Harper Regan, Tabard Theatre

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by Amy Toledano

Last performed at the National Theatre, Simon Stephen’s Harper Regan is great at making an audience uncomfortable. His drawn-out scenes build tension to the point that it is totally unbearable, and Contentment Productions bring their own sense of intensity to this writing that for the most part works, but can sometimes feel slightly tired and draining for the audience.

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Bluebird, The Space

by guest critic Gregory Forrest

“God it’s hot.”

“Did you know it’s the hottest summer we’ve had in fourteen years?”

“It’s too hot.”

Pretty much every line from Bluebird speaks true, but my God do these words glitter. Like beads of sweat.

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Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle, Wyndham’s Theatre


by guest critic Gregory Forrest

German physicist Werner Heisenberg talks of pairs and duality. The one thing against the other. The one in terms of the other. Directed by Marianne Elliott and written by Simon Stephens, this is an evening of girl meet boy, of random encounters, and the unpredictability of (human) nature.

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Nuclear War, Royal Court


In his introduction to the Nuclear War text, Simon Stephens explains that as a playwright, he does not want directors and performers to revere him. Rather, he wants them to see his scripts as a starting point for their own creativity. The third line of the stage directions is, ‘a series of suggestions for a piece of theatre’; from these suggestions, choreographer-director Imogen Knight shapes a haunting landscape of physicalised despair.

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Song from Far Away, Young Vic Theatre

Willem is 34. He moved from Amsterdam to New York City 12 years ago. After an inconveniently timed phone call from his mother on a cold New York morning, he goes home for his younger brother Pauli’s funeral. He is greeted by his father’s disappointment, his sister’s lectures and the disorientation of not knowing where “home” is anymore. Much has changed, yet so much has remained the same.

I’m 33 years old. Eleven years ago, I moved to the UK from New York City. I use the term “home” fluidly because I don’t know where that place is anymore. So far I haven’t had to suddenly return for a family funeral, but that time will come. I know too well that disarming, unnamed feeling of simultaneous comfort and sadness from remembered places and people, those that have stayed the same and those have changed or disappeared altogether. There are many things that I miss, but much that reinforces my choice not just to leave, but to stay away.

I should have been in tears by the end of Song from Far Away, especially as I saw the 11 September performance, a day indelibly impressed on my memory with an anniversary no easier to bear with each passing year. Willem unexpectedly lost his little brother to an undiagnosed heart condition; I fortunately lost no one in 9/11. I was moved at times, by Simon Stephens’ delicate language, Mark Eizel’s folksy travelling tunes, and Eelco Smits’ honest portrayal of Willem’s understated struggles. Frustratingly, I never received the cathartic cry I sought from this production though, and I should have, considering how keenly I relate to Willem.

The performance and design elements are subtly beautiful, but the production is skeletal. The changing light and shadows of time passing have more connection to the present than the character does, who is more at home in transit than in the arrival at a place. The production seems to want to be minimalist in the extreme in order to draw attention to Willem’s displacement in the world, but in doing so creates an ethereal anti-theatre that doesn’t manage to come close to the audience’s heartstrings. Willem’s extended monologue in the form of letters to Pauli opens his heart to us as he (literally) bares all, but his world is so insular that we are excluded. We can witness, but not engage.

Stephens’ script sounds like it would read better on the page than performed as a theatre piece, at least with Ivo van Hove’s chosen directorial concept. The language is undeniably beautiful and human, and creates a wonderful character, but the production concept distances and isolates him from us, reinforced in the final moments of the play. A Song from Far Away is just that – too distant to hear the details of a faintly mourning cry on cold winter’s day in New York City. We want to comfort the singer, but he is moving further out of our grasp the longer we listen.

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Carmen Disruption, Almeida Theatre

Bricks from disintegrating walls cover the stage.

A hulking, black bull breathes it last.

An aging opera singer arrives in a nameless European city.

A narcissistic rent boy readies for a “date.”

An awkward student is newly single.

A taxi driver prepares to meet the son she walked out on years ago.

A stockbroker travels to an appointment to “take care of” some poor transactions.

The one-woman chorus reaches out to each of them.

Two cellists watch and accompany from the edge.

carmen-disruption-1024x640Smash a mirror on the floor. Go on, do it. Now look at what remains. There are large chunks, long slivers and other bits that are so small they’re practically dust. Each one is uniquely sized and shaped. There is space in between them. Each one those sharp-edged, broken reflective pieces, no matter how large or small, is a person. Alone. Reflecting the world around them. With potential to fit into the pieces around us but. Just. Not. Doing it.

Simon Stephens slingshots Bizet’s Carmen into a wall at a billion mph, creating an explosion of bricks, sparkly confetti, agony, death, black blood, desperation and loneliness. His magnum opus to date, Carmen Disruption is a mess, but one that gloriously mirrors modern life with painful accuracy. Amongst the rubble are characters who are also these broken bits of mirror, pointing at us, mirroring us and paralleling Bizet’s original cast. We are them. They are us. They/we are also the creation of the deteriorating mind of the Singer (Sharon Small), who endlessly travels the world performing the same role over and over, no longer seeing truth in real life but only when she is Her. Carmen. Everyone she sees reflects an archetype from the opera, and not just the characters. Us, too. We are the Stephens’ characters, they are us, two mirrors facing each other. Reflecting infinity.

The five characters all lead radically different lives, intersecting only by chance because of opera and a motorbike accident. They never speak to each other, only to us. Even when they meet their narration is to the audience, about the others. They have no direct contact with anyone other than the observational Chorus (Viktoria Vizin). Fractured monologues weave in and out of each other, building their world that could be any major city, anywhere in the world. Fireflies blinking in the night sky. Their contact with the world filters through mobile phones, a comment on our dependence on our gadgets and urge to document rather than experience. If we take on the role of recorder, we don’t have to engage. Did technology cause the detachment from each other? This question is posed, but never answered, but not a major plot element anyway. By being posed, it makes a statement, calling on us to examine ourselves and our society in which we exist as lonely fragments of a shattered mirror.

Confrontational and omnipresent throughout the stories arising from our characters’ episodic speeches is the dark, hulking carcass of a bull. Its eventual movement surprises, showing a dying struggle rather than death. The actors pick their way around it as the audience did when they entered from the foyer, surprised and disorientated. A creeping pool of black blood eventually consumes. It is a striking visual, the elephant in the room, highlighting the destruction towards which we all hurtle.

The cellists are also fragments, as is their music. An LED surtitle screen adds an operatic element with sporadic, sarcastic content. None of the characters are particularly likeable, instead they evoke pity or disdain. The only thing that brings them together is a terrible accident they witness, but even then they only manage to bounce off of each other and continue spinning into the darkness. Alone. All roles are impeccably performed and the actors engage with each other in the space even without direct interaction.

It doesn’t matter if you know the story of Carmen or not before seeing this production. I don’t know it well at all and may have taken unintended meaning from Stephens’ script, but its ability to communicate Important Messages without having Bizet’s frame of reference attests to Stephens’ skill and the script’s excellence. Every individual will find different aspects of the production incredible and abhorrent, depending on their own frame of reference. John Light’s stockbroker, Escamillo, disgusts me. I am horrified by rent boy Carmen’s (Jack Farthing) details of his rape. I feel sorry for the naïve student (Katie West) who sexts her 63-year-old married lecturer boyfriend and believes their relationship has any love. Or meaning.

I could watch these characters forever. Not having an interval was certainly the right choice for this play. The compact snippets from their lives allude to distinct pasts and futures. Even though the world they inhabit is nameless and featureless, they were flawed, beautiful, unique humans. Smash another mirror. Go on, do it. Each individual fragment is totally unique, unlike those from our previous mirror. Future broken mirrors will be unique as well. Despite the presence of archetypes, the microscopic details of their stories are unrepeatable. On what trajectory would they all continue? I need to know. If Simon Stephens were to make a Synechdoche, New York version of Carmen Disruption, I would happily live in it. Forever.

Though director Michael Longhurst’s creative choices challenge perceptions of contemporary British drama, he could have emphasized the interaction and audience engagement even further. Even though the Almeida is known for its cutting edge work, this is a piece that could have been more fully explored in a large studio setting, without the constraints of a balcony and distinct actor/audience boundaries. I wanted to dance with these characters. I wanted them to move around me. I wanted them to look me directly in the eyes as they relayed their journeying tales and not have any regard for personal space. Carmen Disruption is aggressive, bold and visceral, the sort that is supported by more audience immersion rather than less. At the very least, the audience could have been lit so the actors could see their/our eyes, allowing a connection I craved and they characters clearly yearned for.

Despite this, the effect created was a Brechtian one of alienation and motivation to action. It’s no coincidence that Stephens’ work is popular in Germany. As I picked my way along Friday night’s Upper Street towards the tube station, the stories of those passing by and enjoying their warm, social evenings exploded around me like fireworks. I felt the need to connect. Never has the loneliness of modern life been so starkly emphasized on stage, and afterwards carried through the dark night.

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.