Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Theatre review: Forests

Limping in at the tail end of the World Shakespeare Festival is a contribution from Catalan director Calixto Bieito, spending a few days at the Barbican Theatre, and aiming to bring together the worlds and moods of the various Forests from Shakespeare's plays. Starting in the Forest of Arden and indeed spending most of its first half in the world of As You Like It, the performance takes a darker turn in the second half with soul-searching or violent moments from the likes of Macbeth, King Lear, Timon of Athens, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida and several other plays plus a few sonnets. There's a few brooks and blasted heaths here too in among the actual forests - I got the impression that as long as a scene could conceivably happen within ten miles of a tree, it was fair game. In theory I suppose this is meant to be somewhere along the lines of A Tender Thing, reappropriating Shakespeare's lines to give them new meaning, but in practice meaning is rather short on the ground.

The company of seven is a mix of British and Spanish actors (including The EnsembleTM's Katy Stephens, who should at least feel at home in Arden) and the words are mainly spoken in English, but occasionally change to Catalan, sometimes mid-sentence - so the surtitles are on throughout. The As You Like It sequence largely consists of scenes and speeches being done out of order, with lines split between multiple characters or rearranged. There's a lot of that old "artsy" standby, actors running around laughing, doing handstands, dressing up and generally acting like children, but it's watchable enough. At one point, Christopher Simpson climbs up and down the back wall several times with a bucket on his head, and I'm aware that this sentence pretty much makes the rest of this review redundant.

Bieito says he doesn't intend for the play to be a narrative, but a philosophical piece. Of course, it's the forests inside the mind that he's really interested in, but when the second half goes into the darker moments of the Histories and Tragedies, this idea kind of falls apart. Funnily enough, cherry-picking the existential crises of Shakespearean characters and lumping them all together devoid of context lends them less meaning, not more. And whether it's the director's wife Roser Camí having aSEVERE VADGE WARNINGwhile Stephens staples her to a wall, or the cast suffocating each other with plastic bags, there's not much connection that I could see between the words and the actions. As we near the end and the cast try to get in as many loud, shrill noises as possible just to double-check we know this is Art, many a watch was getting checked with increased frequency.

Look, let's not pretend I'm going to remember this as anything other than "that one where a man climbed the back wall with a bucket on his head."

Forests by Marc Rosich and Calixto Bieito, based on texts by William Shakespeare, is booking until the 10th of November at the Barbican Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

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