Friday, 28 September 2007

Reviews: Flight Path; The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents; The Member of the Wedding; Fragments; The Ugly One; The Burial at Thebes

Some Quick Reviews, Part 2.

Flight Path, Bush. Out of Joint visits the Bush (as part of a tour, of course) with a new play by David Watson, a young writer who clearly has great potential. Whilst I enjoyed the play, it is not quite a polished pearl, but it is an entertaining night out. The story of Jonathan and his chaotic life is told with real feeling and a great sense of naturalism and reality, speech and mannerism really encountered in urban life are reproduced onstage. Story wise, we have the too busy social worker mum who looks after everybody but her own family, a distant academic father long separated from his children (and resented for it), a older downs syndrome brother, a maniac druggie friend, and the beautiful and sincere girlfriend. The production, directed by Naomi Jones often managed to take flight on the strength of Watson’s words, but is let down by a slightly soppy ending, however, it is well worthwhile.

The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents, Gate: The new regime at the Gate starts well with this German play by Lukas Barfuss, translated by Neil Blackadder and directed by (one of the new bosses) Carrie Cracknell. A highly physical, sometimes even symbolic production (with choreography by Ben Duke), with some excellent performances (and one I didn’t like so much), the play is a simple, quite straightforward telling of a story. It is real and direct, because it is not a high romantic sage, but a modern play with a horribly fascinating story, but occurring in an almost grey urban setting. The play was, for me at least, very moving, I was struck by the awful position of our protagonist, but I also feel for her mother, somehow losing a child forever. Dora (a superb Cath Whitefield) is a young learning disabled woman (perhaps with downs syndrome), who is coming off drugs which have anesthetised her to the world for years. Her mother, a loving and sympathetic woman, is behind this move, she wants to unlock her daughter, to let her become herself. But the move leads to Dora expressing her preferences, but not always to the liking of her parents. She meets a very sleazy salesman and he takes her to his room for sex. Dora love sex and is very happy for this relationship to continue. However, we in the audience see that her lover is a horrible and abusive man, we morally want to override her wishes and see her infantilised and unable to make her own decisions, just like before. She becomes pregnant and has an abortion, having little concept of what it really means. She is then persuaded to be sterilised, not understanding this is forever (she wants a baby, she has no idea of the sanctity of life, saying they could just kill it if they didn’t like or want it). Are we to be pleased that Dora can now not have a baby; she clearly couldn’t look after it and is totally unable to look after herself let alone others? But despite this, they situation that Dora is in seems like a violation by horrible knowing people, people who never want her to have a real life. This is a moving play that subtly asks questions about the mentally disabled in society. A great start to the season from the Notting Hill powerhouse.

The Member of the Wedding, Young Vic: A 1946 novel and later play by Carson McCullers wonderfully transports us into the deep south during the Second World War, but also into the world of a 12 year old tomboy called Frankie. She and Bernice, her widower father’s black maid (and effective nanny to her and her cousin John), are both brought vividly to life by Flora Spencer-Longhurst and American actress Portia respectively. The relationship of the girl and woman is beautifully represented, with the juvenile intensity and changeable nature of Frankie contrasted with Bernice’s world wearing nature and daily grind. The wedding of the title is that of Frankie’s much older military brother, whom she hardly knows. But Frankie becomes obsessed with running away with ham and his new bride, unable to understand the realities of adult relationships. The scene in which Frankie is disappointed by the bride and grooms polite refusal, and loudly shows her anguish at the news, has a great emotional intensity from Spencer-Longhurst, and anyone who has ever spent any time with a tired pre-teenager will relate to the petulant actions shown. The end of the play is all about loss, John is dead (from meningitis) and Bernice is leaving the service of the family. The position of back people in the United States is bitterly shown up in the play, and it was Bernice’s pure devastation, with so may injustices faced, that stays with me.

Fragments, Young Vic: In the Maria studio, Peter Brook’s Theatre des Bouffes du Nord production of five short pieces by Beckett, arrives to a sell out run. Rightly so, for seeing these Beckett pieces is relatively rare (though we’ve had quite a few of the shorter pieces recently with his centenary festival in 2006 and a few other productions), and the chance to see a production of Brook’s in London seems even rarer (the last was, La Costume, which briefly visited in 2003, also at the Young Vic). But this is only a very good production, even if it does sometimes become great. Jos Houben, Marcello Magni and the inimitable Kathryn Hunter play a variety of roles, only being seen together in Come and Go (the other pieces being Rough for Theatre I, Rockaby, Act Without Words II, and Neither). Hunter is the stand out brilliant performance for me, I think she is simply superb, her face and voice are filled with pathos and always seem right. Magni and Houben are very funny together in Act Without Words II, where the futility and repetition of life are shown up in a silent farcical cycle of getting up and going to bed. Indeed, all the pieces show Beckett’s typical disillusionment with life and inability to reconcile oneself with it. Come and Go was excellent, the play is written for three women, so the two men dress as old ladies (Beckett was a stickler fro stage direction, I’m surprised his notoriously ‘difficult’ estate allowed this production. But then can you say no to Peter Brook?) who gossip silently in the ear of the other when the third is out of earshot. Hunter’s outraged expression was so brilliant; it will be etched in my memory for many years to come.

The Ugly One, Royal Court Upstairs: The Ugly One is a short but sharp 60 minute play, written in German by Marius von Mayenburgh and translated by Maja Zade, on the brittle subject of looks in our image obsessed society. Lette is the ugly one, a middle aged inventor/engineer, he only realises that he is hideous when his company refuses to allow him to present his new invention at a sales conference, sending a more palatable colleague instead. His ugly looks are confirmed by his wife, who counters that he’s got used to it and that he has a great personality. Lette sees a surgeon and is transformed into a neat and handsome man, the face of his company and desired by women (and men), not least his wife. When his surgeon starts producing equally handsome look-alikes, he is just a face in the crowd again, but worse his individuality is gone (all underlined by the fact that the actor is not ugly or particularly handsome, just an ordinary man). You could say that this is a very interesting parable on body fascism, a looks obsessed society, but also one that is in thrall to conspicuous consumerism and susceptible to mass market commercialisation. I’m not saying that the market economy of 2007 Britain (Germany or whatever industrialised country) is making us faceless clones, some would say we now have more real choice than ever, but there is a stifling expectancy of conformity amongst many groups of people which can be worrying (this is coming from a 25 year old without an ipod or mp3 player). The play is brisk and direct, scenes flow into each other, the cast of 4 can transfer from one character to another in the course of a sentence. This is a refreshing style, and very slickly realised in Ramin Gray’s production, all played out on a scruffy platform in the lighted auditoria, with no props (save a plastic bag and a chair to complement the benches the actors sit on, the same benches that the audience also use), all very Brechtian. An excellent hour, thoughtful but very entertaining with it.

The Burial at Thebes, Pit, Barbican: Seamus Heaney’s 2004 interpretation/translation of Sophocles Antigone arrives at the Pit courtesy of the Nottingham Playhouse (apparently changing the title brings us to the matter more directly). It is a good version, with some powerful poetic touches that you might expect (though the original is pretty good too…), but there are one or two awkward phrases or words (‘garbage’ and ‘dumped’ being two of the worst). Unfortunately the production by Lucy Pitman-Wallace is a tad on the earnest side, though it is a just about decent production for the hordes of schoolchildren present to get an idea of the Antigone story, only it not inspiring or inspired theatre (which is not good for schoolchildren, and certainly not good at encouraging theatregoing). The production is a curiously passive experience, lacking the power that the play can deliver in a great production. I’m afraid none of the acting really did it for me, either being too cold or rather overacted, there is much dancing and singing from the chorus (who also play most of the character parts), but that too seems quite flat (and some people were calling it silly and worse after the show). Creon as the tragic, wrongheaded ruler, whose principals cause death and suffering is a very pertinent concept for our times (around the world, and not just in the knee-jerkingly obvious case), but it is not properly explored in the production. At 75 minutes the production doesn’t quite outstay its welcome.

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