Sunday, 17 September 2017

Rules for Living

Royal and Derngate, Northampton
17th September 2017 – matinee

‘Should I read a play before I see it?’ is a question that I’m sure plagues many theatre-goers, and the answer is, of course, entirely subjective. As a rule, I prefer to read Shakespeare’s plays before seeing them, otherwise I would spend the entirety of the play trying to catch up with the language, rather than enjoying the specifications of the production. But when it comes to contemporary drama I err towards ignorance, and Simon Godwin’s regional premier of Sam Holcroft’s Rules For Living (which debuted at the National Theatre in 2015) is a good case point upon which to ponder my stance.

I have read Rules For Living and now, having seen it, I can say that the cons of doing so far outweigh the pros. The pros: I read the play a year and a half ago when I thought there would be little chance of me viewing a staged production any time soon given that it had premiered only a year before. And I thoroughly enjoyed it! I thought it was clever, witty and fast paced enough to hold my attention during what was a rather difficult time for me. However, Godwin’s production has highlighted how my own expectations can hinder enjoyment of the present theatrical experience.

Naturally, the play is much more cohesive onstage. Briefly; brothers Matthew and Adam have returned to their family home for Christmas with their partners in tow. Old rivalries rear their ugly heads and merry chaos ensues. The (necessarily) vast amount of stage directions in the script are a little overwhelming, hence the complex ‘rules’ that bind each character (eg. ‘Matthew must sit and eat in order to tell a lie’) translate far better onstage and as a consequence are much funnier - imagine Ayckbourn crossed with Churchill's Blue Heart. When I read it I was acutely aware that this was no ordinary farce. Sure, Holcroft superbly skewers the foibles and shortcomings of the middle classes (as all good farces do); barbs are directed towards the daytime tv nourished fads of gluten/lactose/carbohydrate-free diets and the ridiculous amount of pressure we place on ‘family time’ during national holidays which inevitably sucks all the fun out of them. But her ingenuity lies in the way she does this via an interesting spin involving the conventions of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). I admit to having a personal interest in the subject as I’m currently over a year into CBT myself, so it was refreshing and reassuring in a way to see a play which tackles this issue in a humorous way. Yet, I’m now aware that I subjectively placed more focus than is perhaps warranted on this aspect of the play – I found that, onstage, the convention is handled in a more flippant manner, and it veers close to being merely a superficial shooting point from which to create havoc, which means that what is in reality a complex psychological concept here veers close to the edge of oversimplification.

This isn’t to say that play isn’t funny – it’s really, really funny – this is more a musing on the way our own biases prejudice our readings and interpretations. Holcroft has crafted an unerringly British psychological farce, in which the best way to respond to the absurdities of modern life is to have a damned good laugh at them! The play really succeeds in analysing the minutiae of competitive family hierarchies and the friction between wanting to please, wanting to win the metaphorical ‘game’ of life, while also wanting to be independent. Both Matthew and Adam have entered into the family profession – law – even though their hearts lie with acting and cricket, respectively, while the imposing figure of their father, Francis, clouds their lives on both a conscious and subconscious level.

Jolyon Coy and Ed Hughes do a stellar job with Matthew and Adam, especially Hughes who displays a tireless array of accents and whose incredulous reaction to his surroundings is a sheer joy. However, I couldn’t help but imagine how Miles Jupp and Stephen Mangan (Matthew and Adam in the original NT production) would have played these roles. Some of the lines, inflections and mannerisms of the characters seemed tailor made for them. I admit, this is yet another pitfall of being overfamiliar with the play to begin with. Elsewhere, Carlyss Peer is a marvel of energy and optimistic naivety as cringeworthily inappropriate actress, Carrie, and Jane Booker is pitch perfect in her portrayal of the classic ‘keep calm and carry on’ type matriarch, Edith.

Godwin admirably makes the play his own, his direction of the building tensions and increasingly ridiculous ‘rules’ the characters must adhere to pays off in gleefully theatrical fashion, culminating in what is possibly the messiest, and most entertaining food fight I’ve seen onstage. I don’t envy the crew tasked to clean up before the evening show! Lily Arnold’s design is ingenious. It’s satisfying on an aesthetic level, particularly in the unbelievably quaint auditorium of the Royal theatre, and, as opposed to Chloe Lamford’s abstract, and slightly obvious boardgame set up in the National Theatre production, Arnold situates the action in a firmly established ‘family farce’ territory. The set is brightly coloured, homely, and feature classic staples of farce (a staircase and doors for well-timed entrances) which work well as a cosily familiar counterpoint to the more modern aspects of Holcroft’s script.

Rather selfishly, I have used Holcroft’s play, and Godwin’s production, as a cipher for analysing my own foibles and presumptions, and so I urge everyone to take this as a parable on how you should value every production for its own merits, and not, as I have done, pre-empt a play based on its past. Rules For Living is a confident and unashamed farce in a theatrical landscape where farce is seen as rather old hat, or uncool, and for all of Holcroft’s unapologetic slapstick and populist jibes I admire her. Godwin’s production is a joy, and is guaranteed to make you cringe, empathise, and most of all, roar with laughter.


Rules for Living plays at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton until 30th September and then tours.

In the foreground – Ed Hughes as Adam and Jolyon Coy as Matthew (background - Laura Rogers as Nicole and Carlyss Peer as Carrie) Photography by Mark Douet.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Oslo

National Theatre, Lyttelton
7th September, 2017, matinee

*Please note that this was an early preview performance.

The Lincoln Center Theater production of J.T. Rogers’ play chronicling the Oslo Peace accords in 1993 was the winner of the Tony Award for Best Play earlier this year. Now playing a short run at the National before the West End, it’s easy to see why this play about what might be, to some, a dry topic has become a big hit. Its exploration of the intricate complexities of political negotiations and the practicalities of the human exchanges at the heart of them and their effects on global peace is gripping and often hilarious.

And what a surprise it was for me to like it so much when I sat in row D of the Lyttelton stalls before it started and thought: ‘I know next to nothing about the Middle East. Why have I come to see this?’ And for the first 10 minutes or so, I wasn’t entirely convinced. Bartlett Sher’s production is slyly simple. Michael Yeargan’s set is an ambassadorial room made up of no more than few pieces of furniture and some white walls. There is an air of stripped theatricality about it. The walls at the side look like theatre wing flats, and we see the door (with its metal structure that tells us it’s a part of a stage design) brought on and wheeled into position. The play starts (with no magisterial music or dramatic lighting changes) with Toby Stephens walking on stage preparing to begin. Soon enough, the play launches into mid-scene where charming couple Terje Rod-Larsen (Stephens) and his wife Mona Juul (Lydia Leonard) are having drinks with the Norwegian Foreign Secretary in a scene which frames most of act one in a flashback.

Soon enough, I thought it was going to be three hours of a House of Cards/ Stuff Happens crossover, with jokes aplenty about bureaucratic red tape and facile nods to current affairs. ‘Doesn’t Stephens look like Stephen Campbell Moore? What accent is he doing? Oh, there’s Peter Polycarpou. Look it’s the actor who played ‘Gary’ in that episode of Only Fools and Horses – what a demeaning role that must have been. OK let’s get on and pretend I’m watching the Oslo peace talks’. Well, how stupid of me to try to second guess the play.
Stephens and Leonard masterfully address the audience, introducing us to characters and settings, customs and relationships. Ben Brantley nailed it when he wrote that the role of Terje and Mona is to dramatically steer the play forward just as they did so politically with the negotiations. Oslo is a slow burner that draws you into the action. The space fluidly takes us from the negotiating room to outside of it, from Norway and Tunisia to the USA and Israel, from warzones to rooms with classy wallpaper thanks to 59 Productions’ projections and the company’s navigation.

Stephens conveys the mixture of gentle vanity and genuine good will as key mediator, wanting to stay truly impartial but also not being able to help himself in wanting some praise. But it is a perplexing role. I understand that Terje, the man himself, was present and a central part of the negotiations, but this does leave Rogers with the question of what to do with this man from a dramaturgical viewpoint. A background presence, he is sort of akin to a protagonist in a Marc Camoletti sex farce. As if Israel and Palestine are his two lovers he needs to keep in separate rooms, he occasionally comes across as bumbling dinner party host. This might be partly due to Stephens’ clipped accent and polished diplomacy. I’m not so much as criticising this aspect of the character and play, but am more bemused by it. Lydia Leonard’s Mona (who mostly leads the audience as well as controls Terje) becomes the character – along with Terje to be fair – that the two sides fall in love with. It’s such a strong performance.

Over the course of the play, whether through back channels, or via third party telephone calls, or over waffles, the ‘business’ at the heart of Oslo had me on the edge of my seat. It is a political thriller and we feel the weight of what’s at stake (especially thanks to Peter John Still’s sound). We hear that Palestine is over a vast ocean where great ships look like skippers. Whereas many have drowned or turned back going over that ocean, Qurie and Asfour (the Palestinians) want to be the first to succeed in making peace with Israel. Peter Polycarpou, Nabil Elouahabi and Jacob Krichefski lead the superb ensemble. I got the feeling that at any moment they could break out in hysterics over a joke or ferocious, spittle-firing anger over the slightest disagreement. Because of Rogers’ writing and under Sher’s assured direction, the jovial and the barbed are never far from each other in Oslo. There are elements of high comedy as well, which often sees characters working together against the odds. At one moment, German holidaymakers walk in on the secret talks leaving the two factions having to work together to pretend they’re the decorators. At another, they prank Terje by saying they’ve had enough and are walking out on the negotiations. They swap jokes whether at the expense of their wives or their cultures. There are also plenty of grin-inducing tactical idioms à la Frank Underwood, such as “the Prime Minister isn’t going to cut down a tree bearing fruit” and “sometimes we’re the pigeon and sometimes the statue”.

The whole cast (remarkably for what was an early preview) do much more than simply not allow the play to swamp them. They carve out memorable and individual characterisations, including Howard Ward’s blustered Norwegian Foreign Minister and Geraldine Alexander’s pleasing housekeeper and cook. As with many plays, such as The Westbridge and Elmina’s Kitchen, the nourishing qualities and cultural differences of food can make or break a relationship and heal feuds.

At the end of the play, Stephens breaks the fourth wall once more, coming down into the stalls and imploring us to look at the glimmer of light through the crack in the door. In a less accomplished piece of storytelling, the final message of hope about global politics could seem quite glib. But by that moment, I was so wrapped up in this story and these people, many of which whose friendships outlasted the actual peace deal, that I was whisked along by the play’s ambition and optimism in mankind to make peace. I walked out of the National thinking that, like Christopher Shinn’s Against, although Oslo doesn’t give a solution it’s not bashful about wanting to find one to the world’s political problems.


Oslo runs at the National Theatre until 23rd September and then transfers to the Harold Pinter Theatre from 2nd October to 30th December

Lydia Leonard and Toby Stephens in J.T. Rogers' Oslo. Credit: Brinkhoff Mögenburg

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Follies

National Theatre, Olivier
9th September, 2017, matinee

As somewhat of a Stephen Sondheim fan, I’m rather embarrassed to admit that my prior knowledge of his early masterpiece, Follies, boiled down to just three songs (‘Broadway Baby’, ‘Buddy’s Blues’ and ‘Losing My Mind’) and a rather sketchy idea of the plot. Yet with this confession also came the opportunity to experience the musical with fresh eyes, and I can’t think of a better first experience than Dominic Cooke’s latest production at the National Theatre. A lavish production, the reinstating of some original songs, a cast of acting royalty, and the simple fact that Sondheim is possibly the most revered musical theatre composer still working today – with the immeasurable clout the very promise of this revival brings it would be easy (lazy) to write it off as a solid gold ‘HIT’ with all the predictability of the gushy fan-cum-wannabe-critic before even seeing it. Yet, in all honesty, this production lives up to those expectations and delivers all the drama, humour, tragedy, glamour, smarts, ingenuity and humanity that is synonymous with Sondheim, with added style and pathos.

As with Company, Assassins and even Merrily We Roll Along, Sondheim and James Goldman (book) subvert traditional dramatic and musical conventions relating to time, character and plot; instead of presenting a straightforward ‘storyline’, their creation is more a collage or moodboard of experience. Part memory play, part vaudeville revue, the seamless cohabitation of the past and the present, the real and the fictional, the glamorous and the mundane lays the foundations for an exploration of the binaries that govern life, and their fractious consequences. The result evokes a haunting and creeping melancholy that all too often cracks through the veneer of the showbiz ‘razzle-dazzle’ of the traditional ‘Follies’ chorus girls, whether that be the fading lights of the aging starlets, the bitterness of a loveless marriage, or the regrets over long-lost relationships that could have been. The fact that all this is conveyed without the dramatic constraints of a beginning, middle, and end, or even intricacy of plot (it’s deceptively simple, even uneventful), means that we are instead challenged to really get under the skin of these characters, and experience things through the fractured prism of their memories and biases – which is discombobulating in its intensity.

Cooke’s production enhances the ghostliness of the musical as the figures of the younger characters’ selves linger onstage, perched upon staircases, or sat majestically upon the crumbling debris of the old Weismann Follies theatre in all their elaborate finery. Vicki Mortimer’s design is a decadent triumph, juxtaposing the lustrous bejewelled and befeathered satin dresses of the chorus girls with the seedy and slightly grotesque setting of the ravaged, soon-to-be-demolished theatre. The bright lights that once heralded the darlings of the Broadway landscape now flicker sadly, and foreshadow (in hindsight) the betrayals and dissatisfactions the characters face, particularly towards the end when the ‘Follies’ sign fleetingly illuminates the inner morpheme, ‘lies’.

The musical numbers are effectively staged by Cooke and choreographer, Bill Deamer; the vaudeville-esque pastiches fizz with glitz and a fond familiarity (‘Who’s That Woman’, in particular), while the simplistic blocking of the character-led songs effuses fragility and emotional honesty. Amidst a starry cast, Imelda Staunton is charismatic and gut-wrenching as ever as Sally, who is living in the past and still holds a candle for old flame, Ben (Philip Quast). Staunton’s ‘Losing My Mind’ is a natural highlight and worth the ticket price alone. Peter Forbes conveys all of Buddy’s complexities and conflictions with aplomb, his ‘The Right Girl’ is punchy and mournful in equal measure, while ‘Buddy’s Blues’ expertly straddles the line between pastiche, satire, and tragedy. In fact, the entire ‘Loveland’ sequence is a masterpiece in itself. After a low key start, Janie Dee comes into her own in the second half as Phyllis’s resentment comes to a head in deliciously caustic fashion with her gutsy, barn-storming number, ‘Could I Leave You?’. Among the great (in all senses of the word!) supporting cast, Tracie Bennett leaves the biggest impression as the experienced and resilient movie star, Carlotta Campion, threatening to steal the show with her belting solo, ‘I’m Still Here’.

After a bit of a lacklustre season for the Olivier theatre, the National has ensured its reputation has once again skyrocketed with this smartest of revivals. Sondheim and the National seem a natural fit, and Follies proves why; Cooke’s understanding of the necessity for both spectacle and character delivers a lustrous glimpse into the underbelly of showbusiness and the spangled warrens of the human psyche. I’ll eat my hat if Follies doesn’t get several Olivier nods/wins come April!

Follies runs at the National Theatre until 3rd January, 2018.

In addition, Follies will be broadcast to cinemas as part of NT Live on 16th November.

Company of Follies at the National Theatre. Credit: Johan Persson

Friday, 1 September 2017

Against

Almeida, London
30th August, 2017, matinee

Against: (preposition) In competition with; In contact with by leaning; Into sudden contact or collision with; In opposite direction to. The word’s clustered consonant sounds seem a little odd when the word is spoken. Why has Christopher Shinn given his play this title? Perhaps it sums up the essence of violence. The play’s protagonist, a Silicon Valley billionaire tech guru-turned philanthropist named Luke, goes against the status quo by travelling the world on a altruistic mission to bring peace to the people; he has been reportedly told by God to ‘go where there is violence’. He wants to penetrate the culture and create a lasting movement that seeks to stop violence in its different forms, help communities reform after tragedy, create infrastructures that encourage rivals to start peace talks, and let those methods be passed on worldwide.

We, at least I anyway, can see past his privilege of fame and fortune (more so than some of the understandably cynical people he tries to help) and see that he genuinely wants this to become more than a fad or a hashtag. He’s willing to stay longer than the news crews and implores that he’d like to eat local rather than at the more commercial food court in the next town over. Not totally a pariah, he does connect with a few people. The mother of the high school shooter finds solace in him; at the very least he provides an ear for her, refusing to sign off her son as born a ‘wrongun’ like the rest of her community has. When she gives him her son’s watch, it starts working again, a reminder that he has magic qualities for some.

Ian Rickson has put a huge amount of trust in the play to stage it like he has. A screen at the back of the stage simply gives the location of each scene on Ultz’s sleek design, with identical wheel-on chairs. It’s not at all ‘tricksy’, with most of the actors, props and a stage management member visible ‘offstage’. Minimal props, doubling cast members and Ultz’s impressive costume and wig design do the hard work, taking us from a rocket factory to a motel room, an Amazon-esque distribution facility (the company is called Equator here), a university campus, outside a prison, a shattered family home and so on. The play has a huge ambition in way of plays from the late 80s/ early 90s by playwrights such as David Hare, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Caryl Churchill and Tony Kushner, and more recently writers like Lucy Kirkwood and (perhaps to a lesser extent) James Graham. Plays with scenes of varying length that go from interior to exterior, from on horseback to an aeroplane, from a TV studio to Downing Street, from a sauna to a restaurant demonstrate a breadth and scope that suggests a playwright’s refusal to not allow the page to limit what makes it to the stage. This style allows Shinn to capture and explore multiple contemporary, and sadly familiar, issues: high school shootings, police brutality, campus sexual assault cases, unappreciated workers stuck in menial jobs, exploitative bosses, addiction, relationships being replaced by sex as a need for instant contact or relief.

In the interval, someone in front of us said ‘this isn’t going to end well’. She was right. In the second act, Luke’s naivety that he thought he could change the world begins to show. He starts questioning his reasons and his faults. It is rightly pointed out that ‘violence’ has infinite meaning, scope and effect: by only reporting sex workers’ stories of abuse, Luke is inadvertently enacting ‘violence’ upon all other sex workers by perpetuating the stigma that they face in society; in cancelling his tour of the equator warehouse in order to visit a conflicted drug addict, Luke neglects the Equator staff which has grave repercussions for its workers; in refusing to love until his mission has succeeded Luke causes a ‘violent’ rift between himself and his would-be-girlfriend, journalist Sheila. In a world of cause and effect where everything has its opposite, its ‘Against’, it becomes obvious that Luke is fighting a losing battle: violence begets violence, which begets love, which begets intimacy, which begets violence. And so on. And, in his unavoidable shortcomings, the people he wants to help eventually, and inevitably, become his downfall. There’s an element of hubris involved with the character, which proposes that to pin hopes of world peace on one man is merely a tragedy waiting to happen.

Ben Whishaw has been perfectly cast as Luke. He looks well-groomed, smart and healthy but not vainly so; energetic but in a focused way; enigmatic and likeable; he comfortably carries off concerned philanthropist still with a hint of California Cool. Amanda Hale is a quietly assuring presence throughout as Sheila, an earthy contact point for the people Luke meets on his odyssey. Her earthiness against his loftiness. Her frustration at Luke’s obliviousness and his occasional mis-prioritising of issues provides a subtle tension. However, the character feels a little underdeveloped, other than her feelings for Luke I’m not really sure what else motivated her.

Shinn’s play is large and sometimes too didactic and having the feel of a lecture. I don’t think I was the only audience member to have foreseen a sex joke when a voice apparently told Luke to ‘Come’. I also remain unsure as to how we were meant to feel about the end of act one: does Luke collapse from another ‘vision’ or is it simply a case of post-erection blood rush dizziness, and (more pressingly) can he tell the difference?

Alongside Luke’s journey of self-discovery, we see (at least) two really interesting subplots worthy of further development. The first is a creative writing professor who used to be a sex worker who, in trying to encourage his tutee of being more open minded about her story, tries to impose his own socio-political views on her and tries to read into her personal relationships. Another is in the Equator warehouse, a company started by one of Luke’s competitors which aims to think big, open and green. Yet, we see the impact of the regulations enforced on the ground level workers of such large organisations, where everything is banned from discussion and an impersonal atmosphere is created.

It’s not as theatrically satisfying as something like Gloria, which shares some of Against’s issues, but it asks big questions and is given the space, both aesthetically and formally, to grow. The dialogue sometimes feels a bit too right-on, as if he’s provoking reactions from the audience. However, Shinn seems to have his finger on the pulse with Against. He paints a world of fear and violence, where warehouse workers are as robotic as the real robots taking over their jobs. He portrays a culture of screens and buzz words, from ‘relational purchasing’ as an alternative to capitalism, to ‘actualising’ feelings for someone, to ‘benchmarks’ and even ‘active shooter’. But he also offers a world where, just maybe, better community cohesion could be the answer to the world’s problems.


Against runs at the Almeida Theatre until 30th September.

Ben Whishaw in Against. Photography: Johan Persson

Thursday, 17 August 2017

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Curve
16th August, 2017

‘And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream’

Nick Winston’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream takes ‘dreaming’ to the extreme in this surreal modern fairy tale. Since Curve opened 9 years ago, their annual community productions have become a highlight of the local and theatrical calendar, and their latest offering is no exception.

Utilising a cast of over 60, Winston populates the vast stage with detail, both human and mythic – a tavern comes to bustling life with comely wenches, couples dancing, and the occasional brawl, while the play begins with a brief tableau of the magical wood featuring a menagerie of legendary creatures, from fairies to centaurs, charmingly establishing the production’s colourful, storybook aesthetic. Fairy tales are a continual reference, notably in Kevin Jenkin’s set: a turfed copse features rough-hewn stone and wild grasses against a backdrop of twisted trees, silhouetted against an ever-changing sky. The bramble-like snare of the trees reminded me of the threatening woods in Sleeping Beauty, an apt comparison, considering the role that sleep and dreams plays in Shakespeare’s drama.

Edd Lindley’s costumes are intricate and lush, even in their odd mish-mash of styles. From Game Of Thrones-esque Medieval garb, to Regency and Edwardian era fashions, the Athenian world of the Dream never feels fully grounded in any specific place, as if the whole story could be told, word-of-mouth, from generation to generation until it loses all sense of realism. Ironically, the vision of the Fairy world here seems much more concrete, using a blend of steampunk and hip hop to create a vivid identity for the magical creatures that neatly separates them from their human counterparts.

Supporting this is a unique and fresh assortment of music, both of existing songs and Ben Harrison’s original music, from the ethereally ambient in Oberon (Simon Butler) and Titania’s (Demi Hylands) scenes, to blasts of dubstep for the mischievous Puck. A beautifully sung rendition of Norah Jones’ ‘Come Away With Me’ tenderly draws the relationship between Titania and her fairy helpers, while The Carpenters’ ‘Close To You’ is given the Bottom treatment in an amusing addition to the text.

Tonally and thematically, Winston’s vision is sweet natured. Eschewing the darkness and cruelty that seeps into some productions (I’m recalling in particular the 2016 BBC adaptation in which Theseus is painted as a fascist dictator – still great, just different), this is a warm, comforting version, akin to a cosy bedtime story. Hippolyta (Hannah Willars) is willing, Theseus (Alphonso Christie) is a grounded and benevolent leader, and Titania and Oberon reunite, hand in hand with the changeling boy they previously warred over - continuing the fairytale theme, ‘And they all lived happily ever after’ seems a fitting summation.

As always, I’m astounded at the local talent on display in Curve’s community productions. Megan Marston is gently engaging as Hermia, a fine counterpoint to Lauren Jones’ feisty Helena, while the intriguing decision to dual cast Puck works surprisingly well, Mahesh Parmar and Joel Fossard-Jones are both individual in performance yet perfectly synchronised when needs be. Puck’s transcendental abilities here take on a new significance as the character flits through time and space and his echoing physicality occupies the very air around the characters. Yet, as is often the case with Shakespeare’s Dream, the Mechanicals steal the show with their earthy humour and earnest desire to please. Alexander Clifford’s Bottom manages to remain immensely likeable despite the character’s excitable egocentricity, while James Cottis’ Flute fares well as both Panto Dame and tender actor in the Pyramus and Thisbe scene. I say this time and again, but with these productions and Curve’s dedication to inclusivity and nurturing of young talent, it really does feel like we are witnessing the stars of the future.

Winston’s Shakespearean hybrid gets away with being slightly bonkers by merit of the dreamy, mythical quality it bestows on the narrative. It was lovely to see the joy on the audiences’ faces come curtain call. This is Shakespeare at its most accessible and the production revels in the romance, humour and magic of the Bard’s work.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays at Curve, Leicester until 20th August.


The company of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Much Ado About Nothing

The Globe
13th August, 2017 (matinee)

Emma Rice has had a short and, some would say, tempestuous tenure at the helm of Shakespeare’s Globe. Her decision to allow non-natural lighting to be used in productions sparked headlines and equal amounts of criticism and praise for her new approach to the Bard. Her premature resignation suggests an underlying aversion to change on behalf of audiences, critics and supporters and focalises debates regarding the purpose of the Globe theatre. Is it primarily an archive? A museum ‘experience’ akin to York’s Jorvik centre or the battle re-enactments staged at Warwick castle? Or is it justifiably a theatre dedicated to producing new and challenging interpretations of (overly) familiar classics? As much as I understand the fascination with history, and admit to having a particular interest in Renaissance theatre (one of the reasons I wanted to visit the Globe is to see the theatre’s configuration and architecture), I would hate to have a theatrical experience bogged down by historical accuracy and the inertia that a refusal to embrace evolution would bring (why not extend this ban on electric lighting to include other contextual actualities such as all male casts, and the substitution of fake blood with pig’s blood?). This, in turn, raises questions concerning the purpose of theatre in general – to educate? To entertain? With all this in mind, for what was my first visit to the Globe, Rice’s ethos, and director Matthew Dunster’s refreshing revisioning of Much Ado About Nothing, set during the early 20th Century Mexican Revolution, proved satisfying on every level.

As Rice refused to be dictated by tradition, Dunster (no stranger to subversion, following his reimagining of Cymbeline, Imogen last year – I’ve always though Imogen would be a much more apt name for that play!) proves that Shakespeare isn’t sacrosanct. To attract new audiences, various alterations must, naturally, be made. The original sentiments still stand, but in lovingly adapting certain scenes they become more contextually appropriate, and often, much more funny. Case point: Benedick’s love song now sees his pitiful attempt to rhyme ‘Senorita’ with ‘healthy eater’. Likewise, constable Dogberry has been transformed into Dog Berry (played with fantastic pomposity and ignorance by Ewan Wardrop), an American film maker documenting Don Pedro’s (Steven John Shepherd) experiences of the revolution (mirroring the real life revolutionary figure, Pancho Villa). Here, the famous malapropisms result from a clash of cultures and language barriers, with the long-suffering Verges acting as interpreter. Yes, the humour is crass (who doesn’t love a good erection joke?) and the set up a little reminiscent of Allo’ Allo’, but Dunster creates a quirky spin which still tonally befits the ‘Shakespearean Fool’ character.

Similarly, the incorporation of vibrant Mexican culture into the play, most notably in composer James Maloney’s seamless blending of Shakespeare’s lyrics with songs inspired by traditional Mexican music, really emphasises the festive atmosphere of the wedding scenes. Aside from such aesthetics, this Much Ado resonates because of it’s an unfamiliar setting. It dislocates us, transposing both characters and audience from the cosy comfort zone of Shakespearean Sicily into unexplored territory. It makes you sit up and listen, which consequently helps to locate the drama in a specific reality, representing real class and gender issues, while also encouraging an interest in a period of history, and a culture that I was previously ignorant of. By looking towards the less obvious options, Dunster’s brave move has payed dividends both in analytical and entertainment terms.

My first impression of Dunster’s other break from tradition, recasting Don John as Juana (Jo Dockery), was one of bemusement. I’m usually all for gender bending in theatre, but my initial thought was that Don John as a character is too underdeveloped to be wasted on such a move. The trope of ‘disinherited bastard set on familial revenge’ is better drawn in King Lear’s Edmund as he is much more fleshed out, whereas Don John’s disappearance at the end of Much Ado is swiftly (and ambiguously) brushed aside. Yet, in revolutionary Mexico, where the women are as sharpshooting with their pistols as the men, and bullet belts are common garb for all, it seems much more appropriate that Juana feels put out by her disinheritance by a patriarchal society which favours her brother, and his young upstart, Claudio, over her own role in the political battle.

So far, so interesting.

The flaw in the plan arises when considering her role in besmirching Hero. If Juana is fighting against the patriarchy, why does she do so by jeopardising a fellow woman’s position? A possible solution is that in dishonouring Claudio by making him a cuckold, Juana is threatening the role of masculinity in conflict. If the opening scene portrays a post-battle reconnoitre of assets, then does Hero not partially become a living, breathing ‘spoils of war’? And in sullying Claudio’s ‘spoils’, Juana destabilises the patriarchal hierarchy that often governs conflict, revolution, and the reinstating of peacetime on masculine terms (here represented by the holy union of marriage). Consequently, this contextual gender conflict plays well into the Benedick/Beatrice relationship, the pair are matched in wits, even if not equal in status, which is what makes their coupling both refreshing and so deliciously fractious.

If I have so far been overly preachy, I apologise!

Anna Fleischle’s design is unimposing yet atmospheric. The majority of the stage houses a freight train from which the characters emerge, weary from battle. Sliding doors and multilevel hatches create simple and effective gulling scenes and the use of stilts and puppets to mimic horses is inventively droll. Dunster’s production is bolstered further by a cast which oozes chemistry and enthusiasm. Matthew Needham’s Benedick and Beatriz Romilly’s Beatrice are in equal measure endearingly oblivious and razor sharp in their repartee. The success of a Much Ado production often rests on this central relationship, and here it clicks instantly and I was rooting for them from the off. Because of this, it’s easy for Claudio and Hero to pale in comparison, yet Marcello Cruz and Anya Chalotra are so full of youthful exuberance that I cared just as much for them. Cruz displays a charming mixture of confidence and earnestness while Chalrota’s Hero is no push over, her body language making up for the character’s silence, and she remains passionate even in her naivety.

In short, I couldn’t have asked for a better first visit to the Globe. Shakespeare reimagined means there is so much more to ponder (and I just love thinking myself into knots over his plays) and enjoy. Dunster’s production is colourful, energetic, and joyous while also contributing to the levels of substance and subtext within the play. If Emma Rice’s departure means the decline of programming such as this, it will be a sad day for the Globe, Shakespeare’s legacy, and fans of theatre worldwide.

Much Ado About Nothing plays at the Globe Theatre until 15th October.


 
The Company in performance. Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.


Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Ink

Almeida, London
8th July, 2017, matinee

James Graham’s play charts media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s poaching of Larry Lamb to be editor of his newspaper, and then Lamb’s stopping at nothing to beat The Mirror sales figures in a hugely enjoyable, raucously funny, visually gratifying production from Rupert Goold. Whether it offers pithy entertainment for the masses or is a huge political mouthpiece, The Sun has had a seismic cultural impact on Britain (and arguably still has even if that has diminished in recent years). Graham explores this as well as a cultural class shift and the birth of an era of selfish individualism.

I grew up in a household that probably bought The Sun newspaper nearly every day. I wasn’t that old when I realised I didn’t share my family’s fondness for it. There’s a bit in Ink when we are told the paper’s manifesto: how it is to shine light into the dark corners of the government, the establishment, and – if necessary and what the people want to read about – the public. Their maxim is to satiate the public by punching up, never down. But Graham points up the hypocrisy that the voice-of-the-people tone is a newspaper version of David Cameron saying ‘Call me Dave’. Though the newspaper may be mere fish and chip paper a few days after publication, Ink shows the pressure on journalists to deliver, the commotion of the newsroom, and the sheer physical labour that goes into the printing presses. But as one character says, in feeding the public more of what they want, they’re going to want more. I saw the third official performance of Richard Bean’s Great Britain when there was still a lot of hype around it. As entertaining as it was and as broad in scope and humour as this play, it was clearly didactic and felt painted in big brush strokes as so to facilitate an immediate staging. Ink, however, feels timeless and yet still nods to contemporary issues regarding tabloids’ questionable methods to get a scoop. This is thrillingly staged in the second act’s focus on the real-life kidnapping of a journalist’s wife. We see the original testing of an editorial team’s ethics, asking themselves how far is it right to push the story for the sake of sales figures.

As with This House and The Vote, and no less so with Ink, Graham is clever at dramatising the technicalities and intricate workings of business, politics and industry. We see the thought process behind the changes The Sun made to go from stuffy broadsheet to what it’s more like now: the layout of its front page, the font used, and its eye-catching flashiness. There are some hilarious lines which I don’t want to spoil here about the reluctance for some of this cultural shift. There’s also an entertaining segue (one of many which still make the play feel robust as it does expansive) about the manual labour and sacred ritual of the printing presses.

Bunny Christie’s set and Neil Austin’s lighting design captures the play in sepia tone, creating the murky world of Fleet Street, from the editorial hub to the basement printing presses. Towers and archways of desks, gliding ladders and projections of front pages merge with a pub to leave the impression of a seedy, male-dominated industry, where the atmosphere is more that of a knees-up than a workplace. It is an aesthetic which makes the point that the newspaper industry is as British as the coal and steel industries, and pubs. It seems ungenerous to say that it often feels like a riff on This House, but the styles of the two do overlap. This is not to undermine what Goold achieves. His production, with thanks to Adam Cork’s sound and Lynne Page’s choreography, is never stagnant. The buzzing movement and (seedy) glamour of the 60s’ newsroom is stylishly evoked: we go from restaurants to saunas, and lines from sales charts come to life that map their war with The Mirror.

Bertie Carvel plays Rupert Murdoch with a surprising dose of humanity. His clipped Australian accent suggests class issues; his theatrical hand gestures and tendency to talk in binaries suggests a fondness for the sensational; his slightly twisted arm, hunched shoulders and occasional twitch in his left hand’s fingers suggest a brooding Shakespearean despot. Richard Coyle also leads the cast and controls the arc of the play masterfully as editor Larry Lamb. Other than them, Graham peoples Ink with bold characters coming together from different newspapers to work on the rebirthed The Sun, and a memorable cast of walk-on parts. Jack Holden (saw earlier this year in What the Butler Saw) stands out as Beverley, the hapless mortician photographer turned first Page 3 snapper. He also does an impressive turn as actor Christopher Timothy, the original fast paced, whacky TV advert voiceover. I’m glad Goold has cast Sophie Stanton again, playing the bolshie Joyce Hopkirk, who knows what women want to read, shocking the office by revealing that women masturbate and losing herself in a monologue about how much she loves TV.

For the most part, I want to rave about both play and production but it comes with a hesitation. I haven’t read the playtext but I’m inferring from the projection ‘Page 3’ in the play’s second half that this end part of the play focusing on the first page 3 girl is Ink’s short third act. Although an important part of the play and The Sun’s history I’m in two minds about it. The model (Pearl Chanda) delivers a speech to Lamb asking him if he would want his daughter reading or modelling for Page 3. On one hand, in a play filled with brazen, testosterone-fuelled language, it seems apt to have her speech so to the point. On the other, it feels tacked on and a rushed compromise for the lack of female voices in the play’s most part.

Ink plays at the Almeida Theatre until 5th August. It then transfers to the Duke of York’s Theatre from September.

Of a lively audience, a moment that stood out: At one point, Lamb riffs on how he likes Ray Charles, noise and popular culture. A joyous ‘Yeah!’ came from a middle aged man behind me, as if he was punching the air.

The cast of Ink at the Almeida. Photo: Marc Brenner



Monday, 17 July 2017

Barber Shop Chronicles

West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
15th July, 2017, matinee

‘Even in darkness, the barbershop is a lighthouse’.

Barber Shop Chronicles, now playing in Leeds after a successful run in the Dorfman, has one of the best preshows of a play I’ve seen. The in the round seats look onto an array of different barbershop furniture, a sound system and a generator. Surrounding us are shop signs for hairdressers from London to Lagos. Actors meander on to mingle with the widely diverse audience, shaking their hands and one by one waving hello and to the baby(!) in the audience. They dance, invite people on stage for haircuts, laugh at how one of them has picked a bald man for a trim, and sing Happy Birthday to a young boy. This vibe makes it hard not to warm to the characters.

Inua Ellams’ new play takes us inside barbershops in London and five African cities: Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra. During the peaceful, almost ceremonious, ritual of a haircut, we become privy to the sharing of jokes and football banter to big thoughts about politics and identity – including divisive opinions on Mandela, the history of the N word, and the apparent corruption of Pidgin by young people learning an Americanised/Anglicised English. Just as significant is the attraction of the barbershop for men to just sit round and listen, joining in when they want. But if this makes the play sound, sporadic and unfocused, simply a play where men sit around talking, this does the play an injustice. Ellams’ play is intricately and solidly structured, and absorbingly told. Settings are interconnected, time and place are played with. Characters might be continents apart and yet jokes, sport and hardships connect them. The London-based Three Kings barbershop is a major setting which we go to back and forth from the different African shops. A football game (Chelsea V Barcelona) also links each setting. We see the barbershops are places of male bonding, confessions and soul searching. There are some fascinating and funny bits about African names, especially about how the name of the former Nigerian president sounds like a sarcastic retort: So you want to save Africa joke? Good luck Jonathan!’

I think Barber Shop Chronicles is as important a play as Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Elmina’s Kitchen, debbie tucker green’s random, or Roy Williams’ Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads. It’s perhaps not as immediately current as some of those plays regarding themes of gang culture or what it’s like to live on an estate. How Ellams writes about identity is complex and wide-ranging, but still focused. Representation is a key interest in the play. Here, Ellams forges a wide cast of characters that are deep, contradictory, from those uncertain about their identity to those who are bold and charismatic. There’s a big nod in the final scene to the lack of racially diverse casting. A male black actor wanting a haircut confides that he’s having doubts about whether he can be cast as a strong, black man. It’s a scene which underlines how Barber Shop Chronicles is a play about people trying to find themselves and connect. This is also epitomised in a major plot strand, that of the growing rift between Cyril Nri’s Emmanuel and Fisayo Akinade’s Samuel, the latter thinking that Emmanuel has betrayed Samuel’s father. In a play full of quasi-paternal bonds, Nri’s sacrifice in order to protect a father-son relationship is shattering.

The play is realised by Bijan Sheibani’s vivacious production. Aline David’s sharp movement and Michael Henry’s music deftly takes us from barber shop to barber shop, London to Africa, with a gusto typical of the play’s energy and the characters’ zest for life. The cast are all excellent so I’ll name check them all. Abdul Salis, Anthony Welsh, Cyril Nri, David Webber, Fisayo Akinade, Hammed Animashaun, Kwami Odoom, Maynard Eziashi, Patrice Naiambana (soon to be playing Davies in The Caretaker in Northampton), Peter Bankolé, Simon Manyonda and Sule Rimi play multiple roles with precision and vigour.

To go off on a tangent, but also to (mis)quote probably Leeds most famous writer, Alan Bennett wrote that theatre is best when it’s like school. I want to add that school was always best when it never seemed like school. Through Ellams play (complete with some cracking one-liners and bits of poetry), Sheibani and the whole cast create something both joyous and which opens up worlds of new perspectives.

Barber Shop Chronicles plays at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 29th July. It returns to the National Theatre from 29th November.


Cyril Nri as Emmanuel in Barber Shop Chronicles. Credit: Marc Brenner.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Miss Saigon

Curve, Leicester
12th July 2017

Star-crossed love story, or cautionary tale of exploitation and the disenfranchisement of war? Miss Saigon is both these things. Boublil and Schönberg’s musical is complex, sumptuous and doesn’t give its problematic subject matter an easy ride. Now embarking on a nationwide tour, Cameron Mackintosh and director Laurence Connor’s revival is everything I expected and more – a feast for the eyes, mind and heart.

As a big fan of Les Miserables, I couldn’t help but compare the two musicals, and they’ve much in common. Not only the exploration of the indestructible bond between parent and child, the harrows of war and the unflinchingly honest admission that, despite the efforts and trials of mankind, sometimes we fail. But in Schönberg’s rich score, tender wind sections rouse into piercing string orchestrations during the soaring ballads that typify his compositions, while Boublil’s lyrics are admirable in their combination of simplicity and poetic imagery.

As Les Mis tackles themes of redemption, moral duties and social revolution, Miss Saigon does not shy away from political matters and issues of ethical representation. With little prior knowledge of the story, having now seen the show I cannot fathom how producers thought that casting Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer in the original production was a good idea. Not only is the character of French-Vietnamese heritage, but his whole motivation and characterisation is built upon feelings of cultural displacement – he relishes the ideals of Western capitalism and has a voracious affinity with the hunger and entitlement that is promoted by his sordid interpretation of the ‘American Dream’.

In an astounding and thought-provoking act of internalised racism the Engineer, in his role as chief pimp, facilitates the Western exoticisation and fetishisation of the East that is central to the story. To have a white actor in this role would just seem wrong and inappropriate, both in regards to political correctness, and in terms of the plot. Thankfully, in the 28 years since the original production attitudes towards representation have progressed. (Caveat: I realise that as a white British woman I am not best situated to comment on the state of race relations and representation within Western culture, and I don’t wish to come across as overly preachy – I’m sure there are many better researched and better written arguments than mine).

The crux of the tragedy rests upon ignorance and the too-true situation wherein one dominant culture takes precedence over another. Kim believes that her marriage is a binding and unbreakable avowal of love, whereas to Chris the ceremony is a beautiful and quaint show of local custom – the trivialisation of tourism rearing its head – a brief respite from the drudgery and strife of war and an antidote to the false, Westernised representation of Vietnamese women in the Engineer’s ‘Dreamland’. Yet he fails to recognise the real meaning of this ‘show’. To coin a phrase, ‘what happens in Saigon stays in Saigon’. Perhaps it is for this reason that my own interpretation of the central romance is not one of true ‘love’, but a heady mixture of lust, Chris’s manifestation of the ‘white saviour complex’, and the paradoxical combination of jadedness and the ‘carpe diem’ sentiment that accompanies war, as well as Kim’s desperation, poverty and naivety in believing that he can provide her with a better life.

Therefore, within a score chock-a-block with pretty love songs, the greatest and most touching of them all is ‘I’d Give My Life For You’, a searingly honest and deeply moving depiction of the ferocious love a mother feels for her son. All of the political, moral and thematic issues and character motivations provide food for thought, which for me is what elevates Miss Saigon above the (unfairly derogatory, imo) label of ‘80’s mega-musical’.

That said, the production is spectacular. One of the slickest musicals I’ve seen, it oozes quality. I have slight reservations about supposed cut-backs for tours, and was concerned that some aspects may be skimped on, but boy was I wrong! The infamous helicopter scene has to be seen to be believed. We were there, fully immersed in the chaotic hysteria, the clawing of the Vietnamese people desperate to escape, the imposing chopper blades beating down on us as well as them. The stage is vastly populated and, with Totie Driver’s set design, creates a scale that feels at once crowded yet intimate and places us directly within the thoroughly believable world of Saigon.

The production is topped off with a huge and unreservedly outstanding cast. Red Concepcion’s Engineer steals every scene with his maniacal performance – all darting eyes, frisky fingers and an energy that drips sleaze. Sooha Kim’s Kim is deceptively sweet as her trillingly dainty voice gives way to a rawness of emotion that seems to tear from her very soul. Also notable, Ryan O’Gorman as John once again displays the unique mixture of soulfulness and humility that made him stand out in the recent RENT tour. His rendition of ‘Bui Doi’ is a rousing opener of Act 2.

Miss Saigon is a must see for theatre lovers. Mackintosh sure knows how to put on a show, and many of the remarkable images have imprinted themselves in my mind. But beneath the spectacle, Boublil and Schönberg have created a mature musical which, while, realistically, not able to provide answers to the world’s problems, illuminates them and allows us to see things from a different perspective. And all this is wrapped up in a luscious package of blissful melodies and exciting set pieces.

Miss Saigon is currently touring the UK and Ireland. For full dates and details visit https://www.miss-saigon.com/uk-ireland-tour/tour-dates

Ashley Gilmour as Chris and Sooha Kim as Kim - Photo Credit Johan Persson