Royal Festival Hall, London SE1
13 May, 2005

The South Bank's main hall has hosted a number of interdisciplinary "music-plus" events, but this must be one of the weirdest. The lion's share of the performance is by an eight-piece band conducted by composer Carter Burwell... and yet, when the other performers walk onstage, the audience goes wild, as if this was the opening of the proceedings and the band weren't already going full tilt. Mind you, "the other performers" are actors of the calibre of John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Marcia Gay Harden and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

And what does such an all-star cast do? They stand at mics and read the script of a 20-minute sound play. "Leave your eyes at home" is the evening's slogan, but of course we're all gawping at the luminaries in front of us, as audio-only scenes from a 1950s Western TV series are intercut with snatches from the lives of one pair of unfulfilled smalltown viewers. Behind the actors, in a place of honour dead centre-stage, foley artist Marko Costanzo provides sound effects, tearing leeks apart to provide the sound of invasive surgery and so on. It's a slight piece, but rapturously received because of its provenance. For Burwell is the favoured composer of Joel and Ethan Coen, who wrote and directed this piece Sawbones.

That, however, is as nothing to the oddity of the second half. Three other actors enter, sit at their mics and begin muttering and whispering before the lights go down. Gradually it grows apparent that this is the beginning of the second play itself, a 60-minute piece entitled Hope Leaves The Theater. When I say that one of the actors is Hope Davis and the play is written by another cinematic associate of Burwell's, Charlie Kaufman (writer of such films as Adaptation and Being John Malkovich), you may begin to guess how reflexive things become. Davis, onstage, playing an audience member, is berated by Meryl Streep, playing "herself" onstage (and yes, in the earlier phase Streep deploys her English accent before the band have even tuned up!); towards the end, Peter Dinklage plays a critic giving the play itself a sniffy review. It's like the dictionary gag, "Recursion: see Recursion." At the end, a woman behind me declares to her companion, "Now, that's yer po-mo!" Yes, it is, but that's not necessarily a recommendation.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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