Psychological Realism – A precious mistress, but why are we so wed to it?

Originally Published on Arts Professional.

Take a look at the SPILL Festival programme which has just stormed the Barbican and you’ll see a number of exciting British performance artists matching strides with their international counterparts. When it comes to live art British artists are at the forefront of exciting experimental work, constantly moving forward.

But if we trawl our gaze across the theatrical spectrum to the world of acting, a very different type of performance, as a country we still seem to be deeply wedded to the power of psychological realism.

Ever since Constantin Stanislavski created his groundbreaking method British theatre has been in the thrall of this ‘inside out’ approach. By digging deep into the psychology of a character and empathetically placing themselves within these fictional people through emotion memory, the actor was to attain the most natural performance possible. It was a system that was to cross borders and cultural boundaries, infusing the live arts so thoroughly that it is now seen as the status quo.

But nowhere in the world is this Russian as prized as in Britain and America where his hold on actors and directors seems almost ironclad. This was brought home to me once again when reading up on various past productions of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu. Time and again I was struck by how every company and artist seemed obsessed with stripping the layers away from this iconic temptress to reveal the ‘real woman beneath’. As though this was the only way into an accurate rendition of Wedekind’s libido-driven nymph.

I knew that this wasn’t true as last week I had seen the Berliner Ensemble perform Robert Wilson’s version of Lulu in Berlin. Wilson’s epic theatre has long been admired in Europe where both theatres and audiences are more understanding of the kind of expressionist performance this auteur is famous for. Wilson’s style of heightened language and highly choreographed movement encased within an architecturally sharp mise en scene is a deeply unnatural one. Psychological realism it ain’t, but sitting in the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm watching a play in a language I don’t understand, Lulu’s story was told to me through abstract gesture with immense emotional clarity.

Angela Winkler translated her deep psychological understanding of this icon within a doll like external persona. The sensual temptation of a Japanese geisha sang out in her stiffly corseted shuffling wiggle. Winkler walked but not realistically; her ‘naturalism’ was akin to the mannerisms of the 18th Century David Garrick. But within this highly unsexy shuffle Lulu’s famous contradiction of Madonna/whore screamed out at us. Her tinkling laugh was performed with unnatural regularity, her voice too perfectly modulated to be human. It was an oddness that was mirrored every player in the freak show of fathers and lovers that circled and eventually devoured her.

It was an otherworldly performance but Wilson’s abstract direction made sense to me with Lulu’s psychological journey communicated clearly through these externally driven creatures. It reminded me that psychological realism, whilst potent, is not the only successful method of acting, so why are we so stuck on it?


On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God – Romeo Castellucci

Written for Exeunt Magazine

A man soils himself on stage and the sweet tang of excrement fills the polished Barbican auditorium as brown begins to smudge the pristine white set. A son wipes his father clean as Jesus smiles his Mona Lisa smile on the pair of them, an observer like us, and also the creator of creatures with bodies that bleed and shit, or people who love and despair.

It is a surprisingly intimate beginning for a practitioner known for his iconoclastic visual extravaganzas. Watching a son look after his sobbing incontinent father is as bizarrely sweet as the stench Romeo Castellucci sprays out into the audience. This smell, as with much of Castellucci’s work, could be seen as simply a shock tactic, the best way to horrify a predominantly middle class SPILL audience, but instead it grounds the imagery on stage, making it more tangible, all the more real. We become very aware of our own bodies and of the social embarrassment this shattered old man is feeling; we also become aware of how voyeuristic our viewing of this intimate degradation is.

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Rajni Shah’s Glorious @ The Barbican

Written for Total Theatre

Rajni Shah stands in the centre of an empty stage; a statue on a plinth, her velveteen voice fills the Silk Street Theatre easing us gently into the show to come, ‘And then the stories start to fall…And then the songs begin’.

There is something very soporific about this beginning; it is a tempo that is established firmly from the start and one which is militantly maintained throughout. Even in the face of a spattering of honky-tonk piano within the overture, Shah’s 3 act musical is languid.

Shah’s immobile body remains solidly still at the centre of this work. Her contributors, all volunteers from London, enter one by one and grow their stories and their melodies around her like off shots from a trunk. 6 ordinary folk read letters, the results from interventions preceding this piece facilitated by Shah; their correspondence standing as poems to their disparate lives and loves.

Students from Guildhall School of Music and Drama make up the impressive band that invades the stage for Acts 2 and 3; the tonal arrangements are their doing from then on in. The music is beautiful and as varied as the complex city and people within it that this version of Glorious is in honour of.

But at the heart of this work there is a feeling of undeniable lacking. Shah’s songs, which are the backbone of the piece, skim the surface of any real meaning. Disappointingly she has missed the mark between poignancy and cliché.  The feeling of solemnity that dogs Glorious does it no favours, whilst the stories and music are on occasion funny Shah herself communicates a sense of worthiness that becomes irritating.

At the end an exchange of daffodils flickers back into life the flame of potential at the core of this musical but it is too late. Glorious should be a celebration of the individuals that have bravely taken the leap to be part of it, for now, despite all Shah’s best intentions, it simply feels like it has encased them in a tomb.

Lakeboat and Prairie du Chien @ The Arcola

Written for

There’s a lot of testosterone boiling under the roof of the new Arcola as two short works by David Mamet are staged in a double bill. Lakeboat and Prairie du Chien are intriguing companion pieces; written early on in Mamet’s career both are embryonic works but their paring throws up no direct connection, apart from the fact that they are both overwhelmingly masculine in tone.

First up is Lakeboat (later developed into a film in 2000); it’s a compact and fast number in which the audience get to peak through the portholes of a barnacled boat and into the lives of ‘the floating home of 45 men’.  Mamet delights in rapid-fire language, in words delivered so quickly it takes a few minutes to settle into its rhythms and cliquey references. This is a closed boys club but not a particularly interesting one, the characters bob about on a sea of undulating aggression, mouthing off about past conquests, future annihilations and lost opportunities.

Through the eyes of newcomer Dale (sweetly played by Steven Webb) we are led through a sequence of expositions and sociological descriptions about life on board the lake boat. The always watchable Nigel Cooke tries his hardest with the character of suicidal Joe and brings a level of psychological intensity to Mamet’s bluster. But this is a banal script which entraps every actor into an endless loop of strangely inconsequential reactions and long-winded stories.  For all its surface angst, this play is essentially about men talking – and then more men talking.

Whilst it’s difficult to grasp why she may have chosen this particular script from Mamet’s back-catalogue, director Abbey Wright does a smooth job and the cast battle valiantly on. Helen Goddard’s set is redolent of decaying male endeavour; the innards of the ship projecting the lost hopes and frustrations of those incarcerated there.

This is followed by the shorter but far more intriguing Prairie Du Chien, a ghostly moment of storytelling that builds to a shockingly explosive conclusion. Here Mamet has used his undeniable precision to create a theatrical time bomb waiting to go off. Two card players spar in a smoky train compartment as a porter whistles quietly and the sound of a scratchy record spins interminably on. Against this thick soundscape Cooke makes a compelling narrator, spinning his eerie tale of adultery, spirit possession and murder.

This short play has a tightly wound quality which is emphasised by Wright’s production, the card players and porter underpinning and occasionally counterpointing Cooke’s velvety delivery. There is a sense of ‘otherness’ hinted at and alluded to in Prairie Du Chien and this adds a texture to this piece that eluded the previous, more brash offering. Mamet explores the idea of civilised man verses beast without feeling the need to produce pithy, easy conclusions or introduce comedy escape valves. It’s a rare moment of subtlety from a playwright who appears disdainful of subtext; what a shame it’s partnered with so much hot air.

Runs until 7th May

Rajni Shah – Glorious

Rajni Shah has been creating and directing original performance work since 1999, with past projects including Hope (2009); Dinner with America (2008); give what you can, take what you need (2008); Altars of us all / speaking to strangers (2008) and Mr Quiver (2005). Her work ranges from large-scale performance installations to small solo interventions in public spaces.Glorious is the third in a trilogy of works and has been commission by SPILL Festival of Performance. It will show at the Barbican before touring nationally.


I end my interview with Rajni Shah by asking a question I thought she would have been bombarded with “What’s your favourite musical, I’m sure everyone’s asked you that!” She is presently surprised “Actually they haven’t! It’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg… I’ve insisted everyone watch it, I think it’s quite brilliant in terms of the visuals and it would seem its a million miles away but it was a really early reference point…” Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised that this is the first time she has encountered such a mainstream question; as an artist Shah is anything but conventional.

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London Road

Written for

London Road is something of a surprise. The idea of a piece of musical verbatim theatre based around the murders in 2006 of five sex workers in Ipswich sounds like pure madness. In musicals all the characters know the lyrics and the dance-steps through a weird Borg-like symbiosis; how could such a fantastical form hope to engage with something so grimly real? But Alecky Blythe, composer Adam Cork and director Rufus Norris have succeeded in creating one of the best new musicals of recent years using not just the words but the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ of an embattled community. What’s more they’ve tackled this raw and painful subject matter in a manner that is both respectful and believable, no mean feat.

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Robert Wilson’s Lulu performed by The Berliner Ensemble

Sat in the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm surrounded by an audience dripping with Berlin cool, it is hard not to feel a shiver of anticipation at the prospect of seeing the Berliner Ensemble performing Robert Wilson’s premier of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu. Oh alright who am I kidding, I and the rest of this cultivated crowd are practically bouncing with excitement. A blinding white stage cloth with LULU neatly typed in the centre teases us with its bald potential; there’s a lot of expectation riding on these four little letters.

Most companies or artists who approach Lulu seem intent on stripping away the layers of this iconic temptress to ‘reveal the real woman underneath’. Not so for Wilson who, if anything, has given more ritual to the sordid tale of Wedekind’s libidodriven nymph. This is classic Wilson, with highly choreographed movement encased within an architecturally sharp mise en scene. It is a world where minimalism mingles happily with melodramatic theatrical campery.

Black Victorian attire drapes our white-faced, wide-eyed cast as they scuttle and shift, shimmer and shake against the stunning white cyclorama. As we go on colour infects this backdrop with violent force, dying the space like ink from a syringe. Black structures create a playground of chairs and stairs for this cast of automated marionettes to devour one another on. In the second act, as the action moves to Paris,  a set of poplar trees and hanging chandeliers is applauded as a piece of art in its own right.

With a look so distinctive there is always a very present danger of typecasting but Wilson’s talent is his ability to constantly surprise. A well placed flash of green communicates lust as well as envy, the sensual temptation of a Japanese geisha sings out in the stiffly corseted Lulu’s shuffling wiggle. In the midst of cool lines and shadow play even the worlds’ sexiest pelvis is paid homage to in I Remember You. In this ensemble number Lulu’s admirers sidestep languidly backwards and forwards within cages in a effortless piece of choreography that positively screams Jailhouse Rock.

It is the marriage between control and debauchery, animalistic wants and coldly clinical needs that defines this Lulu. Angela Winkler (an institution in her own right) embodies this seemingly impossible synergy in one fragile girl/woman. Her tinkling laugh hides a demon’s intent to get what she wants but her eyes shine with the destructive desperation of a fallen angel.

Whilst it is Winkler’s soul we see on stage, Lou Reed gives her a powerful voice to express it with dirty but heartbreaking songs that lace through this piece like veins through a body. Reed’s melodies are as potently unfussy as Wilson’s imagery but his lyrics bring a visceral spit to the mouths of these smooth dolllike figures.

Like a wellmoisturised hand slipping into a silken glove, Wilson’s epic theatricality sits beautifully in the hallowed halls of the Berliner Ensemble. Bertolt Brecht, in typically contradictory style, would surely delight in Wilson’s very own take on Verfremdungseffekt even in this bourgeois incarnation; each luscious Gestus is a potent challenge to an equally polished audience.

For all Brecht’s belly-aching about emotionless theatre, it was his pieces that encompassed both the cerebral and emotive that packed the biggest punch, and so it is here. Wilson’s cerebral design both tempts its audience and holds it firmly at arms length (much like it’s coquettish star), but Lulu is also deeply engaging.

The final number is astonishing to look at with floating green heads surrounding an eerie David Bowie-esque Albino murderer and comprises a spine tingling choral vocal (led by the glorious Anke Engelsmann, whose Nico vocal is uncanny). But most importantly it transcends the sum of its sleek parts. Wilson has used the resplendent stage play, rich dressing and Reed’s delicately wrenching music to maximum effect. In doing so he has side stepped any critics of a style over substance barb, creating a deeply disturbing and powerful piece of psychological drama that hits the audience just where it hurts, right in the gut.