Review: Relocated ~ theatre notes

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Review: Relocated

Relocated, written and directed by Anthony Neilson. Designed by Miriam Buether, lighting by Chahine Yavroyan, sound design by Nick Powell. With Frances Grey, Phil McKee, Staurt McQuarrie, Katie Novak, Jan Pearson and Nicola Walker. Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court, Sloane Square, London, until July 5.

Despite my stern resolutions to do other things while in London - like, oh, I don't know, photographing Beefeaters or climbing the Tower of London - Ms TN gave in and decided to go to the theatre after all. After reading various responses to Anthony Neilson’s Relocated, from Michael Billington’s notorious one star review to our Euro-trotting Jana’s indignant defence, curiosity overwhelmed me. And so, on Friday night, I found myself at the Royal Court Upstairs.

When they say Upstairs, they mean Upstairs. I think I made my way up five flights and then, after I'd climbed all that way, I entered a space that felt like an underground bunker. Miriam Buether’s impressive design is not for claustrophobes: it features a black, low-roofed stage furnished with chairs and other objects painted black, and lit by dingy naked lightbulbs.

The stage is separated from the audience by a coarse scrim, so you are effectively peering into a box, creating that sense of voyeurism which seems to be a bit of a staple of contemporary theatre. In a neat touch that increases the voyeuristic frisson, the angle of the stage means that you can watch through the scrim as the rest of the audience enters the space. And then came what turned out to be my uneasiest moment of the night: the ushers shut the doors. I suddenly thought, what if there’s a fire? How do we get out?

It's not a thought that usually occurs to me in the theatre, and is no doubt a tribute to the oppressive effect of Buether’s design and Chahine Yavroyan’s parsimonious lighting, which is more a play of shadows on darkness than of light on shadow. The production they shape is certainly effective, well performed by a good cast and, for the most part, stylishly done. Yet on the way home I was overwhelmed by waves of irritation. I wasn’t offended, I wasn’t mystified, I wasn’t even angry. I was annoyed.

I've spent the whole day attempting to unpack this irritation. And I found that the more I thought about the production, the less there seemed to be think about. On the surface, Relocated is a Lynch-esque nightmare about identity, a peek under the skin of suburbia to its murderous neuroses and alienations, a fantasia of contemporary anxieties. That's certainly how it's dressed. But in the end, it doesn't really offer much more than a solidly visceral sensation of sitting in the dark.

It opens with a woman who is vacuuming and listening to the BBC news when she suddenly collapses. What follows is a series of nightmarish scenes, perhaps occurring in the moment of her death, since the show also ends with the image of the fallen woman. The play is a splintered narrative that splices Josef Fritzl, the incestuous imprisoner of his own daughter, with Connie/Marjorie/Kelly, a woman who, like Maxine Carr, is an unwitting accomplice to the murder of two 12 year old girls by her partner, and who is continually moved around the country under different identities for her protection.

Unlike others who have seen Relocated, I wasn’t disturbed by the ethics of the direct references to current events, although perhaps I should have been. The jarring effect of employing and distorting recognisable news stories wasn’t (for me, anyway) a question of “going too far”; but I did think it was exploitative. What bothered me was how the references literalised the play: they give the mind a handle of explanation which is then, despite variants and wandering storylines, impossible to ignore. The show is hamstrung by the kind of tabloid sensationalist banality which (perhaps) it seeks to critique.

The most effective moments are when the production is most restrained. There is a domestic scene, for instance, when one partner talks about children "upstairs" needing a bath, while the other, shocked, denies that they have any children at all. This moment, and a few others like it, begin to generate a genuine unease, a sense of dislocated, amnesiac identity; but this is hijacked almost immediately by the sudden flagging of contemporary news stories: a topicality, if you like, that erases relevance. It left me on the surface of things grappling with “issues”, rather than underneath the skin, grubbing about in the subconscious.

I suppose I might have liked to see something like the poise in Henry James's brilliant horror story The Turn of the Screw, which is a text so finely balanced that it is impossible to know whether it is a ghost story or an account by a sexually neurotic and destructive woman. Neilson might claim that he is challenging such elegance: certainly Relocated is full of loose ends. But for my money, rather than challenging the idea of narrative causality, these end up merely drifting, creating neither a dramatic narrative nor an oneiric anti-narrative, but rather something with a bet each way.

That sense of scrappiness no doubt emerges from Neilson's process, which is to devise texts during rehearsals. There's nothing in principle wrong with this, but in this production it's hard to see what the advantage is: effectively you have a play that works in the same ways other plays do, but without the benefit of reflective writing time. There are lyrical moments - for example, Connie's recorded assertion of her identity towards the end - that certainly reach towards very writerly ambitions.

And perhaps, too, I had been told too often that it was frightening. I avoid horror films, being rather too vulnerable to suspenseful sound effects and sudden leaps on the protagonist out of shadowy doorways, and I was prepared to have to steady my nerves with a stiff drink afterwards. And, rather to my disappointment, it didn't frighten me at all. The lighting design uses the effect of total blackout a few times too often. While at first it exerts its disorientating power, leaving you with that curious sense that your body's boundaries are now amorphous, by the fourth or fifth blackout it was, for all the inventiveness of Nick Powell’s soundscape of children’s cries and atmospheric electronic noises, just sitting in the dark, waiting for the next scene.

Neilson’s direction, imaginative and precise though it is, suffers from a sense of repetitiveness: not the repetition of scenes as variations, an aspect I found interesting, but from a rather unvarying directorial rhythm. (Reveal, hide, reveal, hide, more darkness…) I suspect this was a major reason I found myself checking my watch, which is a bad sign in a 90 minute show. But I think what primarily prompted my post-show irritation was a feeling of emptiness: for all the physical sensorium it provided, the production never connected into any deeper poetic recognition. I didn't feel anything.

Before the show, I bought the script of Marius von Mayenberg's The Ugly One - presently on in a return season downstairs at the Royal Court - and I read it on the way home. It makes a striking contrast to Relocated, because Mayenberg understands the value and strictness of theatrical metaphor. The Ugly One is, oddly enough, another essay on identity, a wickedly funny and painful exploration of the meaning of the face. I suppose there is a value in being annoyed - it doesn't in truth happen very often - but I couldn't help wishing I had seen Mayenberg's play instead.

Picture: Jan Pearson in Relocated at the Royal Court. Photo: Johan Persson


Andrew Haydon said...

Damnit that's good. Think you nailed precisely my issue with it without having to go through a review and two follow-up notes to get there. Consider me jealous. :-)

Alison Croggon said...

Many thanks, good sir: although of course my review, being late in the season, was preceded by many conversations, which no doubt helps on the clarifying front. Now facing up, on this lazy Sunday afternoon, to the much harder task of articulating why I liked Chris Goode's ...Sisters so much...