Bluets, Royal Court, 2024
Photo: Camilla Greenwell
  • Theatre, Experimental
  • Recommended

Review

Bluets

3 out of 5 stars

The mighty Katie Mitchell directs Ben Whishaw in an obliquely alluring adaptation of Maggie Nelson’s poetry collection

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Time Out says

One problem with taking over a famous new writing theatre is that everyone is expecting your first season to be some great statement of intent, but you’ve actually only had about five minutes to cobble together a programme (and you’re not allowed to just bung on a revival). 

What new artistic director David Byrne’s first main house Royal Court show ‘Bluets’ definitely does show us about him is that he can call upon big name directors – the eternally hip auteur Katie Mitchell – and actors – Ben Whishaw, who co-stars with Emma D’Arcy and Kayla Meikle. 

It is, however, not a new show, but rather an English language remount of one that premiered in Hamburg in 2019. I’d say a bit of massaging has been done to present it as new writing in the same way as the rest of Byrne’s inaugural season: this a new adaptation from rising star Margaret Perry, but the words are very much those of author Maggie Nelson, this being a staged arrangement of her 2009 experimental poetry collection of the same name. 

The source text is a dense and complicated thing that consists of over 200 mini poems, with the main thematic obsessions the loss of a lover, a quadriplegic friend, and the colour blue. 

In performance it definitely feels closer to a single oblique narrative in which desire, anxiety and the colour blue intermingle into an unknowable, often strangely alluring whole. In a memorable early passage the narrator - or narrators - talks about their collection of blue objects and how they just put them in their mouth, letting a liquid dribble out. It’s a movement of alien eroticism that feels strangely indistinguishable from their desire for a departed love and concern for a disabled friend.

I think you’d clearly need to sit down and study the original poems for a good while to pick up every nuance and allusion – it is certainly too dense and abstract to work as ‘a drama’. In a similar manner to Mitchell’s recent ‘little scratch’, Perry’s adaptation divides the text into three voices, who may or may not constitute different characters, but adds a note of personality that helps make the text more digestible. 

Whishaw is quiet and intense; D’Arcy has a wry, sardonic quality; Meikle is earthier and more emotional. Perhaps they represent different people. Perhaps they are aspects

of the same whole. 

In many ways all of this has just been preamble, as the main point of a Katie Mitchell show is the Katie Mitchelling. Live video is having a moment in the West End thanks to Jamie Lloyd’s recent conversion to the medium. But Mitchell has been a master of it for years. Here each of the performers has a screen set up behind them displaying differ recorded backdrops - a street at night, or the inside of a car, or the banks of a river - which they move about in front of in the spot as if they were going for a walk, or driving, with the action relayed to a big screen where it looks kind of like a film. The effect is somewhat comical if you look at them directly – movie star Ben Whishaw bobbing about in place pretending to go for a walk – but aside from the fact a splash of humour is probably not a bad thing here, it inevitably looks really great on the big screen. As ever with Mitchell, the text is interesting, but the real action lies in admiring her virtuosic staging – the cast are good, but they’re skilled cogs in Mitchell’s prodigious machine.

It’s all a bit obscure. It feels somewhat strained by the larger Downstairs theatre (it would have absolutely slayed in the Upstairs theatre). Ultimately, it’s a five-year-old Katie Mitchell show, that’s extremely cool to get to see but falls a bit oddly as the very first main house show of Byrne’s very first season. But there are sound, pragmatic reasons for all this: as stopgaps go, it’ll definitely do.

Details

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Price:
£15-£58. Runs 1hr 20min
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