Les Damnes: Comedie-Francaise at the Barbican Theatre review *****

Les Damnes (The Dammed)

Comedie-Francaise, Barbican Theatre, 21st June

The Tourist is now so far off the pace in terms of commenting om his cultural adventures that there must surely be a strong case for giving up. Hurrah I hear you cry. Well I am afraid any joy you feel will be short lived. The purpose of this blog is to force me to collect my thoughts on what I see and hear. Any interest from you beyond that is a happy by-product. So time is not, I am sorry to say, of the essence. Which means I am going to soldier on and try to catch up.

However this dilatory attitude does have clear drawbacks. Not least of which is that the Tourist can’t always remember the details of his what he has seen. Take The Damned at the Barbican for example. The abiding single image is of a couple of naked fellas, including the simply brilliant Denis Podalydes as Baron Konstantin von Essenbeck, rolling around in beer on the Barbican stage, Tackle out. Drunkenly singing fascist songs. Before being massacred. Filmed and projected then meshed together with previous footage to create the full brownshirt bierkeller effect. This being the so called Night of the Long Knives. A powerful image which is very difficult to shake off.

It wasn’t the only one. It is also impossible to look away from the unsettling scene where the young, and very disturbed, scion of the von Essenbeck family Martin, (a stunning performance from Christophe Montenez), “befriends” his young cousin. This is echoed later on in his encounter with the daughter of a prostitute, though the play holds back from emulating the corresponding scene in the film which is the most brutal signifier of the decay and destruction that the Third Reich represented.

Or the funeral scenes, announced by a factory siren, as members of the clan shuffle off the mortal coil in more or less nasty ways, to be “buried alive” in the coffins lined up stage left. Especially the tarred and feathered Baroness Sophie (Elsa Lepoivre), mother of Martin and widow of the patriarch’s only son who was killed in WWI. Then there is the awkward dinner party, complete with artfully choreographed silver service. All of this takes place on a day-glo orange platform with on stage costume changes and make up stage right and backed by video screens relaying the live camera-work.

Now you theatre luvvies will have probably worked out from all the above that all this wizardry comes courtesy of theatrical mastermind Ivo van Hove. His busy, high concept approach, of which this is the epitome, doesn’t always come off but then again neither doesn’t his stripped back, high tension, “psychological insight” alternative.

This though is a triumph. And what makes it extra special is that it is achieved without the collaboration of the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam company, IvH’s own troupe. Mind you if you are going to play away then it would be hard to beat the Comedie-Francaise. Founded in 1680 thanks to a decree of Louis XIV it is the world’s oldest theatre company. It’s had its up and downs but, backed financially by the French state since 1995 and with three venues to showcase its vast repertoire, this is about as good as it gets acting wise. Shame we in the UK have nothing similar.

Not for the first time, when they dreamt this up in 2016 with the company, IvH and designer partner Jan Versweyveld, turned to the Italian film auteur Luchino Visconti in seeking the source for their theatrical adaptation, Specifically his 1969 epic which charts the disintegration of the Essenbeck family, who own a steel company thatcollaborates with the Nazi regime in the 1930s. The reciprocity between state and industry, which forged the autarky that powered the Third Reich war machine, often takes a back seat in dramatic representations of Nazi Germany. Not here though. Yet this is still primarily a terrifying family psychodrama, with an emphasis on the psycho, Greek in scope and savagery.

The story kicks off with a party and then the the murder of the paterfamilias Baron Joachim (Didier Sandre – would have been good to see more of him). On 27th February 1933. The same night as the Reichstag fire. The Baron detests the Nazis. His kids and nephews, with the exception of Herbert Thalmann (Loic Corberry), who runs the company, are less principled, in fact they turn on Herbert and frame him for the murder. He escapes but his wife Elisabeth (Adeline d’Hermy) and kids are shopped to the Gestapo. Leadership of the company passes to the Baron’s thuggish nephew Konstantin (see above) an SA officer ahead of his own bookish son Gunther (Clement Hervieu-Leger) and his deviant nephew, the aforementioned Martin. Meanwhile the firm’s fixer, Friederich Bruckmann (Guillaume Gallienne), makes his bid for control egged on by his lover Baroness Sophie, despite not being a family member and coming from an lowly background. He is initially aided by her cousin Wolf von Aschenbach (Eric Genovese) who happens to be a high ranking SS officer and all round c*nt. It is he who drives the company into the arms of the Nazi Party. To realise his ambitions Fred shoots the drunken Konstantin during the SS coup against the SA in 1934 the infamous Night of the Long Knives. Wolf however turns on him denouncing him as a traitor to the Nazi cause. Herbert returns for his exile and reveals that wife Elisabeth died in the Dachau concentration camp and hands himself over to the Gestapo to save his kids. Aschenbach and the now certifiable Martin who has also joined the SS cook up a deal to oust Friedrich and Sophie from control of the firm. Martin shags his Mummy but allows Friedrich to marry her as long as they then commit suicide. Marty finally hands the firm over to his beloved Party. The End.

See what I mean. Uber nasty and very Greek. Or maybe twisted Racine is a more apposite label. Visconti’s film is tiled La caduta degli dei in Italian, which translates as The Fall of the Gods. In German then Gotterdammerung, the actual subtitle, this conjuring up an OTT Wagnerian vibe. The film doesn’t stint on sets, costumes or symbolism. Though it does on lighting and linear storytelling. And IvH and his dramaturg Bart Van den Eyede, who also worked on Roman Tragedies, have taken their lead from this deliberately mannered approach. Now I can understand why some might recoil at this operatic approach, chock full of modern European theatre tropes, and at the less than subtle allusions to our own troubled times. Notably when the house lights go up after each death and a camera is trained on the audience to remind us of our complicity if we just stand by. Me I don’t mind. This offers theatrical spectacle by the bucket load, a cast of cracking deplorable characters for this superb company to sink their teeth in to and if the moral of such immorality is overwrought, well why not? The lessons of history require magnification and repetition if our vicious species is ever to learn. And for once, in contrast to IvH’s Obsession or his Bergman homages, this is definitely an improvement on the film.

The two unbroken hours passed by in a heartbeat which is not something the Tourist can always say. OK so there were moments when the images distracted a little from the telling of the story and a modicum of effort and knowledge of relevant German history was required to keep up. Tal Yarden’s video, Eric Sleichim’s woodwind and brass driven score, (which makes ironically liberal use of Rammstein’s militaristic thudding NDH grooves) and JV’s lighting don’t hold back but this suits both story and space. And you either love or hate sur-titles.

I do wonder whether the whole would have been quite the equal of the sum of its parts without this extraordinary cast. As with ITA it is thrilling to see and hear actors of the quality, both as individuals but, more than this, as a company. They join initially as pensionnaires, paid a wage, before graduating to societaires, with a stake in the company’s profits. Just a brilliant structure. There have only been 533 since 1680. The longest tenured on the stage here, Sylvia Berge, had the smallest part, the least experienced, still a pensionnaire, Christoph Montenez, had the “best” part as Martin. None of that “star” billing stuff that debilitates West End theatre. And remember all this admiration from the Tourist for a play delivered in a language that he cannot speak. Acting isn’t just the words folks.

Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse review *****

Sweat

Donmar Warehouse, 24th January 2019

Who is the greatest living playwright (in the English language). Caryl Churchill. Obviously. Who is, in the opinion of the Tourist, probably the most talented playwright under 40 in Britain today. Ella Hickson. What was the best original play the Tourist saw last year. John by Annie Baker. And the best play so far this year. Sweat by Lynn Nottage.

So far this year the Tourist has seen 19 plays (well 18 and a half to be exact of which more in a future post. Actually it is quite a bit more than that but I have condensed the Pinter at Pinter season ). Too many. Certainly but such is the life of the friendless, privileged layabout.

Only 4 by women though. Not good enough. Either by me or the industry. Last year, (I shall refrain from the total number – it is embarrassing), just 25% of the plays of the plays I saw were by women. If I take just new plays (not classics or revivals) the ratio edges towards 40%. Not great but getting better.

Before I get started I note that Sweat is transferring to the Gielgud Theatre from 7th June for 6 weeks or so. If you haven’t seen it don’t hesitate.

Sweat is set largely in a bar in a de-industrialising town in the rust belt of the American North East. Lynn Nottage and her team spent over two years interviewing residents of Reading, Pennsylvania in preparation for writing the play. Now, as I know from having seen another Pulitzer Prize winning entertainment, Julia Wolfe’s oratorio Anthracite Fields, Reading was, in its heyday through the second half of the C19 and first few decades of the C20, a powerhouse of US industry built on iron and then steel, its proximity to coalfields and on the railway. Its fall was precipitous however and it became, by the time of the 2011 census, one of the poorest cities in the entire country, though it is now being reinvented as a centre for cycling nationally.

Ms Nottage’s play is set in 2000, though it begins in 2008, with the release of Jason (Patrick Gibson) from prison into the hands of probation officer Evan (Sule Rimi who has, thankfully, popped up on numerous occasions for my viewing pleasure). Jason is “reunited” with once friend Chris (Osy Ikhile). Neither is in a good place. We then flash back to see how we got to that place. Jason’s mum Cynthia (Claire Perkins), Chris’s mum Tracey (Martha Plimpton) and Jessie (Leanne Best) are celebrating in the bar managed by Stan (Stuart McQuarrie) and where Hispanic-American Oscar (Sebastian Viveros) is employed. Cynthia is estranged from husband Brucie (Wil Johnson) who has spiralled downwards after being shut out from the factory during a strike some years ago. All three, tough, women are also employed at the local steel-works, as are the boys, (though Chris wants another life), and as was Stan until an industrial accident, and it is against this back-drop that the story unfolds.

Now you might be thinking, uh-oh, this is going to be one of those terribly worthy political plays where a finger-pointing, hand-wringing lesson about economic and social injustice sucks the life out of the drama and leaves you with conscience enhanced but ever so slightly bored. Well nothing could be further from the truth. The relationships between the characters, and the extraordinary, often moving, dialogue, that describes them is perfectly pitched. The play is flawlessly plotted, structured and executed. The fact that Lynn Nottage is able to locate this within a broader economic and social context (blimey, she even nails the mixed blessings of NAFTA), to conjure up time and place (and history) and to explore fault-lines along racial, class and gender divides, without getting in the way of the personal drama, is what makes this such a complete work of theatre. This is fiction, with no trace of verbatim, but the process of its creation, the people that Ms Nottage talked too, make it very real.

There is nothing redemptive or uplifting here but that is the reality of the damage that the economic dislocation and industrial change has brought to the region and by implication, those left behind in the US and across the Western world. The play opened in New York in 2016 just before Trump’s election. It could not be more relevant. The shattering of the American Dream is hardly a novel subject for drama but Sweat brings home the causes and consequences of the shift away from heavy industry and manufacturing, from managed capitalism, through financial capitalism into the information age. Ms Nottage has said that “we are a nation that has lost our narrative”, which sums up the disillusionment, rage and frustration which is now being vented by those that have lost out and, for whom, the dignity of labour has been upended and faith shattered in a system which was supposed to protect them. Setting the play in an all-American bar, rather than the workplace itself, is a masterstroke, for this is an arena in which the tensions can truly erupt.

Even a play this perfect still needs cast and creatives to deliver. Indeed any flaw in delivery would probably be more visible. Fortunately we are in the secure hands of director Lynette Linton, assistant at the Donmar and now in the hot seat at the Bush. Frankie Bradshaw’s set is wonderful as the bar descends, altar-like, inside a framework of steel girders, supported by Oliver Fenwick’s lighting design and George Dennis’s sound. The cast is uniformly exemplary, another triumph for dialect coach Charmian Hoare, (though this Brit is no expert), with Claire Perkins particularly excellent as the striving Cynthia and Martha Plimpton just, and for once the vernacular is justified, awesome.

Best of all Lynn Nottage didn’t just helicopter in to extract her story and then move on (as it happens now to a work around the life of Michael Jackson – crikey!). No, she and the team, went back to show the play and to engage in many ways with the community across multiple projects. Drama matters. The Greeks knew that. Hard to see how it could matter more than with Sweat.

Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields at King’s Place review *****

Bang on a Can All Stars, BBC Singers, Tecwyn Evans (conductor)

Kings Place Hall One, 19th January 2019

I had heard a few snippets of Julia Wolfe’s compositions but freely admit this was a bit of a leap into the unknown. Still what I had heard seemed interesting, I was keen to take in a few of the excellent looking concerts programmed as part of the year long Venus Unwrapped season at Kings Place, focussing on women composers, and Anthracite Fields is an acclaimed work that won a Pulitzer Prize.

It is an oratorio for choir and chamber ensemble which was premiered in Philadelphia in 2014 by the Mendelssohn Club Chorus and the Bang On A Can All Stars, Julia Wolfe being on of the founders of BOAC, alongside Michael Gordon and David Lang. It is scored for bass (acoustic and electric and here played by Robert Black), keyboards (Vicky Chow), percussion (David Cossin), cello (Mariel Roberts), guitar/voice (Mark Stewart) and clarinet/bass clarinet (Ken Thomson) and, as well as the choir, also requires the services of a sound engineer (Andrew Cotton) and accompanying visuals (Jeff Sung and Don Cieslik).

The piece is a tribute to those who “persevered and endured in the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region”. Julia Wolfe grew up in Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania which lies to the South of the coal producing region, Anthracite is the purest form of coal, was mined from the turn of the C19, and by the turn of the C20 the region was powering much of America’s heavy industry. However through the first half of C20 the region declined in importance as the reserves were exhausted and, by the 1960’s, mining had essentially ended. It plays an important role in American industrial and labour history and Ms Wolfe is not the only artist to have explored its legacy. Less than one week later, the Tourist was privileged to see another top drawer, Pulitzer Prize winning, creative work which took inspiration from near this region, Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat, based in Reading, Pennsylvania, which, over a century, turned from one of the richest to one of the poorest cities in the USA.

Julia Wolfe herself had previously addressed the plight of the American worker in Steel Hammer, her “art ballad” about the folk hero John Henry. Her text for Anthracite Fields is drawn from various sources, oral histories and interviews (including her own), local rhymes, a coal advertisement, geological descriptions, a mining accident index, a list of contemporary daily activities that use coal power and an impassioned political speech by John L Lewis, a past head of the United Mine Workers Union.

It is made up of five movements together lasting just over an hour. In Foundation, a kind of dark chorale, the choir intone the names of miners killed in accidents, but only those named John with one syllable surnames, there being so many who died. It ends with further chant of representative polysyllabic names which give a flavour of the diversity of countries from which the miners emigrated to this small corner of one State. There is also a poetic passage drawn from the geology of coal formation. Breaker Boys takes a series of nervy rhymes and an interview and describes the painful work of the Breaker Boys, children employed to sort debris from the coal as it came down the chutes from the heads of the mine-shafts. Think folk-rock. The third movement Speech takes the aforementioned John L Lewis’s powerful oratory, “if we must grind up human flesh and bones”, sung here by BOACAS veteran Mark Stewart with choral responses. Flowers is inspired by the list of flowers Barbara Powell, literally a coal-miner’s daughter, recited during an interview with Ms Wolfe. It is gentler in tone than the other movements and, over its memorable rhythmic base, the choir explores some haunting harmonies. The last movement is another list, of activities followed by a rhyme about Phoebe Snow, a fictitious NYC socialite created for an advert whose white gown was unsullied during her railway journey, so pure was the coal fuelling the engine.

Now there is nothing difficult about Julia Wolfe’s music in Anthracite Fields. Quite the reverse. It is almost alarming in its immediacy. At its core it is a minimalist work, driven by the dirge-like rhythms laid down by the various members of the ensemble, and it is not afraid of grungy rock’n’roll. There is plenty of instrumental colour and the 20 or so strong choir have plenty of opportunities to show off. Here, in the well-balanced but enclosed acoustic of Kings Place Hall One, initially at least the band had the upper hand but this seem to be corrected through the second half of Foundation, or maybe it my ears adjusting.

It packs a huge emotional punch and there is nothing subtle about its messages. Bearing all this mind, and if you are prepared to be immersed in the concept, music and projections, you are in for a treat, should this return, as it should (this was its UK premiere). I should imagine it would be even more powerful in the version for a larger choir, 150 strong. It certainly deserves a bigger audience than this though I get that this sort of fusion, which is at the core of the Bang on a Can ethos, lies a bit beyond normal musical boundaries.