belvoir Sydney made me feel the breeze blowing from the stage, as we stood in a nowhere wondering just where our lives had brought us, or, rather, where these characters’ lives (and words, and decisions) had brought them. And I thought, now this was a good, good night. This is why I go to the theater.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, October 23rd, 2014. I apologize for the lack of credit to the actors but there’s absolutely zero information on the Barbican website and I didn’t feel like shelling out £4 for a program, so do the legwork yourself if you’re really curious. Admittedly some of my experience of the play was due to having side effects from an ocular migraine, and the fact that the Barbican theater reminds me of a spaceship anyway, but there you have it, I was actually speechless and amazed and seeing little flickering lights while feeling unable to move a muscle. Kinda cool really.)


Mini-review – Ubu Roi – Cheek by Jowl at the Barbican (Silk Street Theater)

April 15, 2013

You’re not going to care but I’m going to tell you anyway. When I was in college, I was in a punk band with my roommates called “Sheepchild.” One of our songs was called “Ubu Roi.” It was what I’d named my really crappy car, the one I bought for $400 and then immediately spent $600 repairing over the course of the one month I had it before I gave up. It broke me financially and pretty much ensured that, right after I graduated, I was unable to work any kind of decent job because I was dirt poor and living in a city with no public transportation. I’d painted a picture of Ubu Roi on the hood of the car in florescent spray paint; I’d seen the picture in one of my roommate’s art textbooks. The song went:

Ubu the little car
Ubu where you are
You’re in the garage
You’re not in my house
Ubu. Ubu.
One day, you’re gonna be in jail! Where cars go when they die, you know, car hell!
Ubu. 160 dollars. 97 dollars. 120 dollars. Ubu.

We were never famous but somewhere there is a cassette tape of me singing this song while one of my roommates plays the drums and the other roommate plays a badly tuned guitar.

Okay, so did that bore you? Now that is how I felt during the opening moments of Cheek by Jowl’s production of Ubu Roi. I was peeved that the tickets were so freaking expensive (27 quid is way high for me) and then it was going to be TWO HOURS (nearly) with no interval, and there we were watching some fucking actor with a live video camera feed showing his face, and then the couch, and then some more of the set. And then he goes back stage and the feed continues as if there’s actually a house back there with people (his parents, presumably) preparing food and getting dressed in preparation for a dinner party. And I’m sitting there going, for fuck’s sake, they’re wasting my time showing me a close up of the fucking carpet in the bathroom, and I’m going to be thinking I could have been home 20 minutes earlier if they hadn’t wasted my time with this Katie Mitchell crap.

And then, I realize, the whole play is going to be performed in French, which the actors are muttering to each other while the supertitles have clearly frozen. I don’t even have the opportunity to try to understand what they’re saying because they’re not talking loudly enough. And there are an hour and forty minutes still to go.

Doom. I consider leaning over to my husband and telling him some anecdotes about my day to kill time while this wretched beast lumbers along, and then, suddenly, everything goes green, the kid’s mom and dad start twitching and jerking and it’s like he’s starting to channel his feelings about this bourgeois spectacle through them. It clears up and they act normal again, but then it’s Hulk time and off they go and they’re nearly humping on stage and reality is getting fucked with. And it clears again and it’s a dinner party with a sulky teenager …

And then it’s the play Ubu Roi, a tale of greed, lust, cowardice, violence, and stupidity (with functioning supertitles), that could never have been much more than a Punch and Judy show but somehow as spoken through the mouths of these rather glamorous normal people took on a hideous reality that I was totally sucked into. Every character was a caricature but pushed to the uttermost limit of ridiculousness. You couldn’t help but despise each and every person on stage, and, yet, the whole thing was just incredibly compelling, and made absolute sense as a channel of the id and idiocy of a teenaged boy.

Damn, this was a good night. I never thought about needing to go to the bathroom after minute 12. But I did find myself craving, just a tiny bit, some nice cheese and perhaps a bit of wine, and remembering the raw creativity of 1990 and how much fun it was to live in a house where we did spontaneous plays, band performances and puppet shows, made art out of pizza and stages out of couches and cushions, and rollerskated through the living room. Aaaaah, Ubu, your reputation has only improved over time.

(This review is for a performance that took place on April 15th, 2013. It continues through April 20th.)

Review – New World Order – Hydrocracker at Shoreditch Town Hall via Barbican

November 22, 2011

Who do I love? Harold Pinter. What do I love? Promenade theater. Bring ’em together? It’s like gelato affogato, my favorite dish drowned in a tasty drink of its own. When I read about Hydrocracker’s mini-Pinters promenade, it was the theater event of the fall calendar for me. I got shafted a bit getting tickets due to a miscommunication with the Barbican box office, but, as ever, continuing to check the website meant when some early birds returned their tickets, I was able to jump on them right away and get myself locked in for this show.

Beforehand I was pacing nervously outside Shoreditch Town Hall (near Old Street); we were wanded down, had our ID checked, then were let inside. The evening promised a mix of Press Conference, One for the Road, Precisely, Mountain Language and The New World Order – short plays united by, well, it said human rights but I thought more “torture” – only one of which I had seen before.

We started with a press conference in a bright shiny room with folding chairs and good lighting, and the Inquisitor of “One for the Road” speaking. It’s not just our rights that are being looked out for by our government; it is our mental hygiene. Bad thoughts aren’t just dangerous, they’re an illness in society. We should be grateful caring people are working to keep us clean. Slowly, as the head of the ministry of culture kept speaking, the questions from the press corps died down. I couldn’t help but think it was exactly what most politicians in democratic societies secretly wish they could make happen – God knows the Russians are very effectively putting it into practice through careful assaults and even executions.

After this point I hesitate to speak in too great depth about what happened. We see the same actors several times: the wife in “One for the Road” comes back again and again as “the wife,” attempting to visit her spouse or to negotiate with his keepers; her husband, the torture victim in “One for the Road,” is in scene after scene, as is the Inquisitor (technically named Nicolas in “One for the Road” but I prefer my name). If I’m honest, I found Nicolas less terrifying and The Wife a weaker actress than I did in the September production at the Print Room; but as this evening was aimed at creating a rather different audience experience, this was only a small detraction.

Together, all of these short plays create a reasonably unified narrative, in which families are separated, people are taken into small rooms where they are subject to rules they cannot understand and punished for made up crimes, and wives and mothers desperately try to find and save, or, at least, succour their partners and children. And the environment adds greatly to the effect, as we move from the fairly well kept council chambers to the decaying, forgotten basement rooms, where voices can be heard yelling behind closed doors. It showed how possible it was for this to literally be going on under our feet as we walk down the streets of London.

Meanwhile, we audience members are bullied by the “guards.” I admit, they did a good job of keeping us going from room to room (crowd control is always a problem for promenades) but also of heping us feel a sense of a loss of control and reduction from person into number. We were separated at random from the people we came with; ordered to go this way and that; asked humiliating and pointless questions; had our identities checked at several points; and had to deal with obnoxious flashlights being shined in our faces in an inimidating fashion. I could feel our control being wrested away; and I tell you, it was effective enough that I felt my instinct to fight to preserve my dignity kicking in. One of the women who was being asked obnoxious questions refused to answer; I had a guard grab my arm when I went the wrong way and I tell you I told him off for daring to touch me. In fact, I felt like some people working this show may have been getting just a little bit too much into their characters, much like the ridiculous TSA people do when they think that by harassing people for carrying a slice of apple off of an international flight they’re somehow keeping the United States safe from terrorism. Mr. Arm Grabber did take me aside and tell me rather more politly that due to health and safety regulations I was in fact not allowed into area X; but there was some part of me that was ready to just disturb all of the performances and say, basically, “There are thirty of this here in this room and four of you. Just you try waving that big stick around again and you can guess where you’re going to be finding it in about two minutes.” I had to restrain myself from getting shirty and organizing a citizens revolt. I could see some other audience members were uncomfortable with what was going on, but yet still staying in their/our roles as quiet sheep. Is this how our right to self determination is taken away, by people’s unwillingness to see it happening in front of our eyes?

Overall, I have to give Hydrocracker great credit for creating an environment where they were able to instill a sense of fear of what it would actually be like to undergo the things Pinter writes around in these plays, and to create a sense of urgency to reclaim our own rights from a government happy to take them away in the name of keeping us “safe.” While the acting was not perfect, as a promenade event, “New World Order” is unmissable.

(This review is for the 9:15 show that took place on Friday November 18th, 2011. The show runs through the 11th of December and though it is sold out, returns do appear on the website regularly. Remember to dress as if you were going to be standing outside for the length of the show, as after the first half hour no seating is provided and the basement rooms are very dank.)

Review – Peter Brook’s “A Magic Flute” – Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord at Barbican Theater

March 24, 2011

There are really just a few reasons to see Peter Brook’s A Magic Flute: because 1) you love The Magic Flute and want to see and hear the music wherever it is performed; 2) you are a Peter Brook “empty space” fetishist and want to see his work wherever it is performed; 3) you are a Magic Flute fangrrl who has to see every variation of this show. As it happened, I am a #2 and the friend I went with (Brrd) was a #3 (she wants to direct her own version).

Who, then, is most likely to enjoy this show? Well, underneath it all, Brrd and I are also Magic Flute fans, and I think we were both disappointed in the music. She is a trained singer and found all of the voices in the show not strong enough to handle singing over full orchestra. I, not trained, found the Queen of the Night (Leila Benhamza) lacking presence and a certain richness that makes her role and music more than just a “see me do this trick” event – all of her music should be lush, but wasn’t. Stripped down is okay for costumes and sets, but it’s not okay for music. As it was, the show only had a piano, and I found myself dissatisfied by how incredibly tinny and thin it sounded, especially when it was supposed to be a flute. I can understand a variety of reasons for getting by with less, but Brrd noted they hadn’t really even raised the lid to let the sound come out. Was it because the singers couldn’t compete? Whatever the decision, from the point of view of fans of the Magic Flute, this was a very dissatisfying evening.

Still, there’s no reason why we couldn’t still have a good time at the show. “A” flute doesn’t have to be “the” flute and can still be good, and both of us were willing to judge this show on its merits. Unfortunately, while I like the idea of getting through an opera in about 90 minutes, so much was cut away from the characterization that Tamino (Antonio Figueroa) came off a bit stupid. Papageno (Virgile Frannais) and Pamina (Agnieszka Slawinska, beautiful) managed to have enough of their clear-cut characters (earthy buffoon, lovesick yet loyal young lady) to create engaging roles.

The Brook style was interesting to see – we had barefoot actors, bamboo poles for scenery, a flute, a blanket, a rope, and a chicken for props. I was able to buy into the world they were creating, especially the fantastic “trial by fire” scene (incredibly theatrical and the best moment of the whole show, a benchmark for other Flutes in my book), but the water scene was nonexistent (and right next to the fire so massively suffering by comparison). I am willing to have my Queen of the Night be wearing just a simple robe, but … overall, just too much was stripped out of the music and the characters for this show to really work. By those standards, I can recommend this production neither to those who love the music or those who are fans of Brook; only go see it if you are a Flute completist. Otherwise, wait for a richer production – either musically (for Flute fans) or dramatically (for Brook fans) – lest you end your evening going, “I just spent how much on that?”

(This review is for a production that took lace on Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011. It continues through March 27th.)

Review – Black Watch – National Theatre of Scotland at the Barbican (2010)

December 3, 2010

One of my theatrical regrets of 2008 was missing Black Watch, the enthusiastically reviewed National Theater of Scotland’s production about Scottish soldiers in Iraq. I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing a war play – too often theater on modern themes winds up being nauseatingly moralistic, and I thought this production might also suffer from being mawkish. Still, I was put off by the high prices, then the “sold out” notices made it impossible to get a ticket. I thought I had a reprieve when the show was moved to New York in perfect timing for a family trip, but $100 tickets wound up being even more than the Barbican! I gave up; it was not to be.

That is, until the Barbican’s fall 2010 season was announced, and there it was again: critical favorite Black Watch. The tickets were still way over what I like to pay (I’m more of a 15 gal, these were 32 even with my member’s discount), but I choked down my “I could see two shows for this” feelings and forked it over … then waited two months for the show.

I’m not really sure what else there is to say about this show that hasn’t been said elsewhere: the trope is guys from a Scottish regiment being interviewed about life as soldiers and in Iraq, with the story flipping beteween scenes of them being interviewed after they’ve returned to Scotland, illustrations of them talking about what they are showing rather like in a graphic novel (in particular, the regiment’s history and how it got its uniform), and them just basically living their lives as soldiers, hiding out in their quarters, talking to the press, making jokes as they go on patrol, et cetera. The “life as lived” clearly seems to mostly follow a forward narrative that explains how a group of 6 men in a bar lost half their number after an ambush; it comes as no surprise that it will happen and to whom it will happen. To be honest the deaths, the lives of the victims, and the actual death scene were in no way sentimental, to my relief. It is war and soldiers die in it, and it is not about them being good, or having connections at home, or being bad (and “deserving” their deaths); all of the guys knew they had signed up for a job in which death was a likely component, and all of them seemed very practical about this. In some ways, it seemed to inform a bit of their hysteria and excess of living in most of the show, and that edge was probably part of the reason they joined up, because fighting, killing and living a dangerous life is a real high. The show is mostly just about what a soldier’s life is like, with a specificity to a particular war enabling the surrounding politics and conditions on the ground to be brought into play, to illustrate what they men were dealing with; and, to my pleasure, the text of the play freely acknowledged this was a “controversial” war … one that in two years ruined a fighting force that had taken 300 years to build.

While the energy of the cast was very high (and the sound painfully loud for both mortar shelling and musical interludes), I’m afraid I found this show … well, a bit canned. It’s so tightly choreographed that there seems to be no room for play or improvisation. I truly bought the cast members in their roles and had a hard time remembering that they were just as likely to be gay as well as the hypermacho straight men they were playing, but … I couldn’t connect with it. It was done as a bit of theatrical reportage, and I responded to it unemotionally. I was shocked to hear that this was a completely new cast from the one that had toured before, as they seemed to be tired, or just lack the engagement I would like to see. Perhaps this is due to them having fairly recently arrived at the Barbican, or perhaps the forty empty seats that greeted them proved dispiriting (the snow kept many folks away, it seemed). I can’t say one way or another, but I’m sorry to say that this just wasn’t the “must see” theater I was hoping for. Perhaps you will have better luck.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, December 1st, 2010. It continues through January 22nd, 2011. Running time is less that 2 hours so it is an ideal play for a school night.)

Mini-review – Shunkin – Complicite at Barbican Centre

November 13, 2010

You know what’s great about a liberal arts education? While you never learn anything particularly useful, you’ll often find you’ve learned things that make you enjoy life more. Me, I left college without having read a word of Austen, the Brontes, or Nancy Mitford (the horror!), yet I was well versed in Japanese literature. That meant the peaceful purity of Kawabata, the freak show that is Mishima, and … Tanizaki. His Makioka Sisters was one of my favorite novels, but his dark analysis of the human psyche came out much better in his short stories. I know I read his Seven Japanese Tales back in the day, but by the time 2010 rolled around, I’d completely forgotten about “A Portrait of Shunkin,” the story of a blind shamisen player and her servant/student adapted by Complicite for their current show at the Barbican (“Shun-kin”). It’s closing tonight and I wouldn’t normally spend time writing a review up this late in the game, but I loved it so much I want to make a final effort to alert anyone who might enjoy this show about what a truly stupendous work of theater it is.

First, the show is almost entirely done in Japanese. The subtitles on the sides of the stage were occasionally distracting because they required me to be constantly flicking my attention to them, causing me to miss what was happening on stage; however, this was a minor flaw. Second, while this looks like a puppet show, in fact, it’s a show in which one of the characters is occasionally portrayed by a puppet, while the other characters are all done by actual actors. Third, this show really digs into some twisted realms of the human psyche. The lightest of these moments is the bit with puppet sex (which I’ve seen before but its execution was stupendous, with the arms and legs of the puppet floating above the stage); but what it illustrates is extreme dependence, denial, and abuse. Child abandonment, attempted rape, the physical mutilation of other and self … really, it’s all quite intense and hair raising (or stomach clenching). My companion was almost speechless at the end of the night.

But what it’s all about to me is the two things I love to see most on a stage: a fantastic story and its delivery with the barest of elements (sticks, kimono, a teapot), in this case in what I see as the Peter Brook style. Shunkin’s servant, Sasuke, is portrayed both as his young self and simultaneously as his old self, remembering what happened, while a third person experiences the servant’s story as he reads it in a book; a live Shamisen player is Shunkin’s teacher but then the music of Shunkin and the music played by her servant (the music plays endlessly and adds a wonderful texture to the show). Tatami mats fly around the stage to arrange themselves as the various interiors; people hold and move poles to show doors opening and closing and walls forming (and disappearing) around the actors as they move through the space. I didn’t care for the use of projections: the fluttering pieces of paper used to show birds was more effective than the animations of them on the wall; but again, this is a quibble. Similarly I didn’t care for the framing device of the woman narrating this story in modern Japan; being snapped back to this element at the end of the story, when I just wanted to bend over and cry at the brokenness of Shunkin and Sasuke and my own inevitable death, was just too harsh and unnecessary. We ended with a whimper after the bang; but oh, such a beautiful, sad bang, with the actors holding poles draped over the quiet form of Shunkin, creating perfectly the feeling of a pine tree on the side of a hill, sheltering and hiding what she and Sasuke left on earth, and leaving us with a feeling of a sadness that lasted beyond lifetimes.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, November 12th, 2010. There are two final performances of Shunkin at the Barbican today, November 13th.)

“Peter Pan” at Barbican for £6; Mick Sergeant at Soho Theater for £5

May 11, 2010

Twitter’s serving up the hot deals today. First, National Theatre of Scotland’s “Peter Pan” can apparently be had for £6. Here’s the tweet:

BarbicanCentre: See J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan for just £6! See the Barbican Theatre Facebook fanpage for more details

Looking at the FB link, I see this (which I’m reproducing for you because FB is blocked at work for me): For more info visit, choose your seats for 12, 13, 14 or 15 May (evening performances only) and enter the promotional code 10510.
This offer is… limited & subject to availability. Bookable online only.

Next up: Mick Sergeant, Soho Theatre, £5. The tweet says:

sohotheatre: A limited number of tickets for the hilarious Mick Sergeant are a steal at only £5! Call 02074780100 & quote ‘£5 offer’

The link takes you directly to the show info (he’s a stand up comedian and it’s a solo show).

If nothing else, this once again proves the value of Twitter to the committed theater addict – it’s a perfect way of communicating last minute deals like this to us. If you’re not on it, time to join now!

Review – Macbeth – Cheek by Jowl productions at The Barbican

March 21, 2010

It’s always a joy to discover you share enthusiasms with other people, especially coworkers. A conversation about dry project details can suddenly come to life when you take a detour to discuss really _important_ things, in my case, The Theater! And it was through such a conversation that I was given a tip to check out Cheek By Jowl’s Macbeth, currently playing at the Barbican. I was discussing my plans to see Henry V and Measure for Measure, and my colleague said that Cheek By Jowl was a great company and that I really needed to fit a trip to their Macbeth into my calendar. Well, okay then! It was mostly sold out, but then a few extra seats were added (in front of the rest of the seats – be warned that if you’re in AA your knees will be above your hips), and as the negative reviews came in for The Gods Weep, I had a consultation with my theater posse and we made an executive decision to ditch the four hour long Weepie in favor of a two hour long trip to Key Show By Bard. Because, really, what’s 25 quid lost compared to a night wasted at a bad show?

I am going to assume that this show represented the Cheek By Jowl style: the stage was nearly completely bare, the actors dressed mostly identically in black jackets or t-shirts and jeans (and black Doc Martins), the whole thing redolent of Ye Olde Emptye Stage. The cast created very strong effects through use of their voices and lighting and almost nothing else. At the beginning, our witches were but two, but all the men stood there whispering behind them, creating a forest full of evil. There was music and other non-vocal effects, such as knocking/banging and cymbal ringing, and even a phone going off. In the darkness, it worked together nicely to focus the attention on the story. Full credits for stagecraft here, except that in the incredibly powerful “Banquo comes to dinner” scene, the fact that Macbeth delivers his address to the back of the stage meant that even in the front row I could barely hear a thing he said – and for once it wasn’t the fault of the damned 17 year old school girl behind me taking notes on a crackling handful of lined notebook paper. I just could have killed her.

However, the performances by the leads were lacking somewhat. I realize I’m polluted by Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth three years back, but his acting conveyed to me clearly the character’s movement from hearty and happy to doubtful to corrupt and finally just plain mad; Will Keen started seeming partway over the edge and seemed to lack a grasp of moving toward madness, or even expressing it … well, with any subtlety. (I’ve complained about this before. Madness seems to be a hard thing to act out well; drunk seems to get practiced more and thus performed better.) I also found Lady Macbeth (Anastasia Hille) playing the part through a slimmer range than it deserved, though her final mad scene (“Who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him!”) was great; she just seemed too quick to kill in general. Keen certainly worked very hard at his Macbeth, and was a sweating wreck long before the play was over, but to me that just showed that his pacing was off, that he sprinted too soon instead of taking his time and giving it all an arc.

Of course, with a two hour, intermission-free running time, the whole play was a bit of a sprint, and I think, in retrospect, that, despite my general preference for shorter shows, it was this cutting that was the greatest fault of this production. The script is incredibly powerful, but most of the moments I had found most affecting in the past – Macduff’s wife’s scene, Macduff finding out about the death of “his pretty chickens” (which should bring tears to your eyes), the whole ghosty banquet – were rushed through and lost a lot of their emotional impact because of their dilution. Even though the staging was very good, Cheek By Jowl’s Macbeth unfortunately tended toward the Reader’s Digest Condensed Shakespeare. For that reason, though I think this was a “good enough” show, I really think it’s missable, fine if you want to get in some Macbeth (and probably far less painful than The Gods Weep) or have a free night, but, well, just basically good and competent, and maybe nice as an example of doing a good production without any props. Just don’t have anything to drink beforehand – two hours straight is still a bit much to not have a chance to run to the toliet.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, March 19th, 2010. This show continues through April 10th. For more information on Cheek by Jowl, please see their website. SansTaste saw things differently. For more reviews of this show, please see

Review – 11 and 12 – Peter Brook’s Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord at the Barbican

February 6, 2010

Last night I went with J and A to see the new Peter Brook show at the Barbican Center. To be honest, I hadn’t really cared much about what it was about: I just wanted to see something by Peter Brook! I mean, can you say legend? I personally can barely remember any names of people involved in theater at all (it’s a personal failing, or, rather, it’s how I like it to be); mostly I worship the cult of The Author. Anyway, I had bought tickets back in December for this thing, and I’d gone for a preview performance (extra savings), and, in a moment of genius by the Barbican in their pricing structure, I’d actually bought second row seats for far cheaper than anything in the middle, meaning that I was feeling quite damned smug when I realized that for a mere six quid (with further member discount) I’d scored an entirely brilliant position right in front of the stage, second row center.

Okay, well, truth be told, I wasn’t actually feeling that gleeful, because the description of the show I was about to see made me think of, I kid you not, skipping out on it altogether. Colonial Africa – oppression – stupid religious factionalism driving people apart. It just all seemed like another opportunity to be lectured at from the stage by yet another smug white person who wanted to make sure we all were feeling guilty about how we’d screwed the world up. GAH message productions GAH depressing content GAH being lectured to on stage. It just made me want to club a baby seal, or, you know, sit and drink instead of watching the show. But, crap, it did say that it was less than two hours running time (around 90 minutes), straight through no break, so … I made myself go.

As the curtain metaphorically opened on the stage (as there was no curtain but you know what I mean), I saw an utterly stripped down set, basically four tree-ish sticks on rolling platforms in front of a very large rectangle of fabric, with a musician (Toshi Tsuchitori) off to the side. Its “lessness” was like being hit in the head with a … er, club, and what it said was This Is Peter Brook. Because, you know, Peter Brook is Mr. The Empty Stage and pretty much any time you see so very little on a stage it is saying Peter Brook Was Here even if it’s not a show by him. But this was a polished perfection of lessness. Nothing looked cheap or “settled for;” it looked “I thought very long and hard and this is exactly, without question, how I wanted to express my vision.” I was impressed, not by it’s “lessness,” but by … well, shit, it was like seeing some painting by Dali or somebody of that caliber, where just nothing was left to chance. It was like an altar, every tiny bit seething with meaning and potential. In London, the received theatrical style is so much one of explicit realism, and, while I do really appreciate the perfection of that form, this was every bit as powerful as any overdesigned, 100% historically accurate reproduction of the sort I feel I’ve seen rather a lot of in recent years. Brook’s set was like leaving the planet London for, er, Antartica.

Or, in this case, Africa. 11 and 12 is set in Mali, in the Africa that was ruled by the French, in a period of time that’s not discussed too explicitly in the play but which seems to be about thirty or forty years that end after World War II (based on a description of the types of people who were kept prisoner at a certain jail in France). But we’re not loaded under a mountain of teachy historical specificity and boring recitations of begats: instead, we’re given a few people, a random occurrence, and one young man (Tunji Lucas) making his way through life.

Now, there’s a weighty atmosphere of Life Under the French (a matter of some interest to me after my visit to Morocco; I’ve felt hatred for America before but never such a loathing as I experienced there for a nation as individuals), but the skein is one of friendships and the strange ramifications of the inadvertent twelfth recitation of a prayer. The young man is the student of a kind, religious man (Tierno, Makram J Khoury) who tells parables and basically teaches peace and acceptance; but in an atmosphere of paranoia and control where the French Directorate is basically a stand-in for every police force in the world that could just as easily been created by Kafka. The ongoing questions is, why are two halves of this country arguing to the point of murder over whether or not a prayer should be recited eleven or twelve times? This is the question that weighs heavily on the play, not which number is right. The French see eleven as a point of rebellion; the people see the choice of one or another as a matter of identity; those who worship the way of peace – for so Tierno and his peer (Cherif, Khalifa Natour) are despite being on opposite sides – see it as a matter of no importance.

This attitude of theirs is what makes this play more than just a perfectly told tale of one man’s life as a bureaucrat under an oppressive regime and turns it into something rich. I loved the presentation and the imagery and the cat and mouse games the locals played with each other and the French; I was interested in the history that was being slid in; but I really enjoyed feeling my mind expanding to think about the philosophical questions Tierno and Cherif brought up. This was no glad-handed Hakuna Matata crap; it was solid questions about what divides us, what makes us human, how does religion fit into it all, why are people cruel. I wasn’t just getting a story; I was getting an insight into humanity.

As it ended and I sat there thinking (and talking) about what we’d just seen, I tried to pick it apart to find the flaws. Yeah, the women depicted didn’t have very flattering roles. And there was a certain lack of spontenaeity to the production – everything seemed to have been thought out to the very last second and to lack room for … I don’t know, breathing, for the actors to be in the now and not just performing the perfectly chosen “this is the word, this is the movement” the production seemed to dictate. The only second I saw that didn’t seem to be prechosen was when Khoury couldn’t get a tree to sit still and had to move himself to the ground, soon after to be followed by Khalifa. But otherwise, every lovely moment of ever so very little seemed to have been scripted from the ceiling right down to the floor.

Still, though, it was all really done so well. As we left, I remembered that I’d seen Peter Brook’s name a million times at my house, on the side of a little textbook my husband has from his college days. How could someone I associated with crumbling paper create something so alive? I went expecting to be preached to and instead enjoyed this lovely vision of people living and thinking about their lives that seemed so just … perfect. Like everything I always hope theater will be. And I only paid six quid to be in the middle of all this. I felt a bit like a cheater; I hadn’t paid so little to have so very much given to me. But how would Tierno have seen it? I think he would have seen it as an opportunity to give back. And so I give this to you. 11 and 12: gosh, it was good. I know it was better than almost everything I saw last year, and will likely rise like cream amidst the shows of 2010, as it is a piece of truly outstanding theater. Don’t miss the chance to see this. 11 and 12 is theatrical perfection.

(This review is for a performance seen on Friday, February 5th, 2010. It was supposedly a preview but I have no idea how they’re going to improve it. For further reviews, please see A Younger Theater and The Guardian. My husband is going to buy the book it was based on, Hampate Ba’s “The Life and Teaching of Tierno Bokar: The Sage of Bandiagara.” Also,Toshi Tsuchitori was fantastic. The show runs through February 27th. Hesitate to purchase tickets and live to regret it.)

Barbican Double Header review – Slung Low, “They Only Come at Night” and Michael Clark Company, “Swamp” and “come, been, gone” (the Bowie/Iggy/Lou Reed dances)

October 31, 2009

Friday night marked a brief return to the world of Dance! Theater! Art!, all three of which I packed into one night at the Barbican. My new job is near Old Street, and, wow! The Barbican is just ten minutes walk from my front door! I decided to take advantage of the early start time of the new Slung Low piece (Visions: They Only Come at Night) and relative late start time of the new Michael Clark piece to see two shows in one night. I’d really enjoyed the previous Slung Low piece I’d seen (“Helium“), and, well, a dance piece inspired by David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed! How could I not go!

I started off the evening by a brief visit to the Barbican’s Curve gallery to see Robert Kusmirowski’s “Bunker.” It’s basically a recreation of a WWII era underground war operations area, with a train track following the curve of the wall and little rooms built inside, such as a toliet area and a command office. Unfortunately I’ve seen a lot of these in real life since moving to England and I didn’t find this very interesting; maybe in America it would have been more “ooh ah.” Possibly worth 5 minutes and free so if you’ve got time to kill before a show, why not, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend a special trip.

Next up was “They Only Come At Night,” which is apparently supposed to be a spooky promenade show that takes advantage of the Barbican’s underground parking area. I can definitely see where their parking garage would be creepy but this show wasn’t. The Slung Low penchant for having participants put on headphones to hear dialogue/monologue was relied upon to the point that it pretty well killed the show for me – it was just too damned wordy – and listening to the “evil doctor” (or whatever he was) go on about his plans for taking over the world (or whatever it was) just kind of put me in a hypnotic trance that set me free from the droning in my ears and let me take in the atmosphere that was surrounding me. The whole thing was remarkably actorless (I think I saw 5 in total – no, 6, as there was also a creeping horror in one room), and the one to one interaction I did have made me think they all need just a bit more work with improv (and possibly more research on vampires in popular culture) to make it all seem more realistic.

Let’s see: short, spoilerless description? You are taken in a group of three to the parking garage, where you are occasionally split up and frequently made to stand inside a circle of salt and put on headphones. The headphones thing happens once before you go in and five times after. Once you will be split up and each have a one on one moment with an actor; if you are lucky, you might get the actor who gives you potato chips. If you get them, feel free to eat them, as you will not need them during the story. There is one actor who is a bit scary if he touches you and you don’t see him coming. Um … it all takes around 40 minutes. There are projections, which are sometimes okay and once fairly good.

Overall, though, this would have been more effective if we had been split up more, if more had been going on inside the car park, if the things we were given somehow came into play later, if the actors interacted with us more, if there had been more reliance on creating atmosphere via something besides listening endlessly to people talking through the headphones, if the last actress had had something bad happen to her on the way out. But they didn’t and it wasn’t and while it wasn’t the worst 40 minutes I’ve spent, it was also skippable. It’s sold out now, but the good thing is you’re not really missing anything. Go see some puppet shows at the Suspense Festival instead, that looks really good.

Unfortunately because the show had run over, we couldn’t go out to Pho Cafe (a bit of a long shot but really yummy) or to Sedap but were instead forced to throw ourselves on the mercy of the food offerings at the Barbican, which were pretty consistently overpriced and underinspiring. That said, for 4 quid I got a bowl of salad topped with two cold salads, one potato and ham, the other quinoa and rice, and it was filling – the quinoa was even enjoyable, though the excess mayonnaise on the potato salad grossed me out and I gave up on it.

Anyway, 7:45 and a drink order later (at least the bar was cheap!), we were in our nice stalls seats in the space-age Barbican Theater for the Michael Clark company’s latest. The breakdown was “Swamp” (music by Wire, then music by Bruce Gilbert), followed by “come, been, gone” (first half Velvet Underground, then, strangely, an interval, then music by David Bowie). “Warm Leatherette” was playing overhead, and I was excited about the evening.

Unsurprisingly, it all turned out a little mixed. The first bit, with dancers in space-age blue or white costumes, seemed relaxed. I found myself focusing on the dancers bodies, noticing that three of the women were almost interchangeably petite, while the third seemed just generally more solid and adult. The men were very bulky, rugby-looking types. Does Clark go for a hyper masculine/feminine look in his dancers? To be sure, they were pleasant to look at, and left me feeling fat and out of shape, but … just trying to figure out what was on his mind. The movement was pleasant and graceful, but not memorable. Ah well, on to the bar and some rock and roll boozing prior to the Velvet Underground section.

This half of “come, been, gone” was, I think, fairly successful, with background images that called to mind the various movies of their live shows. “Venus in Furs” went for some really obvious yet fun SM-y costuming (though the sparkly Zentai suit was much cheerier than scary); “White Light/White Heat” was all about the boogieing. “Heroin” had the single worst costume I’ve ever seen in a dance piece, up there with Bjork’s Academy Awards swan outfit: painfully ugly and obvious. However, the dance itself ended with a little gay silver-trousered sprite perking around on stage in a way that I thought actually captured the joy of getting high that was very much a part of this song, and darned nice after all of the heavy-handed “I stick needles in my body” ick that preceded it. Amd, hey, let’s hear it for dancers in low-rise, skin tight silver pants; the feel was very Andy Warhol’s Factory and I think hit the era pretty well. (“Ocean” was a nap, by the way, but it’s a really slow song so no surprise there.)

The final section was, I think, going to be the most challenging, as Bowie has creating a really solid visual image to accompany his music. Would Mr. Clark be able to rise to the challenge, and maybe go beyond it? Well … the answer was, I’m afraid, no. The worse failure was “Heroes,” where he not only clad the dancers in mini-leather jackets that echoed Bowie’s video, but then insisted on accompanying the performance by having the video itself projected on the back screen, which proved totally distracting, overwhelming the rather modest movement. I find the music really soaring and gorgeous, but the movement was very much on the floor. Bah. This was, however, the worse of the series; “Mass Production” (by Iggy Pop), with its bizarre, two toned (actually three toned but kind of like a bird’s coloring) costumes and exaggerated movement (the dancers leaning sharply backwards and moving very slowly) nicely captured the whole space-age yet still very 70s weirdness that I think represents some of the best of that era’s Glam Rock sound.

Fortunately for the last two songs, “Aladdin Sane” and “Jean Genie,” Clark really got into the story telling and joy of the music. I can’t tell you how much I loved “Aladdin Sane.” It’s a great song with amazing piano in it, and Clark both went for showing the story in the lyrics but also having solo work that played out the riffs of the music – something I’ve tried to do myself in my living room many times but enjoyed seeing a real dancer and a real choreographer tackle on stage. In addition, the throbbing baseline played out as a sort of group march, which suddenly brought to mind the “March of the Montagues and Capulets” from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Rah! The garish orange flame costumes were also really appropriate to the music, carrying across a lot of the weight of the Bowie imagery, perhaps more successful due to the lack of overshadowing video. This all transitioned rather nicely into “Jean Genie,” which had the dancers adding checkered jackets over their orange bodysuits and just really going for the joy of the song.

I have to mention that in the middle of this section, Mr. Clark himself came out and did a strange little dance that just reminded me of Hitchcock making a cameo in one of his movies. Very, very odd; was it for a costume change or were the dancers just incredibly beat?

Anyway, overall I’d consider this a fun night, in part because I really like seeing dance that actually engages a vernacular that means something to me. Abstract music is all really nice, but this music is the music of me (as well as Mr Clark and a lot of the audience), and seeing it danced was great. I wish there’d been more partnering and more leaps and such, though – the movement just generally seemed very atomistic, like it almost didn’t matter that there were so many people dancing on stage, and the random “girl on pointe” moments made me sad for what could have been – if he’d wanted it. Still, it was a lot better than the last thing I saw by Clark, and generally enjoyable. I expect it will be a very popular evening.

(Michael Clark continues through November 7th, 2009. Slung Low continues through November 15th, 2009 but is sold out for the run; return seats may be available. Bunker continues through January, 2010.)