Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Theatre review: Secret Theatre Show 1

One bit of mystery Show 2 didn't keep that Show 1 remedies is to keep the safety curtain down as the audience enters. Yes, it's back to the Lyric Hammersmith for Secret Theatre's second show which, as they're numbered by the first preview rather than when they open, is actually called Show 1. As before, only read further if you want to know the play's identity.

I thought that to contrast with the play it's paired with, this would be piece of new writing, but it's another classic - although Georg Büchner's Woyzeck (the text used is a version by David Harrower) is more used to the experimental treatment than its repertory-mate. We open with the cast (all the members of the acting ensemble feature this time) drinking water from dog bowls, before fighting over the drops left in each other's bowl. Humans as animals, as well as lots of water splashing around the stage, become recurring themes in the production, which is once again directed by the venue's Artistic Director and head honcho of the Secret Theatre project, Sean Holmes.

Woyzeck (Billy Seymour) makes some extra cash being a human guinea pig for a Doctor (Steven Webb) who keeps him on a diet of peas. Here, he also spends most of his time tied by a bungee cord to the centre of the stage, and running around it in circles. The experiments mess with his sanity, first setting him off on existential soul-searching, then making him convinced his wife (Katherine Pearce) is cheating on him with a Drum Major.


I found this experiment far less successful than the one I saw two days ago. For every clever idea - like as blunt as possible a commentary on the fact that the lustily masculine Drum Major (Charlotte Josephine) is being played by a woman - there's a dozen that don't work: At its worst, the production feels studenty, although for the most part the cast's ability stops it from going quite this far. And it's watchable enough, but not particularly enlightening. Taken in conjunction with Show 2 it does make me a bit less enthusiastic about the project in general. In practice the two productions are very different but they do share a surface similarity, of classics radically reinterpreted. And featuring the symbolic use of fruit.

I couldn't help thinking of last year's hugely divisive Lyric show Three Kingdoms, which I personally loved, but which was followed by a Q&A that revealed just how enamoured Simon Stephens (a Lyric associate and serving as dramaturg for this particular project) is with the European theatre model and performance style. Opening the first two shows together can't help but seem like a statement of intent, and taken together Woyzeck and Show 2 suggest this is very much the model the season will be following, rather than the range of stylistic choices they might have gone for. I'll still be booking the rest of the shows and I already look forward to the next surprise, but I do hope that rather than the freedom it appears to have on the surface, the chosen style doesn't end up being a limitation. Having said that, if Messrs Vares and Webb decide to embrace European theatre's love of gratuitous nudity, I will not be complaining.

And because I know my readership, I should point out that should anyone have always wanted to see Leo Bill in a silk nightie surrounded by people in animal onesies, this Woyzeck is the show for you.

Woyzeck by Georg Büchner in a version by David Harrower with additional material by the Company is booking in repertory until the 4th of October at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes straight through.

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