Why? at Polonsky Shakespeare Center

<i> Why?</i> at Polonsky Shakespeare Center
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Picture Credits: SIMON ANNAND

I will begin at the end. Three actors – Hayley Carmichael, Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni – are seated on simple black chairs on a sparsely decorated stage, facing the audience. They conclude that there are three kinds of truth:

‘My truth.

Your truth.

And the truth.’

As I leave the Bouffes du Nord, Peter Brook’s former residency and home to his latest work ‘Why?’ – a collaboration with Marie-Helene Estienne –  I feel disappointed. Not because the play failed to make an impact but because truth seems unattainable in our current political climate. Truth has been slandered by the Trump presidency, by Brexit, by the dawn of ‘fake news’. Even the word seems to have lost its meaning, become obsolete. What does truth matter if no-one is held accountable for their lies? I recall my drama teacher’s dismay when during a televised trial a defendant was described as a good liar, as an actor. ‘Acting isn’t about lying,’ said my teacher. ‘It’s about telling the truth.’

I attend the play with my friend Martin. As we discuss ‘Why?’ on our way home, I realise our interpretations are heavily influenced by subjective experience, by our own truths. I come to the play as an ex-drama student with a sense of nostalgia and longing for the stage. Martin comes as a son of Russian and Ukranian immigrants who fled to the United States in 1910 to avoid persecution. These two experiences meet during the 90 minutes of this play and in some way define its two distinct halves. 

Why?’ starts as an informal introduction to the theatre, with the actors claiming God created theatre on the seventh day. Apparently problems ensued when the directors, producers, writers and actors all clamoured for the top spot. When God is asked to explain theatre to his angels, he simply writes ‘Why?’ on a tiny square of white paper. The three actors then grapple with their own definitions of the theatre. Hayley Carmichael asks, ‘Why do we give our lives to the theatre? Or is it the theatre that gives us our lives?’ 

A reprieve from this existential questioning comes in the form of sketches, anecdotal in tone, depicting the pitfalls of treading the boards. ‘It’s a catastrophe,’ says Kathryn Hunter, storming onto the stage and collapsing into a chair, ‘I only have one line!’ I laugh out loud at this. Her line is, ‘Master, your carriage awaits.’ Her character is known only as Messenger. It might as well have a number after it – the final nail in the actor’s coffin. The actors proceed to practise the same one line over and over again, playing with the intonation and the delivery, trying to squeeze as much drama out of those four words as possible. There is no room for error with only one line. It is a funny insight into an actor’s life, and more precisely, an actor’s ego. At drama school, after auditioning for Stephen Sondheim’s musical, ‘Into the Woods,’ I was similarly preoccupied:

As long as I’m not in the chorus, I thought. I was cast as the chorus. 

As long as my character has a name. My character’s name was ‘Chorus’. 

As long as we don’t all have the same costume. We wore matching sage-green pyjamas and had our hair decorated with leaves and twigs spray-painted gold. 

As long as I’m not last in the programme. I was second to last in the programme. 

I found comfort in the joke that as one of the trees, I had landed the title role. 

The stage and the minimal setting of Why? are almost a parody of drama school and the earnestness and idealism of its students. The actors are head to toe in black, except for Marcello Magni’s incongruent white trainers. The walls are artfully distressed, the floorboards scratched. The actors remain onstage throughout, rendering their entrances and exits visible without the traditional shelter of the curtains or the wings. The set consists of a tattered oriental rug, three chairs, a few scripts scattered on the floor, some mobile clothing rails that often serve as door frames, and a large square of floral patterned fabric.  

We soon learn that this style of staging – no curtains, no barrier between audience and performer, and even audience participation, are directly inherited from Vsevolod Meyerhold, a Russian playwright and theatre practitioner. It is easy to be blasé about these conventions now but at the time, Meyerhold’s ideas were revolutionary. Integral to his vision was an acting system Meyerhold coined biomechanics. A demonstration of which is projected on the back wall of the theatre. It is a grainy black and white film of two actors – a woman and a man – performing a sequence of movements that are mirrored by Magni and Hunter centre stage. My eye is drawn to Hunter as Magni lifts her from a lying position on the ground straight to standing in one swift movement, holding her by the back of the neck. Her body, rigid as a corpse, seems to pivot from the floor, her strength defying her small, birdlike physicality.

The second half of ‘Why?’ focuses on Meyerhold, the price he paid for pursuing his vision of what theatre was and could be – his life, his career, and his death, aged 65, at the hands of the NKVD. The actors recite dates, events and letters, including correspondence between Meyerhold and his beloved wife, Zinaida, and to his former mentor and friend, Konstantin Stanislavski. The recitations are dry in their delivery, especially compared to the more animated first half of the play, but this detachment allows the facts to speak for themselves. Two facts in particular stay with me:

17. The number of stab wounds Zainaida suffered after intruders entered her Moscow flat in July of 1939 and brutally attacked her. This included stab wounds to her eyes. Her killers were never formally identified, but were widely believed to be NKVD.

During his incarceration, Meyerhold was given a fur coat. It is astonishing, given the treatment – or rather torture – of prisoners such as Meyerhold during Stalin’s Great Purge that this gift was delivered to him at all. It was the same coat he wore as he was lead into the freezing prison courtyard in February 1940 and executed by firing squad. 

Throughout this account of Meyerhold’s life, black and white stills, mainly photographic portraits, are projected onto the back wall. Meyerhold. Stanislavski. Zinaida. And, of course, Stalin. The most haunting image, however, is one that is left to your imagination: Zinaida in an open casket, the obscene beauty of her body covered in flowers, each one strategically placed to hide the stab wounds and the empty sockets of her eyes. 

Meyerhold was charged for working as a spy for Britain and Japan. The three actors reveal that Meyerhold retracted his initial confession, insisting that he had been speaking under duress. He wished to change his testimony and reveal the truth. His truth.

I leave the theatre with more questions than answers. A little deflated, I admit to Martin that I was hoping for a more uplifting theatre experience, a night of reminiscing about drama school days. Martin is deflated too, but for a different reason. The show has knocked the wind out of him, reminded him of truths closer to home, the horrors of state oppression, the necessity of art to escape it. Perhaps this is exactly what Brook and Estienne set out to do, to present the extreme spectrum of theatre, from the joyful absurdity of an actor’s ego to the altruistic nature of a highly political practice.

I will end at the beginning, on the eternal question passed down by God to the angels on a tiny square of white paper: Why?

Why do actors give their lives to the theatre? 

Why do oppressive states kill people for theatrical ideas? 

And ultimately, why is theatre at once so ludicrous and yet so important? 

Perhaps it is a reflection of the complicated nature of truth itself. 

Why will run from 21st September to 6th October at Polonsky Shakespeare Center

Anna Pook

Anna Pook is from South London. She obtained an MA in prose fiction from the University of East Anglia, where she was the 2014/15 recipient of the Man Booker Scholarship. Her short stories have featured in the Mechanics' Institute Review, Litro, and Megacity, a forthcoming anthology from Boiler House Press.

Anna Pook is from South London. She obtained an MA in prose fiction from the University of East Anglia, where she was the 2014/15 recipient of the Man Booker Scholarship. Her short stories have featured in the Mechanics' Institute Review, Litro, and Megacity, a forthcoming anthology from Boiler House Press.

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