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.

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