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.

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