Liberate the Poet!

In the end, a Shakespeare-related `online theatre` experience that is worth recounting, comes this way. And an artist of substance was needed to shift this new phenomenon into a measure of careful thinking as well as performance. With the Zoom version of his I, Cinna (The Poet) `under the direction` of Naomi Wirthner for Unicorn Theatre, Tim Crouch comes to explore this new `district` with intensity, grace, and — fatefully, poetic sensitivity.

Finally, not a crowded screen where `unthought` actions and untameable words squeeze the wish of connecting in times of isolation into an antsy sequence of noises landing into boredom. Crouch’s choice is simple because it is thought: the encounter happens on `stage` — webinar mode, precisely as in a `normal` theatre. The broad vision, not just an `undirected` focus on his face, betray a study on how to play the role of actor into long and short plans. Also, it does not forget `scenic` props: a desk, a laptop — perpetual connection with the outside world, a sealed room, a coat, a kettle, a smartphone. Especially, though, a pen and paper.

Right, because at the heart of this `play` are the words. It is possible to access the `theatre room` about half an hour before, and you will see him struggling with an empty log where words just cannot stick. Help is required from an audience. And the audience comes. First of all he reads all the names of the `attendees`, — mine included, and explains how the connection with the virtual `fourth wall` will be established, way up until the moment that — at the end only, and this is not a minor detail, those present will be turned into `participants`. This being the moment he likes the most.

This `script` — fifth in the I, Shakespeare series, including I, Malvolio, I, Banquo, I, Caliban, I, Peaseblossom, formerly composed for Jude Owusu in a 2012 RSC production, takes out from Julius Caesar a minor character with an inauspicious fate. Already revived by Crouch himself as an actor last February, Justin Audibert, artistic director of the London theatre still producing it, ended up convincing him to set up this new version.

Conceived for a solo performer, this brilliant text offers Crouch the chance to stand out for narrative mastery and dialogic capability, especially with the youngest in the `virtual audience`. It is to them, as a matter of fact, that he asks primarily to raise the `virtual hand` and interact — in a few, essential moments, via Q&A. This one is a reflection on life, its specific `gravity`, in-between two deaths: the one of the `dictator`, — literally he who dictates the words, bearer of a crown of king in the bosom of a republic which cannot take off (neither then, nor now, nor anywhere) and the one of the wrong Cinna, not the conspirator, but the poet. Killed not once but twice: in the flesh and in his property of thinker of the beautiful and the just. His words suffocated by a crowd calling him `out` because he cannot and does not want to `live in brackets`. An almost unbelievable echo of the current events which arguably could be of help to the intensity of the final product.

All, in this `theatrical interaction` Crouch sets up, aims to activating — thus keeping Cinna (both the real one, and the symbolic one) alive, the poetic capability inhabiting each and every one of us. Some sort of `poetising`, so to speak, generating a `philosophising` in the simplest of manners. He builds the latter up from the smallest of words — those which are `slaves` to other words, moves ahead to the words which exist already, — `substance words` or things, carries on to the words which `give meanings` to other words, — adjectives, up to the words which did not exist until we gave them a name — abstract concepts.

It is into this `republic` of words that the `conceptualisation` actually begins. `What would you die for? What would you kill for?`. These are the questions entrusted to the audience, giving them time to reflect and share. Especially the youngest. The cast Crouch’s `theatrising` is made from stands precisely into the closeness to the people attending, and this paradoxical contingency makes that happen here in an even more pertinent manner despite the real distance.

Some documentary `interludes`, — images of social turmoils forwarning the fall of the `king`, formerly conceived for the backdrop in a real theatre, become here part of the `narrative performance`, contributing to giving breath to this `live video`. Undoubtedly are to be blessed the gods of internet for having been so benevolent in the course of this particular encore, and having prevented from any `bad connection` to occur. The news about Caesar’s death comes on TV after the reflections on life and its specific `gravity`, and it cannot but revolutionise Cinna’s unnatural claustrophobic present, his own poet’s vocational property calling him to go out into the world in order to `poetise`, as there cannot be poetry without exiting.

Have you ever felt like that? Like brackets. 
(I’m in brackets to real life.) 
Do you understand? Brackets

This is how he embraces his destiny of death by cause of homonymy. It will be the audience’s duty to honour his act, — by means of the `reflected words` and the just manifested action, with an intimate yet communal poem to be composed along a five minutes silence bringing all those present close, even though far away and invisible to one another. Valediction and gratitude come from Cinna’s `ghost`. Thereafter, `curtain`. The most touching moment for us is the one Crouch himself likes the most. The brief one when lights are back on the `room`, out of the webinar mode, to shift gracefully, just for a few, gracious minutes, in the meeting mode.

Smiling, waving to each other, recognising each other, all seems to be a mutual gift that each participant delivers — indeed, as a `statement of presence`, before getting back, all of us, into our own republic.

Seen online on July 14 2020

Monumental or not?

An unexplored territory — Anthony and Cleopatra. The chance given by an online `première` at the National Theatre At Home, re-proposing (in the midst of a `new British order of the theatre` witnessing a real Shakes-boom) hence comes overly welcome. The two stars — on stage for their debut end 2018 at the Oliver Theatre, are Ralph Fiennes, and Sophie Okonedo, under the direction of Simon Godwin.

Quite a crucial concept, the one of `star`, as on the boards of the most majestic theatre of the three hosted inside the unmistakable brutalist building, foremost the most famous performers in the British `entertainment industry` have been acting since its birth. A `cinematographic theatre`, — one might say, also somehow a `TV theatre`, given the consolidated, at this point, golden age of series.

Far from disappointing expectations, it is the movable mechanism designed by Hildegard Bechtler to `sustain` the unsustainable lack of Aristotelian unities, which, in this Shakespeare, is amplified between two opposite worlds the whole narrative structure is built upon. Egypt — symbol of a strange exoticism reaching up to licentiousness, and Rome — symbol of a strange version of a frozen, not yet republican, reasonableness.

The scenographic, and narrative movability, with the assistance of constant, musical intermissions, — hiding, whilst underlining, the sudden as much as embarrassing changes in space, tells the story of the two lovers in the most cinematographic possible way. A mood contemporary costumes are also of assistance for, in a super-technological idea of `war`, recalling the Gulf two, both in colors, and number of military `sequins`.

The first director’s choice is to get into the plot from the end. The lifeless body of the `gypsy` queen, whose lust transformed the valorous combatant into a `strumpet’s fool`. A transformation that has no fear to be seen from everyone, and by everyone to be judged. So here it is another cinema-related topic: Antony and Cleopatra, or it would be better to say Cleopatra and Antony, act the role of `celebrities`, as theirs is a `public` passion.

That is how we enter from the `E-gyptian` side of the dual movable world, into this monumental staging, wind and violins, with the couple playing around a pool as adolescents. They notice the audience — indeed, eyes on their play, and they begin to entertain them. Fiennes is absolutely perfect: no need to pass through rehearsal room, he seems to have landed straight from the set of A Bigger Splash, at least outfit wise.

The melancholic countenance of Okonedo, though, and a voice almost achingly sharp (but it is possibly the video), seems to be little apt to embody the humoral sensuality of the icon she has to perform. More than apt, however, for the most intimately lacerating moments — `Give me some music!`. The chemistry, all in all, is not a `movie` one. Nevertheless, we must not forget we are into a theatre, even if a `national` one, the latter imposing a compelling question.

Does a production of `Antony and Cleopatra` need to be monumental? Though not quite axiomatically as in a 1960s-bob-hair-scintillating-cobra-tiaras manner? Why not focus on less to find out more in the precious folds of the script? A question that might perhaps become a message in the bottle to be entrusted to the waves of a `Shakespearealist` movement currently living in social media at the time of lock down. Hopefully beyond that.

A question addressed to all those who have seen, or thought, in the past, and might imagine, in the future (because not lovers of this expansion of cinema into theatre, not even in times of need — as it is now), a minor version. Some different manner to cut out `pearls` from an extreme vastitude (even for the most inveterate bardolators), some adherence to the canon capable of `playing` with the canon, answering questions it consistently offers.

Pearls that here too are, of course, revealed (how couldn’t it be so?): Fiennes will remain memorable for the Bacchanal in the venter of what might be a nuclear submarine, as well as for the almost adolescent embarrassment opposite to Octavia (a brilliant Hannah Morrish), his true love ever present even if absent, — but it seems to be seeing her, as a shadow possessing him. A feverish `frenziness` willing to, but unable to, conjugate the two worlds. And the two bodies neither.

sophie_okonedo_in_antony_cleopatra-Photo by Johan Persson
© Johan Persson