Bluets by Maggie Nelson – review

“Let it stimulate, cleanse and refresh your expectations as to what theatre can be”
Royal Court Theatre
Adapted for the stage by Margaret Perry
Review by: Michael Scott-Harding
afridiziak ratings
Published: Monday 27th May 2024, 8:00am

Bluets Kayla Meikle - credit Camilla Greenwood
Bluets Kayla Meikle – credit Camilla Greenwood

It’s not often that a production comes along that extends the art-form, and points a way to a different set of on-stage possibilities. With that in mind, this review might be more useful if it were first pre-faced with a description of the production. Bluets falls into the relatively novel category of ‘live theatre’, in which the end-result is neither play, novel, essay or filmed stage performance; it is all these things and – in combination – far more, besides.  So…let’s get on the same page.

The stage is divided into three equal sections, with the three ‘live’ actors receiving the same basic set-up. A microphone is set upon a mic-stand for each actor, with a small prop-table to their left and in front of each actor is an expensive-looking digital camera on a tripod, and behind them (upstage) is a video-screen into which they each deliver performances captured by the aforementioned ‘front-on camera’ (as well as other rear cameras).

These performances – as well as pre-recorded visual footage, and soundscapes – are cue-ed, edited, mixed and transmitted in ‘real-time’ onto a huge screen above the heads of all three actors.

This is done in parallel to – and conjunction with – constant lines of poetic dialogue and ingenious physical performances being delivered by the actors, with help from the ‘prop performers’ (who aid the actors with on-stage props, clothing and visual weather-changes).

If this all sounds like a cold exercise in experimental theatre workshopping, let me suggest that this production is not merely a procession of high-tech production choices. What elevates this play are the two elements that should be at the centre of all good theatre: the script, and the performances. Judged on these criteria, the play is sublime.

Writer Maggie Nelson’s book Bluets – from which this play was adapted – is a multi-faceted treatise on pain, subjectivity and perception…through the lens of colour. Its first-person musings on – and recollections of – (among other subjects) a quadriplegic friend, a lengthy ménage à trois, and film director Derek Jarman’s final project are highly engaging. Adapted here by writer/adapter Margaret Perry, the many tragic life-lessons, humorous provocations, poetic allusions and literary devices are delivered eloquently – and with vast emotional content – by three outstanding, complementary (yet disparate) front-line talents.

Ben Whishaw’s A’ is a soft-spoken, hesitant, reluctant presence; curious – incessant… yet perpetually on the verge, it seems, of breaking the spell that keeps him bound to the stage.

In this regard, he is always more than watchable, and never less than listenable; a sublime talent.

Emma D’Arcy’s ‘B’ initially seems inscrutable – unflappable, even. However, as the evening progresses, their ‘true colours’ reveal themselves, as they show the strength of their tenderness and the fragility of their power. Beguiling and primal.

Finally, Kayla Meikle (Marys Seacole) as ‘C. Some actors have the ability to project anything and everything by appearing to ‘do’ very little. This is often the tremendous skill of not revealing more than the character would reveal in real life. In this regard, Meikle’s performance is exquisitely minimal – accurate – mundane… profound.

Of course, director Katie Mitchell, designer Alex Eales, video director Grant Gee, lighting designer Anthony Doran and music and sound designer Paul Clark must take huge plaudits for being at the head of an amazingly creative ensemble. However, every aspect of this piece – and therefore each participant within the production – should be heralded.

It’s possible that an audience’s head might become ‘dizzied’ by the cascade of information, technical stimuli, or poetic input. My suggestion is – just like the colour ‘blue’ – let the experience wash over you; let it stimulate, cleanse and refresh your expectations as to what theatre can be.

An immersive, stimulating and invigorating experience.

Need to know: Bluets is at Royal Court Theatre until 29 June 2024