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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Susannah Clapp

The week in theatre: Shifters; The Human Body; Nachtland – review

Tosin Cole and Heather Agyepong, ‘tremendous’ in Shifters.
‘Like pieces of a jigsaw facing in the wrong direction’: Tosin Cole and Heather Agyepong, ‘tremendous’
in Shifters.
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

If I were running London theatre, I would put Lynette Linton in as artistic director of the Young Vic, from which Kwame Kwei-Armah has recently announced he is stepping down. Linton has made the Bush, which she has headed for five years, glow, while igniting terrific stagings at the National (Blues for an Alabama Sky) and Donmar (Clyde’s). She has hardly been hiding her light under a Bushel, but it is time to make another theatre quake.

Her production of Shifters brings together – fervently and precisely – writing, acting and design talent. It is only three years since Benedict Lombe erupted on to the stage of the Bush with her first play, Lava. This new play is still more gifted. Shifters is partly about the way memories stain the way we see the present. Yet every moment feels on the pulse and precarious; no reactions are predictable.

Alex Berry’s design is like the action: spiky, bright, rapidly changing. On a bare stage lit by fluorescent tubes whose colour varies as time passes, a man and woman meet, several times; they re-enact their first encounter as “two little black kids” at school near Crewe, drawn together and competitive about their differences. Dre (Tosin Cole) is outgoing and apparently relaxed; Des (Heather Agyepong) is quick to fire up, ambitious and more prosperous: “Our house is like your house gave birth to it,” says Cole. His family is Nigerian; she is British-Congolese. They understand each other; they almost date; they separate. They… I must not say.

Agyepong and Cole are tremendous at suggestion and suppression. They move around each other as if magnetised, their dialogue half-mimicking, half-challenging, with humour blowing away sentimentality. For much of the play the two are like pieces of a jigsaw facing in the wrong direction. I am glad I did not realise immediately that Des was short for Destiny and Dre for Dream: that makes the evening sound portentous, when it reverberates because it is light on its feet. I can’t remember being in the theatre when each new twist was accompanied by so many squeals, exasperated sighs and urgings-on. Shared breath between audience and actors.

The Human Body offers a captivating, messy New Look. Postwar Britain seen through a female lens. Lucy Kirkwood’s drama – opening a week before Tim Price’s play about Aneurin Bevan at the National – regards the foundation of the NHS through the eyes of one of its new female doctors. It reconsiders 40s romance, offering an alternative version of Brief Encounter: she, not he, is the doc – and they do it. Oh, and against her earnest will, the heroine swaps her 40s box-pleated, hit-me-at-the-worst-part-of-my leg skirt for a cinched Dior waist and full skirt.

Glimmering performances by Jack Davenport and Keeley Hawes focus the all-over-the-place charm of Michael Longhurst and Ann Yee’s production – Longhurst’s last as artistic director of the Donmar. Davenport is gracefully funny as a minor movie star who has made a career out of playing rotters (“I’m very credible as a moral vacuum”). Hawes, flickering between calm and febrile, is a committed socialist, aiming for parliament. She is said to be “clenched” – but though her vowels are strangled and her speeches finger-wagging, it is she who moves in for the first kiss. Her forthrightness with her patients steadily unpicks sexual stereotypes. “Do you enjoy connection with your husband?” she asks one woman. “What is there to enjoy?” is the response.

Action is seen doubly. On Fly Davis’s minimal design in NHS blues and greys, and on a screen showing fine closeups – fingers nearly touching alongside half-drained glasses on a restaurant table – in granular black and white. Ideas about the difference between stage and cinema, love and romance, float without quite landing. This is an evening that, despite its firm advocacy of the NHS, rarely feels urgent. What delights is the carefully worked detail – the doctor’s daughter is called Laura, the name of Brief Encounter’s heroine – and uniformly strong acting. Tom Goodman-Hill, nimbly multitasking, is memorable as the war-veteran husband, lamed and bitter. Pearl Mackie and Siobhán Redmond project an extraordinary range of figures: a nurse, a ferocious and raunchy MP, women fighting against illness. As the propaganda movies neatly parodied here (interviewed as a Labour party candidate, the heroine ends up giving tips on keeping lettuce fresh) point out: a woman’s work is never done.

The London stage has been seized by political argument from Germany. Last week, Thomas Ostermeier’s explosive remaking of Ibsen, in An Enemy of the People. Now Patrick Marber directs Nachtland, a new play by Marius von Mayenburg translated by Maja Zade. Both productions capture a burning moment. Marber’s has less headlong rush.

Anna Fleischle’s design ingeniously suggests the lumber of old inheritance and allegiance: a stage cluttered with household objects as the audience take their seats is cleared to show a mildewed gingerbread house. Going through their father’s possessions after his death, a woman and her brother discover a painting which may be – the level of competence and dullness is about right, the signature disputed – by Hitler. Revelations about the family’s past follow, and a series of crucial textbook debates. Is a work of art contaminated by the action of an artist? Which artists are actually free of contaminating opinions? If the picture is to be kept and sold, who should profit? What price are anyone’s principles? The brother’s wife (impressive Jenna Augen) is Jewish and outspoken, the person who gives the evening its most human tremor: “Now she’s gone, we can speak freely.”

Marber’s production smartly swerves between naturalism and surreal derangement – raising the question of whether the two modes are actually distinct. Angus Wright’s Hitler-friendly purchaser comes on in bondage gear; Jane Horrocks’s art dealer (Nazis a speciality) is a gimlet-eyed doll; Dorothea Myer-Bennett – who, though you would not know it, stepped in at the last moment when Romola Garai withdrew from the production – is creamily fierce.

Harshness is fringed with skittishness – a tetanus-ridden arm rises, John Cleese-style, into a Nazi salute – and with some grim sibling-sex frolics. Bowie is played; Augen sings. Yet the action is deliberate; no character truly disrupts expectations. Von Mayenburg makes saying the unsayable look too easy.

Star ratings (out of five)
Shifters ★★★★
The Human Body ★★★
Nachtland ★★★

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