Review: Rocinante! Rocinante!

Written for Time Out

Filled with vivid flights of fancy, ‘Rocinante! Rocinante!’ is an intriguing piece. Sweeping parasol oceans and miniature tin-pan solar systems make this a sophisticated visual work. But in terms of communicating a story, Panta Rei Theatre have completely lost their marbles.

You can’t fault their ambition. In this devised piece, Don Quixote de la Mancha (along with Sancho Panza, donkey and eponymous horse) meets two of Hamlet’s gravediggers in a setting which echoes the grotesque art of Hieronymus Bosch. But why have they met? And what is illuminated by their meeting? This episodic narrative is frustratingly opaque.

The cast’s intelligent handling of promenade is much more practical and we are manipulated with ease by an intuitive company whose physical work is superb. Stephanie Lewis and Tommy Scott give particularly detailed performances.Some of Don Quixote’s chivalrous integrity has bled into the heart of this strange piece. But Cervantes and Shakespeare gave their heroes flashes of sanity to contextualise their torment; there is no such clarity here.

Runs until Friday 2 March. For more information go here.

Exeunt Critics’ Picks of 2011

LOTS of fabulous picks here by some people who really know their stuff including some expected and not so expected pieces. Wish I could have mentioned London Road, wish I could have seen Mission Drift…

Originally published on Exeunt

Of course we are wary of the arbitrary nature of these things, the artificiality of seasons, the ordering of experiences into peaks, the hierarchal maps they reproduce, the dangers of placing Fabulous ones next to Those who have just broken a vase.  However at some point you have to be practical.  Our critics have valiantly seen a metric stage-tonne of theatre this year, so what better to relive with sufficient context their most notable moments? And from here it looks like they have produced a list unrivalled for its scope, depth and surprises.  So without further ado-ing, and in no particular order…

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Review: Wittenberg

Written for Exeunt

Plays involving famous figures, both historical and literary, seem to be as popular amongst writers as they are with audiences. There’s something hugely appealing about seeing Dali bantering with Freud, Pope Joan getting drunk at a dinner party or Benjamin Britten asking advice of W. H. Auden. David Davalos’ play turns his attention on Doctor Faustus, Martin Luther and Hamlet.

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The Factory’s The Seagull: Improvisation is about doing things and Chekhov is essentially about people doing nothing – it’s a recipe for dire theatre

The Factory is a company that do what could literally be described as Flash-mob Theatre.  A facebook update is released on Friday about shows which are played out that Sunday and the precious 50 tickets or so sell with lighting speed because this is a troupe with a fantastic reputation for mixing it up in playfully irreverent but perceptive productions. Their latest production of The Seagull has been popping up around venues (some theatrical, though mostly not) across London for the last few months and it’s had some cracking reviews and great audience feedback.  So why were I and my friends left so non-plussed?

Having tackled Hamlet with great panache, The Factory’s off-the-cuff style, incorporating multi-playing (3 actors toss to see who plays a character each night) props taken from random audience belongings (at one Hamlet performance, a pineapple became Yorick’s skull) and improvised blocking, completely dampened Chekhov’s rapier social commentary.   The whole thing became diffused and by presenting us with a simplified version of the text it was slightly like a bad family drama, and we’ve all had enough Eastenders to last us a life time.  It is easy to feel this way about Chekhov’s work, just ask teachers who battle against bored teenagers year in year out, and indeed on many levels they are ghastly family dramas about mean spirited and self centred individuals. The brilliance comes in his precise and perceptively drawn characters, each of whom are whittled from life with minute detail.  It is in the moments when you absolutely recognise someone you know, or yourself, in these people on stage that Chekhov really pierces you.

Every word counts to get you through the mundane and skin deep unpleasantness of his characters into the painfully acute psychological studies that they are and to give you these moments of recognition. I’m not saying I’m a purist, Katie Mitchell and Martin Crimps’ key-hole surgery version at the National was a precise and minimalist masterpiece of this play, but then they were making it more specific and not less so; as she says ‘The text that emerged…was considerably shorter, leaner and more angular’.  But The Factory have decided to do a different version each night, which here means that it will always be improvised with the actors using their own words.  What has been created through this lack of structure is a convoluted and diffused production of a text that is full of light and shade, in a show which has become a muddy grey through this company’s constant need to ‘keep the ball afloat’.  This desperate need to maintain the base level of energy at all costs is also to the detriment of any detailed character work from these clearly talented performers.  There are no silences, no moments of real tension or pain, everything is slightly too comfortable because they won’t allow it to get dangerous.

The Factory’s anarchic and unabashed approach is to be applauded and encouraged, and Shakespeare’s writing was developed by them in a perfect marriage of text and performance in typically bawdy style.  However I think that Chekhov’s subtleties may be beyond this form of immediate theatre.  Maybe I’m wrong? But to get anywhere near it, they’re going to need to go right back into the text and dig a lot deeper, not discard it for a million and one improvised words.