The comfortable seats of the erstwhile Courtyard Theatre (the RSC’s temporary main house while the Royal Shakespeare Theatre was being redesigned) have been replaced by raked benching. The intention is to return this address to its name and function of The Other Place, a home for new and more left-field work; this programme of two double bills (which visit the Royal Court in London briefly next month) are intended as a foretaste of what will once more be an integral part of the RSC’s work as of 2016.
The Other Place is the particular bailiwick of deputy artistic director Erica Whyman, who seems to have bagged for herself the two wackier plays here. However, wacky doesn’t necessarily mean fruitful. The Ant and the Cicada is an attempt by Timberlake Wertenbaker, the biggest of the playwriting names involved, to revisit the edginess of half a lifetime ago while also retaining the wisdom of maturity. The result is a muddle. As two sisters and a wealthy investor argue about developing an old family property on a Greek island, Wertenbaker tries to avoid claiming to have the politico-economic answers, but her method is to garble the questions themselves into incoherence.
Revolt. She said. Revolt again. by Alice Birch is a series of scenes illustrating maxims for revolutionising one’s life, illustrations that grow increasingly absurd. I was reminded of the perspective of psychologist R.D. Laing’s poetry, which examines intimate relationships by distilling them to abstraction. Birch also overcompensates when countering the marginalisation of women, coming close to outright misandry.
Jo McInnes directs the other pair of plays, of which Abi Zakarian’s This Is Not An Exit is a brief, banal glimpse of a woman awkwardly negotiating the family and career myths of “having it all” while keeping her own identity. The most engaging of the quartet is I Can Hear You by E.V. Crowe, which uses an ordinary modern family – not dysfunctional, but distinctly atomised both socially and emotionally – to ask what would happen if the grief of bereavement were assuaged in the most literal way and the dead could come back to us. Crowe combines whimsy with uncomfortable home truths, and the company blend conventional dramatic acting with out-of-kilter situations.
This is a tentative first step in reconnecting with the RSC’s more experimental side; there is some way yet to go before both they and we settle back into this mode.