Reviewed: Orpheus and Forest Fringe

Limitation so often breeds invention, except in this case, when it doesn't.

Orpheus; Forest Fringe
Battersea Arts Centre, London SW11;
Gate Theatre, London W11

Jean “Django” Reinhardt, the virtuosic, Belgian- born jazz guitarist, lost the use of two fingers on his left hand when his caravan caught fire. Doctors believed he’d never play again but the 18-year-old retrained and, using only two fingers for solos, developed a unique technique that revolutionised guitar-playing. Limitation so often breeds invention.

The touring company Little Bulb Theatre has always held that principle dear. Its work is homespun, ramshackle and delicately whimsical but it has more pluck than Reinhardt’s left hand. What sort of emerging company, a year out of university, throws together “an epic folk opera” in a fortnight? Or teaches itself new musical instruments from scratch to tour a village fete around rural England? It has always fostered a gleeful, untutored amateurism that is utterly infectious.

For its retelling of the Orpheus myth, Little Bulb has taken over the Grand Hall at the Battersea Arts Centre. The problem is, without its former limitations, it ends up trying to fake its ragbag appeal. To do so, it uses the old play-within-a-play trick; the one that Shakespeare pops on to the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We’re in 1930s Paris, in a music hall, and Reinhardt is starring as the eponymous muso-poet alongside Yvette Pépin – a Piaf-style proprietress – as his lost love Eurydice.

Cue an overdose of overacting. Dominic Conway’s Reinhardt smoulders and postures as the romantic lead. Eugenie Pastor’s Pépin, so desperate to please her audience, plants her feet, waves her arms and faces front, a nervous smile fixed on her face. All the knowingly naive stage devices are there, as well: painted scenic backdrops, scene-stealing choruses and clumsy puppetry. It’s pretty much Peter Quince’s Pyramus and Thisbe but that comic coda here lasts the entire evening and it runs out of steam.

The whole thing feels contrived. The backdrops are carefully designed to look elegantly shoddy. Every awkward exit that gets tangled in the velvet curtain clearly sets off with the intention of entangling itself. In short, the clowning just doesn’t cut it.

Little Bulb wants to send theatre up and uphold its beauty at the same time. Occasionally, the latter breaks through, often musically. There’s a glorious aria from Tom Penn, sung in a spine-tingling falsetto, which retells the Persephone myth; a blast on the room’s vast, inbuilt organ; and a lot of awesome, tub-thumping gypsy jazz. Conway’s solos are particularly astounding. He sits front-curtain and stares at his audience like a cobra hypnotising its prey.

Orpheus is undone by his gaze: the look back that condemns Eurydice to death. However, that aside, there seems no real reason to frame the myth in this way. It’s not clear why Reinhardt is an Orphic figure and his presence does little to illuminate Orpheus. Rather, the decision justifies the musical style in much the same way as Shakespeare gets plonked in arbitrary time-space settings.

If Little Bulb fakes failure, Glen Neath and Ant Hampton have woven it deep into the fabric of Romcom, which headlines the first week of the Forest Fringe residency at the Gate. Two completely unrehearsed performers stand onstage, obeying instructions fed to them through headphones. Sometimes, their lines race ahead of them or they’re given the wrong words. At other times, the instructions aim to humiliate, demanding nosepicking, bum-scratching and long stretches of dancing in silence.

They’re acting out a distorted romance. Boy meets girl. A string of awkward dates breeds love. The relationship disintegrates. In this, form meets content. It catches the fluster of early courtship and the self-absorption that unravels relationships. “We’re incompatible,” she says to him. Yet they relax into it and into each other. After all, romance – and romcoms, in particular – follows a set script.

But Romcom also shows its age. First seen in 2003, it doesn’t go far enough with its chal lenges. It flirts with danger where later audio-instruction work has thrown performers and, subsequently, audience members in at the deep end. Then there’s the wilful obscurity of the text. Experimental theatre has got a lot better at communicating in the past decade. It has recognised the benefits of neatness.

Part of the pleasure lies in revisiting the piece with different performers. Neil Callaghan, in a too-small Brazil shirt, seems borderline autistic, while Christopher Brett Bailey, in an oversized Arsenal top, is sardonic, petulant and immature. Opposite Callaghan, Karen Christopher seems younger than her years; Ira Brand, older than hers. Casting comes to seem like a form of matchmaking. In the second half, these performers show their own work. It’s unfair to criticise works-inprogress but Callaghan’s deserves a special mention. A Certain Shaft of Light, a movement piece hymning the North Star, has a rare, hold-your-breath, world-stopping beauty.

He recalls Bernard Moitessier, the French yachtsman, who, seven months into a roundthe- world race, deliberately veered off-course and just kept going. His was not the fastest solo voyage but the longest. In front of a makeshift constellation, the Big Dipper in tea lights, pointing up to a candlelit North Star, Callaghan goes through a series of exhausting, exertive movements. He flings his arms and slaps his back. He scuffles backwards. Other performers would show how hard they’re working. Callaghan just carries on, neither failing nor succeeding, and it’s all the more moving and profound for that.

“Orpheus” runs until 11 May “Forest Fringe” runs until 4 May

Orpheus at the Battersea Arts Centre. Photo: littlebulbtheatre.com
Photo: Getty
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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem