Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Open Court, Week Two

Review: Open Court, Week Two

When was the last time you heard whooping at the Royal Court? A press night, perhaps, when invited audiences duly offer hearty vocal support to friends and colleagues; the old pomp for a comp routine. Otherwise, they’re rare in Sloane Square; reserved for the Enrons and Jerusalems of this world.

However, they’re an almost nightly occurrence at Open Court. Actors bow to a chorus of cheers, whistles and gnashing of teeth. It’s extraordinary. It’s so not Royal Court, darling. It’s so uncouth. It’s ruddy brilliant, but it’s not like every piece is an out-of-the-park success. Far from it. Seen in the cold light of day, most are pretty good. Decent. Enjoyable enough, you know. Yet, in the heat of the moment, we’re going wild for them.

There’s a very simple explanation – and it’s not that our standards have slipped. Quite simply, every night feels like opening night. Yeah, I know it’s pat, but there’s a sense of event that’s long been missing from the average Royal Court show. Open Court has restored it in a single swoop. This is new writing as live performance, not staged literature.

But here’s the thing: it clearly comes from the lack of rehearsal. You lose polish. Sometimes, I guess, you lose entire lines. But you gain an edge of danger and, every now and then, a moment of genuine flow and in-the-moment inspiration. This might all be a projection, because we know the process involved, but I don’t think so. I think each show is keen to admit that process – both as get-out clause and aesthetic choice – and it’s genuinely more exciting. It begs a pretty massive question of a writers’ theatre: do we go to the Royal Court to see a play or a performance?

Friday Night Sex

Friday Night Sex – Alecky Blythe and Michael Wynne’s contribution to Big Idea: Sex – is a good place with that question. This rough’n’ready piece combines Blythe’s recorded delivery technique with Wynne’s writing. For Blythe’s scenes, the actors will wear headphones and talk directly to the audience; for Wynne’s, they hold scripts and act out scenes as if behind a fourth wall. Structurally, the move from direct address to naturalism is nothing new – see Shakespeare’s solloquies for proof. Slamming verbatim interviews into fictional extensions, especially on so private a subject as sex, feels like a genuine experiment.

Blythe interviewed couples as they emerged from a sex shop, enquiring about their sexual preferences and practices. In between, Wynne imagines scenes jumping off from one of those couple’s testimony. Obviously, there’s a big moral question here: is it right to fictionalise real lives like this? It’s one thing to fictionalise, say, the Queen and her prime ministers, even to base a story of real events (whether that relationship is revealed or not), but to fictionalise two random passers by is another matter. Without the script-in-hand and headphones staging device – or some other admission of process – it would seem very questionable indeed.

Artistically, however, the format doesn’t work – on this occasion, at least. Blythe’s sections so obliterate Wynne’s that the latter just don’t earn their stage time. It’s not that he writes badly; it’s that Blythe’s form admits a complexity that smashes writing to pieces. She gives us people, not characters. They talk over one another, slip up and make little sense. They seem irrational and inconstant. Several thought processes slosh around at once: the truth, the dictaphone, the stranger, their partner and the speed of the passing moment all play a part. Wynne’s are one-dimensional by comparison; they act to achieve aims and neatly betray their subconscious currents. It’s almost enough to make you wonder why playwrights bother…

Not only does Blythe’s contribution bring most of the laughter, it does most of the dramaturgical work, too, allowing us to compare and contrast different attitudes: the ‘anything goes’ German couple, the ‘mystery is everything’ Italian, the rubber fetishist and her new – somewhat unnerved – boyfriend. (“I’m new to this, so…”) Best of all, you think, are the two Brits with a fondness for figging, who treat the whole thing with a giggle. The debate is always between openness, privacy and taboo, but there’s something totally healthy airing these kinks – everything from bondage to bloodsports – onstage and in public.

The couple that get the most stagetime – and the focus of Wynne’s scenes – look imbalanced in interview. He seems to be steering things. He talks in possessive terms. She’s shier and, one might assume, too insecure to avert proceedings, too browbeaten. By showing them in private, Wynne is able to question that assumption, to show her as a willing participant, slightly submissive perhaps, but not defined by that. The fiction entertains and expands the possibilities of documentary theatre. It makes you question what you’re projecting onto these people by suggesting an alternative reading. (The experiment, then, suggests both obstacles and possibilities for the collaborative form.)

Blythe’s sections also really benefit from the roughness of the performance. Usually, by the time her actors reach performances, they’re totally familiar with the recordings in their ears. Here, there’s an element of difficulty; a sense that their brains are working overtime to process the information received and turn it around into voice. There’s the odd stumble, the odd mispronunciation or garble. Suddenly the process seems even more honest than usual; the headphones aren’t simply a symbol of process, nor a tool for added precision, but a necessary part of proceedings. The task the actors have been set is harder than ever and their keeping up with it becomes a brave, commendable act well-worth a whoop or two.

Death Tax

There’s a similar, but slightly different effect in John Tiffany’s Weekly Rep production of Lucas Hnath’s Death Tax. You spot – or at least think you spot – actors hitting another plane. Because they’re still, to a greater extent that usual, improvising, it seems as if they tip into a state of flow on occasion, as if the fiction takes them over. There’s a level of almost turbo-charged truthfulness that kicks. It’s like finding the sweet spot on a cricket bat or catching the crest of a wave. Sam Troughton is the first to find it, during a lengthy monologue, and it’s magic to watch; utterly entrancing, not least for its fragility. At any moment, self-consciousness could kick in.

Death Tax asks some fucking massive questions: Should life be preserved at all costs? Do we owe our parents everything or nothing? Should inheritance be passed down the family line or distributed differently? Should we end our lives to improve those of our children?

Hnath’s play has five scenes. It starts with an old woman, Maxine, in a hospital bed in a nursing home. She suspects her nurse is being paid to, shall we say, hurry things along and so offers a larger fee. The nurse, Tina, who has an estranged young son in Haiti, goes along with it for the money. It’s a murky ethical dilemma, but only the first of many in a play that never preaches or insists. Instead, it forces us to sit with these moral predicaments and, whether rationally or instinctively, determine which way we come down. Its uneasiness resides in those moments of conundrum, in flapping between both sides.

It’s not the best-constructed play ever written. Hnath gives us five scenarios, linked by the situation, but perhaps without much of a narrative drive. Each action chosen spawns another conundrum in turn, but none of those feel inevitable or necessary as consequences. It’s almost the moral equivalent of a health and safety video, constructed first and foremost to pose problems to its audience. However, the queasy unsolvability of these scenarios makes them potent enough to overcome the need for strong narrative. As audience, we’re given a privileged position of added objectivity. We can see that each has mitigating factors, that every possible course has its foreseeable problems.

What’s more, with an aging society the pressing social problem of our times, the questions in Death Tax aren’t ones that we can shirk as hypothetical. They are heading our way imminently. Hnath forces them on us without sugaring the pill. As each knocks into another and the present dilemma grows more knotty and complex, he also approaches something overriding: put simply, can you value a life and, if so, do you do so for itself or its effects, that is, its legacy? Answer that and you might have solved life.

My only reservation is that John Tiffany’s production – well-acted though it is – is over-literal. These two-way conversations are battles. Staging them in their actual setting is static and adds very little. A more metaphorical approach – along the lines of James MacDonald’s approach to Cock – would give Death Tax a depth charge.

Surprise Theatre

Surprise Theatre is perhaps the most overtly live of all. You don’t book for a play. You book for an event. And a fairly unique one at that; one of two performances of that play in this place. They could even be the only two performances that play ever gets. That ups the liveness stakes rather.

There’s another side. At curtain up, you’ve no idea what’s about to happen. Everything is new information. Everything’s a revelation. That lucky dip element adds a frisson. When the curtain opens on Eileen Walsh, you think: ‘Score.’ Everything’s a bonus.

One more thing: you’ve got no information – no title, no blurb, no playwright’s name and so no expectations of their style – at the start. That means you watch in a slightly different way. Go and see Love and Information and you’re looking for things about love and information. Surprise theatre, like a blind date, starts with a scrabble for an anchor. Because you don’t know what exactly you’re looking for, no only are you watching more honestly or purely, you’re watching more concertedly as well.

That’s what made Nick Gill’s Sand such a perfect choice for the form. The monologue starts restlessly – a boy on a squeaking swing, a woman giving a presentation, a couple in 1942 just after an atomic bomb has exploded over Newcastle. It settles on nuclear weaponry as a topic, but the exact settings remain unclear: rewriting history makes the present uncertain. You’re always trying to make sense of what you’re watching and, with the brain engaged in that task, the monologue can go to work elsewhere.

Gill lists forensic details – windspeeds and temperatures, heights and weights of bombs, forces that fuse earth into glass and reduce cities to sand, cellars emptied of their oxygen, death tolls that hit 75,000 plus. With Britain the target and the Nazis the bomb’s creators, Sand adroitly resuscitates the nuclear threat. It’s no longer some distant icon, separated by years and seas. Nuclear testing isn’t just an item on the in brief round-up at the end of the six o’clocks. Gill restores the heat of that iconic mushroom cloud and the reality of the possibility – slim or otherwise – that this could be (or could have been) your fate.

Sand breaks down into a hyperventilating emergency broadcast – fragments of a familiar apocalypse – and the unease this hammering, insistent text spawns feels no different to other anomic anxieties. “Radiation poisoning and panic are the same thing,” the broadcast warns. The truth is that, having lived in a post-nuclear world for 67 years, we’re all suffering from radiation poisoning.

What’s amazing is that this all works even through a laptop screen and a grainy YouTube video. It can still make you feel like someone’s taken a tuning fork to your coccyx. That the Royal Court is live-streaming Surprise Theatre is really admirable: it extends the reach of the festival and allows audiences to feel like they’re really engaged with it as a whole. (Prices are, admittedly, a slight stumbling block. For £10, one can get into the Donmar, the Grandage or Jamie Lloyd shows, all fully-rehearsed and produced. Two pounds more gets you a Travelex ticket. The Weekly Rep is £20 – like everything in the Shed season.)

I’m less convinced by the decision to leave them online. Suddenly, you can pause the action, make lunch or just check Twitter and return. You can leave it running in another tab. Concentration, so entwined with liveness, wanes. I’m sure that Molly Taylor’s Love Letters to the Public Transport System, for example, would have held its own in the performance space, in front of an audience that has dedicated an hour of its time to it. However, unfailingly pleasing though the combination of serendipity, small acts of kindness, tiny everday heroics and love in an urban environment is – and Taylor turns a neat phrase en route – it desperately needs that dedicated space for contemplation. Online, against the rest of life, it simply can’t carve out and sustain its own space.

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