Things have been a bit quiet around here recently. Well that’s not strictly true, life has been the opposite of quiet, with weddings to attend and house-moves to plan. But, in theatre terms, things have been quiet. However at the end of last week I did have a couple of lovely back-to-back nights at the National. On Thursday I met up with my friend Nikhilesh for the opening night of Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s Her Naked Skin, a big sweeping play set against a backdrop of the Suffragette Movement and, as nearly every reviewer – me included – felt obliged to point out, the first original work (not an adaptation) by a living woman writer to be staged in the Olivier.
Certain elements of this I adored. The scene where Jemima Rooper’s Eve was forcefed is one of the most upsetting things I’ve seen on stage in a long time – I found the image following me around all weekend, refusing to vacate my mind. The performances of the three women, Lesley Manville, Rooper and the wonderful Susan Engel, were also superb. But – and it’s a big ‘but’ - I found the central love story, the relationship between Manville’s Lady Celia Cain and Rooper’s seamstress character, far less involving than the era evoked. And I agree with all those who’ve mentioned the fact that there are too many short scenes, that the revolve is forever revolving, the cage-like set constantly swinging in and out of view. The play reminded me, favourably, of some of the things the Orange Tree has been staging of late, but it was crying out for a good monologue, a good, long passionate piece of oration.
On Friday I returned to the South Bank to see Katie Mitchell’s …some trace of her. But first I stopped to pick up coffee and nibbley things from the Slow Food Fair behind the Royal Festival Hall, then I settled on the ‘grass’ outside the theatre to half-watch something that may have involved juggling and mime, but made me laugh on more than one occasion. Feeling warm and content, I tottered around to the Cottesloe and my mood was not dented by the production. I was worried that not knowing the book – Dostoevsky’s The Idiot - would be a handicap but I did not find this to the case, the production conveyed the essence of the thing well enough, it did not try to be retain every element of the narrative, that was not the point, but as a riff on the text, a kind of game played with it, there was much to take pleasure in.
I have not seen Mitchell’s Waves, which I gather uses many of the same techniques (though I will try to rectify this when it returns next month) and so much of what she was doing here was new to me.
A screen fills the back wall of the stage and the actors create scenes which are filmed and projected onto this screen. Every frame is beautifully composed and lit, shot in rich black and white. The performers double as technicians, setting up props, positioning cameras, wielding microphones, and all the while hitting their cues with perfect timing. It’s a hypnotic process, thrilling to watch.
While the images created are already, individually, arresting (a vase apparently spinning in midair, a plate of burning banknotes, a soup bowl teeming with maggots) the contrast with the manner of their construction is equally fascinating. Sound effects are created in front of us, music is played live and rain comes out of a plastic bottle.
There is an intentional dislocation between what can be seen on the screen and what is taking place on the stage below. Moments of conversational intimacy are filmed with the actors sitting on opposite ends of the stage with their backs to one another, each facing a separate camera; close ups of hands and faces are filmed using different performers and then seamlessly edited together on screen; a couple who appear to be lying in bed are actually standing upright with a sheet wound around them, the camera tilted to give the impression they are horizontal. In this way the onscreen image, the illusion of reality, is picked apart, deconstructed, but in a way that adds to, rather than detracts, from the image itself.
If I’d seen this done before, I wonder if my response would have been quite so positive, but I hadn’t, so it was. Yes, it was frustrating at times, having performers such as Ben Whishaw and Hattie Morahan on stage and having to see them running around all the time moving props and fiddling with cameras when I was hoping for a bit more acting, but again, from a technical point of view, there was something quite fascinating about seeing the differences, the contrast, between what works for stage and screen, the tiny gestures and expressions that can took on new meaning. Ultimately the piece excited me on an intellectual level more than on an emotional level, though I’m not sure that’s a criticism, not in this case at least.
Sometimes London starts to wear me down and I seem to forever be running for (and missing) buses or fretting over bills or skating along on too-little sleep. Sometimes I think a change would be good, an adventure, a new start, somewhere less frantic and friendlier, and then I have a couple of nights like this where everything seems to slide together in a satisfying fashion and I reconsider. Surely I’d miss this, I’d long for this, this richness, if I lived anywhere else but here?