Thursday 16 February 2017

Beware of Pity at the Barbican, or, Technically Impressive (if Familiar) but Emotionally Cold

Note: A belated review of the performance on Sunday 12th February 2017

My past experiences with those involved in this production have been mixed. I thought Complicite's The Master and Margarita was remarkable. I had mixed feelings about Simon McBurney's The Encounter, and I was not impressed by the Schaubuhne Berlin's Richard III (touring alongside this show and featuring some of the same cast). As I seem to be saying depressingly often these days other critics, and social media opinion, have largely raved about this one but it left me cold.

As a staging it reminded me strongly of The Encounter. Although some scenes are partially staged (usually in lighted space centre stage) and there is some use of props and the wearily familiar projections around the sides and to the back, far too much of this show consists of people delivering text into onstage microphones. As a radio play this would work better, as theatre, for me, it had an alienating effect which the show never transcended. A similar problem bedevils the adaptation (by McBurney and colleagues). I haven't read the book, but other reviews suggest that the adaptors have maintained the narrative style – wherein the older Hofmiller recalls the experience of his younger self. There are two issues here. First, because the narration is constantly telling you how people feel and what to think about things there is little room for the viewer to use his or her own imagination – like far too much theatre at the moment there is a lecturing element. But secondly, and more seriously, on too many occasions the narration drags on (there is also not enough variety of delivery) with insufficient visual accompaniment. On a radio, where you have to imagine the scene from the words this might work quite well – on a stage cluttered with actors sitting at their microphones there is a constant unconvincing divorce between text and visuals.

Other elements compound these problems. Handheld cameras and back projections make their wearily familiar and largely ineffectual appearance – I was particularly irritated by such things as the projection of a pair of scissors when Edith (the crippled girl whom Hofmiller pities) mentions her suicide attempt – does McBurney think he's got an audience who've never seen a pair of scissors? The soundscape (Pete Malkin and Benjamin Grant) is overly intrusive – particularly the use of a Mahler Adagio to hammer home the emotional points that the show is determined we shall take. One other point worth mentioning are the vocal effects created around Edith's voice which I really found made it impossible to see why on earth she ever exerted any spell on Hofmiller – indeed, it was the sort of voice that I would have expected any sane man to run a mile from. The overall effect of all of this for me was to create an emotional coldness which virtually never lifted.

The seven strong ensemble are not credited to individual roles. They undoubtedly throw themselves into the work with energy and commitment and I do not regard it as their fault that I felt so unengaged.

One final oddity of other criticism is the assertion that this show speaks to our current moment. I'm afraid I really couldn't see why beyond the general, and too vague for real punch point, that Austro-Hungary in 1914 stood on the brink of catastrophe and it is arguable that we do so now. For me, this was another in what has become a really depressingly long line of unengaging shows...which probably means it'll be on the menu in Edinburgh this summer...

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