Secret Theatre: Show One

at the Lyric Hammersmith, Wednesday 11th September 2013

HERE BEGINS THE SPOILER ALERT

Inevitably, Secret Theatre will be secret no more if you read this post. So yeah, read on if you’ve seen the show, don’t care about the ‘secret’ bit or have no intention whatsoever of seeing it (though you’d be a fool if that were the case).

HERE ENDS THE SPOILER ALERT

One of the central premises of Secret Theatre is to create a new generation of exciting, risk-taking theatre practitioners who aren’t afraid to challenge form and buck convention. Watching Show One, however, it struck me that – perhaps more importantly – the whole initiative is also creating a new generation of audiences who will be unfazed by the possibility of having to work for themselves and welcoming rather than damning of formal innovation and stylistic experimentation. Of course, there are plenty of theatregoers all over the country who are already used to representational forms of theatre and who have been following contemporary performance practice for decades, but by placing these ideas centre stage at a major London theatre, Sean Holmes and his team will undoubtedly tow a few more people along for the ride.

In contrast to Show Twothe choice of text for Show One – David Harrower’s version of George Buchner’s Woyzeck – allows for a far more playful production, leading to the somewhat ironic paradox that this piece gives us far more of what we expect from Secret Theatre, which is the unexpected. Under the direction of Holmes, the ensemble manage to make this obscure German play about jealousy and hardship into something far more complex, layered and theatrically interesting.

An oppressive, dictatorial world is evoked in the opening scene of the piece, as nine of the ten ensemble members enter in beige t-shirts and shorts, accompanied by a sinister, knowing voice telling us ‘truths’ about humanity. They line up before scrabbling to drink water from bowls unassisted by their hands, tumbling over each other as they are dehumanised in the struggle for nourishment. The rest of the piece follows similar images, honing in on Billy Seymour’s pathetic Woyzeck as he circles round the stage attached to a leash, unable to break free of the continuum in which he finds himself, the only respite being the occasional acquaintance or adversary along the way.

For much of this seventy-five minute piece, we infer that this is merely a representation of human experience, relentless in its repetition and allowing individuals to become marooned in a sea of noise. An extraordinary coup is achieved, however, in one of the final scenes, as Nadia Albina heads towards a microphone down-stage right and begins to half-sing, half-speak PJ Harvey’s England:

I live and die through England
Through England
It leaves a sadness
Remedies never were within my reach
I cannot go on as I am
Withered vine reaching from the country
That I love
England 

Which means the whole of the show is recast as something far more specific: this is what it means to be English in the twenty-first century, spinning in circles and never moving on, with officers and bureaucrats attempting to make our lives a misery and cameras watching our every move whilst we insist on continuing to beat the patriotic drum. The smartness of this interpretation lies in the fact that it is in no way overt or overbearing – there are no St George flags, for example – but remains true to the source text (the use of “remedies” in both Buchner’s play and Harvey’s lyrics goes some way to demonstrating their similarities) and allows us to find our own meaning. My reading, it goes without saying, may be completely different to yours.

And alongside all that, we also get a fascinating staging. Scenes flicker in and out of one another as characters follow clearly delineated paths supported by ugly, straining music which morphs into beautiful a capella renditions of what sound like German drinking songs. Water and peas begin to cover the stage, and at one moment Leo Bill’s Journeyman, costumed in a black dress and blue socks, slips across the stage like a performer from a messed-up version of Un peu de tendresse. Everyone in this demonic underworld struggles for survival, except perhaps Charlotte Josephine’s cool-as-a-cucumber Drum Major, who struts across the stage in red jeans and sunglasses, playing the saxophone in the place of speech and destroying Woyzeck with a single look.

There’s a strange beauty to the harshness of Hyemi Shin’s set design, which sees the stage enclosed in three walls of military-green tarp. Extraordinarily, Lizzie Powell’s lighting manages to make it look like clinical, wipe-dry material and then pure velvet in different scenes, offering a confusing background to the jumping, crazed humans dressed in animal onesies dancing on stage. They are beasts in a zoo, but somehow keep a vital energy.

And then, through all this complexity and playfulness, there is an extraordinary simplicity in one of the production’s final gestures. Rather than seeing Katherine Pearce’s Marie die a violent, messy death at the hands of Woyzeck, we instead witness the simple gesture of Seymour throwing a bowl of blood into her face, before she crumples to the floor. It’s a gorgeous gesture after the chaos which has come before, and contains within it more pain and hurt than would be possible to create ‘realistically’.

Within this lies the crux of why I’ve found the first two shows of Secret Theatre so invigorating, as the ensemble members never shy away from reinventing themselves mid-performance, changing the rules for theatrical gain so that – as their manifesto states – we never get bored. The raw potential seen so far can only improve, and if this is what the company can create in three months then there’s no telling where they can go next. Show Three can’t come soon enough.

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