Wednesday 15 September 2010

Stilted but enthusiastic communication

Re-Orientations, Soho Theatre, London

Sometimes a theatre company, in this case both Border Crossings and Soho Theatre, can have too many ideas and not enough, well, play. Re-Orientations certainly ticks a lot of contemporary theatre boxes; it crosses cultural divides, embraces multimedia, has a heavy cinematic influence and shies away from anything that might be deemed conventional. Some of the bi-products of this schematic approach are beautiful and unique and there are a number of haunting and penetrating images in this show. But despite a wonderful ambition motoring this piece forward, it never makes the leap from theoretical theatre to something meaningful, genuine and complete.

There is much to praise here. Director Michael Walling injects his theatre with an evocative filmic quality; atmospheric music (drawn from an eclectic range of sources; classic, pop and John Adams, ie, somewhere in between) plays constantly above the scene changes, narrative is shunned in favour of symbolic images and the characters have a slightly plastic-y, shiny feel. All these effects allow Walling to create some visceral visual jolts, which hit one with unexpected but illuminating force. In the opening scene, faceless ladies (with their features obscured by opaque, tight-like, masks; they look a bit like elegant but spooky thieves) sway into a club toilet and preen in front of the audience/mirror. A man dressed as a woman enters and is the only one on-stage with a face. The image feels inexplicably authentic and is an imaginative reflection of an oppressive modern-day city (Shangai, in this scene), where everyone is anonymous and their true faces and feelings kept firmly under wraps.

Other brilliant images filter out of this production, which travels restlessly around the world. The main thrust of the action takes place in Shangai, where two Swedish actors are, yet again, starring in ‘Miss Julie’ – a show that is starting to seamlessly interweave with their own lives (Almovador’s influence is palpable in this plot-thread). Actress Maya (played with a refreshing lack of affectation by Mis Kjelkvist) is palpably disillusioned with her life, her work and her lover and, when she bumps into local lad Sammy (Qi Baie Xue, a beautifully honest and open performer), the two grab coffee and share stories. Their stilted but enthusiastic communication, carried out in Swedish and Mandarin (I think), is a familiar and touching sight and one feels an instinctive rush of joy, whenever the two reach a fleeting moment of mutual understanding.

Moments like this, when the script is pretty much abandoned – at least, to those in the audience who do not speak Swedish or Mandarin – are the show’s most powerful. Writer Michael Walling has a real talent for observing clashing, occasionally coalescing cultures, and there is a truthfulness to these quieter, incidental scenes.

It is when the Themes of this production start to force their way into an otherwise imaginative and visually persuasive piece of theatre, that the piece starts to lose its integrity and influence. The script has obviously undergone a lot of dramaturgical work (indeed, three dramaturges worked on this show) but there is an explicitness to the way these supposedly disparate scenes are linked together that starts to jar. The theme of lost communication is established very early on and becomes an increasingly oppressive presence in this piece, ironically damaging its ability to really communicate with its audience.

One starts to feel manipulated – and, indeed, that the piece itself has been over-manipulated, too. That early idea of anonymity, so eloquently expressed in the opening vignette with the faceless ladies, is shoehorned into the scenes with increasing predictability. A regular pattern emerges: characters become isolated amidst the people they love, seek refuge somewhere new and eventually confess their deepest, darkest secrets to complete strangers. The angry father, Julian (an unerringly unnerving Tony Guilfoyle) expresses his homosexual and violent yearnings to a drunk theatre director, the ashamed mother (a slightly stiff Sarah Swingler) admits her failings to a man in a bar, actress Maya confesses her sometimes cruel behaviour to young Sammy and Sammy, in turn, models his real love – ladies’ dresses – to Swedish Maya. Once one can spot a trick and it continues to turn up repeatedly in a show it gets tough to trust in the authenticity of each individual moment. 

This burgeoning level of artificiality makes it hard to give oneself over to what should’ve been a more sensory, instinctive show. This piece did not have to make so much sense. As the disparate plot threads are stubbornly drawn together, they start to feel like hackneyed symbols for the ‘modern condition’ – as if all the big ‘issues’ of today have been crammed into one cluttered kaleidoscope. So, with increasing incredulity, we discover that the dad actually likes boys, that Sammy likes wearing dresses, that the missing daughter was a lesbian and that Sammy’s sister, living in rural China, had her baby killed by a cruel and frightened husband. These are all interesting issues in themselves but not when placed in such crushed juxtaposition - especially when the scenes are held together by increasingly tricksy stage action (the screens, that nod to the sacrosanct ‘multimedia’, make for some nice, thick scenes bubbling with waves of meanings but they still feel like an embellishment rather than integral part of the show).

There are some beautiful moments here, but this feels like a rough diamond that has been over-polished, resulting in a superficially impressive and presentable show, but one that has lost its shine. 

Till 25 September 2010


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