Review: Bluets, Royal Court

I find myself beguiled by the elegiac washes of Katie Mitchell’s direction of Bluets at the Royal Court

“To summarise, this project with be heathen, hedonistic and horny””

At this point in proceedings, 30-some years into her career, if you’re going to a Katie Mitchell play as a theatre critic and complaining that it isn’t dramatic then I have a brick wall that I would like to sell you for your head. Continually expecting her to deliver anything close to convention is to be on a hiding to nothing, particularly when the source material she is working with is an experimental collection of 240 prose poems, playwright Margaret Perry having adapted Maggie Nelson’s book.

Bluets arrives at the Royal Court as the English-language premiere of a 2019 production originally developed at Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg and so as an opening gambit from incoming Artistic Director David Byrne in his first season, it perhaps nods to proving he can mix with heavyweights, particularly with Ben Whishaw in the company. Still, there’s a boldness to be admired in going with a star name and situating them in something as artistically uncompromising as this.

The main themes of Nelson’s writing centre on the rollercoaster emotional journey of someone thrust into depression after their lover leaves them, conflicted by the desire they still feel, humbled by a friend who has had an accident, distracted by an ongoing obsession with the colour blue. The narrative is fractured between three voices – Whishaw joined by Emma D’Arcy and Kayla Meikle – which elide into an oblique whole which casts a mesmeric spell over the auditorium.

Mitchell utilises her Live Cinema technique to push the performance aesthetic to a different place than simply what we’re used to calling ‘acting’. In Alex Eales’ design, each actor has their own section, their own mini-screen onto which different backdrops appear, their individual cameras then being cast to a larger screen onto which the effect plays out under Grant Gee’s video direction. The result thus feels as much performance art as theatre and for me, that’s no bad thing: as with Mary Said What She Said, there’s not too many chances to see work like this in the UK.

The constrasting styles of Whishaw, D’Arcy and Meikle bring their own quality to the work too, making the elegiac waves of the production undulate in different ways, remaining hypnotic all the while as they connect to the spirits of artists like Jarman and Warhol, Joni Mitchell and Billie Holiday. The ways in which they hymn everything blue in their life is stunning, their interactions with those objects often unexpected, the whole production really quite beguiling.

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