Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Let's talk about theatre criticism... in simple sentences.

I talk about theatre. I’m not paid to talk about theatre, I don’t get given comp tickets, and I don’t even consider myself a critic. I’m a paying audience member who has set up a blog as a way to log and share thoughts on shows. I attend as often as I can, time and money allowing. And I’m currently taking time out of writing an essay because of being riled up after reading several articles and tweets about theatre criticism today.

Yes, I’m pale, I’m male, and probably would be regarded as lower-middle class. I don’t live in London and although I thoroughly enjoy a vast array of regional theatre, I do try to get down to London as often as I can. I’m in adherence to Tim Walker’s preferences as I’m young and spotty. I’m also aware that most bloggers (like myself) are not paid apart from a few.

Tim Walker (formerly of The Sunday Telegraph) has lamented in The Guardian today over the apparent demise of professional theatre critics. He then questions whether that exclusive ilk of writers with their expert knowledge of the canon could ever be replaced by the growing community of online bloggers.

Of course they can! Although Walker’s article has a point, I don’t think it’s as insightful as he thinks it is. I also think there’s a difference between bloggers who are paid/ freelance, or given comp tickets, and those who are theatre-goers who want to talk about the theatre that they’ve paid to see. A little difference maybe, but still.

The blogosphere offers a wide range of exciting, differing theatre reviews, contributing to the democratisation of criticism. Hooray! But I believe all conversations about theatre (whether from Billington, Letts, or a theatre-goer's tweet) are worthy of discussion.

Blog reviews have certain advantages. In my case, I’m not constricted by a deadline or an editorial word limit. That allows me to go deeper with my thoughts on a show than perhaps a print review can. I like to go to preview performances or those around press night but often, I simply go whenever I can, even if that’s near to the end of the run. With recent examples, I attended performances of The Crucible (Old Vic) and A Streetcar Named Desire (Young Vic) well into their runs. Yet I still read press and blog (but mainly press) reviews before I went, setting up certain expectations and allowing me to develop discussions in my own reviews. Not that blogs can’t start their own discussions. Take my review for The Audience (Gielgud) for instance, in which I was delighted by the show’s theatricality which I didn't see mentioned in other reviews. Furthermore, there’s nothing wrong with reading press reviews before you write one as, after all, they are consumer guides. And one of the more refreshing reviews of the year, in my opinion, was Matt Trueman’s review for the Beckett Trilogy (Royal Court) in which he responded to critics and his own expectations, asking himself why he didn’t like it.

In what I do, I often find myself feeling apologetic to people with a creative hand in theatre. I’m aware that many playwrights (such as Jez Butterworth) refer to their process as a natural one, as if unpicking their work to find answers out of it is somehow unnatural. In the introduction to Simon Stephens’ Plays: One, he says that he studied History rather than English Lit because he didn’t want to ruin his love of literature. On the contrary, seeing and reading something with a critical eye like Butterworth’s Jerusalem (time and time again)  has enhanced the play for me rather than ruined it, bringing out new meanings each time.
Some bloggers, it seems, often like to go early on in the run. It’s understandable why, as their reviews will act as a consumer guide. But going to see a production for the first time 10 weeks into its 12 week run doesn’t undermine its review. And agreeing with the critics doesn’t either.

Embrace blog reviews, and by all means, embrace print reviews (even Quentin Letts’). There’s room for both to contribute. But blogs do have an advantage for developing discussions started earlier if they choose to go later in the run. Overall, Tim Walker is right when saying there is a decline in print critics. He’s also right to wonder if online reviews will have the same prestige as the reviews of Tynan, Hobson, Nightingale, Billington, and Gardner etc.. But I think Catherine Love has it on the nose when she argues that criticism is not to just to fill column inches or preserving the memory of a show, but is for now: ‘there are loads of brilliant critics out there writing about theatre as if it actually means something’ – no matter where or when the review’s published.

I realise I’ve written nearly 800 words here – if it was as easy to do so as quickly for my essay, I’d be more pleased.


Sunday, 16 November 2014


NT Live, broadcast from Wyndham’s, London
17th July, 2014

David Hare said in the interval of the NT Live broadcast that one of the conditions for reviving the play in the West End was for it to have an NT Live screening so that his play could be seen all over the country (and indeed the world). What an excellent idea as Skylight, one of Hare’s best plays and the first of his to be set in a single space, is so relevant and exciting to watch that a wider audience should get the chance to see it. What’s more, the benefits of NT Live is that the most intimate of moments such as Tom and Kyra’s hand coming close to contact are captured faultlessly.

First performed in 1995, the play sees restaurateur Tom visit his former employee and lover Kyra in her high-rise flat. They haven’t seen each other since his wife Alice (who took Kyra in as a member of the family) found out about their affair. Alice has now lost her battle with cancer and Tom, struggling with his guilt and grief, tries to rekindle his old love with Kyra.

Conflict, it is often said, is the essence of drama and in Skylight you’re aware of where those conflicts lie and at what price they come. In this riveting, highly watchable play, Hare effectively and precisely explores how Tom and Kyra love each other but cannot be together. Tom has profited from expanding his large chain of restaurants and hotels, is suspicious of pen pushers and sneers at political correctness. Kyra, on the other hand, has made new life decisions since leaving Tom; she teaches in a school beneath her academic potential on one side of London and lives in a hovel compared to Outer Siberia on the other side of London. She’s using her talents to truly help people along with the social workers and probation officers of society, something she feels gets scorned by Tory politicians and newspapers. But the crux of the argument comes when Tom argues that she’s making this sacrifice to punish herself over their affair. Both are truly convincing. Tom’s argument is humorously brought across in such moments as opening her eyes to see that she’s living in a place from which other people are desperately trying to get out and Kyra’s through applause-inducing Socialist monologues. But with Skylight, your opinion is changed as easily as when Tom quips that Kyra has been reborn as Julie Andrews, putting the ball back in his court. Bookending the play is Tom’s son Edward (played well by Matthew Beard). Different to his dad, his hunger to get a job and wanting him to stop feeling sorry for himself connects with Kyra, although it is ironic that he brings her a Ritz breakfast at the end.

Bill Nighy gives one of the most thrilling performances I’ve seen. He completely pulls off Tom’s charisma, going full throttle when he feels his arguments are onto a winning streak, but pulling back excellently when he realises the full extent of his grief. Tom is completely dominant as Nighy thrashes around the stage, kicking chairs and waving his whiskey glass as if he owned the place. Carey Mulligan, however, is no less persuasive. Much subtler, she brings a warmth to Kyra as well as a toughness brought from a strong work ethic. She balances Tom’s exertion perfectly but also shows that she can give as much force as him. Furthermore, cooking a meal throughout the play is no mean task and perhaps a nod to this largely two-hander having a cooker-pressure quality. Finally, Bob Crowley’s impressive set is dominated by the colourful tower block of windows opposite, acting as a constant reminder of the conditions in which Kyra’s living.

Whether it’s intentional or not, there’s something really cosy about Skylight: its rich characters, a relationship in which we hold interest and its chamber piece atmosphere. Yet it also challenges your own political values; never is the play a cipher for an absolute left wing stance. The play, I feel, is also a more robust exploration of Thatcherism than The Secret Rapture (1988). But overall it’s Kyra’s socialist efforts that seem to hold up the best argument; as David Hare also said in the interval interview, the play is set at the end of a long Conservative government where the country was in need of a change. Perhaps, in deed, the same can be said for now.

This production of Skylight plays on Broadway next spring, while David Hare’s The Absence of War plays at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre 6th-21st February 2015 prior to a UK tour.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

A View from the Bridge

Young Vic, London
May, 2014

My expectations were high before going to see Ivo Van Hove’s production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge (1956). I had glanced at the four and five star notices and read numerous comments from critics and normal folk about it being one of the best productions of the play. Plus, I’d read an interview with its star, Mark Strong, who said that they’d changed the style of the play and that it was going to be ‘stark and bare and brutal’ (Barnett, 2014). They’re words that are no doubt meant to excite you about a piece of theatre, but I couldn’t help but be a bit concerned that I wouldn’t be able to appreciate its differences having not seen the play before. Deciding to read about other productions, I learnt about the much-lauded Alan Ayckbourn production from 1987, a version I’d heard people mythologise over, and how it blended the personal with the social and featured a staggering performance from Michael Gambon. I also read criticism of Lindsay Posner’s 2009 production that it focused more on Eddie’s individual tragedy indicated in their home dominating the set. Coming out of this production however, I felt that it explored both the personal and wider aspects of the play in an extremely innovative way.

Entering the Young Vic auditorium for the first time, the thrust stage is curtained by a black box. ‘Isn’t it narrow’, we thought, wondering how big a playing area this Greek tragedy would be played on. The rows of slightly uncomfortable benches and trendy foyer just set back from the cultural South Bank cemented that this is going to be a piece of vital theatre, a View from the Bridge with a singular vision and maybe a smidgen of pretension.

Then when the black box rises, a brilliantly lit white stage is revealed with Perspex edges and a small entrance at the back. In this arena, the dockworker Eddie Carbone betrays his wife’s illegal immigrant cousins by exposing them to the authorities after his young niece Catherine falls in love with one of them. It’s an act of jealousy that his wife silently watches, unable to persuade him against her. But by turning them in, Eddie is not just failing his family by putting his own interests before his niece’s but also failing his community by going against an unspoken word of honour and loyalty in this largely Italian-American community.

Even though the production’s aesthetics are laid bare, it’s not a distraction; you can still feel the poverty and hope that the Brooklyn surroundings offer within the realms of the play. Overall, Van Hove’s and Jan Versweyveld’s setting is successful in that it is timeless and may be naked of period detail but not one completely set in an empty space void from an exterior world. The stripped down setting therefore puts your focus on the family drama aspect of the play but its bare aesthetics is a step in the right direction to removing the play from its historical context and making it completely universal. But in Van Hove’s production, quite rightly so, I still imagined the populous immigrant community of Miller’s original setting, thus allowing the production to effectively explore both the social as well as the individual tragedy of Eddie’s betrayal.

Van Hove achieves powerful effects with visual metaphors, especially the startling coup of his closing image: as the characters group together for the fatal denouement, blood rains from above for a lengthy enough time for it to leave you cold. Visceral is word often used in theatre but as the pungent smell reaches each row, you become engrossed in the actors covered in this literal bloodbath. It was enough to even stun a school group in the audience. A subtler moment is where Marco challenges Eddie to raise a chair with a single hand. When the lodger lifts it high above his head (emotively underscored by Tom Gibbon’s soaring choral music) he’s proven the more dominant one. Furthermore, Van Hove’s production may be sparse in its set, but it doesn’t skimp in terms of its tension, a metal shutter slamming down enough to make you jump and the beating of a pulse creating an ominous atmosphere.

Mark Strong is a convincing stevedore, with the vigour of a hard-working family man but the unhealthy weakness for obsessing over Catherine, untroubled at picking her up in seemingly promiscuous ways. Michael Gould has a strong presence as the omniscient lawyer, demonstrating a sense a sadness of what’s to come and stepping outside the arena, as if detached from the action like the audience. Phoebe Fox is playful and dangerously flirtatious as Catherine and Nicola Walker is excellent as the devastating, subdued Beatrice who can only watch her husband trapped by his passion for his niece.

It’s a production that may take the detail of its historical context away but its stripping back allows for the production to concentrate on its key issues and the sensations brought about by them. But I still am curious as to know if a more conventional production could better convey an emotional potency that Miller’s plays so often do.

A View from the Bridge is looking to transfer to the Wyndham’s Theatre in early 2015.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Who's Afraid of Anton Chekhov?

More often than not, families are at the centre of American plays: from the playwrights of the modern canon such as Miller, Odets, Williams and O’Neill all the way through to contemporary playwrights like Tracy Letts. For instance, you can interpret that the Loman family in Death of a Salesman act as a microcosm for the inequity of capitalism in America. Not dissimilar are the plays of Anton Chekhov: although the great themes of his plays such as Uncle Vanya, The Seagull, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard are change in Russia and the decay of the aristocratic classes, families are a microcosm for Chekhov’s Russia. The sale of the cherry orchard, for example, parallels the dispersal of the family. It’s interesting that the similarities in American and Russian theatre can be seen in recent American plays August: Osage County, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike and The Country House, all of them having drawn upon Chekhov’s work. Here’s a whistle-stop tour to those plays:

Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County (2007) echoes Three Sisters with its feuding siblings Barbara, Ivy and Karen. The play is a stonking family drama seeing three generations of a family brought together by an offstage tragedy (again, Chekhovian) and then contemplate their pasts, presents and futures, and those of America too. It draws upon a great history of American drama but also transcends it by linking back to the roots of the country. Some might say that there’s also a link with the three story house (windows covered in bin liners and in a state of disarray) which dominates the stage and the abandoned house in The Cherry Orchard. Letts also translated Three Sisters for a new production in 2009.

Christopher Durang’s surreal comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (2012) takes four of Chekov’s characters and brings them to a contemporary setting in his reworking of Chekhov. Ben Brantley for the New York Times said that it ‘tempers both Chekhovian ennui and Durangian angst with the calming spirit of acceptance that antidepressants are supposed to instil’.  There are echoes of The Seagull with its ambitious young actor Nina, three siblings in a state of ennui typical of that Russian nastroenie, and a house which has its own demising cherry orchard. It had mixed reviews but transferred to Broadway from the Lincoln Centre in 2013 and there were plans for it to come to London this Autumn with David Hyde Pierce but they don’t seem to have come to fruition. The play is currently the most performed play in American theatres according to the Theatre Communications Group (TCG). Perhaps Durang’s most famous play is Beyond Therapy (1981). Interestingly, and maybe anticipating Vanya and Sonia over thirty years later, this other surreal play features a lengthy speech about Chekhov’s characters and relates them back to the present.

Donald Margulies’ The Country House (2014), starring Blythe Danner, is a new play which reimagines The Seagull and Uncle Vanya. Like August: Osage County, the Patterson family are brought together by a family tragedy at the same time as actress Anna is learning her lines for a play. The family is made up of sell-out Hollywood directors, failed playwrights and TV actors, and comedy and tragedy thus ensues. Or so it should. The play has been given far from glowing reviews, even if the performances are pleasing. It features some nods to Chekhov’s characters, is set in a country house like the aforementioned plays, and includes a general sense of malaise. It is currently playing at the Manhattan Theatre Club, New York until 9th November.

Exploring and reimagining Chekhov’s characters and themes may work better in some cases than others, but there’s no denying Vanya and Sonia’s popularity and August: Osage County’s layered tragicomic genius.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

A Streetcar Named Desire

Young Vic, London
30th August, 2014, matinee

Tennessee Williams’ most popular play is given a triumphant revival at the Young Vic in which Benedict Andrews brings out the how the play’s mythic level informs the realistic events in the play.

The play is one of binaries, with Southern Belle Blanche duBois leaving her old America home of Belle Reve to visit her sister Stella and her husband Stanley in an area stricken by poverty but filled with the hope of a new America. The play’s tumultuous events, fuelled by desire, sparks Blanche’s painful downward spiral into madness.

Much has been said about Magda Willi’s design; it revolves almost throughout and is highly effective. The revolve allows us to see into every part of Stanley and Stella’s small apartment from a 360 degree perspective: the characters using the bathroom, having sex, playing poker. Yet even though we have a private, almost cinematic, view the spinning set which sometimes obstructs it never allows us to be comfortable with what we see and so we’re only voyeurs into their world. You sometimes see the audience members across from you as you peer into the bubble that the characters inhabit. But the moving set also signifies Blanche’s descent; it even alternates its direction to hint at a dizzying effect. Furthermore, the white d├ęcor plays with the fascination with light in the play: Blanche hides from the light but ultimately can’t escape it as in Willi’s design, she is illuminated. But the whiteness also accentuates the production’s modern setting and represents the white heat of America’s South. In Andrews’ excellent programme interview, he talks of Elysian Fields also acting as a type of purgatory underworld, which is conveyed well through Jon Clark’s lighting. As it occasionally covers the set in bright, colourful light it becomes a hellish world in which to gaze.

Giving the play a contemporary setting strips away the romanticism and nostalgia perhaps associated with a conventional production of the play. It also gives the play a refreshed immediacy, reminding us of still relevant problems in America and the ever-resonant problems of obsession and poverty. However, there’s a certain intensity often achieved with the play’s original setting that I question if Andrews’ production misses. Yet even though the majority of the stage is taken up with the apartment set, we still see that the world outside is a poor community of prostitution and street sellers.

Gillian Anderson gives a first a rate performance as Blanche. She shields herself from bare bulbs so that it doesn’t show up her true vulnerability. She props herself up on furniture, seductively moving her legs, and displays a dainty southern giggle and grace to mask her painful past of fraught relationships. Beneath her derogatory comments lies the denial that she’s lost everything that she had. Indeed, the climax sees her cover herself in more makeup in a final attempt to grasp that person she once was. And at the end, it is extremely poignant to see her being led fully around the stage by the doctor and nurse. As she leans on the doctor she pleads to the audience, completely frail. And Cat Power’s Troubled Waters playing over it just heightens the contemplative end. It is this ending that makes the production’s mythic/ real divide work on an emotional level as well as an intellectual one.

Vanessa Kirby is alluring as Stella and brings out the way she hates Stanley’s brutality but is also wildly drawn to it. Ben Foster also stands out, bringing a military machoism to his tattooed Stanley and stripping away the romanticism often attributed to Marlon Brando’s portrayal. The entire company, though, is faultless. Their performances and the look and feel of the piece evoke a passionate heat which is indicative of the desire that drives this play.
I still find the play not as powerful in language as a Miller play but it in some ways has a much more painful ending in that all the characters survive. Williams often strived to avoid ‘pat’ endings and Streetcar is certainly a complex, powerful play rich with timely themes and strong motifs. A pinnacle production!

A Streetcar Named Desire runs at the Young Vic until 19th September. The play will be broadcast as part of NTLive to cinemas around the UK on the 16th September and, at a later date, around the world.

Friday, 22 August 2014

The Crucible

Old Vic, London

16th August, 2014, matinee

Yael Farber’s spine-tingling, atmospheric production of Arthur Miller’s parable play is powerfully performed and prompts you to think about modern day witch hunts.

In an interview with Richard Eyre, Arthur Miller stresses that he hopes audiences would reflect how they lived their lives after watching The Crucible. The play was written during the McCarthyism period in the 1950s: a period of madness, he recalls, in which even radical teachers were fired with ‘no trial, nothing. Just accused of something and they’ve gone’.[1] However by setting the play in Salem during the witch trials will mean that the play transcends time so it can resonate with senseless accusations of any community in any time. Watching the Old Vic production reminded me of the recent culture of celebrity witch hunts and radical immigration beliefs. The following lines, for example, ring just as true and relevant now:
Hale: We cannot blink it more. There is a prodigious fear of this court in the country.
Danforth: Then there is a prodigious guilt in the country. Are you afraid to be questioned here?
Hale: I may only fear the Lord sir. But there is fear in the country nevertheless.
‘These are strange times’, says Hale of the denouncing in Salem, where gossip can turn to a charge of witchcraft, for which they could hang if they deny. The fear felt by the community of such accusations (perhaps started through rumour and hatred) reminds us how urgent this play can be.

The in-the-round layout may not always be the best for sight lines, but it is incredibly immersive. Sitting on stage level (in a cosy side-stalls crevice) feels like you’re in the action, which is only heightened by dressing the auditorium’s plushness in drabs of material and an atmospheric haze. Yet it is also voyeuristic at times, especially in the final act when burnt black leaves fall from the ceiling and it’s as if we are peering through the forest trees. It’s extremely effective and chilling. After seeing Ivo Van Hove’s A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic, this production may not have stripped away the detail of the setting, but the effect is just as raw and relevant.

Richard Armitage may be the name on the poster, and he certainly plays John Proctor with verve and earthiness, but this is an ensemble piece, with the entire cast impressing. Armitage is thoughtful and strong as Proctor, as well as being passionately fierce when shouting to keep hold of his name and therefore identity. Act’s three and four are certainly the most charged, and even though there are times when you are aware of actors shouting and spitting at each other, these performances have been finely pitched. Jack Ellis as Judge Danforth powerfully plays his court room scenes excellently to the whole auditorium as if the audience were implicit as witnesses, and Michael Thomas nicely expresses pious anxiety over accusations of witch craft in the first act. Samantha Colley successfully portrays the fraudulent ringleader Abigail Williams with a hint of childish tittle-tattling which then heightens the disbelief that it gets taken for the gospel truth. Plus, Adrian Schiller and Anna Madely provide an air of darkness and mystery as the persistent and then broken Reverend John Hale and the loyal wife Elizabeth Proctor. There is also fine support from Harry Attwell, Natalie Gavin and Sarah Niles but this is a very strong cast that give this production thrilling performances.

The opening image of the cast with chairs that are scattered about the stage before the play begins provides a tableau that prompts thought on a community driven to suspicion and the second-guessing of neighbours’ behaviour. But above all, it is Miller’s potent language that remains the most provoking. There have only been a couple of times when I’ve heard audiences gasp at a play: Howard Davies’ excellent production of All My Sons, and at characters’ double standards in this production.

After last seeing the disappointing Much Ado About Nothing at the Old Vic, it’s great to see the theatre back on form. This is a top production of one of the seminal plays from the 20th century.

The Crucible runs at the Old Vic until 13th September.

[1] 122, Arthur Miller in Richard Eyre, Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People (2012).

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Scotland Decides: State of a Nation

The Finborough Theatre is to stage a season of plays next month dedicated to the Scottish Independence Referendum, a season which apparently is the "only one of its kind" in England. The limited season, entitled Scotland Decides, lasts for 4 weeks and includes three English premieres of Scots works and a new play by leading 'Yes' campaigner Alan Bissett.

Artistic Director Neil McPherson has said that there is a current lack in the amount of theatre responding to the vote:

"I was profoundly surprised though to see how little the English theatre is responding to the vote. As the BBC says, 'There are more Scots in England than any city in Scotland... more than the population of Edinburgh or Glasgow.'"

There may be not enough plays in England which tackle the Independence vote directly however there are many  plays which tackle similar issues. Some say that one possible effect from Scotland gaining independence is that England’s identity will weaken, and without the strong Celtic ties that Wales and Scotland can boast, England's face will be in danger.

Jez Butterworth’s The Winterling (2006), Parlour Song and Jerusalem (both 2009 in the UK) all have rural or suburban settings which present England that have a rawness which is compromised by globalisation and mass media. The Winterling’s Dartmoor setting and Jerusalem’s Wiltshire forest clearing setting presents an England which is wild and still in touch with its ancient origins. Yet England’s individualism is then made problematic by an onslaught of Coca-Cola, St George’s Day pageants which celebrate an X Factor culture, and a uniformity of the landscape. Parlour Song, on the other hand, is the antithesis in some ways to Jerusalem, where the middle class, Middle England, middle aged Ned is arguably a weak, unsuccessful product of the identical houses which make up the lifeless setting. It is clear that England is presented as a binary of the old and the new, and perhaps that its identity is under strain.

Rory Mullarkey’s new play The Wolf from the Door (soon to open at the Royal Court Upstairs) also explores Middle England and sees the characters try to ‘change the country forever’ and even Richard Bean’s satire romp Great Britain (soon to be transferring to the Theatre Royal Haymarket with Lucy Punch taking over Billie Piper’s role) hints at the interest with the tabloids as being a national worry.

After years of clinging onto the ‘Great Britain’/ ‘United Kingdom’ tag, if Scotland does win independence, then perhaps England’s future identity will be put into question, hence the need and great hunger for contemporary plays which explore the state of the nation. As for the Scottish plays at the Finborough, the brevity of the season perhaps reveals that there isn’t much of an interest in the vote. The real interest lies in its result and its potential effect on the countries involved.

The Scotland Decides season runs from 2nd – 18th September at the Finborough Theatre, with the election also on 18th September.