Oedipus at Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg review ****

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Oedipus

Tonneelgroep Amsterdam, Stadsschouwburg, 17th May 2018

The Tourist sets off to Amsterdam to see the new version of Oedipus from the mighty Toneelgroep Amsterdam. As well as his first visit to the Concertgebouw and a chance to reacquaint himself with one Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. The Tourist finally blogs as a Tourist.

What was the attraction. Oedipus first. Your man Sophocles could write a drama, no doubt about that, and for me, this, Oedipus the King (Rex or Tyrannus), tops his other oft-performed work, Antigone, (though that is still a cracker of a story). These two plays, in a trilogy, sandwiched Oedipus at Colonus where our unfortunate hero leaves Thebes with his daughters and proceeds to pop his clogs after a lot of philosophical chat.

I hope one day to see an adaption of Sophocles’s version of Electra, (all three Greek tragedians had a pop at this story), and Ajax, the miffed warrior who, surprise, surprise, tops himself. I hope, as has occasionally happened, some clever creative will also see the potential in Philoctetes, (wounded soldier on high horse – metaphorically of course – who doesn’t want to fight again). I gather the least interesting of Sophocles’s seven remaining plays is Women of Trachis.

Anyway, as you almost certainly know, the plot of Oedipus the King is an absolute belter. It’s been hard for any writer to top this, for sheer OTT intensity, ever since 429 BCE. That weirdo Freud even named a theory after it. Unwittingly kill your Dad and marry your Mum. It doesn’t end well.

How to adapt this though is the perennial creative conundrum. Which brings me to the second reason to hop on a train to see this. (Yes it is now possible to take the direct train from London to Amsterdam if not yet the return. Cheap as chips, door to door no longer than a flight. And so much more civilised. The bit from Brussels to Amsterdam was pretty much empty).

Namely director Robert Icke. For those that don’t know, Mr Icke, at just 32 years old, is the wunderkind of British theatre direction, though there are many others who match him in my opinion. He was responsible for the revelatory Almeida Hamlet with Andrew Scott, the recent Mary Stuart, 1984, Uncle Vanya and Mr Burns, all at the same venue, (where he is Associate Director), and The Red Barn at the National Theatre. Not all perfect but in many cases mightily close. Yet, of his work to date, probably the most breathtaking was his Oresteia, which even managed a West End transfer after its Almeida run.

Here he took Aeschylus’s mighty trilogy, dispensed with the chorus, pumped up the back story, gave the Gods a court-room at the end to weigh up Orestes’s guilt, (with a bit of audience participation), and carved out a family revenge drama of startling power, where black and white is mutated into every shade of grey, and where death is viscerally real. His adaptation translates the poetry into something more immediate which any audience can grasp. Greeks doesn’t get any better than this.

So no wonder he was invited into the Toneelgroep party to have a go at Oedipus. And there is a lot that Mr Icke has in common with the masters of TA, Ivo van Hove and Jan Versweyveld. The set of Oedipus is one of the modern, faceless, corporate offices which IvH and JV used so effectively in Kings of War and Roman Tragedies. Though given Mr Icke’s set up for Oedipus, a campaign headquarters on the night of an election result, Hildegard Bechtler’s design could hardly be more appropriate. As it happens Ms Bechtler designed the Hamlet set so she knows the Icke drill. The TA stage in the Stadsschouwburg is wide and deep like the Lyttleton. I reckon you could sit anywhere, (and seats are a bargain €30 or so), and see everything. As well as the set, the use of video (Tal Yarden) and screens, a bit of on-stage eating in a family dinner, the modern, relaxed dress, the sound of Tom Gibbons and the lighting from Natasha Chivers, all echo the TA aesthetic. Mr Icke also borrows freely from his own back catalogue, most noticeably with the giant digital clock counting down on stage, representing the time to the election result, but more importantly the revelation underpinning the prophecy. The domestic interplay, the interior setting, the on-stage suicide of Jocasta though thankfully not Oedipus’s gouging, (here with heels not dress pins, ouch), the bickering over the family dinner, the strategising, all will be familiar to those who have seen Oresteia.

The set-up is brilliant. We see a video of Oedipus talking to the press after the election has closed. He promises to clean up the plague which is debilitating Thebes. Here though the plague is shorthand for the political corruption and economic incompetence of the previous administration. “The country is sick”. He is offering a bright new future. “Yes we can” or “drain the swamp”. Take your pick. He also, on the hoof, commits to investigating, and getting to the truth of, Laius’s murder. Cut to the loyal speechwriter/adviser Creon, played here by Aus Greidanus Jr, having a go at Oedipus for making this risky promise. Tiresias (Hugo Koolschlin) is wheeled in to deliver the prophecy. Our first opportunity to see the nasty side of Hans Kesting’s Oedipus as he angrily dismisses the blind old boy’s “nonsense” and turns on Creon who he reckons wants the job of leader. Marieke Heebink’s Jocasta talks him out of sacking Creon, (no need for a chorus and executions in this scenario!), and we are on to the killing at the cross-roads.

But here Laius (Jocasta’s first hubby) is the victim of a road accident (limos not chariots obvs), and Oedipus starts to piece together his own accident story with the established version, questioning the Chauffeur, played by Bart Slegers. You know the rest …… and if you don’t you should. The way Robert Icke fits his version of the plot to the “original” is artful and ensures that the last third or so of the production is as powerful as it should be.

What Mr Icke also intelligently lays on top is the family dynamic as we see “Mum” Merope (Freida Pittoors), consumed by the agony of watching Oedipus’s unseen “Dad” Polybus dying whilst all Oedipus cares about is the prophecy and, here, his route to power, daughter Antigone (Helene Devos) and sons Polynices (Harm Duco Schut) and Eteocles (Joshua Stradowski). Their is some conflict between the two lads: remember they go on to bring Thebes to its knees by knocking seven bells out of each other. The entourage is rounded out by faithful retainer Corin (Fred Goessens) and assistant Lichas (Violet Braeckman).

The supporting actors are uniformly marvellous but it is Hans Kesting and Marieke Heebink who dominate the stage. Which brings me to the third reason to nip over to Amsterdam to see this. The Tourist considers Hans Kesting to be the best male actor in the world and Marieke Heebink to be the best female actor. They proved it once again here. No fear you see, massive emotional range and immense physicality. No point holding back as the revelations tumble out in Oedipus and, trust me, they don’t. The scene were Jocasta explains how she was abused by Laius, and conspires to smuggle her baby away, is unbearably moving. Love is about the trickiest emotion to capture on stage. These two show exactly how to do it.

So why just 4* and not the 5* that you might expect from this obviously gushing fan of the play, the ensemble and the director. Firstly there is maybe, as I allude to above, a bit of a sense that we have seen this all before. The setting works, how “fate” brings a “good, man” down, and, specifically whether it pays for a politician to be “honest”, but the look and feel is maybe just a bit too close to Mr Icke’s previous work. More importantly the text is maybe a little too direct. Remember I was following a sur-titled English translation of a Dutch adaption by Rob Klinkenberg of the original Greek filtered through numerous prior translations. This presumably makes its literalness even more literal. Helps plot and message but leaves poetry on the table. In TA’s other work I have seen, the Shakespeare for example, this has not been a constraint, the language still shines. In IvH/JW’s Antigone conversely, which came to the Barbican, the translation by Anne Carson was too challenging, though this disappointed more through Juliette Binoche’s miscasting it pains me to say.

Still overall this is a great piece of theatre. If it ever wends its way to London you must see it. Otherwise we have Marieke Heebink as the lead in Simon Stone’s Medea to look forward to next year at the Barbican and Simon McBurney makes his directorial debut at TA at the Staadsschouwburg with a Cherry Orchard. Yum. This creative collaboration, amongst so many other reasons, is why Europe is a good idea. Though I doubt any of the dumb-arses in England who think differently would care.

 

Pericles, Prince de Tyr at Silk Street Theatre review *****

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Pericles, Prince de Tyr

Barbican Silk Street Theatre, 19th April 2018

Trust me. You can trust experts. Parading your own ignorance against all the evidence of those who know more than you, just to satisfy your own prejudice, is an ugly human foible. In the very small commercial world of which I was once a part I like to think I knew what I was talking about. When it comes to theatre though I am no expert and you should always seek out the opinions of professional reviewers who do know their onions, as I do. If they think it is very good, it is normally very good, if best avoided, ditto.

In the case of this Cheek by Jowl production though, at their usual London home on Silk Street, it seems that the experts didn’t quite know what to make of it and certainly couldn’t agree. You can safely ignore me, and I recognise I am a pretty easy date theatrically, but I though it was tremendous.

This is the French company affiliate of Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod’s Cheek by Jowl empire. There is also a Russian branch. If you want theatre classics, reinterpreted with intelligence, wit and invention, there is no better port of call, (an early Pericles reference for you dear reader), than Cheek by Jowl. But “Shakespeare, in French, in London, what’s that all about Dad, isn’t that too much of a pose even by your standards” to paraphrase LD? Well, it is certainly a different experience, and Shakespeare is about so much more than the words, though I’m not an idiot, I know how important those words are. So a crack ensemble of Gallic thespians, whose previous productions of Ubu Roi and Andromaque did the business, according to them experts, wasn’t to be missed.

Now Pericles the play, if not the man himself shown above sporting a beard any denizen of Haggerston would be proud of, is a tricky customer. The first couple of acts were written by another bloke, George Wilkins, you can see the join before Will Shakespeare’s acuity becomes apparent, and it really is a rum old plot, written to excite the punters, rather than to make sense. It is a kind of road trip, by sea, of a bloke and his family who keep finding themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, before it all turns out, improbably, alright in the end. And, as if it wasn’t confusing enough, Messrs Donellan and Ormerod have come up with the cunning idea of locating it all in a hospital ward and, therefore, largely in the mind of patient Pericles.

Apparently they are not the first to come up with this wheeze, but, for me, it was a triumph. They have taken a scalpel to the play’s wilder linguistic excesses, which, with the French translation, sur-titled for bumpkins like me, means it gallops through the story in an unbroken 100 minutes. It can take over three hours normally. It will be interesting to see what the NT comes up with in its forthcoming musical production of the play mixing up an amateur and professional cast.

Now with a story this silly you need your wits about you, especially since the seven strong cast each play at least 3 parts, and the helpful narrator, Gower, in the standard text has been cast adrift. This production, more than ever, supports the Tourist’s contention that it is always worth boning up on the synopsis ahead of any Shakespeare viewing, however many times you have seen the play. No need to treat it like GCSE revision, just a quick reminder of the story will suffice. Then you can focus on performance, spectacle, language, emotion, big Will’s uncanny insight into the human condition, or whatever else takes your fancy. Here, because of the lingo, I could savour the non-verbal communication of all the cast, and the way, they shifted character, and the ingenuity of the production as we shifted between the hospital room and the delusions inside our Prince’s head.

The floor and walls of Nick Ormerod’s set are a vivid, turquoise blue, enhanced by Pascal Noel’s understated lighting design. It was similar to the effect conjured up at the Gate in last year’s intriguing The Unknown Island, that too signalling all things oceanic and marine. The room is filled with hospital details, right the way down to the anti-bacterial hand-wash that the actors take advantage of on entry and exit. Always nice to see a production that cares about hygiene. This hospital room is unlike anything you might see in the creaking NHS though, or even a private hospital, being big enough to accommodate all of Pericles’s family as well as the action from all the exotic Mediterranean locations, Antioch, Tyre, Tarsus, Pentapolis, Ephesus and Mytilene.

(Having said that my one experience of the French healthcare system suggests such luxury might be possible. LD broke her arm pony-riding when she was little, the denouement in a holiday from hell. Very disappointing gite, terrible weather, mother in law crocked her back, dead rat in the swimming pool. The SO stayed with our brave little soldier in hospital, but, carless, a taxi was provisioned for me, by said hospital, so that I could visit prior to her being discharged. Unfortunately my idiocy, and criminal lack of French conversation, saw me dropped down in the wrong wing of the well-appointed hospital. Correct room number though. You can imagine the surprise, nay horror, of the poor French woman, in the early stages of labour, when I popped my head round the door. Mortified I make a rapid exit, mumbling my “pardons”. before I eventually found the right wife and patient. In all the confusion though I do remember the generous size of the room my petrified mon nouveau amie occupied).

Back to Pericles. Our hero, played magnificently by Christophe Gregoire, is asleep in his bed with talk radio humming in the background. He has the gaunt and fevered look of a man prone to psychotic episodes, probably enhanced by powerful medication. The doctor, played by Cecile Leterme, similarly impressive, is doing her rounds. Wife, daughter and friend are watching over him. Cue the first dream/delusion as we kick off with Antiochus (Xavier Boffier) and his rubbish riddle confessing to incest. Like I say you can check out the rest of your story but given that M. Gregoire doubles up as the duplicitous Cleon, Governor of Tarsus, who with wife Dionysa, plot to kill Pericles’s daughter Marina, after he has entrusted her to their care, you need to be on your mettle. He also ends up as the Master of the brothel that Marina escapes to. Meanwhile Mme Leterme, goes one role further, playing the physician, obviously, Cerimon, who revives the half-dead Thaisa, Pericles’s wife, who, he has agreed, should be chucked overboard during shipwreck number two (you read that right). She also plays Simonide, King of Pentapolis and Dad to Thaisa, whose hand Pericles wins through martial derring-do. Oh and goddess Diana, whose temple Thaisa retreats to when she thinks hubby is dead and daughter was never born.

All up to speed. Well Xavier Boffett, also plays Lysimaque, the Governor of Mytilene, brothel town remember, (of which he is a regular patron until swerved by Marina’s saintly virtue), and who brings father and daughter back together at the end. As well as the servant to the Master of the brothel and to bad Dionysa. Who in turn is played by Camille Cayol, in addition to wife, Thaisa, and the Mistress of the brothel. Valentine Catzeflis, thankfully just plays daughter Marina, and, briefly, Antiiochus’s abused daughter. To round things off Guillaume Pottier and Martin Nikonoff step up as various gentlemen, fishermen and knights, without whom the plot wouldn’t make sense (!!!).

In between the Pericleian adventure scenes, even in their truncated form, we have periods of silence when we are back in the (hospital) room, magic suspended, as well as scenes, where Pericles’s delusions are happening in “reality” as opposed to just in his head. Making all of this hang together is an act of imagination on the part of Declan Donellan which rivals that of George Wilkins and William Shakespeare in the first place.

And, for me, it really works. Obviously you lose the Tempest style fantasy from such an interpretation and location. But remember when this was written (1607/08 is the generally accepted date) the audience’s demand for special effects could be accomplished with a few bits of wood, a bit of glue, some pulleys, candles and distraction. If you are going to take a modern, hard-bitten audience, used to films, games and even funny helmets, where technology can conjure up any universe you like, on a believable stage version of Pericles’s journey, you’ll have your work cut out. Look at the technological lengths the RSC went to last year with its holographic Ariel in the Tempest to drag in the kids.

Even if this production eschewed such a journey there was still buckets of theatre-craft, and magic, on show, but it came from the ingenuity of matching the “action” in the play to the setting. The first storm kicks off with Pericles pouring a bed-pan over his head for example, not the only laugh here. The tournament where Pericles wins the hand of Thaisa is conveyed in the corridor behind the room as the orderlies try to pin down Pericles who has gone properly bat-shit. Thaisa’s revival sees her emerging from a body bag on a hospital trolley having been rushed off stage previously in childbirth.

This doesn’t make a lot of sense which ever way you look at it, so why not, literally, make it a dream play, or more exactly a succession of dream plays. And then wait for this supremely talented cast rise to the challenge of condensing character and plot into the transitions the concept afforded. The most powerful scene, and the one all this misadventure builds up to, is the reunion of father, daughter and wife, and I thought it was terrifically moving. If our patient Pericles thinks he is going to die, as it seems here, and therefore lose his family, then the parallels with our Prince Pericles, similarly imperilled, do, sort of, make sense.

Like I say, this may not be for everyone, and is a long way from what you might call, classic Pericles. Then again it is seldom performed probably because, a bit like Cymbeline, it is pretty daft and tricky to swallow. Hidden within, actually not really hidden, the byzantine, travelogue, plot, the stock scenes, the potential coups des theatre, and despite the mangling of Mr Wilkins at the outset, who is more concerned with soapy plot turns that character development, there is some balls out Shakespeare which properly entertains and moves. With a play this highly stylised why not overlay with one more layer of stylisation in an attempt to create a consistent narrative thread.

There is at least one person who cannot wait for next visit from Cheek by Jowl, in whatever language.