Based on the book by Maggie Nelson, adapted for the stage by Margaret Perry
Royal Court Theatre
Royal Court Theatre

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Emma D’Arcy Credit: Camilla Greenwell
Kayla Meikle Credit: Camilla Greenwell
Ben Whishaw Credit: Camilla Greenwell

Maggie Nelson’s book Bluets is a collection of 240 prose poems (which the author calls propositions) that form a meditation on the colour blue, on pain, grief and lost love and on her relationship with a friend in hospital rendered paraplegic by a terrible accident.

“Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen involve with a colour,” is how both the book and Margaret Perry’s adaptation open, and an obsession with blue becomes a thread through the whole work, from an image of a blue glass marble to blue ink or the pieces of plastic with which a male bower bird decorates his nest to attract a mate.

What makes us see colour? Is it an illusion? How have earlier writers and artists reacted to blue? Nelson references Goethe, Wittgenstein, Derek Jarman and Joni Mitchell.

Heartbroken by the loss of the lover whom she calls her “prince of blue” and especially missing their sex life (six non-stop hours on one occasion), she can feel suicidal. Her hospitalised friend is tragically worse off but proves compassionately supportive.

In this presentation, Nelson’s interior monologue is more than an abstract sharing. We accompany the speaker on her journey as she drives around London, travels on the tube, gazes into the waters of the Thames and visits in hospital. Like her, we can be alone in the city.

Bluets is delivered through a medium that director Katie Mitchell calls Live Cinema. Unlike recent productions from Ivo Van Howe and Jamie Lloyd, which incorporate video close-ups and inserts from other locations in an onstage performance, this creates fluid cinema from detailed live action in real time and often close-up. It is a technique with which she first experimented in a version of Virginia Woolf’s Waves at the National Theatre in 2006 and has refined since.

Here, the narration is shared by three actors: Ben Whishaw, Kayla Meikle and Emma D’Arcy, sentences sometimes divided between them. Together, they form the voice of the same woman despite their own differences. We see them in different locations as they are shot in front of monitor screens running preshot material. Table top camerawork—the bandaged hand of their injured friend, a glass being filled—all edited in real time to be seen on a large screen above the row of cameras, actors and monitors lined up below it.

In the programme, Katie Mitchell and her collaborators give a clear explanation of the process, and Margaret Perry suggests the narration carries three thought strands: “one obsessive, one depressive and one determined to distract”. Is this why there are three voices? Rather than recognising different aspects being reflected by them, I was impressed by the way that they fuse together.

All three actors give committed, persuasive performances, sometimes painful, sometimes elegiac. For the 80 minutes the play lasts, they maintain their composite character while hitting precise positions for the camera, handling props and other technicalities. It is a remarkable feat on all their parts and those of the stage management and the whole crew of collaborators.

It is fascinating to watch the detailed coming together and that creates its own problem. We are presented with a row of cameras and equipment, actors in shadow except for the lighting needed for the camera. We could just watch the big screen as in a cinema, but why then make it live?

The making proves so interesting, I probably need to see it again to properly take in the content, and the technology weakens the link between actor and audiences, which is so strong in live theatre. But, like “the blues”, Bluets somehow offers solace.

Bluets proves challenging and thus makes a good start as the first main house production of David Byrne’s leadership as Artistic Director at the Royal Court.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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