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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