Thursday, December 13, 2007

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, Olivier Theatre, 10-Dec-2007 – Directed by Nicholas Hytner

An enquiring mind can be a terrible thing; I made the mistake of checking up on Zoë Wanamaker's age and discovered that she's 3 years younger than Felicity Kendall. Not really relevant other than that I first saw Much Ado about Nothing in 1989 starring said Felicity Kendall and Alan Bates and I mistakenly thought she was a little old for the role. I was wrong of course, age-wise (and otherwise if I could claim to remember) she was fine.
Age-wise Zoë Wanamaker is probably too old for the role of Beatrice and although she didn't look or act like it, the fact of her age popped into my mind at inopportune moments. Interestingly the programme goes into some detail about how old Benedicks could be which may have been coincidence or a way of saying that if the men could get away with being old then why not the women?
In fairness if anyone wasn't quite right for his role it was Simon Russell Beale who was a bit too much the Prince's jester and not enough the tall, fine-looking soldier as I believe Benedick is described somewhere. This isn't really a complaint because he was a lot of fun in the role and he and Zoë Wanamaker had good chemistry.
One thing that I think they tried to do in this production was to indicate that the Beatrice and Benedick are in love before the play starts but are each too scared of ridicule from the other to announce it. I heard familiar lines illustrating the interest they had in each-other (Beatrice wanting news of Benedick, Benedick pointing out the greater beauty – age memory alert – of Beatrice) with more or just imagined emphasis. There were also little touches like the bunch of flowers that Benedick appeared to be bringing for someone when he first entered. It also made me realise that the line about Beatrice lending Benedict her heart, really needs to be better explained in the play.
Mark Addy and Trevor Peacock are likely to get a lot of praise for Dogberry and Verges, their scenes were funny, assured and moved along quickly. However, for me, Mark Addy didn't quite surpass Sarah Woodward in the all-female version of the play at the Globe a few years back. I realise of course that I'm not comparing like with like, the performances had each had their own style.
I keep wanting to describe the set as a grandiose rotating pergola. That doesn't make it sound as good or as impressive as it was but somehow captures it for me. Although it was an open structure with close set wooden uprights forming a central see-through wall I failed to notice people uncovering the pond. And although Simon Russell Beale was very funny when he fell into the pond, I felt that when Zoë Wanamaker fell in later it was almost because her agent had insisted on her having a comic immersion too.
The rotating set together with several cast members in common (Zoë Wanamaker, Susannah Fielding and Maggie McCarthy) reminded me of The Rose Tattoo earlier this year. I half expected a goat to be chased around the set.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Othello by William Shakespeare, Donmar Warehouse, 5 Dec 2007 – Dirested by Michael Grandage

I'm not sure if this was the best production of Othello (of a half dozen or so) that I've seen; it was certainly the best Othello. In fact this was the first time that I've understood why great actors in the past have chosen to black up as Othello rather than play what seemed (according to the productions I've seen) to be the stronger role of Iago.
It has been a pet theory of mine for a while, that productions have centred on Iago because, since no white actor is allowed to black up anymore, that is where the casting people put their biggest star (who would most likely be white). Of course I could mention the dread phrase institutional racism but I'll leave that to those who believe it to be true or just want to twit liberal theatre establishments. It is certainly true that the Othello productions I’ve seen have focussed more on Iago and have been sold to the public mostly based on their Iago (in my case people like Ian McKellen, Simon Russell Beale and Antony Sher).
On the face of it this, production has its biggest star playing Iago. However in play itself Ewan McGregor’s acting was several notches below that of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Othello. You couldn’t say that Chiwetel Ejiofor stole the show because it is meant to be Othello’s show (hence the name) he outshone almost everyone else. Actually I could not quite buy McGregor as the villain; there is just a little too much un-dissembling charm about him. He certainly was not the nice guy but also he was far from the Machiavellian bigot that I’ve seen before. I didn't get the feeling that he was motivated hatred or that he was transferring of his own jealousy about his wife onto Othello. It did make me wonder if the Iago's jealousy about Emilia might be a good way of explaining his motivation. Certainly in this production I got the impression that Emilia was trying to be in love with her husband even if he had given up. Doubtless this will have been speculated about many times before by people who study Shakespeare rather than just watch it but it was the first time that I've noticed it.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Absurd Person Singular by Alan Ayckbourn, Garrick Theatre, 4 Dec 2007 – Directed by Alan Strachan

There was a time when I couldn't stand Alan Ayckbourn's plays; the problem is that I can't remember exactly why, other than it had something to do with the way that he seemed to sneer and laugh at the very people that made up his audience. Of course that was probably what he was trying to do. The thing is that, in the case of this play, he created a group of very unsympathetic characters almost fitting into stereotypes: the upper middle class couple, polite but grounded in their superiority; the intellectual couple who can’t quite cope with the world and the chiselling lower middle class box-wallah couple who act almost as the nemesis for the rest.
This difficulty for the audience in caring about the cast wasn't helped in the production by the glacial pace of the first act. Still worse were the several occasions when the stage was left empty and the silence in the theatre was so profound that I imagined hearing conversations of passengers as their tube trains rattled past a few feet from the auditorium. Perhaps this will be seen as an exciting and dangerous innovation by the time the production gets reviewed.
I can't help feeling that this production has been a bit rushed. It was only announced a few weeks back as a replacement for Bad Girls so it was possibly being prepared for a tour. The odd month of single week-long runs around the country would probably have knocked things into shape and certainly would have upped the speed and the laugh count.
As it was my companions for the evening decided that they'd had enough after the first act and left. This was a bit of a pity because the play picked up in the second and third acts. They also missed David Bamber stripping down to his vest which was remarkable because he seems to have acquired the arms and torso of a body builder. He looked a bit like Brad Pitt's body double and I half expected him to start shouting “Stella, Stella” and stalk off looking for a Blanche Dubois to ravish.
Another oddish thing was that David Horovitch seemed to be channelling William Franklyn. It suited his character quite well but it was strange to see.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco, Royal Court, 24 Sep 2007 – Directed by Dominic Cooke

If you have a wish to upset your fellow theatre goers and are prepared to look like a complete idiot, you could do worse than to say, in a loud voice, “Of course, it’s based on the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, you know”. This is almost certainly completely untrue but once the thought entered my head, as I read the final scene before the play started, I couldn’t help seeing some parallels. People getting replaced by inhuman creatures; the surviving group of humanity dwindling to a man and a woman; finally the woman succumbs leaving the man alone to continue the fight. Also the play is said to be about the rise of fascism in the thirties while film is said to be about the rise (or fear thereof) of communism in the fifties.
This is just mischievous; there are almost certainly armies of academics who can prove the conventional wisdom, that this is a play about everybody conforming to a bourgeois herd mentality. There are plenty of differences: In the play people transform; in the movie they are replaced. In the play they become animalistic, instinctive and driven by feeling not thought; in the film they become emotionless and cold. However as the film came out three years before the play, it is not impossible that it created a spark or help kindle one – it’s just very unlikely. I did spend a little time wondering if any other American sci-fi horror films of the fifties could be adapted or re-imagined as absurdist comedies. I shall have to think about whether anything can be done with The Day the Earth Stood Still, This Island Earth or I Married a Monster from Outer Space.
I first saw this play in a hut built in the middle of the Lyric Hammersmith’s rehearsal rooms, the rhinoceros transformations were handled by plunging the hut into total darkness. In contrast this production uses some very realistic looking rhino parts although as I was sitting in the circle I was able to see balaclava’d people manipulating scenery and poking horns on blocks of wood through bits of the set. As I’ve mentioned the set there are a couple of vaguely pointless things to point out. First Benedict Cumberbatch pushed bits of balustrade into the stairwell when the staircase collapsed in one scene which I thought odd because they weren’t in the way or anything. Second they seemed to take an inordinate amount of care in replacing the wooden slatted backdrop used in the first two acts, with a more wrecked version for the third act. The way that they were inched up and down the fly-tower (respectively) seemed to indicate that they were too heavy or bulky.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Fragments (five short pieces) by Samuel Beckett, Young Vic - Maria, 17 Sep 2007 – Directed by Peter Brook

There are times when I go to the theatre that I feel as if I’ve missed something. It isn’t that I’ve failed to enjoy the play (or in this case playlets) or the performances, it’s more that there was something bigger going on, a subtext obvious to everybody else, that I just couldn’t see.
In this case I think it has something to do with the fact that I don’t really know what’s so special about Peter Brook. It isn’t an Emperor’s New Clothes situation, I’ve only seen two other productions directed by him and they were both good (his Hamlet with Adrian Lester was a bit short and over cut for my tastes but still good) and this collection of small plays was fine. It was just that I felt as if ought to have seen something extraordinary and I didn’t think it was. I’m not saying it was dull or flat or in any way bad but while I thought it was good and enjoyable I got the impression that the rest of the audience were thinking “Wow!”.
Peter Brook has been revered as a director for about four decades and directors and actors head to Paris to “learn at his feet” so may be I’ve picked up enough second-hand Brook to be unfazed and unamazed by the real thing. Am I that jaded?
It was similar with the performances, it took me a while to get into Kathyrn Hunter and Marcello Magni but now they are firm favourites and I always find them excellent. However if I say to myself that they were “excellent as always”, somehow, in my head, it feels as if I’m saying that they were just ordinary. It didn’t help that the thoughts going through my head as watched Kathryn Hunter doing Rockaby had more to do with wondering what it would have been like to see Billie Whitelaw do it. I was rather taken aback by the rapturous applause at the end of the piece and felt that my neighbour clapping with out-stretched arms was a little over the top but I knew that I could well be wrong and I felt as if I hadn’t been paying proper attention.
Marcello Magni had me thinking along the lines of “I’ve seen him do stuff like this before; he’s very good”, which, to me, sounds conceited and almost like a reverse compliment. Actually one of my major thoughts about mister Magni was how much better he looks with the remnants of his hair cut short.
For all the enjoyment I had during the performances, I left the theatre feeling as if I’d missed the point.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

All About My Mother. Adapted by Samuel Adamson from the film by Pedro Almodovar, Old Vic, 3 Sep 2007 – Directed by Tom Cairns

There’s been a lot of stuff in the media and blogs about adapting films to stage recently, much of it prompted by this production as well as other adaptations this year like Elling and A Matter of Life and Death. I can’t say that I have a general opinion about this as it will always depend on the adaptation. Simply trying to put a film on stage is unlikely to work: the scene changes are far too rapid for the comfort of the stage management team and the audience; it is difficult to create atmosphere using montages or settings (although it can be fun to see it attempted); and you can’t really do close ups, where the acting can be just eye work, unless you are in a small intimate space.
Elling, I’ve been told, suffers because of this last factor; what worked at the Bush is lost in the bigger space of the Trafalgar. I had a similar feeling about some scenes in All About My Mother either because the acting didn’t seem to get past the first few rows or because I thought they’d had to add a little too much pantomime in order to reach all parts of the Old Vic’s barn-like auditorium. It was only in a few scenes though.
If I have to generalise I think that stage adaptations should always feel very different to the film and if possible make you go back to the film with fresh eyes or renewed curiosity. This was certainly the case with A Matter of Life and Death (a film I love dearly) even if they changed it to show that RAF bomber pilots were war criminals undeserving of second chances and had the love story being motored by only one person instead of the normal two. This production of All About My Mother will certainly send me back to the movie but I suspect that it will be more because I haven’t seen it before than if they’ve done something innovative with the adaptation.
Nobody seems to worry about the adaptation of plays into films which, of course, is much more common and can create just as many great films as mediocre ones. The thing to do, as far as I can see, is always to compare the adaptation with the source and relish the differences rather than whine about them.
Something that I found myself missing in this production was Spain. It would have been idiotic for everybody to speak in Spanish accents and I thought that giving Catalan people Welsh accents was a nice touch but I missed having the sense of place which is almost certainly in the movie. Of course attempting to give a “flavour of Spain” to the piece might have led the production down the path of cliché and lazy stereotype.
There was something else that bothered me which I’ll come to after saying that I enjoyed myself, liked that fact that Lesley Manville was playing the main character and was able to dominate proceedings and that rest of the cast, especially Mark Gatiss and Diana Rigg, were fine even if there was some mixing up of names like Lola and Rosa among the older cast members. This thing that bothered me is integral to the whole piece and to the original movie, the mother is just too good, her demons external factors not internal ones, she has the capacity to make everyone love her and everybody does. That is probably the point of the whole thing and I’m missing it because I want drama, conflict and inner turmoil.

Monday, August 06, 2007

In The Club by Richard Bean, Hampstead Theatre, 4-Aug-2007 – Directed David Grindley

James Fleet who stars in this production, was in the first professionally produced Shakespeare play that I ever saw. It was an RSC production of Taming of the Shrew directed by Jonathan Miller and starring Brian (the better Hannibal Lecter) Cox and Fiona (there’s a danger she’ll only be remembered for playing Mrs Dursley in the Harry Potter films) Shaw, back in 1988. Not really relevant to a modern take on a sex farce but it gives me the opportunity to mention that I completed the set of 37 main Shakespeare plays last year when I saw Titus Andronicus. I’d like to pretend that this gives me the right not to allow people to pontificate about Shakespeare within my earshot, without my written permission but it wouldn’t be enforceable even if it were true.
I have the feeling that I’m not going to be pleasant about this play so I would like to say that I enjoyed myself, got all the jokes and laughed in all the right places. It was only afterwards that the doubts started to creep in. It is a rather well thought out and constructed but I felt that I could still see the scaffolding. I sometimes found it too obvious when future gags were setup, an example being the two identical suitcases that you knew were going to get swapped at some point.
I reckon the biggest problem with trying to create farce these days is the sex. It is handled well here (a touch of the Measure for Measure or All’s Well that Ends Well) but in general the problem with sex these days is that it’s too easy. Sex farces used to be based on people desperately attempting to have sex but being prevented by the forces of morality or society, the agents of those forces or the vicar. Here the desperation for sex of the hero was the same but most of the characters are happy to help him out. Sex is no longer meant seen to be naughty or to be giggled at, it is actually rather serious, potentially hurtful and only to be avoided through great effort and strength of will. This play may have got it about right but how many other ways are there of doing it (doing it, he-he)?
Another thing that bugged me was the depiction of women, while I didn’t find them sexist or stereotypical they did seem to conform to some well-worn archetypes. You have a mild German version of the dragon lady, a French nymphomaniac of a certain age and an intelligent, capable, sexy-yet-unavailable young woman who might as well have been called Polly and played by Connie Booth. Most disheartening was Carla Mendonca’s character whose sole function seemed to be to show various forms of disappointment with her man while not actually contributing much to the comedy. I know the writer is a bloke but I’ve seen women do comedy, I’ve even seen Carla Mendonca doing comedy; I just wish he’d made more imaginative use of them. Of course similar things could probably be said about the male characters if I’d bothered to notice.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Absurdia: 2 Plays by N.F.Simpson and 1 Play by Michael Frayn, Donmar Warehouse, 26-Jul-2007 – Director Douglas Hodge

If I wanted to be more pompous than usual I would point out that it was rather absurd for those three people to leave halfway through the performance (perhaps following the diktat of certain bloggers). It was a little mystifying; everybody else seemed to be having a rather good time and it certainly wasn’t at a natural break (i.e. in the gap between plays – as there was no interval). Whatever their reasons (at the time I suspected that they where disgusted at the notion of so much laughter in the Donmar), they missed a rather interesting mime where Lyndsey Marshal had an invisible man burying his head in her bosom. They also missed Judith Scott almost corpsing during Gladly Otherwise.
While I enjoyed the plays, especially the N.F. Simpson ones I did get the odd feeling that I was watching museum pieces as if “one simply doesn’t do plays like that anymore”. It’s a pity but I suppose that a genre where the extraordinary, weird and/or absurd are treated as ordinary is easily open to abuse by bad writers and worse plays. I could see how things could feel contrived and heavy handed if wrongly handled.
Michael Frayn’s play the Crimson Hotel didn’t really fit with N.F. Simpsons pair of plays, it was perhaps too cerebral and not as linguistically playful. All the same as a fan of Feydeau farces I enjoyed the setup of the play and it wasn’t just because mister Frayn happened to be in the audience.
When I first saw the set something about it reminded slightly of a very famous Buster Keaton stunt (I also think that a recreation of it won the Turner Prize – later, Deadpan by Steve McQueen). It turned out that they did a variation on the stunt to change the set between plays.
One last thing to remember if you see the plays: In the Crimson Hotel don’t applaud until the spotlight shining on the picnic basket goes out, otherwise, as happened during this performance, the actors have to wait for the applause to die down before they say (or repeat) their final lines. Of course with Michael Frayn’s reputation for changing his plays (almost every major production of Noises Off seems to produce another heavily re-written version of the play) he may have altered it the next time it’s performed.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Enchantment by Victoria Benedictsson, Cottesloe Theatre, 25-Jul-2007 – Director Paul Miller

I like to see Nancy Carroll in a role where she can dominate proceedings because I reckon that when she is in that kind of part, she’s pretty fab. If I used the phrase I’d say she was electric. I spent most of the play wishing and willing her to shake a little vitality into the piece but I’m not sure that the material allowed for it. I felt it was Niamh Cusack that had the stronger part and even though Nancy Carroll was of stage for almost thew hole play I could muster a great deal of enthusiasm for or interest in her character.
Additionally Zubin Varla who is usually an actor I look forward to seeing wasn’t quite as sexy or hypnotic as the play seemed to suggest his character should be.
The play was done ‘in the round’ and something I think I’ve noticed about plays ‘in the round’ (mainly at the Orange Tree in Richmond) is that there is almost always a control-room bias, where the performance seems mostly to be directed towards the lighting/stage/sound control room where, presumably, the director sat during rehearsals. This tends to mean that the further you are from the control-room, as an audience member, the more that there is a distance between you and the action and you often look at the back of actor. Another disadvantage of ‘in the round’ productions is that you can often have some actor’s back blocking your view of the rest of the actors. Some directors experienced in ‘in the round’ productions manage to strike a balance between keeping actors shifting the angles and stopping it from looking like a whirling dance. In the play the material and the direction seemed a little static.
Something about the set that I found almost unforgivable was a piece of set used as a window or door onto a garden. It wasn’t the objects (windows and doors) but the fact that they were placed in between two banks of seating (opposite the control room) in line with the backmost row. The result of this careful planning was that people sitting in rows E, F and G get several minutes of action (split over the play) taking place behind them. This is where I was sitting and it wasn’t until the interval that I saw the picture of a sculpture of a prone figure that served as a backdrop and may well have had a significance lost on me because I had my back to it.
Reading the programme notes it appears that this play was finished by a colleague after the playwright committed suicide. I couldn’t help thinking of Sarah Kane’s play 4:48 Psychosis which was also written shortly before the author’s suicide. Of course that’s pretty much where the similarity ends; I probably just wanted to show myself my erudition.
Finally I found myself being annoyed in the early part of the first act by the sound effect of a collared dove (I think) cooing its three syllable song. The only thing that calmed me was the thought that a critic might mistake the sound for the call of the cuckoo (the first two syllables of each bird’s call sound similar but the cuckoo is more strident and the collared dove has an extra syllable) and then mention it as being a significant clue to unlocking the mystery of the play. I would then be able to feel superior to them and all would be well.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

In Celebration by David Storey, Duke of York’s Theatre, 17-Jul-2007 – Director Anna Mackmin

I get the feeling that when this play was first produced back in 1969 people would have understood the problems that two of the brothers had, without needing any explanation. Perhaps it can be said that there was a time when working class people with an education would fret and worry (or cry themselves to sleep) over things like leaving their roots behind and going to live a stultifying middle-class existence that is nowhere near the ambition or the promise that was the motivation for all that book learning. The modern suspicion of educated people being fake or not ‘real’ and the idea of the impotence caused by over-thinking a subject, are probably echoes of this. Of course I can guff on about the attitudes of the working classes for ages (even with my ignorance of the subject) but the point I’m really trying to make is that this is something the play doesn’t do. It takes it as read that people will get it and the thing is that I’m not sure that people do. I was left, along with other members of the group with whom I went to this play, with the feeling that there were several pages of dialogue missing from the play which would explain just what was troubling the brothers, Andrew and Stephen. There are intimations that the mother was somehow a hypocritical tyrant (a desire for extreme cleanliness together with being immorally six months pregnant when she got married) but they never really came to anything and the mother was not anything like harridans such as the mother in the Anniversary or even Sailor Beware.
I also wondered if the play should have been set on an earlier wedding anniversary - the twenty-fifth would have been much suitable for the brothers’ characters and given more immediacy to their problems. Of course you wouldn’t have got the retirement sub-plot or the settled self-satisfied success of the middle brother.
The reason I went in a group was that a large number of people wanted to see Orlando Bloom on stage and he didn’t disappoint, even if they would have preferred him in a starrier role with some pyrotechnic acting (Paul Hilton had that role). What I couldn’t quite understand is why he was made up to look like Richard Benjamin (it was the moustache and the slicked-down curly hair). I think if more of the Orlando fans in the audience had seen ‘classics’ like Westworld or Love at First Bite, there might have been giggles. There’s been some stuff on websites recently about applauding the star on their first entrance and I was expecting a bit when mister Bloom came on but I only heard one unconfident clap which quickly faded away.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Hothouse by Harold Pinter, Lyttelton Theatre, 11-Jul-2007 – Director Ian Rickson

OK, so this is how Harold Pinter does a stage kiss: Firstly he draws his lips back in a toothlesss grin so that they are pressed hard against his teeth, then he attaches his mouth to that of the kissee and rolls his head from side to side in the manner of an old-fashioned hand-blotter. I mention this because I first saw Pinter’s kissing method in a production of The Hothouse at the Comedy Theatre back in 1995. I have also seen him do the same thing in a number of other productions of his own plays. Perhaps it is actually the correct way to do a stage kiss, maybe it’s the best way to do a real-life kiss and I should stop leading with the tongue.
The part that Pinter played was Roote, the head of the ‘rest home’, which was taken by Stephen Moore in this production. I’m not sure he was quite as menacing as I reckoned the part warranted also he had to be prompted several times which spoiled the flow rather. All the same when he wasn’t adding his own pauses to Pinter’s he did convey slightly dotty authority in a pleasing way.
At one point Paul Ritter, playing the part of Lush, entered smoking a cigarette which reminded me both of the smoking ban which it flouted in the name (and legal loophole) of artistic integrity and the paean to tobacco that he once delivered in the opening lines of a production of Moliere’s Don Juan. I couldn’t help feeling that although theatres can get away with smoking on stage (so long as there aren’t too many anti-smoking jobsworths in the local council), the fear of potential litigation or even just awkward questions, is going to put them off showing plays which feature smoking. It isn’t just the usual suspects like Noel Coward’s plays or Don Juan but I wonder if they would have produced more recent plays like President of an Empty Room (at the Cottesloe) or Anna in the Tropics (at Hampstead) both of which were set in cigar factories (with attendant smoking). Neither of the plays could be described as classics but they were worthwhile attempts at drama.
I also found myself thinking that Paul Ritter is in danger of becoming the best character actor in London (if he isn’t already – his Robin Day impersonation in The Reporter was a classic) especially when, after his first major speech, he received a round of applause.
A very petty point that I took perverse joy in noticing was that the glasses or tumblers that they used for the whiskey drinking scenes weren’t really Pinter regulation issue. They were a little too much ‘garage giveaway’ and didn’t possess thick or heavy enough bases to make me think that they were the real thing. I’m sure it’s not actually in the stage directions (or even important) it’s just that I associate any drinking in Pinter plays with a certain heavy bottomed style of glassware.
Finally if you want to chuckle at the National Theatre’s expense you might want to read the details of the Gala to celebrate Olivier’s Centenary which appears at the end of an article about Olivier which seems to be in all NT programmes at the moment. It’s just that it appears that Mister Olivier hasn’t been born yet.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Glass Eels by Nell Leyshon, Hampstead Theatre, 10-Jul-2007 – Director Lucy Bailey

I get the feeling that at least one review of this show will start along the lines of, “Although thisplay is set in the Somerset Levels, I couldn’t help think of the problems they’ve been having in Yorkshire recently”. Basically the stage gets gradually flooded during the show. It’s quite a nice effect, a small stream (pretty much just a groove cut into the floor) trickles and occasionally gushes throughout, from under a bed, the covering the dried out mud-effect floor. It was odd to notice that although the actors showed no difficulty in wading about in (sometimes) ankle-deep water, when it came to taking the bow at the end several were on tip-toe trying to avoid getting any wetter. I suppose I could go through a list of other waterlogged plays I’ve seen such as the Almeida’s Tempest or Terry Johnson’s play Imagine Drowning at the Hampstead where Sylvestra Le Touzel was dropped into a large glass-sided tank of water at front of the stage, but there really isn’t much to say other than I’m always unnecessarily concerned about the practicalities and the potential damage it does to the props. Actually I did spend a little time thinking that they’d have to use a reservoir of some kind to feed the stream, rather than just turning on a tap from the mains, so that they’d get the right amount of water on stage. I really should think of more interesting or uplifting things at the theatre.
I have to say that I didn’t really get the point behind the imagery of the eels and it did feel over-repeated at times. The back of the play text mentioned “a girl’s sexual awakening” and at the time I didn’t see the connection with eels stirring in the mud, building up their reserves of fat for their great migration to the Sargasso Sea. Thinking about it now I’d concede that there probably is one and I was too obtuse to think about it.
I’m not sure whether there’s much to this play really. Pretty much a father and daughter need to have a good chat about the death of his wife and her mother. All the same it didn’t feel like I’d spent as much as 90 minutes waiting for this to happen when the play ended. I think I would have liked more insight into the character of the father (played by Philip Joseph) and Kenneth (played by Tom Burke).
The only actor I had any problem with was Tom Georgeson as the grandfather. His part seemed to be written as a frail crotchety old man but he didn’t convince me that he lacked the strength of body or strength of will that this character needed. It was a casting thing not a performance thing, perhaps I always see too much iron in Tom Georgeson’s soul.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare, Globe Theatre, 3-Jul-2007 – Director Dominic Dromgoole

It took me well into the afternoon to realise the connection between seeing Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Globe and Doctor Who (it’s the play that they did before the Doctor met William Shakespeare in the recent series). That said if I were collecting Doctor Who connections with this play I could point out that I saw John Barrowman as Dumaine in the play four years ago. God this is the second time I’ve started with an anecdote about Doctor Who (note to self – get a life).
My afternoon’s realisation did start a familiar train of thought about the way they recreate the theatre audiences of Shakespeare’s day on TV and film. I’m not sure that they do the bad teeth anymore – rotten teeth were solely a rich person’s affliction before sugar became widespread and affordable. If I have problems with the way that the audience is depicted it’s the women, who have been allowed in the galleries but wouldn’t have been in the pit unless they had something to sell (oranges, their bodies etc.) and the general wealth of the pit audience. Although it was cheap, a penny (I think), to get into the pit, that penny had to be disposable income and since many people were getting paid just a few pounds a year a penny becomes a sizable chunk of cash (equivalent to about £10 nowadays, perhaps. The point is that the pit audience probably wouldn’t be filled with the dregs of society. Nowadays the pit seems to be full of students and tourists who probably don’t quite count as the dregs.
I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about the Globe, in that I reckon that Shakespeare wrote for both the courtyard style of theatre (i.e. derived from an inn courtyard), such as the Globe and the darkened hall, such as the Blackfriars theatre that he helped by late in his career or the halls of great houses where he’d give more intimate performances. These two approaches give a different style of play: in a courtyard the actors are very aware of the audience and the need to keep them attentive so that things like soliloquies could be thought of as one sided conversations; In a darkened hall soliloquies are addressed into nothingness (or the lighting gantry attached to the circle) and become more solitary. The thing is that after the Restoration and pretty much until now all theatre has been the “darkened hall” type; the audience reactions beyond laughter and applause in the right places becoming less and less acceptable.. Even open air theatres like Regent’s Park or Greek/Roman theatres expect the audiences to be quiet, attentive and invisible. With the Globe you could argue that they’ve reinvented the courtyard style of theatre where the audience becomes more of a participant, which is unfamiliar and possibly uncomfortable to both actors and critics. Of course there may be good reasons why courtyard theatres died out. They tend to encourage a raucous and pantomimic style of playing, where it is difficult to be quiet (especially at the Globe with its attendant aircraft going over head) and subtle and fine language loses out to playing things for laughs. That said I’m glad the Globe has a go.
This particular play certainly upped the laughter and pantomime at the expense of the dialogue but with Love’s Labour’s Lost and its rhyming verse-speak, I didn’t think it was necessarily a bad thing. There is rather too much of Shakespeare doing the ‘fooling’ stuff where people stand around to explain and analyse puns – was that ever funny? Everybody seemed to behaving a good time even if William Mannering as Longaville over did it slightly and sometimes gave the impression that he would rather be copping off with one of the men. On the other hand Timothy Walker (who I saw as Hamlet in a Cheek by Jowl production back in 1990) was almost too slow, melancholic and incomprehensible as the comedy Spaniard, Don Adriano.
Anybody thinking of the standing in the Pit should avoid standing too near the right hand (as you face the stage) zig-zag platform that comes out from the stage unless they are happy to see a very great deal of John Bett. I’m not sure if it was justified by the plot but it certainly got some shrieks and lots of laughter.
A name that jumped out at me in the cast list was Oona Chaplin, who played Katherine. And I do mean the name – I’m not sure I have anything bad or even good to say about her acting although she did mange to pull a string of pearls apart which may not have been intended. The only other Oona Chaplin I’ve heard of was Charlie Chaplin’s last wife and I thought it was unlikely that anyone other than a member of Charlie Chaplin’s family would name their daughter Oona so when I got home I checked the web and discovered that she was Geraldine Chaplin’s daughter (and thus Charlie and Oona’s granddaughter). Not that interesting, I know but watching her and wondering I couldn’t help feeling how unlike Charlie Chaplin she looked. Of course the same could be said for the statue of Charlie Chaplin in Leicester Square.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Bedroom Farce by Alan Ayckbourn, Richmond Theatre 25-Jun-2007 – Director Robin Herford

Time was when if I wanted to impress friends who were Doctor Who fans I would tell them that I’d once sat six feet away from Louise ‘Leela’ Jameson while she got naked and had sex in a play. These days, with the all new Doctor Who series, I’d probably have to tell them that I’d once seen David Tennant in his pants (‘What the Butler Saw’ Lyttelton 1995 – as it happens) to earn the same kind of Doctor Who related kudos. Of course what I never mentioned was just how clumsy and awkwardly I thought Louise Jameson’s sex scene was written.
I mention this Louise Jameson stuff, obviously, because she was in the play but also to mark a kind of turning point. This was the first time I’d seen her play the part of an old woman, well not exactly old but late 50s. I think the phrase I’m looking for here is playing a part where she was no longer expected to be sexually appealing. Of course I haven’t seen her on stage for over 10 years nor have I followed her recent TV career so any switch to less sexually vital parts may have happened a while back and I’ve been too slow to notice.
Although the programme was full of blurb about the seventies, when the play was written, this production was updated for modern times. Doing this didn’t seem to involve much more than the casual mention of emails. However it did make the older couple (Colin Baker and Louise Jameson) seem even more old fashioned than they were originally written (50 somethings of today expressing attitudes of 50 somethings from 30 years ago) and now I think about it, the absence of mobile phones was a bit odd – although their presence would have made the second half of the play pointless.
Another point of interest for me was that my namesake Timothy Watson was appearing as the bed-bound character Nick. I’m never sure whether I want him to do well as an actor or not. He always seems to get pretty good reviews in the stage stuff he does but I haven’t seen him that often. Also for some reason I never got round to see him when he was in the Woman in Black for what seemed like a couple of years.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Betrayal by Harold Pinter, Donmar Warehouse, 21-Jun-2007 – Director Roger Michell

I’m beginning to think that I don’t really like this play. The conceit of telling the story backwards is fine, the characterisation is great and the dialogue is mostly brilliant but there’s something about the play that leaves me cold. It is the single Pinter play that I’ve seen the most (four times now) so familiarity could be making it pall but I’ve seen the Homecoming three times and I still think well of that play. It might be a combination of not being able to warm to or care about Dervla Kirwan in this production and the whole stew business. The stew has never felt right, it’s like an indigestible lump that, for me, fixes the play in its period (late sixties/early seventies – when this production was set) and doesn’t seem to belong as part of an afternoon romantic tryst. I know that there are all sorts of practical reasons why the couple would want to dine in the privacy of their Kilburn flat but it’s a fragment of unromantic domesticity that find jarring. It would be even worse if the play was set or updated to the twenty-first century where the cooking reference would either feel anachronistic (the female lover cooking for her man) or would have something to do with heating up a couple of Marks and Spencer ready meals. Maybe I’m bothered by the notion that everything else in the play would allow it to be set at anytime in the last fifty years which would make it more timeless and universal.

Another thing that bothered me about this production was that I found myself distracted by the set while there was action on stage. It wasn’t the moth that seemed to have got trapped in the projector that showed the year of the scene. It was the tracks of the curtain rails on the ceiling; I couldn’t resist trying to trace their complex route before realising that I should be watching what Toby Stephens was up to. The set such as it was, was really just several sets of long, thick, white net curtains that were swished around the stage between scenes by the stage hands and left in different configurations to indicate the walls for different rooms. Oddly when I came in to the theatre and saw single curtain almost forming a box on stage I was reminded of one of the last Pinter’s I saw at the Donmar. That play was Old Times and it was, if memory serves, performed entirely inside a large Perspex box. The odd thing is that, that production had the same director and designer, Roger Michell and William Dudley which I didn’t know until I looked it up in the programme.

I discovered that I can’t really remember the male actors in previous the productions of this play. The only one that really rests in my memory is Martin Shaw who played Robert in the first production I saw back in 1991. The pity is that the man who played Jerry in that production was Bill Nighy several years before he became BILL NIGHY; I just can’t call him to mind.

The only other that might just be worth mentioning is that there was a fleeting moment where Sam West’s mouth was set exactly like his father’s. It lasted just long enough for me to notice it and wonder if it was going to happen again.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder by Matt Charman, NT Cottesloe 18-Jun-2007 - Director: Sarah Frankcom

Someone is going to get hurt. Someone in Row A. Someone in a seat numbered between fifteen and twenty-something. I know this because I was in Row A and I saw the chips of masonry fly in the direction of those seats as the breeze-block wall was knocked down with a sledge hammer. OK I’m being overly dramatic but it was slightly unnerving to have a young man swinging a hammer within a few feet of where I sat.

I wondered if perhaps the designer hadn’t quite taken into account that there would need to be an audience sharing the same space as their transverse set. It did seem to take up most of the Cottesloe’s floor space. Also people in my row were turfed out during the interval so that stage hands could lay a concrete (concrete-effect on wooden board anyway) floor on part of the set [Insert slow builder joke here].

As the play got underway I sorted through what my nice liberal opinion of polygamy/polyandry should be. Basically I concluded that so long as it wasn’t abusive or fraudulent then it wasn’t worth complaining about. See, nice, liberal and just a bit glib. Actually I got the feeling that this is more or less what the author, Matt Charman, felt too, although he seems to have concluded that polygamy is always going to be abusive even if there’s no overt violence and little psychological bullying. There was only one outside character expressing moral outrage at the situation but he was driven in part by lust and wasn’t given a strong enough argument against Mister Pinder’s lifestyle. I’m not sure that I entirely bought the set up and maybe there was a more powerful play in the story of the introduction of the second wife rather than the introduction of the fourth and fifth ones. Also perhaps there would have been more tension if Maurice Pinder had been written as more charismatic and manipulative but then the situation would have felt almost ordinary which I think.was the author’s intention.

I felt the need to remind myself about Matt Charman’s first play A Night at the Dogs which I saw a couple of years ago (and which won the Verity Bargate award). I couldn’t remember whether the reviews of it had been positive or excited and my own recollection doesn’t go much beyond ‘interesting’ which is my usual unhelpful comment. I think I missed any common themes between the two plays. They both end, I reckon, with the optimistic possible future slightly outweighing the pessimistic one but in the case of Five Wives… I’m not sure that there was a strong sense that Pinder had learnt anything or changed. Perhaps that isn’t necessary and it probably wasn’t the intention; it’s just me wanting a bit more of a battle.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton, Old Vic 11-Jun-2007 - Director: Peter Gill

For some reason during tonight’s performance I kept wondering if I’d ever seen Rosamund Pile in colour. Something about her pale skin and hair together with her grey dress made me wonder if I’d ever seen her in colourful than a beige or cream. Thinking harder I believe she wore some bright colours (or brightly coloured trimmings) in Summer and Smoke last year.

When I first heard about Rosamund Pike she annoyed me. It wasn’t her fault of course it was that the publicity for Die Another Die seemed to talk about her as if she was already well known (none of the usual ‘newcomer Rosamund Pike’ stuff). As her name and face were unfamiliar to me from TV, film or theatre I wrongly assumed that she was some model-turned-actress doyen of the style pages and celebrity mags. I never saw any evidence of that, though and she impressed me in things like Hitchcock Blonde and Summer and Smoke. That said I’m still a little uneasy about exactly where she earned her top of the bill status. She’s good but is she that good?

I suspect that the director and cast decided that they couldn’t do this play as straight melodrama. It wasn’t quite played for laughs either but there was a slightly jokey feel to things when Kenneth Cranham was on stage. I hope it was deliberate because if the occasional, sometimes nervous laughs were unintentional then it won’t look good in front of the critics. It certainly didn’t match the descriptions of the play and subsequent movies which talk about the play as a psychological thriller. Perhaps playing it straight would have looked too ridiculous to modern eyes.

There was one incident that almost halted the play tonight, Ms Pike managed to drop one of the important-to-the-plot rubies which bounced nosily of the stage before disappearing from sight. Pike and Cranham struggled not to join in with the audience’s laughter (which turned into applause) and it was rather lucky that an interval started a couple of minutes later because I’m not sure that they or the audience felt willing to take anything too seriously at the time.

I was actually mildly disappointed with the play given my knowledge of Patrick Hamilton’s novels – I remember being astounded at the depiction of madness and obsession in Hangover Square and it was a book that I’d only picked up because I’d heard it was something that I vaguely ought to read. The play’s ending is telegraphed well before halfway and there is never enough jeopardy for the heroine. I almost wanted it all to be in her imagination or some tortuous trick cooked up by her husband and the ‘detective’, maybe even that the detective was the bad guy. I’m not sure that the husband was given enough opportunity by the play to convince her that she imagined everything.

I’m complaining too much so I ought to mention that everybody seemed to have a good time and even booed the husband (Andrew Woodall) as if he were a pantomime villain (not sure that the cast and director were necessarily looking for that reaction).

I’m always reminded when I see Rowena Cooper (who played Elizabeth) of the first time I encountered her. It was on TV in the eighties where she played Alan B’Stard’s male election agent who got a sex-change part way though the series.

Andrew Woodall was in Peter Gill’s play Certain Young Men and I remember in that play he played a man in a monogamous homosexual relationship who has an affair with a younger man (possibly played by Danny Dyer). His character cursed himself for his weakness but still gave into temptation. Not relevant of course.

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