All entries for August 2015

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).


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