When the popular kid at school includes you in their joke, it can be hard to tell whether they’re laughing with you, or at you. I’m still not sure which side of the line Jamie Wood’s new show I am a Tree falls on.

Wood invites us into his life right now. He’s had a baby, and he feels stifled in London. So he decides to go on a sort of pilgrimage. He’ll escape the city, find himself in nature and breathe in country air. Cool. Chuck in a few funny clowning sequences and sweet visual metaphors, and we’re fine so far.

I am a Tree. Classic drama school wanky theatre title, right? It suggests a meta nod to the awkwardness of poncy physical theatre workshops, one of the primary reasons a lot of people feel drama degrees are a waste of money. In many ways Wood usurps the wanky theatre stereotype, precisely by embracing it. He acknowledges the cringe tropes of physical theatre and gets us laughing along as audience members are invited to be props for his journey.

Wood’s previous show, O No!, was a riff off Yoko Ono’s instructive guide. In that, he gained the audience’s trust to the point where each show resulted in a member of the audience getting naked in a bag with Wood, and talking about love. In I am a tree, there are some truly touching moments – a hug, a lift and a cradle – which all feel like leftovers from O No!. Wood manages to encompass the joy of interacting with strangers, breaking down inhibitions with rippling laughter. He embraces silliness and the ridiculous delight of play, which his other job as a hospital clown must benefit from. At one point I was lifted up and embraced, and I wouldn’t have minded staying like that all evening.

But Wood’s tactics have changed. Everyone involved in the O No! was always a volunteer. In contrast, most of I am a Tree’s participants don’t get a choice. For much of it, we are guided rather than asked if we want to take part. This is mostly fine, if you’re on the receiving end of an action in the play. But when asked to be the active participant, a lack of consent feels uneasy. Here, Wood doesn’t create the environment where it feels okay to say no.

When I was brought up onstage and made to do something I didn’t want to do, I was (justifiably) resistant. This came across in my body language. When I looked apprehensive, he looked at me and said, “It’s not about you.” I had been laughing along for most of the show, but here I felt humiliated.

I’m normally a fan of audience participation. Most of the time I’m happy to go along with whatever the performer wants, if I feel it serves a purpose. When Tim Crouch asked me to pull away his chair as he stood by a noose in a performance of Malvolio, I didn’t want to do it, but I knew that it was important for the story. I knew that I was meant to feel uncomfortable. I knew that aided the story.

In I am a Tree, my lack of comfort was not an asset, but an accidental humiliation. My role could have been played by anyone else, and would have benefited hugely from someone who actually wanted to take part in that moment. I clearly wasn’t having fun, and that served no purpose to the story. In fact, it probably ruined the depth he was aiming for in that segment. Well sorry Jamie, it should have been a volunteer.

The audience at this preview were a very theatre-y audience, and I’m sure the case will be much the same when the show goes to the Edinburgh Fringe. But if I were to take any of my friends who don’t go to the theatre often, and they were asked to get up on that stage, most of them would run a fucking mile. Audience participation should either be funny, heartening, or purposeful. This was none of the above.

As he continues on his pilgrimage, Wood’s journey becomes more spiritual, and I start to lose understanding of how seriously he’s taking this. I don’t feel the deep questions resonate with the silliness, and I can’t help but think how GCSE so many of the actions are. By the end of it, I can’t be bothered to figure out if he’s being meta about it all.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been expecting a clever piece ripping apart the stereotypes of luvvies, just because of the title of the piece and the initial nods towards that path. Maybe he really was just playing up on his surname and really did just want to engage with the idea of family (family tree/ tree/ Wood) and nature. Maybe the fire-dance-scene I was involved with was genuinely a way to figure out a deep-rooted question in someone’s life. Maybe the show is actually designed to help people understand what they truly want, and who they truly are.

Maybe. But regardless of what it was meant to be, when it started I felt hopeful, humoured and lifted, both literally and emotionally. When it ended I felt humiliated, and that uncomfortable feeling that I still wasn’t in on the joke.

Preview at Ovalhouse Theatre, London, 28/07/17

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Tate and Max make a bet. Whoever has sex with Billie first gets a tenner.

I know someone like Max. He’s a smarmy charmer whose pout makes you want to hit him, but when he addresses you, everyone else slinks to the periphery and you feel like the only person in the world. He has a sideways smile and can get pretty much any girl he likes. He’s exactly the type you’d expect to see sex as a game.

Max’s housemate and landlord Tate is the opposite. He’s full of awkwardness and worries, the kind of guy who would never fit in to a group of lads on a night out. He’s thoughtful. I expected better of him.

They live above the Bedford Pub (nice room, chairs could be comfier). While their flatmate Evie is finding herself if Malaysia, they pick up Billie, the middle aged woman in limbo who dances by herself next to the jukebox.

Expectations shows the inherent sense of entitlement that men are taught they can have over female bodies. Trying to get with Billie veers between a game for Max and for Tate an attempt at proving his self-worth. The enjoyment the pair get from salivating over the thought of fucking the woman they see as a MILF is uncomfortable, perhaps more so because they take advantage of her maternal qualities too. It’s the tenner that shows how vile the game really is, because it’s not about the money or the prize. It’s about the pride, the glory, the knowledge that you oozed that much more charm. Or maybe it’s that you were there at the right time, when she was feeling vulnerable or sad or like she wanted company or comfort or sex. And you happened to be the one she stumbled into.

Some boys do this thing where they pay you a lot of attention, then as soon as they’ve got you they stop making the effort, and only regain it once they think they’re going to lose you. Tate demonstrates this beautifully, and it’s clear that he doesn’t understand how his big speeches of apology and philosophy don’t make up for his lack of attentiveness on an everyday scale. Max’s attitude is less apologetic and more coasting. Everything feels a little futile with these boys, like nothing will really change them significantly. While this causes a bristling frustration, Expectations doesn’t push any boundaries. Nothing is taken as far as it could be, with threads dropped in and lost, and character arcs rather shallow. The two most exciting ideas in the script- the bet and a lone mention to Max’s first sexual encounter- are left to trail off without further exploration.

The bet is a representation of everything vile about lad culture and depicts how much sex is about conquering new ground. Another girl in the mix is just a new player to get a level up. This could be a fascinating exploration of our attitudes towards sex if pushed further. It could also have a real element of shock and disgust if the bet was hidden from us and only revealed much later. Instead we see the formulation of the bet and there is little mystery, suspense or tension. The opportunity for this change in tone comes with the reveal about Max’s first relationship: He was underage, she was not. ‘There’s another word for it’, Tate says. The word rape hangs in the air for a moment but is quickly swept away and never mentioned again. This felt like a moment that could have flipped our understanding upside down. If this is the reason for Max’s playful, throwaway attitude to sex, it makes his character so much deeper. It felt like a missed opportunity to tighten the bolts on the core of the play.

The pace of the direction feels stilted and makes it hard to fall into the story. Curtis clearly has a natural understanding of dialogue and the script is promising, but the crux is thinned out by too much dancing, small talk and not enough conflict. Expectations attempts to present the messy sexual relations we are dealt in this age of uncertainty, and has the beginnings of interesting conversations on the sexual politics of our day.

I just wish they’d cut out the drunk dancing scenes, those are always hard to pull off.

Theatre N16, 18/07/16

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This poster makes Minefield look like an awkward school trip when actually it’s a fucking great explosion that could be the start of a new era of documentary theatre.

*

The bit with the yelling and the smoke and the drums.

The bit with the joke at the end of the therapy.

The bit where you listed what you’ve seen and everything else seems unimportant.

*

Documentary theatre is everywhere right now with a particular rise in verbatim theatre recently, as it’s such a fast way to react to a current issue. This was demonstrated last month with Another World at the NT, showing the impact of young Europeans going to Syria to join IS, and currently with Chilcot at BAC, discussing the enquiry. Rather than using verbatim theatre to respond to a current war, Minefield reflects on a past one. It tells true stories from the mouths of the people who lived them.

Writer and Director Lola Arias- though I always think with verbatim theatre ‘curator’ would be a better title than ‘writer’ as it’s not really your words but anyway- takes six veterans of the Falklands war, three from each side, and puts them on the Royal Court stage.

It is a bit clumsy, but that’s part of the play’s charm. There are elements that feel imperfect; the subtitles could do with some edits, the costume changes are unnecessary and the structure is fairly obvious for a verbatim play. But none of that matters because the total and utter honesty in this play makes it stand out a mile from what has gone before in this genre.

*

The bit with the Beatles tribute band.

The bit with the film of the landscape you survived.

The bit where you were looking for yourself but found one of the others.

*

The dialogue is so casual it doesn’t feel like  watching a written play, it’s more like a show and tell session at school. The veterans speak with a certain distance, like time has formed a protective layer over the most painful memories. This makes it even more powerful, as it maintains the balance between factual and personal, preventing it from turning into any sort of sob story. That is not to say emotions are not shown, they are raw despite the passing of time. Each man lets down his guard slightly, some more than others, one- I feel- entirely. It is a privilege to be allowed into their histories.

This is a play that takes people who would have shot each other had they met several years ago, and today hold hands and bow together. At least I think they did, I couldn’t really see at the end through all the tears.

*

The bit with the strip tease.

The bit with the minefield.

The bit where you knelt at the front of the stage with the dead body while you told us the story of the man who might have been about to surrender.

Seen 7/06/16 Royal Court Downstairs

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Dear Charlotte Bronte,

I would like to apologise for saying Jane Eyre was:

  1. Boring
  2. Dull
  3. Wimpy

And:

  1. Nothing happens for ages
  2. Do people who label things ‘classics’ actually read them?
  3. I wouldn’t want to be her friend

Please accept my forgiveness. You see Charlotte, when I was thirteen I tried reading Jane Eyre. It’s known as a grown up book, a classic, a right of passage. I’m afraid thirteen year old me also decided it was really, really boring. After a month of staggering through it and only getting to Lowood I eventually gave up. I was so reluctant to read it that it stopped me reading altogether. I picked it up a year later and battled through to the end. I’d done it. I was a woman. (It was okay.)

So my feelings hadn’t really warmed to your creation yet. But last night I went to the National Theatre (hasn’t been built yet, dw about it there’s a lot to explain) to see a devised production of Jane Eyre, and my heart is now aglow with praise. It was a preview and there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle about reviewing previews- I would explain but if you’re only present in our time for the length of this letter then Benedict Cumberbatch probably isn’t where I’d start in explaining modern life- so this is more of an appreciation of them dragging me out of my hatred and into something a lot warmer.

The production definitely takes inspiration from Kneehigh, and there are particular similarities to their production of Rebecca earlier this year. Having the ensemble create the story with revealed stage craft and falling into harmonies with the onstage band feels very familiar. There are also similarities with Bristol Old Vic’s Swallows and Amazons, which again had a Kneehigh-esque feel. There was a lovely moment in Swallows and Amazons when someone lay at the tip of a boat with a glass of water and flicked it at the passengers, and that was the sea. There’s a similarly playful feel here, as one of the cast holds up a lamp and twists his hand like flames, and suddenly the lamp is an enormous comforting fire. This production has a great sense of humour.

Madeleine Worrall as Jane has as good a worry face as Nadiya from Bake Off (if we’re explaining life today The Great British Bake Off is crucial). Her defiance makes me want to hug her. “I am no bird, and no net ensnares me.” As she hitches up her layers of skirts to climb up the scaffolding I wonder if the plasters on her legs are part of her character.

Some of the company move between acting and playing music. The score is like a mix of Nils Frahm, Lo Fang, Mumford and Sons and a jazzy lightning storm. I tried to look on Spotify but the decades section only goes back to the ‘60s so I’m afraid those references might be a bit lost on you. I never knew a bow scraping a cymbal could create such a cuttingly sharp sound.

Like in your book, we see Jane grow. The actors transform from children to adults very naturally, not parodying the children at all. It all feels very honest. A corset is added as Jane grows up to give her a woman’s body rather than that of a child.

 “I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you – especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous channel, and two hundred miles or so of land some broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly. As for you, – you’d forget me.”

When Mr Rochester asks Jane to marry him it is the angriest proposal I’ve ever heard, so full of love and impatience, before giving her a very beardy kiss.

While some bits flow others move too fast. They feel disconnected and lose their sense of place that so much of this show secures well. I’m not entirely sure about the conscience bits either. But nothing lasts too long, even though the two shows at Bristol Old Vic have been put together for one epic three and a half hour show.

I don’t want to spoil a surprise in the play so I won’t explain completely. But there’s a singer in this production who wears a red dress and exudes enormous strength in her voice. She lifts the production to another level. Listening to her singing Mad About The Boy is utterly dazzling.

The other best bit is the dog. Craig Edwards as Mr Rochester’s dog (alongside the other hundred parts they each play) has the audience under his control as he pants and drops to the floor as a footstall for his master.

You know when Mr Rochester is blind and injured and tired and Jane comes back to him? She doesn’t say anything, she just walks up to him slowly and touches his hands. At first he flinches but then he seems to recognise them and holds them so tight it looks like he never wants to let go. Can you really know someone so well that you can recognise them simply from the feel of their hands? If so that’s a lovely thing to look forward to.

So apologies Charlotte. This girl has guts. I would totally be her friend.

All the best,

Kate Wyver


National Theatre, Lyttelton 10/09/15

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Some thoughts on the Almeida’s Oresteia from someone who knows nothing about Greek tragedy, who has only seen two before and who severely disliked one and fell asleep in the other.

***

I persuade my brother to come with me to this, only telling him how long it is after he agrees. After 3 hours and 40 minutes, bums numb and bodies tired from being nervous, we stand up. There’s a moment of silence. ‘I think we should read a synopsis’.

***

The first half an hour of Robert Icke’s production is glorious to watch. It’s so busy. The movement (not physical theatre but doing so many things at once with such speed) builds these complex lives.  In a scene where only two people are present on paper, seven are on stage.

A long white table with benches either side sit in front of a step up to a glass wall, the kind of glass wall you wouldn’t be surprised to see James Bond appear from behind. It slides across and is transparent and then opaque and occasionally flashes like a memory lapse or a camera flash.

The cutting up of the text allows it to reveal bits of the story like a murder mystery, letting us piece together the relationships and passing of time. The intervals are laced in as breaks from a courtroom. The illusion built isn’t broken by the intervals. Some actors remain onstage in character. Agamemnon’s body is stretchered off rather than having him simply stand and walk off. The tension is kept by the countdown at every break, projected on screens around us. It’s a great crowd control, as well as adding to the sense of our impending doom. As soon as it gets to 5 seconds the room is silent.

The score is on the edge of being so subtle that you don’t notice there’s a string being played high up in the register, but then choral music swells and takes your attention. It’s delicately done. Having the little girl singing the song that I’ve always connected with that joyful scene in Love Actually is eerie. Her voice stands out and swim around your head. They have some great dums and whooshes that coincide with lighting changes, like the sound of a profound thought being thrown against the glass. I jump at one blackout (with a particularly good ‘dum’, more like a ‘DUMMM’) and again when he screams ‘I was wrong’ and the door swings open and light bursts through and papers fly everywhere.

The black and white colour palette makes the red cloak and sticky blood  (spoiler alert, people die) and red wine stand out more. It’s a bit like in Schindler’s List, using the bright red against the monochrome as a sign to say ‘THIS IS IMPORTANT, LOOK AT THIS’.

“This was always going to happen”

The sense of impending doom is perhaps overdone. Yes it’s a tragedy. We know everyone’s going to die. But still. The innocence of Iphigenia’s teddy is lovely but it does feel a bit like an incredibly obvious example of Chekhov’s gun- I was just waiting for it to be ripped up and decimated and be symbolic.

***

I find the religion bit hard to grasp. In the modern Western world (in which this seems to be roughly set, maybe a bit timeless and spaceless), most people are not so religiously inclined as to believe in signs from gods in dreams. The religiosity and modernity don’t quite blend together, particularly in the final scene where judgement is all about God rather than morality.

***

Agamemnon has massive hands. Clytemnestra is pretty tiny but his hands are literally enormous. They are quite distracting.

***

This is more than just a fractured family. This is a-normal-amount-of-troubled-family turned shattered psychopaths.

Moments stand out. Orestes’ description of people as shells. The children’s shoes left in the corner. The speed with which Agamemnon goes from bath to deadness. The ritual of shaking the bell, bringing out the tablecloth, laying it out with the glasses and the pouring of the blood red wine. The moment where the reflection in the glass is used to give depth, reflecting the characters in front of the glass so they look as if they’re sharing the space behind. It’s a lovely way to put together the dead and the living.

There’s a speech by Orestes where he says a situation will seem different to everyone depending on what happened to them that day, what they had for lunch, what their last thought was before this one. “It all floods in”, he says. It changes how we see things. It changes the stories of our lives, just as it changes every single audience member’s opinion of the same play.

***

But there’s still something about it that doesn’t make the time fly by. And I’m still not certain what that is. I’ll think about it.

***

At the curtain call the little boy playing young Orestes looks so proud, he’s beaming. 3 hours and 40 minutes are almost worth it for that alone.

Trafalgar Studios 09/09/15

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It is hard to look at anyone else when Denise Gough is on stage. I’ve never seen her perform before but I now very much want to again. She just seems so normal, you could bump into her in the street. She is a real human being. She is a seriously good actor.

People, Places and Things is very Headlong. In both Gough’s character’s drug-induced state, and later in her withdrawal phase, things warp and scrunch and flash and clones appear and disappear. They’re good at messing with our heads to show how messed up hers is.

“I was talking about theatre”

It’s about acting and stage directions and the complexity of being a human being and drug abuse and lies and the importance of having someone you can rely on and how everything is easier with alcohol to knock down your inhibitions and numb you that little bit but then it’s also about the numbness of being unable to react to something in the way we feel we’re meant to, like death. It’s about the pretence of acting and how maybe that’s easier than real life. In a wonderful, powerful rant she lists everything that is wrong in the world and says it in a way that makes you think, yes, this is all true. It’s a Men In The Cities-type rage at the world.

I’m not sure I believe in spoilers unless it’s about the end of Rebecca (grandma, I’m looking at you). But if you haven’t seen it maybe skip the next two paragraphs.

She- Sarah, is an actress. (“No, I’m a seagull”). She’s a drug addict. She goes to rehab. She takes a long time to co-operate with them. She goes through withdrawal. In rehab she hallucinates. More versions of her appear from the bed, they climb out like in a horror movie and crumple around the room. She does that really well- she feels all crumpled, like it would take the whole world to get her to stand up straight.

Quotes are dropped in from The Seagull (which Headlong did very well a few years ago. I sort of despise Chekhov after studying The Cherry Orchard but I very much enjoyed their The Seagull), A Streetcar Named Desire and Romeo and Juliet. My History teacher died when I was in year 13 and at our memorial assembly an English teacher read out the same R&J quote they use here.

When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night”

For a play about grief, this feels rather fitting. As she says it, giving it as an example of the wonderful language actors have the privilege of speaking, I can see him sitting on the edge of the wobbly plastic chair in Room B, chewing gum and telling us that we can do anything.

I think that’s why I like theatre. It connects you to moments of life. It reflects bits of it at us in a different way as in those distorted mirrors at funfairs or the grubby reflection of the glass on tube doors. It makes you feel things and think things and want to do things. It makes you want to change the world, and it makes you believe that that might be possible.

There’s a word that means the feeling of understanding that everyone else has individual lives and has their own set of thoughts and worries and fears- sonder. This is the kind of play that makes you realise that. This the kind of play that makes you look at the person sitting next to you and wonder if they’re okay, if you’re okay, if any of us are actually okay.

Maybe we should go for a drink and talk about it.

Maybe not.

National Theatre, Dorfman 01/09/15

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