Attempts On Her Life / Leaves / Platonov
Various venues
March, 2007

Once again, it's the time of year when I write this column in a few minutes snatched amid the week-long schedule of the National Student Drama Festival (of which a full report will follow next issue).  By coincidence, the shows reviewed this issue have a strong vein of association with my own twenty(!) NSDFs. The Sheffield production of The Caretaker is directed by Jamie Lloyd (NSDF 2001, Falsettoland). Dying For It at the Almeida stars Liz White (also NSDF 2001, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors). Upstairs at the Royal Court, Lucy Caldwell debuts with Leaves after winning the NSDF-related International Student Playscript Competition with The River in 2005. And at the National Theatre, Katie Mitchell's revival of Martin Crimp's Attempts On Her Life follows last year's Waves in its fascination with the kind of multimedia presentation regularly being toured more than a decade ago by John Keates and Fecund Theatre (Face To Face, NSDF 1992).


To be sure, Keates did not invent this kind of technological deconstruction of theatre – it would be rash for anyone to make such a claim in a world that includes, for instance, the Wooster Group. And obviously, Mitchell's NT productions have a far higher budget than Fecund's shows, which sometimes didn't stretch much beyond a couple of microphones and a video monitor. But there seems to me to be an underlying commonality of spirit, the principal difference being the broader cultural context in which we choose to describe the work: Fecund's pre-millennial fragmentation is now re-branded as post-9/11 uncertainty. Plus ça change.

Crimp's text, of course, belongs to that earlier period, even though it is barely a decade old, and you can see that a number of reviewers do not believe that it has aged well. Whether this is true or not, I'm unconvinced that Mitchell's approach helps it. On the one hand, the production would seem to be on the same postmodernist wavelength as the play; yet, by turning it into little more than an entertainment of a particular kind (if I were feeling more pretentious, I might at this point use the term jouissance), it renders the piece in two dimensions only. If Crimp's play still has shadows, Mitchell's production does not present them (ironically, for someone normally so given to murky stage lighting); if it does not, this style certainly does nothing to paper over the play's deficiencies.


I feel much more intuitively in harmony with Lucy Caldwell's work. Partly this is because we grew up in the same area of Belfast, albeit two decades apart: the river she wrote of in her earlier play was a thinly disguised version of the stream that runs a couple of hundred yards from her family's house, and a couple of hundred yards in the other direction from mine; when the middle-class family in Leaves are disturbed by the noise of helicopters overhead, I know instinctively that it is not because they live in an especially "troubled" area, but rather because – like Caldwell, like me formerly – they live close by police headquarters. I was even convinced (correctly), almost from the moment I walked into the Theatre Upstairs, that an abstract arrangement of twinkling fairy lights at the back of the stage was a representation of the Belfast nightscape as seen from the hills above the east of the city.

I'm therefore very clearly "on side" as regards this play: even if the topography did not chime with me, the core situation of dealing in the aftermath of a close one's teenaged suicide attempt would still have recalled for me a time when I was in a similar position. Does this lead me to deny or overlook shortcomings in the play? Perhaps, but I think that perhaps also some reviewers are chiding it for not being the play it never set out to be. It is not just the composition of her stage family, but the whole emotional and psychological register of Caldwell's play, which is female. I mean this in a Jungian-archetypal sense: it is very much about the attempts of mother, sisters and even perhaps the attemptee herself to articulate their thoughts and feelings on the situation, about trying to connect, far more than about the "male" strain of repression and denial personified by the bookish, taciturn father. I think perhaps those dissatisfied reviewers wanted a shape and control to the material which, being a matter of "male"-type mastery, would be alien to the nature of the piece. (And I presume that Nicholas de Jongh has by now realised that the reason why attemptee Lori is so much happier in the final scene is that it is a  flashback to a point several months before the rest of the play.)


About the only play I saw this fortnight which I haven't already reviewed in the body of this issue and which I cannot bend to my NSDF linking concept is Platonov. To the best of my knowledge, Lev Dodin of the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg has never visited the festival in Scarborough.  (Perhaps if he had, the watery element of his production would be more turbulent, finding its inspiration in the North Sea rather than, as is the actual case, in the Thames as it flows past the Riverside Studios where his company was performing several years ago.) A number of reviewers had seen this production on its previous London visit in 1999; I had the advantage of seeing it in its home theatre only a few weeks earlier. On my return visit to it in London, the expression of delighted wonder on my companion's face throughout (she subsequently described it as "a piece of God") reminded me what is at the core of the theatrical experience, and also of our attempts as reviewers. Our goal has to be to communicate and share such sensations of the best. For all our protestations of detachment and impartiality, what really drives us is the desire to spread the good news whenever we find it.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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