Well, I guess it had to happen sometime. I’m 26 productions/reviews into #30plays30days. Although not everything I’ve seen has fully engaged and delighted I have generally been pleasantly surprised by the quality of material on offer and there has been nothing that I positively disliked. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, the wait is over! And while I feel a tad mean about appearing negative these are supposed to be reviews so… rough with the smooth and all that.
Amsterdam has nothing to do with Ian McEwan’s novel of the same name – would that it had. It is billed as a “strikingly original, audacious thriller” by prize-winning Israeli playwright Maya Arad Yasur. Three quarters of that phrase is correct but I’m really not sure how it can be classified as a thriller. The plot concerns an unpaid bill delivered to the flat of a young Jewish violinist who traces its origins back to the Second World War when the Nazis were occupying the city (heavy irony alert – we all continue to pay for the mistakes of our forebears). The bill is for gas (even bigger heavy irony alert – but probably no need to spell that one out). There’s a mysterious upstairs neighbour, pen portraits of Amsterdam life and some oblique examinations of the rise of the far right in Europe. There is also some stuff about gynaecology though even now I’m not quite sure how that fits into the overall narrative, unless it’s more heavy irony about the juxtaposition between death and new life (see, I can do pretentious too).
Now although that sounds like a reasonable enough premise for a piece of drama, indeed it has the makings of an interesting tale, it is the way that it has been written, constructed and performed that causes the piece to founder. I hesitate to use the word “play” here because that implies conflict and character interaction which this piece really does not contain. At the start the four performers set the scene through direct narrative address to the audience. Fair enough but when this was still happening fifteen minutes later, I was starting to get restless. When was the actual drama going to start? When was one character/performer going to directly address another? The answer to those questions is that overwhelmingly they don’t. The direct narration continues throughout which to me marks the piece out as narrative prose which would work better on the page than on the stage…and I’m afraid that just made for a tedious watch.
The four performers (Fiston Barek, Michal Horowicz, Daniel Abelson and Hara Yannas) throw a great deal of energy at this narration bouncing the ball between them at breakneck speed but how I longed for them to inhabit the skins of the characters they were describing which, given their obvious talents, they could so easily have done. There are occasional breaks in the narration to discuss whether as performers they should, for instance, put in a silent pause – this attempt at Brechtian alienation just comes across as arch. Most annoying of all was the sounding of a bell every so often when a foreign phrase or other reference needed explaining. Performer A uses the phrase, Performer B rings the bell, Performer A rushes to a microphone to give the explanation. Amusing once or twice, it is soon wearisome in the extreme and comes across as footnotes added to a prose piece (see above). The narrative also slips between time streams without any indicators (e.g. lighting change) and as an audience we are just expected to keep up. While there is no harm in asking an audience to work at engagement with what is happening, when it’s added to the other trickery it becomes too much.
Halfway through the piece there is a tedious set change, i.e. a chain mail curtain is erected for no other reason that I could see other than it gave us something different to look at. This is supposed to be carried out to a relevant piece of music which the producers of the video have decided in their wisdom is now inappropriate because of its connections to Nazi sympathiser groups – presumably it wasn’t deemed a problem in the live performances. This music has therefore been replaced with white noise and an on- screen message telling us why the change has been made. I found this a horrendous piece of virtue signalling when it would have been just as simple to cut the video straight to part two. The second half is more of the same disjointed approach with time shifts, direct narration, bell ringing footnotes and so on. I began to feel that this trickery was actually starting to detract from the experience rather than adding to it and that the production was in danger of trivialising the very thing about which it had set out to raise our awareness. It didn’t help that in the recording the jump cuts were so frequent between the various narrators that it became quite energy sapping to watch (As an aside it also revealed the difficulties presented by filming an in the round production). Given that it was a recording I was sorely tempted to turn it off or fast forward; as it is, I was glad the piece was not any longer.
The Orange Tree is an intimate welcoming venue with many creditable productions to their name; alas this wasn’t one of them. Presumably theatres would only want to stream their best work at this difficult time so I am uncertain why this piece is being offered. To any casual viewer it will come across as pretentious, unrelatable tosh. To those of us who are theatre goers it is a salutary reminder that not everything always works.