Tag Archives: Barbican

Age of Rage – Barbican

Age of Rage, Barbican (by Jan Versweyveld)

The work of Ivo van Hove has proven divisive, the extent to which the director incorporates cinematic styles and influences into his work is a question of personal taste, so while some critics and audiences find work like All About Eve gimmicky, his parred-down version of The Human Voice was also criticised for not being gimmicky enough. So, it is interesting to look at the techniques he employs with the Dutch theatre company Internationaal Theater Amsterdam where the boundaries of all forms of artistic expression are easily and innovatively blurred. Building on long, immersive dramas including the acclaimed Roman Tragedies, Age of Rage, staged at the Barbican for only four nights, put a rock and roll spin on five stories in Greek tragedy emphasising the female impetus for violent revenge.

van Hove’s best work has focused on female protagonists and he is a director that acutely understands and can convey the interior female experience. And while there may be plenty of techniques employed in their presentation, these never detract from or overshadow the emotional substance of the lead and her context. The simplicity of the stripped-back staging choices for Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre sit alongside public-private divisions explored in All About Eve and the truly personal and deeply affecting experience in The Human Voice where unobserved deterioration was powerfully captured. Here in Age of Rage, van Hove’s work, co-adapted from Euripides and Aeschylus by Koen Tachelet, follows a notable drama trend in restoring and more fully excavating the role of women in Greek tragedy and returning a sense of agency, danger and determinism to their lives in a period usually associated with male bombast, war and all forms of directed masculine violence.

Like Jermyn Street Theatre’s 15 Heroines shown during lockdown and more recently Kyo Choi’s Galapagos, the understanding and presentation of women in Greek mythology as victims and chattels is being revised, and while the murder, rape and bestial transformation by the Gods of women has informed subsequent gender structures, expectations and behaviours, the consequences of these actions when instigated by women were severe and often gruesome for the men who betrayed, captured or violated them. Age of Rage places those female stories centre stage, showing how female-driven revenge truly shaped the lives of men.

Telling the story of the Trojan War through the fortunes of Agamemnon’s family, this production explores notions of inherited trauma and inter-generational suffering by comparing concepts of individual and national sacrifice. When Agamemnon slaughters his daughter Iphigenia to guarantee favourable winds for the Greek fleet, it sets in motion a chain of events that play-out over the 3 hours and 45-minutes of this intensive drama. Structured around five related and consequential narratives – Iphigenia in Aulis, Trojan Women and Hecuba, Agamemnon, Elektra and Orestes – there are both dynastic and thematic links across the show that see some of the same events occur in different places and periods, while subsequent characters feel the impact of those who came before. The extent to which individuals are used or destroyed to pay a larger debt is significant and the ruination of the innocent looms large across the show. The death of Iphigenia to support someone else’s family, another man’s war and the whims of the Gods is crucial to understanding the female position in Age of Rage and the events their fury unleashed.

Mother and daughter relationships disrupted by male intervention occur again and again. When Clytemnestra discovers her husband’s betrayal, the conversation focuses on why Agamemnon chooses to sacrifice their daughter in order to rescue Helen, his friend Menelaus’s wife. From here, two particular narratives emerge that flow through the remainder of the production; the first is the role of Helen in causing all the events that follow and her active part not just in the deaths of thousands of men in the ten year conflict that ensues, but also as the cause of innocent deaths among civilians where several male parents choose to offer up their children to the Gods for her sake and the victory of Greece over Troy for which the women of the story violently resent her. The second is the role of the Gods in guarding and shaping events and the extent to which mortals have any control over their destiny. The arrival of Cassandra in one of the later segments with her prophesies that come to pass are part of a theme about ritual and practice in Greek life, examining how far the behaviour of everyday Greek citizens is fundamentally driven by religion and the space between the divine and human, especially in maternal decision-making.

Although men are in the foreground in determining the narrative direction of Greek tragedy – they start and conduct the wars and sacrifice the children – their emotional life in Age of Rage is, on the whole, relegated and associated with compliance with social dictates and religious expectations. Likewise, the consequences for them are largely political, having to balance this pleasing of the Gods with adhering to the mob and honouring bonds of fraternity with other men. We see them interacting in formal structures as comrades, war leaders and as politicians choosing to support or condemn behaviours based on the exacting strictures of “manly” behaviour. No amount of pleading prevents Agamemnon and others from sacrificing Iphigenia or Hecuba’s daughter Polyxena, thus the King remains immune to the wailing of women in order to do his duty as a man. This is most notable when Orestes is chastised by his grandfather Tyndareus despite avenging his father’s death because he is seen to have been coerced by his sister Elektra. In the male-structured world in which Age of Rage takes place, deference to any woman in the play is perceived as weakness from which only disgrace can follow.

That the women break through this structure to dominate and fundamentally shape the play is vital, emphasising the cost of these choices, of the human pain and consequences that mires the Atreus family across multiple generations. This tension runs through the show, pulling the female characters into the centre of the drama and creating psychologically complex creations who are in equal parts sympathetic and monstrous, instigating murderous crimes that emerge from their earlier maternal wounds and long-festering resentments. Men may create dangerous situations and embark on drawn-out, complicated wars, but it is the women who hold on to their hurts and wreak a terrible devastation that shakes the very foundations of morality, bringing social upset. From Clytemnestra’s brazen murder of her husband and subsequent flaunting of her lover to the aggrieved Hecuba physically attacking men with her loyal followers and Elektra castrating the body of her mother’s lover, Age of Rage is a ferocious statement of strategic female power and bodily vengence.

And in van Hove’s production, that power extends to an extraordinary visual experience that seamlessly combines theatre, a heavy metal soundtrack, dance and an operatic grandeur that is intense, bold and fresh in its vision while never drawing attention from the emotional volcanoes erupting between the characters. Jan Versweyveld creates a representative metal framework around the stage from which items including bloodied corpses can be dropped into the centre of the action, or the rigging used as additional platforms to alter the staging levels by creating opportunities for the Chorus cum dance troupe cum mob to observe the very public behaviours of their royal family. Into that almost Brechtian space, van Hove allows his creativity to flow freely, unconstrained by the more timid styles of British theatre, using a vast video backdrop – largely used for colour and pattern that cinematic relay – and minimal props to set the scene.

The first Act, lasting around two hours, opens with a deep heavy metal prologue played on electric guitar with bursts of flashing light also designed by Versweyveld. Throughout this first section, the tone is trashy glamour, a rock concert of sound and colour drawn together in An D’Huys’s grungy sequin costume design that gives the piece a seediness that prevents the audience from connecting to closely with characters whose moral and personal aptitudes will never be straightforward.

The tone is different again in Act Two as the story accelerates a generation to become a revenger’s revenge, blurring the boundaries of crimes and their appropriate punishment. Focusing largely on Elektra and Orestes, this becomes a pastoral piece far from the sheen of the court where a base of mud physically and metaphorically mires the characters. Fed by constantly dripping water from the rigging, it represents people now steeped in generations of corruption, staining their lives and anyone who comes into contact with them – not least the crisp cream suit of Tyndareus denoting a man very much out of place in this agrarian setting. Smell too becomes an important storytelling device, expanding the sense of immersion as the fragrant incense and turbine-driven smoke of Act One give way to the earthy freshness of wet mud filling the auditorium as these former aristocrats, almost God-like in their power, status and (notably) seemingly immune from consequences, are physically brought down to earth where their bodies join the thousands of others who die in this story either in combat or in sacrifice. Blood will beget blood Macbeth states, and so it proves.

As an exercise in artistic creativity, van Hove’s easily combines theatre and dance to tell the story and understand its wider impacts. Dance is often a separate moment in UK theatre, either it is its own distinct art form or a chance to pause for a specific number within a musical or opera. But in Age of Rage, all kinds of contemporary dance is integrated into the narrative either reflecting the ritualistic moments associated with worship, the “headbanger” style of heavy metal which exemplified the uncontrolled female fury of the title or used as a Chorus that combines movement and song to comment on and progress the story. There is less sense of separation between these different media and instead van Hove is telling the story simultaneously via dance, music and dramatic exchange, each woven into the other, raising and enhancing each style to provide an integrated and often booming experience. Although opera itself is not used, the grand narrative approach, big characters and stylised visual design is operatic in scale, enough to capture the inter-generational themes, life, death and the god-drivers while still retaining its intimate and psychologically-intensive character focus that examines the human and family cost of tragedy.

The performances are equally bold and deep, particularly Chris Nietvelt’s Clytemnestra flaunting her womanhood and sexuality in a low-cut sparkly halter neck dress and knee-high boots while being vigorous in her maternal grief for a daughter snatched away. Later, as she overtly parades her liaison with a younger man and years of embedded rage that boil over, Nietvelt creates a complex, contradictory and rounded Queen who evokes quite opposite reactions. Hans Kesting as Agamemnon and Gijs Scholten van Aschat as Menelaus are ultimately weak men able to use their indiscriminate power but both unable to hold on to their wives or recognise any free will that might exist to defy the high price asked by the Gods. Hélène Devos dominates the second half as a fiery Elektra resenting every moment of her poverty and using that resentment to fuel a sustained rage over more than a decade while quickly manipulating brother Orestes (Minne Koole) to act in the destruction of their mother. Outside the core family, Janni Goslinga as Hecuba powerfully conveys the cost of motherhood while Ilke Paddenburg as Iphigenia and all the sacrificed children makes an important point about the universality of that grief as the body count racks up with visual representation on screen as dancing figures lost forever.

There is real moral complexity in Age of Rage that not only passes between generations but also refuses to let one act expunge other faults – Clytemnestra may have just cause to murder her husband but her lascivious lifestyle means her own death is equally justifiable. With smoke, wind machines, video design, brash costumes, music and mud, van Hove’s show on paper seems like a lot, bold and gaudy, yet in practice it has emotional depth and an energy that is redolent of European theatre and of the lives Greek tragedy represents. Performed for only four days, Age of Rage was a thrilling retelling of familiar stories, a rare chance to see a van Hove grand vision come so vividly and memorably to life.

Age of Rage ran at the Barbican from 5-8 May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Grief is the Thing with Feathers – Barbican

Grief is the Thing with Feathers - Barbican

Grief on stage and in popular culture is rarely considered as a psychological state of its own but as a means or driver for other behaviour. Hamlet may be devastated by the loss of his father that leads to his own existential considerations of suicide but it ultimately becomes the root of his desire for revenge. Later in Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff rushes to the grave of his beloved Cathy to dig up her body, as Hamlet and Laertes once grappled with the corpse of Ophelia. Even in modern culture, our perspective on grief involves sobbing widows in black veils and, often, angry arguments at the wake – where would Soap Opera funerals be without a revelatory drama and plenty of hand wringing?

But these are all just the physical trappings of mourning, the downcast eye and sullen air that Gertrude chides Hamlet for, behaviours stemming from grief but not fundamentally representative of the internal process and experience of losing a loved one. Max Porter’s 2015 novella is different, Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a manifestation of the confusion, pain and self-immolation experienced by one man on the untimely death of his wife, leaving him to raise their two Primary School-aged boys. It is a complex piece of writing in which a crow comes to care for the bereaved family, told from the perspective of the Dad, children and bird that revels in its use of language and sound.

Bringing that to the stage is no easy task but Director Enda Walsh’s production, which premiered in Ireland last year and is now playing at the Barbican, creates an innovative and challenging piece of theatre that captures the multi-layered and non-linear nature of Porter’s writing. Crucial to this is the decision to make Crow a psychological rather than a physical presence, no unsatisfactory puppetry or video design but a clear personification of grief itself in which Cillian Murphy assumes the duel role of Dad and Crow, making them ostensibly the same drowning man. In doing so, this production deepens its presentation of the experience, showing how completely subsumed Dad becomes within his own mind and while his perspective has moments of lucidity, there is a general palling of the world around him, including the existence of his own children.

There’s much here that links to David Cronenberg’s 2002 film Spider which took an equally internal perspective on one man’s delusion. There the viewer re-lived recollections of the protagonist’s childhood memories, seen through his eyes, using a refracted technique to create a jumbling effect that cast doubt on the overall veracity of the narrative. With a similar idea of going into the character’s unbalanced mind, Walsh’s production uses a variety of similar techniques to create a distorting effect built around Murphy’s central performance, and utilising his skill as a physical as well as a cerebral actor.

Most notable is Will Duke’s projection that subtly charts the growing dominance of Crow in Dad’s mind, using first the concept of an old slide-show to show large-scale images of his family drawings in which Dad has reimagined his entire family with crow’s heads. As his mind succumbs further to the Crow personality, Dad physically transforms his posture, voice and manner, using a hooded dressing gown and hunched-over shape in which his arms are tucked into a pouch on his back to create pointed wings, a sinister but effective approach which looks especially ominous cast in long shadow against the expansive rear wall.

There is no doubting that this is a level of mania, one that builds as the show unfolds, the occupation of the human mind that results in increasing frenzy as the psychological effects of grief take hold. Consequently, as with Porter’s book, a lot of what is happening or said makes little sense but the overall creative effect is of a fragmented mind bucking against the ordinariness of the real man and his world, a disruptive chaos allowing him to retreat inside while everything falls around him. The central notion of an individual being pulled under is vividly created, not least in the climactic storm scene which, like a rock concert, involves Adam Silverman’s strobed lighting design ricocheting dramatically around the walls as Murphy delivers a thunderous monologue into a close-held microphone. Like the breaking of a fever, the aftermath is a return to calm and rejuvenation.

Duke’s video design is also used to underscore the play’s literary source material and Porter’s fascination with sound and poetic rhythm. In the early moments of Crow’s arrival, the words he speaks in booming voiceover are transcribed in thick black text onto the walls of Dad’s flat, they appear at interlocking angles before being obscured by thick blocks of feathery black. The effect is as though Crow is actively obscuring Dad’s mind, erasing his conscious expression by obliterating his main form of communication, through which the almost parasitical Crow takes control.

The idea of these projections as the interior of Dad’s mind is further reinforced by scenes of his dead wife, memories and videos of days out that are at first too painful to recall, and from which Dad actively turns away. But as his mind fully processes the grief, her image recurs first more strongly and then on a much larger scale, covering the wall with scenes of a windswept beach walk. United with Helen Atkinson’s sounds design in which we eventually hear Mum’s voice (played by Hattie Morahan), there is a sense of development inside Dad’s head and as he comes to terms with her loss he can once again revisit memories with a painful happiness that revives her in his mind, displacing the destructive influence of Crow with a sense of normality once more.

At the heart of all of this is a performance of some intensity by Cillian Murphy, an actor who has demonstrated considerable range across his work choices. All of the many fragments of Murphy the actor seem to distil through this performance, so we get aspects of the sinister villain who sometimes frightens his children as well as himself, the frenzied loon of comic book movies and the soulful devastation of his indie film choices. As Murphy shows, Dad is a character in some flux, trapped in his own mind, both its leader and its victim, a state which can change in a second, while the mercuriality of Murphy’s performance gives gravitas and meaning to the elaborate staging around him.

Using a small microphone as Crow, his physical energy is powerfully conveyed, scampering around the set, climbing up walls and bouncing on tables, reflecting the surge of adrenalin and vigour that can be a bodily effect of mental illness. He’s truly disturbing as the off-kilter Crow, insisting on taking-over family duties but clearly a disruptive and malevolent presence in the household. Even when you’re not sure what is really happening, Murphy radiates such a compelling power that you cannot take your eyes from him.

Murphy shares the stage with the two actors playing his sons, and here Walsh amplifies the internalisation of Dad’s grief by ensuring for a long time he barely acknowledges them. They exist as he does, but Murphy, like a sleepwalker, doesn’t register them or his responsibility for them until much later in the play. Dad/Crow gives them things to do but must also come to terms with the secondary role he has been playing in their lives until now, one that he fears he cannot manage without his wife. It isn’t until the end of the story that he is better able to reach them as a proper father, and credit to both young actors that their own performances are made to feel like Dad’s perception of them.

It is a play, like Pinter actually, that requires you to feel rather than to understand, and by unfolding the stages of grief in this unusual fashion Dad’s ultimate fragility is what comes across so strongly. Some of Murphy’s very best moments are in the lulls between manic episodes, where he cogently and with great feeling tenderly tells the audience how much he’s hurting, how much he misses the everyday objects that his wife touched, the routines of their all too brief life together and how utterly besotted he was with her every day. Here Murphy is small, quiet and broken, a man who cannot compute how significantly his life has been upturned but clearly too weak to fight the arrival of Crow and the loss of mental control that follows.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is never any easy watch nor a cosy night at the theatre. If you’ve never read Porter’s part novel, part poem and go expecting a conventional play about the trappings of grief, then Walsh’s adaptation will be heavy going, resistant as it is the conventions and logic of narrative form. Nor is it a straightforwardly emotional experience, you won’t come away sobbing for this family and, although there are moments of great pain a lot of it is impressionistic – this is really challenging stuff. Yet, real experiences of loss are far more complex than popular culture might suggest and through Murphy’s impactful performance we are given a glimpse of a man struggling with the psychological effects of grief and learning to find a way forward.

Grief is a Thing with Feathers is at the Barbican until 13 April but currently sold out so check regularly for returns. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Basquiat: Boom for Real – Barbican

Basquiat at the Barbican

Artist Jean-Michael Basquiat became a member of the infamous 27 Club in 1988 when he died from a drug overdose, joining stars like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison before him, and Kurt Kobain and Amy Winehouse after. Together with numerous others, the much-lamented lost talent of the 27 Club represents a group reaching the height of their power and abruptly cut short. Basquiat’s work as a painter, graffiti artist and musician is celebrated in a new exhibition at the Barbican which, now thirty years on, demonstrates Basquiat’s role in using art to communicate the politicised anger of America’s poorest communities and their recognition of the now-empty American Dream.

One of the most revealing aspects of the Barbican’s excellent new show is how carefully it builds the case for Basquiat’s influence on modern art, and how the simplicity of the surface appearance of his art belies a considerable depth, understanding and passion for a wider-range of subjects. Starting on the upper level of the Gallery, Curators Dieter Buchhart and Eleanor Nairne walk the viewer through Basquiat’s life, represented through his pictures, from his early days as an anonymous graffiti artists leaving pithy statements across New York, to his emergence onto the 80s club scene, mingling with Madonna and other recognisable faces at the The Mudd Club, an important meeting place for a particular wave of young, disenfranchised creatives, and becoming friends with his hero Andy Warhol.

But this is more than a chronologized life-story, and in the lower galleries, the Curators skilfully unpick the huge range of influences and knowledge that infuse Basquiat’s work in several themed areas intended to explain the deep research, use of symbolism and cultural markers that are referenced again and again in his work. Taken together, they result in a strong sense of the context in which his work was created, as well as its development over time, and the complex relationship between his own self-image and the layers of meaning beneath the surface. The result is one of the most intelligently considered and genuinely insightful exhibitions you will see this year.

For Britain and America, the late 1970s / early 1980s was a period of economic uncertainty, deprivation and political instability. Long before the financial boom of the 80s, people suffered as large-scale industries started to close due to overseas competition, strikes and protest became more frequent, and there was a sense that traditional structures were breaking-down across society, and not for the better. It was a time when the gap between rich and poor felt wider than it ever had, and the process of social decay, initiated by the debt-ridden aftermath of the Second World War was in its death throes.

Into this space came of wave of young musicians and artists whose work, even now, still feels full of the anger, fear and disillusion of those days. Rebellious bands like The Jam (who were the subject of an excellent exhibition at Somerset House in 2015) and The Clash, and artists like Basquiat provided a social record of the failure of their parent’s generation to resolve the outcome of war, and the desire to speak-up for those without an artistic outlet for their impotence. The punk aesthetic that feeds in to Basquiat’s work became a way to envision those feelings of powerlessness, using a deceptively simple style or creating a “tag” for his graffiti creations that generalise the social comments he’s making. These are the work of one or two men, but the voice of many.

And you see this again and again in the photographs of his graffiti statements, scrawled across garage doors, walls, door frames and windows crying out for an end to the facile, drudgery of 9-5 work or the externally imposed expectations of society to behave in a particular way. In the second room entitled ‘Samo©’, the Barbican have collated an insightful series of images of these slogans and declarations created by Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz under the character of Samo©, that peppered parts of New York in 1978. Like waiting for a new Banksy to appear, the Samo© pieces touched on the pointlessness of life, ‘for those of us who merely tolerate civilization’ and the sense that each day is just ‘another way 2 kill some time’. Taken together in this room, they are a remarkable outpouring of fury but offer unique access to the ideas that drove the rest of Basquiat’s work.

A sense of community was also important, bringing together others who felt the same and helped to enhance Basquiat’s work which the Barbican demonstrates in the next two rooms on the Canal Zone loft party where he met several like-minded people who he went on to work with, and on display are the colour-photocopied postcards he made with Jennifer Stein that use 3-D objects, layering and collage to create a series of striking pieces that mock the obsession with brand and image that dominated America at the time. Likewise, his frequent appearance at The Mudd Club put Basquiat right at the centre of the underground scene, where he performed as a musician and there are various images from this period which give the viewer a strong impression of Basquiat’s lifestyle.

Passing through a documentary he made which shows the desperate poverty of New York and a trip to LA that resulted in the acidic yellow ‘Hollywood Africans’ [1983] which satirises the empty wealth of an area built on slavery and references the enduring racism of film, the section on Basquiat’s time with Warhol is one of the best in the show. Most fascinating is the double portrait ‘Dos Cabezas’ [1982] in which Basquiat has inserted a highly simplified self-portrait with wild hair next to a much more flattering and considered Piccaso-esque image of Warhol. It shows the beginning of Basquiat’s desire to reduce his own image to a symbol, increasingly simplifying his appearance in pictures until he is reduced to a silhouetted figure or just a crown of dreadlocks. This picture tells us something about the way Basquiat saw himself and, despite his simplistic style, that the image of Warhol proves he had a talent for anatomical drawing, more of which we discover downstairs in the exhibition.

Having established his style and the world as he experienced it, the second part of the exhibition delves deeper into Basquiat’s continued self-education and the ways in which he incorporated broad interests into his work. From previous shows, including the excellent Constable exhibition at the V&A, we know that artists have always looked to their predecessors to learn the fundaments of perspective, shape and colour, and a whole section is dedicated here to Basquiat’s attention to art history.

Alongside original copies of his books, Basquiat’s detailed anatomical images draw on the work of another hero in ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’s Greatest Hits’ [1982], classical elements are picked up from Titian, and Manet, while the semi-abstract style comes from Picasso and Matisse. As well as ‘Untitled (Pablo Picasso)’ [1984], an eponymously titled portrait of the young Picasso with strong jawline wearing the striped red jersey of his later years, artists’ names appear like graffiti in several other pictures displayed here.

Basquiat, Barbican

This is a technique Basquiat uses repeatedly, whether he’s hailing the heroes of early Jazz like Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong, figures from Greek tragedy or Old Testament Christianity, or Voodoo symbols, his work in the second half of the exhibition is detailed and intriguing, displaying an astonishing range of influences. Pieces such as the triptych ‘Ishtar’ [1983] or ‘Glen’ [1985] are like maps covered in little notes, drawings and images as all of the information in his head spilled onto the canvas. It’s the kind of detail that Grayson Perry has become known for more recently, as both artists attempted to capture a particular theme or period.

It ends with more of Basquiat’s notebooks and an examination of his engagement with classic film, both in its ongoing influence and its rather stilted portrayal of black lives which still feels particularly pertinent. Aspects of Basquiat’s work may utilise the childlike doodles of the untrained artist, but as you wander through this exhibition, something much deeper than that emerges. The curators have done well to convey not just what life was like in a particularly downtrodden area of New York, filled with creative people living an underground existence, but how these things shaped the work of an artist who continually strove to read and understand more to give his pieces political backbone. Even if you’ve never heard of him, Basquiat: Boom for Real is worth a chance, and by the end you’ll understand why his death at the age of just 27 feels like an abrupt conclusion for an artist with plenty more to say.

Basquiat: Boom for Real is at the Barbican until 28 January. Tickets are £16 with concessions available. Please note the Barbican now has a no bags policy (not even small handbags) in the Art Gallery so leave extra time to queue for the cloakroom. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Obsession – The Barbican

Obsession - The Barbican

We’re in an age of the super-star theatre director, where their name alone will not only sell plenty of tickets – even before you factor in any well-known actors – but is also a hallmark of style. There have always been famous directors of course but with a high turnover of shows in London’s big venues, the existence of dedicated companies with a lead director who work together repeatedly is only now coming back into fashion. Kenneth Branagh’s 10-month residence at the Garrick was a significant success, while Robert Icke at The Almeida and Jamie Lloyd at the Trafalgar Studios work repeatedly with the same cast and crew, forming an unofficial company of sorts.

Perhaps the biggest name in London theatre right now is Ivo van Hove whose Toneelgroep Amsterdam company has regular seasons at the Barbican, while van Hove wetted the appetite of London theatre goers with his extraordinary interpretations of A View From the Bridge and this year’s Hedda Gabler at The National Theatre working primarily with British actors. It was only a matter of time then before his European and British interests would meet, and the result is Obsession which unites Toneelgroep with three British actors including Jude Law.

As a director, van Hove is renowned for the physical sparsity of his staging which allows the emotional life of the characters to emerge uncluttered. For an audience, this approach is often uncomfortable but entirely consuming, watching helplessly as stories hurtle to unstoppable conclusions, while the tragic flaws of the central character are writ large. With nothing to distract you, van Hove turns characters inside out so we can see what drives them, and ultimately what destroys them – it’s a powerful technique that is always emotionally shocking but transforms well-worn plays into something fresh, relevant and timeless.

Obsession has quite vast cultural roots and van Hove’s new production is based on the 1943 film (Ossessione) by Luchino Visconti, which was itself based on James M Cain’s 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, a title you may recognise from two subsequent American films of the same name, one with Lana Turner in 1946 and another with Jack Nicholson in 1981. This version is firmly based on and credits the Italian interpretation but follows the same central story: Former solider and now drifter Gino arrives at the roadside bar owned by Joseph and his much younger wife Hanna. Initially suspicious, Joseph chases Gino away but an instant attraction to Hanna makes him linger. Within days he’s indispensable to them both, but Hanna wants out of her marriage and the adulterous lovers take a murderous path. But will it bring the right kind of freedom to either of them?

The first thing you’ll notice about van Hove’s production is the cavernous space on stage filled with only a few pieces of scenery. Designed by regular collaborator Jan Versweyveld, this modern set has only a bar, bath, back window and door, and a giant engine representing the truck Joseph is trying to fix. The Barbican stage is already sizeable, but the emptiness of it gives it a giant garage-like feel entirely devoid of emotion, and not the warm, loving home Hanna desires. And Jan Peter Gerrits, who has adapted the film, wastes no time in introducing Gino and getting the lovers together within minutes of the play starting. With only 1hr 45 minutes and no interval, the writing is slick and spare, delivering only what we need to understand the plot and what characters feel at any given moment.

For anyone who has waited to see Jude Law play the harmonica then this is the play for you, heralding Gino’s arrival, a symbol of his freedom and wanderer status. His lust for Hanna is instantly clear and the two circle each other briefly before succumbing to their passionate connection. But this is only the start of the story for Gino, and Law creates a complicated figure, drawn to the security and camaraderie of fellow veteran Joseph, but unable to contain his overbearing feelings for Hanna. The power struggle between them becomes hugely significant in the rest of the play, and while their desire is mutual, control is something that Hanna seems to gain as Gino loses.

Most interesting is the second half of the performance in which Law gets to explore the consequences of their actions, and it is here that he unpacks ideas of guilt and regret which take the audience deeper into his mind. His former army service make him dangerous and several violent eruptions are sudden and shocking, adding an edge to his interactions with Hanna, but Law makes it clear this is all part of his sense of containment – caused by his affair with Hanna – that make him unable to flee from his actions or himself.

Like van Hove’s recent Hedda Gabler, Gino longs for the freedom of the life he knew before, but is equally unable to walk away despite several attempts. His chance meeting with fellow drifter Johnny offers companionship and chance to join the navy, while a need to confess his actions much later in the play to dancer Anita give him a freedom from the burden of carrying his remorse which Law uses skilfully to show us that the extent of Gino’s suffocation is both physical and emotional. There is a slightly heightened style to the production which takes some getting used to, but Law fits seamlessly into the existing Toneelgroep Amsterdam company, holding his own but never allowing his movie star status to pull focus, which is no easy task and admirably achieved.

His counterpart Halina Reijn as Hanna is the stronger part of the couple and more easily able to accept her actions, seemingly without remorse. Driven entirely by her passion for Gino, something she fights hard for and fervently clings to, Hanna is as enthusiastic an adulteress as she is cold and calculating in the manipulation of the men around her. What saves her from being a classic femme fatale is the lack of self-awareness that Reijn gives her, and while she does terrible things, they are almost guileless and driven solely by love rather than money or power.

Yet Hanna has a touch of Lady Macbeth about her, able to better control her public face than Gino who finds it harder to reconcile their actions. Reijn’s Hanna sees a clear line from wanting something and taking it to enjoying the spoils. To her the plan was devised so she and Gino could be happy, and cannot comprehend his moodiness and distance after the fact. She seems more the villainess than Gino perhaps but she feels liberated by their actions while he is imprisoned by them.

As the cuckolded husband Joseph, Gijs Scholten van Aschat is nicely ambiguous, neither entirely likeable or objectionable, leaving just enough room for the audience to pity him, casting doubt on Hanna’s motives. Fine support is given by Chukwudi Iwuji in the dual role of priest and inspector adding the moral and legal perspective on the central relationship, while Robert de Hoog and Aysha Kala have brief roles as drifter Johnny and dancer Anita.

van Hove’s production is almost a continuous stream of consciousness as scenes slide into one another with nothing more than an intake of breath to indicate a change of time, day or even venue. Key decisions or moments are underscored by Tal Yarden’s video projected across the walls, showing the intimacy between Gino and Hanna which helps to counteract the size of the stage, but also reflects the play’s origins in Visconti’s film. Frequently characters try fruitlessly to run away from the bar on a treadmill (which looks a bit ridiculous) but their scared and desperate faces are projected around the stage ensuring in that second the whole room is filled with the characters’ inner life.

Obsession’s slightly heightened reality, reflected in the acting style, may not suit all tastes and there’s something in the central characters that keeps the audience slightly distanced from them – you’re drawn in enough to feel the intensity of their relationship but kept back sufficiently to judge their behaviour as that passion curdles into something more destructive. So, while this is gripping and innovative it doesn’t quite have the power of A View From the Bridge or Hedda Gabler, you leave Obsession with lots to think about but not shaken to the core and needing a lie down.

Similarly, the influence of film and simpler theatre styles is still difficult for those used to the more traditional productions that still dominate the West End, so it will be interesting to see what will certainly be a range of differing reactions to Obsession after tomorrow’s press night. Nonetheless, with official and unofficial theatre companies becoming more prevalent, Ivo van Hove’s attempts to create closer collaboration and integration between British and European theatre approaches is to be welcomed, and his integration of stylised techniques, along with a very decent turn from Law, make Obsession’s tale of a destructive love affair compelling viewing.

Obsession is at the Barbican until 20 May and tickets start at £16 and an NT Live cinema screening is scheduled for 11 May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Cymbeline – RSC at the Barbican

cymbeline-royal-shakespeare-company

Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s most derided plays, coming quite late in his career (1609) and offering a top-heavy mish-mash of subplots that are never satisfactorily resolved. In some ways it’s like a greatest hits album of his most recognisable plots and techniques cherry-picked from his earlier successes, but thrown together in a bag and shaken about to form another story entirely, one that unfortunately is far less than the sum of its parts.

There’s some star-crossed lovers right out of Romeo and Juliet (1594-5), a maligned female reputation which questions her virtue like Much Ado About Nothing (1598-9), a warrior King who struggles to trust his children (King Lear, 1605-6), some lost siblings and a chance for some female-to-male disguise like Twelfth Night (1599-1600) and people escaping into the magical woods where they meet some common folk as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595-6). By the time he wrote Cymbeline, Shakespeare clearly knew what his audience enjoyed but the jumbling-up of stories with very little poetry is one of his more lacklustre and dense efforts.

Although rarely performed, London has welcomed two major productions in a matter of months; The Globe’s modern reinterpretation which has set the seal on Emma Rice’s tenure as Artistic Director, and the RSC dystopian production which arrived in London at the end of October for a two month run and recasts the titular King as a Queen. Cymbeline is the not-so-straightforward story of an ancient British princess called Innogen who has married her lover Posthumus against the wishes of her mother Cymbeline who then banishes Posthumus to Rome. Here, he enters into a bet with Roman, Iachimo ,who tricks him into believing Innogen has betrayed him.

Meanwhile, Cymbeline is guarding the throne from internal plotters while facing a possible Roman invasion. Meanwhile out in the woods, her two lost children are being raised by a woodsman unaware of their royal status. As Innogen is accused by her husband, she decides to dress as a man and sets off in search him, leaving the three sets of characters to mix at a volatile time for Britain.

The RSC’s production is a pretty mixed affair and in many ways it makes a fairly decent job of envisaging what is a poorly constructed play with relatively little character depth. It starts off really well and the first half rattles along quite efficiently and with a decent amount of tension as the drama of Iachimo’s attempts to upset Innogen’s marriage creates plenty of intrigue and villainy. If you’ve seen enough of the Shakespeare plays listed above then you’ll pretty much know where all of this is going but its credit to Melly Still’s direction that you remain engaged and entertained nonetheless.

Much of this is due to Oliver Johnstone’s performance as Iachimo who manages to avoid becoming a finger-drumming panto villain as he develops and executes his plan to smear Innogen’s reputation. When he meets Posthumus in Rome he is every bit the swarve Italian, impeccably dressed and coiffured, and casually bantering with his attendants. Confident he can seduce Innogen before he meets her, he is pleasantly surprised to find her beautiful but also intellectually his equal, and you sense in Johnstone’s performance that Iachimo begins to fall for her, eager to fulfil the bet and keep her for himself. It adds unusual depth to the scenes between them and like Kinnear’s Iago at the National a few years back you might will him to succeed.

One reason for this is the less successful relationship between Innogen and Posthumus upon which much of the play hinges, and here the company fail to really sell this at the start so the audience never quite believes in their passion for one another. Hiran Abeysekera’s Posthumus is an underwhelming presence, never seemingly a physical or intellectual match for Bethan Cullinane’s Innogen, and so easily led during his exile that it’s difficult for an audience to generate any sympathy for the lovers which fatally undermines the dynamic and drive of the play.

By contrast Cullinane makes for a modern and intriguing heroine, determinedly knowing her own mind and, despite being heir, she is happy to go against her parent’s wishes. The teasing relationship Cullinane’s Innogen develops with Johnstone has considerably more depth than the flatter romance with her husband which adds considerably to the tension in the attempted seduction scene giving it a ‘will they, won’t they’ momentum. But throughout Cullinane balances the emotional introspection as Innogen contemplates life without her lover, with the anger and frustration created by being wrongly accused.

Among the rest of the cast there is a mixture of ability, ranging from those who speak the verse very naturally to those who struggle to find its rhythm, and none of this is helped by the characterisation which often lacks depth – although this is Shakespeare’s own fault. And there are some problems with projection which make it difficult to hear even at the back of the stalls so it’s probably considerably worse in the balcony.

To say it’s difficult to care is an understatement, and even a fair amount of gender-switching which works perfectly well, isn’t used to any particularly effect. Gillian Bevan makes a good fist as warrior queen Cymbeline but spends most of the production stomping around in Ugg boots and a dressing gown, while her second husband, the evil Duke, is given a nice platform by James Clyde but somehow the machinations to overthrow the monarch are never clearly articulated in this production, especially in the first half where the romance takes precedence.

Even Anna Fleischle’s visuals are a little inconsistent which adds to the confusion; The British court seems somewhere between a post-revolution dystopia and a steampunk fantasy world. The walls are covered in graffiti and the place looks quite beaten up, and the costumes suggest a court fallen from its previous glory, including a ragged denim outfit worn by Innogen whose ruffles and puffs are tattered and torn, while the Queen struts around in her nightie. Simultaneous scenes in the woods borrow from the Lost Boys while Rome is firmly set in the 1980s with a Miami Vice look that celebrates slicked back hair and blazers.

It’s actually all a bit confused which makes it much harder to place, raising considerably more questions than it answers – why is Britain in a post-holocaust state and not Rome, what possible major even could have decimated one country without affecting a reasonably near neighbour? It would be perfectly sensible if Britain was pre-civilisation and Rome was on its way as a conqueror but it’s clearly meant to be after some kind of war-like disaster so the reason for this difference is a little vague.

And towards the end as much of the action decamps to the forest the whole things gets a bit Peter Pan with vine trails and hideaways that undermine the danger of a fragile community fending off attempted regicide and succession issues, and starts to feel more like a cheery frolic as families are reunited and political issues resolved. Towards the end, after nearly 3½ hours the whole thing starts to feel very laboured as all the threats dry up and the tension created by Iachimo’s villainous plans splutters to a weak conclusion.

Again much of this is Shakespeare’s fault because Cymbeline is a hotchpotch of half realised plots and poorly delineated characters. Initially the RSC’s production manages to paper over some of the cracks with a show that starts strong, with some very good performances that add layers to the characters, as well as an intriguing vision of a society in decline. Yet, this production feels sluggish and unconvincing in the second half as the plot becomes rather flabby and the tone shifts from political intrigue to fantasy adventure romp which all feels rather thinly conceived. A decent effort by the RSC but it’s not going to salvage Cymbeline’s reputation as a play or have you hurrying to see the play again in the future.

Cymbeline is at the Barbican until 17th December. Tickets start at £10 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1  


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