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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

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.

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.

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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