Barbican June 2019
I don’t do reviews. Having been reviewed in past creative lives I know how little fun that can be, how critics can miss the point, even get the point but miss the value, or not bother transcending their own taste and guiding the right audience to a piece.
So yeah, I don’t do reviews and I will continue to not write reviews, but I will write about the theatre and other media that I am seeing from time to time. And why, dear reader, does the world need the opinion of another white middle class middle aged man? Well it doesn’t, but I need to write like I need water… and it’s not like anyone is paying, so hey, my call right?
Listen or not, noise or nous, over to you.
So I’m going to start by jumping into the middle of a thing with *The Damned*. It’s one of a string of adaptions of movies into stage pieces by Ivo Van Hove and yet another production of his visiting at the Barbican. The last one I saw of his here, *The Roman Tragedies,* I rank amongst the five best things that I have seen, ever. We’ll get back to that top five list sometime in the future, but *The Roman Tragedies*, all seven hours of it, was a revelation. Even knowing that anything after that could not be as good I still had high hopes for *The Damned* and it has been reviewed well in the Guardian previously so I bought my ticket.
I also don’t buy programmes, I think that if something needs explaining outside of the piece itself then it fails. Even more perverse, in this instance, is a perhaps naïve view that you shouldn’t need to have seen the source work either. One review I read says you need to have seen the film., which is frankly idiotic – trying to find The Damned for a casual viewing after seeing this production leads you to some obscure DVDs, so we can safely assume that 99% of the audience has never seen the movie, not in this century at least. And Van Hove says it is an adaptation of the script, not the film anyway, so it should stand on it’s own feet.
Those points out of the way it’s time to ask… The Damned – what do we get?
Well a pretty thin script to start with. Exactly what you would expect with a film script and itself a signal that this is not going to be a wordy drama. Van Hove says he likes older ‘wordier’ film scripts (recently he mounted All About Eve on the West End) but even a wordy film can get away with 50% or less of the amount of dialogue in the play, so the expectation here is that the event will fill that other 50%. So we are expecting a fair degree of performance and staging and expression over dramatic acting in the character mode. Fine by me, though perhaps ironic given that the Comédie-Française is known for it’s text-based work.
So we are not expecting great depth in the characters. However this lack of expectation also applies to the events in the piece, it’s a fiction explicitly set in the historic period of the rise of the Nationalist Socialist Party through the thirties. We know the shape of that. We know that wealthy industrialists were co-opted by Nazis and eventually companies like the fictitious steel plant in this piece ended up making the guns and chemicals that powered the war and the holocaust. IG Farben, a massive national conglomerate, made Zyklon B, a fumigant, and about 10% of it’s output went to concertation camps. The camps bought the chemical both from a distributor and direct from the manufacturer. IG Farben, started out as a company that contributed money to the National Socialists to basically keep them onside in the early thirties but by the Second World War were effectively an organ of the Nazi Party. Same story here.
The problem with this is that we know a lot of the story in advance, even if we have not seen the film. Add German Industrialists in the Nazi Era to a basic historic knowledge of the rise of the Nazi party though the 30s then you know already the borders, boundaries and jumping off points afforded by the story. Even if you don’t know that much it’s fair to say that putting some wealthy industrialists in bed (literally) with Proto Nazis is not going to end well. So the story itself is dull in that there is zero narrative surprise in it.
So if you give away the question of narrative direction and you have already conceded that the depth of characterisation is going to be slight you are starting at a difficult spot.
As The Damned starts it’s quickly apparent that the character-led events are processional and entirely predictable with the characters becoming tropes and ciphers, moral flags at best, with not much to do. The entire lack of light and shade is problematic – there are few character transitions. The one ‘arc’ is the transition of Martin, from a mannered camp mummy’s boy and paedophile(!) to Nazi hate-bot. What moments of heightened personal tensions exist are abrupt and mannered, there is nothing in the way of cause and effect outside of the melodramatic. The lack of character depth and progression means that actors go from 10% to 100% in an instant with little in the way of justification. Or maybe that’s just a French acting style thing?
The predominant feeling as you watch the first half is weird, you look for emotional depth but don’t find any while actors seem to be shouting at each other a lot and every now and then someone dies, rather ominously being buried alive in a coffin (their death projected onto the back wall as the action on stage continues). It’s a mix of boredom and sudden intensity with not much in the middle.
*Intensity* is perhaps the key to this piece, lets come back to that in a moment, after we talk about the arrangement of the performance space. Two Ivo Van Hove specials, the mirrored dressing tables and the eternally present cameras projecting to the back wall, are both present. The main stage area is a large orange square flanked by the dressing table on one side and six coffins (tediously projecting the body count) on the other. A screen partly fills the back wall. It is very deep, very square.
There is no doubt this is *eurospace* theatrically speaking – bare, structure showing, a set of functions, the machine of theatre laid bare. Given the subject matter of the literal and figurative development and corruption of power and technology you can see the thinking process pretty clearly here.
Still the Barbican stage can be very hard to fill, witness two one-man shows I have seen recently which, despite epic themes and performances, have failed to fill it and isolated their actors. Here we have many actors but it still seems empty, despite some fine staging – this is a man who can direct a large cast musical after all. His solution for The Roman Tragedie – bring the audience on stage – was sublime, but here, in a more traditional mode, the set ends up feeling too small. Partly this is because the camera work acts to pick out moments or details but these same details are most often already visible. All this ends up doing is splitting focus. The camera is most effective when it heightens the creepiness of the piece, but when video is live-mixed with composite historic or gestural images, or drained of hue, a lot of the time it just looks like a teenager doodling with an Amiga 2000 at the turn of the century.
Part of the problem is that the screen they used was simply too small to make enough impact – a strange oversight given the budget. It might also have suffered comparison with the Counter Strike Esports event I saw with my son a few weeks ago at Wembly Arena which had a vast and effective screen, making this one look a bit like your Dad’s budget home cinema. If you’re going to rely on tech then it best be really good!
The use of sound is more effective – all actors are miked. Vocal intimacy is really needed here – actors projecting their heads off to make themselves heard in this production would have made it unbearable. Occasionally shouty bits maxed out the mix and lead to moments of aural distortion.
Music was good too, only after the show did I learn that the music was by ‘degenerates’ Schonberg and Berg. And a bit of Rammstein thrown in – effective aurally but was this an attempt to link this story with contemporary German industrial music? Seemed a bit, errr, random, like someone ticking off a list of German Things because… well, just because. I mean you wouldn’t be stupid enough to use some Rammstein just because it is *industrial* music would you? Talk about hitting a theme with a hammer.
Given the lack of suspense in the story, the flatness of the characters, an abundance of plot events with little motivation and the reliance on tech the experience of watching The Damned quickly became watching a series of theatrical set pieces interspersed with melodrama. I found myself waiting for the next set piece in a way that was not dissimilar to waiting to see which one of ‘the gang’ will get killed next in a horror movie. The total lack of empathetic or relatable characters meant you sat outside it as an event, the only thing that had any event value at all was when it got creepy.
That’s where the intensity comes in, and where we get into tricky territory. When does a piece of theatre about the inevitable descent into fascism become less *about* fascism than *re-enacting it directly?* It’s a tricky balance and I am not sure this production achieved it.
As it happens I am reading a book called The Life Intense by a French philosopher, Tristan Garcia, who is, roughly speaking, a ‘Speculative realist’ (here, and good luck) but his take on Intensity is applicable here. In a pinch of salt his argument is this: The original ‘intensifiers’ The Libertines, became Romantics then Rockers and then we all became seekers of intensity – that’s basically what pop culture is all about. Nerves, storms, electrification. Though a series of arguments that even I can follow he ends up pointing out that the three modes of intensification (variation, acceleration, primaverism) all end up in collapse – that they are effectively empty of any ethical content. I felt like I was watching an enactment of Garcia’s argument of how intensity becomes utterly void as I watched this piece.
The extended and very creepy scene where Martin molests a girl (played by a young actor) is excruciating initially for its content but this quickly became worry about the young actor. Personally I found this very difficult to watch – at this point more than a few audience members called it a night. If you find yourself worrying about the safety of an actor in a show then it’s almost certainly on the wrong side of safe. I cross checked this concern with a current industry pro who trains young actors and asked her if this scene was safe for the girl in it and she said it was not, so it wasn’t just me then.
By pursuing intensity above all else all that happened was that the theatrical event itself collapsed and I was left with a purely moral concern for the actor.
In a show where the script is secondary and there is no timeline dictated by dialogue the choice on how long an unpleasant scene like this continues is entirely directorial. It was hard to not feel that the impulse to lengthen this event was simply the director wanting the audience to feel uncomfortable – fine, but there was nothing at the other end of it other than some vague point about audience complicity it just becomes indulgent at best and exploitative at worst. He’s a fan of performance art so he knows how those audience buttons get pressed so you have to think this section’s duration and edginess was entirely intentional. For me this is getting into the area of a leftist critique coming so far around on itself that it ends up being, well, right wing, a kind of clumsy provocation for no particular reason and with nothing to say – a critique I had found myself levelling at Mamet’s *Bitter Wheat* a few nights before. I am not sure it is purely correct to call this movement of intensity fascist in itself, but it is certainly an empty gesture, made purely for effect. If that’s not fascism it is at least fashion, and not in the good way.
Worse (!) dramatically it was pointless – a creepy young man who might be gay or not (an earlier, cross-dressing, silly Marlene knock-off scene) is ‘forced’ to molest girls because he is oppressed by his privileged lifestyle? Were we meant to feel implicated rather than simply worried for the actor?
*Audience implication* was something of a theme. There were moments, at the end of certain deaths, where the camera was pointed at the audience and we got to try and spot ourselves on the screen. The point seemed to be to puncture the fourth wall, to show us as passive spectators in a tragedy that somehow implicates us for our passivity, our very presence.
The theatrical gesture of pointing a camera at the audience seems like it would be forgivable in a high school production by young people discovering and exploring the politics of presentation, but here it seemed disrespectful of the intellectual capacity of the audience. Hey, we go to the Barbican a lot, we know about the fourth wall tradition, about watching, about passivity, about empathy and mirror-neurons and so on. Pointing a camera at me produces zero impact. In the age of the selfie this seemed absurdly naïve.
As I continued to watch it became apparent to me that there is a deep confusion at the heart of this production. Are we meant to see the vapid and vain industrialists as victims? Are we meant to side with the morally repulsive Martin, even as an anti-hero? Or are we meant to be confused by our dislike of them and the mutual dislike of Nazis? We end up liking no one and caring not a jot when they get their death moment. The theatricality of watching them slowly ‘die’ in their coffins – projections up onto the screen in black and white – is totally wasted. We just don’t care. We start to watch the actors and wonder if they have had their teeth whitened.
So I was still, a good 90 minutes in, still totally on the outside of the event in all ways. Perhaps we are meant to be in Brecht land? Are we meant to sit back and not be involved? Clearly the answer to that is no as there is so much effort put into trying to shock us. So we go on watching, waiting for the next *intensity*.
There are two more extended events of note, both of which were queasy for different reasons. The first is the ‘night of the ling knives’ where the Nazis stabbed the SA (secret police) in the back. IRL finding a couple of the men in bed with each other after a party night, the Nazi’s found a convenient excuse to get rid of the Secret Police by throwing them into prison or shooting them for being morally degenerate – the hapless couple were marched outside and shot. Again this recreation of this is very long, again much longer than the plot weight it has. During it the two actors, one mature, the other a chiselled hunk, strip off, pour beer over themselves, slide around on top of each other and fall asleep – then they are executed. The action on stage is mirrored and added to by the action playing on the screen behind which is an overhead shot of the actors on the stage. Except that on the screen the two actors are joined by 18 or so more actors doing the same sequence – so you get the two live actors syncing to exactly the same action on the screen with more actors in it. As a way to magnify the action it’s kinda cute but I am not sure, excellence in staging and acting apart, it’s worth the effort to create it. Apart form an admiration for its cleverness it doesn’t add anything because it’s just exaggerating an action which has no particular weight in the story.
The second extended and rather brutal episode is the death of the horrible mother. Martin promises fealty to the Nazis if he is allowed to give her a terrible death. You then get to see the terrible death. By tarring feathering. The tarring and feathering itself is pretty ghastly, though at least the nudity is thankfully masked by camera work. While the image of it is well done by this stage I was so outside the piece that I was just feeling bad for the actors.
There’s also a very odd tension in the sexual politics of this show which is hard to separate from the subject matter. It’s not like women got a great life under the Nazis, but the few women in this production get a hard run here; either the monster she-bitch of the mother or the too-good and early-dead daughter-in-law, a child who gets molested or a prostitute who gets fondled in close up (that camera) and then abused later. Great, thanks. Obviously we can’t get too cross at Visconti for that but it’s another thing to recreate that imbalance today. Even if it’s for ill, only the men get to change (yawn).
Which keeps me cycling back to the central question here – why bother with this piece?
Of course we don’t know the story of the piece’s genesis. There are many reasons why shows get started, why various directors get attached and many ways things can go wrong in the rehearsal room, or well before. Maybe he got handed a duff project? Maybe someone at the Comédie-Française had a life long obsession to do this and Van Hove got paid well? Maybe this is exactly the show he wanted?
Whatever, the result is frankly a mess – a very interesting mess to be sure with some great moments and staging, but really, this was about as pointless a piece of theatre/performance as I have seen for years. And that’s saying something after seeing Bitter Wheat in the same week.
Of course the parallels of 30s Germany are apposite, it’s just that they are so effing obvious they end up saying nothing – merely describing the problem is not the solution. At the moment it’s just too easy to point to Trump and the alt-right to justify a piece of art. We know the problem, we can see it, the point is what do we do about it? I mean are we meant to see this piece as a kind of pre-revenge on the Trump dynasty? As a warning to industrial families everywhere? As a reminder that fascism lurks everywhere (duh)? Ultimately this was intellectually lazy – or at least the intellectual content didn’t equal the body shock element. I would liked it to have – great theatre has sensation, affect and ideas; mind, body, heart.
Still, lets see if we can find some merit in there, is there a way to make this a bit more than a total waste of time? I think I owe that to the piece. Maybe I had it all wrong and was looking for something in the wrong mode?
If I can go back on myself and recast my criticism then we could say that The Damned is a bone-fide piece of Tragedy in the old mode – an elevated series of events happening to ciphers, a moral game of consequence played out to the nth degree. In this mode Martin is the tragic figure bought down by his hatred of his own Mother. However he is a desperately unlikable figure from the first minute on stage, so it’s more a slide from horrid to despicable – that point perhaps made by the final naked moment (sigh) where Martin douses himself in ashes of his dead family, takes a machine gun and shoots at the audience. Another great moment from a radical school play.
In that light, in the mode of ancient tragedy, it is more successful. However (and I admit this is a personal bias) in that case it suffers exactly the same problems of all tragedies from antiquity – they are fundamentally boring experiences because they happened to exist before the great shift to realism in the late 19th century – a mode that suits the theatrical space so much better than the epic poetry of greek tragedy.
Of course artists like Van Hove are better educated than I am in these traditions and to a large degree define their work in and against the modern/realist turn. This, I think, is where the performance art element comes in, as a kind of upper to the tragic element.
The whole fares better in this light. The full weight of *der theatremachine* thrown behind a grim slide to a negative event horizon. There is no redemption or catharsis here however. It’s worth noting that the company’s next show directed by Van Hove is a remix of Euripides called ELECTRA / ORESTE.
On the night I felt like I had been hit with a series of theatrical gestures which didn’t add up to anything. Aside from the queasy paedophilia scene and all the *intensity* on show I felt distinctly unchallenged. Perhaps the most damning thing of all about this production was that I was amazed that is was only 2:15 long – it felt a lot longer. The seven hours of The Roman Tragedies passed in the blink of an eye… I guess I was expecting the level of theatrical intelligence and integration that was evident in The Roman Tragedies. Given Van Hove’s general stellar reputation I am either in the minority on this one, or this was a rare failure.
There is also the sense in London that European sensibility in theatre laps at the shore of the British tradition at the Barbican – and only the Barbican. British theatre is so resolutely language based that shows that start with a visual premise rather than a linguistic or story premise are swimming against the tide. Perhaps it is not an accident that The Roman Tragedies was so good – Shakespearean plotting and language with Ivo Van Hove’s magic guiding it – a prefect blend of modes for me.
Also to be noted this production was first staged for the Avignon Festival, a distinctly more progressive environment than London for this type of work – and in that context it would have made a lot more sense. I didn’t google reviews until I finished writing the above, but there is a five-star Guardian rave for it that relies a lot on the context – a dividing Europe, Trump, Alt-right mass executions – and makes it seem that not liking the show would be some kind of political betrayal of the left. Well… I disagree, you can think something is a mess even if it has political value of some kind – I mean look at the UK Labor party. The reviewer there also pulled out the Greek tragedy comparison so perhaps that is the best way to view it. The Times finds it ‘impressive and interminable’ which is closer to my view (and God forbid I should agree with The Times on anything).
So would I see another Ivo Van Howe production?
In a flash. There are a couple of his productions I wish I had seen now. And disliking a production is not about hating the guy. Sure, this one was overly self-referential and many of the theartical ideas approached cliche. Such is the curse of the truly gifted – other people will lift your ideas and insights and make them average and trivial before your run has ended. So, as the hottest director on the planet, the pressure is on him to continually reinvent. Which I feel sure he will, and even if it takes a while the Roman Tragedies was such a knock out that I could probably watch another five interesting failures like this in order to find something transcendent.
I mean give me this over a sucessful Kenneth Branagh production (and I’ve seen a few) any night of the week.
Nice profile on him over here:
An interview specifically about The Damned – Van Hove says he hasn’t seen the film, that is is important not to… and there are some clear statements of intent in here all of which I can see make sense – but I still think didn’t work, even accepting all those arguments.