Has the National Theatre put the Lyttelton on Airbnb?
A theatrical experience
In October, we had the city-break-length two-week run of Alexander Zeldin’s The Confessions (quite long enough, in my opinion). Now we have a staycation-lasting ten days of performances for Kin, brought to us by theatre company Gecko.
This show’s run seems even more fleeting when you hear it was developed following Artistic Director Amit Lahav’s devising process. A process which takes over three years. That means for every performance during this run, there were over two months’ worth of rehearsals.
Let’s assume this isn’t a sub-letting side hustle though. Filling these brief gaps between longer runs is smart. Judging by the styles of the two “just here for the weekend” shows so far, it could be the National’s (financially viable) way to house theatre that may be seen as more, well, “theatrical” than usual.
I’m using the term, facetiously, as shorthand. I mean the sort of shows that usually hot-foot it from Edinburgh to runs at the BAC or Riverside. Theatre which is sometimes exquisite, and sometimes just crazy bonkers. Productions often lauded by, perhaps made only for, an audience of theatre students and professionals.
Is this a good plan? It certainly opens doors to more theatre companies. And it offers the potential to see something different to a theatregoer whose adventurous spirit often loses the battle against the comfort zone.
Different is exciting. Though not always enjoyable. (I refer you back to The Confessions).
Considering this context, it’s difficult to know how to review a show like this from a company such as Gecko. With a strong identity and unique approach, Lahav is already being studied as a practitioner. One of the Lyttelton performances is for schools-only. A quick scan of Gecko’s YouTube channel shows endless comments from those forced to watch for a GCSE Drama assignment.
There will already be fans. There will already be detractors. There will also be a whole swathe of people in the middle who just don’t get excited by this sort of thing.
I can extol the virtues of Kin until every ice-cream in the (non-existent in this show) interval has melted. But the truth is, it will either be completely your bag. Or it won’t. And you’ll probably know that if I just objectively lay out the facts.
Kin is a show some would reductively file under ‘physical theatre.’ Events are represented through dance. It is more like flicking through a picture book, admiring a series of stylish tableaux, than watching scenes.
We hear sounds rather than words. What speech there is uses several languages, some of which may have been invented. No narrative exists to drive us forward. No (traditional) set displayed to ground us.
Throughout the show, Dave Price’s pre-recorded original soundtrack blasts us from all sides. Underscored with music that sounds Eastern European, I’m pretty sure it also plays much of the singing and occasional speaking we hear.
And that’s how it goes for an unusual and interval-free 80 minutes.
I’m going to guess you’ve made your decision already, haven’t you?
Of course, there’s more to it than that. But that’s my point.
Kin explores family and the role it plays in defining the place we call home. And home is seen through the eyes of immigrants. Lahav originally wanted to tell the story of his grandmother, whose family travelled to Pakistan from Yemen to escape persecution 100 years ago.
But don’t expect to see this story. It’s not until the third year of devising that the ‘Making Year’ commences. By then. the idea has evolved to incorporate the performers’ own stories, and the piece still has at least three more drafts to go through.
The result is a series of moments. Trying to find a narrative will only result in frustration. But if you let these moments exist and wash over you, you may be surprised at the impact they have.
We see corruption at border controls. We see violence at refugee shelters. We see exhilarating highs getting beaten by devastating lows. We see how dreams of a better life, a better world, are shattered by the reality of a life without shelter or money.
We see something of ourselves in the suggestion that we are only welcoming to the people who seem most like us. That to be accepted, others must follow our values and beliefs and reject their own sense of self. Even when that self includes the colour of their skin.
Shocking as it may be, this doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. Arguably, with no narrative, it doesn’t ‘tell’ us anything at all. The strength of Kin lies in its avoidance of dramatised factoids, and overused cliché. The fact that I am able to summarise my understanding of their non-literal representations surprises myself.
And for 80-minutes, it remains engaging. Any longer and I’m not so sure. More than hour of emotional balladeering and it starts to sound like painful caterwauling.
Staging is key to the show’s impact. Design, music, and sound become integral in the second year of Lahav’s devising process (the ‘Writing Year’). And it shows.
Props turn into lights, sweeping across the stage to create and eviscerate settings. Guards beat drums that are never there. A family scales a mountain while never leaving the ground. People melt away. Non-existent crowds clamour.
The physical, visual, and sonic combine to make a whole much grander than its parts. It has a visceral energy and moments that are deeply, profoundly moving. I found myself reacting emotionally, even when mentally, I wasn’t sure why.
It makes Kin something more than a typical show. If you will allow me the pretension, it is a theatrical experience.
All that said, let’s be honest here. If you’re completely closed to this genre of performance, you probably always will be. An hour or so watching Kin won’t have you racing to YouTube to search for DV8. (If you know, you know. If you don’t know, I’m surprised you’ve read this far).
But if you have a tiny chink of curiosity in you… If you get excited by the idea of seeing something completely different, but falter at the prospect of a journey to Hammersmith or Battersea… If you have an hour and a half to spare and find yourself on the South Bank…
If any of these apply, I would highly recommend getting yourself down to the Lyttelton and giving it a go. Worst case, you’ll be non-plussed, but still be home for dinner at a reasonable hour. Best case, you’ll feel you have experienced something that is, at times, extraordinary to witness.