Fervent supporters praise her bracing single-mindedness, exasperated detractors accuse her of sheer bloody-mindedness. Most agree, however, that director Katie Mitchell has a unique and theatrically rigorous vision. Nowhere is that more evident than in her new production “Attempts on her Life.” London theater simply has nothing to compare with its dazzlingly sophisticated interweaving of sound and vision through live action and video. Worryingly, however, the cumulative effect is more display than play.
That’s not to say that Mitchell’s stagecraft is at the expense of the central idea of Martin Crimp’s 1997 play. Far from it.
Crimp’s text, a long way from a drama in the traditional sense, does exactly what the title suggests. It consists of 17 seemingly unconnected scenes, each of them an attempt to present a woman’s life.
And who is she? Described variously as Anne, Anya, Annie and Anny, she is everything — and anything — from the suicide victim suggested by the title to the girl next door; from a porn actress to a terrorist. She might even be a car.
As in Caryl Churchill’s influential 1976 play “Light Shining in Buckinghamshire,” the actors swap parts and even gender to illustrate ideas of character — in this case Anne — in words and images.
Picking up where her recent, equally controversial production of “Waves” left off, Mitchell literally refracts Crimp’s text through a lens. Or, rather, several lenses. Her immaculate 11-strong cast constantly video one another. Their linked images — sometimes in aggressive close-up, sometimes split-screen — are splashed across a giant screen hanging over Vicki Mortimer’s black studio-style set.
Aside from costume rails, lights on moveable tripods, and a bald minimum of furniture and instruments, the stage is bare, making the switch between one scene and another completely fluid.
In effect, the entire evening is less a play, more a theme and variations. Thus it makes perfect sense to have Zubin Varla slip in and out of dialogue to play a Bach prelude or to have Claudie Blakley flirting with the camera with a cigarette dangling seductively from her mouth, then thrashing a drum kit in a rock band.
The cast, all onstage throughout, leap in and out of character in almost ceaseless motion while building this multi-media piece in front of the auds’ almost disbelieving eyes. Together, their brilliant, conflicting representations of Anne perfectly exemplify the overarching theme — the way contemporary life is examined, evaluated, demarcated and distorted by media.
But the production’s dedication to that not only comes up against the law of diminishing returns, it has tunnel vision.
There are a few tonal variations — one scene is a very funny Abba-style video, another is a spot-on parody of the BBC’s high-end arts program “Newsnight Review” — but the overall perspective and pace are almost entirely unchanging.
With the exception of the opening and closing scenes, with the actors lined up across the front of the stage for direct address, the remaining 15 scenes are all mediated by the lens. Watching actors perform and simultaneously act as their own d.p. is initially fascinating. Yet once that wears off, the focus stays on the screen.
Both the stage acting and script detail are diminished by the approach, making it almost impossible to take in the text. Reading the play afterward reveals it to be far less random than the performance suggests.
For all the production’s dark-toned wizardry, it ultimately raises a nagging question: If auds are going to watch a screen for most of the evening, why not cut out the middleman and make it a film?