Inspired by Dostoevsky’s 1868 novel, The Idiot, Katie Mitchells latest production for the National builds on the multimedia techniques she deployed two years ago in her staging of Waves.
If you have seen that production then certain aspects of some trace will be familiar. A screen fills the back wall of the stage and the actors create scenes which are filmed and projected onto this screen. Every frame is beautifully composed and lit, shot in rich black and white. The performers double as technicians, setting up props, positioning cameras, wielding microphones, and all the while hitting their cues with perfect timing. Its a hypnotic process, thrilling to watch.
While the images created are already, individually, arresting (a vase apparently spinning in midair, a plate of burning banknotes, a soup bowl teeming with maggots) the contrast with the manner of their construction is equally fascinating. Sound effects are created in front of us, music is played live and rain comes out of a plastic bottle.
There is an intentional dislocation between what can be seen on the screen and what is taking place on the stage below. Moments of conversational intimacy are filmed with the actors sitting on opposite ends of the stage with their backs to one another, each facing a separate camera; close ups of hands and faces are filmed using different performers and then seamlessly edited together on screen; a couple who appear to be lying in bed are actually standing upright with a sheet wound around them, the camera tilted to give the impression they are horizontal. In this way the onscreen image, the illusion of reality, is picked apart, deconstructed, but in a way that adds to, rather than detracts, from the image itself.
There is humour too, in this gulf between process and product, an appealing absurdity in watching Ben Whishaw jiggle up and down in front of a smeared pain of glass to simulate a train journey or watching Hattie Morahan repeatedly puff out her bridal veil to give the impression of motion when she is actually walking on the spot.
Not having read the novel proved not to be the hindrance Id feared, and while the details of the plot may not always have been explicitly clear, Mitchell and her company of performers successfully conveyed the essence of the narrative, the intensity of the emotions the sense of doomed passion between Whishaw’s Myshkin and Morahans Nastasya is strong. But, despite this, the actual moments of dramatic power were few. Myshkins epileptic fit was one, and his comforting of his consumptive friend another, but the technical demands of the production allowed for little in the way of interaction, little in the way of emotional connection. Morahan has a wonderfully expressive face but it was underutilised, there was always another shot to prepare for, and any moment of stillness was fleeting, punctured by the constant dash of the actors to arrange the next set up, by the sound of cables unfurling and tripods being erected. Even though this was necessary and intentional it became tiresome at times.
A film, once completed, is a set, unchangeable thing, but the opposite is true here. Every performance creates a new version. Rewind, start anew. Nothing is fixed. Mitchell together with DP Leo Warner and set and lighting designers Vicki Mortimer and Paule Constable, have created an extraordinary, if often frustrating, piece of theatre. And it is theatre, no matter what some of her detractors say; this is a stage exercise. The trouble is, it too often feels like exactly that, a technical, aesthetic exercise; the head nods in approval, the heart leaves feeling rather undernourished.