Friday, 21 October 2011

It’s the end of the world as we know it...

The scanner bleeped as I walked through the doorway. The security guard beckoned me over and looked through my handbag. Then the questions began:
“Are you religious ma’am?”
“Are you patriotic?”
“Did you vote in the last election? How did you vote?”
I felt my hackles rising, as I snapped “That’s private!”

No, I wasn’t going through US Immigration (just as well) but entering into a theatrical experience. Decade , the National Theatre/Headlong production that reflects on the events of September 11 2001 and their consequences, is a piece of site specific theatre that takes place in a former trading room near the Tower of London. On entering, the audience has to pass through a simulation of a security check point, which is a brilliant device for encouraging you to suspend disbelief. It’s an extraordinary position to be in; you become part of the action of the play, but you’re an actor without a script, and there’s an uneasy feeling as you don’t really know what to expect.

Once safely through security, you descend into a large room, echoing with piped easy-listening music, to be greeted by actors/waiters who take you to your table. The room is styled after the famous restaurant in the World Trade Centre, Windows on the World. At each end are windows the full height of the wall, each with a copy of the view over New York that would have been seen from the genuine restaurant. The tables even have replica menus on them.

This is immensely disorienting, and the mundaneity of the background music only adds to this feeling. The production is a patchwork quilt of pieces by different writers, all remembering 9/11. Some of them work better than others. Although the main point of action is a circular stage in the centre of the room, the whole of the space is used, most spectacularly the glass windowed mezzanine floor running the length of the room. At one point, this was chillingly used to represent the windows of the Twin Towers, behind which the doomed workers watched in disbelief as their world ended.

One of the best pieces took place on the central stage, which represented a New York newsagent/general store, run by a Muslim family, in the vicinity of the World Trade Centre. We’re shown them as a key part of their community, before the atrocities, and then how their position shifts afterwards. It’s a brilliant depiction of how the formless, unfocused anger at such events seems bound to take shape and find the nearest target, however inappropriate that may be.

For me, the one piece that really did not work was a dialogue between a journalist and a the soldier who killed Osama Bin Laden. This tried to mimic genuine conversation, with the two actors interrupting each other and finishing each others sentences. This is easy to do by accident in real conversation, but hard to pull off when done deliberately (try it and see!) so it came across as stilted and artificial. For the most part, the actors were astonishingly good, and the staging was mesmerising. At various points, thunderous noise broke, and the lights went out, simulating the effects of the ‘planes landing. Genuinely scary.

I can’t say it made me think in a new way about the events of that blue skied September day, but it did bring it all back. I remembered with piercing clarity that feeling of shock at seeing the events unfurl on the tv screen, and how, for many weeks afterwards, I was unable to see a plane flying across the London sky without a shiver of fear.

A connection could be drawn between the two subjects of this blog post; both feature depictions of apocalyptic events. But if the end of the world is as beautiful as this film, at least it will be nice to look at. The opening sequence is a series of stunning, surreally beautiful tableaux, so as not to spoil it for you I’ll only mention one; the sight of Kirsten Dunst, against a stormy sky, with lightning shooting from her finger tips and the telegraph poles in the background. All this to a background of desperately romantic music from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

Ms Dunst is a revelation in this film, especially to those most familiar with her work from the Spiderman movies. The first half of the movie features her wedding to Alexander Skarsgård, familiar to True Blood fans as Eric Northman. Her character, Justine, is whimsical and reckless. Her family treat her as a child, particularly her older sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). In the second part of the film, Justine is deep in the throes of a depressive episode, being carted off to her sister’s beautiful mansion. This is one face of melancholia. But the other face is far more devastating.

Turns out that a hitherto unknown planet, called, wait for it, Melancholia, is on a trajectory towards Earth. Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) represent the two opinions about this; John believes the scientific community who claim the planet will pass by and leave Earth unharmed. Claire is filled with an almost superstitious dread that the end is nigh. You feel pulled into this, as the movie progresses; pinned in place by a terrible inescapable event.

The film plays with the idea beloved of astrologers, that the planets affect our moods. It shows how the depressive Justine, who is completely unable to cope with the normal course of events, comes into her own when facing disaster, in complete reversal to those around her. The action all takes place on Claire and John’s lovely estate; the first scene is the bridal car returning from the wedding, struggling to negotiate the steeply winding road. The characters seem trapped in this place; when Justine tries to leave on horseback, the animal refuses to cross the stone bridge which forms a boundary to the estate.

The photography is astounding; from the shot of naked Justine moonbathing on a river bank, to the images of the encroaching planet in the sky. I reeled out of the cinema in a state of shock. I literally couldn’t speak for about half an hour (an uncommon event). I am going to see this film again (and probably again, and again). If you want to be truly taken out of yourself, then you should do the same. 

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