If I were a casting director, I would put Thalissa Teixeira at the top of my list of new names. I first saw her last year at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, captivating as an exploited beauty in The Night Watch. I was bowled over by her different dazzle as a savvy PA in Yerma. She is 24. The catch in her voice and her ease of gesture almost disguise the blaze of her attention. In The Unknown Island, you could pretty much deduce the action by watching her eyes. She is lit up from top to toe.
This is Ellen McDougall’s first production as artistic director of the Gate. It is a remarkable success – against some odds. McDougall and Clare Slater have adapted a short story by the Portuguese writer José Saramago. Told in the manner of a fairytale, it speaks of new starts, new love and the need for human beings to face out towards the world. It features an obstructive king, a man who wants to set sail in search of an unknown island and a cleaning woman who goes through the Door of Decisions to join him on a dark sea. This could easily have become a static, finger-wagging allegory. What takes place on stage is not so much action as narration. But, oh, what an imaginative production can do.
Rosie Elnile’s design encloses the theatre in a bubble of blue. Both actors and the audience, seated around the stage close up to the performers, are surrounded by walls of turquoise, like stilled waves. In front of them sits a miniature galleon. It is red, the only other colour on stage. The cast are head to foot in shades of scarlet, vermilion, crimson. Four actors take turns at the narrative, men and women speaking, apparently randomly, female and male parts. Jon Foster and Zubin Varla are beautifully flexible. Hannah Ringham, whom I’ve had occasion to admire at Shunt and in other unorthodox theatre, brings her extraordinary quality to the stage. She is still, composed, often sardonic – then breaks into comic swagger, posing with tricorn hat and upturned lip.
Effects are playful. A shower of rain is administered from a watering can. Balloon ducks and rabbits are sent bouncing across the boards. Yet there is also what amounts to an extraordinary, casual communion. The actors break out of character and, chatting, share the ship’s rations – bread, wine and olives – with the audience. It is a demonstration of the play’s creed: “If you don’t step outside yourself you’ll never discover who you are.” As is the lovely closing moment when, high above the stage, a small window clicks open – and gives us a glimpse of the world beyond the theatre.
Visceral uncertainty rendered with Scandinavian good taste. Miasma made explicit. Ivo van Hove’s latest reinventions of movies for the stage – the last of his Toneelgroep Amsterdam shows at the Barbican – are of thunderous Ingmar Bergman films. After the Rehearsal and Persona both have actors as central characters, and dissolving identity as their theme.
Van Hove translates them with moody beauty. Designer Jan Versweyveld creates an astonishing series of pictures in Persona, capsizing a concrete box into a shimmer of lake and sky, which his lighting turns grey, tangerine and faint sea-green. The shifts are so tactful that it’s hard to believe an interior designer is not squinting at a colour chart. At a pitch-black moment in a psychiatric encounter, the song Happiness blares out from a nurse’s record player. A young actress speaks of daily life impinging on her acting, and of performance strangling spontaneity offstage: while the right eye cries, the left eye “watches the effect”. As she talks, her image appears on a screen: neatly caught between flesh and film.
All is visually memorable – and very clearly managed. For accounts of disintegrating personalities, these are tidy plays. Which move with glacial slowness, especially if you are not a Dutch speaker: three hours in, surtitles lose their charm. There is talk of chasms, reality and fakeness but – despite phenomenal, raging performances in both productions by Marieke Heebink and Gaite Jansen – any sense of danger is aestheticised out of existence. And the clinical procedure is itself bonkers, manipulatively plaintive. A woman in distress (the stage cliche for madness is knickers only) is sent away with a nurse. To a “desolate” island. Why not to one that might cheer her up?
Who’d have thought that David Mitchell was a Goveist? But last week he was beating the anti-expert drum in response to BBC2’s new version of Radio 4’s Front Row. Theatre criticism should not be the preserve “of those who know what they’re talking about”. Does that stricture apply to writing about painting, music and food? What does Front Row co-presenter Giles Coren say? Myself, I’m not keen on abolishing critics. But then: I would say that wouldn’t I?
Actually I agree with much of what Mitchell and the Front Rowers say. More comfortable seats? I don’t like having a squashed bottom. Lavatories? Try being a women in the, er, stalls. The Globe? One of my favourite theatres, too. And these chaps avoided the usual approach to theatre-bashing. Practically every year a columnist tries to make a splash by announcing that he/she hates the theatre. And does so by suggesting that they are courageously going against the flow. The supposed anti-orthodoxy is the new orthodoxy.
I want to biff David Mitchell only about his reference to “the theatre world”. As if homogeneous fusties were lining up against the more nimble-minded Giles Corens. I want to challenge Front Row’s Nikki Bedi only on two comments. She says she prefers movies to plays: fine – but the arts aren’t an X Factor genre competition. She says she likes “tight, fast-paced creative theatre”, implying that the “theatre world” prefers the saggy, slow, unimaginative kind. I don’t.
Star ratings (out of 5)
The Unknown Island ★★★★
After the Rehearsal/Persona ★★★