Monday, October 26, 2009

The Pains of Youth by Ferdinand Bruckner, translated by Martin Crimp, Cottesloe Theatre, 21-Oct-2009 – Directed by Katie Mitchell.

Katie Mitchell seems to have developed the habit of using naturalistic lighting (i.e. the scene is almost entirely lit from onstage props) and having actors talk at a normal conversational volume. In a tiny studio space it would work perfectly but in a larger space I don't think it is good, clever or artistic to do it. This “habit” ruined her production of Women of Troy for me (I was in the Lyttelton sitting 12 or so rows back) and yet the play was continually praised by at least one national critic as one of the greatest things she had seen. Katie Mitchell got away with the “habit” in this Cottesloe-based production, in fact it worked quite well, but I was sitting only four rows from the stage, feeling very glad I wasn't at the back of the upper gallery.
The play is about a group of medical students in Vienna in the early 1920s. Part of a defeated nation and dissolved empire they consider the alternatives of a stifling bourgeois life or suicide. I only found there to be one sympathetic character in the play he had served a prison term for manslaughter. The most vibrant characters were an aristocratic young woman (Desiree played by Lydia Wilson) and her pimp (and an attempted rapist) of an ex-lover (Freder played by Geoffrey Streatfeild but there was no empathy from me for either of them. I found Freder particularly disturbing not because of his appalling actions but because the author seemed to want us to be convinced that he held a magnetic attraction for all the women in the play.
I had to wonder, watching this play, just how important a piece of drama it is supposed to be. This was because I didn't think that I was getting the most out of the play. Normally I would blame my own insensitivity but since at least six people didn't return after the interval, at least two people (on separate occasions) left while the play was happening and a couple behind me only seemed to be staying so they could complain to one another about it, it might not be entirely my fault.
I couldn't fault the actors, they all seemed good, nor did I think there was anything wrong with Martin Crimp's translation, it flowed well and didn't seem awkward. Katie Mitchell's direction also seemed fine, with some nice touches like the CSI/Men in Black figures who would change scenes by covering or uncovering furniture with dust sheets and taking or putting props in or out of plastic bags (sometimes in the middle of scenes), as if collecting evidence or staging a reconstruction. All the same I didn't think that I was really being sold this play.
I found myself checking the internet after the play to see how the play is viewed in mainland Europe. It appears that this play is well regarded but from what I could glean (courtesy of Google's Translate this Page link) but the few productions I read about did appear to be somewhat more adventurous and expressionistic. I began to wonder if, notwithstanding the People in Black, this production may have been too naturalistic; quietly intense and honest rather than artificially heightened and full of significant pauses. Of course this was a very early preview so it might have changed a lot by the time it is properly reviewed.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Author by Tim Crouch, Royal Court Upstairs, 30-Sep-2009 – Directed by Tim Crouch

There is a particular pose sometimes adopted by people listening to classical music. It is a still, studious and appreciative posture that attempts to denote the the music is doing the listener's soul a lot of good. I was reminded of this as I stole glances at Mark Ravenhill and Martin Crimp as they sat either side of Tim Crouch during this play. It was as if these playwrights (and there appeared to be other writers in the room) were avoiding either over or under reaction to the play. Perhaps they were just aware of the scrutiny.
The play consists of four actors (an “audience member”, two “actors” and “writer/director Tim Crouch”) seated among the audience who were in two raked banks of seats facing each-other. The play starts when “audience member” engages the real audience in talk about the experience of being in a theatre audience, singling out individuals trying to get them to share something. There a deal of truth in what he said about being in an audience and going to the theatre regularly especially the Royal Court where he marvelled at the sex, violence and bodily functions that he has seen there. I thought one note didn't quite ring true when he tried to depict an audience as a friendly place – for the most part I tend to find (after a lot of theatre going) that you begin to dislike audiences in general and hate every member of them in particular. Probably just me being anti-social.
After a while the “audience member” the “actors” and the “director” begin to describe a their involvement in a previous, shocking production and how the preparation and playing of an imagined world affected their lives.
I got the impression that the audience were expected to react more to this play. Everyone seemed engaged and attentive but unwilling to draw too much attention to themselves (when the “audience member” asked if there were any Friend subscribers of the theatre in the audience, I know of at least one Friend of 20 years standing who remained silent and tried to be invisible). The actors described shocking things (or things intended to be shocking) but to an audience used to the depiction of a wide range of sex, violence and bodily functions at the theatre. Maybe we were too jaded to do anything other than sit studiously and attentively trying to look as if what we were seeing and hearing was doing us some good.

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