As I descended the stairs of the Kings Theatre after this tedious matinee I heard a fellow audience member describe this show as a Russian Revolution. The temptation to utter a sharp retort was exceedingly strong, but I resisted. There is nothing revolutionary about this show. It is another tedious exposition of many tired cliches of the modern theatre director which have previously been more than sufficiently exhibited in other offerings of the International Festival's Drama programme.
Director Dmitry Krymov follows in the footsteps of Silviu Purcarete. Like Purcarete with Swift, Krymov appears for reasons not wholly clear to be unable to face staging Shakespeare's play complete. He therefore resorts to an alternative we have often seen before – he'll attempt only a small section of the whole. The section Krymov has chosen is the Mechanicals play. In the Shakespeare I shouldn't think this can last more than half an hour, in Krymov's hands it is elongated to an hour and forty minutes. You may possibly be thinking that there cannot be enough material in the Mechanicals play to sustain such an extension and you would be absolutely right.
This is even more the case because Krymov is not in fact interested in delivering much of Shakespeare's text at all – vast swathes of this play are textless, with occasional interventions from the Duke's court (ranged along the side of the extended stage and in the boxes) who don't succeed in being funnier than their Shakespearean counterparts who were not terribly funny to start with.
To fill up the gaps around his main concept which we'll come on to in a moment, Krymov resorts to a number of familiar cliches, the most notable one being the extended riff at the beginning on the problematic nature of any kind of performance with helpful interventions from the court (is it avant-garde, is it modern art) – as on the stairs afterwards I had to resist the urge to shout at them exactly what I thought it was. There are also explosions, flashing lights, and a cute dog which scampers about the place. I do give credit to Krymov for the impressive circus acts – especially the man upside down balanced on the other man's head – more of this sort of thing (despite the complete absence of connection to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe which Krymov claims to be telling) would have improved things no end – but sadly they are very fleeting.
Meanwhile there is one other larger concept – this is Krymov's decision to use two enormous puppets manipulated by about half the company to tell the tragic tale. These are impressive when first presented but interest is not sustained. They suffer badly in comparison to the National's use of puppetry in His Dark Materials and War Horse which were far better and movingly done. The puppets actually do comparatively little and because of the show's running time what in effect happens is that actions are repeated (see Marthaler), thus Pyramus collecting bouquets of flowers from various places, Pyramus feeding fruit to Thisbe, Thisbe peeing into a bowl after the lion has fled – some in the audience found these quite amusing – I was bored.
Finally, the two puppets are dead and one thinks that the end may be nigh. Unfortunately Krymov also, in common with Theatre du Soleil and Marthaler, has a problem with endings. First we have another irritating self-referential discussion about what it all means (answer a) not a lot and b) I ceased to give a damn about an hour ago). Then we have a parody of classical Russian ballet which is yet another in the litany of things in this production which isn't funny and outstays its welcome.
As in other shows this year there are some fine visual effects (though why the swans were there I've no idea) and some funny moments (though not nearly enough). There was some laughter among the audience (a few clearly found it very much funnier than I) and some, though by no means all, stood to applaud at the end. For me this was yet another in the lengthening list of Festival drama productions this year which have proved that all these people throwing away text and character have yet to find anything sufficient to put in its place. Moreover there seem to be so many of them doing it (and this is not the first year this has been the case) that I do question whether it is right that they should be so heavily represented in the programme. But perhaps I am alone in thinking we have had a sufficiency of devised theatre. Alternatively, if we must have some of these people back in future years perhaps they might like to actually try staging a classic text rather than taking it to pieces. Now that really would be revolutionary.
9 months ago