Thursday, 21 July 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: A Life in the Theatre

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. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 29: David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre (1977)

I first came across this Mamet play when looking for a play to potentially fill a slot in a studio theatre when on their production team. The other Mamet play we discussed doing that season was Glengarry Glen Ross. There was a very brief discussion in which we said we’d one day like to see it performed in the theatre’s main house. After that, we quickly moved on after agreeing that it would most likely prove unpopular with our audiences and could shut the theatre down! But that’s for another blog post. As for the studio slot, I think we plumped for Butley.

A life in the Theatre follows two actors, one older and more experienced (Robert) and one who is still learning the ropes (John). Over 26 scenes, the play follows their time in rep, performing plays, reading plays, waiting backstage and unwinding after a performance. On one hand the play is a two handed love letter to theatre, a fairly commercially viable play which can be easy to stage. More than that Mamet explores the personal politics of these two characters. Characters dominate and defer and compete for control. Anyone who has worked in theatre will be familiar with the unspoken etiquettes, the silent codes and the strange rituals which Mamet cleverly evokes here. To use a detrimental term, Robert is a luvvie. The sort of actor that others might tread around; the sort of actor who perhaps drops theatrical terms into everyday conversation amongst people are not in the know; the sort of actor who anecdotally reminisces how he once gave Alan Rickman acting advice (this isn’t Robert, I’m using my own examples here). Mamet asks if you can you really have an equal, creative, collaborative working experience when power struggles exist?

The onstage scenes are the most interesting: little stand-alone scenes from plays typically performed in rep theatre. Featured is a play about the sea, a play about war and a play set in a lawyer’s office. Is Mamet mocking the types of plays which are standards of the repertory I wonder? He writes as another writer in these scenes, and it’s enjoyable to try to guess the titles of those plays from particularly emotive lines in them: The Last Day for the trench scene perhaps, Men and the Sea for the boat scene, Force of Habit for the lawyer scene. There are also some nice subtle moments where we see how events offstage affect the playing of the onstage scenes, and how the actors’ relationship changes from that.

A Life in the Theatre is a bit self-indulgent and not quite as satisfying as you think a play about theatre could be. Out of five or so American plays that have featured in #ReadaPlayaWeek this year, from The Little Foxes to The Motherfucker with the Hat, Mamet’s play differs in that it’s not plot led and isn’t particularly driven by strong, magnetic characters. Instead, over short bursts of scenes we are privy to something not dissimilar to a work play in which there is a power battle between two characters, all coming together in kaleidoscopic fashion to portray a life in the theatre.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Accidental Death of an Anarchist

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. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 28: Dario Fo’s Accidental Death Of An Anarchist (1970)

In December 1969, following the detonation of a bomb in the Agricultural Bank of Milan, suspect, Giovanni Pinelli, flew out of a fourth floor window of the Police Headquarters. Was Pinelli’s death suicide, an unfortunate accident, or something else? Dario Fo takes these murky circumstances as a starting point for his play. Heavily influenced by Brecht, Fo combines less-than-subtle political stances with heavy handed theatricality – much fourth wall breaking and social commentary – examining fraught topics such as corruption, police brutality, whitewashing and censorship. While this could be cloying, he does so with a deftness that entwines satire with farce as the plot convolutions unravel into fastidiously organised chaos. The end effect is one of hilarity tinged with gutsy discomfort.

In the aftermath of Pinelli’s death a man simply referred to as ‘Maniac’ enters the police headquarters and dons various guises, exposing the deceit that lies at the heart of the police force while simultaneously gaining their trust as he repeatedly outwits them. Contradicting versions of the interrogation and subsequent fall of Pinelli become increasingly ridiculous as the Maniac manipulates the gullible Inspector, Superintendent and Constable at the centre of the scandal into a confused, yet revealing state of panic.

The Maniac’s disguises, taking the form of a professor, a judge, and a forensics expert, highlight the institutionalised corruption and deception that pervades in the high ranking officials whom ought to be the protectors of the nation. His absurd final disguise sees him wear a glass eye, wooden leg, and a female mannequin’s hand, his masquerade should be easy to see through, and it is for us, but the characters on stage remain largely oblivious, tied up in their own skin-saving web spinning.

The introduction in the copy I read (Methuen Drama Modern Classics) states that an estimated one million people saw the play in its first four years, ‘many of whom took part in fierce debates after the performance’. This, possibly in no small way, can be attributed to the dual denouement. In one of the greatest feats of metatheatre I’ve encountered, the final moments of the play sees Fo ingeniously bestow a dramatic sense of rough justice, then seconds later snatch away that catharsis, leaving us grasping for answers that are denied; we are forced to decide upon our own conclusion.

This demonstrates the way Fo unmasks the reality behind the façade, whether that be political, social, institutional, or theatrical – the script is littered with subversive references to himself and his shortcomings as a playwright – emphasising the unknown quantity that is the real life event behind this fiction. Interjections by the actors and gaps left in the script for dramaturgs or directors to insert their own jokes and contemporary references means that the play is free of the censorship which was exercised in twentieth century Italy, as well as the inadvertent censorship that timely constraints imposes on society and history. Fo is undoubtedly political and driven by specifics, yet there is room to manoeuver and bring to the play an acutely modern relevance. As debates raged following its initial performances, the play still has the ability to cause a stir. We can very easily draw (un)comfortable comparisons with the state of institutionalised corruption at large in the world today. Just take a look at the #BlackLivesMatter campaign and stance against police brutality that has risen in recent years for one example.

Interestingly, at the time, the bombing of the bank was pinned on extreme leftist groups, yet ten years later a trial concluded with the condemnation of three fascists, who came from the ranks of military and political institutions, one even being an agent of the secret police. Fo’s play was ahead of its time, showing up Italy’s rulers and protectors for the rancid buffoons that they evidently were.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: The Flick

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. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 27: Annie Baker’s The Flick (2013)

I was going to blog about this play later in the year as it’s not long finished its run at the National, but I’ve just finished reading it and am so enthused to write about it. Its apparently ‘sold out’ status at the National wasn’t quite true which is annoying as I would have liked to have booked tickets. It’s such a magnetic play, cunningly clever, and with three extremely vivid, well-drawn characters.

What stood out to me was that The Flick parades what theatre is able to achieve that other media such as film cannot. In Hollywood cinema, films so often have to have tightly plotted story arcs, characters who conform to types, and dialogue that is so often clichéd. What’s more is that cinema so often misrepresents and under-represents communities. It is also often pressured (I guess) to meeting expectations of being thrilling or dramatic or purgative or atoning that it can seem forced and unnatural.

The Flick is set in a run down, single screen cinema in Massachusetts, where film fanatic Avery, who suffers from anxiety and depression, has recently started working. There’s also Rose, the unconventionally attractive projectionist. Finally there’s Sam, in his mid-thirties and living back with his parents, who likes Rose despite not really knowing her. For much of the play, we watch Sam and Avery mopping or sweeping up the aisles. It’s a job that comes at the end of each screening; it’s fascinating to consider that every movie showing offers an opportunity for three hours or so worth of escapism, enlightenment and entertainment. But for each screening there’s also this mandatory ritual of Sam and Avery doing this menial task: moaning about the litter, shooting the breeze and discussing movies. As a job it is so regular and perhaps dull that it should be seemingly non-performative. But are we ever not performing even whilst doing something as trivial as mopping up? And after all, Avery is self-conscious, shy and wants to fit in. Maybe Sam and Rose too to a lesser extent.

The play is so much about performance: performance as entertainment and how we all perform in everyday life whether we are aware or not. How can we articulate ourselves truly and effectively without sounding like a pastiche of movie and TV dialogue? In The Flick, these three characters come together in this place of performance (the setting of a cinema and the performances space of a theatre) and socialise, work and try to work out who each they really are as people. There’s no massive plot which takes over, it is simply a character-driven play with characters that talk and act like they are real people.

Of course, how much like real life so called ‘illusory’ theatre can be is problematic as we are aware that it is a performance. However, Baker (and director Sam Gold from what I’ve heard of the production at the National and in New York) achieves things which film can rarely do, certainly in Hollywood. There are moments of enjoyable boredom; moments of characters’ little quirks and niches; moments of anti-climax; moments of inarticulacy. It relishes the awkward and gives room for characters to breathe.

It’s a great play. I completely get the hype. I’d love to see it. I look forward to reading it again.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation

2nd July, 2016, matinee

To celebrate 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, Erica Whyman has undertaken the mammoth task of creating a collaborative play made for and by the nation. She has brought together professional actors and creatives with 14 amateur theatre groups from across the country, as well as hundreds of schoolchildren (as Titania’s Fairy Train), in a production that perfectly encapsulates the spirit of carnival; the uniting of people from all walks of life in celebration of the magic of theatre. Following a nationwide tour, A Midsummer Night’s Dream returns for an encore at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

The performance I saw featured the Canterbury Players as the Mechanicals and their joy was infectious. Holding their own admirably against the professionals, Lisa Nightingale particularly stands out as Bottom, balancing the more self-important, hammy moments with a good natured naivety. The Pyramus and Thisbe scene is an absolute triumph of comic timing - Hannah Newell’s Snout enthusiastically makes the most of her scene-stealing role as ‘Wall’ - even the doubting Theseus and Hippolyta failed to remain straight-faced. The actors perform with a self-awareness which removes the cruel edge of some interpretations and transforms it into a collaborative joke in which we egg on the company in honest jest.

The charm of Whyman’s production seeps into the uncanny woodland scenes. Doorways and staircases lead nowhere and loop back on themselves, creating a sense of magical mischief and upping the farcical nature of the lovers’ plot, further exasperating the confused characters. Lucy Ellinson’s Puck is mischief personified, she is inexhaustible, nimble and spritely, flitting through the space with impish glee, while Chu Omambala’s Oberon exudes ethereal languidness. Dressed in a brilliant white suit, yet barefooted and barechested, Oberon’s sensuality is matched by Titania’s (Ayesha Dharker) rose petal strewn bed, a sexually liberated sanctuary in contrast with the military stiffness of Theseus’ court and Egeus’ patriarchal dictation.

It often is easy to overlook the lovers’ amidst the glamour of the Fairies and the rambunctiousness of the Mechanicals, yet here they shine equally as bright, from Lysander and Demetrius’ (Jack Holden and Chris Nayak) preening and posturing, to Helena’s (Laura Riseborough) endearing dorkiness, and Hermia’s (Mercy Ojelade) near gravity-defying attacks on her rival. The lovers are flung hither and thither and there was an audible cheer when the complications finally resolved themselves.

Whyman explains that she set the production in 1940’s Britain as it was a time of great change following the Second World War, yet it was also a time of hope, consistent with the play’s timeless themes of love, community and acceptance. I grinned and laughed the whole way through A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and as the Mechanicals, Fairies and Courtiers came together for the final dance the sense of pure joy and national pride was palpable. This ambitious undertaking to unite Britain under the legacy of our most renowned playwright has proven utterly heartwarming and inspirational. This sentiment seems particularly pertinent as we are similarly entering into a period of great change and turmoil. Following the political and social consequences of the recent EU referendum, now, more than ever, even as our leaders crumble, we as a nation need to unite in order to overcome these hard times.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 16th July.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek 2016

We’re half way through #ReadaPlayaWeek 2016. There has been a different playwright each week and there have been 13 plays by women, 13 by men. From rickety West End melodramas to plays dealing with contemporary issues presented in the most contemporary and cutting edge of forms. From plays well-known or only recently produced to plays lost in the canon. From newly bought editions of new plays to dusty scripts dug out from the bookshelves of an amateur theatre. In the words of the stage manager in Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, ‘Plays plump, plays paltry, plays preposterous, plays purgatorial, plays radiant, plays rotten’, adding plays forgotten to that list too. Here are the plays:

·         Here We Go by Caryl Churchill (2015)
·         Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen (1881)
·         Pornography by Simon Stephens (2007)
·         Gone Too Far! by Bola Agbaje (2007)

·         Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire (2011)
·         The Arbor by Andrea Dunbar (1980)
·         Painting a Wall by David Lan (1974)
·         The Heresy of Love by Helen Edmundson (2012)

·         The Motherfucker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis (2011)
·         Three Birds Alighting on a Field by Timberlake Wertenbaker (1991)
·         Pub Quiz is Life by Richard Bean (2009)
·         By the Bog of Cats… by Marina Carr (1998)
·         Closer by Patrick Marber (1997)

·         Silent by Pat Kinevane (2010)
·         Life X3 by Yasmina Reza (2000)
·         Time and Time Again by Alan Ayckbourn (1971)
·         Frozen by Bryony Lavery (1998)

·         The Philanthropist by Christopher Hampton (1970)
·         Christie in Love by Howard Brenton (1969)
·         Play with a Tiger by Doris Lessing (1962)
·         Pastoral by Thomas Eccleshare (2013)

·         Keeping Tom Nice by Lucy Gannon (1988)
·         The Westbridge by Rachel De-lahay (2011)
·         Steaming by Nell Dunn (1981)
·         Iphigenia in Splott by Gary Owen (2015)
·         The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman (1939)

#ReadaPlayaWeek: The Little Foxes

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 26: Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (1939)

I can’t help but think that when this play about a bitter, greedy family in the Southern states of America premiered in London in 1942 (with Richard Attenborough as Leo) the country had more pressing issues at hand. Indeed it only ran for 37 performances, but it was much more of a success in New York.

The Little Foxes is set in the spring of 1900 and focuses on the Hubbards, a rich family about to invest in a Chicago firm to expand their cotton business. Three siblings – Ben, Oscar and Regina – are each investing a third but Regina needs the help of her wealthy but distant and rather ill husband Horace since she was left out of her father’s will. Regina, a sort of hostile Southern Belle who was played by Bette Davis on film and Elizabeth Taylor in a New York and London revival in the eighties, even agrees to a smaller share if her daughter Alexandra can marry Oscar’s son Leo to ensure the money is kept in the family. But whereas she is cold and materialistic, Horace (on his return) is idealistic and warm-hearted. He wants to leave some money to the black maid, and is exhausted by the family making so much money at the expense of cheap labour or cheating someone else out of money. He is therefore reluctant to put up his part of the money, thus threatening the deal. What Horace eventually learns, however, is that Leo has stolen some bonds from a safety deposit box which he, Oscar and Ben can use in lieu of money to seal the deal.

Horace plans to make a new will leaving the 80,000 dollars’ worth of bonds (which Leo et al plans on returning) to Regina and the rest to daughter Alexandra, for whom he wishes a better life away from the greed and money swindling of the family. Indeed, Oscar’s wife Birdie is subdued and laments that she’s never had a happy day and that Oscar only married her for her family’s money. She is trapped (like a caged bird) and wants better for her niece.

It’s here where I wrote quite a concise paragraph of the rest of the play but I thought I’d cut it out as it was full of spoilers. What’s important is that there is a lot of double crossing, scheming siblings and warring over money. Indeed there’s a lot of plot to get through and Hellman shows good technique even if it might seem a bit rickety now. There’s the fate of the deal being decided by the frail man; the out of reach medicine bottle; the contents of a safety deposit box. What’s more is that there are about eight fairly meaty roles in the play, something which the original reviews noted: it is a play that ‘bestows viable parts on all the members of the cast’ (Brooks Atkinson). But despite its pace, it is such a frustrating play to read because of the many stage directions. Specific or just fussy, it becomes more and more difficult having to negotiate and visualise all the many ‘Oscar crosses down to front chair left centre’ etc.

Aesthetically, it could be an Oscar Wilde play. Hats and gloves and fancy drawing rooms, I would argue that Hellman doesn’t quite capture the heat or air of the south in the same way as Tennessee Williams. But there’s no faulting Hellman for writing such a gripping and multifaceted family melodrama even if it is old fashioned now. Having said that, you never fully appreciate how high the stakes are outside the house in The Little Foxes. It’s not until the end when Ben looks forward to the new century as one of opportunity and wealth. I also think that the irony is lost that that is only the perception of the rich white man. Behind the Hubbard household, there is a story of slavery, cheap labour on the cotton fields, industry, money (plenty of it!) and overall the changing face of America. And it is captured here in this crucible of family greed and money.

"Catch the foxes for us,/ The little foxes that are ruining the vineyards”.

We’re half way through #ReadaPlayaWeek 2016!

Sunday, 26 June 2016

The Threepenny Opera

National Theatre (Olivier)
18th June, 2016

Brecht. The words ‘Marxist’, ‘dry’, ‘didactic’ and ‘po-faced’ come to mind. I don’t claim to be any expert, but I think I’d be forgiven for failing to associate his work with the words ‘fun’, or ‘entertaining’. Yet Rufus Norris’ production of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera (a new version by Simon Stephens) has, in all its merry immorality, proven that assumption wrong. Here Brecht’s occasionally exhausting theory is combined with enough humour and energy to hold our immediate, aesthetically driven, interest, making the ubiquitous socio-political lessons much more palatable.

The satirical anti-tragedy charts notorious criminal, Macheath’s (Rory Kinnear) marriage to Polly Peacham (Rosalie Craig), daughter of the controller of London’s beggars. Questions regarding capitalist social structures, the power that money holds over relationships, loyalties and emotions, and the immoral lengths people go to in order to survive come to the fore through a series of double-crossings and betrayals. Act 2 sees the comic gears turned up, from Mack’s knowing quips to the audience – ‘You came back?!’ – to the farcical prison scene where Mack is confronted by the many women in his life and some gloriously childish humour (I love a good bum joke), before we hurtle towards the ridiculously improbable (yet satirically perfect) finale. A sole moment of un-Brechtian catharsis arises as, following Mack’s monumentally un-PC rant, Jamie Beddard’s Matthias consolidates what the entire audience are thinking in one piercingly precise, foul-mouthed utterance – an uproariously fist-pumping moment if ever there was one.

Kinnear is a solid Macheath, breezing through Weill’s songs with an assured baritone timbre (who knew?), and while perhaps not the physical embodiment of hunkiness that would stereotypically attract so many women, he conveys a compellingly seedy charisma that convinces of Mack’s magnetism. He is exuberantly supported by Nick Holder and Haydn Gwynne as the Peacham’s, their cartoonish characterisation exemplary of the glue that binds both theory and entertainment. The sturdy ensemble is rounded off by a scene-stealing turn from Sharon Small as Jenny, her raspy voice and rag doll appearance prove that Brechtian characters can be empathetic without being a detriment to the political ‘cause’.

However, the real star of the show is Vicki Mortimer’s design of bare-boned theatrical intricacy. Paper-lined scaffolds and staircases leading to nowhere are in constant transit, expertly choreographed to form a vast maze through which the actors and musicians lurk, wind, and in frustration, burst through. The fourth wall is not merely absent, but torn, ripped and stabbed to shreds, utterly shattering our suspension of disbelief. As such, my eye and mind was drawn towards appreciating the technical aspects involved in creating theatre. Mortimer and Norris’ excellence lies in their seemingly simple story-telling devices which, when examined more closely, are actually an acutely mechanised and complex series of cogs, all expertly conducted to whirl and spark with perfect timing. And the result is pure, theatrical magic.

For anyone perhaps hesitant in embracing Brechtian theatre, I’d recommend The Threepenny Opera as a starting point. Weill’s music is charming, hilariously off-set by Stephens’ unsentimental lyrics (‘Stupid twat. Stupid twat’ is one of my favourites for being so to-the-point), and the theatricality of Norris’ production emphasises the less-controversial aspects of Brechtian theory in celebrating the stage for what it is.

The Threepenny Opera plays at the National Theatre until 1st October.
 Photo: Richard H Smith