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.

The Cherry Orchard at the Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam review *****

The Cherry Orchard (De Kersentuin)

Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, Staddschouwburg Rabozaal, 20th June 2019

One of the world’s greatest theatre makers in Simon McBurney directing. Actors from probably the world’s greatest theatre company in the form of the ITA (previously Toneelgroep). An adaptation from Robert Icke no less with his Dutch equivalent Peter van Kraaij as dramaturg. Luminaries such as Miriam Buether as designer, Paula Constable on lighting, Pete Malkin on sound and video from Will Duke. All working on, what for me, is actually Chekhov’s best, and final, play The Cherry Orchard. I wasn’t going to miss this. And nor should you either in Amsterdam or in London as I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this pops up at the Barbican next year.

Brace yourself mind. Mr McBurney was never going to offer us samovars and birch trees. Nor just a bitter-sweet, tragi-comedy focussed on text and character. He treats Chekhov in the same way as he has treated Brecht or opera. Whilst this may be his debut with the ITA he has illustrious past form at the Holland Festival, of which this production is a part, with productions of Stravinsky’s A Rake’s Progress and the joint Dutch National Opera/ENO Magic Flute, as well as Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita.

The Cherry Orchard offers a portrait of an impoverished landowning family and their retinue, forced to sell their beloved cherry orchard to pay their debts. Their world is changing. Serfdom, following the 1861 emancipation reform, has disappeared. The proletariat is set to overturn their masters who have failed to modernise economy and society. A new, moneyed middle class bourgeoise has emerged. The context should provide an atmosphere of impending doom and a kind of warped nostalgia against which the individual relationships between the characters can be explored. Mr McB’s modern-dress, kinetic interpretation, (we are in 1970’s Holland as the optimism of the 1960’s have given way to economic crisis and political unrest I assume), maybe plays this down a little but the insight this affords into the individual psyches of the characters, the futility of their existence, and the subversions of their class, more than compensates. This is a long way from naturalistic, and I suspect may not have been everyone’s glass of genever; indeed I overheard one very irate middle-aged British couple bailing out at the interval.

Chekhov productions, and especially The Cherry Orchard with its twelve main parts, all of which have plenty to say, can take a little while to gain momentum. Not here. Mind you, that in part reflects the power of this company which, emotionally and physically, never holds back. Bouts of intense activity are followed by periods of listlessness and ennui, reflecting the gap between the lofty intentions of these people and their lived indifference. Most of the action is focussed on a relatively constrained, dramatically lit plinth in the front centre of the wide Rabozaal stage upstairs in the Staadschouwburg. This functions as nursery in Acts I and IV, (there is a little doll’s house to make the point), but with no walls or doors, though a bold sound design simulated the slamming of doors and heavy footsteps, and as the garden in Act II. For the Act III party, here a pretty racy affair, with Hendrix and the Velvet Underground as soundtrack, the rest of the stage was utilised. The beloved orchard appeared only in video projection, alongside the Paris that the family has left and, to highlight the theme of ecological catastrophe that the perpetual student and would be revolutionary Trofimov (Majd Mardo) declaims, a nuclear power station.

Chris Nietveld’s world weary Madame Ranevskaya, here just Amanda, seeks attention but it is, deliberately, Gijs Scholten van Aschat’s Lopakhin, here Steve, who is the focus of attention. He takes no pleasure in buying the estate from the family, in fact their inability to grasp their fates just makes him miserable. These two, as I know from previous ITA productions, simply cannot help but draw the eye, but I was also taken with Eva Heijnen’s feisty Anya, Janni Goslinga’s doleful Clara, Steven van Watermeulen’s wheedling Boris and Bart Seegers’ doltish Leopold.

Maybe all this sharpened imagery and performance takes away from the sense of a past in snapshot that other productions have described. And some scenes teeter towards farce though to be far this only reflects AC’s voiced intention. Mind you he said that in response to the super gloomy opening night in 1904. There is an improvisatory quality to proceedings to set alongside the technical barrage which I can see would wind a lot of punters up. And it got a bit of a pasting from the Dutch press.

Me though, I loved it.

Medea at the Barbican Theatre review *****

Medea

International Theatre Amsterdam, Barbican Theatre, 6th March 2019

Now you can’t always be sure that wunderkind director Ivo van Hove delivers the goods when he comes to the UK, which is now surprisingly often with All About Eve his latest offering. When it comes to the company where he is AD, alongside design partner Jan Versweyveld, International Theatre Amsterdam, (previously Toneelgroep Amsterdam), you can pretty much guarantee theatre of the very best quality.

Especially when the story is Medea, Euripides’s most performed play, and still a rich source of inspiration some 2,450 years after its first performance. If you accept Euripides as the guiding light of drama, and you should, then this must rank as one of the greatest plays ever written. Mind you apparently it didn’t get rave reviews on its first run, Euripides coming last at that particular City Dionysia. The Romans took to it though as did the Renaissance Europe and it’s been a staple ever since.

However, if not re-interpreted for a modern audience, (it’s a two hander in the original), you might beg to differ. Left to the creative devices of writer and director Simon Stone you can be sure it will connect. Which it surely does. Mr Stone, an Aussie as you can see above sporting the casual surfer look, has an impressive track record, initially with new interpretations of classics in Oz and then in Europe, in Basel, Amsterdam and London. His Yerma, with Billie Piper, at the Young Vic was a knockout. And his debut film The Daughter, based on Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, (he brought his stage version to the Barbican a few years ago), is also a triumph.

If that wasn’t enough the lead in his version of Medea is Marieke Heebink, who is one of the most impressive stage actors I have ever seen (Oedipus, After The Rehearsal/Persona, Kings of War, Roman Tragedies, After the Fall). MH has been with the ITA ensemble since 1994 and now seems to get first dibs on the plum mature female roles in the ITA flagship productions though there is stiff competition.

Hence I had been raving about the visit of this production to the Barbican, (hopefully ITA will be back later in the year), for months and buttonholing anyone and everyone to get a ticket for one of the five performances. As usual they completely ignored me. Well more fool you. It was magnificent.

Simon Stone has taken the true story of one Deborah Green and woven this in to the classic Medea story. Ms Green is an American doctor who has spent 22 years in prison for attempting to poison her husband and setting fire to her house in 1995, killing two of her children. Her marriage to fellow doctor Michael Farrar was volatile but it was his affair with Margaret Hacker which prompted Deborah Green to become increasingly unpredictable with Farrar eventually leaving the family house. One of their daughters managed to escape the blaze.

In the play Marieke Heebink plays Anna, a research scientist whose own career has been eclipsed by her former assistant, and husband, Lucas (Aus Greidanus Jr), as she has brought up their two sons Gijs (Poema Kitseroo) and Edgar (Faas Jonkers). Lucas has moved in with the much younger Clara (Eva Heijnen) who happens to be the daughter of Christopher (Leon Voorberg), the head of the Institute where Anna and Lucas work. Anna has returned home after a breakdown and an attempt to poison Lucas. Her increasingly frantic attempts to get Lucas back, to rebuild her family and return to work, all fail and so we build up to the inevitable, though still shocking, conclusion.

All this is played out on Bob Cousins’s unadorned, brilliant white, set, (redolent of lab and hospital), with a panel above on which the sur-titles are projected, (the play is in Dutch with translation from Vera Hoogstad and dramaturg Peter van Kraaij), as well as the videos taken by the two sons for their school project. This allows us to cut to the actors at moments of high drama and provides a vital plot development. Just about the cleverest use of on stage video the Tourist has seen. The blank set does eventually see some adornment in the form of blood and ash but that’s about all. The costumes, courtesy of regular ITA collaborator An D’Huys, are nondescript modern dress.

So all our attention is focussed on the story and the characters. This is, once again, an immensely physical performance, not just from Ms Heebink but also from Aus Griedanus Jr. Watching her unravel and watching him watching her unravel is utterly compelling. There is no sign of a god, no Medea rising up with the dead bodies in the chariot of the Sun God, and Mr Stone has wisely only intersected with the detail of the original plot where it makes sense and fits the narrative of the Green story. Even so it has the same visceral power as Euripides and the same ability to make you sympathise with Medea/Anna who understandably takes revenge as everything that makes up her life is taken away from her.

The set and Simon Stone’s direct text, (created as the performance takes place), also means no time is wasted in scene setting or exposition. Scenes just pile up into each other. This means the play takes just 80 minutes adding to its raw impact and the clarity of its message. There are moments of tenderness and much humour in the family scenes with both of the young actors playing the sons turning in polished performances to match there more seasoned colleagues. Eva Heijnen’s pregnant Clara, in her dismissal of the desperate and bitter Anna, is especially cutting and the drinking scene between Lucas and Christopher shows male privilege at its most crudely transparent. Indeed every scene has been thought through in detail, there is not a wasted line or movement in the entire play. Intensity. Perfectly distilled.

I was pretty sure this would be one of the best things I would see this year, or indeed, any year. It was. Mind you a string of reviews from its previous staging pretty much guaranteed it would be. Even so when theatre is this good there is nothing better. Simon Stone is quoted in the programme notes. “I think theatre could well be the most important art form of this time. Where else do people still come together to collectively experience and think about something?” Quite. Though I would say it is the most important art form of this, or any, time.

Can’t wait for Simon Stone’s next move. Electra might be fun.