Bluets review – Maggie Nelson’s blue riffs become left-field cine-theatre

<span>Ben Whishaw at his film-making console with camera, table and standing mic in Bluets.</span><span>Photograph: Camilla Greenwell</span>
Ben Whishaw at his film-making console with camera, table and standing mic in Bluets.Photograph: Camilla Greenwell

Maggie Nelson’s book-length meditation on the colour blue comprises 240 short, non-sequitur paragraphs that flit from the loss of a lover to the injury of a friend and the protagonist’s descent into depression, along with abstract reflections on colour.

It is fitting that such an experimental text should get experimental treatment in its staging. The director, Katie Mitchell, uses microphones, cameras and screens to turn it into theatre as overt and contemporaneous film-making.

Emma D’Arcy, Ben Whishaw and Kayla Meikle each stand at their own terminals containing camera, table and standing mic, to both narrate and act out a lo-fi movie with a tray of props, their images superimposed on to an overhead screen. So Meikle, in one instance, wraps herself in a duvet to give the impression of being in bed on the big screen while D’Arcy and Whishaw entwine their arms and claw their fingers in a close-up to intimate sex taking place.

There has been an abundance of screen use on stage in recent times, from Jamie Lloyd’s current production of Romeo and Juliet to Ivo van Hove’s Opening Night. This is quite its own thing, resembling an art gallery installation or conceptual film.

It is left-field, but it works – so much so that Margaret Perry’s adaptation seems more accessible, better shaped and less mannered than Nelson’s on paper, although there is still a sense of morsels of thought being offered which never metabolise into anything bigger, with little framing around narrative threads.

The material comes alive in being spoken, too – Nelson is a poet and her words fit this medium well. D’Arcy, Meikle and Whishaw perform with smooth, speedy synchronicity, bringing surprising bathos and even occasional laughs to run alongside the dark subject-matter.

There is a flamboyant intellectualism that feels European in sensibility (the production was originally developed at Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg) and encompasses philosophical inquiries by Goethe, Wittgenstein and Plato.

Modern-day artists who have investigated the allure of the colour blue are also mentioned, from Joni Mitchell to Billie Holiday, but there is a sense of touching bases and name-checking thinkers rather than really exploring meanings. It is not so much a deep dive as a survey that skates on all the blue surfaces of its world.

The film being made takes on the feel of a surreal dream, in the vein of Un Chien Andalou, with the same dark, disjointed narrative and a flatness to the storytelling that gradually turns into a lull. As the screen conjures images of water, cityscapes and bowls of marbles or magnifies lips and eyebrows, you feel you might have closed your eyes and begun dreaming.

Ultimately, it is an odd night at the theatre, but not an uninteresting one, and you cannot dismiss it as an abstruse experiment in itself. The first production to be programmed by the venue’s new artistic director, David Byrne, it suggests an intent to push mainstream theatre into edgier ground.

Nelson’s books are often deemed unclassifiable, and it seems fitting that this adaptation is just as genre-defying, and perplexing, as its original source.