Wood for the Trees

The Old Rep, Birmingham, Friday 31st August, 2012

Opening night/preview performance reviewed.

Created for the World Shakespeare Festival, this piece “based on texts by William Shakespeare” is a bit of a curate’s egg. Uneven in tone and quality, it gradually becomes more rewarding as a whole, rather than the sum of its parts.

It begins in a clinically white space, dominated by a tree standing on a box. At once, I thought of Waiting For Godot. Cast members wander on to the stage and peer at it as though it’s some kind of art installation in a gallery. The arrival of musician Maika Makovski begins the show proper. Beautiful, with a voice to match, Makovski provides the accompaniment to most of the action, with moments in the spotlight for her songs. My initial reaction was she’s the best thing about this show, which is a bit like a live-action music video. Or a ninety-minute trailer for an arthouse movie.

The cast step forward and speak lines from Shakespeare, mostly from scenes set in forests. And so there is quite a bit of As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Taken out of context, and with the cast not interacting, it’s all a bit odd and you wonder what the point is.

When they start to interact, it is as though the language they speak separates them. But this is not important. At this moment they are happy to be alive. They tear around the stage, round and round the tree, with the exuberance of children. They divest themselves of their grown-up clothes and cavort and gambol. Oh, just shoot me, I thought.

The child’s play leads to dressing up, which, in Shakespearean tradition, leads to cross-dressing. Christopher Simpson makes a stunning woman – think Phillip Schofield dressed as Cher. Katy Stephens, in Simpson’s suit, looks clownish in her bowler hat, a tie around her waist doubling as belt and phallus. These children discover their sexuality and events begin to take a darker turn.

The turning point is George Costigan’s performance of Jacques’s Seven Ages of Man speech. The speech is allowed to flow and to retain its meaning. It is a moment of clarity, and amusingly done, ending with the starkness of “sans eyes, sans teeth, sans everything.” This throws everyone into an existential crisis (as if I wasn’t already having one of my own) and suddenly it all goes a bit Lord of the Flies. A dog puppet is stabbed repeatedly and pinned to the pros arch. A woman is stapled to the wall, her knickers pulled down to her ankles, and raped in the mouth by the tie-phallus. All is discordant. The cast attack the box in the centre, pulling tons of soil all over the place. And so we move from Godot, to Beckett’s Happy Days. At once I felt pity for the stage managers who have to clean up this mess. And I half expected them to unearth Billie Whitelaw.

The cast become isolated in their own anguish. They perpetrate atrocities on themselves and each other. A woman performs an abortion on herself, standing over a bucket. Another wraps her own head in polythene. A son believes he has killed his father, and vice versa. The happy innocence of the opening scenes has been lost forever, and this violation is also represented on a larger scale with the destruction of the ordered and natural environment.
Roser Cami, her knickers up again but her breasts revealed, soiled with, um, soil, speaks passionately and movingly. In Catalan. Subtitles are provided at either side of the stage, scrolling the dialogue throughout the play but this only adds to the problems of focus. You can read the subtitles or you can watch the stage. You can’t do both.

It is all very bleak. Josep Maria Pou pulls out a reel-to-reel tape recorder on which he records and replays snatches of dialogue. This is a bit Krapp, I thought. He puts a gun in his gob and blows his brains out. Everyone is damaged, defiled and desolate.

And then there’s an epilogue. Everyone cheers up. They attach red balloons to the tree and speak lines that are meant to show us that life need not be as bad as all that. I could have done without that. I think the piece would be more powerful to end with the desolation and destruction.

Only having seen the whole thing can I guess at what it was about. Much is lost in the experience because there’s a lot happening all at once. And it was all too Beckettian for my liking. Director Calixto Bieito is obviously a big fan. But it does go to show that Shakespeare contains some very dark thoughts indeed. Given room to breathe, it is his words that give this disjointed piece its power.

About williamstafford

Novelist (Brough & Miller, sci fi, historical fantasy) Theatre critic http://williamstaffordnovelist.wordpress.com/ http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B008AD0YGO and Actor - I can often be found walking the streets of Stratford upon Avon in the guise of the Bard! View all posts by williamstafford

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