PlayList: October 2013

Okay… new M.O. for the monthly PlayList: I’ll make this easier to write (and read) by only going into detail about plays that provoked a detailed response. For the rest, if you’re curious, you can follow the link to more info or Google some reviews. I’m hoping this will mean that I don’t get so behind in my updates. Here goes October: better late than never!


Routes at the Royal Court Theatre. There seems to be a lot of work on stage these days dealing with immigration experiences – it’s a hot topic in the UK and especially in London. This play juxtaposes the story of an African man who is trying to get back to the UK and rejoin his family, jumping through some very expensive hoops in the underground dealings of false passports and ultimately being turned back at the border with the story of a Somali kid who grew up in the UK but, after committing a crime, is forced into a legal loophole limbo, where he waits until finally giving up and volunteering to “go home” to a country he doesn’t know. Routes succeeds in putting a human face on problems very often discussed in a legal or administrative context, but as usual, that human face is male, and these immigration stories are deeply mired in poverty and crime, focused solely on the fight to get into the country and stay in, rather than the larger cultural ramifications of immigration. The two women in the play are relegated to the background, following the rules, working within the system with varying degrees of success – and though we get some hints that they also have stories worth telling, they remain hints right though to the end.

Othello at the National Theatre (NT Live). I actually saw this at the Tricycle Theatre – or Tricycle Cinema to be exact. This was probably the clearest production of Othello I’ve ever seen – Rory Kinnear delivered a crystalline performance of Iago, and the director’s contemporary military setting made the political aspects of the play easy to follow. It was interesting to see the play on a screen (an unedited playback of the live simulcast, not without hitches), and then chat about it with a San Francisco friend while we were together in Poland later that month. In that respect, I guess you could say that Desdemona has been gettin’ around.

Blue Stockings at the Globe Theatre. This was some really fun feminism with some delightful surprises – and not just the surprise of a Shakespeare theatre producing a play written by a woman with EIGHT women in the cast. Some of the surprises were historical ones, like how damn long it took for women to be allowed to graduate from the universities where they were studying “pointlessly” with no certifications at the end of their time there. Some of the surprises were to do with how similar this fight is to what’s still going on in Pakistan other corners of the world – the rhetoric, the “biological” dangers of allowing a women to use her brain instead of her uterus, even the violence with which men have repressed women’s desire for knowledge and right to recognition. The most surprising thing about Blue Stockings, though, was the exuberant response of the audience, their engagement with the characters (even booing and hissing), and their thunderous standing ovation at the end. Why have we been hearing that there is no audience for plays with female protagonists, and even less of an audience for plays overtly about gender equality? Anyone who was at the Globe last month can tell you that’s just not true.

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds at the Brockley Jack Studio. My friend Kirsty Fox produced this show with her company OutFox Productions. We worked together at the University of Manchester in 2007, and I was really happy to see that she’s still getting up to some lovely, well-produced storytelling. Looking forward to the next one: Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi.

The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas at the Royal Court Theatre. I honestly don’t know what I think about this play – it’s had mixed reviews in the press, too, so I guess I’m not alone. Though the gorgeous script is beautifully produced, brilliantly acted, and full of interesting ideas, I couldn’t conjure up any feelings for any of the characters. That always leaves me puzzled and frustrated, when my intellectual and emotional responses don’t match up, not quite able to figure out exactly what didn’t work for me, but sure that something didn’t.

The World of Extreme Happiness at the National Theatre Shed. Shortly before I left San Francisco, I saw Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s 410 GONE at Crowded Fire, so I was excited to see that her work had made it to this side of the Atlantic as well. It was also my first time in The Shed, the NT’s temporary 225-seat blackbox, built just for one season while the Cottlesloe Theatre is undergoing renovation. The World of Extreme Happiness is a really intriguing script, a meditation on both the manic joy and desperate tragedy of corporate urban consumerism. That dichotomy is at the heart of the story, and this production almost gets there – but it’s tipped too far towards manic joy for the tragic ending to land. I’d be very interested to see another production with a different attempt at that balance.

Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model at the Soho Theatre. Bryony Kimmings and her niece Taylor cocreated a performance piece about their project to create the ultimate role model for young girls. Taylor came up with all the ideas for the fictional Catherine Bennett, a “tuna pasta loving palaeontologist and popstar,” and Bryony created a show that weaves together the story of making this piece (including getting approval from Taylor’s mum to put the nine-year-old onstage) with her personal journey of getting to know her niece and connecting to the world of  preteens in the age of the internet. Surprisingly emotional, honest, funny, and full of sparkles, Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model is making the rounds of UK schools and theatres and, hopefully soon, taking over the world.

Our Walk through the World at the Old Red Lion. An evening of six short plays by Ross Howard – a playwright I’ve met through my longtime collaborator Misti Boettiger, who met Ross in a workshop several years ago. Small world! It was fun to chat with Ross afterwards and hear about his plans for a new full-length play and a new phase of experimentation. I won’t spoil the surprises; keep an eye on him here.

The Djinns of Eidgah at the Royal Court Theatre. This was a very big play to pull off in such an intimate studio space, made even more intimate by the avenue staging. The playing space must have been no more than 20 feet long by 6 feet wide, but somehow they packed football practice, psychiatry, torture, and gun fights onto that little stage.

Calm Down Dear: a festival of feminism at Camden People’s Theatre. I saw about half of this fierce festival – some in October but most in November… and since there is already so much October theatre to write about, I’ll cover the Calm Down Dear festival in the November PlayList. Stay tuned!


Dialog Festival in Wroclaw, Poland

I went to Wroclaw, Poland for 10 days in mid-October for the Dialog Festival, an annual collection of Polish and international theatre, curated by director Krystina Meissner. My response to almost every production at Dialog: “I liked parts of it.” To be perfectly honest, the jury is still out on whether it was “worth going.” It was exhausting; it was a downer (the theme this year: “violence makes the world go round”); it pushed hard against the limits of my taste, sometimes in an interesting way, and sometimes just in an irritating way. It made me think about what it means to make “international theatre” or be part of an “international audience.” It made me wonder what essential qualities or background information a Polish audience has, and what tools are needed for accessing this work. It made me think about context: seeing any one of these productions in a UK tour would have been a totally different experience – and so would just seeing one of these productions alone, out of the festival marathon.

It made me think about language, and what it means to separate language from the rest of the performance, by having to read the text at the top or on the side of the proscenium. By the end of the 15-plays-in-8-days bonanza, I felt like I had read a bunch of play texts and seen simultaneous performance art about those texts. I got worse, not better, at seeing the production as a whole. With the text fractured out of the main performance space, the other elements seemed to break apart, too, so that my brain was working hard at synthesising lighting, costume, sound, voice, visual design, and text into one theatrical experience – with very little bandwidth left over for absorbing the show, its characters, themes, ideas… or for being able to answer the question “what did you think?”

It was nice to reconnect with some friends and colleagues from San Francisco (who had pointed me in the direction of the festival in the first place) and to meet other Americans brought together by the Centre for International Theatre Development. Though the Dialog Festival did put together a series of talks each day, I found our informal conversations most helpful for sifting through my own thoughts and reactions to what we’d seen. Even among our relatively homogeneous group, responses and favourites varied widely, making for some very interesting discussions.

Here are the plays, in the order I saw them:

Life is a Dream – Teatr Współczesny w Szczecinie (Poland). I wish I had re-read Life is a Dream before seeing this performance. Or, I wish the supertitles had been working. There was some interesting stuff going on with this new adaptation, including some gender-bending from both a male character who rocked a blue sequin gown and six inch heels, and a female character who started out dressed in a t-shirt and tights, then changed into a man’s suit, then into a peach ball gown, which she later covered with chain mail. I have no idea what the context was (even if I’d remembered some of the details of Calderón de la Barca’s Life is a Dream, I doubt they would have helped me much with following this production), but the visuals were interesting.

Antigone – Teatr R.A.A.A.M. (Estonia). This strange, grotesque, inventive reimagining of Antigone first appeared in Iran, the home country of young director Homayun Ghanizadeh, who, judging by his biography, is as hooked on Greek mythology as I am, having written and directed adaptations of Daedalus and Icarus and Agamemnon, as well as Caligula and Waiting for Godot in Iran and Estonia. Apparently the original version performed in Iran had to have major adjustments, including cutting all physical contact between performers and performing some lines in Farsi which had been censored out of the supertitles – possibly the long tirade by Ismene that is represented in the supertitles by “[dirty words]”. (Yes, this one, performed in Estonian, had supertitles in English and Polish.) Some of the staging was jaw-dropping, with heavily stylized movement that centered around swatting invisible flies that had descended on Thebes as a result of the unburied corpse left on the battlefield. My favorite part was the payoff of the egg motif which had been relentlessly mysterious throughout the performance, with eggs being cooked on stage again and again, laments about Tiresias’ egg being visible through his hat with holes in – also mysterious: hats were very important, and could not be removed without great danger. At the end, Antigone’s hat is pulled off and the egg that she has been keeping underneath it splats on the floor as she crumples into a lifeless heap at Creon’s feet. An Iranian audience might have had more of a clue about this, since in Iranian mythology, so the program tells me, “the universe is an egg with the Earth in the centre of it as egg yolk.” Another jaw-dropping moment: Tiresias maneuvers the dead Antigone into a suitcase, zips it up, and leaves it onstage, actor still inside for what must seem like an eternity, until Ismene comes to collect her luggage, wearing sunglasses and announcing she’s going to New York to become an actress. This is the only Antigone I’ve seen where Ismene ends up doing something in the end, rather than simply being left alive.

I Am Not Pretty – Atra Bilis Teatro (Spain). This solo performance art piece was hard to watch – especially in its most talked-about moment: performer-creator Angelica Liddell slices her knees with a razor, soaks up the blood with a loaf of bread, and eats it (one of many religious images she reclaims for her own purposes). The performance leads up to a story about a nine year old girl being molested by a soldier, and drives home the recurring language: “I am not pretty and I don’t want to be pretty.” There was a lot of talk afterwards about whether or not this was an autobiographical piece, with some even saying that if the performer herself had not been through that experience, to make work about child molestation was “pornography.” It hadn’t occurred to me that Liddell had “made it up;” my instinct is that you don’t make that kind of piece unless you have to. But the conversation got me thinking about authenticity and how we set up expectations for “truth” in performance.

I, Pierre Riviere – Teatr Muzyczny Capitol (Poland). This one was EPIC: 4 hours, 20+ actors, giant moving sets, original music, stylish design choices, muscular performances, more projectors than I could count… and a story about a young man who murders his family and 37 other people in his village. A huge show with lots to look at and think about… and yet, I still felt like something was missing. There’s that mismatched intellectual and emotional response again. Perhaps the creators weren’t focused on eliciting an emotional response? Perhaps the distance created by a language barrier is enough to block empathy for the characters? (There’s a topic for a master’s thesis, if anyone needs one.) Perhaps I was just not in the mood for a 4-hour show about mass murder. It was around this time in the festival that I started to get a little grumpy, what with all the violence and hard work and sprinting between performances with nowhere to get dinner.

Song of Lear – Teatr Pieśń Kozła (Poland). This was one of the most intimate performances at the Dialog Festival – King Lear in a series of Gregorian chant-like choral songs delivered simply and powerfully by an ensemble of singers, with tableau-by-tableau narration (in English!) from the director. It was more concert than theatre, but the voices and performances were surprisingly emotional for such a simple presentation. In an exploration of rhythm and music rather than story, the ensemble shared a number of strange and wonderful instruments, including a set of drums without shells – if you can imagine just the top of a drum, a hoop with the skin stretched over it, held by the singers so that the entire theatre became the sound chamber. This was a particularly delightful moment of choreography, in which one of the singers played the drumheads as part of a wild dance that was all the more exciting against the relative stillness of the rest of the performance.

King Lear – Münchner Kammerspiele (Germany). Here was another piece that sharply divided opinion: a Lear who is not a king but a peasant with delusions of grandeur – and a herd of pigs. Live pigs onstage. Who apparently were less bothered by the overzealous smoke machine than I was (I breathed through my scarf for at least 20 minutes as “the storm” blew chemical fog out over the audience). The production was a mess. On purpose, I think, but still a total mess, down to the tinsel curtain that kept getting tangled and caught on the rotating platform covered in sod. I left at intermission and headed to the bar with about half of the other Americans. Others were deeply moved by the performance from Lear (André Jung)… but I have to admit I hardly noticed what the actors were doing, so distracting were the pigs, the smoke, the tinsel, and the supertitles, way over on either side of the proscenium. (N.B. The side of the theatre is a terrible place to put supertitles – it’s like being at a tennis match.)

Exhibit B – Third World Bunfight (South Africa). This was a profoundly moving piece, and beautifully executed. Third World Bunfight set up a walk-through installation that turned around the historical European “exhibits” of African people. One by one, the audience was released into a museum-like experience to witness the horrors of colonialism, both centuries-old and modern day. The piece was more about the perfectly-still live performers watching us (an almost entirely white audience). It’s a brilliant way of not just educating contemporary audiences who have mostly forgotten about these events (if they ever learned about them at all), but also putting the spectator in the hot seat, making us hyper-aware of our own relationship to our history. According to the festival program, the company is bringing their new piece, Exhibit C, to London in 2014. Details are not yet on their website, but hopefully they will be soon.

The Monument – Isôko Theatre (Rwanda). This was an international theatre experience unlike the others in the Dialog Festival: written by a Canadian playwright inspired by her travels in southeast Asia, China, and India, directed by a Canadian director who has trained in Germany, the UK, and the US, and translated into Kiryarwanda for performance by Rwandan actors. The production was much smaller – even “austere” as the program notes would have it – and more intimate than most of the others at Dialog, but despite not having the resources for 4 projectors and a giant moving set, The Monument achieved something rather unique at the festival: that elusive emotional response. (Bang goes my theory about language barriers, distance, and empathy.) And, as it happened, I ended up on the plane back to London with the lead actor, Kenny Nkundwa, so I got to hear about what theatre is like in Rwanda after the horrors of the recent past, which was sobering, fascinating, and inspiring.

Warsaw Cabaret – Nowy Teatr (Poland). Another endurance performance (in plastic bleacher seats, no less), this five-hour mashup of Nazi Germany and post-9/11 New York was the hit of the Avignon Festival this year… and totally not to my taste. There were some fun moments of absurdity towards the beginning, but as the clock rolled over from PM into AM, I started to wonder what Big Idea I was supposed to have understood from this plexiglass-and-glitter abstraction on an abstraction on an abstraction…and exactly what it was about that idea that needed to be communicated in this way.

The Tempest – Teatr Polski w Bydgoszczy (Poland). Apparently they have a hard time finding a venue for this production when it tours, because a) the floor is sand and b) the actors throw water and spaghetti at each other and c) there is a real sandstorm and d) an actual hound of hell that is unleashed on a (protected) actor at the end. I’ll say this: the commitment of the actors is completely astounding, their willingness to go through hell every performance. So I guess it’s not fair to complain about the plastic bleacher seats and the 2 hour 30 minute running time with no interval. But even when the actors are willing to go through hell, can they expect the audience to join them? Several people conspicuously left midway through – some made the mistake of trying to sneak out during one of the improvised sections… which were apparently hilarious, for those who spoke Polish. For the rest of us, the supertitles just said “improvisation.” Which is fair enough – we’re in Poland, after all – but it did seem like those were the best parts of the show.

Ulysses’ Living Room – Artus Company (Hungary). This show was FUN. I know, I was surprised, too. I have no clue what it was doing in the Dialog Festival, since it didn’t seem to tackle the theme of violence even obliquely. The company was concerned with the idea of hospitality, drawing from one of the major themes of the Odyssey, and loosely incorporating a bit of that story here and there. They set up a warehouse to be a giant living room, with 2-seater couches everywhere, facing every direction. One of the performers played the welcoming host, offering glasses of wine and jars of breadsticks to everyone. The playing spaces were small stages dotted around the periphery of the space, where 2 or 3 people performed at a time. The action moved quickly, so that if your couch was facing away from the stage, you only had to twist for a minute or two. It mostly worked, but my neck was still a bit sore by the end. The ensemble performed in English, and I didn’t realise they were improvising until about halfway through the show, when one of them sort of paused and said something to his scene partner in Hungarian, and she supplied an English word, and they carried on. To me, that added a great deal to the idea of hospitality, that they were doing absolutely everything they could to bring the show to me. I can’t quite express my gratitude for that effort – it was the first time in the whole festival when I felt that the performers cared whether or not I was able to access and understand their work. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but maybe part of what made me a bit grumpy during the festival was its air of, “this is brilliant, so sit there quietly and appreciate it, and if you don’t like it, maybe you shouldn’t have come.” Aside from Artus Company’s revolutionary hospitality, I loved a lot of the images they created: a man and woman at a dinner date where the chairs were swings, and they couldn’t quite reach each other to pour wine, light cigarettes, or hold hands; a woman ladling soup into a man’s bowl faster than he could eat it, and the tomatoey liquid spilling down the white table cloth; that same soup pot later holding a grey clay mixture that got smeared all over two actors, turning them into “statues”; Odysseus sawing the legs off his dinner table and turning it into a raft (on casters) which he pushed around the space between the couches. The show reminded me of the devising work I’ve seen in the Bay Area from Ragged Wing Ensemble and Mugwumpin (so you guys especially, look this company up).

Macabra Dolorosa – Teatr Nowy w Krakowie (Poland). This piece was terrifying, but not always in the way it intended. From even before the audience sits down, we’re bombarded with the sounds of an air raid, speakers turned up loud enough for the room to shake. Solo performer Katarzyna Chlebny delivers a dada interpretation of Medea with a Cheshire Cat grin full of black teeth. The songs had English supertitles, but she improvised in Polish, including a moment of audience participation in which I had to decline to come up onstage (in English) despite the offer of an interpreter. Part of me wishes I had gone up there, to see what would have happened in a bilingual improvisation…

Whoopee, We’re Alive – Wrocławski Teatr Współczesny (Poland). The story of childhood sweethearts who meet again in an old people’s home after more than half a century, this sweet and funny production seemed to have nothing to do with the theme of violence, but it was a welcome antidote and ending to the festival. The central couple sneak out of the home to a hotel to consummate their long-unrequited love. I can’t believe I’ve made it this far without mentioning how naked Polish theatre is. Their movement work is extremely physical and muscular, and their awareness of body is, maybe relatedly, very down to earth and matter of fact. We did have more than our fair share of fit, muscular bodies on display, but we also saw bodies (clothed and unclothed) that rarely get to the stage in the US or UK. From the plus-sized middle-aged chorus girl in silver spandex and feathers in Warsaw Cabaret, to the diversity of shapes and sizes in the 21-person cast of I Pierre Riviere (four of whom are stripped naked in the first scene, and another is suspended from his ankles, naked and dying, in the second half), to the two naked 80-year-olds in Whoopee, We’re Alive, Polish theatre uses bodies in ways I’ve never seen before. And the actors seem to be up for anything.

In addition to the Dialog Festival performances, I tagged along with the Americans and the Centre for International Theatre Development group to see a couple of other pieces that were playing in Wroclaw:

The Temptation of Quiet Veronica at Teatr Polski. Director Krystian Lupa’s delicate, intimate production was revived for an International Theatre Festival “The World as a Place of Truth.” It’s based on a short story about people playing complicated mind games, and though there were English supertitles for the poetic, impressionist text, I can’t claim to have understood what was going on beyond the general gist of who is in love with whom. But it was a beautiful piece, and I’m glad I got the chance to broaden my experience of Polish theatre.

Heiner Müller’s Mauser at the Grotowski Institute. Greek director Theodoros Terzopoulos presented this piece for the Grotowski Intitute’s “Masters in Residence” program. In a small, church-like brick room inside Wroclaw’s town hall, the audience sits in jury-like benches on two sides of a long trench. At either end, authority figures debate the fate of three men in the trench, at first only their heads visible above a horizontal black wooden yoke, which folded down into the trench to later reveal their whole bodies. A second yoke lower down in the trench folded up to create the same image of three disembodied heads a few feet below the audience. I didn’t understand much of what was going on, but the tension, the terror, the distancing of the trench men from their judges, the infuriating repetition, and the impossibility of mercy in an authoritarian state all made it across the language barrier.

Contemporary Art Exhibit at Wroclaw National Museum. Not theatre, but a highlight of my trip nonetheless. I spent about three hours happily lost in visual splendour until my brain started to overheat. I think I saw about half of it, and meant to go back but never managed it. Key takeaway #1: almost every visual artist working in Poland in the 1930s and 40s also worked in theatre as a designer of sets, costumes, or puppets. Theatre must have been big. Key takeaway #2: Karol Broniatowski’s “Big Man” (1975-1976), a menacing installation of 20 identical life-sized figures made out of newspaper, gave me some ideas for a new Helen Project installation.

So there you have it: October 2013. 24 plays, 2 countries, and a whole lot of thoughts about them. Stay tuned for November’s PlayList, which I promise will be shorter.