The verb “to be” in most modern European and south Asian tongues can be traced back to a verb in the Indo-European proto-language which meant literally “to be lost in the woods”. This is a more cogent and interesting explanation of the driving image behind Calixto Bieito’s Shakespearean mash-up than anything one may derive from the piece itself, a contribution to the World Shakespeare Festival seen in Birmingham in September and now visiting London. Bieito and his dramaturg Marc Rosich appear to have taken the forest as an emblem for love, violence, death … all sorts of extremity, and most of the things that make us human. This casts the net so wide as to make the exercise pointless.
Bieito’s cast (four British, three Catalan) begin by disporting themselves around a bare tree perched atop a squat, cubical 2001 black monolith on an otherwise bare white stage. The text in this phase comes predominantly from As You Like It, marking out the forest as a “temporary autonomous zone”, so to speak. Over the course of 100 minutes, matters grow darker and more violent. The monolith is shredded to disgorge a great mound of earth on which performers writhe and half-bury themselves; singer Maika Makovski’s voice becomes less Joanna Newsom and more Diamanda Galás; Katy Stephens staples Roser Cami to a wall in a form of sexual assault; texts are now taken from all over Shakespeare’s dramatic canon, as well as the sonnets and narrative poems, and have long ceased to give a damn about any sylvan motif. From violence to death, and a Beckettian despair as Josep Maria Pou crouches beneath the Godot-like bare tree and record what is in effect Timon of Athens’ Last Tape.
Suddenly the lights snap up, the players resurrect and begin to bedeck the tree with red balloons (are there 99? I didn’t count). This struck me less as a kind of Golden Bough symbol of regeneration and cyclism than as akin to Bobby Ewing stepping out the shower in Dallas and indicating that the previous season had all been a dream.
Hayley Carmichael, George Costigan, Stephens and Pou all give of their best, but in the service of what? I had rather expected Bieito, having chosen his symbol, to give at least a glimpse of how and why it works rather than just leaving it to sit there while he free-associates. More fool me.