We’ve been in Brighton since Monday now. Actually, I’m in London as I write this, but I’ll be heading back pretty soon. We opened yesterday, had some good press and divided opinion, but all week we’ve found ourselves saying the same thing to each other over and over again: “What a weird thing we’re doing”.
When you look at it objectively, it is. We’ve all taken time off work, stumped up some money, rented a flat on the Brighton seafront, moved into it for a fortnight, and every night – twice a night – sometimes three – we go around hiding things in cupboards, setting the clocks to the wrong time, staining the windowsill, before inviting in a handful of strangers to follow one of us around for an hour.
Why aren’t we at our desks? Why have we come to this lovely city to do this strange thing? Why aren’t we at least in a proper theatre doing the kind of thing you might normally expect from a company like us?
I think all of us will have slightly different answers to those questions, but here’s mine.
Request Programme has been on our to-do list for about two years now, and right from the start Will was keen that the play should be site-specific – not on a stage set. I was dubious, but we looked at a few hotels, read the script a few times, I had a stab at re-writing it; then we pushed it to the back burner for a while.
Then, in January, we brought it to the boil rather quickly (if you’ll permit me to extend that metaphor a bit), and by early February we were announcing a 26-show run in a site-specific production for Brighton Fringe. The rest, you know.
Despite the three months which have passed since then, it wasn’t until Tuesday that I first saw the play in its true form. I knew the text, I knew that it was formally and structurally a fascinating artefact from the dramatic canon, I shared Will’s conviction that work like this is difficult to stage, and thus rarely seen, in this country – which demands innovation and intervention (which we happily raise our hands to). But it was only yesterday, watching the dress rehearsal, that the true extent to which this play absolutely belongs here; in this place, in this way, at this time; became apparent to me.
Yes, the play is voyeuristic. It is, on the surface, a hyper-naturalistic portrayal of a woman’s evening from the moment she returns from work to the moment she decides, in the dead of night, to do something about her loneliness. She says nothing and does little of interest. That’s not the point. The point is the act of looking in – the transformation of the audience from passive spectators into fly-on-the-wall voyeurs. But it goes further than that. By staging it in this way – live in a shared 3D space, rather than behind a proscenium arch – it does more than push your nose up against the window. It pushes it through.
All of a sudden we are confronting ourselves through Miss Rasch; we can choose to experience her actions as our own through the simple act of acknowledging “yes I behave or exist in this way” or “no, I don’t, I would do this instead…”. Suddenly, the play evolves from an act of outward voyeurism into an hour of inward meditation – if you are willing to let it.
It is remarkable that a play that is 44 years old can retain this power almost half a century after it was written. The key to this is Kroetz’s acknowledgment of its limits. His first instruction is that the play, set in a Bavarian bedsit in the early 70s, must be altered for contemporary and cultural equivalencies. For us this is a fascinating exercise in dramaturgy, filtered through Katharina Hehn’s translation. Life does not function in the same way that it did in 1971, but the feelings are absolutely the same. By resisting the ease with which Request Programme could have quickly become a period piece (which I admit for some would be a more interesting visual experience but at the expense of its more powerful contemporary resonance), Kroetz has future-proofed his work. So we can say that our production, though much changed in detail from the original text, is very much the same play.
The author gave a fascinating introduction to the play, in which he explains how it was inspired by police reports about real people living under similar circumstances, and says “if the explosive force of this enormous exploitation and suppression did not target, alas, the suppressed and exploited themselves, the situation would be ripe for revolution. Only in this way is it possible for the inhuman order in which we live to be sustained“. He gives voice (ironically) to the voiceless thousands who live behind closed doors, trapped in the routine of social and economic immobility. With this interpretation – and our new government’s plans – in mind, the timing for a British production seems like remarkable foresight on our part! (Unfortunately it’s a coincidence, but theatre does have a habit of turning up in the right place at the right time.)
Already, after only one day, the production has highlighted our ability as a company to divide opinion and to ask our audiences to shed their passivity, if only inside their own minds. Many left in tears, some were struck by Rachel Wood’s skill as a performer (myself included, and this is my eleventh production with her!), others commented on the novelty of the experience. Meanwhile one audience member commented online that unless you want to feel bored, irritated, trapped and depressed, you should avoid our production. Actually, we quite agree.
How else are we to give Kroetz’s voice to the voiceless if we are not prepared to ask you to experience those same feelings, which his text – and our production (of which we are immeasurably proud) – explores so poignantly?