Review – …some trace of her, National Theatre

Tuesday 29 July 2008

Andrew will go to any lengths to avoid visiting the Cottesloe Theatre.

Claiming rather grandly that he would be “flying back from a business trip to Hamburg” Phil was forced to fly solo with his first ever visit to a Katie Mitchell production: …some trace of her.

So elaborate was Andrew’s ruse that he even phoned Phil from the “departure lounge” just to add to the veracity of his story. “Airport noises” could be heard in the background, the bing-bong of a tannoy, a screaming child, and Andrew’s own weary “I’m at an airport” irritation all helped his painstaking fiction. Was Andrew actually still at home twiddling around with the knob on his wireless?

So …some trace of her then, but no trace of Andrew…

Rumours* that earlier previews had got through only 3 of the intended 4 parts and Andrew’s absence had only increased Phil’s anticipation, plus he would be joined by Jerry who could provide the sparkling conversation and insight so often lacking on a Whingers’ junket. He knows what he’s talking about, being something of a thesp himself, fresh from a successful run at the Wokingham Theatre in Dead Funny.

…some trace of her is created on the stage then projected onto a large screen in black and white above. If you’ve seen previous Mitchell productions you’ll be familiar with the conceit. Phil can reveal little about the story, other than it involves two men in love with the same woman and its consequences, as Mitchell seems less concerned with narrative than atmosphere and emotion. It’s inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, so if you know the plot of that you might be able to follow what’s going on. If not, then you’re in the dark in every sense.

The cast, including Ben Whishaw (who stars in the apparently panned new film version of Brideshead Revisited), Pandora Colin (who impressed the Whingers as Dorothy Parker in You Might As Well Live), Hattie Morahan and Gawn Grainger, scurry around the stage with assorted stage crew in a crepuscular gloom acting, filming and fashioning scenes which are only really properly realised by watching the screen above – it’s an extraordinary feat of choreography.

Phil hadn’t witnessed such frenzied creativity since preparations for the last Whingers’ party.

What’s produced is frequently stunning. Initially it’s difficult to know where to look: you search the stage to see who is speaking (often a different actor is supplying the voice or thoughts of the actor on the screen) amid all the furore, which proves annoyingly distracting. It’s a bit like being in the cinema with a very restless audience. Actors act then rush off to their next camera setup, prop arrangement or to contribute sound effects. Perhaps Andrew (no Katie Mitchell virgin) was inspired by Mitchell’s clever theatrical trickery in the fabrication of his “Hamburg trip”?.

Does Mitchell really want to be a film director? The line between stage, film and art installation becomes blurred, although Andrew bibulous propensities can achieve this with much less effort.

But after a while something happens and if you let it wash over you and just start looking at the images with an occasional glance below to see how it’s being done it becomes strangely hypnotic. The impression of a dinner party is created with a few pieces of tableware and a single hand filmed from above, but with music and sound effects your mind fills in the blanks. Flames appear on screen – is there a model of Weston-super-Mare pier on the stage? A Chinese vase seemingly spins in the air and smashes, but the creation of it below the screen is brilliantly simple. Hollywood should snap up Mitchell now, here’s someone who could bring your film in under budget.

Yes, there are problems: the actors, through necessity, are doing film acting, which is terrific on screen but doesn’t come across to Row T in the Cottesloe’s nether regions (the tickets stated “restricted view” but it’s actually a good place to sit for this production and a steal at £10 – how often do you hear the Whingers say that, let alone about the Cottesloe? Pass Andrew the smelling salts).

It also exposes the gulf between stage and screen, how film is able to suggest what can’t be suggested on stage (though the paradox here is that this is being done on stage) and the power of the close up, but didn’t Norma Desmond already tell us that?

In his mesmerised stupor, Phil even saw bizarre parallels with The Dark Knight, …stof is melancholic and dark, some brilliant acting, confusing narrative, occasional inaudible dialogue, lasts longer than it should and has a whiff of pretension (or as Jerry – who loved it- put it: “Whiff? It honks of pretension!”).

Will Phil be booking to see Katie Mitchell’s Waves when it returns to the National’s repertoire? Probably not. As impressed as he was, …stoh is to be admired rather than engaged in and feels he’s got the gist.

Mitchell and the video artist Leo Warner may well be close to genius but Phil’s mind couldn’t help thinking of the Victoria Wood—As Seen on TV sketch where Julie Walters is giving notes on an amateur production of Hamlet: “I don’t think it’s too gimmicky… the tandem.”


* Phil donned his Miss Marple tweeds and quizzed one of the front of house staff about the incomplete performances. …stoh only got through the first three sections at early previews as the fourth wasn’t completed and that they were still experimenting. But he was assured tonight’s performance had been “bedded down”. Previously Katie Mitchell came on stage and described the last 15 minutes. The Whingers salute her chutzpah.

Inspired by Mitchell yet again, Andrew will forego the potato peeler for his entry in the Vegetable Sculpture category at next year’s Lambeth County Show and “describe” his next iconic vegetable sculpture instead.

11 Responses to “Review – …some trace of her, National Theatre”

  1. Simone Says:

    Phil, I sat on row S and my view was just fantastic. I would probably have been distracted if I sat on the stalls section. I thought the production was pretty innovative but then of course I missed Mitchell’s Waves. Shame Andrew missed it!

  2. But did I really miss it, Simone? As Phil described it to me I was saying “Yes, that’s what they did in Attempts on her Life“, “Oh, that’s like Attempts on her Life” and “Sounds just like Attempts on her Life

    Which I really liked, by the way.

    I’m quite tempted to see this, but it does sound, well, familiar.

  3. westendwhinger Says:

    Simone our view was teriffic, (Row T level 2) which for the Cottesloe really is innovativative…

  4. Simone Says:

    Ehr, I thought you sensed my sense of irony there Andrew. 😛

    @ Phil: I feel like I scored big time when I get cheap but good seats at the National (or wherever!)

  5. […] Morahan is a friend. I wonder how the mise-en-scene has developed since Attempts on her Life… suggestion from the Whingers, maybe not that […]

  6. Des Says:

    Given the comments my front row stalls seat for Sat seems likely to have me craning up at the screen…d’ya think?

  7. Simone Says:

    @ Des: It can be a bit distracting but you might find it to be okay. Let us know either way!

  8. webcowgirl Says:

    Wow. I think I’d last about five minutes. I have no interest in watching people on stage create a movie; I want to watch people on stage act, not play at being movie makers. I felt like “Attempts on her life” was horrible – actors forced to be automatons – and this sounds like more of the same. I hope this trend dies a quick death.

  9. I enjoyed this a lot, but then I haven’t seen Waves so it felt both fresh and fascinating, new to me.

    However Ben Whishaw’s voice sounds ever so slightly like Michael Crawford doing Frank Spencer; it’s not overt, but once I got this in to my head it made everything that followed rather more amusing than it was perhaps intended to be.

  10. Eve Says:

    Someone whispered to me – about 10 minutes in – ‘it’s like Noises Off without the laughs…’ Well that did it for me and we gigged like small children for the next hour.

    You can imagine the rehearsal:

    Hattie Morahan: “So I take the camera and pass it to Ben, then I spin the vase and exit with the pistol?”

    Katie Mitchell: “No you spin the vase, LEAVE the pistol and take the camera away from Ben. Jesus, how many times….?”


  11. phaeton Says:

    Jemima Rooper was in my class at school years and years ago. I didn’t know her particularly well, but my mum still mentions everything she’s doing as though she’s a longlost member of the family (quite sweet really).

    Still, I now feel an abject failure for not becoming a star of stage/screen etc etc.

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