Nazis and Latvian Politics: Remembrance Day at The Royal Court Theatre

A band of merry playgoers from ATC HQ were lucky enough to catch Remembrance Day at The Royal Court last weekend.  The play in question is part of the international playwrights’ season at in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, and centres on – wait for it – the politics of Latvia.  Possibly not the most promising of subjects on the face of it.  Too often have I seen productions which produce a notion of ‘political’ which seems biased, heavy-handed, obtuse or in worst cases just plain dull.  Take the National Theatre’s recent production of Büchner’s Danton’s Death, centering on the French Revolution’s year of terror in 1794It was strong in design and sense of place, but the script itself, translated by a usually top-notch Howard Brenton, was cut-down to its bare bones.  It focused the action exclusively on the main protagonists, removing the public scenes of the original text: the huge Olivier stage felt empty and underused.  It was all rather wordy and sombre.

But not so in the case of Remembrance Day.  The script focuses on a Russian-Latvian family living in a tower-block, next door to the ailing grandfather of the family who fought against the Nazis on behalf of Russia in the second world war.  Down the corridor from this family lives another ailing old man – but this time a Latvian one – who fought against the Russians during the war. It is a little know fact, and quite a shocking one, that the Latvian people joined forces with the Nazis in the war to fend off the Russians.  Their allegiance was formed in a desperate attempt to defend their home land rather than because of connection with Nazi propaganda, never-the-less the idea still remains a potentially chilling one.  The ‘Remembrance Day’ of the title refers to the (now abolished) annual festival day when the Latvian Legion commemorates their history. 

What is so expertly handled in Michael Longhurt’s play, written by Aleksey Scherbak, is the delicacy with which these issues are explored, without feeling in any way sensationalised.  The play is finely translated into English by Rory Mullarkey, and the set design and very British actors play the family scenes as if they come from a contemporary home anywhere in the UK.  This makes for an uncanny feeling of familiarity with the family.  Indeed, if you were not aware of the setting, the fact that these people are actually speaking Russian and live in Latvia would not be apparent until further along in the play when the brother runs off to do his English homework.  The political argument between the radical pro-Russian faction and the more liberal view is played out in this domestic relationship between daughter and her father.  The father is equally concerned with his daughter’s possible sexual relationship with the radical political group leader as he is with her hard-line political stance against the Latvian celebrations.  This is a recognisable exploration of family dynamics as much as it is a subtle exposition on contemporary politics.  The familiarity this creates between audience and stage is the strength of this production.

This dramaturgical technique of exploring the foreign with the known, understood and personal cuts at the heart of the political issues it explores.  The Latvian and Russian-Latvian factions, it argues, are just two communities who are essentially very similar: German allegiance was a lamentable past occurrence but should be forgiven and moved past in the present situation.  The audience is cleverly maneuvered to replay and reinforce this argument by the intimate connection they are invited to have with the foreign family they watch on stage.  The beautiful set design (well done Tom Scutt)reinforces this equality: the kitchen table, centre of the domestic world, acts as table for both the Russian-Latvian family and their Latvian neighbour, who takes part in the Remembrance Day celebration in full Waffen SS garb. 

The pivotal moment, beautifully designed and played, comes at the centre of the play as the leader of the Latvian movement, and the leader of the Russian-Latvian opposition movement, meet and shake hands in the corridor of the tower block as they are making their visits to local residents.  As they walk on stage from either end they look almost identical in costume and mannerisms.  They walk towards each other, and one expects a political show down between the two.  But in actual fact they jovially discuss the best printing companies to get cheap pamphlets made, and their various domestic situations.  These two men are playing the political game but do not actually feel any real hatred to each other.  Shocking as it is, the production makes the point that this antagonism between the two sides is revved up by self-interest as much as political beliefs. 

Rory Mullarkey and ACT@ATC

This production was beautifully presented and sensitively produced.  But even it cannot escape the political problems it so articulately discusses.  We took our group ACT@ATC to talk to Rory Mullarkey who translated the play.  He said that in some areas of the Latvian press there is a strong distrust of the play, and some voices have suggested that it is creating a biased image of Latvia to the English.  A warning that these issues are still very much alive: and one which is perhaps echoed in the play’s resolution.  The daughter Anya, brilliantly portrayed by Ruby Bentall, finally discovers that even the leader of her own party does not feel as ardently as she does about Russian-Latvian politics.  She is left taking the situation into her own hands, loading up her grandfather’s gun from the second world war.  Her journey towards fundamentalism is complete.  The play begs understanding and maturity on both sides of the political debate, but does not create such an easy resolution in its own conclusion.  It’s a haunting piece of work which will stay with you for a long time.

Vietnamese delights at Loong Kee Restaurant

Our blurb for the up-coming tour of The Golden Dragon reads as follows:

On a typical evening, anywhere in Europe, you walk into your local Thai/Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant, and the whole world is there. Everyone connected to everyone else, through this one place…

The Golden Dragon is a funny and theatrical fable of modern life and migration, whisking you from your local takeaway to East Asia and back, revealing what really goes into that bowl of spicy soup.

So the natural thing was to take a trip to a restaurant in the name of research.  The cast and company took a little jaunt yesterday to the rather delicious Loong Kee Vietnamese restaurant in Bethnal Green, where our publicity photo for the production was taken. 

Choosing publicity shots and marketing for any new production is always challenging, as invariably the show will not have started rehearsals yet, and the design and look of the show gets finalised much later on in the production process.  So you are in a sense ‘working blind’: there is a need to recreate the vision the production team articulate about the show, without making it too stylised.  There is a real risk of creating something which ends up being out of tone with the final production.   There are also a number of practical issues you need to consider, such as the placement of text on the picture, and whether your information and logos will fit around the images chosen etc etc.  It’s a tricky business.

Ramin sent ATC HQ out to take photographs of restaurants in the local area to see if we could find inspiration.  Kendall (O’Neill), our Administrator and Events Manager, came up with the winning shot to the left.  Despite having no people within shot, there is a sense of dynamism: the hustle and bustle of the kitchen. 

Our publicity image is perfect for the show, but cannot begin to capture the feeling of the kitchen at its busiest.  The staff at Loong Kee kindly let the whole team into the kitchen and watch their preparations as they opened up for the evening.  The actors were quick to respond to the sensory experiences of being in the kitchen: the noise, the heat and the feel of the floor beneath your feet.  Also fascinating was the way in which the movements of the chefs were choreographed. Behind the main cooking area were rows and rows of different spices, herbs and ingredients.  Apparently the placement of these items is fixed, so the chefs can reach behind and grab what they need while cooking without event looking.  The whole kitchen had a structure and rhythm to its process which was beautiful to watch.  We took a few videos of people’s immediate reactions to the space, which will be put up on the ATC website soon.

So rather than the design and layout of the kitchen, it was the movement and feel of the space which was of particular inspiration to the cast.  And these reactions seem to marry well with the representation of location in The Golden Dragon itself.  The stage location is something intangible: not a specific restaurant, but a ‘Thai/Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant’ which is only recognisable by its anonymity.   The play’s themes explore the way stories and locations are intimately connected, despite geographical and cultural distance.  Location, as well as characterisation, is mutable and ever-changing.  This sophisticated and playful use of location echoes the structure of the stories being told within the play.  Without giving too much away about the script, (this production will be the English premiere and the first performance of the play in English, ably translated by David Tushingham), there is a continual dialectic going on between global and local issues.  The play’s location spins across the world whilst at all times being confined to the stage space.

As one blogger describes here, the food was scrumptious.  As a non-meat eater, I do tend to judge restaurants on the quality of their vegetarian options, and here the tofu they cooked for me was melt-in-the-mouth.  And somehow it tasted even better knowing that Jack (Tarlton) had watched and also got involved with the cooking of the mini-feast we all enjoyed.  Here’s to a few more research trips of this sort …

First Rehearsal of ATC’s new show The Golden Dragon

This Monday was the first day of rehearsals for Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon.  After a busy meet and greet and read-through of the play, Ramin (Gray), our director, introduced a special guest to the company: Zenghui Qui.  Zenghui is a professional musician who specialises traditional Chinese music, and bought into the rehearsal a veritable coterie of different instruments for the company to play with.  She seemed a dab-hand at everything she demonstrated: from the gorgeous clay ocarina-like ‘Xun’ to the more familiar Chinese flute. 

The company’s hushed appreciation of Zenghui’s calm, masterful playing was soon broken by loud crashes and general uproar from the cast, each trying to copy what she’d shown (see some brilliant footage of them here).  What was great about this, and what was perhaps purposefully intended by Ramin in this session, was how the company became affected by this demonstration.  As the cast tried to imitate the sounds Zenghui produced, and were confronted by the technical difficulty, everyone instinctively switched back into techniques of playing from their own backgrounds, creating a tangible and at times amusing, cultural clash.  Internalised cultural behaviours we do not notice on a daily basis were suddenly exposed.  Kathryn (O’Reilly) picked up the flute and managed some gorgeous sounds, but sounded and looked more like she was playing the recorder.  She looked so concentrated but a bit ill-at-ease as she strained to find the perfect pitch and timbre.  Give them a little time I think they’ll all sound superb! 

But it was this feeling of slight cultural embarrassment which made the afternoon a perfect way of starting rehearsals.  Ideas of cultural inclusivity and identity strike at the heart of The Golden Dragon.  The five actors do not just play a single role in the production, but a series of different characters with different genders, ethnicities and widely different ages.  Ann (Firbank), royalty of ATC having appeared in a wide range of productions before this one, has the unimaginable task of playing “The Granddaughter, Asian Woman, The Ant and The Shopkeeper”!  The play constantly confronts expectations of identity and sense of self: how far are cultural or differences of age insurmountable?  Are there areas of experience which will inevitably create understanding between even the most unlikely of people?  How far is personal identity fixed in the first place?

The eponymous restaurant itself is continually called a ‘Thai/Chinese/Vietnamese fast food’ joint in the script, like the characters in the play is never pinned to one coherent identity.  I am really looking forward to seeing how things progress (and whether the Chinese instruments will become a feature of the performance – I certainly hope so).  Whatever, I wish the cast good luck on the venture and look forward to following them!

Cultures of Spectatorship

The header picture for my blog is taken from Renoir’s La Loge (The Theatre Box), painted in 1874.  I love it because it encapsulates in one image what my PhD research is about: that the behaviours of theatre audiences can be as fascinating as what is going on on stage.

In the painting, a well dressed couple sit in their box.  The lady expectantly looks out towards the stage space, while her partner’s gaze if fixed more resolutely elsewhere, somewhere up in the higher reaches of the auditorium.  He leans back into the shadows of the box and points his black binoculars up towards the back of the theatre.

The theatre industry dominated Parisian culture towards the turn of the century.  This boom was due in part to the rapidly-growing middle class: these newly-wealthy citizens now had the capital to hire out theatre boxes, where before only those from high society had resided.  People were as eager to be seen at the theatre – and by this, to be seen to have the disposable income to do so – as much to see the art on the stage.   (It was not until just after the turn of the new century that the work on the Parisian stage, particularly with Diaghilev’s visiting Ballets Russes company, demanded a different kind of attention from the watchers).

But the painting’s complex interplay of gazes also suggests something more intricate is going on.  Although the lady is in the forefront of the painting, the viewer’s eyes are drawn to the man’s movement behind.  The man’s strained movement looks inappropriate and strangely strained against the relaxed finery of his surroundings.  Is he viewing other citizens attending the theatre, or looking at something illicit and even more eye-catching?  He is clearly looking the ‘wrong’ way; we can only guess at what.

And here is the brilliance of the painting: Renoir manipulates the viewer of the painting into repeating what the man is doing, staring at the edges of the artwork rather than focusing on what seems to be the main subject.  The viewer is implicated in the man’s act.

Through this blog I hope to keep a regular journal of contemporary theatre productions I watch, and other thoughts on subject I feel relevant to my research.  I want to know what engages an audience, how you can measure audience reactions and how the interaction between audience and stageplay/space can work.  Working as part of the theatre company ATC I will be focusing on ATC’s productions as my position gives me a great insight into the development of their work, but I also want to see how this specific experience informs my research into wider London theatre.  And (funding pending) theatre of the wider UK and beyond …