Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Misanthrope by Moliere, translated by Martin Crimp, Comedy Theatre, 7-Dec-2009 – directed by Thea Sharrock

I wonder if people's pre-conceptions about Keira Knightley will colour how they see her in this production. I suppose it did in my case. She isn't an actress that really interests me but I would acknowledge that well directed and well scripted she can be good even very good. In this production I would say that she easily held her own and didn't look out of place -in what was a good cast - but I am aware that that might say things about the production rather than her performance.
I saw a version of this translation, which is a contemporary update of Moliere's play, at the Young Vic in 1996 and recall enjoying it. The script has been updated with new cultural references and with a vicious attack on a Tory leader replacing a tamer attack on an adulterous Tory MP in the old version. What wasn't updated was the elaborate attack on David Hare's play Skylight – the play/scene that the critic Covington (played by Tim McMullan) is hawking about is a very unflattering summary of Skylight. Unfortunately I was seemed to be one of only a few people to get this joke. Maybe the author couldn't find a recent play that has both captured the imagination in the way that Skylight did and is as ripe for satire.
This was an early preview so hopefully certain things will get ironed out as the actors get used to the play and playing the audience. In the first half I found the rhyming a bit relentless and overbearing. This certainly improved over time and by the end of the play I either didn't notice the rhyming or didn't mind when I did. I also thought that some of the jokes fell a bit flat, there would always be some laughter but nothing huge. There were certainly a number of pauses where I got the impression that the actors were waiting for some non-existent laughter to die down (of course they could just have been pauses). It was also a little disconcerting when sometimes the cast were laughing louder than the audience. This sort of thing tends to work itself out as the actors get a more accurate idea of where the laughs are so I'm not sure I'd worry about it.
The play improved massively after the interval when the play took a darker turn and by the end I decided that I'd enjoyed myself.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett, 5-Nov-2009, Lyttelton Theatre – Directed by Nicholas Hytner

I realise that I am horribly cynical but I got the impression Alan Bennett had really wanted to give us the play within this play. The idea is that we are watching a fairly advanced rehearsal of a play which is by turns brilliant and and comically terrible (talking furniture, talking wrinkles etc.). We get pretty much all the rehearsed play but the players are allowed to comment of on the plot and their characters, query the writer or stage manager (the director is away) and are allowed to try out ideas.
I know that Bennett has done this sort of thing before (Forty Years On has an interrupted end of term play at a school) but I got the feeling that he had started to write a fairly straight play about an imagined final meeting between W H Auden and Benjamin Britten and given up. Possibly this is because of the disjoint, I felt, between the good stuff in the rehearsed play and its more humorous even nonsensical parts. It is as if the funny bad bits are a later thought (but not an afterthought). Of course if you just take the good bits of the rehearsed play, you get a captivating fragment but it wouldn't be enough. You need the explanations and the discussions to make it work and they could not have been fitted elegantly into a straightforward narrative.
The only problem, perhaps, with the play within a play device in this case was that some of the points he was trying to make (which were mostly part of the rehearsed play) didn't quite come across as forcefully as they were probably intended. Of course I'm cloth-brained about these things so he would have had to use a loud-hailer at close range to get his ideas across to me. If I had to say what Bennett really meant by the the phrase “Habit of Art” I'd have to hide behind meaningless waffle until you went away.
All the same it is great fun, Richard Griffiths occasionally playing W H Auden was a treat, Alex Jennings as Benjamin Britten was very slightly underused and Frances de la Tour as Kay, the Stage Manager was her usual quietly brilliant self.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Pains of Youth by Ferdinand Bruckner, translated by Martin Crimp, Cottesloe Theatre, 21-Oct-2009 – Directed by Katie Mitchell.

Katie Mitchell seems to have developed the habit of using naturalistic lighting (i.e. the scene is almost entirely lit from onstage props) and having actors talk at a normal conversational volume. In a tiny studio space it would work perfectly but in a larger space I don't think it is good, clever or artistic to do it. This “habit” ruined her production of Women of Troy for me (I was in the Lyttelton sitting 12 or so rows back) and yet the play was continually praised by at least one national critic as one of the greatest things she had seen. Katie Mitchell got away with the “habit” in this Cottesloe-based production, in fact it worked quite well, but I was sitting only four rows from the stage, feeling very glad I wasn't at the back of the upper gallery.
The play is about a group of medical students in Vienna in the early 1920s. Part of a defeated nation and dissolved empire they consider the alternatives of a stifling bourgeois life or suicide. I only found there to be one sympathetic character in the play he had served a prison term for manslaughter. The most vibrant characters were an aristocratic young woman (Desiree played by Lydia Wilson) and her pimp (and an attempted rapist) of an ex-lover (Freder played by Geoffrey Streatfeild but there was no empathy from me for either of them. I found Freder particularly disturbing not because of his appalling actions but because the author seemed to want us to be convinced that he held a magnetic attraction for all the women in the play.
I had to wonder, watching this play, just how important a piece of drama it is supposed to be. This was because I didn't think that I was getting the most out of the play. Normally I would blame my own insensitivity but since at least six people didn't return after the interval, at least two people (on separate occasions) left while the play was happening and a couple behind me only seemed to be staying so they could complain to one another about it, it might not be entirely my fault.
I couldn't fault the actors, they all seemed good, nor did I think there was anything wrong with Martin Crimp's translation, it flowed well and didn't seem awkward. Katie Mitchell's direction also seemed fine, with some nice touches like the CSI/Men in Black figures who would change scenes by covering or uncovering furniture with dust sheets and taking or putting props in or out of plastic bags (sometimes in the middle of scenes), as if collecting evidence or staging a reconstruction. All the same I didn't think that I was really being sold this play.
I found myself checking the internet after the play to see how the play is viewed in mainland Europe. It appears that this play is well regarded but from what I could glean (courtesy of Google's Translate this Page link) but the few productions I read about did appear to be somewhat more adventurous and expressionistic. I began to wonder if, notwithstanding the People in Black, this production may have been too naturalistic; quietly intense and honest rather than artificially heightened and full of significant pauses. Of course this was a very early preview so it might have changed a lot by the time it is properly reviewed.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Author by Tim Crouch, Royal Court Upstairs, 30-Sep-2009 – Directed by Tim Crouch

There is a particular pose sometimes adopted by people listening to classical music. It is a still, studious and appreciative posture that attempts to denote the the music is doing the listener's soul a lot of good. I was reminded of this as I stole glances at Mark Ravenhill and Martin Crimp as they sat either side of Tim Crouch during this play. It was as if these playwrights (and there appeared to be other writers in the room) were avoiding either over or under reaction to the play. Perhaps they were just aware of the scrutiny.
The play consists of four actors (an “audience member”, two “actors” and “writer/director Tim Crouch”) seated among the audience who were in two raked banks of seats facing each-other. The play starts when “audience member” engages the real audience in talk about the experience of being in a theatre audience, singling out individuals trying to get them to share something. There a deal of truth in what he said about being in an audience and going to the theatre regularly especially the Royal Court where he marvelled at the sex, violence and bodily functions that he has seen there. I thought one note didn't quite ring true when he tried to depict an audience as a friendly place – for the most part I tend to find (after a lot of theatre going) that you begin to dislike audiences in general and hate every member of them in particular. Probably just me being anti-social.
After a while the “audience member” the “actors” and the “director” begin to describe a their involvement in a previous, shocking production and how the preparation and playing of an imagined world affected their lives.
I got the impression that the audience were expected to react more to this play. Everyone seemed engaged and attentive but unwilling to draw too much attention to themselves (when the “audience member” asked if there were any Friend subscribers of the theatre in the audience, I know of at least one Friend of 20 years standing who remained silent and tried to be invisible). The actors described shocking things (or things intended to be shocking) but to an audience used to the depiction of a wide range of sex, violence and bodily functions at the theatre. Maybe we were too jaded to do anything other than sit studiously and attentively trying to look as if what we were seeing and hearing was doing us some good.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mother Courage and her children by Bertolt Brecht, Translated by Tony Kushner, Olivier Theatre, 14-Sep-2009 – directed by Deborah Warner

As somebody that spends much more time at the theatre than I do reading about it, my knowledge of things Brechtian (especially Brechtian alienation) are pretty hazy. I do know that alienation is a slight misnomer, as Brecht didn't want to alienate the audience rather he wanted to engage it with his underlying message and not lose itself in spectacle and story. As such he would keep things simple and expose the mechanics of playmaking. Is that right? What I probably should have done is copied the Wikipedia entry on Brechtian Alienation instead of trying to give my own interpretation.
Anyway this production, only a few performances into previews (which have been heavily delayed, I was originally due to see this on the 9th) certainly showed its makings. There was almost always a couple of stage crew hovering at the edges of the set, which may have been because things weren't quite ready but sometimes it looked intentional. Most of he stage was bare, the wings and backstage exposed and scenes were depicted by hand-written descriptions on screens lowered from above. When there was scenery (e.g. when the scene required tents) it was very plain and simple and preponderantly white. The cart, pulled by sons, daughter, chaplain and finally Mother Courage alone, was the only major price of (mobile) scenery, reflecting Mother Courage's varying fortunes, almost always with a covering of white plastic sheeting.
I enjoyed this production although it was probably too scrappy (or not scrappy enough) for some and perhaps its touch may be thought to be too light. I did have a slight problem with Fiona Shaw's portrayal of Mother Courage, I want to be able to say that she was too perky without using as strong a word as perky. Mother Courage has to be, at times, ebullient, witty and feisty which Fiona Shaw was great at, but she also has to be brought low and fight to the last of her energy. I thought that (even as she was exhausted from pulling the heavy cart) she always had something in reserve that would enable her to spring back. Maybe this is intentional, maybe they were taking it gently because of the difficulties that the production has had, it might also be my imagination or my lack of understanding about the play. I'm pretty sure that if it is a problem it will be fixed and I feel a bit awkward about wanting more pain and anguish from Fiona Shaw.
The oddest thing in the production was the promotion of the musician and composer Duke Special. We were constantly told who he was and he was treated almost as an equal to Mother Courage (especially at the curtain call). I quite liked his music and don't have a problem with musicians being integrated into the play but it seemed a bit much. They'll be story behind this and I'll probably have to read about it.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Prick Up Your Ears by Simon Bent, Richmond Theatre, 29-Aug-2009 – Directed by Daniel Kramer

I think I was expecting more Joe Orton in this play. As far as I could see there were plenty of quotes (I suspected that Mrs Corden, although a real person, was written as a combination of characters from Orton's fiction) but I didn't think there was as much as might be expected about Orton himself.
The play is set in the bedsit that Orton and his lover/teacher/muse Kenneth Halliwell shared from 1960 to their deaths and as Halliwell spent much of his time haunting the place, not liking to go out, it might not be surprising that the play focuses on him. From the rumours that I've heard about Orton's diary (on which the play is, in part, based), it seems to detail his sexual activities which happened outside the bedsit and means that Orton in this play sometimes appears just to flit between rehearsals and random sexual encounters leaving Halliwell isolated and popping pills.
Matt Lucas is probably most impressive when he is allowed to show the tragic side of Kenneth Halliwell's nature. It feels too easy and familiar when his character is being funny perhaps because we all expect comedy from him. As this play began, a man decided that that would be the perfect time to nosily find his seat at the end of a row. This was treated with great humour by the audience (and some mild corpsing from Lucas) and it may well have made us more willing, initially, to see the comedy in Lucas's performance and
less to feel the tragedy.
The tragic thing for Halliwell was, perhaps, that he had many gifts but they only went so far and he could never focus them into crafting something great. Maybe the effects were worsened as he saw Orton coming out of his shadow and quickly outshining him. The play indicates that Halliwell was an essential inspiration to Orton's work (although it sometimes seems like Halliwell just provided titles and quotes) but that Orton was able to go further and make something of his own.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

The Rover by Aphra Behn, Sothwark Playhouse, 2-Jul-2009 – directed by Naomi Jones

I can't claim that Aphra Behn was a great playwright (I would go so far as good) although she appears to have been the equal, in writing, of many of her contemporaries. It is problematic that these contemporaries were are Restoration playwrights whose work (with a few exceptions) is under-performed and often seen as second rate. Behn has another handicap because as practically the first woman to earn her living by the pen, it often seems that her work is supposed to support some vast Feminist edifice and every word of hers is to be solemnly uttered as if it were a votive flower let fall on to the author's grave.
Flowery writing aside, basically she's good but I think her Restoration and Feminist burdens cause people to shy away and unjustly neglect her.
Fortunately it isn't the case in this production: It appears that the cast wanted to treat it with much of the fun and spirit with which it was written. I was reminded of why I have always thought of this as one of my favourite plays (ever since I first saw it 30 years ago).
This not a perfect play of course the plot can feel like trying to concentrate on a single ball in the hands of a juggler using 6 identical balls, some characters feel under-used or underdeveloped (particularly the Viceroy's son Don Antonio and Valeria the cousin of the sisters Florinda and Helena) and there are a couple of near rapes that are too easily forgiven (perhaps just for modern tastes).
Both halves of the play started in the theatre's bar area before we were sent into a nearby street (the main theatre where we could all sit). This worked quite well although, as with any promenade production it was sometimes difficult to see the actors through the other audience members, Also there was a little awkwardness when the actors had to manhandle the audience to clear space for an apparently rushed and impetuous duel. Also getting the audience into their seats did seem to delay the action a bit, although they did occur during at fairly logical places in the piece.
The light touch and sense of enjoyment in this production made me hope that others will be prepared investigate Ms Behn, it does seem to be rewarding.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Wyndhams Theatre, 1-Jun-2009 – Directed by Michael Grandage

This is, at least, my 17th Hamlet and I think it has clouded my opinion of this production.
Firstly, relax, I thought that Jude Law was pretty damn good in this. He has a relaxed and confident style that stopped me from thinking “Oh that's Jude Law up there” and he really seemed to be addressing most of his soliloquies to the audience rather than the to the darkness of the hall or the lighting rig in front of the Circle. I sometimes wonder whether you could use Hamlet's talking to the audience and braking the fourth wall as some kind of indication of his madness (of course that means he'd has to be mad from the start and a director might not want that).
This production went by at quite a lick, I didn't feel the three hours and some of the set-piece scenes (e.g. the Gravedigger scene – second time I've seen David Burke as the gravedigger, first was with Daniel Day-Lewis 20 years back), while not rushed, were over before before I was able to savour them. I found this a spare production, no fat or business beyond what is on the page and I felt the actors were living in the moments dictated by their lines, rather than having a living characterisation moving from scene to scene. I might be the only person who noticed this and that might well be because I've imagined it.
It did mean that I had a problem with this production, possibly caused by 16 other Hamlets. I have long thought that Hamlet is badly structured, though brilliantly written. There are gaps in the plot (like seeing the progression of Hamlet's madness between Acts One and Two – you are just presented with the fact that he has gone mad) and scenes that seem to contradict earlier ones (fierce graveside fight between Hamlet and Laertes followed by a civilised apparently formal fencing match). I wonder if the spareness of this production and apparent lack of continuous inner life of the characters was the thing that made the flaws and the cracks in the play really stand out for me.
I won't fault the acting although I'm not certain that Penelope Wilton's Gertrude or Gugu Mbatha-Raw's Ophelia were really given the opportunity to sink their teeth into their roles and have a good chew. I might have imagined it but I thought that Kevin McNally's Claudius was a little more sympathetically played than usual.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen, version by Zinnie Harris, Donmar Warehouse, 14 May 2009 – Directed by Kfir Yefet

tend to think it unwise to criticise adaptations simply for diverging from the plot or characterisations of the original. Adapters, directors and auteurs have the right play and re-interpret any play, although they might have to negotiate with the living writers a bit. At the same time I hope I have the right to say that the that an adaptation doesn't quite work without sound too much as if I'm wailing “Why, oh why didn't they just stick to the original plot and setting.”
The changes that Zinnie Harris has made are interesting and topical in a way that could make it feel rather dated in a few years. Helmer is no longer a petty provincial tyrant who has just succeeded to an important position at a bank and Krogstad is no longer a bank clerk, lacking in morals and fearing unemployment. Instead the setting is Britain and Helmer (referred to as John in the play) and Krogstad (now Neil Kelman) are senior politicians, in fact Cabinet Ministers. In this version Helmer has replaced the disgraced Krogstad in the Cabinet and Krogstad is desperate to get back on his feet. The reasons for Krogstad/Kelman's disgrace are never fully stated but they have something to do with dodgy financial transactions.
At first sight this looks like up-to-the-minute topicality looks convenient (as if there were some very late changes) given everything in the news at the moment. However it is worth bearing in mind that as they chose Christopher Eccleston for the Krogstad/Kelman role, they must have already decided to make his role larger and more important. I suspect this was done to bring the other couple's (Krogstad and Mrs Linde) relationship more into the foreground to provide a stronger contrast with the Helmer's.
The social elevation of Krogstad/Kelman is one of the things that gives me a problem with this adaptation. I hope it isn't to do with Christopher Eccleston's accent (which it shouldn't be) but it felt unlikely that his character would ever have been given a Cabinet position – there was just too much intense wayward passion. At first I did think, rather uncharitably, “ah yes an Eccleston performance”.
The other major problem I had with the adaptation is that by making it about Cabinet Ministers (echoing An Ideal Husband a bit) Zinnie Harris raised the stakes and while this didn't make his behaviour any more acceptable, it did make Helmer's fear of disgrace much more understandable. This effect of this was to make Nora's behaviour appear much more reckless.
I have spent far too long on complaints about the adaptation, even if they are justified the proper reviews are unlikely to spend more than a couple of sentences on similar doubts. Because the most important thing about this play is the acting and that is superb. Even with a little first preview stumbling over lines, it was easy to see just how good it is going to get when the ensemble has really come together. It is difficult to pick any one of the main five actors out for special mention but this play is supposed to belong to Nora and Gillian Anderson was certainly in control of that part.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Othello by William Shakespeare, Rose Theatre, Kingston, 25-Apr-2009 – Directed by Barrie Rutter

In spite of the fact that Lenny Henry has mastered and impressed in dramatic roles on TV before, it was difficult, in this play, not to see his comic persona coming through. However I think it was more that I was recognising very familiar mannerisms and tones of voice that would often presage a joke or a laugh, rather than Lenny Henry doing anything wrong. It could well be that someone unfamiliar with his work would reckon that his performance was very good. And other than my brain expecting jokes around the corner, my only real complaint about his performance was a feeling that he was isolated (especially when surrounded by others) from the rest of the cast – he didn't quite seem to be part of the team. Of course Othello is meant to be an outsider but I felt it was more his own separation from the cast rather than his character's. It's as if the cast was a unit and he wasn't part of it. As ever this could all be imagined on my part, I don't think it is deliberate and definitely doesn't indicate any tension backstage. He wants to be part of the team, the cast and crew want him to be part of the team, I just think he wasn't quite there and I'm probably making mountains out of molehills.
It's a shame to have doubts because in the final scenes I forgot about Lenny Henry and saw just Othello – he was powerful and convincing. He wasn't quite Chiwetel Ejiofor who is my benchmark of Othello perfection but he was certainly bears comparison to some of the other half-dozen Othellos I've seen.
Of the other cast members I particularly liked Conrad Nelson as Iago (in spite of his uniform which had a slight air of old-time cinema usher about it), Jessica Harris's Desdemona (even if the line Desdemona, If Only You Had Spoken kept popping into my head in the last scenes, and Maeve Larkin's Emilia.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Rookery Nook by Ben Travers, Menier Chocolate Factory, 21-Apr-2009 – Directed by Terry Johnson

I wanted to start this with a paragraph about how, with the Aldwych Farces, the actors aren't playing characters so much as doing the Ralph Lynn part (monocled silly-ass), the Tom Walls part (smooth lothario), the Robertson Hare part (henpecked husband or servant) or even the Mary Brough part (cockney battle-axe or mother-in-law). While it is at least partly true a little checking suggests that Rookery Nook was too early an Aldwych Farce for the roles to be set in stone and that Travers re-wrote the plays late in his life to concentrate on character more than slapstick.
All the same, I think the chemistry between the three main male characters works best when it is relaxed and familiar and I'm not sure that's what happened here. I think it was primarily that that Neil Stuke's Gerald Popkiss (the Lynn part) and Edward Baker-Duly's Clive Popkiss (the Walls part) didn't gel completely as a double act. They came close but I didn't think they were, as I said, relaxed and familiar with each other as I think they needed to be. For some reason I needed Gerald Popkiss to come across as completely non-threatening and innocent when the beautiful young girl (or rather gell) in pyjamas, Rhoda Marley, seeks refuge in the house, Rookery Nook where he is staying. While he wasn't threatening I didn't think Neil Stuke was quite the pleasant silly-ass that I thought was required.
I've done the usual whining about petty things and could go further with the pacing – the first act seemed to have been over-extended with long silences and business simply in order to make the interval after it happen closer to half-way through the night. However there were plenty of laughs in this production and they seemed to be in the right places – Terry Johnson is not one of those directors, who are afraid of audience laughter or can't find the jokes and who hide behind the “we are looking for the dark-side of the play” excuse. Perhaps though, the jokes didn't get quite the size of laugh they could have. People had fun but I had the sense that it could have been a deal funnier.
I have to be a little cautious, given the director and actors (some like Sarah Woodward, quite capable of comic genius – if underused here) there is potential for great things and I suspect it was just an off-night where things didn't come together.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness by Anthony Neilson, Soho Theatre, 31-Mar-2009 – Directed by Steve Marmion

I am a little worried that there comes a point in Anthony Neilson's plays where he gives up on his strange (sometimes fantastical) but compelling narrative and does something really odd like bringing on Teddy Bears that demand imaginary cups of tea. I didn't think this play lived on much past the Teddy Bears, the author still had enough to produce a coup-de-theatre at the end but it almost felt that he lost interest in the original story and just wanted to end it.
The play is scripted as a recreation of Victorian travelling show and depicting the last ever performance. Edward Gant, our showman and his troupe of three actors, replay stories from Gant's life or rather stories that were told to Gant on his travels.
While I would have liked to see many more of these “feats of loneliness” (there were only two stories of this kind) I don't want it t sound too much of a complaint. After all the Teddy Bears were excellent, if anachronistic (play set in 1880s, Teddy Bears invented 1900s) but I greatly enjoyed the inventiveness of the 'feats' stories and thought there was a shortage of others.
As seems inevitable I also wanted to know a lot more about the characters of the participants in the performance. We get suggestions of tensions and the 'real' lives of the troupe towards the end of the play. It is done in a way that tries to pretend the the breaking of the fourth wall is deliberate but might not be. I'm not not certain that this was successful.
Reading back over this I realise that I haven't made it absolutely clear that I had a good time. I did. Honest

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Tusk Tusk by Polly Stenham, Royal Court Upstairs, 30-Apr-2009 – Directed by Jeremy Herrin

I have to admit that Polly Stenham's previous play, That Face, sort of passed me by. I remembered it as well put together and enjoyable (if enjoyable is quite the right word given the subject matter). However the scenes that lived most in my memory weren't the intense Oedipal ones between Matt Smith and Lindsay Duncan but the bullying committed by schoolgirls in bunny slippers. Maybe I need to pay more attention.
This play with its offstage and possibly mentally-ill mother, together with a son who was just a little too close to her, seemed to be going over similar territory. The son in this case is younger and there is little suggestion of anything other than the mother being badly messed up and damaged. I'm not sure that we were ever given a reason for the mother's problems but as the play is played through the eyes of her children, they, as children apparently do, seem to accept the situation rather than try to analyse it. That said I'm not sure that I got a detailed picture of this mother who abandons her three children the day after they move from the country into a new flat in London. And, I felt, her motivation for the move and subsequent flight was merely explained rather than fully justified.
It is probably unfair to go on about a character that wasn't actually there especially when the three children (Eliot, 15, Maggie, 14 and Finn 7) felt real and grounded. Their dialogue felt a little sophisticated compared to the monosyllabic grunts that are normally used to depict teenagers – the phrase “precocious erudition” popped into my head and wouldn't go away.
In general I thought the acting of the three principals was strong and I believed in their predicament. What I didn't do, was care about them. I had more sympathy with their unseen angry upstairs neighbour than I did with this gaggle of troubled children trying to stick together. Perhaps it is the onset of fogyism on my part.
As I left the theatre I thought I'd seen a good play – writing good, acting excellent, sympathy nil was my summary – but as I sit here writing and analysing it is beginning to crumble and I'm seeing more and more flaws. Perhaps this is a good place to stop.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Dido Queen of Carthage by Christopher Marlowe, Cottesloe Theatre, 17-Mar-2009 - Directed by James MacDonald

I believe one of the theories is that Marlowe's death was faked and he ended up in Italy sending plays back to an actor called William Shakespeare who claimed them as his own. While on paper there may be similarities between writings of Marlowe and Shakespeare - and maybe you can come up with some “Dead Poets Society” graph to show them – only one of them truly understood the theatre. If Marlowe wrote Shakespeare he would have had to have gone through a radical transformation. He would have had to learn to avoid very long colourless, speeches in extremely static scenes. He would have had to find out how to string a decently complex plot together, full of people with conflicting strong motivations. He would have kept his Latin at schoolboy level so that ordinary people could have understood it. Most of all he would have realised that his audience was not just made up of university educated grandees of the court but of apprentices and clerks who couldn't get into the nearby bear-baiting.
There is very little in the way of plot in this play – Aeneas turns up, Dido is tricked into falling in love with him, he leaves, she commits suicide. There are no real bad guys, only Dido's, ambiguous spurned lover and a half-hearted Juno. Everything seems to happen in rather easy steps with little threat of conflict. The programme reminded me that Shakespeare wrote a version on Aeneas' story to Dido in Hamlet. Frankly, I think, Shakespeare's version of the speech is vastly superior being more powerful when spoken by the Player King even as it is undercut by silly lines from Polonius.
The actors did their best, especially Anastasia Hille and Mark Bonnar as Dido and Aeneas but they struggled to put any drama into the piece. I don't think that the director took too many risks with the play it felt fairly straightforward. Perhaps a wilder interpretation would made it fail more spectacularly but maybe that would have stopped the four people sat either side of me from walking out at the interval.
It is a pity that Shakespeare's contemporaries don't get performed as regularly as Shakespeare. That regularity means that the problems, imperfections and staging difficulties in Shakespeare's plays have been ironed out by discussion and practice. The contemporaries have to rely on a very few revivals in every generation and the hope that they strike it lucky. Some of these plays are better than some of Shakespeare's and they deserve as much attention.
I'm not sure how much of this applies to Dido but I do think that this production could have done with more fire and innovation.

Madame de Sade by Yukio Mishima, Wyndhams Theatre, 16-Mar-2009 - Directed by Michael Grandage

I could start this with some fatuous mention of the fact that Yukio Mishima committed suicide as if to imply that this play was somehow the cause.
In theory this is a play where five women with connection to the Marquis de Sade paint a portrait of this wicked man. Actually they seem to stand still and spout long speeches so dull that they need lighting changes and echo effects to indicate how near they are to a climax.
It didn't help that a malfunction in several of the automatic follow spots left them swinging erratically and grinding gears loud enough to drown out several speeches (requiring Michael Grandage to nip out of the auditorium presumably to strangle the lighting people). The pity was that the lights interrupted Frances Barber who made by far the best of her material. It's not to say that others were bad, I'm not sure that there was enough life in this play.
I keep promising myself that I won't bang on about the writing course theory that you should show not tell, but I am too often confronted by things that I think break the rule. And in spite of being told about the Marquis and how maybe we should understand his sadism because underneath he was so pure, I never felt that I got close to understanding the man himself, to say nothing of his women.
Mishima appears to be a fascinating person and it would be nice to be able to say that I'd spent a good time in his mind but I didn't think I did. Pretty much the same applies to the Marquis de Sade and the women in his life.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Burnt by the Sun by Peter Flannery from a film by Nikita Mikhalov & Rustam Ibragimbekov, Lyttelton Theatre, 24-Feb-2009 – Directed by Howard Davies

So you have a successful and brilliant General with a beautiful young wife and he is politely despised by her family. At which point the similarities between this play and Othello are probably not worth pursuing but it was nice to feel I'd spotted (or imagined) it.
It would probably be better to make allusions to Chekhov - thirty yeas on but I felt that at least one of the writers (Peter Flannery or the writers of the original film) was self-consciously aware of this. There was a chorus of former land-owning hangers on who could be loosely described as Chekhovian but I had the sense that they were fully aware that they might be seen like that.
OK (after the waffle) the setup:A former Revolutionary and Civil War hero General Kotov (Ciaran Hinds), lives in semi retirement with his young wife Maroussia (Michelle Dockery) and their daughter. He tolerates the presence of her her snobbish semi-aristocratic extended family while they, politely, regard him as some kind of ill-educated thug – I think the play didn't try to feature the disgust that the family might easily have felt to the married couple. Into this idyllic Stalinist world comes Mitia (Rory Kinnear) a former student of Maroussia's musician father and lover of Maroussia. The General seems to know Mitia and is surprisingly tolerant of the closeness between Mitia and his wife. Of course Mitia has an agenda...
I think that while enjoyable, I could see that this play had plenty of places where it could have taken a much more raw and powerful turn but it chose a steadier path. It may well have been for the best but I think it lost out on intensity. Maybe that was the work's film origins showing through, perhaps it was insufficiently theatrical.
I didn't feel that I was given enough of a reason for Mitia's shallow behaviour perhaps a film would show lots of close ups etc. to illustrate it better. I doubt the too many others will mind as it sometimes seemed as if the part was just a brilliant showcase for Rory Kinnear's talents (bit suspicious about some of the piano playing but the singing and dancing were excellent).
I sometimes worry that people might cast Michelle Dockery just to stand around looking beautiful and imperious because it is always better to see her act. I particularly noticed a secret look of girlish delight at Mitia's return and a more prominent occasion when she was spellbound by his presence, simply tapping a glass.
I want to say that Ciaran Hinds had the look of Stalin about him but that wouldn't convey his character's generous, almost innocent spirit or how well he played it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Three Days of Rain by Richard Greenberg, Apollo Theatre, 9-Feb-2009 - Directed by Jamie Lloyd

I did think of starting this with a clumsy Beatles parallel. You know the sort of thing: in the early sixties two musicians called John and Paul had a song writing partnership. Of the two John was better looking and seemed more obviously creative. Yet it was the quieter, more skilled musician, Paul who created their first classic hit Yesterday.
Of course this parallel doesn't bear close inspection, if only because the play is about an architectural partnership and has a love triangle. It probably also gives away the ending of the play.
I saw this play about ten years ago and I seem to remember it being a great deal quieter. That was in a smaller venue (the Donmar Warehouse) so the earlier production didn't need to make as much noise as this one. They seemed to be trying to fill up a larger space and give the audience more opportunities to laugh. I wouldn't say this approach didn't suit the play, many lines worked better, in the first half, done in a more heightened, nerve-jangling way but I did feel less interested in the characters' stories before the interval. It was almost as if we had been presented with a finished tale – An Architectural partnership where one had all the talent and died earlier, while the other was a hack who, afterwards, lived off their shared reputation, always feeling guilty about taking undeserved credit. In spite of knowing the play already, I felt as if I didn't need to find out what really happened to the parents. Somehow there was no mystery.
The second half, where we see the parents' stories, was played more quietly and gently and had more people get soaked to the skin in a narrow curtain of rain at the front of the stage. The “getting soaked” was especially true for Nigel Harman who spent much of the second act standing in the rain striking “struggling artist” poses.
Actually I had a slight problem with Nigel Harman, which will sound odd or even familiar, I didn't think that he had that easy sex-appeal that either of his characters seemed to require. In fact I spent some of the first act wondering if his character was meant to be gay.
James McAvoy was far too unsympathetic in the first act but made up for it in the second. These complaints about theactors are really about what they were being asked to do rather than what they actually did.
Nowadays every time I see Lyndsey Marshal I hope that she'll get a decent love story with a happy ending (something she was robbed of in A Matter of Life and Death amongst other things). Not, of course, that she'd want to do something so easy but somehow I think she deserves one.
I seem to remember that when I first saw this play I enjoyed it but couldn't see what the fuss was all about. That is pretty much how I felt this time.

Monday, February 02, 2009

King Lear by William Shakespeare, Young Vic, 29-Jan-2009 – Directed by Rupert Goold

I'm not entirely sure why they had a character called “the boy” in this production, he wandered onto the broken stone steps (which formed the rear of the performing area) at the beginning of the play and seemed to hang around for most of the rest of it, saying very little but sharing occasional significant looks with King Lear and others. This is no reflection on the actor, who was just doing a job, and I may be imagining it but his presence did seem important and was never explained.
After the show I had a quick scan through the reviews from Liverpool (where this production started); it does that there have been a few changes. There weren't too many things to complain about in this production. It is as if a good solid straightforward play has been rescued from a mess. There are still some messy bits that seemed to interfere; such as when Lear crowd surfs his way on in the storm scene, and then has to perform with the rest of the cast throwing shapes (and I don't mean dancing) around him. I'm not sure what it was supposed to mean but it just looked silly and people giggled. Another thing to produce inappropriate tittering was the final duel which is still fought with obviously plastic toy swords. Edmund gets despatched in a rather odd way. Edgar appears to stab him in the mouth which is logically awkward as Edmund then has a few more speeches to make (through the fatal mouth wound).
Although the elements of football hooliganism mentioned in the earlier reviews are still there - in the looting and the St George's flag face paint – I didn't think it was foregrounded; at least I didn't think football hooligan before I read the reviews.
What we did get was a strong and powerful central performance from Pete Postlethwaite, even if he was wearing a dress for one scene (appropriately I thought). The rest of the cast were, I thought, good too – it's always good to see Nigel Cooke and Charlotte Randle. I liked the notion of Goneril's (Caroline Faber)pregnancy even if it made no sense at all. It was also good to see Forbes Masson as the fool although I got the impression that the director hadn't really worked out how to get rid of his character, he seemed to hang around a bit like “the boy”.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Entertaining Mister Sloane by Joe Orton, Trafalgar Studio 1, 27-Jan-2009 - Directed by Nick Bagnall

Part way through this play I suddenly thought of Pinter's the Caretaker – I reckoned there was a passing faint echo of the play in a few brief moments. Another play that I thought of was Epitaph for George Dillon by John Osborne and I wondered if somehow Orton was responding to it. Of course both the Caretaker and Epitaph... were written some years before Mister Sloane and Orton may not have seen one of them, so I'm probably just filling up lines here.
First things first, I enjoyed myself, I thought the play and the acting were very good especially in the second half when things got a lot darker.
However here are a few of the things i didn't like:
In the first part of the play things felt a little bit too literal, even the subtlest innuendo seemed to be played for big laughs. This might have been the fault of a willing and pliant audience – fuelled by pre-performance alcohol – looking for laughs and reacting accordingly. Also the actors seemed to be having a wonderful time, often appearing on the verge of corpsing
Another example of literal mindedness on the part of the production was Imelda Staunton's negligee. There is a line in the script where her character Kath complains that the material that she is wearing is almost see-through. The negligee was see-through, very see-through, nothing-left-to-the-imagination see-through. I shouldn't complain about virtual nudity and Imelda Staunton has nothing to be ashamed of.
The only thing that did worry me about Imelda Staunton was that in the first half she was too nice, gentle and lonely, nowhere near the grotesque that that I associated with the role.
Possibly the worst thing but still a fairly minor point was Matthew Hornes's accent which wobbled between Essex and a non-geographical northern.
This play is still in preview so if I'm right not to like something then it may well be fixed before they put it in front of the critics – not that they'll have taken any advice form me of course.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Private Lives by Noel Coward, Hampsted Theatre, 26-Jan_2009 - Directed by Lucy Bailey

The worry I always have with Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde's plays is that an idiot director might decide to delve too into whichever play they are doing, in an attempt to unearth a non-existent dark-side to the piece. I have seen this done and it has never been pretty. I'm not going to deny that there are deeper messages or meanings in the plays of these dramatists but I don't think they work properly unless they are played at the surface and kept apparently frivolous.
Fortunately Lucy Bailey allowed the audience plenty of laughter as well as some moments when I had to dab a little moisture from my eye.
I was not sure that Jasper Britton's Elyot and Claire Price's Amanda had sufficiently upper crust accents but it probably would have made them sound like bad, stereotypical Noel Coward impressions. Although I missed the clipped and rather frosty delivery that I normally would have wanted, instead I got something that felt more realistic and thought I could feel the love between Elyot and Amanda more.
A major departure from other productions that I seen was Amanda's Paris flat. Normally this is a chic abode with Bedroom, bathroom and kitchen leading off from the the living room where all the second half's action takes place. In this production it was a studio flat in a slope-roofed attic. The kitchen was hardly divided from the main area, causing some awkwardness as the maid (Jules Melvin)had to be seen to be doing something when she was there. The bathroom looked too small to actually have a bath in it and the only other room (where Elyot retires) was a box room or walk-in cupboard. The main area consisted of a grand piano and a bed. This arrangement had a certain logic to it but it did seem to present a few minor problems for actors who would normally have been hidden from view.
I didn't find myself having any sympathy for the characters of Sibyl and Victor and I don't suppose I was meant to, although I have felt a bit sorry for them in other productions.

Mrs Affleck by Samuel Adamson (adapted from Ibsen's Little Eyolf), Cottesloe Theatre, 20-Jan-2009 - directed by Marianne Elliott

I suppose what I want in an adaptation is for the adapter to bring something new to the piece. Otherwise they may just as well have done a fairly straight translation. Samuel Adamson moved the play's setting to the 1950s rather effectively and updated the mechanics of the relationships and jobs well but I never really felt that was enough. Also I noticed the period setting speeches - lots of stuff along the lines of (not an exact quote) “What would the new Prime Minister Eden do?” - rather too much. I kept thinking that in normal conversation you don't go round dropping heavy phrases to illustrate the period of history that is happening at the moment. I suppose that it is a trap that writers often encounter and maybe if I'd been enjoing myself more I wouldn't have noticed so much.
I was also a little unsure why he chose the title, I didn't feel that the play belonged to Claire Skinner's Mrs Affleck any than it belonged to Angus Wright, Naomi Frederick or the boy playing Ollie. She had plenty to say but didn't reveal much of herself other than the motive in the original play. This compared with a nicely thought out back story for the half-brother and sister.
I looked up the play Little Eyolf (on which this is based) afterwards and I noticed that the character of Flea, who stands in for the Rat-Wife in the original, was saying extremely similar lines to his counterpart. Not unexpected of course but I remembered how strange and awkward the lines had been coming from Flea. I couldn't quite believe that rats would be devouring communities along the Kent coast in the 1950s.
The set was designed to look a little like the space between two groynes on a beach with seating on three sides. This only came into use in the second and third acts of the play, in the first the unseated end of the space was taken up by the Affleck's kitchen and dismantling that set took the best part of half an hour but this was an early preview.
I couldn't help thinking that it that this could have been, given the actors and standard of acting, an excellent straightforward version of Little Eyolf but it didn't really work as an adaptation.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour by Tom Stoppard and Andre Previn, Olivier Theatre, 12-Jan-2009 – Directed by Felix Barrett and Tom Morris

My immediate thought after the play was that this was a Russian short story (or what I think of as a Russian short story given almost zero knowledge - blackly comic with authoritarian overtones anyway) with orchestra. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve wondered if the music and the play meshed. Certainly with one actor seemingly imagining or controlling the orchestra and another actor and sundry dancers in the orchestra, there was a great deal of integration but with the benefit of hindsight I’m remembering them as being separate; existing in the same space but not communicating. I’m not absolutely certain that I felt this at the time and it does seem to belie the facts of the play. However I get the feeling of the music and the play allowing for and acknowledging the others presence but not actually talking rather like a long married couple who still communicate but have nothing to say to each other anymore.
I’m not going to say that it wasn’t good because it was and I enjoyed myself and my initial thoughts might have more to do with me mulling it over too long. If I had problems with the piece it was that I wanted more substance from the play. One example is that the comic pay-off of the play happens as a result of two characters having the same name and although I was aware of the fact I didn’t think that it had been clearly enough stated or that other comic misunderstandings had been attempted. Of course it would have been very easy to overdo the setup and make the joke too obvious. I wanted to feel that the two characters with the same name were really cellmates and, possibly, had bonded in some way. I would have also liked a more complete picture of the Doctor or at least something that left me wanting more rather than feeling that I hadn’t seen enough (I realise that it’s a fine, maybe non-existent, distinction).
I was completely taken in by Bryony Hannah’s portrayal of the boy Sasha, in that, in spite of having a programme and reading the cast list, I missed that fact that he was a she.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Novello Theatre, 1-Jan-2009 – Directed by Gregory Doran

I suppose I can be philosophical about David Tennant’s absence from this play. I have, after all, seen him in about 13 other plays over the years and will hopefully see him in a few more in the future. Also I would have gone to an RSC Hamlet anyway, whoever was playing the prince.
There were a few gaps in the seating as the lights went down and (probably patronisingly) I did feel a little sorry for those that had swallowed their disappointment and come to the play for the good of their immortal soul, or something, especially as some of the early scenes felt incredibly static when the stage was full of people. I realise that there are a lot of long speeches where everyone on stage has to pay attention to the speaker without fidgeting but something made me aware of just how still they all were. It may have been that the audience didn’t react, at all, until the farewell scene between Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia. This is a minor quibble because the play warmed up quite quickly after that and any silence from the audience felt more like wrapt attention than bewilderment.
The most disappointing thing about the play was that I didn’t find myself missing David Tennant in the slightest. I’ll not use any fancy words about Edward Bennett’s performance other than that I believed it and he seemed to fit the role well. Some masochistic part of me probably wanted some traces of a David Tennant-shaped hole in the production but I couldn’t spot one. There were one or two things I didn’t like: The duel at the end was a little chaotic and unpractised and Edward Bennett left out about four lines from the “To Be or not..” soliloquy which would have been an unlikely cut even if no one cares about making quietus with a bare bodkin these days.
The production re-ordered some of the scenes and I thought it made the story hang together quite well. One problem with the swapping around of scenes was that it was a long two hours until the interval and I was certainly beginning to flag as it approached. Something I noticed strongly this time was the sheer stupidity of the scene where Osric delivers the news of the wager, setting up the fencing match/duel. I think it has always bothered me a bit – the way that Osric seems oblivious to the passions that have ripped through the court, introducing Laertes as if he is a visiting celebrity rather than the man who tried to storm the palace just days earlier and has recently had a fight in a grave with Hamlet.
It was good to see the likes of Patrick Stewart, Penny Downey and Mark (I’m sure it’s him in the “Water in Majorca” Heineken TV ad) Hadfield doing their stuff, as well as the underused John Woodvine.

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