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Helen Baxendale in Roland Schimmelpfennig's "The Woman Before" at the Royal Court Theatre
Bloody London:
A Report from the UK

By Caridad Svich







As the London theatre season makes West End room for the bright new musical Billy Elliott and a starry revival of Guys and Dolls with Ewan McGregor and Jane Krakowski, other spaces in the city are presenting works filled with menace and blood. At the Royal Court two new plays are being showcased to fine advantage: David Eldridge's Incomplete and Random Acts of Kindness and Roland Schimmelpfennig's The Woman Before in a translation by David Tushingham. Schimmelpfennig is a major contemporary German dramatist whose work includes the acclaimed Arabian Night and Push Up. While his plays are less known here in the U.S., it shouldn't be long before they find homes at diverse American venues. His writing--adroitly and cunningly translated by Tushingham--is witty, stark, and mysterious.

The Woman Before, staged in the Court's downstairs space by director Richard Wilson, is a story of love gone wrong. A seemingly happily married man receives a knock on the door by a former girlfriend he hasn't seen in 24 years. Bewildered by her appearance, the man (played by Nigel Lindsay) tries to make nice with this demanding and forlorn stranger from his past (played by Helen Baxendale), but in short scenes that go back and forth in time during a single evening, it becomes clear that this stranger cannot be easily dissuaded from her quest to reclaim lost love. Vengeance of a very Greek kind is on her mind, and the play begins to spin around the escalating manipulations of a person triumphantly ruined by her obsessive love.

Schimmelpfennig plays out the alternately tragic and absurdly comic story, which ends with scenes of bodies being violated and burned, in shard-like scenes of increasing intensity. The play is structured around the clock-like machinations and disparate perspectives of a night of violence. What starts innocently ends tragically. Yet what distinguishes this modern Medea-influenced tale is the macabre precision Schimmelpfennig brings to examining every moment of the fateful night. Saskia Reeves (Claudia)  and Helen Baxendale (Romy) in Roland Schimmelpfennig's "The Woman Before" at the Royal Court TheatreHis refusal to settle his characters or his audience in a zone of comfort is strangely upsetting and fitfully frustrating. Schimmelpfennig's goal is to unsettle and provoke, and he is abetted by a suitably restrained, disciplined cast, which also includes Saskia Reeves as the man's wife, Robert Pattinson as their son and Georgia Taylor as the son's girlfriend.

For all this, at barely 80 minutes The Woman Before is a bit slender and lacks the transcendence of Schimmelpfennig's Arabian Night (produced by ATC/UK in 2002). It nevertheless confirms his unique theatrical vision.

Violence also figures prominently in productions playing at the Royal National Theatre and the Almeida. In the RNT's Lyttelton Theatre can be found Improbable Theatre's inspired adaptation of the 1973 cult horror film Theatre of Blood. At the Almeida, director Rufus Norris stages Federico Garcia Lorca's starkly tragic Blood Wedding in a colloquial and lean new English translation by Tanya Ronder. Both productions feature stars--the supremely gifted stage and screen actor Jim Broadbent as Edward Lionheart in Theatre of Blood (the role originally played by Vincent Price in the film) and Latino movie idol Gael Garcia Bernal as Leonardo in Blood Wedding--yet neither relies solely on them to carry the show.

Improbable Theatre has been making magical and inventive pieces since 1986. Led by Phelim McDermott, Julian Crouch and Lee Simpson, it has delighted audiences with 70 Hill Lane, Lifegame, and The Hanging Man, and later this year it will bring the show Spirit to New York Theatre Workshop. McDermott and Crouch are also responsible, along with Cultural Industry, for the gloriously macabre junk opera Shockheaded Peter. Working with small- and large-scale material, Improbable has proved over time that its name is extremely apt, a token of the leaders' insatiable curiosity about the theater. Theatre of Blood fits the tradition perfectly.

Drafting a full script in advance for the first time (rather than assembling it after improvisation), McDermott and Simpson have fashioned a faithful version of the campy film while also creating something new. Re-setting the story in a dis-used, derelict theatre (brilliantly designed by Rae Smith), Improbable opens with the image of Lionheart poised upon a ladder in the midst of a grand theatrical gesture, surrounded by ghostly figures from different eras of theatre history. This prelude is broken by sound and light, suddenly the figures vanish, and all that is left is the theatre space itself and the entrance of an unassuming yet pretentious man dandily dressed in 1970s flare trousers, black turtleneck and sporty tweed jacket. He is, we soon discover, a theatre critic.

So the naughtily brilliant, rough-around-the-edges mayhem begins. For those unfamiliar with the film, the story is blunderingly simple and deliciously obvious: a Shakespearean actor of dubious talent is not given the Critics Award at end of the season and kills himself, or so it seems. What transpires instead is that he takes up with a band of the undead and vows to seek revenge on every critic who has given him a bad notice. The revenge takes the form of murders modeled after famous scenes of dismemberment, gouging and stabbing from Shakespeare's tragedies and histories. The story follows the murders (each more extreme than the next), until no critic is left standing and everyone is bathed in blood.

Sally Dexter as Chloe Moon, critic for The Observer and Jim Broadbent as Edward Lionheart, in "Theatre of Blood," a co-production of Improbable Theatre and the Royal National Theatre. Photo: Keith PattisonBy casting Broadbent, one of the UK's most beloved comic actors, McDermott ensures the audience's immediate engagement. Unlike Vincent Price, who exuded a peculiar, somewhat effete menace, Broadbent is all size, madness, and heart. What is terrifying about him, despite the camp, is the melancholy vulnerability that underlies his uncontrollable, obsessive streak of serial killings. He is an actor wronged, and a human being destroyed by a desire for positive acknowledgment from the very critics he purports to despise. Broadbent embraces the paradox of the role with aplomb and finesse. His fellow players, which include the esteemed Hayley Carmichael, Bloolips Queer Theatre co-founder Bette Bourne, classical actor Sally Dexter and the young Rachel Stirling (who plays the role originated by her mother Diana Rigg in the film), all deliver impeccably grand performances as well.

Part of this production's charm has to do with the puerile adolescent's intoxicating relish at shocking an audience and indulging in sheer gore. With all of Improbable's pieces (and this is true of Shockheaded Peter too) the joy of what it took to make the work in the first place is always present. You can sense from McDermott's zealous and overextended approach to the story of Theatre of Blood the strangely guilty pleasure he must have had watching the cult film when he was a child. That the piece is at the National (as a co-production with Improbable) makes it all the more irresistible. After all, this is where GREAT plays have been staged season after season, not rude, prankish, super-bloody, B-horror-flick adaptations! The incongruity of the venue is sublime, especially in light of the piece's innumerable theatrical references. It's as if Lincoln Center had produced, with full resources and ingenuity, a production of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.

At the Almeida, Rufus Norris has followed up his Festen (a critical triumph that will likely come to Broadway this fall) with a death-ballad staging of Garcia Lorca's Blood Wedding. Reducing the cast to thirteen, Norris strips the play down to a few elements: a curtain, a wooden chair, and a harness. The movement is sparse and the pace feverish. His multi-ethnic cast (from Iceland, Mexico, Ireland, England, Netherlands, Portugal, the Caribbean and India) spit their lines in bursts: thoughts half-rendered, spoken aloud. It is always night, and the color of the sky is vaginal red. Orlando Gough's music draws from klezmer, Celtic folk songs, samba, and cabaret. There is no interval and the show clocks in at 90-odd minutes.

Gael Garcia Bernal (Leonardo) and Lyndsey Marshal (Wife) in the Almeida Theatre production of "Blood Wedding." Photo by Keith PattisonAlthough Garcia Bernal is the box-office draw, he is not the production's center. The focus is directorial, Norris's wrestling match with this extraordinarily difficult, beautiful beast of a play. While the lightning-speed approach is provocative--and certainly Lorca invites Death to rule the dramatic world--I felt that Norris could have trusted the play a bit more, let its tender and joyful side blossom as much as its fiercely haunted fatalism. Even the wedding scene is tinged with incessant despair, and the result is a one-sided reading. In his attempt to wrest the piece from folkloric stereotypes that often mar productions of Garcia Lorca's work, Norris has gone too far in viewing the play as Thanatos's triumph over Eros from the get-go. Nevertheless, the production demonstrates Norris's ambition and intelligence as a director willing to go for broke with his vision.

As for the performers, particular standouts are Bjorn Haraldsson as the Groom and Rosaleen Linehan as the Mother. Bernal is hard-working, if lacking a bit in power as the betraying lover, but it's nice to see a star of his international status taking a pay cut to work on a classic in a small venue far from his native city.

Displacement and dissent mark two international pieces--KUBA and The Story of Ronald, the Clown from McDonald's--that live between the worlds of theatre and performance art. The enterprising company Artangel, spearheaded by Michael Morris, is presenting KUBA by Turkish artist Kutlag Ataman in an abandoned sorting office just off of Bloomsbury. The area known as Kuba emerged in Istanbul in the late 1960s as a neighborhood of safe houses. Today it is comprised of a few hundred dwellings that are home to non-conformists of various religions and ethnicities. Accessed by several flights of stairs in the graffitti-marked sorting office, the entrance to this multiple DVD installation is a creaky institutional door that opens onto a vast room where about twenty TV sets (different makes and models -- all old) play edited testimonials of Kuba residents. Mostly shot in medium and close-up, these videos tell stories of abuse, defiance and despair. Kuba, Kutlug Ataman, 2005.  Commissioned and Produced by Artangel. Photograph by Thierry Bal.Violence weaves the stories together -- the violence of parents on children, gang members on passersby, brother on brother. While presented as an art installation, KUBA functions as virtual theater of testimony due to its complex storytelling and emphasis on the real. It's a remarkable installation that raises important questions about the protection of dissidents and the recording and witnessing of their stories.

Argentine-born, Madrid-based writer-director Rodrigo Garcia has similar storytelling matters in mind in The Story of Ronald, the Clown from McDonald's. Garcia brought his aptly named La Carniceria Teatro (Slaughter Theatre) to the Brighton Festival in May for the UK premiere of this imagistic, highly physical, assaultive meditation on consumer culture and globalization. Performed by three actors, The Story of Ronald brings to mind the early work of avant-gardists such as Squat Theatre and Pina Bausch.

The piece begins with a lanky young man standing next to a podium displaying a Big Mac, fries and a large Coke. He tells us (in Spanish -- English subtitles appear in the background) that his father was quite ill when he was as child. When he was taken to the hospital to visit him, the reward awaiting him at the end was a trip to McDonald's. The actor then calmly strips down to his underwear and is bathed in milk by another performer. The milk-bathing becomes more and more savage as the young man flails about like an animal in the sloshing white mess, barely able to breathe and yet craving more and more milk. As the evening progresses, other stories are told in similar direct address by each of the three actors, all broken up by movement sections where ketchup, whipped cream, baked beans, hamburgers, slabs of meat and soft drinks are significantly featured as their partners in dance. Despite these brief descriptions that stress the punk excess of Garcia's staging, this piece is exhilarating--utterly captivating in its grossness and challenging physical presence. Reveling in the body, in the smells of the foods we eat and discard, in the mixture of nausea and delight with which we experience our roles as citizens of the Americas indebted to a multi-national few who try to govern and in fact dictate our taste, The Story of Ronald is an elegy for a time when the likes of Simon Cowell and Posh & Becks did not compete for attention in the same psychic space as Borges, Cervantes and Oscar Wilde.

During my London sojourn, many practitioners complained to me of the increasingly conservative climate in UK theatre right now, and of the syndrome of unnecessary, starry revivals, as ubiquitous across the pond as it is on Broadway. Nevertheless, the evidence is clear that innovative new work and writing continue to be valued, if not always enthusiastically embraced, by British audiences and critics. What The Woman Before, Theatre of Blood, Blood Wedding, KUBA and The Story of Ronald have in common, beyond the shared thematic concern of violence and its effects, is a fundamental belief that art matters.


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