Relocated; after all

Relocated. Written and directed by Anthony Neilson. Designed by Miriam Buether, lighting by Chahine Yavroyan, sound design by Nick Powell. With Frances Grey, Phil McKee, Staurt McQuarrie, Katie Novak, Jan Pearson and Nicola Walker. Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court, London, until July 5.

WHY AND WHAT. I thought that my opportunity to comment on Anthony Neilson's Relocated, seen in London, at Royal Court Upstairs, had well and truly passed. I saw it good two weeks ago, which would not be such a problem had I not, in the past two weeks, been immersed in experimental theatre. The poetics of post-dramatic are so wildly different from the normal, text-based Anglo fare that my recollection of why I was so impressed with Relocated strikes me as distant and unusually simplistic. However, after so much discussion has taken place in the global theatre blogosphere – quite uncharacteristically for what is a parochial world most of the time – I feel I owe to the conversation to try to articulate myself a bit better, with a bit more time.

WHAT WE HAVE SAID SO FAR. In summary: many thumbs-up reviews, plus Michael Billington, as reviewed by me; followed by Natasha Tripney's balanced disapproval, mainly of the fact that the horror of a real-life story was evoked with “the trappings of a horror film”, with interesting comments, including by Anthony Neilson himself; on the same day, Anthony Neilson responded to Michael Billington, rejecting the notion of play-as-thesis. George Hunka's response to my objection to criticism-as-London-knows-it resulted with comments on the fact that I have not written anything substantial on Relocated (yet am so quick to judge). Since, Andrew Haydon has written a reaction to the play – again with a very interesting sequel in the comments, and so has our Melburnian Alison, who may have gone due to my repeated insistence.

WHAT WE KNOW, AND WHAT WE DON'T. If Alison was not impressed with the horror aspect of it, I hope it may have been due to the clamour we bloggers have made about it. I went to see Relocated in its preview week, without having read or heard a word about it. Another thing I knew nothing about was the Maxine Carr story, which I have since learned. I had never heard of Neilson before either.

I was told, later, that it was very hard to understand Relocated without knowing the Maxine Carr story; it wasn't. My friends and I pierced that part together without a major problem. I wonder, though, if not knowing it added to our enjoyment. The Josef Frizl half was evoked immediately through details, with a highly enjoyable economy. Perhaps realising it all too soon would have destroyed the vividness of the experience, made it solid too quickly. This, however, is not something I can answer.

WHAT THE AUTHOR TRIED TO SAY. Neilson's other play, I was later told, The Wonderful World of Dissocia, was a stage presentation of mental illness. Commenting on it, Phillip Fisher writes:

“As he did in Realism, Anthony Neilson, who also directs, manages to bring to the stage the kind of free association and wildness of human thought that is generally the realm of the novelist.”

THAT, I find significant.

WHAT I SAW. I think it is clear that Relocated is not a commentary of any kind, least of all a moralization, but an illustration. It is not interested in asking questions. It does not care, exempli gratia, to tell us why people are fascinated by real-life horror stories such as that of Josef Fritzl; why women relate to abusive men, like Maxine Carr did to Ian Huntley; it is not exploring “issues” such as child abuse; it is certainly not suggesting that “confronted by cases of the maltreatment of children, society resorts to facile condemnation without examining the causes”. It is, merely, an illustration of a traumatized mind.

Here we are, trapped in the head of a person who fears and fears. She may be the fiftieth identity of her body, akin to Maxine Carr as we imagine her, or she may be a person who knows about Maxine Carr the way she knows about the children of Josef Fritzl, from the BBC radio. Trauma can feel like the world is full of thorns, with mind recoiling in pain, twisting blindly trying to escape a diffused, generalised pain. In the play, we are on a short circuit in this woman's psyche, going back and forth without a solution, experiencing her fear as the fragments of two stories collide in her confused, anxious mind, splinter and crack and form strange constellations without a great deal of logic. To an extent, she is struck by these stories the same way we are. There are some primordial anxieties here: doubt in the basic integrity of a person we share a life with, de-stabilization of identity, being locked up in the dark. Any of them, experienced directly, would suffice for a lifelong trauma: there could be any trigger for this nightmare we are in. But we are in it with her, as she is struggling to regain the coordinates of her sane self. To deploy a whole array of horror technicalia, to keep us barely breathing, is not merely a decoration: it is fundamental to the purpose of the piece. If we are to understand what it is like to live in a world where small things, BBC radio, can trigger agonising episodes of existential doubt, despair, hysterical fear, how else? None of the characters moonwalking on stage, thus, are as important as the overwhelming fright: that is the resting point for our empathy.

We are quick to praise vivid presentations of human mind in literature, with its free association, illogic, compelling yet utterly irrational reasoning. When Ana Karenina falls out of love with her husband because she notices his ears are hairy, we sigh at the bright colours of this life-like conclusion. I cannot escape the feeling, however, that the same logical organisation in theatre, especially when presented predominantly in image and sound (without the authority of words), is viewed as suspicious, less dignified, somehow pulp. As if we have let ourselves be seduced by an old, unhygienic hooker. As if feeling with the protagonist of the play is not honourable enough: we ought to think profound thoughts, too.

A WORD ON THE PRESENTATION. Within the threadbare framework of pre-post-dramatic theatre (to tell a story, to involve an audience, to make us feel with rather than think of), I believe Neilson has found a place that is genuinely new. It is worth noting that, two weeks on and numerous post-dramatic plays under the belt, I can still recall Relocated in fine detail.

This is what I believe happens. The constant edge-of-the-seat horror sharpens our senses, makes the audience thoroughly attentive, receptive to the tiniest details of what goes on. The mise-en-scene, an ugly black thing with only the barest traces of set objects, amplifies the actions, sounds and images like a resonance chamber; the actors are so few, the dialogue so sparse, the entire play based on such a limited vocabulary that nothing is superfluous. Our űberspannt audience absorbs it all: the circular logic of the story, the elliptic narrative, the unsaid and the suggested. The moment we walk out, and ostensibly calm down, the elements of the story almost immediately start coming together. (How much of the meaning is spelled out too strongly is a question for whoever was intimate with the Maxine Carr story a priori. For this viewer, there was just enough logic to keep it one piece until the train crash that the last few moments were.)

Neilson's writing/directing process (which reminds me of Lally Katz) creates a piece where the actors, the lines, the space, and the moment in time are very carefully matched. In a world without ensembles, this coordination is becoming increasingly rare; and merely a few days earlier I had witnessed a production in which loose ends of the text were flapping wide open like rags, disregarding the cynical audience, the moment in history, its own actors. Relocated is a psychological spectacle, of course, with no subversive openings, just like Random Dance's Entity is an intellectualized spectacle. But it is a sensuous and emotionally rich spectacle.

CODA. My one disappointment is that Neilson's other plays look even more interesting. Compared to Dissocia and Realism, Relocated seems a bit unimaginative, a bit flat. Another thing I have been wondering is whether the sense of horror will wear off, defiantly, with promotion and reviews and word of mouth. How long did Blair Witch Project remain the scariest film of them all, again? And fear, in this case, is the main emotional building block. Renounce the fear, and the key to the cathedral is lost.