February 18, 2016

Complicite at the Barbican. The Encounter. 17th February 2016.

The idea that a theatre production based on in-yer-face technology – the audience must wear headphones throughout – would turn out to be an incredibly powerful piece of ecotheatre sounds improbable. The Encounter is quite simply stunning. It is living proof that the most effective ecotheatre, defined as theatre that forges an emotional connection between spectators and nature (Amazonian river, rainforest and indigenous people on the run from the oil industry) does not have to be staged in an obviously natural environmental space. A conventional theatre space full of a proliferation of electronic gadgets and media, plastic bottles, and electronic waste (a large pile of tangled audio tape in a cardboard box) will do just as well.

‘It seems empathy and proximity are connected, so I’d like to get closer to you’, said the ACTOR. The skin on the back of my neck crawled as someone came so close I could hear them swallowing, and blew in my right ear. There were snipping noises as someone seemed to cut my hair. I resisted the temptation to turn round – spectatorial earphones had been checked so many times by the production team that I KNEW this was Simon McBurney breathing into a binaural microphone, and sound effects were being skilfully manipulated by the sound team sitting right behind us. This did not get in the way of an embodied response on my part. So, I was primed for a mind-blowing experience.

The Encounter is based on the story of Loren McIntyre, a fifty-something National Geographic photographer who was dropped into the rainforest for three days on a photographic mission. Almost immediately he found the Mayoruna (‘cat people’). Obsessed by taking pictures to prove they existed, he was drawn into the jungle, failed to mark a trail back to camp, and became their prisoner. He found himself forced to walk through the jungle for days, for they were constantly on the move, and not following them would have been certain death. Gradually Loren (and we spectators) found out that they were on the way back to the ‘beginning’. This consisted of a ceremony close to the head of the river, where they would burn all their possessions in order to go back in time thereby escaping the ravages of civilisation. What a parable!

Followed up close and personal by the Barbican audience, Loren battled his way agonisingly through heat, hunger, an attempt to put the hex on him by burning his watch and trainers (and destroying his camera), and an attempt to kill him by leaving him embedded in a thorn bush in the dark. He ripped his way out of the thorns and his wounds were (oh so disgustingly) invaded by flesh-eating maggots. He drank desperately from some strange cucumbers and suffered hallucinations. The fact that the sound effects associated with these intensely physical, psychologically disturbing experiences were the polar opposite of natural did not matter one jot as far as my reactions went.

I held tightly on to the arms of my seat to stay grounded even though I should not have needed to do that. Modern reality was there in-yer-ears and in-yer-face all the time. The sound effect of people walking on grass in bare feet (heard in rustling detail in my earphones) was actually produced by the ACTOR treading on the pile of tangled audio tape in the cardboard box. The action was interrupted several times by Simon McBurney’s five year old daughter – she opened the door (in recording of course) and demanded something to eat, something to drink (nicely timed with Loren’s desperate thirst), and a bed time story. We were playing with several dimensions of technological time in counterpoint to Loren’s refractory experience of time in the rainforest, without a watch, not as a theoretical construct but (thanks to proximity and empathy) as a series of parallel emotional states of mind.

Loren survived by tuning in to the ‘other’ wordless language of the ‘cat people’. Was the intonation of ‘Some of us are friends’ he repeatedly heard benign or threatening? I felt every prickle of fear Loren must have felt all over my own skin. A whisper in the back of my head suggested that, without the technologically produced dislocations between here and there, now and then, this (also technologically produced) up-close-and-personal experience of psychological deconstruction might well go beyond a reasonable threshold of discomfort, as it surely did for Loren: ‘I feel that my hand groping around the universe has torn a corner open. Soon there will be an encounter. [...] I’m not prepared for this encounter; it’s true. I’m not prepared. Not like the spider swallowed by the snake. And then a thought howls, savagely.’

And Lauren howled, like a two-year-old in a tantrum or a poor threadbare forked animal fit only for a padded room: ‘I was never part of nature. No, I’m not!!! [...]. We’re human beings. We’re not part of nature.’

The story had a happy ending for Loren. He connected with the jungle. He danced to the music of time in the ceremony, and almost immediately a deluge of rain forced him into the river on a flimsy raft, which delivered him back into civilisation. So he lived to tell the tale to Petru Popescu and Complicite. What a bedtime story! As we staggered out into the rainy chill of the London evening, we carried with us a lingering sense of the warm, humid, ‘tense febrile stillness’ of the rainforest, and the sure and certain knowledge that the ‘cat people’ really do exist.

Directed and performed by Simon McBurney.
Co-director – Kirsty Housley.
Design – Michael Levine.
Sound – Gareth Fry with Pete Malkin.
Lighting – Paul Anderson
Projection – Will Duke
Associate Director – Jemima James

Sources.
Complicite / Simon McBurney (2016). The Encounter (London: Nick Hern Books).


September 06, 2015

Paines Plough at the Edinburgh Festival. Lungs. 20th August 2015.

In Lungs, Duncan MacMillan’s climate change play, having a baby is rather breathtakingly described as giving birth to the Eiffel Tower. (Even though we know that means in equivalent emissions of CO2 by weight, it still sounds absolutely eye-watering.) In essence, Lungs is a “conversation” between two people that speaks volumes about human beings and their relationship with each other and the planet. As beautifully shown here by Sian Reese-Williams (W) and Abdul Salis (M), conversations are so often not conversations. W and M talk at each other, over each other, often crashing into each other in a series of misunderstandings that are all the funnier (and sometimes all the more tragic) because they are so true to life. The emotional roller coaster takes us along at breathless speed. So does time in the plot-line which skips through days, weeks and years in the blinking of an eye. The longed-for baby is heart-breakingly miscarried, then casually conceived after the breakup, and we spectators see this up close and personal in the small, intimate space of the Roundabout. (The performance I saw was so emotionally intense I was still dazed when we staggered out of the tented Roundabout into daylight.) By the time the Eiffel-Tower-sized baby is an adult the planet is becoming a no-go zone for humans and the carefully planned trees planted by W and M have turned into ash. Bottom line: this is a play about blindly not having a conversation, but carrying on regardless, while the planet burns. Sounds familiar.


August 31, 2015

Barbican. Hamlet. 10th August 2015

Hamlet is a play about disturbances in the natural order of things, in which a bad case of over-reaching leads inexorably to a chain-reaction of death and destruction. Although this play would not, at first sight, necessarily be identified by modern audiences or production teams as a piece of eco-theatre, the self-reinforcing downward spiral in this play reminds of runaway natural systems. It thus easily reaches across to modern-day concepts such as the ecosystem. In spite of the heavy weight of materials embedded in the over-lavish overlay of set and props, this production did that, too.

But, let me start by answering the questions everyone wants to know the answer to. First, I don’t understand why there was so much fuss about a speech in the “wrong” place. For me, this set piece, used in this way, was an effective way of framing things. Secondly, Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet is really very good. He has the virtuosity needed to deliver across the wide range of emotional registers in the role. He often made the audience around me laugh, and the humour was also heart-rending because the anguish beneath was clear to see in every scene, from the light hearted exchanges when we first encounter Horatio right through to the bitter end. He was supported by good performances elsewhere, too. Ophelia’s reaction, first to Hamlet’s nastily delivered sexual bullying (‘country matters’), then to his dragging her brutally about the stage by the wrist as he dismissed her to the nunnery, were right on cue as a trigger for mental breakdown.

There has been much furore in the press about this Hamlet and early reactions: I confess I only saw a fairly early Preview performance on August 10th (Press Night was August 25th). Things may have changed, so, with caution (and ecological spectacles on), some things felt like distractions. Did Hamlet need life-size toy soldiers, a toy soldier uniform and a pretend castle to feign madness? (But, as a performance, emotionally speaking, individual actor-to-audience, it worked.) Did the strolling players need a sumptuously hung mini stage on wheels? (Not inappropriately, Polonius met his maker tangled in stage curtains in microcosm.) Most of all, how on earth would the copious piles of rubble, or was it mud, or volcanic lava (that had somehow spewed in through the doors after some unnamed profoundly unnatural catastrophe during the interval) be cleaned up for the next performance, what material was it made of (it bounced slightly as barefoot Ophelia walked on it), and what did it mean? Well, obviously (ignoring practicalities and answering the real question), this is a play (and a production) about profound natural disorder brought about by unconstrained human behaviour.


August 03, 2015

Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester. The Skriker. 18th July 2015.

“Who will speak for the environment?” asked Warwick University ecocritic Dr. Jonathan Skinner, in the Summer of 2015. Attending productions such as this – The Skriker at the Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester – we all do. “It’s about what we’re doing to the planet”, said one spectator to the group of friends sharing the programme with her, as we waited to go in and take our seats. She could be sure of this because the programme for this production includes plenty of environmental cues. The Introduction (written by Director Sarah Frankcom and Lead Artist Maxine Peake (playing the part of the Skriker)) describes the Skriker as ‘environmental fury in extremis’, and the play as ‘a call to arms from the Earth herself’. The same programme features an extract from Naomi Klein’s climate change polemic This Changes Everything. Oddly enough the play has not always been seen this way by its audiences even though The Skriker first came to the stage in 1994, not long after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Critical responses to the play at the time do not say much about the environmental message. The story of the moment, back then, was feminism.

But, forget what’s in the programme. For me, the penny-dropping climate change moment, speaking volumes about climate change culture in 2015, arrived in the Underworld in the form of a spectatorial laugh. It happened when the Skriker was trying to persuade Josie to drink some wine so she would be trapped in the Underworld for ever. Josie (Laura Elsworthy), shilly-shallying (she was obviously dying for a drink), said: ‘Yes, but I don’t want -’. The Skriker: ‘Don’t you want to feel global warm and happy ever after? Warm the cockles of your heartless.’ For me, the chuckles I heard in the audience, in reaction to this cajoling ‘global warm’ moment, say something important about a change in the way people think about the environment. Of course I cannot speak for everyone there, but, when I laugh (as I also did at this point in the play), it’s not usually about something the programme pointed out. Here (for me) it’s because the language has forged a witty, ironical connection to something Nico Frijda would describe as an emotional matter because it is a ‘daily life concern’. My reading of this chuckle at this particular moment is that the stunning poetry of The Skriker, performed in 2015 in Manchester, connected to the emotions (via the daily life concerns of the environment and climate change) more readily than it seems to have done in 1994.

Of course such emotional connections are not easily made. They tend to arise in the context of excellent performances, in which the acting is good enough to evoke sympathy, empathy and identification with the protagonists (c.f. Sauter), for the audience. Maxine Peake’s performance as the Skriker was, quite simply, stunning. At times her voice was mesmerising (it was easy to see why Josie failed to resist the wine); at others her tone was chilling, alienating, even terrifying. Executing virtuoso switches between roles across a wide register – from child to vamp to old woman – Peake WAS the Skriker. The Skriker, being the Skriker, dominates, but other narrative threads were also impactfully performed. Josie and Lily (Jumah Sharkah) delivered a horrifying narrative of abuse and abandonment, in which babies were casually killed, tortured or dumped. The beautiful singing of some words sometimes turned absurd ideas – such as the Hag (Jessica Walker) searching for her head, heart, arm, leg on the feast table – into a heart-rending experience.

Of course I don’t know if this production had this effect on everyone – after all it’s fashionable to say there is no such thing as an audience. In this production of The Skriker, there were at least three identifiable audiences. On arrival, spectators with stalls tickets were guided by torchlight through a spooky subterranean passageway into the performance space – a seven-sided dilapidated arena furnished with wide trestle tables. (At one point some spectators had to be ushered out of the way by the dancers to make room for the action.) The spectators-turned-onlookers gazed up through a slightly murky haze at the faces encircling them on two levels and wondered what they had let themselves in for. I was one of those submerged down in the infernal basement, under the gaze of the other circles of hell; this configuration and the close proximity of the performers certainly intensified my own experience. It was, quite simply, amazing to be carried away, embedded in the rip-roaring operatic Bacchanalian feast in the Underworld.

Sources
Caryl Churchill (1994, 2015). The Skriker (London: Nick Hern Books, 2015 reprint with a new cover and cast-list).

Manchester International Festival. Programme: The Skriker by Caryl Churchill. 2-18 July 2015. Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.

Nico H. Frijda (2007). The Laws of Emotion (New York and London: Routledge).

Willmar Sauter (2000). The Theatrical Event. Dynamics of Performance and Perception (Iowa City: Iowa University Press).


June 20, 2015

Northern Broadsides. King Lear. 2nd May 2015.

‘Not long ago I saw King Lear again’, commented ecocritic Ralph W. Black at a 1994 meeting of the Western Literature Association. In a way, he was seeing it for the first time – he described his newly-borne awareness of the ecological ‘transgression’ implied by the cutting up and parcelling out of land, against the natural order of things, with which the play opens. My mother, who came with me to the Northern Broadsides production at the Liverpool Playhouse, was seeing this play for the second time, but, for her, too, it was as if she was seeing it – really seeing it – for the first time. ‘They spoke sense’, she said. ‘I liked the way they talked normally without over-dramatising it. It was understated, and I think that’s what brought out the human feelings.’ Her comment was on the nail in describing what mattered in this production: clarity.

Its clarity was explained partly by the performance quality of the ensemble, acting like a well-oiled machine. Take that all-important opening scene, which sets (and here did a brilliant job of setting) the tone for the play. As Goneril and Regan were assigned their share of the spoils they almost did themselves an injury trying to see where it was on the map, whereas Cordelia stayed off to one side. Once she had spoken ‘nothing’, and persisted in it, Lear was not just angry; he was a man so hurt by Cordelia’s rejection that he couldn’t think straight. The reason why he compounds the error – carelessly leaving the carving up of Cordelia’s (carefully-selected fertile share) of land to someone else, and unthinkingly throwing his daughter into the hands of England’s traditional enemy, France – is suddenly crystal clear. Blinded by his distress Lear failed to see so much that we could see clearly in the audience – including the subtle look of disgust on Regan’s face as her dad announced he would keep the crown but hand over all the work. Even spectators who didn’t know the story would know this was going to end badly.

Design, set and blocking (better described as choreography here) were also designed with clarity in mind. Each scene change (requiring little more than moving bodies and words) was like a powerful first sentence in a new paragraph in the story, making it easy to follow the different narrative strands and their interconnectedness. If it had been possible to press the pause button, the scene on stage at almost any moment would have been an oil painting you’d want on your living-room wall – harmoniously posed and coloured, and beautifully lit. The simple set – a chess-board floor, a few pieces of simple wooden furniture, and an iron frame – was well-used, visually reinforcing and punctuating the action on stage. Cordelia, for instance, stood outside the frame in that first scene: different in being unwilling to engage in rhetorical prostitution, then cut off from the family as Lear disowned her.

Lear’s debut as a homeless wretch to the sound of a terrific thunder storm was interrupted, all too soon, by the interval. As I mentally resurfaced, the sound of rainfall (did I imagine it?) became the rustling of spectators stirring from their seats.

Most audiences watching King Lear would probably not describe it as eco-theatre at first sight. For Black, the penny possibly dropped as a result of an environmental re-contextualisation of the recorded performance quite a few years on from the original production, and two years on from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Speaking as a spectator, the eco-theatrical penny seemed to me to drop in this Northern Broadsides production because of the all too human emotional connections wrought in that first scene. When we see Lear reach a new understanding of the relationship between nature and the social order, empathy is the order of the day: ‘Oh I have ta’en too little care of this. [...]. | Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, | That thou may’st shake the superflux to them.’ III.4.32-35). As Black commented in his 1994 paper, ‘the ecosystemic relationships within a literary text will often reach out and implicate us in its web’.

Performance seen on 2nd May 2015.
See papers at this link for Black’s full article. http://www.asle.org/wp-content/uploads/ASLE_Primer_DefiningEcocrit.pdf


March 20, 2015

The Rose Playhouse, Bankside – A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. 10th March 2015

Even in early spring, plays performed in the Rose Playhouse, Bankside’s archeological Tudor theatre, must be frugal with time, for modern conveniences such as heating and water closets are not provided. (You can warm up with a brisk walk to the facilities at the Globe if necessary.) In this case the fast-moving plot, well-paced delivery, short duration of the performance, and blue blankets provided by the Rose are sufficient to mitigate any minor bodily discomfort occasioned by the mid-March chill. Music is the first thing to warm the senses: 1950s pop songs play spectators into their seats, punctuate key scenes and often enhance humorous moments. From an ecotheatrical perspective, this production comes across as a lean, mean, thus suitably Lenten theatrical event.

Lenten or not, this comedy is not about frugality, but excess. The acting company (directed by Jenny Eastop) is absolutely on the nail in enthusiastically over-egging the wide range of emotions in performance here – horror, surprise, sorrow, anger, love, greed, frustration, mirth, angst, arrogance, avarice, lust and glee, to name just a few. Moll, for instance, is interpreted by Beth Eyre as a classic sulky teenager, big adolescent gestures communicating silent groans at the cringingly embarrassing antics of her appropriately named (maudlin) mother (Josephine Liptrott). When I saw it, little chuckles from the audience suggested others also appreciated Moll’s entrance in the Scene 1 squabble with her mother to the well-known lyrics of Dion and Belmont’s 1959 rock ‘n’ roll song: “Why must I be a teenager in love?” Later, when the ghastly Maudlin and gormless Yellowhammer (Stephen Good) run off to the riverbank in pursuit of their errant daughter, they all dash (precariously) round the edges of the Rose Playhouse pool, to the music of The Flight of the Bumble Bee (and the sound of a few loud laughs from the audience, some of whom may have been reminded, as I was, of Chaplinesque chaotic pursuits).

As everyone knows Lent is about abstinence, except that all anyone seems to think about in this play is indulging to the utmost in food and sex (and rock ‘n’ roll), ever in pursuit of wealth and power in both domains. Perhaps recalling some of the alleged excesses of the City pre credit-crunch, most of the protagonists are trying to cheat the system. The regular food double-entendres – goose, dish of birds, mutton, sharp-set stomach, selling flesh – draw out the interconnectedness of different forms of over-reaching. In the whirlwind of obfuscations our sympathies are with Touchwood Junior and Moll who naughtily conspire to have her goldsmith father make the wedding ring for their elopement. It is ordered right under his nose to fit his own daughter’s ring finger and inscribed with a rhyme about stupid parents, and even then, he doesn’t get it. But, this treatment is only fair: left to himself he would be content to see her married to the oleaginous Sir Walter Whorehound. This is a comedy so the guy gets the gal and the Whorehound gets his comeuppance – very nicely done by actor Andrew Seddon, who hilariously changes gears from arrogant insatiable lecher to abject penitent coward, when an injury reminds him of his mortality and the hellfire that surely awaits.

The question is, why does orchestrator Allwit (Timothy Harker), the willing cuckold who helps make Whorehound’s excesses possible and gleefully profits from them into the bargain, emerge unscathed from the casino? For a possible answer we need the ecological sub-text at work in the food fraud running through the play, brought to the fore in a key incident in Act II, Scene 2 (59-209) which is cut in this production. In the text,* the ‘Promoters’ (Lent compliance enforcers) are out-manoeuvred in a verbal skirmish with meat-cheat Allwit, turn a blind eye to corrupt meat-eaters who sufficiently grease their palms, and come down with the full weight of the law on the ‘poor’ country wench ‘fool’ enough to walk by with a joint of lamb on view in a basket. They soon realise they have been duped – her aim is to leave them holding the baby hidden beneath the lamb.

This disturbing practical joke seems to me to be where it is in the play text to reinforce the point that the rise or fall of almost everyone in this play, including Allwit (who sees himself as running the casino ‘box’ (bank)), rests on the transactional value of living things, children for land, babies for meat, fertility for money. This is nothing less than social bankruptcy in performance, and as this play amply demonstrates, its consequences are waste, profligacy and over-consumption at a time when the opposite should prevail. Such social conditions potentially spell ecological death – an important message in 2015.**

This unkind cut doesn’t change the fact that this is a really funny, theatrically effective production on the evidence of the spectatorial laughter and applause it evoked on the night I saw it, and the warm buzz of conversation as we all left afterwards. Nevertheless the danger of being frugal with Thomas Middleton’s tightly constructed play is that the crux of the matter may be lost: in the ethical void at work in Chaste Maid lie the seeds of spiritual, social and environmental destruction. This Lenten comedy is nothing less than a brilliant dearth play in disguise. It’s a good laugh – and it’s enough to frighten all who see it out of their wits.

Creatives
Stephen Good (Yellowhammer, a Goldsmith); Josephine Liptrott (Maudlin, Yellowhammer’s wife); Beth Eyre (Moll, their daughter); Andrew Seddon (Sir Walter Whorehound);Harry Russell (Touchwood Junior); Richard Reed (Touchwood Senior, his brother, also a Porter); Timothy Harker (Allwit, a neighbour and cuckold); Fergus Leathem (Sir Oliver Kix, also a Parson); Alana Ross (Lady Kix, his wife, also Allwit’s servant). Director: Jenny Eastop; Stage Manager/Operator: Ricky McFadden; Press and Publicity: Kate Johnston; Costumes: Sarah Andrews; Graphics and Design: Felix Trench.

Sources
Thomas Middleton (1999). ‘A Chaste Maid in Cheapside’, in Plays on Women, edited by Kathleen E. McKluskie and David Bevington (Manchester: Manchester University Press).*

Thomas Middleton (2012). ‘A Chaste Maid in Cheapside’, edited by Alan Brissenden, in Four Plays (London: Bloomsbury).

Edward F. Ricketts, Jack Calvin and Joel H. Hedgpeth (1985). Between Pacific Tides, revised by David W. Phillips (Stanford: Stanford University Press). **See p. 456.
Living things that are depleted by long-run environmental stressors (such as persistent insufficiency of water and nutrition), still alive but unable to function as part of the ecosystem they belong to, are referred to by Ricketts as ecologically “dead”.

Theatre Programme: Mercurius Presents A Chaste Maid in Ch£ap$ide, by Thomas Middleton, directed by Jenny Eastop (The Rose Playhouse).


November 13, 2014

Royal Court Theatre – 2071. Letter to Chris Rapley, 12th November 2014

Dear Chris,

first may I say how much I enjoyed the performance of 2071 at the Royal Court last night (November 12th). As an admirer of Duncan MacMillan's climate change play Lungs I confess I was hoping for another play, rather than a scientific monologue. On the other hand, the theatricality of this production is not to be denied. The scenography is stunning, in the same way black and white films can be. My spectatorial brain initially objected to the reduction of a planetary spectacle to humdrum shades of black, white and grey, but then the subliminal pattern-loving subconscious kicked in and revelled in the earthly fusion of shapes, musical sounds, rhythms, maps and numbers shifting, turning, spiralling behind and in tune with you as you spoke.

For me, the latest IPCC Assessment Report (AR) had seemed to put more emphasis on adaptation than mitigation, for what really comes over in the fragments I have read during the year is our vulnerability in the face of the changes human beings are inflicting on the climate system. It was good to hear a more upbeat message, even if I slightly despaired internally at the idea that human beings will be able to do the equivalent of sticking to a strict diet through generations, for hundreds of years.

Thank you, also, for digesting (in the space of an intense 75 minutes) several times the four and a half kilos in physical weight describing just one section of the IPCC AR, and for your no-holds-barred delivery of science. I revelled in the repetition of beautiful words such as cryosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, biosphere, and the penny dropped on the question I wanted to ask at the start. Delivering a lecture, why did you need a playwright? By the end I had answered my own question. We non-scientists cannot hope to understand the millions of recondite corners in the truly monumental work of the IPCC, but can happily play with words and connect to the physicality behind the science, just as you did - land, water, air, sun, sea-level, Argo floats, ice-house, collapse, interglacial, swamp forests, ice sheets, equilibrium.

There is one issue I really want to challenge you on. You stated that the necessary shift away from fossil fuels will render coal and oil reserves economically worthless. This idea - economic worth - begs further exploration. How it is used here suggests an embeddedness in the very culture your message would have us escape from. Considering the reason for the title of your monologue, I cautiously mention the common perception that informal care (such as grand-parenting) is economically worthless. This cannot be true. The part it plays in the societal ecosystem is beyond price, therefore its economic value (alongside many other kinds of value, tangible and intangible) is, by implication, considerable. The economy is in the social system and the social system is in the economy. Returning to your fossil fuel point, in a zero carbon world fossil fuel reserves are economically worthless. Yes, but the part they play in the ecosystem when still under the ground is beyond price therefore their economic value left under the ground (alongside many other kinds of value) is potentially enormous. The economy is within and subsidiary to the ecosystem therefore the ecosystem is also woven through the fabric of the economy; the problem is the narrow definition of economic worth.

I could not agree more with your conclusion. Science enlightens. It cannot tell us how we want to think, or live. What we need is the Brechtian moment in which we wake up to the fact that we have choices. So, I return to Duncan MacMillan's play Lungs. What I would really love to see is the two together, the 2071 ecomonologue followed by the visceral ecotheatrical dialogue.

Creatives: Duncan MacMillan and Chris Rapley. Direction: Katie Mitchell.

Sources

F. Carmichael and M.G. Egolani (2013). 'Overlooked and undervalued: the caring contribution of older people', International Journal of Social Economics, 42 (5).

Duncan MacMillan (2011). Lungs (London: Oberon Books).


November 06, 2014

Young Vic – The Cherry Orchard. 21st October 2014.

Sometimes, in nature, it's not the fittest animals that survive, it's the cruellest, says Peter, eternal student in Simon Stephens' version of Chekhov's play The Cherry Orchard. This production successfully underscores the brutality running through human behaviour by highlighting individual moments of sadism, thus reminding of Stephens' climate change play Wastwater.

Early on in this version of the play Alexander describes a brutal beating at the hands of his drunken father, establishing abuse as an important leitmotif. As the play progresses Firs becomes increasingly fearful of the menacing bully Yasha, and the detail of the walking stick kicked from under him and the doctor's letter not sent after him to the hospital but torn up before our eyes leaves no-one in the audience in any doubt that Yasha intended him to die, imprisoned in the freezing old house at the end. As the family and its entourage chaotically moves on from the old way of life to the new, it is horribly clear that if everyone had not been so self-absorbed, someone might have noticed Firs' predicament. Yasha committed the crime, but everyone in the family was implicated in the act of murder.

The destruction of the cherry orchard is, in a similar vein, set in motion on the basis of an unwitting collaboration. Son of serf standing on the shoulders of former serf owners is helped by Adam Smith's invisible hand - the market in holiday homes supplanting the market for cherry preserves - as well as by the actions of others. Not unlike Yasha, Alexander did the deed, but Lyubov's self-indulgent passive reactivity accelerated the cross-generational series of actions leading inexorably towards environmental destruction. The question is, who is now the fittest to survive, Alexander, seemingly winning but still trapped in the system, or Anya and Peter, seeking to escape.

A play depicting orchestrated environmental and human wreckage is well served by an ensemble cast, and there was a strong team of actors at work here. Yasha (Tom Mothersdale) was satisfyingly unpleasant; Lyubov (Kaye Duchene) was cringingly self-pitying thus (appropriately) hard to pity; and there were some heart-tugging performances from Gawn Grainger, Natalie Klamar and Angus Wright, playing respectively Firs (touchingly keeping Leonid safe), Varya (pining painfully for Alexander) and Leonid (involuntarily propelled into an imaginary game of pool at difficult moments).

Absorbed in watching this comedy of survival, we the audience found we, too, had skin in the game, as the saying goes, thanks to a conventional but nonetheless effective theatrical tactic deployed early on. When Leonid and Lyubov, just back in their old home, were looking nostalgically out at the white cherry orchard under the moonlight, the audience became the trees at risk, proprietorial finger pointing directly at us. Through this trick of imaginary metamorphosis we became entangled, first with the (ominous) future then, later on in the play, with the past - for Peter and Anya, about to embark on a journey of atonement, we represented the voices of the souls of long dead slaves whose sweat and blood built the orchard. Chekhov's play draws out the connection between environmental degradation and slavery in the name of economic progress, then and now. Mitchell's production, incorporating all of us in Chekhov's ecosystem-at-risk, puts us at the core of the damaging nexus of human activity represented in the play.

Weaving the audience into the fabric of an imagined environment seems to be a regular ecotheatre riff. In John Godber's 2007 climate change play Crown Prince, the corner of a bowling green is centre stage and 'When the characters bowl towards the audience they have their eye on an imaginary jack somewhere out towards the centre of the audience.' Metaphorically speaking an unseen (environmental) 'curve ball' is bowled into the audience. So it is with this production of The Cherry Orchard. As the characters in the play say, at different moments: *We could change everything. We just don't. We have so much. We should be giants. We really, really aren't. Life is passing us by. It's as though we've never lived it at all.*

* Text between asterisks is drawn from the published text/theatre programme - see sources.

Creatives: Post Office Clerk - Cavan Clarke; Wanderer - Andy Cresswell; Lyubov Ranevskaya - Kate Duchene; Firs - Gawn Granger; Peter Trofimov - Paul Hilton; Station Master - Peter Hobday; Boris Simeonov- Pishchik - Stephen Kennedy; Varya - Natalie Klamar; Charlotte Ivanova - Sarah Malin; Yasha - Tom Mothersdale; Dunyasha - Sarah Ridgeway; Alexander Lopakhin - Dominic Rowan; Simeon Yepikhodov - Hugh Skinner; Anya - Catrin Stewart; Leonid Gaev - Angus Wright. Direction - Katie Mitchell; Design - Vicki Mortimer.

Sources. Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard, English Language Version by Simon Stephens (London, New Delhi, New York, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2014). Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard, translated by Sharon Marie Carnicke (Indianapolis, Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 2010). John Godber, 'Crown Prince', in Plays: 4 (London: Methuen Drama, 2009). Simon Stephens, 'Wastwater', in Wastwater and T5 (London: Methuen Drama, 2011). Played at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court in March 2011.


June 16, 2014

Arcola Theatre – Waiting for Godot. 11th June 2014

The Arcola setting of Waiting for Godot was centred around a pile of rubble rising diagonally up through the walls and onto the first floor of the seemingly crumbling building of the theatre itself. For some spectators, sitting opposite, it resembled nothing less than a giant desiccated wormery, whose former inhabitants had long fled. Sometimes, Didi scrambled up and sat on the first floor ledge, legs dangling over the edge, to watch the proceedings, and, indeed, the audience. Sitting directly opposite him at the same height, making an effort to hold his unwavering voyeuristic gaze, I was no longer the observer but the (uncomfortably) observed, waiting for Godot.

The stage, if it could be called that, was an uninviting, badly damaged, puddled surface of unknown origin. It could have been a degraded formerly interior concrete surface, or a piece of land stripped of topsoil, right down to clay. A large duckboard lay futilely towards the front or was it the side, or the back, or the middle of the stage - which would depend where you were sitting in the audience. Our seats, positioned in front of, behind and to one side of the action, were mixed up with the wreckage shored up against environmental ruins. A dilapidated old chair, identical to the seats an audience member had perhaps sat in in a former life, lay overturned where it had fallen or been thrown. The single naked tree meanwhile stood rigidly against the steel corner beam of the building, roots trapped in the mound of bricks, lumps of concrete and stones. This was the utterly awful place in which Didi and Gogo waited for Godot, and the limits and pressures of physiology and psychology (accurately played by a strong cast) shaped the self-inflicted human suffering endured by the people stuck in this environment.

Una Chaudhuri refers to the ecological meaning in plays such as Waiting for Godot as 'occluded'. In the Arcola production, such meaning could hardly be more stark. Didi and Gogo inhabit a post-entropic world composed of layers of accumulated degradation and dead matter, so dry and dusty that all hope of decomposition is gone, and jugs of water are required to slake the dust that might otherwise choke the audience. The water of the world was a 'constant quantity' and it is gone. Gogo's first appearance, ironically, resembled a birth as he comically struggled to emerge from the plastic sack in which he seemed to have slept, and now might suffocate. In a couple of centuries' time, the recently predicted disappearance of the West Antarctic ice sheets might develop in parallel with desolate scenes like this, and the human beings enduring preindustrial conditions might be imagined to say, as Vladimir does: 'What's the use of losing heart now [...]. We should have thought of it, a million years ago, in the nineties'. Waiting for Godot adapts with the times, and one of several possible environmental readings of this production, for the 21st century, is of the danger of waiting for so long that it will be too late to 'look to nature'.

Creatives:Adam Charteris (Boy); Jonathan Oliver (Pozzo); Tom Palmer (Vladimir); Michael Roberts (Lucky); Tom Stourton (Estragon). Source: Programme Notes.

Brief production history: San Quentin Prison (1957); Mississippi during the civil rights movement (1964); Sarajevo during the Bosnian War (1993); post-Katrina New Orleans (2007); post-Deepwater Louisiana Wetlands (2011); Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street (2011); post-tsunami Fukushima (2011). Sources: Programme notes and the websites of Loyola University and the Kamome Machine Theatre Group.


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