The Barbican Theatre, London
9th November 2012. 19.45
There’s a bare tree on the stage, and old bearded bloke in a bowler hat lying at the foot. Check the tickets, we seem to have walked into Waiting for Godot. Yes, plain white wall at the back. It must be. Another bloke wanders on and stands there gormlessly. Have we got the wrong day?
A long, long 100 minutes later the tree is covered with red balloons. But it wasn’t Godot. Godot might be the greatest play of the 20th century. A warning, this is the most negative review I have written on this blog. One feels guilt at pouring vitriol on people’s efforts. I’m going to quote the critic A.A. Gill. We saw him at Cheltenham Literary Festival. He spoke, then an audience member said one of A.A. Gill’s restaurant reviews had bankrupted his restaurant and put him out of business. Gill asked which gastropub it was, then said it was absolutely just. The guy was taking £40 to £50 a head and selling appalling food with bad service. You deserved to go bankrupt, he said. This 100 minutes of so-called “theatre”, Forests, involved £35 a head, a full day, an overnight stay, and a meal. We devoted that time and money based on advance reviews. We were into over £1 a minute of this nonsense each. We are entitled, not to put too fine a point on it, to call shite “shite”. To let this production go past without attacking it is an insult to the stuff we praise.
This production got four stars from The Guardian and The Independent, apparently. The Emperor’s New Clothes, for this was the most toweringly pretentious, misconceived production I have seen on any stage, professional or amateur, since the 1970s, when pretentious tripe was sadly quite common. There was a week of avant-garde theatre at The Nuffield in Southampton in the late 70s which was full of it. We had been recording an audio tape for a text book just two weeks earlier. We walked into the theatre and there was a male actor in a dirty mac at each door. As you came in, as we did with friends, the actor opened his mac and thrust his penis forward. You have to look at it involuntarily. I did, then looked at his face, a guy I’d spent five days with in the recording studio. “Hello, Nigel!” I said cheerfully. My friends gave me very funny looks. My memory tells me that Principal Edward’s Magic Theatre in 1970 were even more pretentious, but I may be maligning them unjustly.
The mantra that publicity repeats is Shakespeare-Shocking-Nudity-Violence! Shocking nudity? Try the three elderly ladies naked at the gates of a concentration camp in the fantasy sequence in Hysteria earlier in 2012. Violence? How about the soldiers leading off MacDuff’s young daughter in the RSC’s 2011 Macbeth … and that’s violence in the imagination too. The nudity in Forests was just people without clothes on. The violence was just silly. There was a lot of people climbing on top of each other and writhing about. The director (see below) takes pride in “shocking” audiences. People of his persuasion look back at the reception of masterpieces of the then avant-garde like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, or Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Picasso’s La Guernica and pompously assume that critical castigation is a sign of their own worth and talent. They don’t look to the true turkeys: Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, or John and Yoko’s Two Virgins album. That was sent to the critics with a blank side two (either in error or on purpose) and true to form, the critics sat down, listened and reviewed twenty minutes of a stylus in a blank groove. Yoko Ono would have called that an event, I guess, and it was probably manipulated, and it was funny. They should have sent it to The Guardian and Independent and got four stars. Like this turkey.
We were interested at pulling out the concept of “The forest” in Shakespeare and in investigating its psychic role. That’s what it said on the packet. There’s potential from Arden and the forest in Midsummer Night’s Dream to the blasted heaths of Macbeth and King Lear. Forest did not necessarily signify trees … the New Forest was and is mainly heath. Even Cardenio has a forest section, with shepherds bent on rape. They missed that one, which would have fitted the theme. Anyway, that’s why we bought tickets.
Forests shows some of Shakespeare’s various scenes in forests muddled together from As You Like It via Macbeth and Midsummer Night’s Dream and bits of Titus Andronicus and Timon of Athens and King Lear. It must have been a major task to learn lines. Many actors say you learn them because one line is the inevitable consequence of the previous one, so the better the script the easier it is. As I could detect little logical thread, it must have been a nightmare for them. They mix it all together, they alternate between English and Catalan … not Castilian Spanish, Catalan … and just in case you’re finding it hard to follow, they have a running English text translation which differs considerably from what the actors are saying in English pretty often. The actors are correct in all the cases I recognized. I’ve enjoyed seeing a play in Spanish in Madrid, without understanding much, and I once sat through a three hour play in Turkish (directed by a friend) in Istanbul. So the Catalan didn’t faze me, but I still think it a bad idea. Also it was at least 75 – 80% in English, which makes you think, ‘Why bother switching?’ I understood the Turkish play (I speak not a word of Turkish) better than this … pretty well in fact. As Calixto Bieito’s name is ABOVE the title, we presume he assembled the hodge podge of a script as well as the weak concept. What next? A completely random collection of Shakespeare extracts mentioning money? Or appearance? Or possibly Shakespeare’s mentions of hosiery (you could squeeze gratuitous nudity into that one, and violence too)?
There were no signposts to tell you where you are, nor which play they’re currently murdering, and it’s a jumble. It sounds much better when the actors are in Catalan, because no one on the stage shows any talent for delivering Shakesperean lines in English whatsoever. Catalan appears to be a very loud language. Maybe the extreme ham acting is Catalan style, but it infects all the performances. As well as a muddled, silly concept, this director hasn’t the first clue on directing actors. The “All The world’s a stage” speech is ludicrously overdone, and reminded me of watching 17 year olds’ audition pieces. Yes, try and milk the lines, but there is a limit and a point where it sounds like a Monty Python piss-take on actors milking lines, as it does here. Also, if your projection is weak in row E, it must be very hard to hear at the back. Actors have to take what jobs are going, and you can’t do much with a bad concept, script and director. So the cast come across as uniformly dreadful, as is much of the live music.
Some bits of pretension just miss being funny, unfortunately. You do want to laugh at the poor bugger who spends five minutes climbing up and down the back of the set wearing a short black frock with a bucket on his head. First he had to switch clothes with a female actor. OK, gender switching … Rosalind, Viola, it figures. He didn’t look bad in a black frock either, and we agreed he was then the only good-looking “girl’ on stage. But can any of these four-star review critics explain the point, or the virtue, of a bloke in a frock with a bucket on his head silently climbing up and down a white flat in the background? Please comment. I really would love an explanation.
Then he gets to take his shirt off and wander around forlornly with a sabre. Then he gets blinded and gets to wander around dolefully hand in hand with a blindfold. Finally he gets to stand still with a briefcase on his head. This is supposed to be deeply meaningful.
Then there’s the real Catalan Godot bearded bloke who spends most of the night gazing sadly with his gob hanging open at the action. Comparing him to a character from Godot is extreme. He looks more like one of the tragic clowns from Slava’s Snow Show who’s wandered lugubriously onto the wrong set. Towards the end he starts recording lines on an open reel recorder and playing them back. Don’t worry working out why. You can see him on the programme cover which would deceive you into thinking the play interestingly lit. All the photos in the programme look interestingly lit. Having done much work on lights, I’ve watched bad plays and enjoyed the lighting plot. This has not got a good lighting plot, but a good stills photographer was employed for the publicity, and was the most talented person involved with it. Well, it deceived us.
Calixto Bieito’s wife, Roser Cami, is a leading role. She gets to be stapled (with tiny staples) to a flat, have her pants pulled down and her skirt up, and stand naked from the waist down, pubes facing the audience for at least ten minutes with Duct tape over her mouth. Once she gets her pants on she drops her dress top and has her tits revealed for twenty minutes, during which she stands at the back simulating being raped with her breasts wobbling. Then she gets to wipe a bloody sabre over her naked top for extra fun. You’d think it degrading to the actor. Whatever gets the Bieitos off, I guess. Reviews said it was shockingly violent. Shockingly daft, more like.
Oh, additions. Yes ‘Poor Ophelia. Poor fucking Ophelia’ is designed to shock, but you just think, ‘oh, that was designed to shock. Pathetic.’ As were the pubes, the tits, and the fact that they spend a lot of time crawling around in a great mound of soil.
The music was mainly awful, but we did think the singer / guitarist did well with singing Lady Macbeth. The song was the high point of a dreadful play, but then she gets a plastic bag put over her head and gets thrown into the pile of charcoal. We wanted to say, ‘Hey! Wait! That was the only decent … no, that’s too strong … acceptable … bit of the evening.’ We were also worried about her breathing.
They wisely did not have an interval. Even at £35 a ticket, we would both have gone straight back to the hotel to watch Have I Got News For You, or even the adverts, rather than stay.
This production, funded by the Spanish Embassy and the Barcelona district shows that pretentious twerps like Bietio can fool Spanish bureaucrats into believing that this tosh is meaningful. with that Shakespeare-Violence-Nudity-Shocking mantra, AND pick up multiple awards. It’s not a good idea for tourism, we made a mental note, “When passing through Barcelona avoid any theatrical production whatsoever. It will be crap.” This was part of the World Shakespeare Festival 2012. They have the RSC logo in the programme. How can the RSC allow that? How such an appalling piece can get on a great stage like The Barbican is beyond me. This is deeply pretentious, deeply inept, deeply muddled. I loathed every minute of it. Bietio, being a man with zero theatrical talent, yet lauded with an enormous pile of European awards for his “talent” will take this as the highest praise. On the Guardian review he says:
“I feel welcome here, even when people boo me,” he says. Even the critical drubbing bounces off. “I don’t think too much about it. There are far more important things to worry about – such as the situation in my country. The fact that we do not know where Federico Garcia Lorca is buried; the fact that Franco’s buildings and monuments are still allowed to stand – this is a real cultural obscenity, not some nudity in an opera.”
Yeah, right, Calixto, go for it. That’s the answer to the economic problems: pull your clothes off and go and demolish a few railway stations. It’s a total waste of money in production, a total waste of our time and money going to see it. Amusingly one review said people walked out mid-way due to the impact of the Shakespeare-Violence-Nudity-Shocking nature. No, no, these were just people with theatrical taste escaping.
The trouble with the Barbican is that it’s a concrete maze, and it takes 15 minutes to find your way in and out. We feared being caught and having to watch it again the next day. It wasn’t full, and I have to say people in the audience speaking in Spanish (or Catalan) appeared to enjoy it, and there were quite a few. But I guess if I lived in Barcelona, I’d be pleased to see any stage play, however bad, in English.