With the body of Jean Baudrillard still relatively warm, it is fitting that Katie Mitchell has managed, to such a large extent, to craft her stupendously, courageously ambitious version of Martin Crimp's Attempts on Her Life in the great man's image.
And image is the important word. From the moment that the safety curtain crunches open to reveal a set-less Lyttleton stage littered with recording equipment it is clear that the production will rely heavily on the moving image, a feeling that is confirmed by the dauntingly huge screen that drops into place after the first scene; what is not immediately apparent however, is quite what a fascinating deconstruction of the medium the show will become.
With staggering precision Mitchell presents Crimps disjointed scenes and their ambiguous heroine using cinematic jump cuts, 360 pans, cross fades and split screens, documentary interviews, live press conferences, dubbed foreign language advertisements, television panel shows and rock and pop music videos - all of which are realised beautifully live on stage and then projected onto the giant screen above the seamless ensemble who scuttle across the cluttered stage, hauling lights, cameras and instruments with a grace and naturalness that is breathtaking.
On an aesthetic level what they create is wonderful. The images that rear up on the screen are almost universally breathtaking. Delicate compositions, perfect digital altering and editing and some simply superb acting that manages to be at once theatrical and cinematic and never less than utterly convincing.
And yet without intelligence and intent all this magnicent(ly complicated) visual experimentation would be showy but meaningless. What Mitchell's dense storm of genres and mediums lay bare is the artificial, superficial and essentially constructed nature of the film and television as a means of representation. Crimp's elusive narratives allow Mitchell to deconstruct the apparatus through which truths are told to us.
Baudrillard is most remembered (in the US at least) for once bodly asserting that the Gulf War did not take place, in part because it consisted almost entirely of images that stand in for (and hence, necessarily replace) reality. He described the war as:
a masquerade of information: branded faces delivered over to the prostitution of the image, the image of an unintelligible distress.
Such a description is a fitting summation of the production and it could be similarly argued that in Mitchell's hands Crimp's play does not take place. It is always displaced, dislocated and rendered entirely artificial. And yet such a treatment feels entirely appropriate to Crimp's haunting, ambiguous text. For what is at the heart of Crimp's play - underneath all the representations and simulations? Precisely nothing. A woman who is 'an absence' and a large red bag that is only full of stones. Crimp, like Baudrillard, believes only in the surface, the object.
Mitchell seems to grasp that Crimp's text is so seductive precisely because it is constantly evading meaning, reason and depth. The protagonist is an empty red dress that drops into view as if from the gallows. Occasionally it is worn by one of the ensemble but it is always apparent that it is the hollow dress that is the character with actor inside it. In one magnificent scene Mitchell harnesses Crimps voices into a televised Newsnight Review style panel (replete with stand-in Tom Paulins and Germaine Greers who bought guffaws of laughter from certain sections of the audience) who critique scenes from an experimental film that are created on the other side of the stage without pastiche or parody. Both the panel and the film are projected onto the giant screen without bias. The piece becomes at once the film and its opposite, the criticism of the film, and both are demonstrated to be equally constructed. In another scene of similar evasive beauty, what begins as an English press conference with a Spanish translation is slowly transformed to the point where the English press conference is a translation of the Spanish. Opposites colide and are demonstrated to be the same.
It all only feels real.
The play and the ensemble become trapped in this procession of images, in this apparatus of representation. They are at once the apparatus and the subject. Indeed it is significant that all the actors are recognizable from film and television; from the start their faces already feel incorporated into the all-consuming multi-media simulacrum that we are fed every day as news, documentary, information and entertainment. By the end their language (and the viewer) is so exhausted that we have ceased to imagine there is meaning in their superficial play; and as they sink into the stage still talking it is quite conceievable that they could continue to do so indefinitely.
As has already most likely become apparent, for those (and there are many) who find Baudrillard unbearable, this piece will likely be equally so, for all the same reasons. It is ironic, evasive, glib and contradictory, and it doesn't have an interval. People continued to walk out throughout the two hours it ran for and the old man sitting beside us tutted and wrung his hands until I thought he might chew one off and throw it at the actors.
I however loved almost every moment. It was a wonderful, challenging and effortlessly entertaining exploration of the loss of self in an era that is ever more dominated by the moving image. It is also the kind of bold, theatrical experiment that, technically and financially, could only happen at the National, so hats off to Mitchell and Hytner for putting together such a memorable show. With this and Faust Hytner's serious faith in some wonderful young artists has resulted in undoubtedly my two favourite shows of the last twelve months. Go see it. Now.