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.

Network at the National Theatre review *****

Bryan_Cranston_TIFF_2012

Network

National Theatre Lyttleton, 9th March 2018

Right then. Finally got to see Network. Booked early but this was the first date that BUD, KCK and the Blonde Bombshells could collectively make. A bit nervous because the last time we wheeled the Bombshells out to an Ivo van Hove entertainment it was Obsession at the Barbican which gets more disappointing as time elapses (Obsession at the Barbican Theatre review ***).

You can divide Mr van Hove’s work along three dimensions I reckon depending whether he adopts the “austere, psychologically insightful” or “busy, technological overload” aesthetic, whether or not he works with the Toneelgroep Amsterdam ensemble or other actors, and whether the play is drawn from a classic text or is adapted from a film. Most of the time he hits the jackpot but there is always a risk of disappointment, Obsession, the very dull Antigone a few years ago and the so-so After the Rehearsal/Persona Bergman adaption, being cases in point.

Obviously Network is brilliant. You know that from the reviews when it opened and all the social media buzz. Not just my opinion but the opinion of my guests who were well impressed. Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 media satire, directed by Sidney Lumet, is a marvellous film. I watched it again ahead of this just to check. Fast-moving, acidic, contemptuous, intelligent, disturbingly prescient, strident, it isn’t subtle but it is hugely effective. I particularly love the performances of Faye Dunaway as Diana Christensen, Robert Duvall as Frank Hackett and Marlene Warfield as Laureen Hobbs.

Now if I am honest Lee Hall did not strike me as an obvious choice to adapt Paddy Chayefsky’s precious script. Then again Mr Hall, the brains behind Billy Elliot, War Horse and Victoria and Abdul on screen, The Pitmen Painters, Shakespeare in Love and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour on stage, and an adept Brecht translator, is nothing if not versatile. Wisely he and Mr van Hove have elected to faithfully translate most of the vital dialogue from the film, with some minor shuffling between characters. The temptation to tamper with, for example, CCA Chairman Jensen’s excoriating speech about the power of capital, is resisted, as are Howard Beale’s own show sermons. It is unfortunate that the negotiation scenes involving the Ecumenical Liberation Army and the Communist Party of America are abandoned, they tickle me, but something had to give. The relationship between the obsessive TV programming executive Diana Christensen, whose only reference point is her own ambition, and news chief Max Schumacher, is fully preserved as is his wife’s, Louise Schumacher, pain at his betrayal. And all the corporate manoeuvring.

So plot, sub-plots and text vigorously reconstructed, what next? This is where the magic of Mr van Hove and his designer sidekick, Jan Versweyveld, really kicks in. The template they employ is well tested from the longstanding Toneelgroep Amsterdam Shakespeare adaptations, Roman Tragedies, and it more recent cousin, Kings of War. Extensive use of live, on-stage video and video fragments, mixed in real time, a stunning achievement from designer Tal Yarden and team. A thundering soundscape from Eric Sleichim with an on-stage quartet BLINDMAN. Costumes from An D’Huys which are exact re-creations of the mid 1970s setting. There is a “UBS” TV production suite on stage. There is, famously, a restaurant on one side. and costume and make-up desks lurk at the back of the stage. All the guts, the manipulation, of the production are on show and, because key scenes are set in a TV studio, this surely couldn’t be more effective. There is even a slightly time delayed video sequence where Max and Diana stroll along the South Bank with umbrella. (Mind you this couldn’t top the bemusement of some lost tourists caught on camera stumbling across the performance of Bart Siegers, I think, as Enobarbus, in Roman Tragedies, outside the Barbican).

In addition to the thrilling technical wizardry, Mr van Hove, breaks the wall, and ropes the audience in repeatedly as the story unfolds, in the warm-up at the top of the Howard Beale show, when Beale clambers into the audience and, obviously, when the assassin emerges at the end. The messages about the lengths broadcasters will go to to secure ratings, the ugly emptiness of much popular entertainment, the voracious appetite of the capitalist structure which sits behind this, the immorality and venality of those hardened by the system, the co-option of those who purport to stand against it, the alienation that they, and we, experience, ring out load. No updating of the plot required from an analogue to a digital world: the frantic, exhausting hyper-reality of the production does this for us. Remember the film was produced before the rise of neo-liberalism. Paddy Chayefsky died in 1981. If he was angry then, he’d be bloody livid now.

OK so there are one or two moments when being bashed over the head by this story and this production is a little tiring. But that I suppose is exactly the point, and you can chew more slowly on the content after the fact, as we have been doing.

As if this wasn’t enough we have an astonishing performance from Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale. Casting him looks to have been the most inspired of a string of inspired decisions around this production. Now as I understand it, Mr Cranston spent many years as a moderately successful jobbing actor before his turn in Malcolm in the Middle (never seen it), and then, famously, Breaking Bad. I generally can’t be doing with these TV series, preferring to see my pleasures in more concentrated form, as should be clear from this blog. However BB was an exception though it did test my patience at times across the 60 odd episodes. Still it is rare to see such a complete portrayal in any dramatic medium.

For me BC betters Peter Finch’s screen Howard by appearing to retain a better grasp on the forces around him. That is not to say that BC doesn’t show Beale’s mental collapse, just that, once his albeit damaged mind is made up to preach his disgust, he summons up a strength that Mr Finch’s more prophetic Beale lacks. The shift in Beale’s rhetoric post the meeting with Jensen is actually more satisfying on stage. Mr Cranston is riveting in the video close-ups as Beale moves from resignation, to desperation, through wild anger, and on to zealotry and an almost gnomic mysticism.

Michelle Dockery’s Diana is not quite as emptily amoral as Faye Dunaway’s on-screen version, but the relationship with Douglas Henshall’s Max just about works. The collapse of his shallow idealism is matched by his pathetic attempts to secure her empty affection. She never cares, he knows this from the start, he stops caring, in the end neither one of them cares. Beverly Longhurst, as Louise Schumacher, standing in for Caroline Faber gets to deliver the only really compassionate lines in the production when she boots him out. You should be very afraid of Richard Cordery’s Arthur Jensen, that’s what the men consumed by power at the top are like. I was also much persuaded by Tunji Kasim’s Frank Hackett, but frankly barely anyone puts a foot wrong here. Just as well, it would have been chaos if they had.

At its heart I think Network is a plea for our shared humanity not to be broken by an economic complex which seems to be beyond our understanding and influence, and not to be bullied and sedated by technology. What better place to do that than in the elemental forum for shared experience which is the theatre.

Beware the Infotainment Scam people. Mind you I might just have been scammed by Mr van Hove and his collaborators. It felt good though.