Missing the forest for the peas: Secret Theatre Show 1 at the Lyric Hammersmith

Secret Theatre Lyric

In Sean Holmes’ speech a few months back the Lyric’s artistic director sharply diagnosed that theatre in this country has succumbed to a corrupting reign of commercial interests over artistic merit. Holmes announced his attempt at fixing a corrupting system. The result is a season of up to seven shows the title of which would not be revealed in advance. At the Lyric Hammersmith.

As a theatre-maker, the transition from a German rehearsal room to a British one can be quite a culture shock. Here, chances are that, as an actor, if you want to discuss a character’s motivation you will be told in no uncertain terms by the director to stand where he tells you to and say your lines. It shouldn’t be like that, but I’ve seen it happen.

This segmentation of a wholesome creative process extends to all parts of the production process, and as someone who comes from a strong (European) dramaturgical tradition, it still is highly bewildering to me. This is why when I read Holmes’ speech it was as if someone finally saw what was wrong in the over-saturated British theatre industry. In its worst manifestations, it treats its actors like cattle and its audience like crop that only needs to be harvested, and here was someone set on doing away with the dictator-directors and literal bores and bring back the playing and questioning.

Things Sean Holmes forgot to mention about central European theatre is that more often than not it’s hopelessly hierarchic, and its mistress might not be commercial success but a self-imposed debt to tradition with an annoying compulsion to shock audiences. Even the small city theatres (at least in Germany) seem to suffer from some kind of Faust or Georg Büchner OCD.

So what I expected to come of this experiment is a piece of theatre full of artistically uncorrupted vision, an idealistic union of the the merits of both systems that enables creatives to discard all of the structurally rotten aspects.

How disappointing then what really is presented on stage is a muddled and unengaging rehash of an overdone play which has been done sharper and more acutely before. Whereas the OneStopArts editor was annoyed by Show 2, I was merely disappointed which, in a way, is even worse, because I want Holmes’ project to succeed so very much.

The marketing ploy of secrecy (that created a bit of a storm in a teacup when one critic revealed the title in the interval of the press night) hardly amounted to more than a nice anticipatory buzz ten minutes before the show and lasted until about three minutes into it. Before the first words were uttered I knew what the piece was going to be. And from then on the thrill of secrecy crumbled away along with every unrealised potential of this project.

The tale is of penniless soldier Franz (Billy Seymour), who commits himself to questionable medical tests to earn a bit of money on the side for his family. His scrupulous doctor (Steven Webb) gets overexcited when Franz has delusional periods because of a forced pea diet and his wife Marie (Katherine Pearce), who is fascinated by the military glitz and allures of the drum major (Charlotte Josephine), all contribute to Franz turning into a mentally unstable person. The piece could raise all sorts of fundamental issues about privilege, jealousy, exploitation of the working class, moral and virtue.

There is a moment in which the cast gives us a beautiful canon rendition of “Der Jäger aus der Kurpfalz”, a traditional German folklore song which originally had strong sexual connotations. It illustrates how the ensemble’s relationship with the text is deliciously layered. This is theatre that demands so much from the audience, yet gives back so little entertainment and viewing pleasure. I don’t think that the creative team will count this as a negative criticism but that’s how it’s meant.

Considering that the show clocks in at just 75 minutes it’s astonishing how much uninvolving ennui there is. While there were some very good performances, I did not particularly feel that the ensemble inhabited the characters better because of their special work process – a big issue if that is one of your selling points for the season.

So why has this shot at a theatrical utopia not quite worked out? For one, it’s just a bit lazy to draft up an artist manifesto that claims that failure is as instructive as success. What do these concepts even mean in an experiment that tries to cut itself loose from the dictate of commercial success?

And even more importantly: nothing is truly that different. The creative vision that we have been promised turns out to be a resolute refusal to narratively ease the audience into the fragmented scenes of the original. I truly admire that Holmes has made room for methodological ruthlessness in the rehearsal room. The stark aesthetic approach and the unresolved roughness of this production pays tribute to this process of working towards a greater understanding of the material. Crucially, however, the production fails to extend the depth of this understanding to their audience. Part conscious alienation, partly a punchless meandering around the original fragmented material, this production has not left its draft state. Some will find this exciting, and some simply won’t.

Having said all of this, the first two secret theatre shows may not have wowed, but let’s not give up yet on a more idealistic approach to creating theatre on a commercially relevant level. For the rest of the coming season I’m hoping for more new writing, more viewing pleasure and, in the spirit of finding back to “playing”, maybe even a little less self-important earnestness on everyone’s part (that, by the way, includes us critics too).

Review originally published on OneStopArts Theatre.