“I’m going to kill you for this!”, whispered my companion to me in the middle of the opening night of Attempts on Her Life at the National this week (but then he was in a bit of a murderous mood, especially afterwards when we discovered that Lambeth Council, who are thoughtfully resurfacing Stamford Street in the evenings at the moment, had “parked” us in on the other side of Coin Street. The only way to get out was to mount a steep ramp, and since my friend had a low car, it was no easy prospect, but there was no alternative, either).
It’s always exciting when theatre makes for passionate responses, though, and this is clearly a production that is going to divide as much as some think it rules. Katie Mitchell is a director whose work does that. At one time she was an extremely rigorous director whose productions used to inhabit a kind of hyper-naturalism, where audiences would complain about inaudibility as a result since actors spoke as if in normal conversation, not theatrical ones; but now she’s pushing the envelope on a new kind of work that is even more potentially alienating. With both her last National Theatre show – a version of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves – and now this, she’s stretching the parameters of theatre’s embrace of technology to create work that is now entirely filtered through the intervening interpretive layers of film and sound. It is, I feel, a kind of anti-theatre: I go to the theatre to see drama and actors, not video blow-ups of the onstage actors being manipulated by the director as puppets of her (admittedly) fertile imagination.
But that’s not, of course, the only view possible on her work: Matt Wolf, for one, reckons it marks the “culmination” of Mitchell and playwright Crimp’s work together to date, and applauds the National for backing it. “Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre may well be remembered as, amongst other things, the regime that made a directorial star out of Katie Mitchell, the erstwhile iconoclast of small spaces like the Gate and the Pit who in recent years has gone for larger arenas big time. But even her track record to date can’t quite prepare one for the exhilaration that comes with seeing Martin Crimp’s Attempts on her Life on the vast Lyttelton stage in the kind of programming decision that makes you glad to be in England. (Were a comparable venture tried at a major New York not-for-profit address, heads would doubtless roll—if, that is, they weren’t lost in the stampede of people walking out.)”
Actually, I’ve read in one thread on a bulletin board that there’s been a similar stampede here already: “There were the most walk-outs I’ve ever seen in one go, which caused some disruption as there’s no interval so people were legging it mid-show and of course with no centre aisles at the Lyttleton there were multiple standing ovations. One bloke 2 rows behind me audibly said as he left ‘Life’s too short to sit through crap like this.’
In the Daily Express today, Simon Edge comments, “There is no interval because they know that half of us would leave.” But Matt Wolf, putting the case for the defence of the production, admits, “I’m the first to acknowledge that Crimp’s wilfully fractured, fractious play may infuriate those who like their theatre cosy, codified and cut and dried. But you’d have to have had no exposure whatsoever to what Konstantin in Crimp’s translation of The Seagull refers to as ‘new forms”’ to be entirely adrift. The production in every way marks the culmination of Crimp and Mitchell’s ongoing journey to date, and I, for one, would not have missed it for the world.” Alluding the experimental nature of the work, he goes on, “The extensive use of video confirms one’s sense that Mitchell is the closest this country has to the maverick work of the Wooster Group in New York—with the important difference that Mitchell is given access to a premier stage in arguably the defining English-speaking theatrical address in the world today, whereas the Wooster group denizens (whom this company’s Kate Duchene markedly resembles) continue to ply their wares in downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn, well away from the mainstream.” And he concludes, “It’s as if everyone involved has taken to heart a passing mention of ‘theatre for a world in which theatre has died’ and has shaken the form unforgivingly and in my view unforgettably back into life.”
For Michael Coveney, the production is a “brilliant, updated (with instant video replay, projections, microphones and music) application of Brecht’s alienation effect”, but for others, the result is simply alienating. Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail reads signs of our increasing passivity in putting up with it at all: “People used to say the British would not tolerate totalitarianism. We were too bloody-minded, individualist and sensible. Given how an audience put up with two hours of debasing trash at the National Theatre last night, that may no longer be the case. Any society which can endure such fare without shouting ‘rot’ and angrily demanding a refund is a society in severe decay, a society which will take force-feeding like a tethered French duck…. The management asks me to state that this production is part of the Travelex season of £10 tickets. That means you pay the theatre £10 – not vice versa as it should be”.
Simon Edge’s Daily Express review gets more specific: “In order to make the point that events only have meaning in the modern world if they are televised, the actors video everything on stage. This means all you are looking at is people moving cameras and lights on tripods (half the time the lights are shining in your eyes) and the only thing to break the visual tedium is the edited videos on a giant screen. So a play lambasting the video packaging of society relies on precisely the same technique. Do me a favour.” He feels the play similarly tries to have its cake and eat it elsewhere: “Crimp shows his true colours in a scene satirising highbrow TV impersonations of Germaine Greer and Tom Paulin raise a welcome laugh but making them talk psychobabble is a cheap shot. It means that society is damned both for dumbing down and dumbing up. This is not serious comment. It is the yah-boo-sucks nihilism of Catherine Tate’s ‘Do I look bovvered?’ Lauren.” At which point Simon goes ya-boo-sucks: “In the final scene, someone in the wings presses a button that makes the entire cast disappear through the floor. I couldn’t help wishing they had pressed it a lot sooner.”
It’s a production that, at least, will clearly be stirring debate and strong passions. In The Independent, Alice Jones tries to deal with the contradictory impulses that both the play and the production set off: “How to sum up Attempts on Her LIfe? Perhaps it is an attempt, as suggested by one of its nameless speakers, at a play for a world ‘in which theatre itself has died’, where the ‘outmoded conventions of dialogue and so-called characters’ are done away with, leaving something fragmented and enigmatic in their place. Martin Crimp’s play eschews easy interpretations in any case, presenting ‘17 scenarios for the theatre’ in which contradictory accounts are given of a central character who never appears….” She goes on, “Katie Mitchell takes up the challenge of Crimp’s script. An ‘open text’, it refuses to assign lines to specific characters and notes only that it should be played by ‘a company of actors’. It’s a dream ticket for Mitchell, a keen practitioner of director’s theatre. And she really goes to town here, dealing with the play’s transfer from its original intimate setting to the cavernous Lyttleton stage with a large cast of 11, all kitted out with face microphones and cameras.” But she concludes, “by the end of two hours of close-ups, I began to crave some human warmth from the stage, rather than just scurrying around setting up cameras. At times this piece about the spiritual vacuum at the heart of Nineties, and now Noughties society, felt just like an art installation – slick, chilly and a little shallow. But, then again, perhaps that was the point.”
But as critics try to find the point, perhaps we’ll finally be exposed as pointless, too. It’s a play that demands you to make up your own mind – whether there’s a point or not to it.