Forests @ The Barbican

As I walked into the auditorium, there was a cool atmosphere radiating from the stage. The white back-drop of the set created a blank canvas for the performers, and with the warm light emitting from the wings, an early spring air was brought in to the theatre. The giant tree in the centre of the stage mirrored the signature location of Waiting for Godot, but this was no Beckett play. I was watching Calixto Bieito’s Forests at the Barbican.

Bieito’s focus is on the different depictions of the forests in Shakespeare’s work. The piece explored elements of the magic and playfulness of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the romance of As You Like It. But it also includes the fear and horror of Macbeth, and the deserted mountains of King Lear. Bieito looks at the different themes in the unconventional way he is recognised for.

But what the frick was it actually about? The play starts off with the actors walking around the stage while the audience are taking their seats, everything seeming normal in their actions and very naturalistic. Once everyone is seated, and the house lights are lowered, it is a completely different atmosphere.  Everything is turned upside-down from then onwards. Hayley Carmichael, who is obviously playing a middle-aged woman, suddenly strips off all her clothes, and is dressed as a young girl. The athletic Christopher Simpson, swaps clothes with Katy Stephens, and so is dressed in a flowy black dress, stilettos and a wig. He still looks pretty damned good.

The first part of the play was fun to watch, the actors behaving like children at a party: running around, play fighting, and giggling all over the place. But towards the end of the piece, the mood darkens, as the plays move from Shakespeare’s comedies and romances to the tragedies. Roser Cami is stripped from the waist down and stapled to the wall, raped, and later on she is rolling on the floor topless, while she cuts herself. Was the nudity necessary? I don’t know. I was too busy trying to make sense of what I was actually seeing on stage, than to worry about why a naked woman was forced to fellate a tie.

The minimalist set, designed by Rebecca Ringst, did play a huge part in the delivery of the performance.  The long strips of paper floating from the air brought to life the carefree nature of a child, and when the actors pulled them off, the move to adulthood and growth was evident. About two-thirds of the way into the piece, the large plastic covered platform under the tree was torn away by the actors, to reveal soil, which poured out all over the stage. This was the move into chaos, the dark and bloodied components of life Shakespeare puts in to his words.

The performance was enjoyable to watch in a way. I mean Shakespeare’s plays have been hanged, drawn and quartered and stitched back up again in so many different ways over centuries now, that something different, like this piece, is actually the kind of reworking we need. It really was not that bad. I did enjoy playing “which Shakespeare play is this line from?” and that’s always something fun, right?