THE STRING QUARTET’S GUIDE TO SEX AND ANXIETY
The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 15th May, 2018
This new piece from director-creator Calixto Bieito is an exploration of mental illness and sexuality, taking its text from a range of writers, most notably Robert Burton, whose The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621. In fact, the show begins with an extract from that worthy work, delivered by Miltos Yerolemou, one of the four actors who will appear tonight. While he orates, the other cast members arrange wooden chairs and set up musical stands, moving slowly and in silence. The Heath Quartet comes on – they play movements from Ligeti’s second string quartet between monologues; the music is disquieting, unsettling, troubling, underscoring the mental anguishes of the four characters. Lots of pizzicato, lots of squirling high-pitched strings like you get in horror films.
Yerolemou narrates an account of receiving oral sex from an anonymous woman – we assume prostitute. Later, Mairead McKinley speaks of giving head to her husband; she is anxious about her technique and reveals she ‘practices in secret’. Whether we are meant to infer some connection between the two is unclear… It’s graphic stuff but doesn’t shock those of us who’ve enjoyed the occasional Berkoff.
Nick Harris brings a note of humour to proceedings listing all the pharmaceuticals, the therapies (conventional and alternative) and the alcoholic drinks he has tried to assuage his anxiety. He discloses he has mastered the art of appearing calm, anxious that people will discover his anxiety – and it’s a salient point: it’s not all sobbing and curling up in a foetal position. We never know what other people are battling with internally.
About half an hour in, we first hear from Cathy Tyson, in what is the strongest section of the piece. She recounts a kind of modern-day folk tale about the killing of a child in a road traffic accident. Tyson’s storytelling is compelling and ultimately moving, as it emerges she is the child’s mother from the tale, and the events must have taken place years – decades – ago.
Annemarie Bulla’s set is deceptively simple, giving a concert hall aesthetic of blond floorboards and stacks of chairs. These stacks advance and retreat, almost imperceptibly, before crashing to the floor. And that’s when we realise why this production is staged in the Rep’s main house rather than the studio.
Meanwhile, the Heath Quartet switch to Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Minor, and this is where I run into a problem. The Ligeti worked as incidental music and an underscore. The Beethoven is too exquisite and the playing of it is divine. I am transported by the music and neglect to pay attention to what the actors might be up to.
Interesting, sometimes amusing, sometimes bleak, and sometimes gripping, this Guide gives us examples of suffering but offers little in the way of guidance. The Anatomy of Melancholy advises us (Be Not Idle; Be Not Solitary) but Bieito keeps his actors largely separate, with very little in the way of interaction. That said, the simple action of the application of lipstick suggests that even a trauma that has bedevilled someone for decades, can be overcome.