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.

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