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Shouts and Murmurs: Darknet, X, Kings Of War, Shakespeare Live!

Because I’m an arrogant dick, and because no-one else is going to ask me to write one for them (for a while at least), I’ve decided to start a column (of sorts) here on my blog. It’s mostly for myself, to get any thoughts about the productions I see that can’t be put in a review onto paper and to allow me a space to experiment with form that I don’t have elsewhere, but if you enjoy reading it at the same time, then everyone’s a winner. Shouts and Murmurs was the name of Kenneth Tynan’s column in the Observer in the late 60s/early 70s, and if you’re going to pretend to be a drama critic, you may as well pretend to be the best. Here goes then…

Setting plays in the future is always risky. They generally either drown in invented vernacular (“my starship’s hyperdrive has broken, it must be the supersonic lightfuck component”, and the like) or look as if they belong about 20 years in the past. Touring Consortium’s 2015 adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World got the look right, but was content-light. Rupert Goold’s King Charles III ticked both boxes, but that wasn’t exactly a dystopian play, unless you know something I don’t about the Prince Of Wales. It’s rare for designers to pull off that sleek, chrome look, and even rarer for the play underneath to be any good.

Last week both confirmed then disproved that assumption. Darknet, Rose Lewenstein’s exploration of where data-sharing would lead us, is adolescent in content and overwrought in design. The arguably compelling subject matter – society’s tendency to sacrifice privacy in the pursuit of popularity – is lost in a poor concept and a set of one-dimensional characters. This might not be such a problem if Mila Sanders captured the imagination with her design, but a plethora of iPads and laptops and a cluttered set of cumbersome blue archways do not a convincing dystopia make. At times, Darknet’s obsession with screens and Skype conversations feels so intent as to render it almost laughably dehumanised.

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Jim English and Greer Dale-Foulkes in Rose Lewenstein’s Darknet at Southwark Playhouse (also how I feel about starting this column thing) (photo: http://www.exeuntmagazine.com)

But Alistair McDowall’s X at the Royal Court, which has been turning heads left, right, and centre, achieves everything Darknet does not. It presents a futuristic society (in this case an isolated research base on Pluto) in an obvious but understated way and it explores some vital contemporary issues with wit and humanity. Even when, with the help of some impressive technical wizardry, the future began to disintegrate before the audience’s eyes, it is still rooted in the human experience, not divorced from it.

Merle Hensel’s design – the bright white living quarters of a space-age base, hypnotically twisted and menacingly offset by the blackness outside – is seamlessly complemented with Lee Curran’s spectacular lighting. And this is to say nothing of McDowall’s dazzlingly intelligent writing. Or Jessica Raine’s magnetic central performance as Gilda. Or James Harkness’ charmingly terse work as Clark. Everyone wet themselves over McDowall’s Pomona at the Orange Tree Theatre. I didn’t see it, but if it was anything like X, then I seriously wish I had.

The first half of X has been dismissed by some as an overlong exercise in scene-setting, but it is much more than that. Important details are shoe-horned in – the mass extinction of life on Earth is somewhat crudely touched upon in accounts of “the last tree” and “the day the birds fell out the trees”, granted – but the mental fragility of the base’s occupants, the delusional nature of their existence, and the sheer horror of their situation are all elegantly realised with rough, colloquial dialogue.

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Jessica Raine in Alistair McDowall’s X at the Royal Court (photo: http://www.sternbergclarke.co.uk)

In the second-half, with the characters bereft of hope, McDowall sets off on a riveting dissection of how humanity can survive when all it has ever known is lost. Time collapses. Identity disintegrates. Memories merge and mutate. Language, chillingly, degenerates into incomprehensibility. The blank anguish etched on of Raine and Harkness’ faces as they repeat the letter ‘x’ over and over again is simultaneously riveting and appalling. X.

From mind-bending sci-fi horror, to gut-twisting Shakespearean horror: Ivo Van Hove’s Kings Of War at the Barbican presents Henry V, the three plays of Henry VI, and Richard III together over a bum-numbing four and a half hours. In Dutch. It adopts the same combination of live camerawork and heavy adaptation that we last saw with Robert Icke’s Oresteia at the Almeida, but where Icke’s brutally intense four-hour epic was over in a flash, Van Hove’s sags and dawdles between undeniable peaks. X.

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Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Kings Of War, directed by Ivo van Hove (photo: http://www.theguardian.com)

What it does well, though, especially in a week stuffed full of monarch-worshipping, is analyse exactly how the throne, and the power it conveys, can be abused so famously. From Ramsey Nasr’s dictatorial Henry V, via Eelco Smits’ weak-chinned and pyjama-wearing Henry VI, we arrive at Hans Kesting’s hulking, grinning, scarily deranged Richard III. As he gallivants around the room, crown on head and thick rug thrown over his shoulders like a makeshift gown, the true horror of his ascension is inescapable. Here is a man who we have watched slaughter others with glee, deliriously happy with his prize and without a care for the responsibilities it brings. X.

Kings Of War, despite its decided unevenness, was still a damn sight more appropriate way to commemorate Shakespeare’s death than watching the RSC’s star-studded Shakespeare Live though. This, a two-hour hotchpotch of songs and dances inspired by Shakespeare’s work – with the odd bit of actual Shakespeare thrown in as well – was the RSC at its criminal worst. X. It was a trite, meaningless piece of gift-shop tat, decorated with enough respected actors to pass itself off as the Shakespeare commemoration event of the weekend.

Yes, the skit with all the different Hamlets was funny (although seeing Benedict Cumberbatch and David Tennant standing beside each other, practically identical in their atrocious smugness, reminded me of just how shockingly limited a pool of actors our national institutions choose to use), and yes it’s cool how one man’s work has spawned so much extraneous culture, but Shakespeare Live was still the last word in how to treat the viewing public like morons. X X.

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What is this? Doctor fucking Who? David Tennant and Catherine Tate presenting the godawful Shakespeare Live! (photo: tennantnews.blogspot.com)

BBC2 and the RSC clearly thought we couldn’t deal with actual Shakespeare on stage, so we had to make do with a few quotable scenes lifted so far out of their context they became meaningless, plenty of nice dancing, and a few famous faces sprinkled in that we might recognise from ‘popular culture’ instead. X X X. If this is Gregory Doran’s idea of paying homage to the greatest poet that ever put pen to paper, then that’s another black mark against his reign in Stratford in my book. And Catherine Tate can fuck off back to Little Britain. X X.

The Globe’s Complete Walks on the South Bank, or what I saw of it at least, was a far more fitting tribute: original work mixed in with thoughtfully chosen extracts, presented without fuss or explication. X X. The hoards wandering from London Bridge to Westminster were confronted with, amongst other things, Toby Jones as Falstaff (wouldn’t we love to see that?), in a selection of moments from Henry IV Part I, James Norton as Richard II, and a few Hamlet soliloquies delivered by a four-headed Dane of Alex Jennings, Michelle Terry, Nikesh Patel, and Ashley Zhangaza. X X X.

X I also X managed to X catch Matthew Warchus frankly X disappointing The Caretaker X at The Old Vic X X X X X. With X a stellar X cast X of Daniel X Mays, George X X X MacKay, and Timothy Spall X X, one X X X X X really expects X X X X X more restrained X X X X X X X central X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X performances X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X. Pinter X X X X X X deserves X X X X X X X X X  better treatment X X X than X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X this.

X.

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