‘Bluets’ Review: This Maggie Nelson Adaptation Is All About the Vibes

How do you bring an almost plotless book of elliptical fragments to the stage? The director Katie Mitchell has tried with three actors, four screens and three bottles of whiskey.

When the Royal Court Theater in London announced it was staging an adaptation of Maggie Nelson’s prose poem memoir “Bluets,” my first reaction was head-scratching surprise. This largely plotless book, in which elliptical fragments of autobiography are entwined with meditations on the cultural history of the color blue and loosely coalesce around the theme of depression, doesn’t exactly scream theater.

In Margaret Perry’s adaptation, directed by Katie Mitchell and running through June 29, a trio of actors — Ben Whishaw, Emma D’Arcy and Kayla Meikle — recite passages from “Bluets” and act out moody scenes of everyday life; these are combined with innovative use of video technology and melancholic music to generate a multisensory representation of the narrator’s consciousness. It’s an admirably ambitious undertaking, but a lack of narrative thrust or tonal variation make for a somewhat bloodless experience.

The performers are stationed at three tables, each equipped with a bottle of whiskey and a tumbler. Behind each of them, a television screen plays prerecorded footage of everyday English locales: an ordinary shopping street, a subway carriage, a municipal swimming pool. Each actor is filmed by a ball-shaped camera, like a webcam, on a tripod in front of them; this footage is instantly relayed to a large movie screen, where it is superimposed over images from the TVs below, so that the actors and their backdrops merge to uncanny effect.

Emma D’Arcy in “Bluets.” Throughout the play, the actors are filmed and the footage is instantly relayed to a large movie screen, where it is superimposed over other images.Camilla Greenwell

The gloomy aesthetic and lugubrious soundscape befit the morose timbre of the material as Nelson’s maudlin narrator reels off tidbits about her favorite color — referencing Derek Jarman, Joni Mitchell and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe — while intermittently brooding over her ex-partner, whom she addresses in wistful and reproachful tones, and recounting the struggles of a close friend who was paralyzed in an accident. (The video design is by Grant Gee and Ellie Thompson; the sound is by Paul Clark). Onstage and onscreen, we see a lot of blue: blue props, blue outfits and blue-centric video clips, including one in which a bowerbird builds a nest with bits of blue detritus.

First published in 2009, “Bluets” was reissued in 2017 after the success of Nelson’s similarly hybrid 2015 work, “The Argonauts,” which heralded a publishing fad for essay-memoirs that combined ambient erudition with diaristic introspection. But the very quality that some readers enjoy in these books — the weightlessness of the narrative, evoking an untethered, freewheeling subjectivity — makes them exceptionally ill-suited to the theater, which thrives on momentum, tension and conflict.

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Source: Theater -


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