Ben Whishaw in Bluets – Royal Court Theatre

Bluets is a dream of a show

Ben Whishaw in Bluets at the Royal Court. Photo: Camilla Greenwood

Bluets is not a theatre show, it’s an unusual hybrid of stage and screen. It certainly won’t appeal to everyone, particularly those who love pure theatre. On the plus side, it’s not like far too many recent gimmicky stage productions where video is used to provide close-ups or scenes of what’s happening off-stage. Normally I would avoid that sort of thing, but this is something special.

It’s the making of a film, live, with the actors reciting words from Maggie Nelson’s book Bluets, while carrying out actions that are projected on a large screen. I admit this sounds more like something you might see at Tate Modern, and without the presence of Ben Whishaw, maybe it wouldn’t have made it to the stage of the Jerwood Downstairs theatre at the Royal Court. Having said that, director Katie Mitchell does have a long and distinguished record of creating what she calls ‘live cinema’. But, if it does sound strange, or even off-putting to you, I can only say I found Bluets both fascinating and deeply moving.

Let’s start with the words. After all, it is based on a book of what could be called short prose-poems, in which Maggie Nelson describes and meditates on three recurring themes- the effect of and gradual recovery from the breakup of a relationship, a close friend’s reaction to becoming a quadriplegic, and her fascination with the colour blue, which is genuinely interesting.
Kayla Meikle in Bluets. Photo: Camilla Greenwood

The language- its rhythms and metaphors- is poetic and moving. It’s also quite funny in a self-deprecating way. For example, she is excited to come across a book called Deepest Blue (I think) in a bookshop, only to find it’s about depression. She hastily puts it back, only to tell us she bought it six months later – pause- ‘online’.

Ben Whishaw will have sold many of the tickets and he does deliver, with a sad voice and a twinkling eye, but so do the other two actors Emma D’Arcy and Kayla Meikle. The trio sit in a row, sharing the lines, so that the words are delivered almost staccato by their alternating voices. The effect is to make you concentrate and hear every word. I found that the varied voices and personas made the author and her highly personal subject matter seem more universal.
Emma D’Arcy in Bluets at the Royal Court Theatre. Photo: Camilla Greenwood

Then there is the videoing. Each actor has a table next to them, a camera in front of them, and a monitor behind them. The film, shown on a big screen above them, illustrates what is being said. The actors sometimes stand in front of the monitors, as if they are green screens, and this, thanks to superb lighting by Anthony Doran, converts onto the large screen as them seeming to walk down a street, drive a car, or dry their hair in a changing room. Often, the actors’ heads or hands are viewed in close-up as they rest on a pillow, or touch each other, or handle blue objects. It is an extraordinary experience to watch them talk and move, sometimes in synch, and then see this, combined with some pre-recorded moments, become a movie before one’s eyes.

Cinema, which is usually immutable, becomes a live performance. The way it can change in small ways from night to night suggested to me the way our mental lives -feelings, memories, dreams- change with each circumstance and in each moment. The live video is a masterpiece in coordination, designed by Ellie Thompson and directed by Grant Gee.
The adaptation of Maggie Nelson’s book by Margaret Perry is a fine work in itself, and the soundtrack by Paul Clark, which mixes music, nature and street sounds, is as disturbing and reflective as the language.
Bluets is only 70 minutes long but it has the timeless quality of a dream or a memory.
This is the opening production of the first season by the Royal Court’s new artistic director David Byrne. After a lacklustre period under Vicky Featherstone, when I all but stopped going to the Royal Court, I am now looking forward to some exciting times ahead.
Bluets can be seen at the Royal Court until 29 June 2024
Paul was given a review ticket.
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