After a false start, (the indolent Tourist failed to wake up in time on the appointed on-sale day and this sold out fast), a couple of returns were secured so it was off to the Dorfman with MS in tow for Ella Hickson’s latest play. With high expectations given Ms Hickson’s last two outings, The Writer and Oil, both at the Almeida. Expectations that were, largely, met.
I say Ella Hickson but without the sound wizards of Ben and Max Ringham Anna would not have been possible. For, as I am sure your seasoned theatregoers know, the USP of the play is that the audience listens to the proceedings on stage through headphones. The action being set in the modish East Berlin apartment of Ann (Phoebe Fox) and Hans (Paul Bazely) Weber in 1968, expertly designed by Vicki Mortimer. Anna enters in the dark, potters about. Hans joins her, returning from work. They are about to host a party to celebrate Hans’s promotion. Their elder neighbour, Elena Hildebrand (the ever wonderful Diana Quick), joins them before Hans’s work colleague pitch up en masse, including his intimidating boss Christian Neumann (Max Bennett).
Anna is nervous of Herr Neumann and, with a nod to Death and the Maiden, we soon find out why. Or do we? Across the brief 70 minutes or so Ms Hickson pops in a few twists whilst ramping up the tension as the party drinks flow. We are listening in from Anna’s aural standpoint, as it were, so it’s pretty clear all is not what it seems, though to be fair I didn’t see the end coming. Maybe it didn’t quite hang together dramatically but as a way of conjuring up an atmosphere of claustrophobia, surveillance and suspicion, the cornerstone of Communist East Germany, the technology certainly did the job. And just to be sure we embrace the spying vibe. we are separated from the Dorfman stage by a glasss wall.
The cast, especially those aforementioned as well as Nathalie Armin, Jamie Bradley, Michael Gould, Georgia Landers, Lara Rossi and Duane Walcott, all rose to the technical challenge even if they had limited opportunity to get under the skin of the characters. And director Natalie Abrahami, and movement guru Anna Morrissey, deserve immense credit for orchestrating the party. Phoebe Fox has to portray a range of real, and fake, emotions as Anna and sometimes, much like the play itself, which has to support a number of themes inside its thriller structure, doesn’t quite manage to keepit together. But it is still impossible not to get immersed in the story, even if it warranted twice the length, and you never stop marvelling at what the Ringham boys are punching down your lugholes. Not sure I would want to experience theatre this way every day of the week, (the whole point is that this was not a communal experience), but, like Simon McBurney’s The Encounter, you need to try this once.
I sort of stumbled across Peter Strickland second full length film by accident. Always keep half an eye on what’s coming up on Film 4. Record anything that I recognise as requiring a watch, (on the basis of pretentious film buff recommendations), probably leave it unwatched for months and then likely dump it. Just occasionally though a bit of research and or plain old fashioned curiosity means I end up watching them before pressing delete. And so one rainy Sunday afternoon on went Berberian Sound Studio. The presence of Toby Jones helped but, five minutes in, laptop and phone were switched off and I sat, bewitched, for the next hour and a half. Have raved about it ever since whenever the chance comes up to raise it in conversation. Which, as those of you that may know it, isn’t really that often.
For the film is a critique, or maybe continuation, of the Italian giallo film genre. Giallo, to quote Wiki, is “a particular Italian thriller-horror genre that has mystery or detective elements and often contains slasher, crime fiction, psychological thriller, psychological horror, exploitation, sexploitation, and, less frequently, supernatural horror elements“. It reached its apogee in the 1970s and stems from the Italian for yellow, the colour of the paperback mystery novels popular in post-WWII Italy which provided th plots for many plots for many of the early cinematic examples.
Now, to be clear, these films wouldn’t be my cup of tea, though, to be fair, I haven’t tried. Mr Strickland’s film though takes the post-production studio for one of these films as the setting for a surreal mediation on the main character’s dislocation and eventual breakdown. Gilderoy has arrived at the studio to work on a film about horses. Or so he believes. He is a Foley artist whose work has come to the attention of the film’s director, Santini, through the soundtrack to a nature made in Gilderoy’s home county of Surrey, Dorking to be exact, where he lives with his Mum. Out of his depth, and plainly shocked by the nature of the film, Gilderoy nonetheless sets to work on mixing the sound effects for the film’s torture scenes and the voice-overs from session actresses, Silvia and Claudia. He is held captive by a mixture of professional pride, bullying by the film’s producer Francesco, failed attempts to get his expenses reimbursed, (it turns out the flight he came over on doesn’t exist), concern for the actresses and, maybe, fascination with the material. The language barrier, his own lack of worldliness and the material he is dealing with leave him increasingly disorientated and unhinged. A new actress arrives Elisa to replace Silvia who has been attacked by Santini. Gilderoy eventually goes full-on gaga mixing up reality and the film. The end.
Now I can’t pretend that there weren’t times when the film became a little frustrating and, well, just a bit weird but it is so atmospheric, so different and so fascinating that I have watched it again and, as with all good art, have occasion to think on it. Toby Jones is brilliant as Gilderoy, (as he is in pretty much anything he does – most recently on stage as Stanley in last year’s Birthday Party revival) ,as are the rest of the Italian, largely based in Britain, cast. The exposure of the mechanics of film-making, specifically the sound-track, composed in the film by Broadcast, the Foley effects and the voice effects from Hungarian performance artist Katalin Ladik is intriguing, especially the horror genre, and the theme of alienation, on many different levels, is intriguingly explored. Strickland himself was brought up in Reading but lives in Eastern Europe.
So how to put this on stage. Well clearly the first thing you need is a convert which is where Tom Scutt comes in. Mr Scutt is a top drawer designer, (Julie, Summer and Smoke, The Lady from the Sea, Woyzeck, Les Liasons Dangereuses, King Charles II, The Deep Blue Sea, Elegy, Constellations – and that’s just what the Tourist has seen), and Associate at the Donmar, but this is first directing gig. He has teamed up with Joel Horwood, (whose work I don’t know but who I see has previously focussed on pantos !!), to adapt BSS for the stage.
And what a very fine job the two of them have done. The adaptation stays close to the original story, with some changes in chronology, for most of the 90 minutes run time but wisely condenses the breakdown of Gilderoy at the end. This shifts the focus more directly to the relationship between him, Francesco and, eventually, Santini, (a confident debut from Luke Pasqualino), and the actresses, where the characters have been mixed up and changed a bit. Elena/Sara is played by Eugenia Caruso who actually played Claudia in the film and starred in Strickland’s next major film The Duke of Burgundy. Sylvia is played by Lara Rossi, (who I remember well from The Writer at the Almeida), Carla by Beatrice Scirocchi and vocal composer Lore Lixenberg takes on the Katalin Ladik part. All clear? Nope. Don’t worry. there is no confusion in the play. Well aside from in Gilderoy’s mind.
It also lays bare the process of creating the sound-track to the film with two on stage Foley artists in the form of the silent Massimo and Massimo, (Tom Espiner, who has form on this as the on-stage Foley for Simon McBurney’s Magic Flute of which more to follow on these very pages shortly), and Hemi Yeroham), brooding janitor Lorenzo (Sidney Kean) and the voice of Giovanni (Stefano Braschi). The distance between the process, squashing a melon say, and the intention, some unspeakable violence, of the sound is as sharp a metaphor for the illusion of theatre, or film, as you could imagine.
However the heart of play lies with the performance of Tom Brooke as Gilderoy. He initially cuts a more confident air than Toby Jones in the film, determined to show his skill, (which also allows us even more insight into the technological processes). However the constant harassment and worse by Francesco, Enzo Cilenti is superb here, and the entreaties from the women, are what push him over the edge, perhaps less than the content of the film. It feels more like he is lashing out rather than disintegrating as he goes round and round trying to create the “perfect” closing torture scene soundtrack. In the end he is complicit as we see him scare Carla into giving the perfect “real”scream . What is clever though is that large swathes of the dialogue between the Italian characters, except where Francesco intervenes ostensibly to help Gilderoy, are spoken in Italian. Leaving the audience, mostly, in the dark alongside our hero.
It also, of course, means that, in a story centred on sound, the sound design had to match the ambition of the adaptation. It did. Thanks to the go-to stage sound designers Ben and Max Ringham, alongside the aforementioned mentioned Tom Espiner’s Foley, (there is a lot of vegetable abuse here), and Lore Lixenberg’s vocals. Lee Curran as lighting designer, Sasha Milavic Davies (who is one of the best in her field methinks), projectionist Mogzi Bromley-Morgans and even the superb studio set of Anna Yates (with Tom Scutt’s input) all had to take a back seat to the brothers Ringham. Pound for pound I doubt you will ever see a more extraordinary manifestation of the technical craft of theatre-making.
Did it work as a play though? Yes definitely. The team has wisely not tried to go for broke with the more surreal visual conceits of the film and to offer more complexity in the relationships between characters, and, I think, to point up, by implication, the misogyny of genre and industry. The idea that creatives have some responsibility for the material they create also comes through even if the individual isolation of Gilderoy is less explicit. Santini’s twisted justification for the film to Gilderoy, and Gilderoy’s own disavowal of, I think, Elena, “I’m just a technician”, are key scenes in this regard.
There is suspense and direction in the story. There are even a couple of jump-scares. The play also expertly captures the slippery meta elision between play and film within a play, (I note that Jamie Lloyd captured the same vibe in his version of The Slight Ache in the Pinter season recently). To be fair it does sort of just end, there is no conclusion, but that is common to the film. I can see exactly why everyone here wanted to bring this project to life and I for one thoroughly enjoyed it. On the other hand if you weren’t familiar with the film, took a punt and are not nerded up by the technical aspects, then I could see this being a little frustrating.
The Writer is …. an absolutely staggering piece of …. writing. No other way to say it. I’d wager there were a few punters in the audience that disagree with me but I think Ella Hickson, along with director Blanche McIntyre and the rest of the creative team, and an outstanding cast, have conjured up a masterpiece. In the same breath it provokes, educates and entertains. It deserves a much wider audience that the well-heeled punters like the Tourist who make up the Almeida throng. Whilst the Almeida may not immediately struck you as part of the solution to the problem of access for telling stories from women on stage, it was heartening to see this project realised there.
It starts with an impellent Lara Rossi, (who is more than a match for Romola Garai, superb as the eponymous Writer), playing a young actor/writer who, post performance, eloquently demolishes the lazy, sexist premises on which a complacent Samuel West’s direction is constructed. As she says theatre is “famous people, doing boring things badly”! Men are judged on what they produce, women on how fuckable they are. They have inevitably met before. We discover though that they are acting out the Writer’s text and sharply shift to a staged Q&A in which the nervous, tongue-tied Writer’s work is undermined by the “real” Director imperiously played by Michael Gould who praises its “promise” but inveigles against it lack of “structure”. Just who is going to watch this sort of stuff?
Scene two switches to the home of the Writer and partner, also Samuel West, who bullies and cajoles the Writer into agreeing to adapting her work into a film. It is all about him. She yearns for, and needs, more. The “biological clock” is invoked. The next, I think deliberately disorientating and galling, scene sees the Writer in a safe, supportive female only space, a jungle-y retreat of sorts, invoking Semele and other Origin mythological mumbo-jumbo (with some fantastic realisation from Richard Howell’s lighting, Emma Laxton’s sound and Zakk Hein’s video). Scene four sees the now confident Writer arguing with Michael Gould’s director about the play to date. He is viciously pulling the prior scene apart, whilst patronisingly banging on about the “rawness” of the opening. The final scene sees the writer with another partner, this time played by Lara Rossi. The compromises and imbalances of scene two are revisited.
From this structure Ella Hickson is able to explore fundamental arguments about how power, the patriarchy and contemporary capitalism, (as Lara Rossi’s character explains early on), affects, and infects, the creative process, art and the theatre and our relationships. It is a polemic of sorts, but Ms Hickson dissects her material, with fearless, supple and sceptical self-awareness. It confronts and confounds the audience, for sure, is intellectually reflexive, but avoids aggressive predictable dialectic. It revels in, and reveals, the artifice of theatre. Which in some ways makes Romola Garai’s performance, remember she has to convincingly “act” this all out, even more remarkable.
If thats sounds like a recipe for a dry evening, think again. The “drama” is delivered with real passion, even anger, with wit, and with a formal inventiveness, that left the Tourist with bum glued to his seat, ears straining, mouth open. Anna Fleischle’s design, (and the on-stage managers), intelligently accommodate the play’s inversions with repeated construction and de-construction. Ultimately though it is the control that Ella Hickson exerts over her themes, assisted by Blanche McIntyre, that makes this brilliant. It twists and turns but it knows exactly what it is doing and saying.
I learnt a lot. I recognise the behaviours exhibited by the men on stage here, especially Samuel West in the second scene. I don’t know how to avoid them. I do know I had to think very hard about what I would say about the play. It will make you want to argue. Ideally not while it is going on although maybe we should.
At one point, forgive me I forget when, the point is made that the Writer will move on to more established theatrical storytelling forms. Presumably this will be so for Ms Hickson thought I doubt she will write anything as powerful as this story about the struggle to tell women’s stories. Mind you Oil was a work of near genius in my book and also shows she isn’t going to fuck about with little subjects. I think she might just be the best and most challenging writer for the British stage right now. Ignore those who will say this is just irritating, indulgent self-therapy. They are wrong. Leave them to watch nonsense like that revival of Absolute Hell or Rattigan knock-offs. This is what theatre is all about.