Thursday, 11 February 2016

Lord of the Flies

Regents Park Open Air Theatre (on tour)
9th February 2016 (Curve, Leicester)

As a literature student, I hang my head in shame when I admit that my previous knowledge of Lord of the Flies was mainly informed by the excellent episode of The Simpsons, ‘Das Bus’. Having now seen Nigel Williams’ stage adaptation of William Golding’s seminal 1954 novel, I can attest that said spoof is remarkably faithful to its source (albeit featuring fewer deaths), or, at least, to this production.
Crash landed in paradise following evacuation from war-torn Britain, a disparate group of schoolboys fight, unite and generally run wild in an escalating series of conflicts in Timothy Sheader’s production which explores human nature, child psychology, morality and power struggles. Lead by the well-meaning but ineffective Ralph (Luke Ward-Wilkinson), the group attempt to instil rules and order - to the annoyance of school prefect, Jack Merridew (Freddie Watkins), who forms his own anarchic sub-group fuelled by an animalistic desire to hunt and kill.

Scenes of the boys battering and bloodying each other are captured in visceral slow motion (reminiscent of those nature documentaries detailing the precise moment of death as the predator pounces on its prey), accompanied by Nick Powell’s superb use of ethereal recordings of the Choir of Westminster Abbey. These searing moments of grace highlight the disparity between the mischievous yet innocent choristers that arrived on the island and the blood thirsty brutality they now embrace. Choir leader, Jack, in particular embodies this trope of ‘fallen angel’, evocative of Milton’s Paradise Lost. This also plays upon the religious allusions of the title, as the ‘Lord of the Flies’ – initially present in Simon’s (Keenan Munn-Francis) hallucinations of the fly-infested pig’s head – eventually becomes an allegory for the boys themselves, empowering the beast within.

While the implications of primal savagery and the concept of good vs. evil are contestable, especially in our modern age, Williams’ script and Sheader’s direction strike a balance in which our empathy and critical engagement are never totally isolated. The language perfectly echoes the tones of pre-pubescent mockery, where the worst conceivable insult is to be called ‘stupid’, and saying ‘shit’ is the height of maturity. On first arrival the boys gleefully scavenge the remnants of the cargo, playing dress-up in ladies bras and swimsuits, and – in a moment of clever modernity – group together for a ‘selfie’ which unfortunately can’t be shared because ‘there’s no 3G!’ on the island. These small touches reveal their innate naivety and ensure that we never lose sight of the characters’ youth – when everything is a game and the lines of reality are blurred in the eyes of children, how far can they be held reprehensible?

The end of the play deals a harsh reminder of this as the boys are diminished both physically and authoritatively by the deafening approach of the rescue helicopters, diverted from their course in the adult war raging on the periphery. While it’s difficult not to comdemn anyone who commits murder, the issues presented are complex and don’t provide any easy answers, but I suppose that’s why Golding’s book remains so pertinent and divisive.

One of the great achievements of this production is Jon Bausor’s astounding set. Baggage and all manner of personal items spill across the space, issuing from the bowels of the life-sized aeroplane carcass. The stunningly crafted tail end of the crashed plane fills much of the stage and transforms into hidey-holes and fire pits and acts as an all-purpose climbing frame upon which the actors leap and swing. Also commendable is the seamless choreography as the nimble footed actors weave in and out of each other, the separate camps occupying the same space while remaining distinctly separate both in place and mentality. Rounded off by some fine performances from a promising set of young actors, this production is a real triumph of literary dramatization.

There was a group of schoolboys in the audience (complete with public school uniforms incredibly reminiscent of those worn on stage!) and under the assured guidance of their teachers they were impeccably behaved (and it’s great to see kids encouraged to visit the theatre). But one has to wonder what happens without the ruling thumb of supervision… I can’t help but wonder what they made of the play and its depiction of the uncivilised (or should that be uninhibited) childhood nature.

Lord of the Flies tours until 19th March 2016.

 Credit: Johan Persson

#ReadaPlayaWeek: The Arbor

Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.

Week 6: Andrea Dunbar’s The Arbor (1980)

I wasn’t aware that Andrea Dunbar died so young until after reading her debut play, The Arbor. Most famous for Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Dunbar continued to live in the area (the rough area of Bradford, Brafferton Arbor) that she grew up in, and where much of her work is set, until her death. Maybe this isn’t too much of a surprise considering the protagonist in this play says “I like it how it is. I’d never change from how I am” (Dunbar 1980: 35). The area is the setting for The Arbor, an autobiographical play which her English teacher encouraged her to pursue writing before Max Stafford Clark picked it up to direct at the Royal Court.

Act one is set in 1977 and follows the life of 15 year old Andrea (or The Girl): she gets pregnant, has to move school, puts up with turbulent family arguments, and sadly loses the baby. Act two jumps two years where it seems that Andrea has grown up a little: the scene starts with her having just been to the bank, she’s got a job, and seems more mature than her friends when she argues ‘each to their own liking’. However, her Pakistani boyfriend who has gotten her pregnant beats up her up, and she is clearly unhappy living with him. Eventually, she flees to a hostel with a friend and rejects Yousaf when he tries to win her back. Dunbar certainly paints a tumultuous picture of her life, but the play’s concluding thoughts hint that she enjoys its commotion. She even misses her drunken dad, she says, before looking around at the hostel and remarking how quiet it is.

Dunbar has a sharp eye and ear for the characters in The Arbor and the language they speak (even capturing the northern dialect). The play also has the ambitious energy of a playwright who doesn’t feel restrained by the conventions that other playwrights may follow. Indeed, looking at its filmic quality in terms of settings, she has written it seemingly without regard to how a director might stage it. Its movement from the upper deck of a bus, to front rooms, to schoolrooms, to factory toilets reminded me of the scene changes in Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money or David Hare’s NT trilogy. In her characters and action (which presumably stems from her real life experiences) she authentically captures the social issues that surround her circumstances. She presents a working class northern setting that seems so real that it perhaps could be seen as moving into poverty porn. Amid this, the play shows the conflicts between the Pakistani and white communities, and also the growing fears around the IRA. Perhaps one of the problems, however, with a play which is so autobiographical is that it seems to be wanton of devices like metaphor which so thrive in theatre.

Dunbar’s characters have a straight-talking manner to them. Furthermore, the idea of the opening and closing stage directions to each scene being spoken and most of the characters being referred to by simple descriptions (such as The Mother) give the play a folkish quality.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

The Master Builder

Old Vic, London
6th February 2016, matinee

I like the Old Vic. Its appeal of £12 tickets for under 26s was the one of the main reasons why it was the first London theatre I visited outside of the West End. It also mainly stages revivals from the modern and classic canon, meaning that, as a young theatregoer, I could see well-known plays reinvented for a new generation. Warchus has replaced the £12 U26 offer with a new £10 preview scheme. It’s a good idea in that it appeals to all ages and it marks a change in the current trend of preview prices elsewhere being similar prices as performances after press night. However, as the Old Vic don’t do matinees in previews, it seems less accessible to those outside of London. So, I was now in the Upper Circle at the Old Vic (still with a fine view, yes) for nearly triple the amount that I used to pay for a front stalls seat. It’s a good job that I bought my ticket early as well, as the theatre has now introduced dynamic pricing for this production. This would have put this young theatregoer, a key demographic Warchus is keen on bringing into the theatre, off.

One of Ibsen’s last plays, The Master Builder is less of a problem play exploring the moral responsibility of a man to his society and more of an exploration of self-discovery for the protagonist. Warchus’ production, mostly, is visceral and conveys Solness’ inner thoughts rather than his external world. Halvard Solness (Ralph Fiennes) is a master builder, different from an architect in that he has worked his way up from the building trade. The best master builder in town, he is assured of his greatness (he nonchalantly draws a perfect circle with ease), but he is made aware of his own mortality by his predecessor and mentor, Knut, now frail and dying. However, Solness is still ambitious, even narcissistic, even though he now only builds houses, despite him not being particularly passionate about this. There’s a similar idea in Ibsen’s last play When We Dead Awaken in that the acclaimed artist Professor Rubek now only sculpts caricatures despite mockingly putting animal masks under the portraits.

Ibsen paints the picture of a marriage under strain, instigated by the fire in which the Solness’ lost their babies 11 years previously. This is inflamed by the arrival of Hilde Wangel who has been besotted by Solness since meeting him ten years previously when she was only 13. Then, he climbed a steeple which he built, followed by meeting Hilde who he inappropriately kissed and promised her a kingdom of her own. The play depends on the relationship between Solness and Hilde, and Fiennes and Sarah Snook do a fine job. Hilde flatters Solness, his lethargy diminishing when she enters, her youthful energy acting as a muse to him. She seems more intuitive and spiritual than him, aided by her pure appearance, her power seems to relax his steadfast nature as he becomes further obsessed with her.

Once the play is set up we go further into Solness’ psychology. It’s here where Ibsen’s characterisation of Solness becomes slightly erratic. Similar to An Enemy of the People where Dr Stockmann jumps from wanting to persuade the town of its toxic water supply to suddenly decrying them all as mongrels, Solness, through opening up to Hilde, suddenly displays signs of religious paranoia. He feels has to build a steeple (the first since last meeting Hilde all those years ago) to reprieve his guilt for not preventing the house fire, feeling it would make him closer to God. However, Fiennes’ performance is always convincing. His Solness is rarely moving but I feel it profits from that. Instead, Fiennes (and is there a better actor for the job?) brings out Solness’ cerebral qualities, made all the more tragic when we realise that his intellect and self-respect is blinded by Hilde: “I’ll build a castle in the clouds. But with firm roots”!

The play has undercurrents of being interested in the subconscious and spiritual and psychological but I think that David Hare’s adaptation is only partly successful at teasing those things out. One way into the play is to see Hilde and Solness’ scenes as dream-like, but Warchus could delve into this subtext as much as could be done. In these scenes, Solness reflects on his work, trying to grasp new inspiration and aspire to build like he used to (as Ibsen himself does in this and When We Dead Awaken). The motif of ascension that is in much of Ibsen’s work is again explored. In Warchus’ production, for instance, book cases seem to never end in the high-ceilinged room. In the third act, Solness (who is terrified of heights) climbs his steeple, at first to cheers from onlookers but soon having tragic consequences. Perhaps the concept of going up high is associated with feeling free (another common theme), it being somewhere where the air is purer. Perhaps there is a power associated with being up there in a king of the castle manner.

Rob Howell’s magnificent set contributes to much of the production’s success. Solness’ house and garden is presented as an island enclosed by natural surroundings, including an impressive network (like a building scaffold?) of wooden branches at the rear of the stage which plays a significant part in the play’s climax as it crashes to the ground in a plume of smoke, perhaps to mirror Solness’ destruction. Furthermore, Gary Yershon’s music sets the production on a more expressionist path taking us into Solness’ inner mind. In particular, the crescendo of music as Solness expresses his fears about the young coming knocking to take over his work before Hilde knocking on the door seemed a powerful instigation of the dream-like world. The music, efforts from the cast (James Dreyfus and Linda Emond provide excellent support), design, and Hugh Vanstone’s lighting all come together to create a powerful and effective end that shakes off the naturalistic tone to the start of the play.

The Master Builder plays at the Old Vic until 19th March, 2016.
Credit: Manuel Harlan

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Three Days of Rain

The Little Theatre
3rd February 2016

How well do we really know our parents? They bring us into the world and forge a permanent imprint on our lives – for good or bad. Yet, despite their influence they remain almost strangers to us outside of their generic role as ‘mum’ or ‘dad’, and it’s hard to believe that they once had a life that existed outside of our own. These ideas take centre stage as preconceptions, fractured relationships and long kept secrets collide in Pip Nixon’s production of Richard Greenberg’s play which explores the complexities of familial bonds across the generations.

Unstable wanderer, Walker, returns to Manhattan following his disappearance after his father, the famous architect, Ned Janeway’s funeral. Visiting the abandoned studio in which his father and business partner, Theo, once worked, Walker intends to unearth the truth behind his dysfunctional upbringing in a post-mortem reconciliation between parent and child. The dilapidated apartment set of Act 1 creates a sense of intrigue in the lives that once occupied it, the ruinous visage artfully reflecting the psychological and social wreckage left behind.

Symmetry and contradiction are touchingly realised in the regression of Act 2, as the jigsaw of jagged memories, enigmatic stories and telling omissions are rearranged and slotted back together to reveal a completed family portrait. Motif, gesture and sound reverberate between acts and the reflections of the characters with their predecessors is neatly drawn. The trio of actors, impressive in dual roles as both parent and child, hold the stage wonderfully, drawing forth the weight of what goes unspoken in still moments and wise-cracking with great comic timing.

Three Days of Rain is a wonderful, subtly crafted balance of character and plot. Greenberg’s skill lies in making us care about these characters without hammering home a ‘message’ or nauseating sentiment; he lets the characters speak for themselves. This production succeeds in contemplating the stronghold exercised on the present by the past and the delicate, ephemeral nature of life and the enduring influence we have upon those lives we touch.

Three Days of Rain runs until Saturday 6th February.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Good People

Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.

Week 5: David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People (2011)

‘Some people can be content
Playing bingo and paying rent’
‘Some People’ from Gypsy. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Sung by Imelda Staunton in her remarkable performance as Mama Rose, Sondheim’s lyrics may easily remind you of another part Staunton has played. Meet Margie. In the first scene, she loses her job at the dollar store for turning up late yet again. But she’s late because she can’t rely on her landlady and friend, Dottie, to babysit her disabled daughter on time. And, like Sondheim’s lyrics in Gypsy, Margie (with a hard ‘g’) struggles to pay the rent and plays bingo. Without spoiling the plot (and what a riveting plot it is), she soon realises her ex-boyfriend lives nearby who is now a doctor and so decides to visit him.

What’s so likeable about Good People is that it is plot and character-driven, the themes and issues coming through them unforced. Exploring class, chance, choice, wealth, race, and family, Good People has the ingredients of a great American play. Indeed, there are echoes to Death of a Salesman, but what Lindsay-Abaire does differently is to place a struggling, single, unemployed mum as the central character. Likeable despite her flaws and incredibly funny, the play asks us is Margie ‘good people’ for letting Mike (her ex) go or is she being foolish? Likewise, is Mike obnoxious and has he forgotten his roots in Southie? Did he choose to push himself to do better in life or was it luck from his encouraging and well-off family?

The first two scenes of the play open with stories and anecdotes in mid flow. It not only allows for moments of humour to be conveyed, but also made me think about the importance of stories in America. It is often depicted in American theatre that people grow up perhaps expecting to follow the narrative of the American Dream, with all its promises and rhetoric. In Good People, like so many other plays, it has not been fully realised.

Along with Stephen Adly-Guirgis’ The Motherfucker with the Hat, Good People is, in my opinion (for what it’s worth), one of the best American plays of the 21st century.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Gone Too Far!

Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.

Week 4: Bola Agbaje’s Gone Too Far! (2007)

Reading reviews of the London transfer of Anna Jordan’s play Yen at the Royal Court Upstairs earlier this week, I was surprised to read Matt Trueman’s criticism that the play was ‘as authentic a chicken nugget’ (cue flashbacks to Pomona). Trueman felt that the play over-simplified its prognosis of the boys’ problems without further looking at societal causes. Michael Billington, on the other hand, praised the play but argued that the sink estate setting was as much of a cliché in contemporary drama as French windows in the 1940s.

These points were in mind when reading Agbaje’s first play Gone Too Far!, which also played at the Royal Court Upstairs. The sink estate setting is a crucible where people of different backgrounds live; a backdrop which allows Agbaje to explore the conflict between and within racial and cultural groups. Reflecting on it, it’s not a play which diagnoses the larger problems of gang culture or asks questions on the prospects of those living on the estate (like the anger in Judy Upton’s Ashes and Sand, 1994). Nor does it interrogate character’s dual sense of national identity as much as something like Roy Williams’ Sing Yer Heart Our For The Lads (2002). But what’s remarkable about Agbaje’s play is how it explores the brothers’ complexity of feelings about their heritage and how they conflict with others.

Gone Too Far! sees two brothers (one who has only lived in Britain for a couple of months after growing up in Nigeria) go out to get some milk. On the way, they bump into ignorant police officers, an anxious shopkeeper and the conflicted Armani. Whereas Yemi (the younger brother) identifies himself as British, doesn’t know what his Nigerian name means and prefers the latest fashion trends, Ikudayisi dresses in traditional Nigerian garb, speaks Yoruba and has difficulty fitting in with a place where his politeness isn’t appreciated. However, although he tries to teach Yemi about the importance of heritage and how knowing you are is about knowing where you’re from, he also chooses to speak in a dodgy American accent in social situations. What’s authentic, then, about Gone Too Far! is its complexity when it comes to characters’ identity battles, often evoked intelligently through their use of language. From this, Abgaje asks us what we see as authentic. In the end, when Yemi chooses to wear traditional dress with his latest trainers, we see his new-found confidence in embracing his dual heritage.

Among this, Abgaje ensures that the other characters are also richly-drawn. We see Armani (played by Zawe Ashton in the original production) wanting to embrace her West Indies background even though she’s only lived with her white mum, and the Muslim shopkeeper who plays prayer music but also unabashedly covers his shop in England flags.

The ending may seem a bit too neat, but Gone Too Far! is compelling because it zips along and is character-driven.

Thursday, 21 January 2016


Little Theatre, Leicester
20th January, 2016

There is a line in Patrick Hamilton’s Rope about 11:25 being the hour where London theatre audiences are settling down in the dark ready to watch the third act of stuffy plays whose denouements they already know. It made me think how Hamilton’s play (first seen in 1929) rather subverts the thriller genre. We know who the murderer is and their victim. We know how they did it and we know the location of the body. What’s intriguing though is why they killed this ambitious 20 year old student; it is this idea of the psychology behind murder which Hamilton’s play explores.

Rope recommences The Little Theatre’s season of plays after the Christmas pantomime and this choice of play is great for a winter evening. Co-directors Nick Palmer and Ed Spence’s production is very well-measured. They start the proceedings by plunging the audience into darkness before bringing the lights up on Brandon and Granillo slamming the lid of the chest down when they’ve kept the body. The production (particularly in the last act) also remains tense without being overacted. However, updating the play into the 21st century, for me, wasn’t quite effective although that doesn’t particularly matter as the most important aesthetic in the play is the chest in the centre of the room. It’s like an extra character in the play, no more so effective when the lights are dimming and the bells are chiming eleven o’clock on the chest and the two murderers.

The two leads carry the play incredibly well, finding the balance between Granillo’s panicking and Brandon’s strange coolness. Robert Leeson is impressive as Rupert, particularly delivering the speech about society’s hypocrisy over celebrating war but condemning murder very well. Overall, Rope is a play which intrigues in the way it subverts the single room thriller genre, and it is well delivered in this production.

Rope runs at The Little Theatre, Leicester until Saturday.