Tuesday, 26 June 2007

The Critical Debate Continues…

Gosh, everyone wants to have a go at our esteemed theatre critic fraternity don’t they? From Nick Hytner calling them dead white men, then withdrawing it, to the general position of the newspaper critics in the brave new world of the blogs, the paid critics lot is not a happy one (apart from the very fact of being paid to go to the theatre in the first place). As you may have seen from several of my earlier posts, I think that some of this criticism has been unfair (certainly to write off a whole group because of age/sex/race is not on in my books), and that a more gentle approach to the subject might get better results (i.e. directors should probably not worry quite so much, or get as excited as Hytner did, and concentrate on their actual work). As for the vexed question of appreciating new forms in theatre, I do think our critical friends have some way to go, but a purge to create intellectual purity or conformity is equally as abhorrent to me as censorship is. People are entitled to their views, and we should respect those with deep knowledge and years of experience, instead of routinely rubbishing them in favour of the flavour of the month or the cult of youth just for the sake of it. On the matter of the web diluting the critics power, maybe, but specialist blogs talk to particularly interested people anyway, and the wealth of choice might make the seemingly reliable newspaper reviewer the one people to turn to for a simple and more straightforward view (read any number of blogs whose authors you know little about, or seek out a veteran newspaper critic?).

Anyway moving on from all that, the renowned theatre lover AA Gill has stuck his oar in and generally called the critics useless idiots (see article here: http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/stage/theatre/article1961473.ece). Gill seems to want some kind of intellectual yet highly entertaining criticism to emerge, a phalanx of modern day Tynan’s are required in his view. Whilst I very much enjoy Tynan’s work (I’ve just read a book of his reviews), newspapers are different now, which is the fault of the public and the editors. The critic can’t go into an intellectual treatise in 300 words (or less), and most newspaper readers wouldn’t be very receptive to them if they did (perhaps exempting one or two of the more serious papers?). That begs the question, are theatre reviews for the general reader or only those particularly interested in theatre? On the whole I would say the latter, with only big hyped shows (like Lord of the Rings last week) making it into the mainstream and even popular conversation. Those kind of events are not frequent and the discussion isn’t exactly about the quality of drama onstage, more like a gossipy report of an event (‘the orcs did this’ or ‘Gwyneth got naked’ etc).

But back to Gill, in his desperation to say that his kind of criticism (TV and restaurants) is modern and relevant, as well as entertaining, he uses the fact that some of the critics are a bit scruffy and don’t clap at the end of performances as planks of his argument. He is also very annoyed by the fact that critics sit on aisles for some reason, he’d supposedly like to see all central aisles removed just to show those dammed critics. Frankly for Mr Gill, an ultra refined habitué of The Ivy and other posh restaurants, to complain about the tardy dress sense of the critics is laughable. Who cares what these people, who are working remember, not on social outing, wear? Will better dressed critics make better writers? Presumably Gill’s snobbish answer would be yes (heaven forbid that Gill would ever wear ‘comfy shoes’, he’s a man who clearly suffers for his fashion).

He also tosses aside the experience of the critics, but imagine his horror if some upstart tried to review a restaurant without an understanding of food and the restaurant business. I think they’d get short shrift to say the least.

Gill also seems to place an immense duty in the art of criticism. Whilst I do think critics are important, the really important people and the driving force are the artists (occasionally in conjunction with the public). But Gill as a critic himself wants to make his job a lot more important than it is. When did a TV review ever leave you shattered like great documentary can, or a restaurant review make you salivate like a superb meal? Same with theatre, the critic is essentially a journalist (and yes, they should be entertaining/compelling and relevant too, just like any good journalism). The problem with Gill is that he writes amusingly before he writes about his subject, he is the story not the restaurant, TV show or play, but AA Gill.

He then goes on to give examples of the crimes of critics, citing their reviews of The Sound of Music last year. I personally really enjoyed the show and could relate to some of the joyous saying of the critics. What the hell is so bad about honestly enjoying a show, and we’re talking a big West End musical here, not Gogol, and saying so. They were not writing in a Victorian periodical, but in modern newspapers, writing for many a reader who will have watched ‘How do you Solve a Problem Like Maria’ on TV and want to see how Connie had fared (the virtues of reality shows for theatre casting is debatable, but certainly good box office). Thus the critics did exactly what they should have done, delivered their relevant opinions about a show to their readers. Now if Billington has gushed in quite the same way for Rory Kinear in Philistines I might be worried.

Gill says that ‘Drama exists in a closed museum of nostalgic experience’. If so, and I don’t think that is true, is that only the fault of the critics? He rightly points out that commercial theatre is doing very well indeed at the moment (which for financial reasons can be Innately conservative), but so is more innovative work (on a smaller stage, granted) and there are lots of interesting writers out there. But smaller scale work is not ever going to be the realm of the popular critic, but there is good serious minded (and entertaining) writing about such things, should you be interested enough to look (which you can so easily now, in the digital age). You misunderstand what a national newspaper critic is to think they will be particularly cutting edge (I’m talking about certain papers here).

I personally would like to see a slightly more forward looking and diverse bunch at the helm of the critical ship, and also more space for reviews and articles on theatre to be seen in the national press. But Gill is attacking for the sake of it, and proposing no constructive way forward (and frankly this is a much bigger question, encompassing society today and what and how we want our information).

By the way, the fabulous people who attend the first nights with you Adrian, are generally backers of the show and minor celebs; they have a vested interest in cheering the show to the rafters. Some of us humbler people actually walk out quite soon after the end of a play if we didn’t much like it, but we do that at ordinary performances, not the oh so special first nights (no fat people to offend your eyes at those?).

Thoughts: La Vie En Rose

I ventured to the cinema (I seem to be seeing an unusually high number of films on TV and DVD lately, and not enough at the cinema) to see La Vie En Rose, and shed a tear by the end of the two hour and forty odd minute journey we (Edith and me) had gone on together. The film is a very emotional, and very satisfying telling of the story of The Sparrow’s devastatingly sad, although equally thrilling life (how many of us will be adored by a nation, and have such a thrillingly satisfying career that genuinely moved people). But it was not the gritty youthful tribulations or sad deaths that brought the tear to my eye, not even the physically upsetting state of Piaf by the end of her life, but the brilliant ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’, as sung by the great lady (the film’s songs are dubbed with the original recordings) at the very end of the film. Obviously I had the emotional capital of the whole film resting on my shoulders by this point, but whenever I hear that hauntingly good refrain, even for a second, my hair starts to stand on end. It’s a good song, made great by Piaf and that special voice. What a woman she was, and in this film so superbly played by Marion Cotillard, who manages to look young, old, beautiful and haggared in an astonishingly real way during the couse of the film (the sense of reality nearly matching that of Bruno Ganz in Downfall, one of the best performances imaginable as a real character). I also love the title, who could resist a ‘Life in Pink’?

But back to my crying. I’m getting very worried that I’m becoming soft and emotionalistic in my advancing years (all of 25 now). But if I continue to cry at billiant films and plays, I should think myself lucky that I’m seeing them at all. Carry on weeping.

Review: The Pain and the Itch

The Pain and the Itch at the Royal Court, the latest play by the blunt American writer Bruce Norris certainly did whip up some brouhaha in the USA (it debuted in Chicago and successfully played off-Broadway), particularly in its treatment of a child actor featuring in the play, whose character is essentially (but only eventually) the moral meaning of the piece. Some people have complained that an innocent youngster should not be part of such an ‘adult’ evening, which contains swearing and sexual references. Actually the little girl hears or sees nothing worse than a normal child might in day to day life, but it is ironic that a play mocking the middle class overprotection of children and the hypocrisy of liberal America should cause such a silly row.

I found the play very funny and consistently engaging, with the added bonus of excellent acting from the cast of 7 (including the non-speaking, but often screaming child); Norris has a great brittle turn of phrase and a fantastic insight into the wealthy middle class American mind. The production perfectly launches new artistic director Dominic Cooke’s more self searching regime (he’s saying goodbye to the drug addict/prostitute/council estate/gang violence/underclass monopoly in order to hold a mirror to the average Royal Court audience once in a while. Though I strongly feel that the self interested privileged classes must be confronted with a bit of grime and underclass once in a while, showing them some home truths once in a while is a welcome development).

The play is actually not particularly radical, showing a predictably disparate family gathering for Thanksgiving dinner in the well appointed environs of Clay (Matthew Macfadyen) and Kelly’s home. They have two children, the screaming girl that I have mentioned before and a baby, both of whom Clay looks after whilst Kelly pursues her lucrative career. Clay’s socialist mother Carol (for socialist read slightly paternalistic well meaning dreamer, played by Amanda Boxer), his formerly estranged plastic surgeon brother Cash (Peter Sullivan), and his Eastern European girlfriend (for Eastern European read vapid bimbo) complete the guest list. There is also an Asian/Muslim man present throughout (for Muslim read foreign and rather nice, played by Abdi Gouhad), to whom the story of the play is seemingly acted out for, he himself having little to do with action until the end (you’ll find out why at then, but that really is beside the main point, which you should have already ‘got’ by now).

Norris brings us some brilliant observations on middle class life, particularly the supposed liberals who hate their fellow poorer countrymen (just think about the treatment of our very own underclass and particularly ‘chavs’, who many people seem to think are worse than scum and should be gotten rid of somehow), yet weep buckets for those unfortunates abroad (as long as they don’t have to actually do anything, god forbid). He shows us people who casually devalue other human beings, in this case their unseen maid; they revel in their conspicuously stylish and comfortable living (but think they don’t); they treat their daughter like a precious little ornament in a glass menagerie, shielded from reality, but inculcated into their quest for status. I also enjoyed his dissection of suffering, through the far from sympathetic and almost comically right wing Kalina (the Eurotrash girlfriend, wonderfully played by Andrea Risborough), highlighting her casual acceptance of real suffering in the face of Kelly’s self obsessed complaining at perceived abuse (basically amounting to sarcasm). Of course Kalina, a stick thin young woman, seemingly not very intellectually challenging, sexily made up, is just what a rich older and wealthy male like Cash should aspire too, but also what his brother and sister in law despise; non conformity to their liberal and supposedly emancipated values (not the freedom of choice that those views supposedly entail, the tyranny of illiberal liberals you could say). But enough examples, The Pain and the Itch is an interesting, funny and well acted play, and shows great promise for the Royal Court’s immediate future (some main stage home-grown new plays soon please).

Monday, 25 June 2007

Review: Into the Woods

Not far from the spectacular fantasy epic of The Lord of The Rings in Drury Lane, the Royal Opera House stages Into the Woods, Sondheim’s take on the fairytale genre in its 420 seater Linbury Studio Theatre. Here we follow Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and his beanstalk and a barren Baker and his wife on a quest that takes them into the woods so that they can live happily ever after. But of course this being Sondheim things don’t turn out all that happy, and coming back to the second act we see our protagonists lives wrecked by selfishness, blame and recriminations. Naturally we are given some crumbs of comfort about the human condition and our ability to possibly work it our in the end (as long as a widowed giant doesn’t squash us to death). Some of Sondheim’s best known songs can be found in this 1986 show, including ‘Giants in the Sky’, ‘Agony’, and ‘No More’, but I find it one of his least compelling compositions, although I still very much enjoy it, but do not hold it in quite the esteem as Follies, Pacific Overtures or Sweeney Todd.

I expected Will Tuckett, experienced choreographer and former dancer, to make movement, if not dance, integral to the show; it’s certainly not a dance musical in the traditional sense (there are no real dance numbers in fact). But Tuckett has gone for a very traditional style production, with little of his flair on display, one notable exception being his sinewy and surprisingly sexual Wolf, who menaces Little Red Riding Hood and moves like animal, not a human. Les Brotherstone gives us quite a restrained set comprising of a mirrored forest with flat panel moveable trees, which is perfectly adequate. The performances are all good, at one end of the scale Peter Caulfield as Jack tending towards the tentative in his big number (Giants in the Sky) and at the other, Clive Rowe as the Baker, giving an exuberant and wonderful musical presence throughout. Beverley Klein takes time off from her duties in Anatevka to play the Witch, at first an ugly old crone with crooked fingers, but after shedding her prosthetics and magical powers a rather more glamorous figure, but in both guises wonderfully comic. However, despite the generally good performances, the show never really took flight, I even looked at my watch a couple of times. Compared to the recent Derby Playhouse production the Royal Opera looks quite diminished, not even affording us a beanstalk onstage, but I suppose this is a studio theatre production (although it is quite large actually). Whether you view it as a simple paean to fairytales or a more complex parable of self knowledge, this particular production will live on in my memory only adequately ever after.

Review: Pera Palas

The latest Turkish play at The Arcola, part of their Orient Express season, is Pera Palas by Sina H Unel; it’s an ambitious story combining three time frames, giving us an overview of social change in the country through three interlinked generations. Pera Palas is actually a grand European style hotel in Istanbul, popular with wealthy Western visitors, which each of the generations in our story have some link to. We see Constantinople at the end of World War One through the eyes of a radical female British writer and her Turkish hosts, we see Istanbul in the early 1950’s with a young American woman falling for a Turkish man, and finally the city in 1994 with a gay Turkish-American and his boyfriend, confronting his family and their mutual resentments. If that sounds like a bit of a saga, it is, and the links only fully become explicitly clear towards the end of the play. But unfortunately the play becomes needlessly high pitched and occasionally silly in the second act, with too many high dramas meeting to make a crescendo which seemed false (including an almost comically ‘meaningful’ kiss between people from different strands of the story). The play also struggles to decide of it is a chronicler of national history or of a more domestic nature, sometimes awkwardly switching from scene to scene. It’s an atmospheric production, with an oval shaped set mostly representing the hotel and complimented by a harem on one side and a simple family living room on the other, with the audience sitting around the action (though strangely not quite in the round). Some of the actors are very good, others slightly rougher, but they pull off some cross gender casting at one point with aplomb (and a few laughs too). The play is not awful, it is actually quite good, it does show the massive changes which Ataturk brought to the country, without quite suggesting where it goes from here.

Review: The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder

I enjoyed Matt Charman’s first play, A Night at the Dogs (at the Soho Theatre 2 years ago), much more than I did his second, The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder, at The Cottesloe. The first play deals mostly with male protagonists in quite a laddish set up, the second is much more balanced with both sexes fully represented, and I think that Charman’s female characters are too weakly drawn and unbelievable to carry me very far. The play is about our eponymous Mr Pinder and, unsurprisingly, his wives. He is a polygamist of a secular nature and no particular conviction, though within the law by not being legally (which means illegally) married to each of his ‘wives’ at the same time. He’s just a nice bloke who fancies more than one female companion, variety is the spice of life I suppose. Beyond this his motivations are unclear, a universal father figure perhaps, probably a penchant for girls in distress, who knows? But his wives are even less understandable; one (the first wife) is clearly not too happy at the husband sharing arrangements and begins to crack, eventually contributing (along with a wife too far in the second act) to the whole family set up breaking down. But the reason for these seemingly clever working women to move into chez Pinder as an addition to the rota of night time visits from the universal husband is mystifying. Certainly the impracticalities of having more than one partner are shown up, but I never felt a particular message beyond that shining through the play, and a cast including Larry Lamb (Pinder), Scorcha Cusack and Steven John Shepherd should inspire more than apathy in me. However Sarah Frankcom does get some good performances out of the cast, despite the rather inane script. Ti Geen's set design is the champion of the evening though, she wonderfully conjures a suburban house, garden and all, fully covering the small auditorium, which the audience are positioned throughout. Overall a disappointing and rather flat evening I’m afraid.

Review: Nakamitsu

Due to ongoing problems with my internet connection and computer over the last week, I’ve not been able to write the reviews I’ve wanted to (I had to post the LOTR review in an internet café). So instead, here are a brace of slightly truncated reviews for your delectation.

Nakamitsu


Although Nakamitsu closed last weekend, I think it’s well worth a mention. The Gate Theatre in Notting Hill has found a promising talent in Benjamin Yeoh, the author of this 50 minute piece, based on a traditional Japanese Noh play. Yeoh won The Gate’s translation award (against some well known established writers) and had his play put on at the prestigious fringe venue as a result. The production, directed with visual clarity and verve by Jonathan Munby and Michael Ashcroft, is a seemingly straightforward tale of master and servant, duty and grief. The code of duty and honour, which is nearly impossible for us in 21st century British society to fully comprehend, is so central to Nakamitsu’s being, that he would rather his own son die than his master’s heir be punished with death. It’s a very powerful piece of theatre, the sacrifice and duty both compelling and horrifying. The simple, beautiful words are performed by an excellent cast of five, who also double as musicians, culminating in a thrilling drumming session towards the end of the play. Strikingly performed on a long catwalk-like traverse stage, when we first enter the auditorium we are in a seedy Japanese strip bar, but suddenly this modern scene transforms into the traditional simplicity of Nakamitsu’s story. I think Benjamin Yeoh is a talented writer, with a gift for spare language and urgent storytelling, I look forward to his next work.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Review: The Lord of The Rings

The Lord of The Rings (Theatre Royal, Drury Lane), a new musical based on the JRR Tolkein books, is a strange beast, more a play with music, as the songs are mostly decorative, and certainly not the prime drivers of the convoluted plot. The show is said to have cost over £12 million to produce, and it seemed like the very model of a big brash spectacular show with all the reliable theatrical effects brought out to dazzle theatregoers into appreciative submission; smoke, mirrors, wind, winches, lights and all. Apart from the impressive multi platform revolving stage, the money seems to have been spent on a large cast and their lavish costumes, indeed there are over 50 performers listed in the programme, this is traditional theatrical spectacle at heart.

I have to say that I found parts of the show rather funny (when they were trying to be serious) and quite banal, the massive story of the books has been cut right down to the bare bones in order to make this a viable evening, not a Wagner style marathon, but even then attention begins to drift as we near the three hour mark (and certainly it is very helpful to know the story in advance).

We enter the auditorium with Hobbits running around onstage and into the stalls, excitedly trying to catch fireflies. The design motif of intertwined tree branches comes out of the stage and rises all the way up to the ceiling, either side of the stage it fills up several of the boxes. Then the Hobbits start a folk dance and the show proper begins with a commanding scene-setting voice over. We are introduced to Frodo and his chums happy in their rural obscurity, but out of the blue Gandalf the Grey (Malcolm Storry), a wise wizard, arrives at Frodo’s home, telling him of the dangers of the ring which his uncle had left him; in the wrong hands its power will become pure evil. If you don’t know the story from then on you probably haven’t been alive for the past few years, so I needn't go into it much further, suffice to say that there is one ring to rule them all, it must be got rid of and the journey to get rid of it is perilous to say the least. Over the course of this journey we get to meet all kinds of creatures and peoples, one of the most amusing and endearing being Pippin, a fellow hobbit and friend of Frodo’s who follows him (along with Sam, Frodo’s gardener/best buddy and Merry, Pippin’s best friend) on his quest to destroy the ring. Pippin, played sublimely by Owen Sharpe, is like a cross between Truman Capote and Violet Elizabeth from Just William. He is so hilariously funny that merely his presence onstage nearly reduced me to tears. To be honest the other Hobbits, including Frodo (James Loye), are a rather anodyne bunch, only Pippin would really merit a party invitation. The wandering Hobbits do perform a rather natty dance at a pub for ‘big folks’ on their journey, ending in everyone sitting in a line across the huge Drury lane stage and mimicking the bizarre hand and leg movements of the Hobbits, which is great fun and visually striking.

Then we meet some Elves, they are a funny lot who constantly perform jerky hand gestures, like a primitive sign language, whilst speaking and especially whilst singing. Is director Matthew Warchus trying to be bold and develop a new visual/physical language for musical theatre? Maybe, but it just doesn’t wash when the show feels faintly like a spoof Nordic musical, or (when the romantic songs come out) a generic swirling-mist pop diva entry to the Eurovision Song Contest. The Queen of some (possibly all) of the Elves is called Galadriel, The Lady of Lothlorien (Laura Michelle Kelly), she and her people look like an Aryan version of a Native American tribe and constantly sing a power pop ballad about ‘Loth-lorry-en’ and how all round wonderful it is. She and her people also enjoy being hoisted up above the stage as they sing, perhaps so we can see their lovely hand language more clearly.

Back to the story, and Saruman (Brian Protheroe, with a comic Nordic accent straight from central casting) was a good wizard, but Gandalf sees that he has come to work with the Dark Lord (the confusingly named and unseen Sauron), so Saruman unleashes his terrifying Orcs on Gandalf. Orcs are evil horrid black creatures, who in this production have little crutches to dance on or big boots to bounce on. They don’t seem that scary on the stage, but when they rampage in the aisle intimidating the audience, they seem slightly more menacing. There are also a tribe of tree people on stilts who help the Hobbits in their noble quest, and Gollum, the evil former possessor of the ring, who tries to have Frodo fed to a giant spider. Both Gollum and the spider are highlights of the evening, with the former suffering from hyperactive split personality disorder and the latter being a huge beast wonderfully conjured by the designer in the simplest, but most effective way possible.

The music is just as varied as the cast of characters. Bollywood composer A.R. Rahman (best known here for Bombay Dreams) is joined by Finnish folk group Varttina (with co-orchestration by Christopher Nightingale). This makes for an evening of mixed music, the Hobbit songs were mostly folk numbers and the romantic tunes were in a more forgettable pop style. Unfortunately none of the lyrics (by Warchus and Shaun McKenna) were particularly brilliant, witty or memorable. Unlike the design, by Rob Howell, and special effects design by Gregory Meeh, which do stay with you, especially the arresting costumes and general stage picture and impressive set piece effects lingering in the mind. Obviously the director’s marshalling of his large company helps, but I never felt the choreography or movement was particularly interesting or original, just a continuation of the spectacle, which for this piece and its purpose is quite justified. Much the same goes for the acting, a broad brush approach is necessary in a show as a broad as this, but the performances on the whole were committed and decent.

If you go expecting fine storytelling, nuanced acting or memorable music, Lord of the Rings is not for you. If you can enjoy the show as the (slightly overlong) spectacle that it is, and have a sense of fun about it, you should have a satisfying evening.

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Exclusive Culture; Tony Awards

Exclusive Culture

A little post script to the Hytner/Dead Whit Males debate, especially after Nick Hytner withdrew his comments, but told critics to stop going to the theatre quite so much. And just to reiterate, that whilst I agree with a more representative media, I don’t junk people because of their age, race or experience, nor do I think directors should get into a strop when one of their shows doesn’t go down quite as well as they had hoped with the press.

Isn’t it funny how some people in the theatre (particularly those writing and directing) are very happy to spend all their time in the medium, yet people who go to the theatre often (in this case the critics), are bad and should get a life. Of course all these theatre people have full and rich lives and the critics are assumed to have no life beyond attending shows at 7.30pm most evenings (how awful!).

Why is it so bad or abnormal to love the theatre (unless of course you work in it)? Do certain theatre folk just want an uninformed public, without critical assessments, to occasionally dip into their work (and presumably like it or else). Critical though, deep knowledge, passion and expertise are eschewed in favour of ‘yeah, it was quite good’ emanating from the masses. Really there is little difference from the mass market who goes to a musical an loves it and one who goes to a ‘higher brow’ show, most of them are occasional visitors to the theatre, who have paid their money and will have a good night out (when I was at Cymbeline recently a posh group of ‘intellectuals’ pontificating on the show they saw a couple of months ago, couldn’t even understand the basic plot of the play). I’m not saying all occasional theatregoers are stupid or ignorant, just that from my experience people who’ve invested in a night out on the surface are determined to have a good time.
This trouble with critics arises because directors are becoming too concerned with what they think, and treating theatre as a battle ground. Directors should put on good shows (what an insight), they should understand the world we live in, and artistic directors should programme work that attracts diverse audiences and expands the form. But non of those things involve getting involved with critics and traducing them, or saying that ‘the people’ like their work, so why wont the mean critics.

There is also an increasing feeling coming from certain sections that fringe and more mainstream theatre are enemies, and that you must choose which side you are on. Not being in any way cool I am happily above this nonsense, but I do see some people using their orthodoxy of ‘new’ theatre as a divisive force (ok, crap like Gaslight at the Old Vic don’t help and will put many people off theatre, but I’m talking more about form, because Gaslight is rubbish just like a ‘new’ show might be too). At one end theatre is a business, and without the business end the fringe and subsidised end of the spectrum would not exist (or certainly not in the way it now does), theatre of a commercial nature keeps the industry alive. Commercial theatre may not be to everyone’s taste (mine included), but it keeps many people employed and gives them useful training too.

Fringe theatre (by that I mean a wide range of small scale, physical, site specific and experimental work) can move further towards the mainstream by being excellent, which it often is, and vibrant and exciting, which it very often is. The subsidised sector should encourage all types of work on their stages, already the fringe is booming and many of the most exciting shows are there. But theatre lovers, from the coach outing to the critics are not the enemies of theatre, and neither is the West End.

Tony Awards

I was quite pleased with the Tony awards this year. I rally enjoyed Little Dog Laughed, and Julie White was deserving of her best actress trophy. I also loved Spring Awakening, the young cast are particularly brilliant, and the musical was the clear choice for best new musical. I saw the first part of The Coast of Utopia at the Lincoln Centre and enjoyed it, but perhaps not as much as the critics did (I’d already seen the whole trilogy in at the National). Company was also a good winner for best revival, but I am sad to see it close on 1 July, I hope in vain for a transfer (Raul’s ‘Being Alive’ was spine tingling). Christine Ebersole was also well rewarded with the best female lead in a musical award for her terrific turn in Grey Gardens, which I have much higher hopes of coming to London. I’m pretty pleased (as a completist) that I’ve seen all but 2 of the winning shows (if you allow me Coast of Utopia only have seen one part) either in NYC itself or in London pre transfer (I’m not going to do a ‘what a year for the Brits’ thing).

Friday, 15 June 2007

Exhibition Notes: Hirst, Dali and Photos

London is such a great city, partly due to the sheer variety of experiences on offer, one of those experiences being food. Walking through Southall, Chinatown, Dalston or Golders Green you feel immersed in the multicultural melting pot of the city. Happily for everyone, London’s multi ethnic mix means excellent (and often cheap) cuisine form all over the world. You really haven’t lived until you’ve eaten a curry in a real Bangladeshi restaurant, tasted hot Pakistani spices or eaten an Iranian chop! The main thing that unites these often very different cultures, foods and neighbourhoods is price. Food coming out of immigrant communities is often very good value for money (though certainly not always cheap), so I know where to get a meal in Whitechapel or Shepherds Bush for very much less than the copycat chic ethnic restaurants in parts of the West End . Minutes away from where I live in Acton we have a superb Lebanese café, serving fresh falafel and hummus and proper shawarma kebabs (chicken, lamb or chicken shish), next to that there is a Somali café serving excellent stew and flatbreads. Both of these places are cheap and hearty, but crucially they are staffed by the real thing (i.e Somalian and Lebanese people) and populated by similarly authentic customers. So, if you’re gazing into an Indian/Pakistani/Arab/African/Far Eastern etc café or restaurant and deciding whether to go in, look for people who really know about this food (this is particularly crucial in Chinatown and Brick Lane where rubbish restaurants abound, but they are for the tourists only, not the locals).

Another of the diverse interests that make London an infinite city is the art world. You can go to Bethnal Green or Hoxton for example and press a buzzer and gain admission to wonderful spaces with interesting and often excellent exhibitions (Grayson Perry and Wolfgang Tilmans are two of my highlights from the past, both seen in backstreet East End galleries), or you can roil up to the majestic porticos of the National Gallery and see a Monet or Velazquez for free (unlike my second favourite city, New York, where ‘big’ art really can cost).

Here are a few notes from the exhibitions I’ve seen in the last couple of weeks (you can also see my review of the Gormley exhibition at The Hayward in the May archive).

Beyond Belief: White Cube

Off to Mason’s Yard, a small courtyard behind Fortnum and Mason’s. This area is crammed full of ‘fine art’ galleries, that means old oil paintings of the beautiful countryside or ships at sea for rich people to buy, generally not of much interest to those interested in contemporary art (where other rich people go to buy stuff), but the arrival of White Cube (the older, smaller branch is in Hoxton Square) last year changed that, and with Beyond Belief, an exhibition of news works by Damien Hirst, they have people literally queuing round the block to see the show (well, you do have to queue like at the funfair for all the best exhibitions these days it seems).

The draw is clear, £13 million of flawless diamonds grafted onto the replica of a human skull by the ageing bad boy of Brit Art. The work, For the Love of God, is stunning, and only a showman with absolute confidence like Hirst could have done it, it is of unique and unprecedented value for raw materials alone in a work of art. More than just a piece of art though, For the Love of God is a piece of theatre. You book your timed entry tickets in advanced, turn up and join the queue snaking around the smart white building, security checks your bag, and after much waiting you are led in small groups through a secure entrance (burly security men abound), up a flight of stairs and down a corridor. We leave our bags outside and step into a pitch black room with an unexpectedly soft floor, and in front of our eyes is a luminous skull, shimmering, seemingly suspended in the air. As you get closer you see that the skull is teeming with perfect diamonds, covering every inch of the skull (except the teeth, which are real). On the forehead there is a huge diamond, like a third eye, emitting the stunning colours that only a real gem can. The skull looks like it is suspended in the air, even though it is clearly in a glass case, and looking at it from the back you see a marvellous ghostly reflection in the glass.

On one had the skull is timeless, going back to early South American civilisations and other more recent memorials of death, on the other it is absolutely modern, being a piece of unique bling. The ostentatious use of so many diamonds (Hirst’s purchases warping the international market) is in a way vulgar, but then beyond beautiful at the same time. I can understand Hirst’s rational in making the piece, it shows our obsession with wealth and beauty (what else do diamonds represent), but brings it to an almost spiritual context by using a human skull as the canvass for this beauty. Apart from the interesting question it raises, the piece is so aesthetically pleasing that I could have looked at it for much longer than the 5 minute audience we were granted. The exhibition continues downstairs in the main gallery space, and there are some interesting works (although exactly what you might expect from Hirst; sharks, cows and all), but seen after his masterpiece you can’t really take it in.

Hirst hopes that the piece will be keep on public display after it is sold, reportedly for £50 million. Interestingly Hirst himself owns a country pile and extensive collection of 20th century art (and beyond), which he hopes one day to turn into an eclectic museum. Last year some of the pieces from his collection were on show at the Serpentine Gallery, having enjoyed that I show I hope his own gallery is not just a pipe dream.

Dali and Film: Tate Modern

I’ve never been a fan of Salvador Dali, his huge output of scrupulously painted surrealist canvasses has simply never done it for me, seeming somehow just too obvious, everything made clear (unlike Hitchcock, for whom Dali designed the dream sequence for Spellbound). But seeing this exhibition has slightly changed my mid, he was certainly a brilliant man, but I still don’t love his work or think it is wholly brilliant. Dali was more experimental (or should I say varied) than his public image suggest, despite never being a very political artist, some of his works do actually have quite a political edge, and others simply and edge of the non political variety (like his love/hate pictures from Hollywood). But I would agree with criticism which says Dali dose not say an awful lot about his times (apart from the initial emergence of surrealism, which he is not solely responsible for), and ultimately his oeuvre is rather samey.

Anyway, this exhibition is called Dali and Film, but Dali actually didn’t do much work on film, so the exhibition does mostly focus on his paintings. The film element of the show include the dream scene he designed for Spellbound, which is brilliant, and two experimental collaborations from his early career (even more brilliant, because it’s not quite yet in the language we now think of as ‘Dali’). There is also a Disney computer animation completed in 2003, from drawings and the storyboard made by Dali in the 1940’s, this is the full Dali experience, every motif we expect to se is here, and it is a vibrant and engaging few minutes of bright animation.

At the end of the large exhibition, there are images of Dali himself, including a very humorous ‘photographic interview’ with the artist from the 1960’s (Dali’s moustache sculpted into a dollar sign for example). He was so knowing, with a glint in his eye, that it is hard not to feel warmth to him as a man.

How We Are, Photographing Britain: Tate Britain.

I have the least to say about How We Are at Tate Britain, because you really can’t ever describe such a varied exhibition of photographs spanning over 150 years of British life. We have sweet images, everyday images, gritty images and even King Edward VII in fancy dress, though this is not an exhibition of famous faces, but people and places.

I was actually very moved by the exhibition, it hits my emotionalistic buttons (whereas Dali was in no way moving in his paintings). Seeing women in Elephant and Castle queuing to buy their fresh eels is on one had totally alien to us, but on the other has a great thread of continuity with life today (especially for me, my Grandparents lived above a pie and eel shop in Shepherds Bush). I also loved pioneering aerial images of Edinburgh and London from the 1920’s and turn of the century musical hall star male impersonators.

The exhibition can justly say it does show how we were, if not how we are completely.

Review: Kean

Sir Antony Sher is a superb actor, certainly one of the greatest of his generation, but he dose not live up to my high expectations in Kean at the Apollo. Jean Paul Satre’s play, a version of an earlier play by Dumas, is about the great Regency actor Edmund Kean, of whom the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously said, ‘Seeing him act was like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning’. Unfortunately the play is not quite as striking, in fact it is a mess that hammers home its point about the artifice of life, and of actors in particular, far too heavily and with no elegance at all. I couldn’t help but feeling that Satre was prevailed upon to adapt the play, and didn’t really have much to say beyond the underlying premise. There are elements of comedy and farce, but little action of dramatic importance or emotional impact, yes things happen and a story is told, but I watched the characters inhabiting the stage with utter indifference most of the time. This is no Brechtian or Pirandellian masterstroke; it is simply limp writing and nonexistent characterisation.

The production, directed by Adrian Noble, has been brought forward in time to a period I would guess at between the 1920’s or 30’s, which I don’t think had a major effect either way on the enjoyment of the play, so long as you clearly understand the ‘stage’ acting is Regency not 20th Century. We see Kean’s chaotic life, he is an emotionally unstable presence, lashing out and demanding, saying that he can’t continue performing, but absolutely unable to resist acting on stage and in life, which of course are nearly the same thing for Kean. Sir Antony’s portrayal or Shakespearian characters is legendary, so the moments of the play which do come alive are when he is playing the bard, particularly Richard III at the beginning of the evening. Other than that Sher has very little room for manoeuvre, Kean is a high pitched theatrical, and that is how he plays it. His first love interest, Elena, the Danish Ambassador’s wife is played by Joanne Pearce with a bizarre drawl, the kind of accent you would expect from the child of a white South African and an Central European cleaning lady. Anne Danby is also rather taken with the short and stocky Kean, she is a young woman from a mercantile family, disowned for her scandalous conduct. Jane Murphy plays Danby as wide eyed girl who knows what she wants as long as it’s Kean, and her performance was too artificial even for a play about artifice. It was interesting to see stage actors as big celebrities in a way unimaginable now, and the now respectable serious acting profession being looked down upon by high society figures, despite entertaining them nightly, but these are minor points in the course of a two hour play.

As someone who loves the stage, I really want to like this backstage tale, but the play has no very little to say for itself.

Review: Gaslight

Why oh why is the Old Vic reviving a lamentably awful 1939 play, Gaslight, by Patrick Hamilton? This production, by the usually dazzling playwright and director Peter Gill, must be the worst mistake at this address under Kevin Spacey’s artistic directorship. For any of you who fondly recall the film version starring Ingrid Bergman, I am reliably told that the (original) stage version is quite different, and the film far superior.

I don’t actually blame Gill the failure of the evening, there is very little you can do with a static melodrama like this, especially as it lacks any innate tension or suspense in the storyline. Set in an upper middle class Victorian London house, the cast is led by Rosamund Pike as Bella Manningham, a woman who has come to doubt her sanity, but is surely a kindly soul. Her husband Jack, played by Andrew Wodall, is a volatile and aggressive man, scolding his wife and threatening her with institutionalisation when a picture is mysteriously taken down or a slip of paper goes missing. Add a loyal elderly servant and a brazen impudent young one, and you have the perfect scenario for domestic strife. Then walks in, whilst the husband is out of course, a retired police detective (Kenneth Cranham) calling round to warn Mrs Manningham that her husband is a crazed murderer who associates with unsavoury chorus girls during his evenings out. He also happens to leave the house nightly (before searching out the chorus girls), in order to secretly return to the upper floors of his home via the roof, so that he can search for the jewels belonging to an old lady murdered in the house 20 years ago. Mrs Manningham had been suspicious; the top floor was out of bounds and she heard footsteps and noise emanating form there all the time, but somehow she couldn’t connect this with her clearly mad husband trying to turn her insane by hiding things and punishing her for it.

Naturally the policeman finds the evidence needed to get the blighter and Mrs Manningham is saved from a fate worse then death, but oh lord, we have two whole hours leading up to it (plus a god sent interval). Not just two hours of drama mind you, but two hours of tedious and turgid melodrama. Ms Pike and Mr Woodall are not exactly subtle in their acting style, but then this is to all intents and purposes a pantomime without the laughs or emotional depth (Wodall eliciting boos and hisses at the curtain call, in the nicest possible way I’m sure). At Least Kenneth Cranham as the policeman gives us a slightly tongue in cheek performance, I’m sure that he’s in on the fact that the play is a complete dud.

Sometimes when I scold a play or musical I’m going against the views of a populist majority, but on leaving Gaslight I heard a woman say ‘gosh, wasn’t that the worst play you’ve ever seen’, and my fellow gallery dwellers did not seem too delighted either. On this evidence Patrick Hamilton is not a writer we need to be in any hurry to revive again.

P.S: Why did Mr Manningham only search the upper floors for the jewels? Yes the policeman said that they were ‘known’ to be kept in her bedroom, but she could have hidden them anywhere- as indeed she did! If I’d been searching one floor of the house for 6 months I might have looked elsewhere…

Review: Babes in Arms

After my ordeal at The Drowsy Chaperone (see review below), it was very pleasing to see an unashamedly old fashioned, un-cynical, non pseudo musical. I will even go so far as to say that watching Rodgers & Hart’s fluffy 1937 tuner, Babes in Arm at the Chichester Festival Theatre, was a joy; for joy is what great songs, memorable music and vibrant choreography spell.

Martin Connor has adapted the story, cutting out some of the sub-plot and inserting a couple of extra Rodgers & Hart numbers into the show. Connor also directs the large and lively company, with energetic choreography by Bill Deamer. The plot focuses on a group of young theatrical talents determined to make a mark and show off their own dramatic gifts in a self penned musical revue, as opposed to the turgid historical play they are employed to light, make sets, costumes and scenery etc for.

Mark McGee is wonderful as Valentine, the composer of the group, falling in love with Billie, played by an equally charming Donna Steele. The comic acting is also great, Matthew Hart and Kay Murphy providing the broadest of laughs as a rather unsuited couple (he being camp as Christmas and quite short, she being very tall and rather scornful of him). There is also an ex child star, Baby Rose Owen (Sophia Ragavelas, suitably sweet), brought in to buoy ticket sales, and her mother, Mrs Phyllis Owen, played by Judy Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft. The extremely pushy Mrs Owens falls for the malapropism pone theatre manager and producer Seymour Fleming (Rolf Saxon), and delivers her two numbers (When She Goes On the Stage’ and You Took Advantage of Me’) with great panache. We are all with the kids, hoping that they will get their chance to shine on the stage, and of course they eventually do, earning themselves an instantaneous Broadway transfer whilst they’re at it.
The songs are brilliant, from ‘My Funny Valentine’ and ‘The Lady is a Tramp’, to the joyous song and dance bonanza finale number, ‘Johnny One Note’. I’m not going to lie and say that the story is always consistent, or that the acting is always particularly insightful (because the characters themselves aren’t), but the committed young cast and superb songs combine to make a highly entertaining evening.

Review: Macbeth (Chichester)

Director Rupert Goold’s vision and actor Patrick Stewart’s stunningly vivid acting combined to make Goold’s recent arctic production of The Tempest for the RSC one of the most memorable stagings of the play seen for many years. Goold’s latest and equally inventive production is Macbeth at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre, and it happily reunites the director with Stewart. This production is actually even more brilliant and memorable than The Tempest, Stewart on blisteringly good form as Macbeth, and everybody present in the small dark room intensely transported to the brutal Court of Macbeth. It seems that Goold is a director who is able to perfectly match his innovative ideas with our national playwright’s drama, crucially without the pairing seeming in any way forced (or ‘directors’ theatre’, if used in the pejorative sense). Everything seen onstage is justified by Shakespeare’s words (comprehensibly delivered by all the company). Goold simply illuminates and illustrates ideas with his concept, never detracting from the play.

We are taken inside the white tiled bunker of an autocratic leader, a Soviet style dictator (uniforms, goose-stepping and all), with echoes of the drab Russia of Stalin alongside the seductive privilege of power. In the thrilling (but horrendous) opening scene of this bloody, violent and gripping production, nurses tend to a wounded soldier, but the women are soon revealed as the weird sisters, they administer gas to the man, putting him into a grimace of absolute agony and then a swift demise. These witches are the angels of death in our play, seemingly running a mortuary for the victims of the regime, and also turning up in the Macbeths’ household, chopping up meat as highly unsettling domestic servants. The malevolent, but low key presence of the witches throughout much of the play is very effective indeed, they can be seen as sirens of evil urging Macbeth on with their supernatural powers (belief in witchcraft being widespread in Shakespeare’s time).

Kate Fleetwood as Lady Macbeth could give classes on cold ambition and determination, her seductive hostess turning into a calculated murderer without a second thought. But Macbeth is initially torn over the murder of his King and paralysed with guilt immediately after it, but ambition dives him on an inexorable path to power and glory. This is especially apt in the Soviet setting, with everyone in thrall to their dear leader; what other choice but bloody murder was there to get ahead? Stewart so brilliant embodies a huge range emotion in his performance, from stumbling and unsure in thought, to absolutely determined but wracked with paranoid anxiety, it truly is a masterclass.

The whole cast give fine performances, but Christopher Patrick Nolan’s searching Irish porter and Michael Feast’s haunted and ultimately scary Macduff are particularly worthy of mention. As for the staging, the darkness and inventiveness cannot be matched in any recent Shakespeare production, Goold give us shadowy nooks, political assassinations on a crowded train, blood running from the kitchen tap and a fascinating double view of Macbeth’s vision of Banquo at the feast (firstly with a bloody Banquo present, the second time from the point of view of the guest, without the ghost). His pairing with acting talent like Stewart’s clearly also bears much fruit, and I certainly hope they work together again soon.

Despite having seen the play many times, I was absolutely gripped by the action not just the acting, the tension and atmosphere sometimes putting the whole audience palpably on edge. It is also seems pretty horrific as a production (and the play certainly is), but Goold leaves some of the terror up to our imagination, giving us the power to see the awful things happening just around the corner. A fascinating and brilliant production, which hopefully will be seen in London after it’s sell out Chichester run.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Review: The Drowsy Chaperone

The Drowsy Chaperone arrives from Broadway at The Novello, but any hint of wit or sophistication implied by the name of the theatre is not present in the show. I have to say at the outset that I disliked this show on Broadway, and I continue to dislike it here. The production is a faithful recreation of the US version, again directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, but with a new British cast led by Elaine Page as the sleepy companion of the title (Bob Martin, co-writer of the book and our narrator for the evening, is the only Broadway remnant).

To say this parody musical is light would be an understatement, but that’s not the problem, light and fluffy musicals can often be the most fun and joyfully satisfying. The problem is that the show has pretensions to witty comedy, when dumb humour is more its level, the production has no zip or lightness of touch, every stop is pulled out in order for the show to be ‘funny’, this makes for a leaden evening. The music, by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, is also eminently forgettable; I couldn’t remember a single tune or song title without the help of my programme the morning after I’d seen the show (for the second time remember). The choreography seemed perfunctory, and didn’t even come near to bringing the joy that a good old song ‘n dance number can often induce in me.

The show is set in ‘man in the chair’s’ dingy New York bedsit, he is a middle aged musical theatre aficionado, with a particular passion for fluffy 1920’s musicals. He introduces us to his favourite show by playing his lovingly treasured record of the original production. From then on the show comes to life (and I say that loosely) in his apartment, with commentary and occasional interjections by our narrator, even pausing the record or skipping a bit. Except of course that his favourite musical is actually a modern parody of a 1920’s musical, throwing in every cliché we think we know about musical theatre of the time. So here we are in a Pirandellian world of imagination and artifice, a man on stage talking directly to us and the cast of a Broadway show performing blithely in his flat. Sounds fun, but apart from the very occasional laugh, this cynical show didn’t carry me along at all. The cast were adequate, insofar as the roles they are playing can ever be adequate. Astoundingly, many musical theatre fans of my knowledge actually really like the show, whether they identify themselves with the narrator or have allowed the theatrical theme to blind them to critical reality, I don’t know. But many people clearly love the show, not enough perhaps, because at my Friday night visit the balcony and upper circle were both closed (and the stalls and dress circle were not full). I actually feel that this lifeless imitation of a real musical is very bad news for the West End, certainly putting some young people off seeing another musical again. One for camp followers of the musical spoof I think.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Review: Betrayal

Harold Pinter’s 1978 play Betrayal (Donmar Warehouse), follows the triangular relationship of two old friends, Jerry and Robert, and Emma, the woman to whom Robert is married and Jerry has an affair with (Jerry also being married). The three hander (excepting the brief appearance of an Italian waiter), is a powerful exploration of the nature of love and friendship, but also the contained, even repressed, English character. Set in episodes spanning a decade, the play tells the story of Jerry and Emma’s affair, but from two years after their break-up, tracking backwards to the inception of their affair in 1968. Pinter has revealed that the play is directly based on his own relationship with Joan Bakewell, and the reverse chronology is actually a very effective means of telling the story, allowing us to experience first the uncomfortable chit chat of ex-lovers, leading us to wonder how it was that these people ever were, or believed that they were, really in love with each other. The play portrays crucial, though never melodramatic, moments in the relationships of the three protagonists, lying to and deceiving one another, and often themselves. Seeing this piece for the second time (the first being Sir Peter Hall’s production of 2003), it strikes me as very much of its time, not only in the practicalities of deception (mobile phones and the internet being absent), but in the contained emotions of the characters; the type of stiffly English, and slightly strained relationships they have. For good or ill, England is a much more emotional place than in 1978, and publicly emotional at that. The awkward interaction between two successful, relatively young, upper middle class long-time best-friends, over lunch, seems quite antiquated to my ear now (‘what’s the matter Robert?’ as an immediate question springs to mind). But it is brilliant dialogue nonetheless, not just because it is imbued with meaning and understated feeling, but because we might even regret the (almost) passing of the reserved character shown onstage. Seeing this, or any of his plays, you have to marvel at how Pinter is so brilliantly able to convey in one perfect sentence what a lesser playwright would take a paragraph to express. Spare, clipped, meaningful (even in its seeming meaninglessness) speech populates this play. The closest we come to an outburst is when Robert first suspects Emma’s infidelity, whilst the couple are on holiday. In an extraordinarily atmospheric scene, set in their Venice hotel bedroom, Robert (brilliantly portrayed by Samuel West) blasts his wife with a controlled outburst of wounded rage; having discovered a letter to his wife from his best friend, he talks indignantly about the poor quality of the Italian postal workers, who were quite prepared to give him a letter not actually addressed to him, simply on the grounds the intended recipient is a female and has the same surname. When Emma confirms the affair with Jerry, he is clearly angry, but never out of control, keeping a firm lid on powerful emotions, not even engaging or discussing the matter much further. This scene shows Pinter’s understanding of people, their motivations, and his capturing of the times, to full affect.

Samuel West gives a very strong performance as Robert, often unhappy, but getting on with life, even conducting his own affair after discovering his wife’s, and firmly keeping Jerry as his friend as if nothing had every happens, even whilst the affair continued. Dervla Kirwan plays his wife Emma, but her acting style is a little too flat for my liking. Her lover Jerry is played by Toby Stephens, who cuts quite a dash, but never convinced me that he understands events fully, which is perhaps quite appropriate for the character. The production is directed by Roger Mitchell (who also directed Pinter’s Old Times at The Donmar in 2004), with a very light touch, allowing the words to speak for themselves. In William Dudley’s design, we get massive swishing net curtains being dragged across the stage between scenes. I can’t really see what they add to the play, apart from a couple of minutes to the 90 minute running time, the minimal staging being perfectly good without distractions.

Despite my slight reservations on some aspects of the performances, they play is a complex and fascinating portrayal of deception, betrayal, and the society in which these characters live. The play, as with most of Pinter’s work, can be very funny, initially being panned by now repentant critics as not funny enough. Betrayal is much more straightforward than most of Pinter’s other plays, probably making this his most mainstream, accessible work, but it’s still one of his best.

Monday, 4 June 2007

Review: Alaska

Alaska at the Royal Court Upstairs is the thought provoking and sometimes alarming first play by DC Moore (he has chosen the very literary sounding DC rather than using his first name), a recent graduate of the Royal Court Young Writers Programme. In a taught 70 minutes, directed by Maria Alberg, we get a slice of life in modern Britain, angst, violence, intolerance and all. It is interesting seeing this play in the same week as Philistines by Gorky at the National, both plays show brooding young men unhappy with the society they live in, and the position they occupy within it. Gorky shows this through desperation with his family and eventual escape. In Moore’s play, Frank, is a bible bashing white supremacist, who takes it out on those around him (more like the father in Philistines). Having dropped out of university, seemingly disdainful of the privileged and conceited rich kids he comes into contact with, he returns to his hometown and gets a job working at the local multiplex cinema. Frank could be a working class hero who was battered down by privilege, but instead he’s a fantasist who thinks he is above the people he comes into contact with, but conversely this arrogance makes him appealing to some people. Rafe Spall was, so naturally, Frank, for every minute he was onstage, giving an extremely un-showy performance, somehow sympathetic to this horrible character. Frank shows us his true colours, kept hidden or rather more casual for day to day life, when confronting a young Asian woman, Mamta (Fiona Wade, also excellent), appointed as his boss at the cinema. In a long tirade, he tell her what is wrong with ‘her lot’ and the world at large; white culture is the only successful culture, whites have to intervene around the world to clean up other peoples’ mess, black and Asian people have only succeeded when they send their kids to a white school and live in a white area, he asserts that nobody cares about ‘black on black’ gun and knife crime, we are only happy that it is kept to themselves, he ask why African countries are often unstable dictatorships. His speech is much more than the short summary I have given above, it is actually a potent piece of oration. Mamta doesn’t really give a substantive response to his charges, but that stops the play sliding into political treatise delivered by one character to another. Frank being on the edge, unhappy, rejected and fragile, has a reason for making his hate speech, Mamta, a confident bright young woman set for university, has a reason for walking away, she simply doesn’t have to deal with this kind of rubbish. But as an audience (all white by the way), hearing this racist rage was quite shocking, nice liberal white people don’t come across this kind of race hate every day. And if you didn’t have a mildly inquiring mind or were driven by other factors (political or economic alienation for example) you could quite easily accept Frank’s thesis on the world, that is the scary thing. There is nobody onstage stating that humankind is equal, that economic subservience (dare I say slavery) still exists today, or generally debunking Frank’s hate. Of course I think that my liberal western values are best, but it is the very hypocrisy of accepting the deficiencies of other societies, but expecting my own life to be (relatively) free and easy, that made me feel embarrassed. The hypocrisy of the western liberal comfort, versus the humanitarian crisis happening daily in much of the world, could lead you to believe in racial superiority or a messianic zeal to forcefully change the world. And are the occasional piecemeal stabs we rich countries make at improving the world, made simply to comfort us morally, and indeed, aimed at reinforcing our status as top dog? The play asks big questions, but you have to be willing to take the arguments on stage and develop them yourselves.

But Frank’s asks us directly, who would choose to live amongst violence and gun crime in predominantly black areas? Who would want to make a new life in Zimbabwe (or any non developed nation) as an ordinary citizen, without the western lifestyle, comfort and medical care? Well, not me.

All these question, plus the fact that Mamta’s character is not painted as a saintly just because of the colour of her skin (she has feelings too, bitterness and hate even), lead this play to be a challenging and uneasy piece. It leads us not into simple, self congratulatory conclusions, but to uncomfortable questions. The one major criticism I have is that we don’t really understand the motivations of Frank, we can only wonder at where his twisted rhetoric has come from. But overall the play is a pretty brilliant debut.

Review: Philistines

Philistines at the Lyttleton Theatre (NT), is a beautifully acted and unexpectedly moving revival of Maxim Gorky’s first play, directed by Howard Davis (also responsible for the stunning Mourning Becomes Electra at this address in 2003). When we think of naturalism and early 20th Century Russia, we think of Chekhov and country estates, but in Gorky’s play, premiered in 1902, we are in a crowded city flat, with the astonishingly relevant trials, hopes and inadequacies of an ordinary family and their relationships, the subject of discussion. Phil Davis is Vassily, a middle class decorator who has come from nothing, trying to rule over his household (including his servants and tenants), but ultimately failing, his monstrous and self-centred character unable to emphasise with the aspirations of his two children or the position of anyone but himself. Tanya (a very sympathetic Ruth Wilson) is his daughter, she yearns for lodger and foster brother Nil (a superbly trenchant worker, Mark Bonnar), but he loves the servant Polya (Susannah Fielding), leading Tanya to misery and despair at life. Her brother, Pyotr, is an unhappy young man, suspended from University for leftist activity, but now feeling his life, and political actions, have been empty and futile, he feels desperately inadequate, yet thinks he is better than the squalid and disappointing life he is forced to lead. Outstandingly played by Rory Kinnear, he transmits complete truth onstage, cementing his place as one of the finest young actors of his generation. Teterev (Conleth Hill, on superb form), one of the lodgers, is a singer and inveterate drunkard, he bitterly philosophises and puts people right, but his cynical pearls of wisdom are brushed aside in a house already awash with misery. Despite this seemingly bleak set up, there is a lot of humour in the play, but the laughter is often uncomfortably close to our own realities as the family disintegrates.

It’s a dark play that virulently excoriates the polite society of middle class philistines like Vassily, where petty prejudices and hatred are never far from the surface. And it rips apart family life, showing it for the uncomfortable, sometimes unbearable, compromise that it is. It would be hard for anybody with a family or any close relationships, not to identify with some of the sentiments in the play, and the feeling of inadequacy and simultaneous scream for a better life of Pyotr must strike a chord with many people too.

The main problem with this production is Bunny Christie’s set design, it is simply too massive. The flat looks like a huge industrial space, with steel light shades so big you could probably take a trip on the river in one of them (part of the problem being the size of the Lyttleton stage, Christie’s set being otherwise apt). Gorky also departs from true naturalism in favour of elucidation of philosophical or political view points from time to time, but because they are so compelling, this is a minor gripe. The language is brilliant and snappy in Andrew Upton adaptation of the text; he has a perfect ear for the appropriate idiom, the search for which can often lead to jarring awkwardness instead of suitable fluidness, which is what we thankfully get here.

Gorky beautifully paints a picture of the age divide, an issue that in different ways, is still a defining point of our society over 100 years later, the generation gap being at the heart of the family divide in the play. But although the family relationships are central, social change through the arts, radical student politics and depression and suicide are all discussed, subjects still as fresh and important today as they were then (perhaps even more so now, with our well meaning predominantly middle class theatre, addiction to antidepressants and terrorist radicalisation alleged at some universities). The relevance of events to the impending changes of ‘the New Russia’ are clearly there, but they pertain quite wonderfully to us too.

For ensemble acting at its finest and a consistently absorbing, intellectually stimulating, play, head to the National Theatre.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

Review: Cymbeline

Cymbeline is Cheek by Jowl’s second production of the year at the Barbican Theatre, following their superlative Russian production of Three Sisters last month. This is a adequate production of an inferior Shakespeare play, but the staging, on a vast open space built on top of the normal auditorium, means that much of the clarity Cheek by Jowl are know for is lost in the ether, many of the words inaudible even from the first few rows. The monumental size of the stage is also intermittently transferred to the physical distance between characters, intimacy lost by having actors standing metres apart in conversation. The play, one of Shakespeare’s later, it a mixed bag of plots; an evil Prince, a virtuous hero, repressed love, stolen children, devious foreigners, war, valour and crucially the nature of identity, are all in there somewhere. Shakespeare has dealt with many of these elements much better elsewhere in his work, and there is very little emotional insight to be had here (the famous scenes between Imogen and Pisanio perhaps excepted). The play is consequently little performed, although due to the RSC Complete works festival and pure fluke, I’ve seen two versions in the last two years.

As usual Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod take the direction and design credits respectively. Despite my criticisms of Donnellan’s direction (the distance between players and awkwardness of some of the movement), and criticism of Ormerod’s design (the sheer scale of the stage and some quibbles with the costumes, oscillating between Edwardian and modern), the production does give us a pared down, unfussy, telling of a rather long winded story. The play has a very male, quite laddish feel, the royal courts of Britain and Rome both showing men in less than heroic lights, misogynistic and often despicable sex fiends, at times the male courtiers moving almost as a malevolent group. The two main female roles in the play are a one dimensional devious Queen (Gwendoline Christie), and Imogen (Jodie McNee), daughter of the King, chaste maid and love of the banished Posthumus. The company has its weak links (especially, and collectively, at the Italian Court), but the main players are all decent enough. However the highlight of the evening is Tom Hiddlestone playing our hero Posthumus, as well as Cloten, the obnoxious and ambitious son of the Queen. These two roles were presumably intended for the same actor when the play was written, and it was a very good idea of Donnellan’s to do it with this production, underlining the identity theme of the piece. Hiddlestone plays Posthumus as an appealing geek and Cloten as an insufferable posh city boy, his physical transformation between the roles simply entailed putting on a raincoat and a pair of glasses, but due to the phenomenally good acting I could hardly recognise him as the same person. The end of the play is, even for our national poet, absurd in succinctly wrapping up a huge amount of plot, and of course ‘pardons for all’, stem from good King Cymbeline. Cheek by Jowl know how to assemble a striking stage picture, they know about movement, unfortunately the play and the space combine to let this admirable company down.