Written by debbie tucker green
Directed by Marianne Elliott
Designed by Ultz
There probably should be a law against designers being allowed to adopt a single name. It’s fair enough, if a designer or artist has achieved so much that they are instantly recognisable by a single name but to deliberately adopt one seems like wishful thinking. I rather hope that Ultz’s real name is something ordinary like Brian Smith and he will one day be exposed.
Ultz doesn’t just design he also directs, in fact Martin Marquez (who was in the play tonight) and his brother wrote a play which Ultz directed. The play, The Snowbull, was a rather patchy affair and on the night I saw it an old women chose a quiet moment, towards the end of the piece, to leave announcing to the world that it was the worst thing she’d ever seen. This was at the old Hampstead theatre and she was sitting less than ten feet from the stage.
It is a little unfair to have a go at Ultz, silly name or not, his designs are often very interesting. I remember a piece called Fireface, where the action took place on institutional Formica tables and the audience sat on office chairs that were chained to the floor. The thing is that Ultz decided that this play required a thrust stage, painted blue; covering almost the entire stalls area. The design was described as ‘exciting’ in the letter from the Royal Court that told me that the seat I’d booked in the stalls was no longer available. I doubt that the finance people at the theatre, found the prospect of losing almost a hundred seats a night, terribly thrilling.
It isn’t the first time Ultz has pulled this particular trick at the Royal Court. A couple of years ago in the play Fallout by Roy Williams the stalls were once again covered over with a steep wide flight of steps leading down into them at one end. In that case I seem to recall that they built additional seating over the stage forming an oval arena for the play. Tonight we just got a blue stage stretching to the back wall of the theatre. Not a uniform blue, lots of different shades but in no particular pattern. At the edges of the stage, especially when it met a vertical surface like the boxes, were outcrops of bubbles that may have been intended to be beach pebbles or stones but were too circular. That was more or less it as far as the set went. There were a few ordinary looking tubular framed chairs in each of the sections. Each of the three settings in the play occupied a different area of the stage although there was some overlap. The areas were only lit while action was going on in them and the names of the settings were projected using moving lights that swept across the stage and ended up on the black back wall of the theatre.
The actors were on stage for the whole piece, leaning against the back wall when they weren’t needed anymore. When the action of their scene was interrupted by a scene in a different area the actors didn’t always freeze, as you might expect, but often fidgeted or repositioned themselves.
I quite liked the device, in the play, of having of somebody playing the character’s ego. I thought it illustrated the arguments well. Also I think I’ll just mention that the egos were both dressed in turquoisey-blue clothes.
Reading the play script beforehand brought up a couple of things. There were several sections that dwelt on the smell of people and with this blog in mind I had hoped to write some stuff about how smell is both a deeply intimate and very public sense but the play didn’t really explore this.
Another thing that was very clear in the script was the deliberately degraded quality of the language that was used – plenty of ‘dunnos’ and lack of glottal stops. The thing is that I could help thinking that Emily Joyce was struggling with this. It felt as if she was battling years of good enunciation and losing but it might just have been my imagination. Knowing her best from a tame sitcom may have played tricks on my perception of her performance.
Another actress to mention is Claire Rushbrook. A couple of years ago I saw her in a play called Food Chain Upstairs at the Royal Court where she had a dreamily weary glamour. It contrasted with tonight where she was distinctly heavier and chavier, which was what was required.
There is an instruction in the script that says that all characters must be white. Presumably this (together with the adverts and pamphlets for action aid in the programme) is to draw attention to the plight of third world countries by putting problems like the mistreatment of women, child soldiers and Aids into a white English context. Unfortunately I didn’t think that the world hung together properly. It is a trivial point but in a place where a young woman can get stoned to death, for killing the boy soldier that killed her parents, the man would always get the Aids medicine before the woman and there would be no debate about it.
In the audience tonight was David Tennant and I was tempted to interpret his glances around the auditorium, as attempts to find out if he’d been spotted by weirdo Doctor Who fans. I studiously avoided his gaze.