Attempts On Her Life / Leaves / Platonov
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
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights
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