Contains Violence, Terrace, Lyric, London
Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat, NT Cottesloe and Lyttelton, London
An Enemy of the People, Arcola, London
Hitchcock meets 'The Office' in a triumph of technology over dialogue: With the audience out on a terrace and actors in a real building across the way, at least one passer-by, thinking the action is real, has called 999. This is a wonderful experiment, but it could push boundaries beyond the pale
Sunday 13 April 2008
Contains Violence is a boundary-pushing experiment. I've never seen anything – in technical terms – quite like this site-specific drama created for the Lyric Hammersmith by David Rosenberg (co-founder of the Shunt Collective). As a seriocomic thriller it has a touch of The Office crossed with Hitchcock's Rear Window, only this is being performed live in inhabited buildings, and it uses binaural audio technology.
Picture, if you will, 200 peeping Toms lurking out in the dark, on the theatre's second-floor, outdoor terrace. They are wearing headsets with antennae and are spying – through binoculars – into windows across the way. Is this a national convention of voyeurs or surveillance run mad?
Actually, the snoopers are the audience and, if you've joined that throng, the scene before you has enormous potential: a sheet-glass tower block and a warren of Victorian buildings at its foot. Your eye may well be caught by a lonely executive (up in the tower block) tapping away at his computer and looking fraught, or by a shadowy woman (one floor above him) rifling through a kitchen cabinet, or by a helmeted bike messenger on a stairwell (down at street level), or by a slinky businesswoman (near the corner café), loitering suspiciously, making a phone call. Several of these glimpsed characters will connect up later, and at least one of them will meet a nasty end.
What's wonderfully teasing and also unsettling is that you're not quite sure where to look, nor always certain what you are looking at – art or actuality, an actor or some unsuspecting citizen. Pirandello, eat your heart out. Brecht, too, would surely have been intrigued by the Alienation effects at work. Contains Violence, in fact, becomes an experiment which you are conducting on yourself, testing the correlation between visual distance and emotional detachment: binoculars, then no binoculars; the lives of others in close-up, then small and remote. Simultaneously, certain rooms which you've got in your sights – and some which you haven't – are bugged. You can hear every whisper. It's as if you're perched on the tie-pin of that fraught executive as he gulps his coffee and scrunches up another draft resignation letter. Kookily, you start hearing the words he's typing too, as if you're inside his computer or his fevered brain. The amplified acoustics hover between Monsieur Hulot-style humour and menace.
It must be said, however, that you're never fully sucked in, fundamentally because the script is weak. Rosenberg's new toy of audio technology means more attention has been devoted to sound effects than to fully developed dialogue. Protracted monologues become the favoured mode of expression as a motor-mouthed nerd arrives to pester the exec.
So, few psychological depths are plumbed, but there are startling plot twists. The visceral murder scene – involving a fire extinguisher as a bludgeon – is also staggering because you can't quite believe this is being played out within view of a West London street. It's certainly daring.
That said, the Pirandellian games can be pushed too far. Though the company did forewarn the local constabulary, I'm told that at least one passer-by has called 999, with the emergency services rushing to find the murder victim clocking off, still daubed with Kensington Gore. This undeniably has the makings of a dangerous farce, but in a week when a real tragedy in Hammersmith has been making headlines – another teenage homicide going to trial – art shouldn't be wasting police time.
Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat is another out-of-the-ordinary event: a cycle of 17 short plays by Mark Ravenhill surveying the impact of the war of – and on – terror, the reverberations spreading from battle-scarred Iraq to superficially cosy Middle England (or vice versa). This cycle is being performed in various London venues, co-presented by the NT, the Royal Court, Out of Joint and others. The openings are staggered so you can't go for total immersion, which is a pity. However, I caught the first clutch of shows this week at the Lyttelton and the Cottesloe.
Directed by Anna Mackmin, Harriet Walter was gripping in Intolerance: a neurotic, self-pampering housewife nattering about her New Age fruit juices, shrinks and delicate stomach. She doesn't want to hear about the bombs yet she lets out little toxic bursts of xenophobia. By the end she is doubled up, cursing and screaming, as if a demon is clawing in her gut.
In The Mikado – directed by Gordon Anderson – David Bamber and Philip Voss are also on honed top form. They are firstly quietly funny then chilling in this darkening two-hander where two gay lovers discuss their dream home and material comforts: a special relationship but with an inner canker and another eruption of fury.
Unfortunately, Ravenhill is curiously hit and miss: satirically sharp but then heavy-handed when he grows more directly political. His British soldiers – occupying somewhere very like Iraq – boast of civilised democratic values while violently abusing native prisoners. These vignettes are shockingly brutal but too repetitive in their messages.
Finally, the Ibsen mini-season at the pioneering Arcola, on the London fringe, gets off to an absolutely cracking start with An Enemy of the People, starring Greg Hicks as Dr Stockmann. This is a frighteningly timeless drama about capitalism and compromised political ethics. It's set in a spa town where Stockmann, a maverick scientist, tries to expose environmental pollution and finds himself crushed and smeared by the all-powerful authorities whose commercial interests require him to be silenced.
Rebecca Lenkiewicz's new English version is vibrantly fresh and Mehmet Ergen's period-costume production thrillingly tense. This production really makes you care passionately – and also despair – about politics. The whole ensemble is strong. Christopher Godwin manages to be infuriated and icy as Stockmann's brother, the corrupt mayor. Meanwhile, Hicks superbly conveys the dogged campaigner's psychological complexities: an excitable anti-authoritarian, becoming increasingly aggressive and hysterical, but with right on his side. Superb stuff.
'Contains Violence' (0871 221 1722) to 10 May; 'Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat' (020-7452 3000 or www.shootgettreasurerepeat.com) to 20 May at various London venues; 'An Enemy of the People' (020-7503 1646) to 26 April
Underneath the arches
David Rosenberg, 39, is a director-deviser, occasional actor and founder member of Shunt, a collective of theatre artists who have gained a cult following for their large-scale events in unexpected venues. Their current base is a vault under the arches near London Bridge station. Rosenberg qualified as an anaesthetist, and the fact that his father was a neurophysiologist and a specialist in hearing helps explain his interest in the novel acoustic technology used in 'Contains Violence'.
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