“It was spoken in this way and it was spoken of in this way”
Returning to the Hampstead Downstairs after the intensely immersive small hours, Katie Mitchell continues to push the boundaries of what this theatrical space can offer by creating its first promenade production – Say It With Flowers. A journey through some of the writings of American modernist writer Gertrude Stein, it maintains Mitchell’s customary inventive approach to theatre – probably unparalleled by any other British director – as she explores Stein’s use of language and wordplay with her own unconventional, and playful, style.
The pleasures that come from a piece such as this are not those that equate to a conventional play – I’ve heard mention that “it isn’t dramatic” but it would seem to me that this is to miss the intentions of both Stein’s writing and Mitchell’s work. Rather than notions of story or character, we’re challenged as an audience about the way in which words are used, how language can define our identity, and how meaning can shift so completely with a slight change of emphasis. These are elusive, even existential concepts that defy simplistic narrative devices and consequently, it is probably best to just embrace the hypnotic swirl and compelling strangeness of this world.
In just short of an hour, we traverse three distinct spaces, each powerfully designed by Alex Eales. The first is a family dinner table around which 4, and then 5, people work their way through a series of lists in an entrancing stream-of-consciousness style; the second is a hauntingly dark corner of a wood somewhere in which a woman tries to work out who and where and why she is; and the third is a generic (living?) room in which a piece of absurdist theatre is played out, wryly postmodern in its playful subversion and funny walks.
And there are plenty of intriguing details, some significant and some possibly less so, that emerge across these three pieces: recurring random images of fruit; Stein’s ground-breaking place in queer history in questioning gender identity and forthright (especially considering the era in which she was writing) representations of same-sexuality; a perverse sense of humour; the way in which we construct who we are through language and how disorientating losing control of that can turn out to be.
Mitchell encourages astonishingly bravura performances from her cast – the rattling recitals of the first act further complicated by having to frequently synchronise the speech with each other – and though all are strong, Sarah Malin’s unnerving intensity really caught my attention.
Unmistakably the work of an auteur fearless in her vision, Say It With Flowers will not be for everyone, but if conventional drama is your thing then why are you booking for a Katie Mitchell show! She’s unafraid to challenge an audience, much in the same as Stein, and the match here is well made. It may pose as many questions as provide any answers but bamboozled as I may have been, it was a pleasant sensation as I was also thoroughly engaged and left intrigued to explore more of Stein’s work.