dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
Sometimes one can have too much angst
The American philosopher Henry David Thoreau is famed for writing that 'the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation' – and this could be the subtitle of Calixto Bieito's latest play. Because here, in The String Quartet's Guide to Sex and Anxiety, we are shown into the minds of four different characters all existing on the edge.
None of the characters are named and most speak in soliloquies, baring their wounds to the audience in a mixture of agony, philosophy and, very occasionally, humour.
Nick Harris plays the man whose dysfunctional parents led him to develop multiple phobias which he has attempted to control by therapies and medications. Mairead McKinley is the woman who has suffered sexual violence and now equates love with dexterity at oral sex. Cathy Tyson takes the role of the mother whose child has been killed in a car accident and who attempts to be more than 'the mother whose son was killed'. And Miltos Yerolemou is the misanthrope who can find nothing to love in humanity.
Linking their separate soliloquies is music expertly played by the Heath Quartet, firstly Ligeti and then Beethoven.
There are some powerful moments. Tyson is mesmerizing as she tells the story of the death of her child, juxtaposing its horror with the seeming normality of the rest of the day. And Harris' deadpan delivery of his endless list of phobias is a light-hearted moment in an otherwise bleak play. Moreover, McKinley's performance in which she maintains a level of desperate anxiety throughout the entire 90-minute production is also impressive.
But, and it's a big but, the play as a whole doesn't really take us anywhere. Yes, people are unhappy, yes they live through terrible things and yes they sometimes choose not to continue to live with these horrors. But there is a sense of 'so what?'
Bieito is so taken up with symbolism, philosophizing and stagecraft that the stories become disconnected and risk trivialising the very issues they are aiming to explore. Where more subtle writing and direction could have left us with a profound drama, instead there's a frequent sense of frustration as the sex and anxiety is laid on with a trowel instead of a light brush.
As performers wander around the stage, rolling on the ground, clinging onto walls, clambering over chairs and knocking over music stands it's a bit like being hit over the head with the message – these people are very anxious! Stacks of chairs move backwards and forwards, finally crashing to the floor – is this supposed to symbolize the characters finally crashing, is it to replace music with noise – or is it just something to make us jump?
Presented by Birmingham Repertory Theatre in association with Brighton Dome and Festival, Les Theatres de la Ville de Luxembourg and Holland Festival, there are clearly lots of impressive companies who believe in this production. But not so the audience - a half-empty theatre at The Rep on press night does speak for itself.
Created, directed and co-designed by Bieito, one can't help but feel the production would have benefited from an external eye asking 'what?' and 'why?' Even at 90 minutes, The String Quartet's Guide to Sex and Anxiety feels self-indulgent, over-long and a missed opportunity when the cast are such talented performers.