Katie Mitchell’s tenth anniversary production of Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life opened at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre last night (Wednesday 14 March 2007, previews from 8 March), for a limited run to 10 May (See News, 2 Nov 2006).
A rollercoaster of late 20th-century obsessions, Crimp’s “17 scenarios for the theatre” cover everything from pornography to ethnic violence, terrorism and unprotected sex care of a strange array of nameless characters who try to define one woman. The cast are: Kate Duchene, Michael Gould, Jacqueline Kington, Claudie Blakley, Liz Kettle, Dina Korzun, Helena Lymbery, Paul Ready, Jonah Russell, Zubin Varla and Sandra Voe. The technically advanced, multimedia production is designed by Vicki Mortimer, with lighting by Paule Constable.
Overnight critics were divided in their reactions to the piece. While some loved the inventive use of new media and enjoyed the humorous pastiches of popular television programmes and styles, others found the cast rushing around to set up television screens and cameras distracting and longed for more on-stage drama. While they agreed Mitchell brought originality to Crimp’s play, one or two reviewers felt she over-complicated the already ambiguous plot with special effects.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (4 stars) – “Attempts on Her Life is no less intriguing than it was ten years ago at the Royal Court. But Katie Mitchell’s revival… elevates it into something else: a brilliant, updated (with instant video replay, projections, microphones and music) application of Brecht’s alienation effect in considering the slippery identity of an all-purpose 1990s woman…. The most striking aspect of the production… is its non-stop technical activity…. The cast… assembles in a straight, rippling line before embarking on a non-stop dash between musical instruments and video and sound equipment. A large screen selects scenes and images from the scramble on stage below, and actors are seen from a constant variety of angles, as is Anne’s biography. The fragmented nature of the show does not, paradoxically, militate against the actors making an impression. Apart from his definitive Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ Superstar, I had no idea that Zubin Varla was such an accomplished musician…. Other stand-out contributions come from the delightful Claudie Blakley, Dina Korzun (a Russian actress lending supermodel glamour to the car speech), Liz Kettle, Kate Duchene, Paul Ready and Jonah Russell. But this is above all an ensemble achievement of a kind you rarely see.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (3 stars) - “Much as I admire Crimp's text, I'm not sure it is helped by Katie Mitchell's hi-tech revival, which has strong echoes of her recent version of Virginia Woolf's Waves…. Since the play is an attack on limiting definitions, it is hard to pin any single meaning on it. But it partly pursues the Pirandellian idea that coherent identity is a myth. Crimp goes even further than the great Sicilian, however, in creating a prose-poem that implies our notion of the individual ego is being steadily eroded by a mixture of rampant consumerism, global capitalism and technological advance. The virtue of Crimp's play is that it offers carte blanche to its director. But Mitchell's version for me focuses too exclusively on media manipulation at the expense of the play's political purpose. On a stage crowded with lights, cameras and video screens, each scene becomes a new set-up offering us a different image of Anne. And, while this means the 11 actors are kept restlessly busy, it too often turns the play into a self-conscious media satire.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (1 star) – “Anyone who attempts to understand, let alone appreciate, Martin Crimp's satirical panorama of political, cultural and social decadence in the decade before Mr Blair took control of our lives in 1997, will find its director Katie Mitchell gets in the way. It is hard enough to follow Mr Crimp's streams of consciousness as they flow in multiple directions and 17 scenes, without a specific plot or real characters to serve as anchors in the choppy waters of the non-sequential narrative. Mitchell, until recently one of the finest directors of her generation, distracts from what is said and done, with frantic on-stage activity as her performers double as scene-setters and musicians and work several video cameras…. Mitchell keeps nudging us to observe her flamboyant creative process. Her actors, pontificating as absurd cultural arbiters on television or dealing with a girl's attempted suicide, tend to overheated performances…. Anne becomes the ‘new Anny’, a car in a revue-style scene that begins as marketing hyperbole and develops into a scathing, surreal apology for a vehicle that has no association with the world's violence or depravity. Typically the scene's verbal potency is lost because it succumbs to Mitchellitis - a dreadful form of directorial embellishment. ”
Alice Jones in the Independent - “An ‘open text’, Attempts on Her Life refuses to assign lines to specific characters and notes only that it should be played by ‘a company of actors’. It's a dream ticket for Mitchell, a keen practitioner of director's theatre. And she really goes to town here, dealing with the play's transfer from its original intimate setting to the cavernous Lyttelton stage with a large cast of 11, all kitted out with face microphones and cameras…. In this hugely ambitious production, the action is entirely played out on screens above the stage. On to these are projected the movements and speeches of the cast in a huge variety of filming techniques - noirish close-ups of the feet of a murder victim morph into overlit television commercials and grainy police videos…. In many cases this video work is spectacular and effectively evokes a society in which life is lived through a lens and every action is filtered by the media. But Crimp's clever-clever writing is often submerged in the whirl of camera-work and pastiches…. By the end of two hours of close-ups, I began to crave some human warmth from the stage, rather than just scurrying around setting up cameras…. At times this piece about the spiritual vacuum at the heart of Nineties, and now Noughties, society felt just like an art installation - slick, chilly and a little shallow. But, then again, perhaps that was the point.”
- by Caroline Ansdell