After its biennial jamboree this month, the London International Festival of Theatre is to switch to a rolling year-through programme, partly as a result of having done its job too well: international theatre in London is now so far from the rarity that it was when Rose Fenton and Lucy Neal began LIFT twenty years ago that a periodic torrent of work is no longer the optimum way to present work to an audience. But LIFT continues to push at the boundaries of theatre.
Carina Reich and Bogdan Szyber's Night Manager is more of an installation with a minor human element than any conventional kind of drama. Its main ingredients are a spoken text heard through headphones, and the River Thames. One boards a boat at nightfall from Cherry Gardens Pier in Bermondsey, and for fifty minutes, discreetly plied by a pair of stewards with blankets, beverages and mint imperials, one listens through 'phones to the voice of Linda Marlowe and looks at the river. The text which Marlowe reads, by Björner Torsson, is a rambling meditation on the river as an emblem of mortality, a dark frontier, on the allure of drowning and so forth. Beneath the words, David Österberg's soundscape ranges from abstract synthesized washes to cocktail-lounge noodlings.
Despite the discreet revelation of this stretch of the Thames at dusk (from about a mile below Tower Bridge upstream to around Tate Modern), you find yourself gazing more at the dark grey water itself than at the cityscape on its banks. Torsson's text encourages you to slip into reverie; after a while, the words are there not so much to be listened to as to maintain the semi-hypnotic state into which you have drifted. Eventually blinds are raised on all the boat's windows and the return journey undertaken in complete darkness, so that your musings become almost entirely interior.
Theatre? Hardly, in a literal sense. Yet the etymological meaning of "theatre" is "the seeing place", and ultimately the place where all theatre is seen is the mind's eye; Reich and Szyber have simply cut away much of what surrounds this. Obviously, the objective impact of a piece like Night Manager is nigh-impossible to determine, but two things are worth remarking on: first, the inevitable audience chatter seemed much more muted and pensive at the end of the voyage than at the beginning; second, on my Tube journey home I found that, although I was still in more or less the same state of contemplation, I was also paradoxically committing that most un-English sin of actually looking at my surroundings.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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