Saturday, July 26, 2014

Medea at the National

Maria Callas mockss you from beyond the grave for your bad taste in theatre

I wouldn't normally write up a play like this one, a summer block buster at a prestigious theatre because, well, everybody else does. But everybody else is unfortunately wrong, as usual. Just an hour ago the Telegraph and the Guardian posted four-star reviews (undoubtedly more will follow) of what is quite frankly an entirely missable piece. Not only is the show a dud, but so are the reviews, frothing as they do in a most embarrassing bout of institutional ass-kissing. How anyone could think this production was anything more than passable is quite beyond me, in fact its execution and critical reception is a terrible indication of exactly what is wrong with mainstream theatre. In place of the gruesome, devastating drama "Medea" is, we have a horribly self-aware non-starter, seemingly more indebted to "American Horror Story" than anything else.

This production brings our heroine to a contemporary world which is admittedly well designed, if anachronistic with its hulking great 80s TV set and its iphones (giving us a wholly cringe-worthy "snap-shot" moment). She swigs so much whiskey (just one of a thousand trite and modish details) that to be honest it's a wonder she's not too plastered to even pick up the knife, let alone off her kids. I'm far from a purist, but modern dress here doesn't bring us any deeper into the world of the play. Rather it exaggerates just how outlandish the plot is, and in a ruthless one-two, sucker punches us with a damp and sardonic interpretation of the text. (I can't help but wonder, if the distance provided by a few centuries might not in this case allow for a certain suspension of disbelief which would in really unleash the terror of the tale).

As it is, believing that contemporary characters turn to sun Gods and witchcraft to avenge unfaithful lovers just doesn't ring true. Especially as Helen McCrory has chosen to make Medea a sort of wise-cracking, cynical TV Mom. Playing the text as a black comedy is an out and out disaster from which there can be no recovery. To make this text work, really work, the audience has to be convinced that Medea is a creature of great passion, temperament and power, from the very beginning. And yet McCrory's big entrance is whilst brushing her teeth, and delivering an address to the women of Corinth as though we were in a particularly dry bit of a Noel Coward play. It is impossible to follow the journey of Medea from rational schemer to child-murderer when it is presented on such an ill-conceived arc.

Clearly an actor of immense talents (but bad choices) McCrory is compelling in two scenes in the run up to her murderous rampage, but never enough to make the whole experience worth watching unfortunately. (Whoever was playing Jason was so atrocious I can't even bring myself to google him). The Goldfrapp score chugs along, occasionally eerie, more often than not subtly suggesting that you ought to have stayed home and watched "The Shining" again. Like the Bausch-lite chorus of thirteen bridesmaids, and the onstage fairytale forest, the score was just another optional extra which could not hide the fact that this piece had nothing to offer. We all know where this is going, nobody has left a production of Medea saying, "Well, I didn't see that coming!" since the Peloponnesian Wars. The magic isn't in the plot but in its unfolding, and if you can't make the text sing in a black box studio then no amount of production gloss is going to help you. It is the curse of the "art-experience", nobody now goes to the theatre to watch theater, but rather to have an experience of going to the theatre; which is to say to get the programme, get the ice-cream, get the selfie, get the cultural-cache. It really doesn't matter what's onstage as long as it looks vaguely artistic, and this does, vaguely.

Laurie Hagen, everybody else go back to Debenhams

When you see work as compelling as the work which is to be seen away from the glare of the Travelex Season, on fringe and underground circuits, on budgets which wouldn't even cover Helen McCrory's eyebrow tints, then you have to question how this system manages to plod on. (Largely I suppose because the broadsheets love a good old rehash, and get chucked a couple of glasses of pinot and a handful of vol-au-vents on press night). Can you imagine what Dickie Beau or Laurie Hagen or Jonny Woo could come up with given a National Theatre budget? Work with vision, work that nobody else could dream up, not work which feels as though it were made especially to please coach parties in town on a theatre and dinner package. This "Medea" is a dreadfully middle class moment, about as thrilling as a lunch time spent queueing in Waitrose, with all the horror of missing the last tube.

Mercifully the pace was sharp, and Carrie Cracknell must be given credit for bringing a racially diverse cast onstage. But when the highest compliment that can be paid to a performance is "The chairs were more comfortable than I remember", then I'd say you were best advised to stream Pasolini's cinematic freak out, and let Maria Callas take you to places this entirely missable production simply can't. Or better yet, go and see what the underground innovators are creating. You might not get a colossal stage filled with infinite, frivolous moving parts, but you will at least get a genuine glimpse into the glimmering future of performance, not a dreary peep into the airing cupboard of focus-groups past.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Of Saints and Go-Go Boys

Gosh, I oughta just take up a permanent pew down at Toynbee Hall - last night I saw PanicLab's Genet inspired sex-cult soap opera, "Of Saints and Go-Go Boys", there. Let me start by asking a perhaps impertinent question (and doing so as an admirer of Genet); Is it ever possible to present his novels onstage without drowning in cliché? Genet's work has become so iconic, in queer culture (via Fassbinder, John Waters and friends), and has moreover has been upcycled out into mainstream culture (via Warhol and Gaultier) that even those who haven't read his work feel as though they've experienced his infamous melange of psychedelia, camp, Catholicism and sexual violence. His novel's have been of such vast influence and importance, that absurdly perhaps, the source material can feel very sophomore. But that is merely an opening musing, in case you were to think "Oh jeeez, not again...", because there is much to be enjoyed in this piece, if one can move through the blasé veneer of expectations which imagines that because one has seen something once, one has seen it all. I wonder, would anyone in their right mind decline the opportunity to gaze a while at The Bar at the Follies-Bergere because they had already seen it as a postcard on a fridge door, as they were stealing their lover's room mate's jam?

I digress.

The three performers are strong, notably Zachariah Fletcher as Divine who modulates between vicious, hilarious and devastating with uncanny grace. The text is used beautifully, and imaginatively, with each performer having their own language; Divine has her microphone like a love-lorn Sartrean nightclub singer, Our Lady of the Flowers is pre-recorded and played back on an archaic tape-recorder, Darling speaks unamplified and direct. The third is perhaps the least successful, placing him as both the emcee and our guide, as well as the remorseless, cruel master of this world of ecstatic exploitations. It doesn't quite ring true, though perversely it does lead us to perhaps the most brilliant moment. Darling gestures to the naked and leashed Our Lady of The Flowers who kneels before two dog dishes (one full of peaches and cream, one full of dog food) and asks a member of the audience which bowl he wants to see this beautiful, naked, terrified boy eat from. There is a palpable moment of shock as we collectively realize our culpability as on-lookers. The selected audience member takes a while before saying, "Dog Food," quite definitively. Heavily reminiscent of Pasolini's Salo this scene (more even the moments of blood letting and ass-shaving) was a challenge to watch and by far the most provocative image presented.

The carnal comradeship between the three characters sometimes failed to catch light. Though there are several graphic moments, a few lacked the attendant intimacy to make it real, as witnessed in one tender kiss between Divine and Our Lady of the Flowers, which had more of the genuine eroticism and familiarity that marks physical connection between lovers. That's not to say it's not sexy, there's sex appeal in spades, the three performers ooze physical appeal in a triangulation of different ways; it's just sometimes less is more.

That's hardly the ethos of the piece though, as scenes overlap, the characters come through the meandering crowd across a set strewn with rose petals, projections, disco lights and discarded gowns. It's not minimalist theatre, and it does achieve some pretty great things owing largely to the fearless nature of the performers and their inquisitive, relentless search for new alchemical elements. Of particular note is a spasmodic sequence in which all three thrash around on the sofa to throbbing techno, in a tina tableau after party situation, an awkward skull-fucked threesome presented as tanz theatre. (Though the dance elements of the piece were for me some of the weakest, in this moment it was pitch-perfect). Here the modernization of the text worked wonderfully and gave it both a new relevance, and cause for revisiting the original.That is the highest compliment I can perhaps give, that the show made me want to get back to reading Genet.

So what do we have? A piece which is perhaps uneven in parts, yes, but one which does achieve some startling moments of the kind I have only experienced in truly exceptional work. The weaknesses of the piece gave birth to its most powerful images, which is a radical and exciting proposition for theatre. These moments that struck me so, startled me (and I suppose forced me to write this up) sit alongside a mouthful of blood being spat at Fiona Shaw in Mother Courage at the National, and Michael Clark's dancers jumping into the orchestra pit in Come, Been and Gone. I'm not being quite so bold as to suggest "Of Saint and Go-Go Boys" belongs in that canon, but I don't see why PanicLab shouldn't be capable of producing something that is before long.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Sissy's Progress

Yesterday evening I saw Nando Messias' extraordinary new dance theatre promenade piece, The Sissy's Progress. Returning to the site where he was beaten in a homophobic hate crime, Ms Messias delivered a brave and brilliantly performed meditation on identity politics and the dynamics of power.

The first half could well be described as an a cappella dance piece, in that the movement is not choreographed to music. Ms Messias, naked and statuesque puts on his red dress, lets down his hair and seductively swirls around the space, in a transfabulous reverie, overseen by his singing manservant. The day dream is broken by a chorus of handsome, suited fellows aggressively singing football chants and startling Ms Messias into the corner. What unfolds is a strange oscillation of power as they handle the body of our hero as both sacred and abject matter, in their arms Messias becomes both Goddess and victim, part Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and part virgin sacrifice. Interestingly, in eliding these two images we see the concealed proximity between the two tropes.

In a marvelously energetic, burst of narrative the suited chorus jostle for a microphone into which they attempt to tell inane dinner party stories, only to be silenced by the overzealous cheering of their colleagues. This moment seems indebted to Pina Bausch, in no way a bad thing, and in fact Bausch is just one of the artists whose work is summoned up by the piece. When the chorus pick up their instruments and reform as a marching band, the audience follows, through the courtyard of Toynbee Hall and out onto the very street where Ms Messias' was attacked. This promenade is packed with the sinister humor of a (good) Terry Gilliam movie, absurdity cut through with a certain fear, as the neighborhood kids (as if on cue) abuse the balloon laden brass band from across the street. Ms Messias' manservant (played by no.1 Garfield Jordan Hunt) at a certain point mutates into a creature of malice. Perhaps feeling the peer pressure from his suited genderpatriots, he leaves Ms Messias' service to become a baton wielding villain. With horrible precision he conducts the band as they harass and intimidate Ms Messias with bursts of distressing and confrontational sound. Reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange the climax if full of a terrifying abstract violence, especially chilling in our time of drones and Baudrillardian virtual reality.

When finally his attackers leave him in peace, Ms Messias is left sitting on a low wall, in his red dress, looking like a shell-schocked couture model. A wave of confusion, and then realization passes over his face, and then ripples out through the crowd as if we have all collectively come down, or woken from a hypnotic trance. Ms Messias looks about, we look about, and realize that we are standing in an unremarkable East London courtyard, next to a road jammed with late rush-hour traffic, gawped at by a string of intrigued spectators. To lead an audience through such an ordeal as the vicious street harassment we collectively received during the promenade is a remarkable thing, but to take them so deep into a performance that such a reality seems like a distraction, is little sort of shamanistic. So much more powerful,and infinitely more genuine than any of the other examples of the "performance experience" genre currently enjoying such popularity, The Sissy's Progress is in short a wonderful piece that deserves wide exposure.