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Review Round-up: Mitchell Finds some trace of a Hit

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Directed by Katie Mitchell and inspired by Dostoevsky’s 1869 Russian novel The Idiot, the premiere production of …some trace of her opened at the National Theatre on Wednesday night (30 July, previews from 23 July) where it joins the NT Cottesloe rep (See News, 7 Apr 2008).

…some trace of her is a multimedia production, mixing video and live performance, and developing the techniques that Mitchell used in Waves, her adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s ground breaking novel The Waves, which will return to the National Theatre next month for a limited run, followed by a National tour. Video designer Leo Warner and designer Vicki Mortimer, who worked with Mitchell on the 2006/7 production, resume their collaboration and supply multimedia design for …some trace of her.

In the cast, Ben Whishaw, who worked with Mitchell on her production of The Seagull in 2006, leads the cast which also includes Hattie Morahan, Helena Lymbery, Gawn Grainger and Sam Crane. The Idiot written by Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, was first published in 1868 and follows Prince Myshkin, a character who Dostoevsky intended to be the perfect human being.

Critics had mixed reactions towards Mitchell’s use of multimedia techniques. While Paul Taylor applauded the “extraordinarily compelling” adaptation, many others found it “curiously uninvolving”. There was widespread concern about the comprehensibility of the piece, with many feeling that those who had never read Dostoevsky’s novel would have difficulty extracting any plot from a piece that is “locked inside its methodology”. Ben Whishaw’s performance was generally applauded, with one critic labeling him the “evening’s big success”. Hattie Morahan faired equally well as the “wonderfully unnerving” Natasya, but it wasn’t enough to make many critics look beyond the “dislocated fragments” which some felt made this “enterprise a non-starter”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) – “One isn’t necessarily looking for narrative consistency in this use of detailed close-up, conflicting yet complimentary imagery of screen and stage, maudlin string quartet music (played live) and endless fiddling about with camera angles, sound levels and lighting spills. But even if you’ve read the novel recently, you’d have a hard time guessing what the hell was going on … Mitchell and her collaborators have at least understood very well that The Idiot is primarily a book about obsession and madness, and the show they present boils down to a succession of states of mind, whispered confessions of fear and loathing, love and helplessness … Encounters on trains and at parties are squashed together in a morbid gloaming which especially favours Whishaw’s unique brand of intelligent moping; he enacts the epileptic fit with frightening ferocity. The National first produced The Idiot, in a stage version by Simon Gray, at the Old Vic in 190 … It was a literal, heavy-handed evening. This is the opposite, and I suppose preferable, but it remains locked inside its methodology and curiously uninvolving. Mitchell’s regular team of designer Vicki Mortimer, lighting designer Paule Constable and sound man Gareth Fry all provide skilled technical back-up, but this is not a revelatory Dostoevsky exercise to compare with the work of Tadeusz Kantor or Andrzej Wajda, whose 1994 film Nastasya is a compelling, hallucinogenic account of the book’s final chapter.”
    • Michael Billington in the Guardian (two stars) – \"…if you didn\'t know the book, I don\'t think you would have a clue as to what is going on. As in Waves and Attempts On Her Life, Mitchell and her team seek to create a piece of live cinema with complex set-ups being projected on to an upstage screen. Thus a shot of Ben Whishaw against a pane of glass symbolises Myshkin\'s famous train journey from Warsaw, though without any hint of the ridicule he excites in his fellow travelers ... Some of the images are undeniably haunting. Inspired by Tarkovsky, Mitchell makes good use of mirrors, and there is a technical fascination in seeing how a flickering white veil is superimposed on a close-up of Whishaw\'s harrowed, hollow-eyed features. But the whole show is about process rather than product. As the multitasking actors scurry about, repositioning lights and cameras and creating sound effects, we are invited to watch how things are done rather than asking why: a classic example comes with the death-bed confession of the anarchist Ippolit, which is stripped of any meaningful context and simply becomes an excuse for a carefully contrived camera angle. As much as I welcome experiment, I feel Mitchell\'s attempts to merge film and theatre are leading her up a cul-de-sac and becoming a repetitive substitute for the movie she obviously yearns to make.”
    • Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph – “…in a better, braver parallel universe, the theatre director Katie Mitchell would long ago have been given the chance to spread her wings and make a move into cinema. Instead, what we are now getting are the distinct, rather distressing sounds of a sensitive temperament running up against the limitations of its chosen art form - like some trapped wild bird flapping against the sides of a cage … We are privy, at one and the same time, to both the back-stage tricks and the on-screen magic - rather like being allowed into a television studio on general election night … As a means of taking us to the heart of Dostoevsky\'s vast, unwieldy novel, though, the enterprise is a non-starter. The ingenious ‘business’ at the front is often distracting, bewildering fragments of the text are spoken into microphones, and interpolations of poetry by Emily Dickinson pile on the confusion. In terms of mood - shadowy, febrile - Mitchell supplies a correlative to the book\'s gloomy introspection, but we\'re fatally starved of specifics. Too much rushing, not enough Russian. We glean that Ben Whishaw - whose fragile feline looks are featured in countless close-ups here - is playing the epileptic protagonist, Prince Myshkin - and that the Prince, smitten with the beautiful Nastasya Filippovna, becomes the sworn rival of the treacherous Rogozhin. It ends unhappily. Much more than that dwindles into murky obscurity. I loved the moment when Whishaw, prone on a table, arms outstretched, shirt billowing, appears to fly on the screen above. As theatre, though, the evening never achieves lift-off. Probably the most superficially impressive and profoundly futile show in London.”
    • Paul Taylor in the Independent (four stars)– \"Ben Whishaw– who is soon to be seen as Sebastian in the film of Brideshead Revisited – is a striking theatrical performer and a haunting camera-subject. He gets to demonstrate that he\'s both in the latest, extraordinarily compelling, multi-media piece by the controversial, audience-polarising director Katie Mitchell … Mitchell\'s devised show brilliantly gets inside the nervous system of a book that conveys what it is like to feel ecstatic joy at existence ... Verses from the American poet Emily Dickinson about the moral sensation of existentially acute predicaments (‘I could not feel to feel’) are eloquently woven into the dark texture of the piece. Hattie Morahan is wonderfully unnerving as the beautiful Nastasya, her manner imperious, her eyes blazing in a mix of anger and terror, and her sense of herself as soiled goods demonstrated by the doll she bathes in dirt. Mitchell could beef up the presentation of Aglaya (Nastasya\'s rival) and of Rogozhin (her nemesis), who both need to be stronger to be explicable to newcomers to The Idiot. Yet …some trace of her is a deeply imaginative response to certain aspects of the novel, not a dutifully illustrated crib.”
    • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (two stars) – Mitchell’s latest production “leaves me bemused, confused and deeply unenthused … Dostoyevsky\'s book just about disappears from dramatised view - being shot to pieces and tiny, splintered shards of it hurled on stage in a ceaseless, multi-media rush of video and theatre images, of strange sounds and quartet music. The original narrative vanishes clean away to be replaced by these dislocated fragments. Those unfamiliar with the novel will find themselves caught in a hopeless struggle to gather what is happening to Ben Whishaw \' s simple-minded, Christ-like Prince Myshkin, who has all his wits about him yet comes both to grief and the attention of Hattie Morahan\'s inscrutable Nastasya … the stage is forever packed with scurrying actors whose duty it is to speak voice-overs, to light, arrange and even film the fragmentary scenes that are both acted on stage and relayed, in subtly altered form, on the large video screen above. I found myself once again, as with The Waves, constantly distracted watching the process of arranging each film shot and comparing it with what you see on video. Miss Mitchell strikes me as being caught in a creative cul de sac. …some trace of her is not so much about Dostoevsky\'s novel as the mental pictures, images and feelings it evokes in her mind. It\'s an aesthete\'s evening of passionate self-absorption.”
    • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “Do not see this weird concoction if you think that the National should confine itself to nurturing live dramatists and reviving dead ones, as it’s doing very well with Howard Brenton’s Never So Good and Thomas Middleton’s Revenger\'s Tragedy. But you might give 90 minutes to the piece that Katie Mitchell and her company have derived from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot if you believe, with me, that Britain’s most important theatre should sometimes take risks, play with strange ideas, experiment with new techniques … Instead of narrative clarity we get a version of The Idiot so impressionistic that those unfamiliar with the original novel will think they’re dreaming or drunk. Why bother to mention Totsky or Ganya when you’re not told who they are? And the emphasis on video effects means that the company spends an awful lot of time scrambling in the murk in order to take photos of each other. It’s distracting, it’s irritating - but, when you see some actors’ faces projected on to the large screen at the back while they converse below, it serves a purpose. The evening’s big success is Ben Whishaw’s Prince Myshkin, who looks as well as sounds the mix of sensitive Candide and caring Candide he’s meant to be ... We’re observing the crannies, corners and twisting corridors of people’s minds, the caverns and catacombs of their souls as they try to discover who they are, what they want, where they’re headed. In other words, a fragmented production gives us the fractured feel of Dostoevsky himself.”

      - by Kate Jackson

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