Saturday, 22 October 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: The Zoo Story

It’s not always possible to see every play. Plays are incomplete on the page but they also have a separate and just as important existence there. This initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 42: Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story (1958)

The Zoo Story has a killer hook! Played over one scene, it sees Peter sat reading peacefully on a Central Park bench approached by another man (Jerry). Jerry tells Peter that he’s been to the zoo and that he will probably read about it in the paper the next day if he doesn’t see it on the news before then.

A different blogger might reference Beckett as a way in to discuss The Zoo Story, Albee’s first play which was first performed in Germany in 1959. But how about the 2016 animated film The Secret Life of Pets? Watching the film last week (it’s diverting but not on the same par as Pixar films, with most of the good bits shown in the trailers), its depiction of a New York of two halves made me think about Albee’s striking debut. In both the play and the film, New York is a fast and busy city with few precious places of solace and calm. One of those places is the home and the other is Central Park. For Peter in Albee’s play, a spot in a quiet corner of the park offers him a chance to read and reflect on a Sunday afternoon, a chance to get some ‘me’ time away from his editorial job and big city house full of his family and plenty of pets. Nearby is the zoo full of balloon sellers and families enjoying a sunny afternoon. It’s New York not too dissimilar from the one seen through the lens of an animated family film such as The Secret Life of Pets. But in that film, we also see a (albeit exaggerated) darker side of New York which includes street gang bunnies and sewers full of crocodiles. It is the ominous of New York underneath the touristy, tawdry surface in which Albee is interested especially regarding the character of Jerry.

Jerry lives in a room of a boarding house in a rundown area of New York. It may only be a few blocks away from Peter’s Manhattan townhouse but is culturally a world apart. He, and his neighbours, lives in a state of poverty where his frisky landlady’s flirtations and her dog’s growls run like clockwork each day. Jerry is a curious character (to say the least) but he is also lonely and is perhaps associated more with the Central Park more associated with yesteryear full of bums and criminals. He constantly undermines and questions the buttoned-down sheen of Peter’s life, something which Albee explored further by writing a companion play, Homelife, about Peter and his wife in 2004 which payed as a double bill with The Zoo Story. As the play spins towards its climax, we see the two worlds collide, with Jerry’s unhinged nature changing Peter’s life forever.

Albee’s writing is perceptive, funny and quirky. There’s also a surreal edge and bit of a self-conscious aspect of The Zoo Story, things which are brought out more in his second play The Sandbox. With a flurry of Albee productions in the West End next year including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, I would say that The Zoo Story is also well worthy of a revival.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: The Empress

It’s not always possible to see every play. Plays are incomplete on the page but they also have a separate and just as important existence there. This initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 41: Tanika Gupta’s The Empress (2013)

I’m fairly certain that this blog won’t capture the ambitious scope and scale of The Empress. Similarly, reading it wouldn’t pay credence to the colour and imagination typical of Emma Rice’s style in her production at the RSC’s Swan Theatre, a production which included puppetry, singing and video design.

Set in the last 14 years of Queen Victoria’s reign (and life), the play has three main plot strands which ebb and flow in and out of focus. Firstly, there is the love story of Rani, an Indian Ayah (a nanny for English families), and Hari, a lascar (shipmate) who are reunited after spending years and oceans apart. Then there is Queen Victoria’s ambivalent fondness of Abdul Karim who has come from India to be her servant and munshi. Finally, there is the rise to power of Dadabhai Naoriji, the first Asian man to become a British politician, followed by his quick disillusionment and return to India. Gupta takes us from ships and London dockyards to rooms in Palaces and grimy boarding houses. On the way, we meet sideline but certainly memorable characters including Lascar Sally, the British woman looking after the sailors in more ways than one; Lady Sarah, Victoria’s dutiful lady in waiting whose jealousy for the fondness afforded to Abdul Karim might stem from racial prejudice; and Lord Oakham, whose kindness towards Rani by giving her a bed and a job is rebuked when he finds out she is pregnant with his baby. Even Gandhi is in the play.

‘Theatre is often best’, I think Alan Bennett wrote, ‘when it’s school’. That’s what is partly so captivating about The Empress. I didn’t know much about the different plotlines in the play but it’s also full of criticisms of the Empire and nationalism. Some, I felt, feel a little tagged on or as if they have been written with the benefit of hindsight. Lady Sarah says that Britain’s ‘destiny is to bring civilisation to the world’ whereas Dadabhai criticises Britain for not doing enough to stop the famine in India, and argues that Britain’s continuing approach to its empire harbours ‘misplaced jingoistic ideas of nationalism’. But it’s more than just a history lesson. Regarding race, class and nationalism, The Empress skewers many contemporary issues. And in the closing moments of act one, despite them never meeting, Gupta brings together Queen Victoria and Rani in a tableau which highlights all their differences and similarities.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

The Importance of Being Earnest

Curve, Leicester
11th October, 2016

Nikolai Foster’s production of The Importance Of Being Earnest is a fresh, modern interpretation that breaks free from the shackles of tradition and the ubiquity of Wilde’s most famous adages. This co-production with the Birmingham Rep skews a contemporary focus upon the play’s themes of identity, gender politics and societal perceptions.

Isla Shaw’s design adopts an haute-couture edge while maintaining a satirical eye upon the idiosyncrasies of the Victorian age. The fully mirrored set is visually stunning – praise must also go to Ben Cracknell’s lighting, which must have been a hell of a difficult job, but is achieved without any unwanted harshness and allows the set to seemingly illuminate itself. The prism of echoed and distorted reflections encapsulates the themes of identity and genteel appearance in the farcical romantic and hereditary mix-ups central to the plot. I was also rather amused by the way -intentional or not - that the mirrors warped the actors’ reflections, in some instances magnifying the characters’ heads along with their pretentions.

The reflection of the audience into the stage space realigns our focus on the societal issues at play and implicates us within Wilde’s satirical critique. We become representatives of the judgemental society to which women lie at the mercy of and are often thought of as commodities, both in Wilde’s time and today. Eyes, faces, bodies multiply in the prismic maze of glass and the reality that we are all (especially women) judged upon outward appearance. Our place in the world and mobility prospects often relies on navigating this myriad of internal perceptions and external deceptions. In a world of selfies, filters and snappy social interactions à la the cruelty of the ‘swipe left’ culture of tinder, Foster and Shaw have reconfigured Wilde for the Instagram age.

Conceptually brash, the sheer confidence in this gilded surface simplicity removes the production from the realms of gimmickry as Foster sticks to his guns, directing with an assuredness that complements Shaw’s boldness of vision. The ensemble gel nicely and appear to be having a blast. With an arch twinkle in his eye, Curve veteran Darren Bennet quietly steals many a scene in the dual roles of Merriman and Lane and I was especially impressed with the vitality of the young cast. Sharan Phull is gleeful as the idealistic Cecily and shares fine comic chemistry with Edward Franklin’s rakish Algernon and Martha Mackintosh’s precocious Gwendolen. The strained afternoon tea scene between the doubly duped girls presents a fantastically cringe-worthy microcosm of the drollness of genteel etiquette. Not to be outdone by the vigour of the youngsters, Cathy Tyson is a matriarchal force to be reckoned with as Lady Bracknell. She remains sympathetically humorous, uttering the aphorisms which have overshadowed the character, play, and even playwright for the past 100 years with a lightness that suggests little of the burden of bygone expectations.

The concept, and realisation, work harmoniously with, and pay due respect to Wilde’s text without being bogged down by it. Foster has succeeded in bringing a zesty freshness to a well-loved play; one which has arguably been previously confined by the stuffy consecration bestowed on such ‘classics’.

The Importance of Being Earnest runs at Curve, Leicester until 29th October.

 Photo credit: Tom Wren

Thursday, 6 October 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Know Your Rights

It’s not always possible to see every play. This initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 40: Judy Upton’s Know Your Rights (1998)

Judy Upton’s most famous play is Ashes and Sand (Royal Court, 1994). One of the most prominent plays to be attributed with the hindsight in-yer-face label, Upton’s play, focusing on a Brighton girl gang, explores a generation with little hope of a bright and prosperous future. What sticks out in that play is the anger of its lead characters. More than just shock tactics or an aesthetic, Ashes and Sand is a stinging play about the effects of a long and no doubt seemingly ceaseless Tory rule.

This short play premiered roughly a year after Tony Blair’s victory in 1997 but the promises of New Labour are not on display here. Jane and Bonnie live in the same block of flats. Jane is the nosy neighbour type whose husband is in a private care home which she struggles to afford. Bonnie is a single mum with a young child struggling to get by. Yet they are plunged into a legal dispute when Bonnie’s son gets in the way on the stairs leaving Jane to fall down them and injure herself, opening up the opportunity for her to try and get some money out of Bonnie. Taking the form of two interweaving split stage monologues, Know Your Rights sees two very different people’s shared welfare, money and job worries come to a head.

Neither of them fully realise the financial worries of the other. Bonnie (played by Noma Dumezweni in the original production at the Battersea Arts Centre) is on benefits but is forced into a job on the side at Safeway because they’ve been lowered slightly. When Jane finds out, Bonnie is fired and her benefits cut leaving her desperate for money and pushed into putting Jake into care for a few days whilst she decides somewhere else to live. If you’re using this play as a look into what the late nineties under Tony Blair was like, it paints an interesting depiction of New Labour Britain. Cassette tapes and since-shutdown supermarkets aside, there are problems with housing, healthcare and benefits. The Helping Hands centre is now a Dunkin’ Donuts, and a No Win No Fee injury claim culture seems part of a financial opportunism which leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It perhaps doesn’t quite have the same anger as Ashes and Sand, or at least it does but with less dramatic impact. Nor does it quite have the same imagination as some recent #ReadaPlayaWeek choices from 1990s’ fringe theatre.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Boys Mean Business

It’s not always possible to see every play. This initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 39: Catherine Johnson’s Boys Mean Business (1989)

Now we’re nearing the end of September, the X Factor train is in full motion and hurtling the nation through the advent period towards that inevitable Christmas number 1 (sorry to mention the ‘C’ word!). While I, and I imagine many others, feel particularly jaded with the Cowell cash-cow, it is interesting to compare it with the old-school, cheesy radio talent contest at the centre of Catherine Johnson’s play. This simple set up provides a cypher for Johnson’s exploration of familial relationships and the inevitability of change.

Having been kicked out of his parents’ house, Will is sleeping in his brother Gary’s beach hut, scraping a living by dressing up as a scruffy cartoon character and posing for pictures with tourists. An opportunity to escape presents itself in the form of the visiting Radio One Superstar Show, however, both brothers have ulterior motives.

What becomes apparent is a clash between past, present and future, loyalty and success. Will, nearly 30, is the epitome of a man-child; a careless drifter stuck in the past. His greatest joy comes from nostalgic reminiscences of his Punk heyday, supporting Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Boomtown Rats. Conversely, Gary looks ahead, striving for financial security for his growing family – albeit via dodgy business with friend and local drug dealer, Elvis – while desperately trying to retain a sense of youthful vitality through his affair with the underage Dawn. There is a tragic sense that while Will has merely never grown up, Gary is undergoing a mid-life crisis at the tender age of 27.

Some of the details of Johnson’s play seem dated; the dramatic climax is accompanied by the song ‘Two Little Boys’, hence what could be a poignantly tragicomic scene, in retrospect has more sinister connotations relating to celebrity sex criminals such as Rolf Harris. Yet this datedness and discomfort seems to fit with the play’s overarching sense of fin de siècle. We are presented with the ceremonial end of an era; from Will’s simultaneously cringe-worthy yet admirable adlibbed lyrics to The Strangler’s ‘No More Heroes’, reflecting his disillusionment with the already outmoded Punk scene; to the family beach hut’s transformation into a blazing pyre, incinerating the symbolic and literal family bonds and business dealings enshrouded within it.

Furthermore, in a world where the Western media and perceptions of ‘talent’ are increasingly filtered through a SYCO lens, Will’s actions and irreverent attitude appears to be a heroic last-ditch attempt at rebellion, which, however pathetic and crude in practice, seems a bygone notion nowadays and retrospectively signifies the death of a more naïve (yet equally unwholesome) era.

Monday, 19 September 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Two Lips Indifferent Red

It’s not always possible to see every play. This initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 38: Tamsin Oglesby’s Two Lips Indifferent Red (1995)

This play is interested in a world of surfaces. Set in the world of cat walks, models, beauty parlours and cosmetic surgeons, Two Lips Indifferent Red focuses on the moral implications of changing your body in the name of beauty. Angela is considering several operations that her cosmetic surgeon husband Andrew has offered her for her birthday. If this makes Andrew sound like a bit of a dick then you’re not wrong. He comes up with crude limericks about his clients, it seems like he couldn’t cope being married to a fat person, and he has shattered his relationship with his daughter by making her have a nose job. He also comes packaged with some under baked ideas about copies of art which invites parallels to be made about fake body parts. He’s an unsympathetic character that perhaps seems cartoonish. In fact, when we first see Andrew he is holding a ‘scalpel menacingly over Angela’ in a nightmare sequence. The other major characters in the play are more rounded. Angela and Andrew’s daughter Jo is a model and although she’s a rather good one she has more substance than her peers and decides to train as a photographer.

Oglesby’s play skewers the nineties obsession with excess. In many ways it reminds me of Absolutely Fabulous, no more so in a scene between Jo and Angela where after a while I gave up and started imagining Julia Sawalha and Jennifer Saunders. Their sense of humour and character dynamics are very similar to that of Saffie and Eddy in the sitcom. The surgeons, the models and the beauticians are all to some extent obsessed with aesthetic beauty. The beauticians talk about the ugliest person they know and the models vie to be noticed by a photographer. It is a play which satirises what we apparently value (or did in the nineties). As one character says, ‘I don’t want to be interesting. I want to be sexy’.

Sometimes when reading a play, I suppose that it is natural to play director, trying to imagine how it might be staged. Two Lips Indifferent Red flits between multiple settings. To create some sort of unity on the stage (especially in as small a space as the Bush Theatre where it was originally staged) I guess it would be interesting to see how the brilliant white of a fashion photoshoot is visually similar to but also different (in terms of mood) from the sterile white of a surgeon’s clinic.

Oglesby’s play is an entertaining, often very funny one about surface appearances. However beneath that there is a lot of substance to the mother and daughter relationship at its heart.

Monday, 12 September 2016

King Lear

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
10th September, 2016, matinee

‘Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,/ That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,/ How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,/ Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you/ From seasons such as these?’ (3.4.29-33).

This is one of my all-time favourite Shakespearean passages. I like it for its poetic beauty, for its compounding of the many themes of the play, as well as the astute social commentary it induces, both then and now. Inspired by this, Gregory Doran’s production of King Lear begins by preluding the action with ragged, poverty stricken ‘wretches’ cowering upon the stage; hooded, veiled, anonymous. In contrast, the proceeding scene is rich in texture, as the bejewelled aristocracy meet under Lear’s desire to explicitly divide his kingdom. Antony Sher’s Lear is heralded by a procession of underlings carrying branches and golden orbs, evocative of natural and universal spirituality, and the apparent absolutism of the monarchy. Dwarfed by gigantic Russian furs, he enters within a transparent palanquin, reminiscent of the pope-mobile, he is separated in stature from his subjects rich and poor; a visual manifestation of his hubristic neglect.

The themes of nature, division and poverty are also tremendously wrought in the storm scene. Doran’s simplistic staging sees Lear and his Fool (Graham Turner) lifted high, upon a gigantic billowing sheet, physically exemplifying Lear’s call to ‘smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!’ and ‘crack nature’s molds’. The unnaturalness of this tragedy is subsequently entwined with the suffering of the poor, creating a heady mixture of nihilism, injustice, and divine abstinence as Lear wanders the moors of his land, in an ironic reformation wrought by simultaneous madness and reason.

Despite Lear’s inherent hubris, Sher is delightfully pragmatic in performance. While his frailty is constantly foregrounded – from his palanquin mode of travel, to his hand tremors, and his final entrance upon a cart, too weak to carry the fallen Cordelia, Sher exhibits all the tremulous rage of an elderly, cantankerous man, convincing of a once all-powerful ruler, now belittled by the constraints of old-age. Yet, for me, he really excels in moments of quiet incredulity. During a confrontation with Goneril (Nia Gwynne), Sher’s eyes are lucid and piercing, his hushed words resound as he fixes his daughter with an almightily withering glare.

While King Lear may seem to be a star-vehicle for the Shakespearean greats, that is to deny its epic scope and true ensemble nature. I particularly admire Shakespeare’s ability here to render all characters and all plotlines coherent and rounded (an aspect, I feel, which is neglected in some of his other sweeping tragedies). As such, amongst a strong ensemble, David Troughton’s Gloucester is masterful as an initially powerful statesman before toppling into sympathetic despair. His scenes with the unbeknownst to him Edgar (Oliver Johnstone) are particularly touching. Paapa Essiedu wrings Edmund for all his sarcastic wit, eliciting the majority of the humour in this production. His is an interesting take on the character, making the bastard seem deceptively benign as we are impelled to empathise with his eye-rolling frustrations concerning the ‘natural order’ and his old man’s superstitions. On a semi-off topic note, Bryon Mondahl’s Oswald reminded me, not unkindly, of Conleth Hill’s Varys from the Game of Thrones series – a minor observation, but one that tickled me.

In a production of admirable performances and classical thematic focus, Doran smartly eschews concept-driven direction, preferring to foreground the text (tonally and visually it reminds me of his successful 2013 production of Richard II). The only deviant is the neon-lit Perspex chamber within which Gloucester receives his torture. While a fun idea (if ‘fun’ can be used to describe such a harrowing moment in British drama), it remains rather tame and is not as blood-splattered as it could be if intending to shock. Moreover, stylistically this scene jars with the remainder of the production aesthetic of ostensibly pagan natural divinity. Thus it is a memorable moment, but not as a piquant example of Doran’s overall vision; it appears more as an anomaly in the otherwise pretty traditional theatrical style associated with his direction.

There are moments in this production that will linger in my mind – the effective staging of the storm, Sher’s performance of intense human frailty, and the sheer scope and spectacle of seeing a large cast populate the RST stage in an accessible, un-divisive telling of one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. And if Doran is a little safe as a director, I cannot complain too much as he delivers everything a wide-ranging audience would wish of a visit to the RST.

King Lear plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 15th October before transferring to the Barbican where it plays from 10th November – 23rd December 2016.