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Features Published 21 February 2014

Welcome to Glitterland

A group review of Secret Theatre Show 4.

Catherine Love

Dan Hutton: After a break of two months, perhaps a slight shift in tone was to be expected from the Secret Theatre ensemble, who already have a knack for surprise. That didn’t stop me being slightly taken aback by the shift in approach, however, that comes with Show Four. The ensemble seem to have mellowed a little since the last time we saw them, performing an intense and detailed adaptation, penned by Hayley Squires, of a Jacobean revenge tragedy – John Webster’s The White Devil – which bubbles furiously for a couple of hours. I have to admit that, due to my experience of the other shows, it took me a while to warm to this quieter, more “mature” production, and I resisted letting myself go with it for a while.

As soon as I allowed it to soak into me, however, I found myself giving into its charm. The plot, bizarrely, became less important than the feelings it evoked, and I soon realised that the scenes almost acted as playlets in themselves. Unusually for me, I found myself just enjoying the relationships between these brilliantly realised characters, not least between the central pairing of Hammed Animashaun and Leo Bill, who sit on a fence between riotous and repugnant. Mostly, however, I was impressed by just how fully a post-apocalyptic world had been realised by Ellen McDougall’s direction, even though we simply had a couple of walls and some bodies in a space. I got a sense of a far wider context, with strange drugs and corrupt governments, which only added to the oppression. More than anything, it’s that sinister, claustrophobic atmosphere which has stayed with me, causing me to look slightly differently at structures around me and their respective futures.

Did the politics of the piece have the same effect on both of you?

Stewart Pringle: To be honest, not really. Though I totally agree about the effectiveness of Hyemi Shin’s design and McDougall’s direction to suggest a larger world with minimal fuss, I didn’t find the setting of Glitterland to be sufficiently cohesive. There’s an undeniable attractiveness to that marriage of Hollywood glamour and fascism, the sparkly Hugo Boss-ness of that gave the opening section real verve, but I just felt it all but vanished long before the conclusion. What was the world supposed to tell us about our own? That a reliance on shiny surface and product can disguise terrible political machinery? It’s a fair point, but it’s a bit Adorno-by-numbers, and I didn’t feel Squires’ script went sufficiently far in advancing it or telling us anything new. The action felt remote from any outside world, and while that’s natural for a revenge tragedy like this, it pulls against the political implications of the world Squires has created. I kept wondering where the ordinary people were.

What they were watching? Beyond a few oblique references, the “proles”, the non-courtiers whose existence is surely key to any coherent political world, felt totally absent and irrelevant. All of this sounds very nit-picky, but Secret Theatre have created some serious expectations for themselves as a company of artists, and when they produce something that often felt a lot like an interchangeable modern dress revenge tragedy it’s just a bit … blah … you know?

One thing which I did just absolutely love and that I’ve ended up thinking of pretty much every few hours since I saw it was the visual language they used for the weaponry. Bloodied hands standing in for guns was surprising, intelligent, moving, brave – all the things I want to see from Secret Theatre. To reject that horrendous fetishisation of cool, precision engineered machinery and strip it back to the raw blood and violence that those weapons cause was one of the most intensely humane and politically thrilling bits of stagecraft I’ve seen in years. The pre-assassination scene where Sergo Vares’ Franco manipulated blood into pipettes and canisters with all the dreadful professionalism of a Leon-esque hit-man was perfectly judged and genuinely harrowing. I’m as anti-guns as the next bloke who spent his teenage years racking up frags on Quake, and it really troubles me that I find weaponry grimly fascinating – the engineering of it, the heft and the power – so to see all of that glossy machismo replaced with an undeniable reminder of its consequences was just incredible. So yeah, massive points to McDougall and the company for that … That’s going to be my go-to example of metonymical genius for YEARS to come.

Secret Theatre Show 4

Secret Theatre Show 4

Catherine Love: I’m afraid I’m going to have to agree with Stewart and confess that the politics of it left very little impact on me. I was absolutely drawn in by the sparkling, seductive strangeness of the world that the piece slowly, almost teasingly constructs – there’s something kind of brilliant about the way in which it leaves us fumbling for a foothold in the early scenes, as the logic of Glitterland is established bit by tiny bit – but I didn’t find that world unsettling in the way it was perhaps reaching for. My impression of the piece was more of the surface sheen that characterises both State and Star  (because, as its name suggests, politics and entertainment are often one and the same in Glitterland) than of the claustrophobic atmosphere that you describe, Dan. For me, the performance always remains at one remove.

Which isn’t by any means to deny the many fantastic things that it does. I was also struck by the visual metaphor for weaponry; it hinted at a metaphorical theatrical language that I think the company could have pushed further in this piece, but even by itself it was startling and brilliant. The playful use of music, which has felt so vital throughout the Secret Theatre season, alternately snatched my breath away and left me shaking with laughter. And though you’ve both already mentioned Shin’s deceptively simple design, I found Lizzie Powell’s lighting absolutely integral to the creation of this world – whether it’s a diagonal shaft of light casting long, nightmarish shadows, or a pulsing strobe that shifts both scene and tone in an instant.

What I suppose was missing for me was a sense of confrontation. I was neither thrown back in my seat by the thrilling theatricality of it all nor left squirming by the uncomfortable proximity of the material. Interestingly, for all the fresh energy that Squires injects into her adaptation, I think on reflection that I watched it in much the same enthralled yet distanced way that I typically watch Jacobean revenge tragedies. Sure, there’s something gripping about the intricate machinations and furious passions, but it all feels a bit remote, and that’s how I felt throughout most of this production. I kept expecting to see the rift, for the company to crack the whole thing open and expose the grit behind the glitter – or maybe “the people” sitting in front of the screen – but it never quite happens.

Dan Hutton: Catherine, I completely agree with you that there could have been more of that metaphorical theatrical language that we’ve seen so much of in the season so far, especially seeing as those moments always tended to be the most exciting. I kept wanting the company to push it a step further, to go where they hadn’t gone before. And though, as you say, the technical aspects of these productions are getting stronger and stronger (Powell’s lighting design is one of the best I’ve seen in a while), something seemed to be holding this production back at times. I’m interested in why it felt this way. Have the company mellowed slightly in the Christmas break?

Or is it something to do with the show’s status as an “adaptation”? And how does our response to it change if we know it’s not a wholly “original” play? I didn’t work out that this was a version of another text until the interval (I did very well avoiding spoilers this time), meaning that I viewed the whole of the first act as a “new play”; I wonder whether this is why I enjoyed the second half more.

I’m reminded of German State Theatre’s obsession with classics – Greek, German and Western in that order – and wonder how well this style of working and presenting lends itself to new plays. I enjoyed Shows Three and One, but neither of them had the same raw, powerful effect on me as the company’s take on Streetcar. To this end, do we have to be aware that it’s an adaptation to appreciate the work that is being done?

Stewart Pringle: For me, Glitterland seemed to exist in a slightly strange position in relation to The White Devil. Its distance from the text never felt sufficiently or satisfactorily established, and while there could be a great tension to be exploited in that, somehow I didn’t feel it. I think it was probably something to do with a lack of rigour. The revenge cycle structure of The White Devil seems poorly chosen to hang the story of a totalitarian state on, the play’s language of a sort of ancient feminine vengeance is entirely shorn, and there’s not a lot left of the vice masquerading as virtue. Though Squires’ play brings up a host of new ideas, they just don’t seem to add very much to the Webster.

And the mash up of original text and new writing, though leading to some great moments of sudden sweary jaggedness, left it dangling between two worlds. Put bluntly, I didn’t really understand why it had come into being. As good as certain moments were, the whole felt out of sorts with itself.  Both Streetcar and Woyzeck felt purposeful, even in their least successful moments; here there was greater fluidity, but at the cost of both thoughtfulness and force.

Catherine Love: Here is where I have to admit that I’m not familiar with the Webster, so I can’t really judge the “success” of the adaptation (whatever that might mean) or the slippage between original and new. What I do think is interesting, however – and Dan’s points raise this too – is the notion of expectations. For me, this is one of the most fascinating aspects of the “secret” bit of Secret Theatre. By keeping details under wraps, the company force audiences to re-examine the ways in which their expectations influence their theatregoing experiences and the extent to which new productions of well-known texts are nailed to received ideas of what they should look like in performance. I found this particularly powerful in the first two shows, which managed to largely strip a pair of classic texts of their accumulated cultural baggage and slam them on the stage as if they were brand new.

An adaptation, however, attracts a slightly different series of expectations than a new production of a classic text, which are different again from the expectations that attend a new play. The adaptation perhaps sits less comfortably in this context than the other two, as its status is more ambiguous.

This production certainly carried a fair amount of ambiguity; it could read like a new play, but there were definitely moments where old and new snagged on one another (I personally quite enjoyed those moments), creating a certain tension and unease. But is that a problem? And are we so used to being equipped with a certain level of information at the outset that we now need to know a production’s relationship to its text in order to appreciate – to borrow Dan’s words – the particular work that is being done by it? I don’t really have any answers, but I think it’s interesting. There is also, while we’re on expectations, the issue of what we’ve come to expect from this company. Four productions into the season now, are we looking for a certain aesthetic or approach to text from Secret Theatre?

Dan Hutton: I think at the beginning of the season, I certainly did. Being perfectly honest, I wanted shows which took a similar approach to Three Kingdoms, and I don’t think I was the only one. What we’ve got so far, however, is more complex than that, as the shows have each been approached on their own terms, with a sense of play and rigour in equal measure. It feels like the Secret Theatre ensemble keep surprising themselves as much as their audience, and we still won’t really be able to gauge the “success” of the whole endeavour until the year is out. Perhaps part of me has been disappointed by both of the attempts at new plays, as they seem to have taken fairly “conventional” approach when staging them, but then it’s difficult to tell; for all we know, the performed text could be worlds away from the written play. I guess, fundamentally, I want the shows to approach text – whether a new play or a classic – with a cheeky anarchism; I think that’s the best way they can fulfil their desire “not to be boring”.

Stewart Pringle: I agree with that. And yes, Three Kingdoms felt like the early spark for this season and I’d have liked to see a little more of its DNA running through the pieces (and particularly through Glitterland). I like Dan’s “cheeky anarchism” phrase, and I think it’s when the company veers furthest into the realms of the polished and the beautiful that they do get a little bit boring. The Secret Theatre manifesto insists that “confusion can be revealing” and that “failure can be just as instructive as success” – but there didn’t seem to be much room for confusion or opportunity for “failure” in Glitterland.

Secret Theatre Show 4 is at the Lyric until 8th March 2014.

Read the Exeunt group review of Secret Theatre Show 3.

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Catherine Love

Catherine is a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic. She writes regularly for titles including The Guardian, The Stage and WhatsOnStage. She is also currently an AHRC funded PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, pursuing research into the relationship between text and performance in 21st century British theatre.

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