Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, Wyndham’s Theatre, 8-Dec-2008 – Directed by Michael Grandage

I’m a little worried that I am about to be nasty for the sake of being contrary.
This production was a good, efficient and easy version of the play. All the jokes were in the right place (and pretty much worked) and time passed without any drags – in fact some scenes seemed to go by rather quickly with just enough opportunity to be savoured.. It was definitely the sum of its parts and considering half a dozen of the actors on were worth the price of admission on their own, it’s a pretty huge sum. However I didn’t feel it was greater than the sum of its parts and that was a pity. The production was clean and it worked but perhaps I wanted something more flawed and adventurous. I have seen this play more than half a dozen times so I could well be jaded and my standards absurdly high.
It had all the bits that could have made it fantastic and yet for me it didn’t catch fire. It might be that this was only the fourth or fifth performance and by the twentieth, when everybody has got used to each other, there will be a scintillating ensemble. I couldn’t claim that they lacked communication but I think I didn’t feel a sense of community. It’s a small thing that I’m blowing out of all proportion.
Possibly my biggest problem was Derek Jacobi and it was only slightly to do with his strange spiky-topped crew-cut. At first his Malvolio was merely stern and correct and I didn’t feel that he was pompous or self-serving. This changed rapidly after his first two scenes and he developed into the Malvolio that I had expected him to be. But by that time I had been reminded how old Jacobi is and how unsuitable (possibly unbelievable) he is as a suitor to Olivia. I didn’t believe that he would believe himself to be favoured by her.
There was also something slightly odd about the costumes, while all the Illyrians were dressed in vaguely 1930s style, Viola and Sebastian seemed to be wearing something from about a half or even a whole century before – I thought I saw echoes of the Corsican Brothers in their colourful jackets and their sash belts.
I liked Zubin Varla’s Feste and the triumvirate of Samantha Spiro, Ron Cook and Guy Henry as Maria, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

August: Osage County by Tracy Letts, Lyttelton Theatre, 26-Nov-2008 – Directed by Anna D Shapiro

Watching this I found myself having a desire to sneer at it. Certainly people behind me on the night and other reviews since have done that. It wasn't that the play was bad (it was good) or the acting wasn't top notch (it was), it's just that sceptical feeling that I get whenever something comes along laden with awards and over-hyped in previews. It was very much “I'll be the judge of how good it is thank you”. I wouldn't say that the play completely conquered my desire to sneer but I can definitely see what the fuss was all about and I am very glad I saw it.
Of course I do have quibbles. An actor/actress in one of the major parts was initially (and only initially) ACTING and I prefer my acting to be a little less capitalised. It might just have been that that actor/actress took a little time to get a sense of the space he/she was in.
Another rather odd thing was that the I felt that the third act was a little sketchy and underdeveloped. This was in spite of having already watched almost two and a half hours of play. It seemed rather rushed with its loose ends being tied up (or at least brought to some kind of conclusion for the play's sake) in short scenes, characters being sent off and its large leaps in time. There were some interesting plot ideas and developments in the third act -especially the relationship between the matriarch and her eldest daughter – but I didn't think I had enough time to really savour them.
The quibble about which I got the most disproportionately exercised happened in a scene where the three sisters discussed their parents being part of the “Greatest Generation”. You have to understand that I have a strong sense of historical rightness so unintentional anachronisms really annoy me (I'm okay with situations where people deliberately and completely throw history out of the window). The thing is this: the play cannot be set before 2007 (14 year old daughter born during the Clinton administration); the matriarch (according to Wikipedia) is supposed to be 65 meaning she was born in 1942. I believe that the “Greatest Generation” usually refers to those Americans that lived through the depression of the 30s and fought in the Second World War. So if she was born in 1942 the matriarch would not only be more of a “Baby Boomer” (i.e. One of the children of the “Greatest Generation” ) than anything else she also would not have witnessed (as she claims) the depression of the 30s which was effectively ended when America entered the war. It is deeply sad (if only for my personality) that I should feel the need to get annoyed about this but this an American play and Americans are usually obsessed enough about different generations to give them names so why did the writer get it wrong?
I think I need to have a lie down now.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

In a Dark Dark House by Neil LaBute, Almeida Theatre, 25-November-2008 – Directed by Michael Attenborough

I'm not sure what I am supposed to think about Neil LaBute. Personally speaking I always find his stuff interesting (which is never a good word to use in a review even if, like now, it's used sincerely) , with plenty of good bits and often challenging ideas. However, given his popularity with some theatres, I wonder if I am supposed to gush about his plays more and praise his use of language or something.
This play took sometime to get going with lots of ducking and weaving in speeches between two brothers (David Morrissey's Terry and Steven Mackintosh's Drew) which did not reveal character as much as it reminded me that I wasn't watching American actors. Once the evasions were over and the brothers' stories began to unfold it became much more satisfying and gripping.
The middle of the three scenes was effectively creepy producing an uncomfortable mixture of arousal and shame. In the cold light of hindsight I realised that I hadn't actually been all that convinced by the seduction that took place: What did this fifteen year old girl (Kira Sternbach) see in this forty-something man (David Morrissey) that made her so willing to flirt and play along with him? It had been all a little too easy and I hadn't seen enough into the girl's character to understand her motives in the scene.
The final scene of this interval-less evening was the strongest, with all the past histories flooding out. I did wonder if we should have been told, sooner, a little bit more about the relationships between the brothers and their father. I didn't feel that it had coloured the first scene enough. That said, if this information had been there then the final revelations would not have been as powerful as they were.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Norman Conquests by Alan Ayckbourn, Old Vic 18-Oct-2008 – Director Matthew Warchus

This is what I think anyway - Table Manners, the first play in the Norman Conquests trilogy (the first one I saw - which may have clouded my judgement) was probably nearly completed before the trilogy thing was thought up. I know that they say that the plays can be seen in any order but I'm not sure. Table Manners felt like a complete play, funny touching and sad, there are definitely gaps but you don't feel you've missed anything. Also the characters feel rounded and sympathetic, even if you don't completely like them.
Living Together felt a little like filler in comparison, other bloggers who saw this first (and only) hated it and I can see why. Characters seem nastier, not as well drawn, the plot feels scrappy and the jokes don't really work. That is, if you haven't seen Table Manners first (preferably an hour and a half before), then you see how the scenes bleed into each-other, how jokes in Table Manners are prefigured or paid off in this one and you feel that you are seeing different aspects of the characters. LT is still not as complete a play, it fills in gaps and has unnecessary silences where solitary characters are left doing very little.
Having filled in the gaps Ayckbourn seems to have decided to throw away most of the plot for Round and Round the Garden. Characters that were changed subtly in from Table Manners to Living Together get a more extreme makeover here. Also the minor characters of the six (from the previous plays), Tom and Ruth, get an entirely strange subplot of comic misunderstanding which really wasn't alluded to in the other plays. Round and Round the Garden also has what feels like an epilogue where much that was likely to happen after the end of Table Manners was overturned. For me the play was more complete than Living Together and possibly able to stand on its own but it wasn't quite as satisfying as Tables Manners.
This is rather long winded way of saying "see Table Manners first" whatever you are told to the contrary. The plays are not equal; there's a great one and two lesser ones rendered good by seeing the great one first.
Paul Ritter was fantastic when he wasn't being forced to be the "car bore" (I hate that character in Ayckbourn plays with the nasal voice, obsessed by cars, tools and the A147). Stephen Mangan made Norman sympathetic and sexy each time his character's boorishness was about to take over.
As a piece of nerdishness and to help me see the plays more clearly, I thought I'd write down the trilogy in chronological order:
Saturday 5:30pm - Round and Round the Garden - Act 1 Scene 1
Saturday 6:00pm - Table Manners - Act 1 Scene 1
Saturday 6:30pm - Living Together - Act 1 Scene 1
Saturday 8:00pm - Living Together - Act 1 Scene 2
Saturday 9:00pm - Round and Round the Garden - Act 1 Scene 2
Sunday 9:00am - Table Manners - Act 1 Scene 2
Sunday 11:00am - Round and Round the Garden - Act 2 Scene 1
Sunday 8:00pm - Table Manners - Act 2 Scene 1
Sunday 9:00pm - Living Together - Act 2 Scene 1
Monday 8am - Table Manners - Act 2 Scene 2
Monday 8am - Living Together - Act 2 Scene 2
Monday 9am - Round and Round the Garden - Act 2 Scene 2

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Oedipus by Sophocles, version by Frank McGuinness, Olivier Theatre, 8-Oct-2008 - Directed by Jonathan Kent

I'm probably not allowed to do the Oedipus-Schmeedipus-so-long-as-the-boy-loves-his-mother joke so I won’t.
The evening started before the actual when a group of men dressed in dark suits and collarless ties arrived and seated themselves strategically near the stage. Their presence wasn't that odd, after all they were members of the chorus gathering to make a big entrance at some point.
The stage was a shallow dome or top chord of a sphere with a mighty set of doors at its top. The whole thing rotated slow throughout the play and the only other piece of furniture was a large wooden picnic style that appeared to sit on the dome without moving with it. I did find this effect clever so much as a distraction while I worked how it was being done.
Noticing immovable may suggest to some that there wasn't better stuff on stage, but there was. I just get easily distracted by stage trickery that I feel compelled to work out. Ralph Fiennes and Clare Higgins were good although I didn't sense the heat between them that I thought the story demanded. The parade of talents – the actors coming in to deliver messages or have a row with Oedipus - were also good if a bit too much like a parade. I realise it's the play's structure but I don't have to like it.
Actually there was something about the play that I didn't like: It is a mystery yet all the pieces of the puzzle felt pretty much in place well before the end. I know I'm familiar with the story from reading Robert Graves Greek Myths and I've seen the play before but I've never been so aware of the structure or the fact that most of the interesting stuff happens off-stage. Also I noticed that although the Riddle of the Sphinx is alluded to and the solution is given, the actual question is never mentioned.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Coming Dancing – Book by Ray Davies and Paul Sirett – Music and Lyrics by Ray Davies, Theatre Royal Stratford East, 23-Sept-2008

I don’t like musicals. It’s not that I look down on them with disdain; they’re just not for me. I could make up some intellectual sounding reasons – something along the lines of a song’s ability to compress plot and emotional development into concentrated three minute bursts, often with the potent cheapness of legend, allowing writers to try to get away with not putting plot or emotional development anywhere else – but I would be making it up to sound as if I knew what I was talking about.
But the thing is, the music is by Ray Davies, the story is based on my favourite Kinks song and Mister Davies himself appears in it so I had to go, didn’t I?
People foolish enough to wish for a Kinks jukebox musical would be disappointed - I only recognised Tired of Waiting and the title song – but music used was at times sublime, there was a good mix of styles and some of the songs in pre-rock’n’roll style felt so accurate that I was sure I’d heard them before. I liked the acting and the story but could have done with a lot more character development to really nail down the relationships and tensions within Ray Davies imaginary family. I also felt the need for more specifics about Ray’s made-up youngest older sister Julie. I got a lot of knowing there was something better out there and the determination to get it but little of how she was going to do it.
The idea of the play is that it is the story, as told by Ray Davies, behind the writing of Come Dancing and I didn’t find it entirely convincing. I didn’t think that Ray Davies believed what he was trying to tell us. I didn’t buy the idea that the lyrics of Come Dancing referred to Ray’s tragic imaginary sister Julie when they actually suit the character of another older sister, Brenda, better.
This isn’t perfect but I was won over by the music and the charm of the cast. I still don’t like musicals though

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Riflemind by Andrew Upton, Trafalgar Studios 1, 16-Sept-2008 – Directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman

I was slightly distracted watching this play, by trying to work out who the models for the Riflemind band were. From what I could see as I was watching, they were supposed to have flourished in the very early 90s producing half a dozen albums, touring the world and filling stadiums before splitting in the second half of the nineties. I don’t rate my musical knowledge too highly but I couldn’t think of any British bands that got close to fitting that pattern. Most decent British bands of the early Nineties (that I could think of) seemed barely to manage to finish their second album before imploding. I reckoned that it would have been a better fit to make them a Seventies or Eighties group (reading the blurb seems to indicate this). Then I realised, belatedly, that as the play I was watching an Australian play I should look for a model (but not an exact correlation) for the band from down under. And I could think of at least a couple. I blame the Scottish accents employed John Hannah and Paul Hilton for fooling me.
This play left me wanting more, which arguably is a good thing. It also left an awful lot unsaid which is probably a bad thing. I wondered if the playwright reduced the number of characters from seven to four and concentrated on the relationship between John (the band’s leader and composer), his wife, his band-mate brother and the drummer (and I’m not sure about the drummer), then perhaps it would have been much more powerful. I felt that the scenes between John, his wife, his brother and the drummer were the most effective but perhaps it would have been much more difficult to tell the story and set the scenes without the extra characters.
Of course, who am I to tell people what they should have written – I’ll be suggesting amendments to Hamlet next. The play works fine as it is and maybe letting too much light in on the personal relationships between the four would have diminished the whole.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Ivanov by Anton Chekhov, Translated by Tom Stoppard, Wyndham’s Theatre, 15-Sept-2008 – Directed by Michael Grandage

Half through this play I was praying for Kenneth Branagh to be sexier. I’m not sure that I’m a good judge of sexiness in men so I may have missed it. I thought Ivanov was supposed to be a moody, interesting and sexily messy and Kenneth Branagh was more of a cuddly mess.
Before the interval I kept thinking just how good Branagh is going to be when he gets to play Uncle Vanya. The problem is that he should probably have been making me think of Doctor Astrov (from the same play) who is just as listless and possibly as self-pitying. Of course Ivanov seems to have given up on love and life while the Doctor still does passion.
In the second half we got glimpses of fire from this Ivanov, just in case anyone wondered what all the fuss about Kenneth Branagh was. All the same I didn’t feel that he possessed that magnetism that had attracted his wife and was now pulling on the daughter of his friend.
I wondered if it might be the play that doesn’t really allow you opportunity to see and understand why Ivanov is or was such an attractive person and personality. I keep saying this in my blog entries but we were more told that shown what Ivanov is like and it is never really explained what got him into his present funk. Obviously you can guess at factors like debt, no longer being in love with his wife and crossing the threshold of forty but I didn’t feel that I was getting the full insight into the why of Ivanov.
The play rattled along at a pleasingly brisk pace which I tend to think is a good thing for Chekhov. Tom Stoppard also played up the comedy in some scenes especially those featuring Lorcan Cranitch (Borkin), Malcolm Sinclair (Shabelsky) and Kevin R McNally (Lebedev). Also having just checked another translation it appears that in one major self pitying and potentially histrionic speech from Ivanov was peppered by Stoppard and/or the director with comic interjections from Lebedev and delivered in a deliberate monotone by Branagh. My description makes it sound appalling but actually I was rather impressed at the time. If the speech had been done straight I’m not sure it would have worked as well.
I couldn’t work out whether I was supposed to like Tom Hiddleston’s Doctor Lvov, I suspect not but I would have liked to know more about his motivation.
I would also like to say that there is no such thing as too much Kevin R.McNally.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Hedda (from Hedda Gabler), by Henrik Ibsen, Adapted by Lucy Kirkwood, Gate Theatre, 01-Sept-2008 – Directed by Carrie Cracknell

One of the criticisms levelled at this production is that we never really get to understand how this modern day Hedda Gabler has come to be the rather unpleasant creature that she is. While this criticism has some validity I think it has more to do with the adaptation not being adventurous enough. There are plenty of changes – maiden aunt becomes spinster sister, Lovborg’s work on a memory stick, General Gabler becomes Professor Gabler and so forth – but the plot, motivation and most of what people say remains about the same. If there isn’t enough detail about Hedda’s motivation it is, I think, actually the source material that’s at fault.
In its original setting we can take a lot of Hedda’s background for granted, There’s the position of educated women in the late Nineteenth Century and the fact that Hedda is raised as the only daughter of a widower General. We can see where she comes from just by the corseted dress and the senior military background of her father. Modernising the play means that you can’t use that convenient shorthand and you have to come up with other ideas to create a convincing modern Hedda; especially one who chooses marriage and possibly children over independence and a possibly career. I don’t think they quite succeed but it is certainly a worthwhile attempt and they get very close.
One of the things that I most appreciated about this production was that feeling of claustrophobia that I remember from when I first saw this play (Hampstead Theatre starring Lindsay Duncan) twenty years ago. It could just have been the smallness of the set in each case.
Another thing that has been said is that this Hedda isn’t very pleasant, of course I’ve never found the character sympathetic any way. I thought the point was that you are interested in her plight and I was.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Her Naked Skin, by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, National Theatre – Olivier, 24-July-2008 – Directed by Howard Davies

The problem, for me, with setting a love story against a backdrop of major historical events is that history can easily overwhelm the romance. It is also a problem if you leave gaping holes in the history which have to be (only partially) filled by the programme notes and if the love story doesn’t feel strong enough.
The love story felt as if it needed a smaller more intimate space to make it feel intense. It also needed considerably more danger and risk and not just be the momentary fancy of a bored aristo.
I was confused by the mix of factual and fictional characters. Were any of the main characters (other than the politicians) based on real people? They didn’t feel that real, which actually and oddly made me wonder if they were based on real people. You can arguably get away with a bit of sketchiness using real people but fake people need to be fully rounded and with motivations and back-stories.
I wanted more from and about the men. They seemed, at times, to be brutish caricatures, even when spouting lines that their historical counterparts had said. I wanted more motivation and reason from the men (if it comes to that the women too). With 20-20 hindsight and even a few years after the events of the play, the male anti-suffrage ideas were shown to be clearly wrong-headed and stupid but at the time they were, presumably, sincerely held and effectively argued. I don’t think that the author wanted to go there but I felt its absence.
I didn’t feel that I got to know why some of the main characters were Suffragettes. Obviously they were doing what they believed to be right and the aim of universal suffrage was right, but I didn’t feel what was driving them. I understand that one of the reasons for commissioning this play was the ninetieth anniversary of the suffragette movement and perhaps it should have looked a little at the present. There are people, in the world today, who would happily refuse women the vote and many other rights, claiming, as the Victorians and Edwardians did before them, that they are doing it to protect the dignity and honour of women. They place woman-kind on a pedestal but ignore the exploitation of women who don’t meet their standards. Perhaps they put them on a pedestal so that they not in the way and can be ignored. I didn’t see any modern echoes in this play; given its subject matter I think there should have been.
In the end (as the programme acknowledges) it wasn’t the Suffragettes or the more reasonable Suffragists that brought about votes for women but a Great War that managed to shatter Britain’s Victorian and Edwardian self-delusions.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Relocated by Anthony Neilson, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 11-Jun-2008 – Directed by Anthony Neilson

When I booked for this play it didn't have a title. I suspect that it may only have been a very early draft then, if it existed at all. The powerful presence of a Germanic figure keeping his daughter as a brood mare in the cellar indicates that it must have undergone a major rewrite in late April. Other people, Germanic and otherwise, have been discovered to have kept young women locked up for a long time, recently but the Austrian case that broke in April must have been an inspiration.
I didn't think that it suffered from this “up to the rehearsal” writing, the actors certainly seemed to know what they were doing. What I found remarkable was how closely integrated the new material was with, what must have been, the older stuff.
Overall it did have a ripped-from-the-headlines feel almost as if it had been written with a TV news channel on in the background. The story showed the way a woman had to shift her identity as she fled from public suspicions of her complicity in a Soham-like murder. It reminded me of a fictional or factual depiction I'd seen of a woman with multiple personality disorder who would create a new personality as a reaction to a major stressful incident. The new personality would become the dominant one for a time and other identities would be forgotten but would slowly impinge on the new one.
Another real story that I thought was woven into the structure was the case of a man that pretended to be a secret agent and kept a group of deluded recruits on the run from imagined terrors and plots. They gave him money, bore his children and changed their identities at his whim.
The set, which we had to pass through on the way to the seats, was a completely black low-ceilinged room with black shuttered windows to let in light when opened. We were divided from the stage by gauze screen which was sometimes lit from the front and side to obscure the room. There was a vexatious thread dangling from the middle of the screen which was noticeable when these lights were on. I’m not sure that the thread was a deliberate annoyance but it looked too big to have been missed by the stage-crew.
I’m not sure if I’d claim that there was a theme to Anthony Neilson’s work but this play did have the dissociative quality of a dream, which is familiar from other works. In this case it may have all been a dream by a woman who has fainted while doing the housework with a TV news channel on in the background.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Topless Mum by Ron Hutchinson, Tricycle Theatre, 3-Jun-2008 – Directed by Caroline Hunt

The phrase that came to me at the interval was, “a rehearsed idea”. It was as if the author had had what he thought was a good idea but had not really been able to grasp it, hold on to it and form it. Like a sculpture that's only perfect when still encased in a solid block of stone and how ever you hack it out it will never be quite right.
I’m not sure that it is an entirely accurate assessment of the play and certainly owes too much to my desire to do flowery writing. My interval thought was partially inspired by the director’s description, in the programme, of the play’s long gestation and many revisions. I have a, probably unwarranted, suspicion that the more something has to be revised (and heavily revised) the more likely it is, not to work. Seeing the first half of the play hadn’t helped, there was a story, certainly, but the cast seemed just to going through well-worn arguments as if following them in a diagram. It wasn’t that it was badly written it was more under-written as if the author hadn’t ever become interested in his characters.
I thought there were some good touches, the way that the injured soldier and his wife used careful language to lead the journalist to the wrong but desired conclusion and the incoherence of another soldier seeking to tell the truth. However the idea of making the injured soldier into a hero with the use of topless pictures of his wife didn’t make sense to me. It felt like it was only there to justify the title of the play

Fast Labour by Steve Waters, Hampstead Theatre, 2-Jun-2008 – Directed by Ian Waters

A good thing about political correctness is the way that you avoid obvious stereotypes and lazy generalisations. A bad thing about politically correct plays is that the author expends so much energy avoiding obvious stereotypes and lazy generalisations, that the drama ebbs away, leaving something anaemic and without conflict. I'm probably being lazy and generalising here but I felt this play had far too many decent people in it. Of course there were illegal immigrants [insert standard and well rehearsed arguments about the black economy of economic migrants being essential for cheap food - here] and the gang masters that exploited them but none of the nightmare stories of people trafficking. The most villainous person, arguably the gang-master Grimmer, was far too concerned about his position in society to really do anything vile. He was certainly an exploiter and, in keeping migrant workers money, a thief but he also wanted to keep his people on side.
No doubt there’ll be plenty of research to back up the facts in the play but I wanted more jeopardy, to feel that there was more at stake. The story of an illegal immigrant, working their way up and starting a briefly successful business has echoes of powerful films like Scarface but it seems the author didn’t want to go there. True, it would have been over melodramatic especially in a piece that argued that at least in Britain there are fair rules to play by and it is possible to win the game.
I’ve gone on far too long trying to say that it was all a bit too agreeable. The play itself was well put together and I was impressed especially by the switching in languages (everything spoken in English but jumping between imagined languages through accent and context). It made me think about the way that completely coherent, intelligent people can sound and look like idiots when dealing with a language that is unfamiliar or different. It was interesting to notice (though not surprising) that the author avoided the comedy of miscomprehension that is often a safe comedic retreat.
I could have done with knowing a lot more about the demons that Victor (Craig Kelly) had encountered and more about his motivations. He wanted to be a good man and to give people work but I needed more than that. There was a fair bit of talk about how perestroika and the fall of communism have changed life in the former Soviet Union but I wasn’t convinced that it was coming from anywhere or was intended to reach any conclusion.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Common Pursuit, by Simon Gray, Menier Chocolate Factory, 1-June-2008 – Directed by Fiona Laird

While I watched this play I couldn’t help being reminded of a programme note in N C Hunter’s A Day By The Sea which I saw at the Finborough a couple of months ago. As I pointed out at the time, the programme mentioned that N C Hunter’s success may have had much to do with the high calibre actors that performed his plays. I was reminded of this because when I saw this play twenty years ago, the cast which included Stephen Fry, Rik Mayall, John Gordon Sinclair, Sarah Berger and John Sessions was pretty damn good and possibly the suitable for the play at the time.
I realised that the comparison with N C Hunter was probably unfair, and that the play doesn’t so much need good or even great actors, it just needs the right actors. And it isn’t all the actors, the ‘wrong’ actors in this play were arguably the actors in the comic relief roles of Nick and Peter. I began to think that it is those roles together with the role of Humphrey (a self-loathing homosexual don – played first time by Stephen Fry, who else) that really made the play something special. Otherwise, you could claim it was an underwritten romantic triangle. Reece Shearsmith, who played the literary hack, Nick, was suitably acidic but didn’t have the flamboyance and anti-heroic schoolboy charm that Rik Mayall brought to the part. I didn’t like him enough this time round, and as his character’s glasses frames got thicker, Reece Shearsmith started to make me think of Ronnie Corbett – his shortness relative to the other actors added to that feeling.
Casting Nigel Harman as the lothario lone-ranger Peter seemed to miss the point that Peter is chaotic but very lucky in keeping his infidelities secret. Harman was a convincing philanderer but too smooth for the part. John Gordon Sinclair may not have been as sexy playing Peter but he made a better muddling liar and had much more chemistry with Humphrey. I didn’t really get the strength of the attraction between Humphrey and Peter in this production although the elements are in the play.
One of the bits that I remembered most about this play (although it may have only been in the TV adaptation) was a touching speech from Stuart (was John Sessions, is Robert Portal) comparing his situation with the ‘fixed’ tom-cat who is unable to perform with cat-like agility anymore. It was missing from this production, I’m not sure why or even whether the play would have been better (or worse) for its inclusion but I felt its absence.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

King Lear by William Shakespeare, Shakespeare's Globe, 23-Apr-2008 – Directed by Dominic Dromgoole

I sometimes regret not seeing productions at the Globe later in their run. I suspect or possibly just hope, that they improve as the actors get used to the space and the way they need to play the lines to the audience.
While there is something to be said for seeing the play on Shakespeare's birthday, I'm not sure that all the performances hit the mark. I didn't think David Calder had quite got the menacing petulance and sudden anger of Lear, although it was certainly ready to break the surface. The delivery of another actor, who has been doing stuff at the Globe a few times now, seemed to alternate between extremely effective and very flat. Also there were a few longeurs where actors slowly processed across the stage. This was especially noticeable at the interval when the audience wanted to applaud but had to wait for the recently (and bloodily – eyeballs and everything) blinded Gloucester to be led the long way off the stage.
All of this will improve by the day but I think that people are going say something about the awkward storm scenes where the 'cuts' back to the to the castle were performed on the balcony leaving Lear, Kent, Gloucester et al. to walk slowly in a circle on the stage.
Another thing that has been creeping up on me over the years of watching King Lears (I think it is about 15 productions now) and is now fairly obvious to me is the incredibly poor 'time management' in the play. I'm not talking about how long it is (in this production the 3+ hours went by fairly quickly with a few drawn-out bits) but how Shakespeare manages the passing of time. The major problem for me is Edgar's transformation into Mad Tom which seems to last a night but that doesn't explain how he's so good at it and why people appear to know who Mad Tom is. Doubtlessly there are essays and explanations in books but I'm not going to take the time to read them.
Something I would like to see (slightly prompted by a feeling of colourlessness in tonight's Cordelia) in a production of King Lear is to have Cordelia and the Fool played by the same actor. I'm not saying the Fool should be Cordelia in disguise, that would be obvious and kludgey, but I'd like to see an echo of it. Of course there will be good reasons not to do it , probably because they want a good comedian to make the fool actually funny and aren't looking for too much in Cordelia. Still I'd like to see it tried.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Fram by Tony Harrison, Olivier Theatre, 15-Apr-2008 – Directed by Tony Harrison

The problem with writing in rhyming verse is that it can become clunky and predictable. You find yourself groaning or giggling at the forced rhymes and deliberate wit or humour can become predictable because you can see what the rhyme is likely to be.
Of course there are times, in the hands of an expert that the rhyme scheme is a muted backbeat driving transcendently beautiful language.
This play has both the clunk and the beauty. I wondered sometimes, if the awkward rhymes were supposed to relate to Gilbert Murray, the classicist and alleged writer author of the play we were watching, and his reputation for pedestrian verse translations of Greek tragedies. Certainly I thought I found myself noticing the clunk more when he was speaking. It isn't a reflection on Jeff Rawle who played him and was ,I thought rather good.
I could understand Tony Harrison using a classicist as his narrator and the resultant links to Greek drama: Harrison's version Orestia was my first play at the National (seen in a single day's school trip) and I've seen several other of his translations. However I rather doubted whether Nansen's story was really Greek or tragic (the programme notes mention a Nansen biography subtitled a hero in a Greek tragedy). While he lived through and was involved in deeply tragic times, Nansen appears to have strolled through them with relative ease and was even able to develop a rampant sexual appetite (allegedly) to accompany his fame. This is a problem with this play, there is no drama at its centre, or at least no flawed hero. Although he is followed by the ghost of his former close but hated companion from an arctic expedition, it isn't exactly a haunting. I couldn't quite see the point even with the character well played by Mark Addy. At the interval I couldn't quite see what was left to tell of the story after its first 90 minutes.
There are brilliant things in this play – the 'starvation speech' played out by Sian Thomas as Sybil Thorndike is a highlight – but there are also many dull bits which make the play's three hours seem longer.
I also began to notice the occasional habit of repetition where an actor would describe something then repeat the description in elaborate detail. The elaboration would often be beautifully stated but was underscored with a voice in my head saying “but you only just said that”.
Another thing, which might be imaginary was that I began to associate Harrison's most powerful and effective poetry with the more disturbing and crude images or descriptions. Blood, cannibalism and sex seemed to bring out the best verse.
Some bits to mention: There was a shocking video projection featuring two victims of the Russian famine; A pleasant video projection drifting along a bridgeless Thames from Waterloo to Westminster. There was also video of two of the actors rushing into the theatre and arriving for real in the auditorium, as well as Nansen walking off the stage and into a projection.
And at the end we get the ship rising out of the Olivier stage. It's a very nice touch but I didn't really get the point.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Visiting Mr. Green by Jeff Baron, Trafalgar Studios 1, 9-Apr-2008, Directed by Patrick Garland

Over the years I seem to have picked up a great deal about Jewish culture from watching plays. This play managed to introduce me to something new: The concept of Flayshick and Milchick which is the dietary prohibition on eating meat (e.g. flesh) at the same time as dairy products (e.g. milk) and not mixing the plates or cutlery either. Generally there's a sound what-happens-to-food-in-desert-conditions reason for most kosher rules but I'm not sure of exactly the reason for this one. It also has the ring of a faddish diet.
There's another strange thing to do with food in this play: the young character brings take-out food from an upscale kosher deli (I vaguely recalled hearing of it at the time but now its name esapes me). He opens the three tinfoil boxes to reveal carrots & peas, mashed potato, and stuffed cabbage. Admittedly there didn't appear to be a hob or oven in the appartment-room set (although there was a fridge, a sink and cupboards for 4 sets of crockery and cutlery - falyshick and milchik for standard and passover use) but plain carrots, peas and mashed potato seemed really ordinary for a take away.
The programme notes mentioned the awards it has won and the number of places it has been produced in a way that made me a bit suspicious. It had the feeling of the producers saying “it is good, honest” knowing that they aren't going to be believed.
I didn't think the play was anything ground-breaking but as I've intimated I've seen quite a few 'Jewish' dramas. I also thought that with its short scenes and a running time that didn't justify an interval (less than 90 minutes overall), it didn't really stretch the actors.It is a simple story, simply told and I wanted more. It was carrots, peas and mash and I wished that I'd had something more substantial and classy. The actors also deserved much better fare.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Day By The Sea by N. C. Hunter, Finborough Theatre,7-April - 2008, Directed by Tom Cooper

The programme notes told me that N. C. Hunter was once described as the 'English Chekhov'. So I knew what to expect: Lots of talk; Relatively little action (there was an offstage rock climbing bit but without real danger); Tidy and potentially happy endings dangled in front of the audience only to be snatched away leaving us to think that we were weak simple-minded and overly sentimental to want a happy ending in the first place; And, of course, a Doctor with plenty of charm and most of the best lines.
We got all of that of course but it wasn't exactly Chekhov. Far too many of the characters sat around telling the world what they were like instead of it coming from dialogue or characterisation (have you met my show-don't-tell hobby-horse?). I should point out that the programme notes also point out that his success at the time might have had more to do with the quality of the productions and cast than the actual plays themselves.
The reason the Finborough have 'rediscovered' this play is to act as a companion piece to Nicholas de Jongh's Plague over England which showed earlier this year and dealt with John Gielgud's arrest for importuning in a public convenience while he was preparing to bring A Day By The Sea into the West End. I was interested to imagine how some of the original actors (in truth I've only seen Gielgud and Ralph Richardson act and just heard of Sibyl Thorndike) would have played the parts. I felt that Stephen Omer, who played the John Gielgud part of Julian Anson, was more convincing in the role than the Gielgud of my imagination. I reckon that Gielgud would have been more mannered and come over a sight more ridiculously when his character was required to loosen up and rediscover romance. Of course the play originally ran for over a year so what do I know. On the other hand I could really see Ralph Richardson in the Doctor's part. It is probably unfair to William Maxwell, who did a good job, but I could see how convincing Richardson's batty charm would have been and I would have better understood why the nanny fell for his character.

Another thought about the comparison with Chekhov is that although Chekhov's plays have a strong, almost exact, sense period (i.e. the decades just straddling the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) they are somehow timeless, this play feels stuck in grey post-war mud. I could say that almost every hide-bound attitude expressed in this play was swept away in the next decade and a half, but much the same fate arguably befell Chekhov. Perhaps in Chekhov the way of life changed but the people and their attitudes didn't, while the kind of people in this play have probably ceased to exist.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Bliss by Olivier Choiniere, translated by Caryl Churchill, Royal Court Upstairs, 31-Mar-2008 - Directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins

I probably shouldn't forgive Caryl Churchill. Strictly speaking it isn't her fault, she only translated the play. That said she must have chosen to do so.
Of course you aren't going to get me to say the play was bad. Odd, muddled and unsatisfactory perhaps but I wouldn't say bad.
The problems that I had with this play had more to do with the fact that felt compelled to check a few things later. Now I know much more than I ever wanted to about Celine. We weren't told her surname but the biographical details fit the self same Celine who sang Switzerland's entry in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1988 with what appeared to be an extra row of teeth (actually a couple of misplaced canines).
This woman's singing leaves me cold, so when the play started with a description of a concert almost as if it was a mystical rite, I felt strange. I couldn't work out if the narrators' seemingly heartfelt adoration of Celine was meant to be ironic. As unfair as it may sound I wanted there to be a sneer somewhere at the back of things but I don't think that the playwright had that in mind.
I wondered slightly about the potential of the play to generate lawsuits, not only did we have the un-surnamed Celine, the audience were required to wear Wal-Mart tarbards. Of course Wal-Mart doesn't exist as a brand in the UK but they have a presence through Asda and could have taken offence. Not that there was really anything offensive in the play about the singer or the brand.
The stage was set up as if the audience was viewing a piece of washroom story-telling from the other side of a mirror (with backwards-written grafitti on the cubicles and everything). The play shifted between its three stories (told sequentially) a little bit too easily. Celine's parents suddenly became the parents of an abused (physically and sexually) Celine fan and I thought I'd dozed off and missed a chunk. Much the same happened when the now hospitalised fan became a misfit Wal-Mart checkout girl. Like I said, confusing.
It is a recurrent theme in this blog that I seem to miss points in plays and I have to say that I missed the significance of the Oracle stuff. The audience were all wearing the name-badge 31CARO which when seen in a mirror comes close to being ORACLE. I just didn't see how the misfit character Caro, whose name badge it was, was acting much like and Oracle.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Never So Good by Howard Brenton, Lyttelton Theatre, 17-March-2008, Directed by Howard Davies

I wonder if I suffer from some kind of ingrained anti-Roman Catholicism. I can't think of any actual event or specific influence in my background that could cause it but I feel deeply uncomfortable whenever a writer makes a claim that it was an historical figure's open/hidden/latent/repressed/rejected/anti Roman Catholicism that was a prime motivation in that person's life. I'm not saying that this wasn't the case with Harold Macmillan and I don't know where Howard Brenton stands on the matter - he could easily be completely disinterested - it is just a pea under a layer of mattresses and I can't get comfortable. I can understand that there might be historical reasons behind Roman Catholics wanting to 'claim' people for the 'true church' (denial of power and oppression etc.) but I'm not sure it fits in with more our secular times where religion shouldn't be an issue. I've probably made too much of this particular theme in the play anyway.
Although the play was long (not that it felt long) I got the feeling that I wasn't getting enough detail. There was plenty going on and I wouldn't fault the writing or the acting but I always felt that something major had happened off stage and that Macmillan was either sidelined or reacting to the situation even if he had played a major part in the offstage events. It could well have been a deliberate decision by the author, after all it helped show him as a nearly-man for much of his career but I would have liked more of the beginnings and middles of his relationships with his wife, Churchill, Eden and Eisenhower. It also meant that we had to be told what was going on or what had just happened rather than been shown it happening.
I wonder what the reaction to the Suez scene's parallels to the Iraq invasion is going to be from performance to performance. For us it was a laugh of recognition but I could see how easily it could become a groan at the heavy-handedness of the similarities.
The production, probably sensibly, didn't seem to go for imitations of characters, Ian Macniece certainly looked like Churchill (although he never smoked the cigar constantly in his hand - there was a split in the cast as to smoked and who handled but never lit up) but made no attempt to sound like him. Also Jeremy Irons didn't try to do a Macmillan although Pip Carter as his younger self delivered a version of Peter Cook's Beyond the Fringe impersonation of him.
I thought the use of the older and younger selves to comment on one another was effective but I was initially unsure what the younger version thought had died in the older. It also made me wonder about doing the Thatcher play (I don't doubt that Howard Brenton has thought about it himself) because unlike Macmillan there doesn't seem a place in the Iron Lady's life for a youthful voice of doubt or a Bolingbroke, Buckingham or Richmond from whom she would have accepted criticism. If to do a good Thatcher play and not just a left wing rant (they'll be plenty of them in a few years) you have to get into her head then there is only twenty-twenty hindsight to tell her that she was wrong.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The hour we knew nothing of each other By Peter Handke, translated by Meredith Oakes, Lyttelton Theatre, 6-Feb-2008 – Directed by James MacDonald

Before the play started, a man in front of me asked my neighbour (female and better looking) if there was a plot summary for this piece on the free cast list. I was slightly tempted to ask him, after we’d watched the play, whether he’d be able to put one together for future reference. If you want a plot, I suppose it is the comings and goings in a city square throughout a day. What that means is a large number of little vignettes, small stories (comical and tragical), familiar observations of people watching and a nice dollop of weirdness often including some fictional, historical, mythological or biblical figure. And whenever there was a lull in the proceedings one of a number of well put together young women would process across from upstage left to downstage right.
The city square was represented by sculptural, abstracted and slightly organic-looking office buildings around the three sides of the stage.
Describing the play becomes a little like trying to remember the contents of a conveyor as prizes pass in front of you – Actually I can’t remember if there was a cuddly toy, or whether it was a man dressed as a football mascot. Here are a few things that stuck in the mind:
Recurring characters such as a street cleaner (played by Mark Hadfield) who discovers the script for the play that he is in; a hiker (played by Richard Hope) who had constantly to empty sand and stones from his shoes and clothes; an annoying person (played by Jason Thorpe), possibly meant to be a small boy, a grown-up that acted like one or a representation of the spirit of annoyingness who spent his time imitating the actions of passers-by.
A business man emptying the pockets of his suit pulling out strange items until he finds a apple. One of the well put-together young women in a dress made from fragments of mirror and holding a large leaf with an eye-sized hole to cover her face. A looping line of old men, then teachers, then old soldiers made up of the same dozen or so actors. A couple sexually aroused watching a man collapse and die while the annoying man tried to imitate him. Abraham leading Isaac (who was carrying a convenient bush) across the stage, clutching a sacrificial dagger, Papageno getting mugged. A queue that almost spontaneously formed.
While I found this wordless parade highly enjoyable there was still a feeling at the back of my mind that it was all a bit insubstantial. It was like an endless supply of gourmet snacks and treats, while they take as much time and skill to prepare as a normal meal, you get the feeling that there’s a big feast that you are missing. There were so many characters and little stories that I never felt that I got to know any of them well or even at all.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Vortex by Noel Coward, Richmond Theatre, 4-Feb-2008, Directed by Peter Hall

So you’ve got this character called Florence Lancaster, she is an ageing actress, afraid of her age and needing desperately to be loved. The problem is that she’s played by Felicity Kendal who, it is widely accepted, is charming and lovely and it’s probably a criminal offence not to like her. All this means that how ever well she manages to convince you that she’s Florence Lancaster (and she is both very convincing and good at it) there’s always this voice at the back of your head (okay my head) that says “but that’s Felicity Kendal – we like Felicity Kendal”. As I’ve said it’s largely in my head and almost certainly doesn’t detract from her performance.

I wasn’t entirely sure about Dan Stevens who played Florence’s son Nicky. He was certainly pretty and vulnerable enough and I wouldn’t complain about his acting but I thought some of the easy-to-parody Coward witticisms (brittle brilliant wit with something nasty ready to break out when thing crack up) weren’t delivered well enough. I could imagine that it might have been that fear of slipping into parody that stopped him from taking pleasure in the language and from saying beautiful things beautifully. Another thing that bothered me was that he seemed to change enormously between the first and second acts. I realise that he is supposed to be reaching a crisis about his drug taking and his relationship with his fiancĂ©e is breaking down but in the play it’s only two days later and things don’t start to go wrong until act two.

For some reason this three act play with short peppy acts had two intervals lasting a total of 45 minutes out of the two and a quarter hour running time. I might be argued that the 20 and 25 minute gaps were necessary to move the set but the set had a monumental simplicity about it with free standing doorways and staircases set against long black curtains and with only enough furniture to be useful in the scene. Perhaps we were expected to spend the intervals drinking cocktails and having witty, sophisticated conversations.

I seemed to have missed the mildly suggested lesbian sub-plot in the play when I saw it at the Donmar in 2002 but even here it was gentle and entirely one-sided. Also I realise that people have compared the play’s mother son relationship with the same relationship in Hamlet, but I kept being reminded of the Seagull which I saw Felicity Kendal in a decade ago. It is slightly odd to think that the Seagull was only about 30 years old when Coward wrote this play.

I would also like to mention Mah-Jong which people play off stage during the second act. It is not the tile-matching excrescence that which might be called Mah-Jong on your computer but a game, using the same 144 tiles, which is a cross between Gin Rummy played with three packs of cards and Lego. It is a wonderful game and I encourage you to learn it because it will increase the chances of me finding three other people to play it.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov, The Rose, Kingston, 28-Jan-2008, Directed by Peter Hall

Inevitably I’m going to spend most of my time here writing about the theatre. After all it’s new and it was my first time there so I’m probably allowed an opinion. I have to confess that it felt a bit like a rather upscale school assembly hall. There was a suggestion of echoes and feeling of being distant from the stage. I was in the stalls under the cover of the circle so there was also an uncomfortable sensation from being in a low ceilinged area when compared to the height of the rest of the theatre. Perhaps I should have learned from my experiences at Shakespeare’s Globe where if you have to sit it’s best to do so in the middle gallery rather than the ground floor where you see the action through the groundlings. Of course here the groundlings sat quietly and politely but I could still feel how far away the action was. Also unlike at the Globe, the seating curved round in slightly more than a semicircle (almost a three-quarter circle) but the stage wasn’t thrust into the middle (or wasn’t in this case anyway), it was a shallow, very wide, low flat platform at the back of the hall.
There was one striking similarity with the Globe: There are long passages where characters talk to themselves, in a normal theatre these are addressed to the darkness but here (as with the Globe) the speeches stood out as if they were being directed at a real audience (which they were, of course). I remember being rather struck by this, imagining momentarily that this was some invention of the translator (Stephen Mulrine). It may have been my fifth or sixth Uncle Vanya but it felt like it was the first time I was seeing these soliloquies.
Any hope of such high-minded appreciation was slightly spoiled by a near neighbour who developed a fit of the giggles towards the end of the second act. The play was directed in such a way to allow people to laugh occasionally (didn’t Chekhov always called his plays comedies) but this woman went too far. Any miss-mouthed line, slipped prop or potential double meaning in the script was treated with loud laughter which removed any hope of concentration. My near neighbour calmed down after the interval which is when I noticed that a couple of the actors seemed to have developed an attack of ‘the hands’. Every emphasis suddenly seemed to be accompanied by manual flourishes which, in reality, were probably just noticeable rather than silly butit didn’t stop me smiling a bit.
As I felt a bit too distanced I didn’t feel as connected and/or electrified, as I sometimes have, by the play. I liked everyone’s performances and I seem to have seen Michelle Dockery in a few things before (Dying for It at the Almeida and the UN Inspector at the National to name two) without noticing her which was probably a grave error. I didn’t think Neil Pearson was sexy enough (of course I am probably the wrong sex or sexual persuasion) but I did find his character’s slightly nerdy interest in trees and wildlife much more believable – these things are probably connected

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The President's Holiday by Penny Gold, Hampstead Theatre, 24-Jan-2008 – Directed by Patrick Sanford

A few years ago a teenage colleague at work assured me that the socialist revolution was just around the corner. Whatever the merits of such a revolution, I'm not sure that any it is any closer now than it was then. It does appear, however, that he's not the only person who thinks like this. Penny Gold's author's note at the beginning of the play text as well as her hopeful message at the end of the play seem to indicate that she'd like to see a return to some kind of proper socialism if not a full blown revolution.
Watching this play I kept feeling that there's a lot that could be included in the story of Gorbachev's three day detention during the Soviet Union’s 1991 August coup. I kept reminding myself of other verbatim work like Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest which dealt with the Romanian revolution that somehow ended up with similar people in charge. I would have liked to see a lot more of Gorbachev’s life story and motivations as well as getting a better picture (if only second hand) of some of the characters involved in the coup. The trouble in this play, where I saw good actors struggle unsuccessfully to bring life to the text, Penny Gold seems to have gone for what she sees as accuracy. Other than some clumsy parallels with the Tsar Nicolas the Second’s execution, which may not have been understood by people that hadn’t read the play, it appeared that Ms Gold was sticking too closely to a single source. The play is apparently based on the diaries of the late Raisa Gorbacheva and the writer appears unwilling to depart from the facts contained in it.
The play has the feel of documentary without editing tricks or dramatisation and at the same time without imagination. It seems too literal and the dialogue feels almost diagrammatic; people tell one another how they feel rather than allowing it to be expressed in what they say. Sometimes it was as if reported summarised speech had been turned straight into direct speech simply by enclosing it is quotes or rather putting a character’s name and a colon in front of it.
I wonder if the writer would claim that she was trying to tell the unvarnished truth but what comes across is clunky dialogue and the feeling that she didn’t dare to use any imaginative licence. I would be fascinated to find out how this play went wrong and how it was allowed to go so wrong. It’s not difficult to see the potential in this story: One of the world’s most powerful men is cut-off from the world for three days and finds that his power has entirely vanished. But you have to see his power (whether power as a person or power as a head of state) in order to understand its loss and you have to understand the character of all those that betrayed him in order to feel the betrayal.
I was going to do a joke about the Hampstead Theatre looking for a new Literary Manager but it doesn’t feel funny at the moment.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Vertical Hour by David Hare, Royal Court Downstairs, 23-Jan-2008 – Directed by Jeremy Herrin

I think that I missed the point of calling this play the Vertical Hour. The phrase refers to the first hour after injury or tragedy when help is most useful. The thing is that the play doesn't seem to deal with anything recent enough to qualify as a Vertical Hour so unless it refers to having missed the vital period, the title appears meaningless. The Vertical Hour is mentioned in the play but I didn’t feel that it connected to the rest of the piece. I remember feeling similar things about Hare’s play Amy's View. Somehow I missed the bits where Amy expounded her ‘view’ and had to wait for another character to explain what it was. It could all be that I’m not paying enough attention.
I got the impression that this play was being built up with the expectation that there was going to be some explosive argument about the Iraq war. Although there was lots of fencing around the subject, which built tension, when it came to the point, it was all rather tame.
Hare made Nadia's position on the war (I found it similar to what Tony Blair tries to sell and no one believes) relatively weak and idealistic and it seemed easy for her ideas be defeated. In fact it almost looked as if she was broken in a speech lasting around thirty seconds. Nadia’s stance that it is a moral duty to intervene when dictators oppress their own people is easy to question. Hare didn’t go down the trite route of simply by listing the places that it was not seen fit to intervene nor did he go deeply into the idea of why Iraq was chosen at that point in history.
Of course had if Hare had made Nadia more of an ultra neo-con figure (Anne Coulter springs to mind) and still had his Olivier character defeat her, it would have looked like left-wing wish fulfillment. I would, however, have made the match more even and incendiary.
If I felt brave or knowledgeable enough I could claim that Hare seems to regard drama as what men do to women, or at least that he thinks women are still defined only by their relationships with men. Probably unfair but it was any impression I got even if I thought of the ‘drama is what men do to women’ line a while back and have been looking for an excuse to use it. What I did see was lots of the relationship between the father and son but didn't get the sense of what had made Nadia tick other than a charismatic man in her past. There was even a line where Nadia’s character was summed up by her boyfriend and again I felt that I was being told something about someone without having noticed when that person showed those character traits. I felt that there was little evidence of Nadia’s personality other than what she told the world and aren’t characters supposed to be unreliable narrators when it comes to themselves?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Land of the Dead/Helter Skelter by Neil LaBute, Bush Theatre, 15-Jan-2008 – Directed by Patricia Benecke

There has (by the time I’ve got round to writing this) plaenty of stuff written about how terrible it is for the Bush to lose 40% of its funding. Mark Shenton seems to have summed it up fairly well in his blog including a bit about the sheer impossibility of Bush artistic director Josie Rourke’s figures countering those of the Arts Council. The Bush claim that their attendance figures are nearer to 40,000 as against the Arts Council’s estimate of 14,600. Given the 80 seat capacity of the Bush they’d need to put on almost 500 performances to reach 40,000 and the real figure for the Bush itself is probably nearer to 25,000. To be fair to the Bush they are counting the extra attendances from shows like Elling and Whipping It Up which transferred as well as touring productions, which they admit on their homepage.
In a situation like this where the accountants at the Arts Council seem to be making the muddle headed decisions I wonder though, whether it is wise to play the emotional cards (the theatre is unique, it has a special history, reputation etc.) when it is rationality not passion that seems to be the deciding factor. Also using misleading figures against an enemy will always allow that enemy to point out that the figures are misleading and ignoring the substantive arguments that they ought to answer.
Another thing is the Bush claiming proudly that their free script reading service is well worth keeping: Certainly the Bush’s literary department (including the script-reading) is well worth keeping but anyone with an accountant in their head might quibble about the need for the script-reading to be free. I wouldn’t dare to put it forward as a real suggestion but on the face of it charging fifty quid for a script to be read would probably wipe out any Arts Council induced deficit. Of course a problem that I can see with this idea is that it might put off the timid and talented writers while proving no bar to the conceited and rubbish ones. You could also make the argument that £50 is a lot of money to some people which I’d have to agree with although I wouldn’t go so far as to buy the idea of writers as artists starving it a garret.

Anyway the plays: I found them rather mild, especially for LaBute. In previous plays by Neil LaBute I’ve always found a great energy; even if, as in the Shape of Things, he tries to get me to like the Smashing Pumpkins (the appalling incidental music used in the 2001 Almeida – I still think that it’s why Pinter walked out). It could have been the shortness of the plays but I remember being very stirred by bash-the latter day plays which was a sequence of short pieces.
Land of the Dead was, I thought a rather heavy slice of American Irony, I hadn’t paid attention to its 9/11 (or 11/9 if you prefer) connections. It was written to mark the first anniversary of the attack but it came as one of those unsurprising surprises when it turned out that way.
For Helter Skelter I made the foolish move of reading the last few pages of the script and kept wondering if the damage caused to the lacework of Ruth Gemmell’s dress by a serrated steak knife would be repairable or if they had a dress for each night. The play itself has a woman wanting the reaction her discovery of her husband’s infidelity (with her sister) to have the power of a Greek tragedy. While the ending is a bit Greek it is only a bit Greek.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Masque of the Red Death, devised by Punchdrunk, 10-Jan-2008

It is extremely difficult to make any pretence about writing a review for this (not that I claim to review) as I only managed to see one complete scene played out in front of me in almost two hours of wandering through darkened corridors and empty rooms. I'm fairly sure that I went everywhere I could go but I just kept missing things. I occasionally encountered actors in the middle of something but at the time I assumed I wouldn't be able to follow what they were doing so I would move on.
Clearly this was a mistake, clearly I'm a fool, please feel free to laugh at me for missing a major theatrical highlight. I got so frustrated and bored at wandering around missing things – feeling as though I was at a great party that was happening wherever I was not – that I left early. Another mistake as apparently they do try to make sure that everyone sees the finale and the finale is reportedly wonderful.
I thought when I went that I'd be cool with all the nonlinear story telling and lack of formal structure and narrative and I like to think I would have been, if I'd seen anything. I can blame myself for much of this: I was impatient, moving on if I encountered one of the empty rooms instead of lingering, appreciating the attention to detail and soaking up the atmosphere, giving the actors time to turn up and do something or even following them. As for the partial scenes I witnessed (and I only saw about half a dozen) most of the time I arrived at the end of a scene or at a point where the actors were intensely concentrating on doing nothing. I also saw a bit in the bar including a mind-reading trick which was impressive until I remembered the Jonathan Creek episode where I’d seen it explained.
While in admitting this I'm likely to provoke laughter and have people pointing at me in the street, looking round the web it looks like I'm not the only one who saw very little action (maybe not as little though). If there are a number of people with a similar experience then Punchdrunk probably ought to shoulder some of the blame. I’m not sure it should be possible to do it wrong.
As I journeyed home I couldn't help comparing it to non-linear computer games (and I've spent half my working life in the computer games industry). The problem with offering people a 'sandbox' where they can go anywhere and do anything they want is that after a while they feel that they've been everywhere and done everything and they stop playing the game. To get round this – without going with a completely linear game which players hate more - game designers plant clues and create quests so that players have something to do if they get bored with wandering. Another thing that game designers try is to create training levels where the player learns the strategies most likely to be rewarding often while trying not to make it look like a training level. I did wonder if Punchdrunk wouldn't benefit from a bit of game design training, if only to be able to deal with those malcontents like me, playing the loser version of their game.
I also remembered that we were given a quest as we entered the building (you had to ask about a golden bean or was it a mask), and that I'd not paid it sufficient attention.
Looking around the web afterwards I came across the West End Whinger's advice about getting the most enjoyment out of the piece and had I read it beforehand I might have enjoyed myself much more.

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