Attempts On Her Life @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Claudie Blakley
Kate Duchene
Michael Gould
Liz Kettle
Jaqueline Kington
Dina Korzun
Helena Lymbery
Paul Ready
Jonah Russell
Zubin Varla
Sandra Voe

directed by
Katie Mitchell & the company

When it comes to things postmodern, Martin Crimp is something of a fundamentalist.

For this new production by Katie Mitchell, he deemed it necessary to empty Attempts on her Life, of all its characters, stage direction, narrative and storyline.

Instead Attempts is composed of a series of independent scenarios, each seeming to describe an individual: the elusive ‘her’ of the title. An optional, introductory segment – a moment of exposition, as it were – is omitted here, escalating the sense of ambiguity.

These accounts are contradictory, casting Anna (at times, Annie, or Anya, or Anne) diversely, as a tour guide, a terrorist, a pornographer – and even a motorcar. The character becomes conspicuous in her absence, and on the occasions she does take the stage each time played by a different actress her presence seems to be masking the emptiness beyond.

The text plays on our propensity to narrate, and on our expectation that the theatre will flatter this desire; presented with a chaotic, barely coherent mass of images and sounds, we quite naturally forge what footholds we can. But the clues are slippery, and the scenarios resist our attempts at synthesis.

Thematically, the play therefore seems indebted to Beckett and Joyce. Whereas the former used silence to evoke the abyss, Crimp does so in a clamour, evacuating his writing in an obstreperous fit of shouting. Fittingly, Mitchell’s production is a hullabaloo.

Played out, simultaneously, on stage and screen, the performance uses live video feeds – edited in real time – to emphasise the sheer constructed-ness of the image. This is no mean feat, and is accomplished with invention and dexterity.

Rather than staging each scene distinctly, the action is coagulated; when not directly involved, the surplus cast members prepare for what is to follow, arranging trick-shots, furniture, lighting, cameras, and costumes. Spectatorship is seldom so exhausting.

However, whilst Attempts on her Life is energetic to the last, the awe slowly subsides the play struggling to sustain its initial impact for the duration. This is perhaps inevitable, the writing at times being literary to the point of esotery. If it wasn’t already apparent, Attempts may not be to everyone’s taste.

But you don’t need a copy of Lacan or Barthes to appreciate the humour, which Mitchell wrings from the material. There are some riotous moments in there, and these perfectly counterbalance the more sinister moments.

The decision to spread the directorial burden – to open up the play, democratically, to the company (who are credited alongside Mitchell) – was inspired, a true masterstroke; the foregrounding of any single subjective viewpoint would undermine the writing, and it would take a bold figure to return the despotic alternative in the future.

Crimp’s play may very well give you a headache – but this production proves that some headaches are worthwhile.

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