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.

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