Bluets at the Royal Court – review

Maggie Nelson’s celebrated text comes to the stage, with a cast of Emma D’Arcy, Kayla Meikle and Ben Whishaw

Kayla Meikle, © Camilla Greenwell
Kayla Meikle, © Camilla Greenwell

Another week, another new artistic director sets their theatre on an exciting path for the future. David Byrne has cemented his arrival at the Royal Court with a production so technically sophisticated that it leaves the head spinning, but so full of poetic feeling that it penetrates the heart as well.

Bluets is a novel by Maggie Nelson that has been adapted into a play by Margaret Perry – and staged by director Katie Mitchell using the Live Cinema technique that she has been perfecting to present new images of female experience, by a judicious and telling mixture of film and live action.

It is experimental and engrossing, taking us inside the head of one woman whose consciousness is embodied by three actors – Emma D’Arcy, Kayla Meikle and Ben Whishaw. “I am falling in love with a colour. I am falling in love with blue”. The words come from their three mouths but string across the space like a single thread.

Blue, it quickly becomes clear, is not just a colour but also a state of mind. This woman is heartbroken, distraught and unmoored without her lover who has left her for the another woman. She is obsessed with his loss, unable to shake off thoughts of him, seduced by thoughts of water, of death, of drowning.

The language is both everyday and heightened, an adaptation with the rhythm of music. Samples of songs from Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” and Billie Holliday’s sad rendition of the blues form part of the elaborate soundtrack.

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Emma D’Arcy, © Camilla Greenwell

I don’t think I would have known without reading the programme that each of the actors represents a different strand in the woman’s thinking – one obsessive, one depressive and one determined to distract – but it becomes quickly obvious that all the different meditations on meaning, on colour, on pain and on illness all add up to a much bigger and almost existential view of suffering.

The words are presented by the three actors standing by desks, with screens behind them showing everyday activities.  As they speak, they act out what they are describing, conjuring the onscreen images with simple and yet complicated devices: laying a hand with a drip on a sheet to create a hospital bed; leaning into a picture to convey the idea of train travel; walking down steps in front of an image of an escalator. Bedtime scenes are conveyed through the camera by the simple act of lying across a table draped in a duvet, provided by scurrying stage managers, always present but never properly seen.

Ben Whishaw, © Camilla Greenwell
Ben Whishaw, © Camilla Greenwell

There is so much to watch and process. Overhead, a larger screen captures images of water, of the sky, of trees.  Sometimes props are introduced to let the actor touch the branch of the tree she is describing, for example. In an utterly beautiful sequence, Whishaw raises his face to a light, and the film of the action is shown submerged in water rippling above him. Both in live action and screen picture, the actors have a sense of intent purpose. However complex the technical demands made of them, they give a performance that is utterly unified and entirely believable. The vast technical teams too excel in every area.

Bluets isn’t always easy to fathom; its ambition sometimes makes it confusing. It’s occasionally hard to settle with it, to know where you are. But it is stylish, and full of wonder, a compelling portrait of sadness that somehow finds its way to acceptance and even hope. It’s a fascinating start to a new era in the larger Royal Court space.

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Final performance: 29 June 2024