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.

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