Postcard from London 
Complicité Workshop, A View from the Bridge, Antigone, Lippy, Happy Days, How to Hold Your Breath, The Indian Queen
On Monday morning, I head off for my first day of workshops with Complicité at London Metropolitan University in Islington, just around the corner from my Airbnb flat. I’ve got a busy week ahead of me. The workshops were only announced a few weeks before I left Perth; luckily they coincide with my first week in London, but I’d already booked tickets well in advance to a raft of matinee and evening shows. So I’m going to have to miss the afternoon workshops, which turns out to be a good thing in terms of my physical energy.
Complicité were formed in the 80s as a multidisciplinary ensemble of theatre makers influenced by the teachings of Jacques Lecoq and led by artistic director Simon McBurney. Their productions are often technically spectacular works of visual theatre. I saw their adaptation of John Berger’s story The Three Lives of Lucie Chabrol when it came to the Melbourne Festival in the 90s. It’s another work of ensemble storytelling theatre that marked me profoundly.
The workshop is led by Joyce Henderson, a longstanding associate with the company who also trained at Lecoq. It’s called ‘Familiar Laughter’ and introduces some standard Complicité techniques in relation to the use of physicality, space and objects, as well as focusing more specifically on humour and clowning. There are about twenty participants, about half of whom are from London, the others being from Italy, France, Spain and the US. I’m the only Australian.
We work from 10am till 1pm Monday to Friday, and we’re encouraged to bring streetclothes as well as the usual actor’s rehearsal gear, as Joyce wants to focus on staging the physical comedy of everyday life. We’ve also been asked to bring a short sequence to show the class, using real props (no pretending or miming) and recreating a mundane routine that might involve thinking we’ve lost something or talking to ourselves (without acknowledging the audience).
I won’t go into detail about the workshop or how it unfolds over the week. Suffice to say that Joyce is a warm and supportive leader and the participants are intriguingly diverse in terms of age, experience and background. I notice a cultural and artistic divide between the English-speaking and Mediterranean participants. The former are better at playing the comedy of embarrassment and losing face, and favour a more internalized style of performance; the latter are more physically expressive and even demonstrative, tend to use their whole bodies and make eye contact with the audience.
That night I go to the Wyndham Theare to see the revival of Ivo Van Hove’s production of A View from the Bridge for The Young Vic. Van Hove is the artistic director of the Toneelgroep Amsterdam, and is now one of the leading auteur-directors on the international stage. I saw his multi-media staging of the Cassavetes film Opening Night with the Toneelgroep at the Melbourne Festival some years ago and was blown away; and I still regret not being able to see their epic version of Shakespeare’s Roman Plays in Adelaide and Sydney last year. In fact I’m on a bit of a Van Hove mini-tour as part of my Fellowship travels. I’m seeing his new production of Antigone at The Barbican tomorrow night; and next month I’m seeing an earlier production of Othello at the Toneelgroep’s home venue in Amsterdam where it’s now part of the repertoire.
A View from the Bridge was a sell-out sensation at The Young Vic last year. It’s being revived with the same cast, and the thrust staging of the original venue is being recreated with an interesting twist. The Wyndham is a classic old proscenium arch West End theatre, but they’ve added rows of seating onstage, flanking the action on both sides. I’m sitting in the front stage-left corner, in full view of the auditorium (as are the three or four rows behind me and those on the opposite side of the stage). However, there’s a kind of mini-stage in front of us, corralled by low walls on three sides (the need for which will become clear at the climax of the show). It’s temporarily sealed off by solid black screens, so we’re gathered around a black cube, until the screens fly up and the show begins.
Van Hove regularly collaborates with resident Toneelgroep set and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld, whose work is integral to the overall aesthetic. This juxtoposes abstract, dynamic, minimalist yet monumental staging with an almost cinematic verité style of performance. It’s a juxtaposition I’m familiar with in Australia from productions by Benedict Andrews and Simon Stone. Costumes reflect the contemporary world of the audience rather than the fictional world of the play. Stylistically however they serve as a bridge between the naturalism of the performances and the minimalism of the set. In this case, the actors wear contemporary streetclothes, but have bare feet. Set and props are also minimal, and the blocking sits somewhere between naturalism and abstraction. There’s a great instance when a solitary chair is brought onstage by the narrator specifically for an isolated moment which thus becomes symbolically heightened. Towards the end, the narrator begins reciting stage directions as the action mounts to its violent climax. A Brechtian sense of estrangement and detachment adds to the feeling of inevitability. Overall, there’s an almost neo-classical sense of ritual which illuminates the play, stripping back the veneer of tradition to reveal its greatness anew.
This economy of means is however drowned in auteurial (indeed arterial) symbolism when blood begins raining down from the fly tower and drenches the actors at the moment of the final killing (no knife in sight); it’s now all too clear why the stage required a retaining wall. After the simplicity of what came before, I find this a clichéd and disappointing coup de théatre. I’m thrilled however by the contained energy and emotional integrity of the acting, especially Mark Strong as Eddie and Luke Norris as Rodolpho. If only they’d been allowed to complete the job.
My misgivings about Van Hove’s auteurial excesses increase the following night when I catch up with two old friends to see his new Antigone. I’m already sceptical because it’s a multinational co-production (English-French-German-Dutch-Luxemburgian). It also stars Juliette Binoche, whom I find a little insipid on screen and fear won’t be up to the challenge of the role or the medium. Finally, The Barbican itself is a rather forbidding venue (as its name implies): difficult to find, unwelcoming to enter or negotiate internally, and (like so many multi-functional arts centres) lacking in warmth, personality or a clear identity. The main theatre is huge, and although I’ve seen some great work here, I’ve never yet found a seat that made me feel connected with the action onstage.
My fears about the show are borne out: like other screen actors I’ve seen onstage, Binoche shouts, screams and over-emotionalises. I’m also a little distracted by her overly fashionable Parisian shoes. The other actors look as if they’ve been directed to underplay everything; or perhaps they’re just hoping to avoid anyone noticing the egg on their faces. In any case they mostly look indifferent or bored – never a good look in Greek tragedy. Creon begins well, in the manner of a complacent Eurocrat, but then degenerates into a two-dimensional villain, which kills the play just as surely as Antigone being portrayed as a ranting adolescent. For my money, Hegel’s analysis of Antigone as a clash between the ethics of state and family is not a bad place to start if you want some genuine dramatic conflict; and I’ve always thought that the play is actually Creon’s tragedy, not Antigone’s, as he’s the one who undergoes change, experiences insight and suffers a downfall. Otherwise the play’s effectively over before it starts.
More fundamentally, the whole production is vitiated by self-consciousness. Apart from the acting style, there’s a more or less continuous sonic and musical underscoring which leaves nothing to the imagination. An extended quotation from a Shostakovich String Quartet at one point only underscores the hollowness of what’s happening onstage. In A View from a Bridge, this device was less of a problem: the occasional distorted bursts of Faure’s Requiem at least provided a counterpoint to the domesticity of the action and underlined its unconscious ritual nature. In the case of Antigone, perhaps a selection of entries from the Eurovision Song Contest would have been more apt. To make matters worse, there’s a huge blurred slow-motion back-projection of what looks like a crowd in a contemporary war-zone. It’s more interesting than what’s happening onstage, but entirely gratuitious. As for the new translation by celebrated classicist-poet Anne Carson: self-conscious doesn’t begin to describe it. When Creon accuses Tiresias at one point of being corrupted by ‘the profit-motive’, my companion laughs at the bad pun, but I’m less inclined to be generous.
Afterwards we have a discussion about why contemporary productions of Greek tragedy are almost invariably so bad. I wonder if we lack a sense of the sacred to match the world of the plays. Wesley Enoch’s Black Medea came the closest I’ve seen to embodying the clash of cultures, laws and principles that play enacts (not unlike Antigone); but if you don’t believe in the power of ancestors, gods or a moral cosmos, then Greek tragedy makes no sense (the same is arguably true of Shakespearian tragedy too). One of my friends argues on the contrary that we just need to do the plays, simply and truthfully, without dressing them up, or treating them like holy writ. I like the sound of that.
On Wednesday after my morning Complicité workshop I catch the Tube to Waterloo for a matinee at The Young Vic. As soon as I arrive at the theatre, I feel like I’m on home ground. The venue, café, staff and crowd all feel relaxed, alive and kicking; I could be at an alternative mainstage theatre in Australia like Belvoir Street or The Malthouse.
I’m seeing a guest show from Dublin, Lippy, which had rave reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe last year. On a whim, I ask if there are any tickets to tonight’s performance of Happy Days with Juliet Stevensen, directed by Natalie Abrahami, an associate director with the company – another big hit last year which is now being revived. There’s a seat left in the back corner of the stalls, but it’s an intimate wrap-around thrust theatre, so I should be fine. I’m more than happy to spend the rest of the day and evening here, and it turns out to be a good decision.
Lippy is a devised piece by Irish company Dead Centre. It’s based on an actual incident: three sisters and their aunt who barricaded themselves in their house fifteen years ago and starved themselves to death without any clear motive. To describe it as a work of documentary theatre however would be a misnomer; in fact it’s more like an anti-documentary, since it explores the unreliability and even the impossibility of comprehension, at first playfully and then with a mounting sense of terror. The show ‘starts’ with a mock-post-show-Q&A in front of a screen with a clownish facilitator (who is also the show’s creator and co-director, Bush Moukarzel) and a member of the cast (David Heap) about the ‘show’ we’ve just ‘seen’. The actor says he was cast on the basis of his ability to lip-read (one of the references of the show’s title), which he claims to have employed on politice investigations, including reviewing CCTV footage of the women in question. He then ‘demonstrates’ this ability in a bizarrely inaccurate way.
At this point the tone changes, and we go down a surrealist rabbit-hole. The screen behind them turns out to be a scrim, revealing the depths of the stage beyond, which now becomes a distorted representation of the room where the women died. The next section of the show is a slow movement piece with an ominous sound-score involving four new performers, who initially appear in hazmat suits and helmets as if investigating a contaminated site, before removing this outer layer to reveal themselves as ghost-like avatars of the women who died.
For the final section of the show, the scrim becomes a screen again, on which is projected a close-up shot of a mouth wearing heavy lipstick (referencing the title again). The mouth proceeds to deliver a Beckett-like monologue by Mark O’Halloran (clearly based on the Irish master’s Not I), which could perhaps be another distorted representation of one of the dying women’s thoughts.
This last section loses a little traction for me, but overall I find Lippy inventive, unpredictable and thrilling. I enjoy the interrogation of narrative and representation, especially in the context of a typically sensationalized news story. I also enjoy the abrupt changes of mood and form, and the intelligent sound design by Adam Welsh (who also figures onstage in the comic prologue) – including the use of amplified lip-synching to create a disturbing uncertainty between live and pre-recorded speech. In fact lip-reading and lip-synching ultimately become metaphors for the deceptiveness of theatre itself. The show also turns out to be the perfect hors d’oeuvre for Happy Days.
I’ve long been a fan of Juliet Stevenson, and here she’s an enchanting, frequently hilarious and ultimately devastating Winnie. She instinctively understands the level of clowning that Beckett’s theatre relies on (and without which it becomes obscure, pretentious and dull). She also has technique to burn, but more importantly, a rare level of emotional connection that’s transmitted by her every gesture, facial expression and above all her voice. In this case she’s otherwise physically immobilized, which only lends her performance an extra intensity.
The spectacular set design by Vicki Mortimer features a vast slope of scree and sand in which Winnie is embedded (as Beckett specified, up her waist in Act 1, and her neck in Act 2). It appears to be advancing towards us and collapsing like a wave over her head. When we enter the theatre, the set is in full view and fills most of the three-dimensional space; Winnie is already in place and covered by a kind of tent which is removed by stage-hands just before the show starts; she stays in place (with adjustments) at interval; and is still buried up her neck for the curtain call, remaining there until we leave.
Beckett’s catastrophic scenarios lend themselves to whatever era they’re written or performed in: WW2 and the Holocaust; the cold-war threat of nuclear annihilation; Sarajevo; and now the immanent catastrophe of climate change. By the end of the show I’m weeping, and find it difficult to leave. The audience is packed with school kids and teachers, who seem similarly mesmerized. All in all, I go home feeling that theatre in London is alive and well at The Young Vic.
I have the opposite experience at The Royal Court the following afternoon. Venue, audience, play and production all feel stuck in the past. I’m thinking of the company’s heydays: in the 50s and 60s, when it premiered the post-war ‘new wave’ of British theatre represented by John Osborne and Arnold Wesker; or more recently in the 90s, with a ‘second wave’ of socially provocative playwrights like Mark Ravenhill or Sarah Kane. Now it feels like the venue and company are in serious need of a change of direction and a renewal of identity.
Perhaps it’s unfair to judge on the basis of a single production, but How to Hold Your Breath – written by Zinnie Harris and directed by the company’s new artistic director Vicky Featherstone (formerly of the National Theatre of Scotland) – has all the hallmarks of a play hastily thrown together to address a raft of contemporary issues (European economic collapse, asylum seekers, epidemic diseases, fear of intimacy, individualism, self-help) without a properly developed form or process to back it up. The staging is repetitive, while the tone seems to hover between comedy of manners, domestic drama, political satire, drama of ideas, metaphysical tragedy and Strindbergian dream-play. The actors struggle to hold it together (in particular a valiant Maxine Peake in the lead role, who remains onstage for almost two hours) but seem fundamentally disconnected from what they’re saying. As soon as they walk onstage and start shouting their lines in an intimate bedroom scene, I know I’m in for a hard time. It’s like watching a social-realist version of a bad West End farce.
It’s another story again that night at the English National Opera, with Peter Sellars’s radical re-imagining of Purcell’s Indian Queen. The Coliseum is a luxuriously grand, vast Edwardian theatre, and the ENO has a splendid orchestra and chorus, here conducted by early music specialist Laurence Cummings and incorporating lutes, viols and other period instruments. The original opera consists of a 50-minute musical fragment and a museum-piece libretto based on an exotic pastoral play by Dryden. Sellars has ditched the libretto and replaced it with spoken material from a Nicaraguan novel about the Spanish conquest and genocide of the Mayans. It focusses on the story of three women: the wife of a Spanish governor, his Mayan concubine (the ‘Indian Queen’) and their mixed-race daughter (who narrates the story). He’s also extended the score to three-and-a-half hours of Purcell’s most sublime songs and choral anthems, interspersed with some of his most sparkling theatre music. In the tradition of baroque opera and court masques, he’s also added four dancers who represent Mayan gods and perform a series of indigenous creation myths. The whole thing is staged in spectacularly minimalist style with huge backdrops painted by Mexican-US graffiti artist Gronk which are raised and lowered to designate scene changes and otherwise surrounded by empty space.
It sounds like a mish-mash, but the integrity of Sellars’s vision almost holds it together. The music is glorious and the singing sublime (especially sopranos Julia Bullock as the Indian Queen and Lucy Crowe as Donna Isabel, with counter-tenors Vince Yi and Luthando Qave as Mayan trickster twin deities also outstanding). Sellars’s trademark use of formalised movement and gesture suits the heiratic nature of the action, music and stage design perfectly – and together with the backdrops creates a unified pictorial language. The whole thing resembles a kind of mural that has come to life. I’m less convinced by the spoken narration; and the succession of (mostly slow and sorrowful) laments and anthems ultimately fails to sustain a totally satisfying musical or dramatic arc. It’s more like a three-hour oratorio or liturgical composition, but even as such it lacks the variety and coherence of a unified work by Bach, Handel, Monteverdi or indeed Purcell himself. Nevertheless, I leave the theatre deeply moved by the music, the singing, the staging and the story. As with with Happy Days, this is a bold re-invention of a classic that speaks to our times.
Humph’s Postcards from London continue next week.