Bluets, Royal Court: Ben Whishaw whips up a sense of occasion in this colourful emotional journey

Ben Whishaw in Bluets at the Royal Court
Ben Whishaw in Bluets at the Royal Court - Camilla Greenwood

What with the sun showing its face, the Chelsea Flower Show attracting hordes, and the return of the Royal Court’s buzzy al fresco bar, the area around the theatre on Sloane Square hasn’t looked so thriving for ages.

Adding to the sense of uplift, the estimable David Byrne is now at the venue’s helm following the sticky tenure of Vicky Featherstone. It’s to be warmly hoped he can put it back on the map as a go-to destination.

That said, the first main-stage offering in Byrne’s inaugural season is a curveball: an adaptation of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (2009) that brings Ben Whishaw back to the theatre for the first time since Mike Bartlett’s smartly agonised comedy about bisexuality, Cock (also, in fact, 2009).

Taking its name from a flowering plant, Bluets’ collection of 240 short, poetic- and philosophical-minded prose “propositions” winds its way, as the blurb puts it, “through depression, divinity, alcohol, and desire”. In it, Nelson, a professor at the University of Southern Carolina, whose published work is as acclaimed as it is hard to categorise, explores her fascination with the colour blue, while reflecting, with erudition and a penchant for aperçus, on her pain and that of a friend. Hers is emotional – involving loneliness and the end of an affair – the friend’s is searingly real: she has been left quadriplegic by a terrible accident. The author marvels at the latter’s residual empathy, given the circumstances: “She has never held any hierarchy of grief, either before her accident or after, which seems to me nothing less than a form of enlightenment.”

To be frank, there’s so much to digest in the book – here filleted by Margaret Perry – that I’d have settled for someone in an armchair, perhaps simply bathed in blue light, reading the work aloud. The theatrical proposition is wildly different, though: director Katie Mitchell applies the “live cinema” technique that she first employed with Virginia Woolf’s The Waves at the National in 2006, with the cast rustling up a succession of vignettes that are caught on camera and relayed on screen.

Bluets at the Royal Court
Bluets at the Royal Court - Camilla Greenwood

As a technical feat, it’s impressive: how do Whishaw, along with Emma D’Arcy and Kayla Meikle, each focused yet frenetic amid an obscuring array of equipment, get so much done, without slipping up? They’re sharing the rendition while slipping in and out of costumes and grabbing and discarding props, as they strike poses against shifting video backdrops. We’re shown a plethora of locations: the ruined pier at Brighton, a hospital, the inside of a Tube train, a kitchen where drink is sought like a crutch. Our eyes start to pick out blue-tinted details: the dusky sky, an intravenous-drip cap…

The insistent overload compounds the material’s fragmentary nature while inviting us to piece it together, which correlates to Nelson’s dogged attempts to get the measure of a colour, and an existence, that retains a quality of elusiveness. Some of the cerebral, solitary spirit of her writing inevitably goes missing in action. Even so, the palpable ambition is laudable. And Whishaw’s presence adds to the sense of occasion. A solid start to a new era.

Until June 29;