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“Bluets” at Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs

Simon Jenner in west London
2 June 2024

“Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a colour.” One sentence. Three actors speak it. Maggie Nelson’s 2009 prose work Bluets is dramatized as a Live Cinema-cum-theatre performance by Margaret Perry and directed by Katie Mitchell at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs until 29 June.

 

Ben Whishaw.
Photo credit: Camilla Greenwell.

 

Directed is too mild a word for Mitchell’s technique, pioneered with her production of The Waves in 2006. Nevertheless dramatizing such a work – whose only theatricality lies in fillets of images – demands it. The Court’s artistic director David Byrne declares his first production of this space embraces this “thrilling and unmissable proposition” to present something ground-breaking. Bluets, originally a book of 240 Blaise Pascal-like propositions, certainly answers that.

Bluets is indeed prefaced by a quotation from Pascal’s Pensées, about all philosophy not being worth an hour of pain. Nelson wryly intimates that autotheory, the intersection of memoir as self-exploration via critical theory, isn’t so new. So an unclassifiable art form is here treated to a revolutionary intersection of theatre and film.

Two strands, the loss of Nelson’s ex-lover, the “prince of blue”, and terrible injuries her friend sustains, with her three-year rehabilitation, span Bluets. It’s covered here in 75 minutes. A lifelong obsession though is with the colour blue. Not quite blues, but a complex of depression, divinity, and desire – sometimes occasioning laughter. Viagra, Nelson informs us, lends a blue tinge to colour perception.

Originally developed at Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg, the least complicated part of this hybrid is that Bluets is performed by three actors: Emma D’Arcy (House of the Dragon), Kayla Meikle (ear for eye), and Ben Whishaw. Though each represent a subtly different state of mind – quotidian, experiential, objective – such states are too porous for actors to sustain functional identity. Spoken lines – or paragraphs – fragment between them. There’s also a voiceover subverting this subjective equilibrium.

The process of developing pre-shot film streamed to live acting and sound is set out by several creatives. Alex Eales’ set includes three cameras with video backdrops and a large screen above, whose default is blue. Indeed Nelson cites Derek Jarman’s valedictory 1993 Blue.

 

Kayla Meikle.
Photo credit: Camilla Greenwell.

 

Video designer Ellie Thompson crafts a hierarchy of screens feeding the large one above it; live/pre-filmed footage is chosen in uneven rotation. Thoroughly anglicizing California-based Nelson’s experience, video director Grant Gee has shot much material onto which, via camera, actors are projected onto the backdrop. London high streets, Southwark Bridge, or Western Road in Hove and the burnt-out West Pier are sequenced: a narrative strand of seaside blue.

Actors ruminate on the beach: there’s a mix of pre-shot and mapped, sometimes phasing out of synch, as the main screen switches between. Blue as pigment provokes sensual images: “you might want to rouge your nipples with it” murmurs Whishaw. There’s repeated swimming-pool immersions on-screen. Lighting designer Anthony Doran sculpts tenebrous night effects as D’Arcy and Meikle grasp a pillow and sheet. There’s constant deconstruction, just below, of the illusion above.

Singers from Billie Holiday to Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris trace Nelson’s own blues through music. Sound designer Paul Clark, working with co-sound designer Munotida Chinyanga, conjures a five-part “symphony” of sustained musicality. It isn’t easy to pick out distinct movements. At other times a monitor beep drips pain like reversed morphine, as the triple-acted Nelson visits her quadriplegic friend.

Perry writes of how first she, then Mitchell filleted Bluets’ thickets of allusion. Nelson (via D’Arcy and Meikle) quotes Simone Weil. Goethe’s theory of colours repeatedly emerges here. Sexuality’s explored via Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M, riffled on screen by Whishaw and Meikle. Occasionally Nelson cracks jokes; the explosion of audience relief is palpable. Particularly when Nelson relates how she bookshop-browsed a 2001 tome (The Deepest Blue: How Women Face and Overcome Depression), rejected it, then ordered it online.

Nelson is more interesting than self-help, as Whishaw, Meikle, then D’Arcy proclaim: “Clinical psychology forces everything we call love into the pathological or the delusional or the biologically explicable, that … I don’t know what love is, or, more simply, that I loved a bad man.” That bad choice is undermined: “How often I’ve imagined the bubble of body and breath you and I made, even though by now I can hardly remember what you look like.”

The injured friend’s witness counterpoints hedonism. There’s descriptions of horrific injures, near-perfect reconstruction of her face but continuing paralysis, with repeated shots of D’Arcy’s hand caressing Meikle’s. Quoting her friend’s dismissal of such gems as “what doesn’t destroy you makes you stronger” Nelson’s trenchant solidarity flashes in D’Arcy’s put-down.

Ultimately Bluets tackles the divine, refracted though Pascal, Weil, and humour. Meikle sparkles with cool humour before D’Arcy takes it up and Whishaw briefly comes in on the word “pants”: “In this dream an angel came and said: You must spend more time thinking about the divine, and less time imagining unbuttoning the prince of blue’s pants. But what if the prince of blue’s unbuttoned pants are the divine, I pleaded. So be it, she said.”

Meikle and D’Arcy share the epilogue: “Love is not consolation,” Nelson says, citing Weil. “It is light.” Designed as an unrepeatable event, acknowledging that Nelson is reluctant to contemplate such theatrical realizations of her prose, this production fascinates. Its chief virtue though might be to send you to the book.