Monday, May 3, 2010

The Blue Room

The Blue Room (David Hare)
Guild Theater
April 2010

Coming out of The Blue Room, I had the most embarrassing moment of the evening: when making small talk to a Theatre Academic I incoherently muddled something about it not being as political as I expected. Cue the obligatory “Not Political?!” question that sat much more awkwardly in space than any of the play. This review is as much an attempt to puzzle out my own reaction as to praise the quality of the performance. Because of course, The Blue Room is inherently political – it’s just the politics at times did not speak to me as they perhaps should.

The Blue Room was adapted by David Hare from some Arthur Schnitzler dialogues written at the turn of the twentieth century dealing with the sexual relationships between various couples. Hare wrote a two-person show that explored sexual encounters between men and women in contemporary society. For this production the director took the unusual step of ten actors fulfilling the ten roles.

The large cast of this production was incredibly talented. Ensemble casts are difficult to manage, but this one was excellent and using them to form the structure of the play gave a beautiful symmetry to the performance. Each realisation reflected a great deal of character work and was realised on stage with flair. It was a pleasure to become absorbed into their encounters. But perhaps we could have become too captivated in their humanity for a broader political critique?

In her director notes Sara-Tabitha Catchpole writes of her interest in approaching the work from a “feminist methodology.” It was certainly a commentary on the politics of the body between the sexes. Yet, at times it was as if the particular character traits and circumstance could explain away the encounter. We became too involved in each of the crafted characters and their distilled situation to the extent that seeing the entire play as a feminist commentary was could be undermined.

In seeing each character as a separate identity, it allowed us to become perhaps too endearing towards the Student, too sympathetic for the Au Pair, too dismissive of the Model, because the fact that they are one and the same was not visually there a constant reminder. Double casting characters is a theatrical convention that de-familiarises what is on stage to highlight a political agenda. I feel that in the strength of character acting there was an ‘Everywoman and Everyman’ dynamic that was missing. Casting the same actress as a The Girl, The Au Pair, The Married Woman, The Model, and The Actress really would have slammed home with a sting the roles that the women are positioned into by the men. Then again the audience would then have missed out on such a variety of impressive performances! Beware the annoying reviewer with a theatre studies degree who is arguing with herself because however you produce this work the body-politic informs the performance and that dynamic did come across strongly.

Now, to return to the quality of this show and how impressed I was: not only with the actors but with the experience as a Theatrical Event. (Yes, it deserves the capitalisation). It was a constantly, surprising the audience into laughter or poignant reflection. At one point as The Playwright sings a song to impress The Model the entire cast joined in for the chorus and it was one of the most beautiful moments I have ever experienced in the theatre. Absolutely wonderful singing and it served as the one point to me where these characters were all connected. I had goose bumps and shivers and it was completely unexpected.

Back to politics, I just want to quickly touch on what I think was the root of my embarrassing moment. This production claimed a political aesthetic with its impressive sets and tricolour vigour. As somebody whose parents survived Thatcherism; still holds British citizenship; is attuned to British politics and was raised on the Alternative Comedy that bit into Conservatism with such sharp teeth in the 80s: I really wanted this piece to say something about Modern England. I am not convinced that it did that. London 1998? Wherever this play was set it would be political, and it most certainly was, but an aesthetic is not just a backdrop to the action of the play. It should inform the action of the play. I wanted Thatcher, I wanted Major, I wanted Blair and I wanted Brown. I think that this is what I reacted against this with my justifiably poorly-received remarks after the show!

“There are two types of woman” the politician states to his wife, and as a feminist I stand alongside Sara-Tabitha Catchpole’s production when I say – bullshit. There are no “types of woman” – only the categories and labels and that men construct to justify their sexual relationships. This is fully apparent in The Blue Room. So to the ‘crazy angry socialist alternative girl’ I say “up yours” and to the director of this remarkable show I say “Looking forward to reading your thesis!”