'Bluets' review – Ben Whishaw, Emma D’Arcy and Kayla Meikle excel in this dreamlike production

Read our review of new stage adaptation Bluets, directed by Katie Mitchell, now in performances at the Royal Court to 29 June.

Aliya Al-Hassan
Aliya Al-Hassan

Bluets is a difficult production to define. Based on American author Maggie Nelson’s lyrical essay made up of loosely connected prose-poems, Margaret Perry’s adaptation is a rhythmic and sometimes explicit reflection on art, literature and heightened emotion.

The book was put together as Nelson tried to process the end of a relationship while caring for a close friend rendered quadriplegic. The result is a meditation on the protagonist’s obsession with the colour blue, as they process these huge life events.

Blue is a colour that many artists – writers, painters and musicians – are intensely preoccupied with. Weaving in intimate scenes of sex, love and loss, the play refers to figures such as Derek Jarman, Billie Holiday and Joni Mitchell, who had their own obsessions with blue.

The production is staged as a monologue split between three performers: Emma D’Arcy, Kayla Meikle and Ben Whishaw. The actors perform individually, but also together, telling the story in a series of fragments, slowly progressing the narrative.

The synchronised trio play the same character, showing the universality of grief and heartache, but have subtle differences in performance. Whishaw is more soulful, D’Arcy conveys an added emotional side, and Meikle is thoughtful and calm. All communicate a profound sense of lonely sadness.

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Director Katie Mitchell’s “live cinema” is a technically challenging technique that lets the audience watch a film being made on stage in real time. The actors construct the story through both their words and projections of themselves on a large screen. This gives a strange, dreamlike atmosphere to the production, as though the audience is almost intruding on the thoughts of the narrator.

A large main screen projects the completed film, while the three actors speak and act out their segments in front of remote cameras and individual screens below. There is a lot going on and sometimes it overwhelms. Although this is a very different viewing experience, some may feel we have reached peak screen in theatre recently, and it is too easy to simply watch the main screen, missing much of the action below.

However, the cast work incredibly well together, moving deftly as they convey the stream of consciousness. Isolated shots of a duvet wrapped over shoulders look like the actor is in bed, while two hands clasped together suggest a couple in the middle of having sex. The transitions are often incredibly fast, but the cast maintain the feeling of solitary stupor throughout.

The list of creatives is extensive and the overall look and feel is often more art installation than theatrical performance. Alex Eales’ sparse design is dark and immersive. Ellie Thompson’s video design takes us from driving up the King’s Road, to inside the Natural History Museum, to riding various Tube lines.

The production is a brave start to the inaugural season of the Royal Court’s new artistic director, David Byrne. Reassuringly, it harks back to the bold and challenging ethos of the theatre that has sometimes been lacking in recent years. This is not a safe production; it is rebellious, challenging and leaves you with plenty to talk about.

Bluets is at the Royal Court to 29 June. Book Bluets tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Bluets (Photos by Camilla Greenwell)

Originally published on

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