Saturday, 25 August 2007

An Evening at the Modern Theatre or Sex, Nudity, and Ibsen performed by 'Allo 'Allo rejects

Last year I endured the three and a half hours of mind numbing tedium which was the American Repertory Theatre’s production of Three Sisters. Foolishly I imagined that it would take the International Festival some years to equal it. I could not have been more wrong. That experience has now been trumped by the equally interminable and just downright stupid Mabou Mines Dollhouse.

Imagine, if you will, that the cast of ‘Allo ‘Allo have been hired to produce an Ibsen play. Or more specifically, that the actors in a production of Ibsen’s The Dolls House have received accent coaching from the cast of ‘Allo ‘Allo. This was nearly three hours of performers speaking in ‘Allo ‘Allo style Scandinavian accents. It makes a mockery of the play, but sadly a mockery that is not funny but dull as ditchwater.

The performance takes place on a King’s Theatre stage enclosed by lavish red drapes. After the Chinese pianist (and trust me the fact that she is Chinese is of significance) has bowed and taken up her seat at the faux grand piano embedded in the stage (in fact a pitifully sounding keyboard with a fake piano lid) Nora and Kristine come rushing in and start erecting the show’s set.

This consists of one large room in a doll house. That is to say, you have diminutive flats forming a backdrop of walls in concertina style, over which (or through the various windows and doors) the various members of the company periodically appear. The two women start to deliver their lines in the aforementioned bizarre accents and with silly high-pitched screaming and generally bizarre pacing, while unpacking various bits of similarly diminutive furniture apparently intended as Christmas presents for the children’s dolls house. Without apparent motivation, they park, throw or drape themselves over various bits of furniture, manoeuvring it round the stage, or throwing it across it, or, occasionally, locking themselves in a large packing case at the far left of the stage. Just as the manner of delivering the dialogue makes it completely devoid of any emotional or intellectual impact, so the movement further renders the thing meaningless. However, it again bears stressing that this is not an amusing meaninglessness. It is simply empty. I marvelled at the sheer tedium and stupidity of it. I also marvelled at the fact that Torvald could ever have wanted to marry Nora. It was really impossible to understand why he had not thrown this extraordinarily childish, and silly accented woman out into the street some months before the curtain had even risen. Oh, did I mention that the maidservant is heavily pregnant, drops all the trays she ever brings on stage, and keeps swigging alcohol. Lord knows why. The whole is also accompanied by snatches of Grieg from our friend the Chinese pianist – the trouble here is that it can’t reinforce meaning that has been drained away, or create it from outside the mess on stage.

Eventually, just as it was dawning on me that, contrary to all sense, the performers intended to deliver the entire text in these ridiculous accents, the dwarfs playing the men (the main innovative selling point of this production) begin to appear. It is with their presence that the play most disappoints. About two years ago I saw an extraordinary film called The Station Agent in which the lead character is played by a dwarf. It’s a wonderfully moving exploration of his life. One of the reasons I went to this, is that I expected something similar to be done by the deployment of dwarfs here. Not at all. They are turned into a joke. But it is not a clever joke, not a joke which has something profound to say about gender relations or relative heights, or anything really. It’s slapstick and a bit pathetic. For example, a small minority of the audience seemed to find the dwarf Torvald and the tall (relatively) Nora rolling in ecstasy on the floor extremely funny. But the only reason I could see for finding this funny was if you assume there is something inherently funny in the idea of sexual chemistry between a very short man and a normal sized woman. For me, it was one of the depressingly few moments of genuine human connection in the play – there was nothing funny about it at all.

And so for about ninety minutes it went on with more of the same, culminating in a bizarre dream sequence. It appears to be Christmas. We know this because various people keep talking about presents and there’s a little Christmas tree being moved around the stage or behind which the evil lawyer hides for most of his first scene – again don’t ask me why, it was like most of this production obscure. In this sequence, Nora writhed around on the floor while her old nurse (looking suspiciously like the maidservant in a weird mask and silly wig), on stilts, loomed over the walls of the dolls house and spoke t..e..r..r..i..b…l…y slowly and ominously. Strobe lighting started, all the actors were writhing on the floor, snatches of dialogue were displayed on banners which were displayed then dropped onto the stage, and finally, thank god, the interval arrived.

Act 2 brought the sex and nudity. In spades. We began with Kristine giving the evil lawyer a blow job, pass through Torvald masturbating centre stage, and finish with Nora completely naked in one of the King’s Theatre boxes, singing some crazed modern aria to her abandoned half-naked husband as he hangs off the side of the proscenium arch. By this stage, the set has been changed into a theatre, with the back of the stage ringed with opera boxes filled with formally dressed couples moving in sympathy with the leading protagonists.

Incidentally, it would seem for some reason that while full frontal nudity of a woman is quite acceptable, full frontal nudity of a dwarf is not. Probably this was intended to say something terribly profound about gender relations. No doubt a wiser critic than I could say what that was.

In between there was a lot more ‘funny’ accents, writhing around, and a feeble joke about the Chinese which nearly causes the Chinese pianist to leave the stage. Her departure would not have been much of a loss but of course she cannot go since the dialogue cannot possibly be continued without its accompanying Grieg. Eventually, Nora stripped off in her box, vanished in a cloud of smoke, and Torvald ran through through the auditorium screaming for her – which given how obviously barking his wife was, was more than a little baffling.

The EIF brochure claims this production is “funny” and “profound.” For me it was yet another evening of tedium. It is increasingly my view that these directors who like to think they are so provocative are actually very feeble minded. These great works of art frighten them so severely that the only way they can come to grips with them is to tear them to pieces. This only ends up exposing the barrenness of their own imaginations. It would be nice to think that one day Arts Councils, Theatre Managers, Festival Directors, and critics are going to have the courage to expose this by not giving these people work, but I’m not holding my breath.

I have already noted (see earlier review of Poppea) that sex and nudity is now so common it is tiresome. But another point does bear repetition. It is becoming rare to go to a show where the development of the characters, their genuine creation on stage, is paramount. Instead they’re mocked, the text so disfigured that their emotional journeys become meaningless. Furthermore, at least some of McMaster’s hirings in the field of theatre direction knew how speech should be delivered on stage. With the exception of some of The Wooster Group I have yet to see any really fine spoken acting this festival. Jonathan Mills may perhaps console himself with the mistaken idea that he is shocking people. From where I’m sitting he is committing a much more serious crime, and for the second time this Festival, that of boring them.

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