Originally mounted in 2015, this one-man performance work is enacted with intense, edgy commitment by Simon McBurney, featuring a revolutionary binaural soundscape that places the actor directly (and spectacularly) inside each audience member’s head-individual headsets were handed out in the theatre to facilitate this 3-D aural phenomena; the home stream requires nothing more than personal headphones. The result is an experience akin to a vivid waking dream, a magnificent delusion. McBurney encourages you to close your eyes through most of the running time and allow the sound to transport the imagination-the stage itself is mostly a spare collection of technical material . Based upon a memoir of the journey of National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre into the Amazon and his encounter with a local tribe-and subsequent experiences of mind-bending alterations of time and space, of opening to (and embracing) new possibilities-is mimicked structurally within the work. Like Carlos Castanada’s recollections of his adventures in shamanism, perhaps these events are nothing more than the sum total of regional hallucinogens, but the fundamental principle is allowing the self to ascend in loss of the routine and the assumptive (a lesson this current crisis offers to a global population severely displaced, isolated and dislocated-a new way to see). McBurney has shot some new footage for the stream that playfully extends the perceptual themes and tricks explored in the feature piece, an abandonment to the sensual and the intuitive. The Encounter is available to view through 25 May
Produced especially for digital platforms, directed by artistic director Michael Longhurst, written by Adam Brace specifically for actress Diana Quick, this pithily observed 30-minute piece concerns retired lawyer Judy, a member of the smart Islington set, as she makes a series of increasingly strained video calls to her daughter who is in Palestine doing charitable work. Her demeanour varies wildly between the nervously chatty to recriminatory to trepidatious in accordance with her daughter’s availability or aloofness. It becomes clear as the story progresses that a confrontation at the holidays has led to a bitter estrangement (that her daughter has kept in contact with her father and brother is a source of not-so-masked indignation to Judy). Casting about for relevance (she details the corporate-like intrigues and stratagems in practice with her colleagues at the neighbourhood women’s auxiliaries, internecine battles at the local level of governance), Judy is desperate to wrest any degree of control from her environment including, it would seem, her daughter’s life. There’s a mad race in the neighbourhood, she relates in one call, to be the first people to invite the new Afghan refugee to supper-resentfully beaten to the score, Judy nevertheless proudly claims (without awareness of her own condescension) her instruction to her guest as to the proper way to perceive the troubled politics of his homeland. Quick keeps her character just this side of sympathetic: good hearted, well intentioned, but her genuine concern is hopelessly, reductively entangled in her ego and (un) self-reflective privilege and conceit. Her tone is one of harangue and lecture. A failure to communicate successfully, the distance and alienation in relations with her daughter, is not merely a matter of geography. Midnight Your Time is available to stream through 27 May
Southwark Playhouse was set to mount celebrated playwright Philip Ridley’s new work, Beast of Blue Yonder, from 2 April-6 May, when the Corona pandemic rudely, ungraciously interrupted all cultural calendars. Scrambling creatively, Ridley has written 14 new texts, all in monologue form, for his cast to perform as a series of online releases, meted out in weekly doses (the project is entitled The Beast Will Rise). The first three have been uploaded, running times vary (anywhere from an expansive 18 minutes to a short, sharp profane three-minute punch), all well worth a watch. The structure, confessionals straight to camera from subjects isolated within domestic interiors, is an apt metaphor for the strange times in which the global community is living. Keening hostilities crouch just outside the frame, scratching insistently at doors, scraping through steadily compromised walls. The performers anxiously await a vicious, inevitable visit from without. Gators, the most original and innovative of the initial releases, unfolds an intriguing, curious world in which alligators routinely form affectionate attachments to human beings, and the complex systems which must be followed and rules respected when love is unrequited-and the grave consequences of violating regulations, harmony and natural order blasted out of balance. The narrator, spiralling to ever greater spasms of paranoia and alarm (taking longer, more indulgent quaffs from a can of beer), appears about to crack, the suggestion that she herself possesses gator traits-unhealthy affinities, vengeful spites-acutely defined. Clearly something has decided to bite back with a voluminous, uncontrollable force. The dialogue is enlivened by an on-fire Rachel Bright who wrests every manic nuance from the script.
Zarabooshka at first could be confused with an innocent young girl’s imaginative afternoon idyll in which she creates a perfect fantasy (for herself and her best friend) of living life as princesses in a castle fortress, protected from all ills and inconveniences, until particular details in her tale point to darker adult concerns, desperate needs for wanting to escape troubling, serious exploitations and persecutions, curdling any previous innocuous assumptions. Although more conventional than Gators, the writing (and performance) still carries quite a charge. Chihuahua, featuring the most overtly psychotic character, details a young boy’s disturbing behaviour towards his father’s girlfriend’s dog, unleashing his cumulative anger, frustration and disenfranchisement upon the poor canine. The narration is shocking in its casual cheery dead-eyed candour, the incendiary delivered with calm, unruffled matter-of-factness (the sordid tale is being recounted by the now-teenaged boy). A simple (conclusive) call to supper is chilling in its incongruity given the severity of what has just been told.
Ridley has stated that the monologues are direct reflections of present tumultuous times and in their feverish, cryptic, chaotic, unruly souls beats the heart of a messy, unhinged world. I await the rest of the series, which will run through July.
Just before the Corona clampdown, I made my acquaintance with two works by Caryl Churchill, widely considered to be THE preeminent living playwright with an acclaimed body of work and an unparalleled refinement of thought and reflection.
A Number @ The Bridge Theatre
Quickly transcending its sci-fi premise of a creator/father experiencing a series of brief encounters with various clones of his son, stumbling his way haplessly through a defensive explanation of his past actions and behaviour, his failings in regards to his offspring(s), this precise one-hour piece drifts towards a much more humanly scaled melancholic study of the dangers of parental ego, selfishness and desperation and their cumulatively damaging effects on children. Perhaps nothing more than a rueful but still self-justifying father interacting with three iterations of his wounded son at three stages of development (or possibilities), Roger Allam mines the monstrous humour involved in such absurdly spiralling stabs at rationalisations and excuses, issuing evasive apologies (that certain essential facts alter slightly in each tale he tells to each “son” suggests he remains incapable of full disclosure).
He is best at battling against a fugue of anger, threat and resentment from one son and the crippling anxiety and abject self-abasement of another, but is utterly bewildered and stymied by the contentment and confidence of the third, a family man who refuses to recriminate his father, instead generously accepting him as a flawed, limited human being. Having surmounted familial malignancy by pursuing a full life and finding love, the third son represents an ability to move on from toxic entanglements (and the father who may demand-or only expect-a degree of punishment for his perceived shortcomings stares incomprehensively at such self-possession).
As the sons, a skilful Colin Morgan deftly transfers between emotional states, character types and regional accents, capturing three distinct individuals, a tour-de-force display. Sweeping set changes are accomplished with a remarkably fluid dexterity given the speed at which they are undertaken. What could have been a chilly dissection is instead a heartbreakingly intimate affair. A Number closed on 14 March
In the ominous opening scene of this one-act play, a chirpy aunt explains away the horrific scenes her troubled young niece has witnessed enacted in her uncle’s barn, her rationalisations twisting into ever greater surreal absurdities and follies as the niece’s inquiries grow ever more extreme in detail, pointing to her uncle’s incrimination in sadistic action; the second scene shifts to a studio space where the niece, now grown up, fashions extreme hats for a vaguely defined pageant (which, after a disorienting blackout, is shockingly exposed with a malicious punk blast, a short, sharp sequence full of venom and alarming ruthlessness-the audience witness to the nefarious and depraved purpose to which the hats have been put); the final scene, back at the farm, reveals a world comprehensively at war with itself-as well as humans, plant and animal life has taken up arms and alliances.
The heat of apocalypse is panting at the door, a perpetual night has descended with a fury. A work of brevity (at 45 minutes), Churchill certainly crams it to capacity with ambiguous incident and description, but just as it starts to work towards a wider worldview, it is over, leaving a feeling of dissatisfaction, a thirst unquenched.
Very prescient on such present topics as climate calamity, the migrancy crisis, spiritual anomie, system breakdown, institutional disorder, collapse of compassion, it remains more an abstraction than a fully realised work-perhaps it would better serve on a double-bill with another Churchill play in which it could act as a chapter in an unfolding world. That said, the play tensely overflows with startling, queasy energy and imagination. Far Away closed on 4 April
Watching this thrilling dance performance piece from Montreal’s Le Patin Libre staged in an ice-skating rink reminded me of the precision formations and aerial dynamics of military squadrons such as the Red Arrows or Blue Angels, moving from masterful collective displays of symmetry and movement to sudden deviations of astounding individual skill sets. The troupe hounds and menaces the ice, tearing and slicing its surface in aggressive, forthright slams, waves and weaves. This is not the pageantry and lyricism of figure skating, but rather the bolder thrust of street dance, a skate equivalent of a poetry slam (there are even some inflections of tango, bolero and tap).
Staged as part of Dance Umbrella at Alexandra Palace, with the audience seated in the rink, a viewer can imagine the danger and invigoration of being so close physically to the performers, feeling the chill rising off the ice, hearing the clarity of the blades as they slash and scour, perhaps being the recipient of a wash of ice particles as the dancers come to abrupt stops very near to you.
While a rhythmic soundtrack plays, the performers cyclically emerge from and disappear into a gulf of darkness at the back of the stage, creating sequential frissons of tension and harmony (an effective foot light strategy along the rink’s perimeter adds greatly to atmospherics). While perhaps lacking some of the intensity of having seen it live, I am happy this (sensitively, strikingly filmed) footage offers to give those who missed the work altogether an opportunity to become familiar with its existence. You will be stirred and exhilarated. Here is the Youtube link to the roughly 20-minute piece:
I applaud and appreciate the effort and generosity of many beloved arts institutions (all currently shuttered) in the midst of this ongoing pandemic crisis to keep audiences entertained and instructed via new platforms-mostly for free, astonishingly!-offering streams of past shows or filmed performances of productions that were scheduled for March or April now sadly unable to be experienced live. Via company website or Facebook or Instagram page, with but a click you are watching a full-length play or dance piece or, even, a virtual art exhibition (my first step into this brave new world was courtesy of Guts Gallery with their show “When Shit Hits the Fan” on Instagram view through 16 April).
The National inaugurates their online viewing this Thursday with One Man, Two Guv’nors; Sadler’s Wells is streaming the Balletboyz’s Deluxe through Friday (comprised of two short works and an introductory overture: Bradley 418, based upon a Kate Tempest track, finds all six troupe members taking on a facet of the central fretful character who awakes in early morning beset by vague unease and anxiety, following him through a performance of masculine authority and confidence and drive as he strides through the day; all facets continually crash and clash, attempting unity but so often collapsing into disharmony, a man incapable of resolving his own contradictions-the second, Ripple, although full of supple, poetic movement mimicking the undulating flow of water, suggesting a peaceful, tranquil state of mind, an apotheosis of agreeability, loses focus and fluidity when veering from group dynamic to more individual concentration); Hampstead Theatre will be releasing a new stream of a past play weekly, each available for seven days, starting with You & I;
Royal Opera House offers Peter and the Wolf via Youtube, to be joined by several other productions throughout April; Tate Britain brings a dance piece (Our Bodies, Our Lives) filmed in their colossal Tanks space, originally meant to be performed as part of the Lates programme; Unicorn Theatre streams Girls Like That, a blistering take on the travails of female adolescence perfect for the teen/tween demographic; the haunting song-cycle Ghost Quartet, which played at SoHo’s new Boulevard Theatre, is available via Youtube; Berlin’s famed Schaubruhne now has many of their productions ready to stream; innovative Belgian performance company Peeping Tom (a frequent guest at London Mime Festival) offers one of their older trilogies; the Royal Court has a theatre/film hybrid of its acclaimed 2016 production Cyprus Avenue with Stephen Rea.
Waiting in the wings is the BBC’s broadcast of the Young Vic’s Wise Children and the Almeida’s Albion on both terrestrial and online channels as part of the Culture in Quarantine platform-and the Globe is set to release titles from the Shakespeare archive. This is but a scant listing of the breadth of choice (some of the more interesting independent choices include the harrowing 5 Soldiers detailing the troubled homecoming of military personnel and Canada’s Le Patin Libra’s Vertical Influences, which seems a madcap, inventive dance on ice-and there are all manner of personal/confessional pieces from such festivals as the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringe and London’s own Vault Festival).
Although nothing can replace the physical interaction with a live artistic work, thank the Gods that the digital sphere can take up the charge in its temporary loss and keep us engaged and in touch-as long as we don’t get complacent.
Below is a link to a helpful Guardian article on all the available choices.
An apotheosis of feel-bad, this production by Brooklyn-based Nick Lehane, albeit skilfully crafted and gracefully conceived, is hell-bent on punishing an audience, overwhelming with bleakness, absenting any mere base frivolity of entertainment. Within the narrow confines of a cage in a biomedical lab, under the harsh chill of forensic lighting, an exhausted ape listlessly paces, anxiously alert to heavy-footed movement of technicians and the constant sound of animal distress. Heavy on its conscience, buried deep in the bones, is the weighted knowledge that the spectre of death draws closer.
Its only succour is escape into felicitous memories of its time spent in the embrace of fostered “family”, a time in which motion was freer, more expansive and relaxed, and treatment more loving (the light transitions to a warmer hue and the soundtrack to softer ambience in the remembrance interludes). The puppeteers (fully revealed) manage to extract a great deal of poetry out of every articulation of the simian creature, a clever visual punctuation of the themes of humans being both companionable and manipulative in their relations with animals.
Yet the sad, harrowing tale of this mistreated beast sadistically travels towards a very constricted and hopeless conclusion, a final ecstatic image (beautifully wrought) of a nearly cosmic return to home that is in truth its last gasp. The creators don’t even try to redeem humanity or search out any gesture of salvage, which is not necessarily their responsibility, but it feels like a grave reprimand to the spectators-we are seen incapable of grace or any higher virtue. And only squalid death is a given. Chimpanzee closed on 25 January