Before I Sleep, Old Co-op Building, Brighton
Eurydice, Maria, Young Vic, London
Macbeth, Globe, London
A haunting, dreamlike sequel to Chekhov's 'Cherry Orchard' takes us on a hell of a journey through time – but I won't spoil the surprise...
Sunday 09 May 2010
It's been one Hell of a week. That is to say, every new production leads us into the Underworld, starting with Before I Sleep at the Brighton Festival.
This eerie promenade show – devised by the fabulous immersive theatre company dreamthinkspeak – leaves you to roam around a dark maze of corridors and mouldering chambers in a vast, defunct department store (the former Co-op on Brighton's London Road).
Actually, if you're planning to see this, it's the surprise element that thrills – so read only the next paragraph to avoid a spoiler.
All you need know is that Before I Sleep is a peculiarly inspired sequel to The Cherry Orchard, haunted by the unquiet spirit of Firs. That's the senescent manservant who – at the end of Chekhov's turn-of-the-century play – is left behind, bewildered and dying, on Madame Ranyevskaya's landed estate. He embodies the old world facing oblivion as the Russian Revolution looms.
A fabulously wizened Firs materialises in the gloaming when you first knock to gain entry to the Co-op's back door. A hurricane lamp guttering under his hollow, bearded face, he murmurs deliriously in Russian and lies down on his deathbed, breath rasping.
Suddenly in a blaze of strip lighting – following Firs' staring eyes – you find yourself looking out, through glass walls, into an alternative universe. Pushing gleaming trolleys in a modern East European food emporium, unfriendly souls glare back at you from an aisle of refridgerated meals.
Jettisoned from there into darkness once more, you make out a miniature, snow-covered landscape at your feet. It stretches away into the distance. A winter wind moans and a tiny mansion – like an antique doll's house – twinkles in a wood. A winding path also leads you on through this wilderness, past a glowing mini-mart, with a corpse, the size of your little finger, sprawled on its threshold.
From here, you embark on a journey through a dreamlike afterlife that keeps jumping between remembered golden moments from Ranyevskaya's bygone era – afternoon tea on the verandah, a couple waltzing in evening dress – and more premonitory visions. It's as if you're caught, with Firs, in some hallucinatory limbo. Flashes from his past life are yearningly played over and over, while we also see future ages stretching out to the crack of doom: communist, post-communist, and possibly post-capitalist set-ups emerging and decaying.
This may sound complicated, but you get the idea as you wander, gradually comprehending director Tristan Sharp's over-arching concept. In his final luminous video installation, you see a bird's-eye view of the tail-coated Firs, marooned on an island surrounded by a rising ocean. It's impossible to describe everything you'll encounter en route. Suffice to say, it's richly varied, and witty too. Be prepared to bargain with an international babble of sales personnel, try on ball gowns, pass through the back of a changing room into a ghostly throng of silent dummies, and fetch up in the Co-op window to the amazement of passers-by.
In Sarah Ruhl's American rewrite of the ancient myth of Eurydice, the youthful heroine – played with pluck and dignity by Ony Uhiara – dies on her wedding day. She is lured away from her music-obsessed groom, Orpheus (Osi Okerafor), and up to the penthouse of a creepy stranger (Rhys Rusbatch). He tantalises her with a letter from her beloved, dead father.
Next thing you know, she is descending in an imaginary elevator down to Hades. There she is showered with the Lethean waters of forgetfulness. But her late parent (Geff Francis) has somehow resisted the regime of numb oblivion. He tenderly re-teaches his daughter to remember how they lived and loved one another. Her desire to cling to him foils her husband's attempt to bring his wife back from the grave.
In this ATC production, director Bijan Sheibani's main players are quietly commendable, softly illuminated on a black stage. Francis is particularly touching. Nonetheless, Ruhl's dialogue sounds like a collection of poetic images too loosely strung together for narrative coherence. Her skills as a dramatist are, as yet, underdeveloped.
In Lucy Bailey's staging of Macbeth at Shakespeare's Globe, the murderous usurper's kingdom isn't far off Dante's inferno. Spectators standing in the pit are trapped – presumably in accordance with hell-fire regulations – under a giant bat's wing. Their heads poke out of a slit black sheet.
The most ghoulish scenes cause plenty of shrieks too, drowning out ghastly medieval bagpipes. In the opening battle, the gore-drenched messenger writhes up through the slit cloth. The ghost of Banquo, also dripping blood, worms out of a vast platter of cooked meats. Meanwhile, Frank Scantori is a devilishly funny, grotesque troll-porter, drunkenly lurching around with a bucket of piss, right over those unlucky punters at the front.
The real snag is that Bailey's two leading players aren't worth the candle. Laura Rogers is a feeble, fledgling Lady Macbeth. Her attempt to portray twisted orgasmic excitement is ludicrous, hurling herself into an erotic entanglement with some net curtains. Or was this just a desperate bout of spring cleaning at the approach of King Duncan? Elliot Cowan is somewhat better, but he has scant grip on Macbeth's character, lurching between mild scaredy-cat and macho hollering. Ah well, as least he's consistent in stripping off his chainmail and flaunting his warrior-hero musculature at every opportunity.
"What is that noise?" "It was the cry of bug-eyed women, my good lord!"
'Before I Sleep' (01273 709709) to 23 May; 'Eurydice' (020-7922 2922) to 5 Jun; 'Macbeth' (020-7401 9919) to 27 Jun
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