Review: A Farewell To Arms, The Old Market Brighton

“Reading makes the text habitable, like a rented apartment”

Combining theatre and film with text and technology, Imitating the Dog’s adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s 1929 novel A Farewell To Arms is an adventurous trek into multimedia storytelling. Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks’ direction sees the leads filmed live but separately, the footage combined into a single scene on large screens all around; Simon Wainwright’s video design sees pages of Hemingway’s book projected onto walls as the words deconstruct and dissolve around the actors; the adaptation foregrounds the epic love story between US ambulance driver Frederic Henry and British Catherine Barkley play out against the final year of the First World War, but it also sees the company commenting on and questioning the action even as they’re acting it out.

Furthermore for this performance (which I only later discovered was captioned as opposed to them being an integral part of the design) were the subtitles, adding in an extra layer to the potent mixture as another iteration of Hemingway’s narrative voice. The resulting interplay between the various media added a most fascinating texture – the text a constant reminder of its novel form, the minor variations uttered by the performers an indication of the artificiality of said context, and the live video slipping in and out of sync heightening the theatricality, becoming something more than just a simple replication of what is occurring but an interpretation of it, an alternative version even. The post-show discussion revealed a fair few people disgruntled by the time lag but for me it niggled with interest. Continue reading “Review: A Farewell To Arms, The Old Market Brighton”

Review: The Drowned Man – A Hollywood Fable, Temple Studios

“Keep your masks on and remain silent at all times”
Such is the instruction as you enter the cavernous former Royal Mail sorting office in Paddington which has been transformed by the Punchdrunk team into Temple Studios, the venue for their biggest show to date – The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. If you’ve been to a Punchdrunk show before, then this will come as no surprise to you (the masks are just as uncomfortable for glasses-wearers); if it is your first, then you should be prepared for something completely different (the masks will still be hot and uncomfortable!) 
Co-directors Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle are genuine pioneers of the style of site-specific immersive theatre that seems almost everyday now, yet their ethos is one which still manages to surprise people. They’re in the business of theatrical experiences rather than regular plays and so one should never approach one of their shows looking for traditional presentations of conventional narrative. Instead, the onus is on the audience to locate their own journey through the world that has been created, and find their own unique adventure.
That’s not to say that it is always successful but rather to locate any critique in the relevant context. The experience of exploring around four large floors without any guarantee of coming across any ‘action’ will naturally not appeal to everyone, but to criticise a lack of story is a misjudgement as that is not what they are trying to achieve here. The Drowned Man may be inspired by Büchner’s Woyzeck but this a fractured, fragmented version of the source material: scenes or segments just appear into view in a random, unannounced fashion, scattered and refracted like pieces of a kaleidoscope and ultimately unified, if at all, only by being part of one’s own journey through the show.

From exploring the near-deserted expanse of basement dressing rooms to seedy sex cinemas, lunar landscapes to trailer parks in forest clearings, sleazy audition chambers to motel rooms stinking of desperation, the sheer variety and exquisite detail of every single nook and cranny of this substantial space is quite something to behold and offers lots of opportunity for (some possibly verboten) playing around as the picture suggests… And the sequences I happened across held some powerfully intriguing moments too – the best for me happening in Studio 5 with the filming of a perky dance routine degenerating into a violently raunchy threesome and a later return trip there also resulting in another effective scene – regular Punchdrunk artist Conor Doyle giving some excellent work here. 

But a sense of adventurous exploration – we were even clambering on our hands and knees at one point – can only take you so far, especially at the times when it seems like nothing is happening nearby. The feeling of frustration can creep in as you cycle round the same area to little effect, especially when it is as sweatily hot as it was the night we were there (the ground floor bar – pictured – offers a much welcomed cooler environment, complete with live music, if you decide to give yourself an interval), and too many of the segments we witnessed reiterated the similar theme of sexual exploitation without suggesting much more besides – one shouldn’t really be left thinking ‘not another polysexual orgy…”. 

And the dynamics of an audience let loose in this way can sometimes be as exasperating as they are often amusing to watch. For all the talk of this being an imaginative journey for the individual, the way in which the herd mentality kicks in is quite remarkable. The minute a small cluster appears, then people start running to join in, convinced there must be something there – the most amusing incident of this resulted in us breaking the Matrix as the mysterious banging on the door turned out to be someone trying to get out of one of the dressing rooms for the performers – and the determination of some people to always be at the front of what is happening is sadly predictable. 

With some tickets coming in at £50, The Drowned Man does feel ambitiously steep and as unique as the experience may be, it might be hard to justify quite so much for this show, its constituent parts may feel a little underwhelming in an instant analysis. But challenging as it is, there really is something genuinely original in its desire to push us as audience members and redefining just what is to be at the theatre. Everyone should experience at least one Punchdrunk show in their life, even if it is just to confirm that it is not the kind of thing that they like and for all its highs, lows and longueurs, it has been a production that I’ve continued to think about even now, days after I went. Sprawling, big, bold, there’s nothing else like it.

Running time: anything up to 3 hours 
Booking until 30th December 
Note: comfortable shoes are a must and check in your bag at the cloakroom, you do not want to be carrying it around with you, especially in the more crowded areas

Film Review: Anna Karenina

 

”I’d rather live life wishing I hadn’t rather than wishing I had”

Today I was lucky enough to catch an early screening of Joe Wright’s new film, Anna Karenina starring Keira Knightley in the title role, which is certain to be divisive with its unique approach. Tom Stoppard has been employed to distil Tolstoy’s weighty tome into something more manageable and his adaptation clocks in at a shade over 2 hours. Remaining largely faithful to the novel, Stoppard’s focus is on exploring different kinds of love, and so whilst the focus is mainly on Anna herself as she negotiates the tumultuous affair with a young cavalryman that sets her against her husband and the might of Russian society, he also ensures that the subplot featuring the agrarian Levin’s attempts to woo the object of his affections is kept in to provide a neat counterpoint.

Presented with a classic of literature and wanting to avoid predictability as far as period dramas are concerned, Wright’s main conceit has been to reconceptualise the whole thing in a deeply theatrical manner, literally. He treats the story as a piece of theatre, sometimes being played out in front of an audience, sometimes as backstage drama, but always with a defined fluidity and through-line. This exceedingly stylised and highly choreographed approach has a huge cinematic sweep which I adored, but it does soon calm down into something more measured and at key moments, it opens out with some breath-taking transformations.  Continue reading “Film Review: Anna Karenina”

Review: Faith Hope and Charity, Southwark Playhouse

“I did not come here for a political diatribe”

I have a friend who has a mortal fear of the embarrassment she would suffer if she were to die on the toilet (yeah, I know!) but the manner of playwright Ödön von Horváth’s death is so bizarrely random, killed by a falling tree branch on the way to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at the cinema, that I think I’d take it (although I’d want to be on the way to an art-house film rather than The Green Lantern – pretentious to the end ;-)) In which convoluted way leads us to the Southwark Playhouse who are putting on his 1933 play Faith, Hope and Charity. It has been translated by Christopher Hampton who also did the English version for the Almeida’s Judgment Day, my only other von Horváth experience.

The main premise of the story is of how the working class individual can struggle to make ends meet for a lifetime yet still be lost in and crushed by a social system that cares nothing for them. Saleswoman Elisabeth is such a person: fined for selling lingerie without a permit which she can’t afford to buy because she hasn’t got a job, she borrows money to pay the fine and borrows some more to get the permit, but her economy with the truth – after all who would lend money to a petty criminal – gets her into even more trouble as she struggles to keep life and love on track. Continue reading “Review: Faith Hope and Charity, Southwark Playhouse”