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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.


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


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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