It is tempting but pointless to adopt a trainspotter’s approach to Calixto Bieito’s Catalan-English Shakespearian collage. Here are gobbets of As You Like It, the Histories, Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, the sonnets and other texts. But this isn’t a critics’ quiz - Forests must make an impact as a new piece and is probably best appreciated as a cross between a recital and an installation.
Christopher Simpson and Josep Maria Pou in Forests at the Old Rep, Birmingham Photo: Tristram Kenton
There are some startling images as you would expect from this controversial director, here contributing to the World Shakespeare Festival. A gnarled tree is suspended above a heap of earth in which actors lie bleeding or half buried. An actor (Roser Cami) is spread-eagled against a wall, pinned there by her stapled coat, naked from the waist down and tortured by another woman (Katy Stephens). Actor Christopher Simpson gingerly descends a ladder in women’s clothes, with a bucket on his head. The earthy, soulful sound of Maika Makovski’s voice and keyboard accompanies these weird stage pictures.
If “forests” is to be taken literally, it’s hard to see the case for Troilus and Cressida or Twelfth Night, but this is an impressionistic work, delving into the tangled forest of experience, its hopes and fears, the messiness of sexuality, the fear and inevitability of death.
Forests has a daring brilliance, but, shorn of developed characters and contexts, it is rarely emotionally involving. There is no narrative thread except broadly that of life itself, from the liberated innocence of childhood, besmirched by adult experience, to death. One comes away having shared a strange, oblique slant on Shakespeare’s preoccupation with mortality and - once again - relishing his language.