Blogival for me and other Clink Street writers due in June. Watch this space!
Once again, I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy a trip to London and see three West End productions. Here are my personal comments about them.
The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company was formed in 2013 and “Plays at the Garrick” is the company’s inaugural season. Seven plays, of which five have already been presented, will have been produced by November 2016. To come are Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare and The Entertainer by John Osborne. I can’t wait to see them both.
This is not Branagh’s first foray into the sphere of producer/manager of a company. Remember the wonderful teamwork he achieved with The Renaissance Company. His aim this time is the same: to capitalise on long-term creative relationships. Who can forget how Richard Briers, originally considered an actor of light comedy, blossomed under this approach and produced moving dramatic performances including King Lear.
This adaptation of Francis Verber’s French farce fulfils the accepted definitions of this genre of theatre. Farce is broad comedy based on the exploitation of improbable situations, rather than upon development of character. Precisely choreographed confusion. But, in the best examples of this genre, farce can be said to be tragedy plus faultless timing. In this play, amidst doors slamming in the actors’ faces and trousers falling down, there is a dark undertone that underlies the comic mayhem.
In The Painkiller, one of the main characters, Ralph (Kenneth Branagh) is a contract killer determined to fulfil his task, gun in hand at the window looking over the street. The other, Dudley (Rob Brydon) is a deserted husband just as determined on his agenda – to commit suicide. Both are desperate men. They are lodged in adjacent hotel rooms with double adjoining doors. This is a set that acts, as so often in farce, as a third protagonist, the adjacent rooms being reverse copies of each other. The adjoining doors are deliberately designed to create sudden, unexpected entrances and exits. The inevitable meeting of these two very different men, each with their own dark intentions is the basis of the humour. This is dangerous, ambitious comedy indeed.
Branagh is not generally associated as an actor who specializes in farce but with classical roles. This play gives him an opportunity to demonstrate the breadth of his acting skills. At one point in the play, his character, Ralph, is injected with a drug, which should send him to sleep. Instead he attempts to both speak and move. His speech is blurred and gruff, hilariously funny, yet perfectly understandable, and, as he shuffles around, his attempts to control his movements appear to be hampered by rubber-jointed limbs. The flexibility of the actor’s awkward bodily movements combined with impeccable timing make for a brilliant performance.
Rob Bryden, the comedic Welsh actor, is very much at home in his role. He and Branagh work well together to produce the timing for the necessary laughs. As well as excelling in the comedy, Bryden manages to engage our sympathy for his plight. We do laugh at him for his pathetic attempts to hang himself and his naïve attempts to win back his wife, but we also laugh with him and grow fond of him, so when the two men, desperate in different ways, find a kind of odd camaraderie towards the end of the play, we can accept it.
Of the supporting cast, Mark Hadfield gives an amusing camp performance as the Porter. He extracts every bit of humour from his delivery of lines and perfect timing of gestures and entrances and exits. Michelle (Claudie Blakley) seems the kind of person Dudley would have married (ordinary) and her exasperation with him was quite clear. Less clear was her attraction to her supposed new lover, Doctor Dent (Alex Macqueen). The actor did a lot of shouting, standing around facing the audience and I sensed little chemistry between him and Michelle. His frustration with Dudley is expressed too loudly to ring true. The other member of the cast, Marcus Fraser, as the Policeman, plays with great aplomb. Marcus, a tall, good-looking black actor, has recently graduated from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and The Painkiller is his professional debut. Lucky man to land a part in a West end play. I’m sure we are going to see more of him soon.
I will now admit that farce is not my favourite genre and if you had been at The Garrick on the 14th April you would not have seen me rolling doubled up in the aisles with laughter. Physical humour is not really my thing. I prefer witty exchanges and satire. But I did enjoy this production. I appreciated the expertise of these actors, their energy and timing, and admired the clever set that worked so well for them.
The Maids was written in 1947 and deals with the ever present problem of the gap between the super rich and the poor, the privileged and the under-privileged. In this play the maids are virtually prisoners, trapped in their subservient lives. With Mistress away, the maids dress up in her clothes and play at Mistress and Maid, the only game they know. The danger is that the line between fantasy and reality is very finely drawn and the murderous feelings the maid has for her employer could transfer to the ersatz Mistress.
I have seen the play before but this production approaches the play somewhat differently. For one thing the maids are played by black actresses and Mistress is played by one of the “upstairs” daughters from Downton Abbey. This casting gives the production a particular resonance. The setting is highly original. A square platform represents Mistress’s bedroom. It’s covered in red petals but there is no furniture, no bed and no wardrobes or dressing table. When clothes or props are required, traps in the floor pop up and Mistress’s clothes or jewels extracted. The petal-strewn floor can be seen as both floor and bed. When the maids realise that Mistress is due home, brooms are found from the floor cupboards and the carpet of petals are swept up, only for another red shower to be released from above on her arrival. It is left to the audience to interpret the metaphor of the red flowers. Blood, passion, anger? Or is it the sweet-smelling perfume Mistress covers herself in – an ironic sweetness that belies her nature. This was a galley presentation with audience seated in front and behind the stage, perhaps suggesting we are all complicit with the way the maids are treated.
As the play opens one of the maids is already dressed in Mistress’s red dress, but is prancing around like a drag queen. Her gestures and movements suggest a kind of vulgarity, which either signifies that she can never aspire to be like the woman she emulates. On reflection, maybe it is an imitation of the vulgar behaviour of Mistress. Food for thought.
Zawe Ashton as Claire pretending to be Mistress, like a female drag gives an animated performance, but she shouts out her lines in the opening scenes. Vocally she needs more light and shade to keep our attention. For English tastes the French play is wordy and repetitious and the lines need to be handled more subtly. Ashton works well with Uzo Aduba as Solange pretending to Claire. The interpretation of this role is carefully thought through and her voice controlled. Solange’s final speech as she approaches Claire with the poisoned cup is particularly well-judged and makes a chilling end to the play.
Laura Carmichael as Mistress is suitably terrifying as she gives presents to the maids with one hand and takes them back with the other. She shows her own vulnerability in dealing with her love life, but is too selfish to realise that the maids need to be treated with compassion.
A fascinating production that jerks us into thinking about inequality and the way human beings treat each other.
A new play by Duncan Macmillan, People, Places and Things will surely be remembered for its tightly written script which deals with the all too relevant subject of addiction with compassion and humour. The wit of the asides were a joy, relieving the tension. Macmillan is not afraid to incorporate the importance of religion into the equation when tackling the problems of rehabilitation, but not in a moralistic way. The play suggests that even an atheist needs to replace addiction with something else to believe in. What leads addicts to drink or take drugs are people, places or things. These same three options can also save them.
The play follows the fortunes and misfortunes of Emma (Denise Gough) as she goes through rehab, fails, returns and finally goes back in to the world to try again. Emma is an actor, an appropriate choice of career as she continually lies about who she is, something she does in her job. The audition she attends at the end of the play along with a long line of other hopefuls suggests that she has to start again from square one.
This was another galley production with audience facing audience and the stage in between. In this case the audience behind the stage is revealed with the help of lighting as a dramatic device near the start of the play, a shock to us and the protagonist, giving the effect that she is being exposed to everyone. This is an appropriate symbol as she is being encouraged to expose her true self in rehabilitation. The set is very simple with furniture suitable for doctor’s office and the inevitable circle of chairs for group therapy. A raised platform that delineates her home towards the end of the play is also effective.
The central performance of Denise Gough as Emma has been rightly lauded. She produces a realistic, uncompromising performance that never slips into theatrical cliché: it grips from start to finish. It must be a gruelling role, because of the subject matter and because she is on stage for the entire two hours twenty minutes of the piece. Denise won the Olivier award for best female actor in a London play, 2016.
The other members of the cast do not disappoint. It is easy to believe that they are participants or therapists in the rehabilitation unit. Special mention must be made of Barbara Marten who played Doctor/Therapist/Mum. The triple casting works well demonstrating that the doctor and therapist have virtually the same script, both sure of the programme needed for addicts to recover and both slightly patronising in their approach. Emma keeps saying that the doctor reminds her of her mother. When at last we see her mother and realise the role is played by the same actress the point becomes clear. But Mum is hard and bitter and this is quite a shock. She makes it clear that she has been through so much and is not prepared to put up with any more selfish lapses or she will turn her daughter out. This is very telling. It makes us imagine what she has been through before. The fact she calls her daughter Lucy causes a ripple of uneasy laughter in the audience. Calling herself Emma, which the therapists believe to be her real name, turns out to be yet another lie. Is she ready to leave therapy? Nathaniel Martello-White as Mark brought warmth, commonsense and humour to his role, first as an addict in rehab and then as therapist. Other members of the cast work well both as an ensemble and as individuals to tell the story of addicts’ experiences in rehab.
What would readers be surprised to find out about you?
I’ve always thought I might have an identical twin sister. From time to time I feel as if we are exchanging thoughts and feelings. This could be true as I was adopted soon after birth.
Tell us about your writing process. Do you start with an idea or a character?
I start with two characters and a blank page on the computer. I put them in a situation and allow them to speak and act for themselves. The theme, something that concerns me, seems to emerge naturally.
Who gave you the one piece of writing advice that sticks with you to this day?
The first time I read Dianne Doubtfire’s seminal book, The Craft of Novel-Writing (1978) I was impressed by the first sentence of the Introduction: “Writing a successful novel demands not only talent and determination but also a high degree of craftsmanship.” I agree with this and would recommend reading this book to any budding novelist.
Is there one thing you have to have when writing?
Chocolate plus a glass of water to wash it down. Once I’m writing I often forget to eat. That’s my excuse anyway.
When was the moment that you knew you had to be a writer?
Not one moment. Lots of moments. Every time I browsed in a bookshop or library I knew I wanted my books to be on the shelf beside the books of the writers I admired.
What book is on your nightstand?
I don’t read in bed, but almost everywhere else. I’m currently reading The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa, who was born in Peru in 1936 and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010. I’ve only read three or four chapters but am already gripped by it. He has a talent for making history come alive through fiction,
What’s your favourite scene from your books?
Three-legged, power crazy mutant humanoid, Heracles, transports himself to Planet Oasis, where only completes are allowed. He’s arrested and put in a cube with a transparent wall. School children arrive and point, make faces at him and laugh at and mock him. Heracles gives as good as he gets, He roars at them, beats his chest, walks about on all fours (fives) and bares his teeth as if he’s an animal in a zoo. The teacher reprimands the children and moves them on. It seems that Heracles has become an exhibit in a museum.
If your book was being made into a movie, who would you include in your dream cast?
My protagonist, Mercury aka Michael Court must be played by Ben Wishaw. Please let it happen.
Snake woman, Kali, Mercury’s adoptive mother, should be Whoopie Goldberg.
Heracles, Henri Cavill, and his sidekick, the thug with two mouths, Ray Stevenson.
Warrior Queen Durga could be Indira Varma.
The two headed Mata Kbula, Idris Elba, and his faithful deputy, Sophie Okonedo.
How’s that for diversity? I could go on, but read the book and you might have some ideas yourselves. Do let me know, just in case….
Do you have any hobbies or activities that you enjoy outside of writing?
I’m passionate about reading, art and the theatre. I live on the subtropical island of Gran Canaria and run a poetry and play-reading group at The British Club in Las Palmas. I’m interested in current affairs and politics, although often disillusioned by politicians. I also paint – mainly abstracts and faces. Not realistic portraits – I only wish I could do that. The character of three-headed Ra in Ascension was inspired by one of my paintings. This picture still hangs above my desk as I write.
If utopian literature depicts an alternate ideal world, the dystopian offers a negative view, that of an alternate, unpleasant, often repressive society. Both genres come from the same literary tradition and many works combine elements of both the utopia and the dystopia. My novels in The Oasis series are no exception as idealists and power-seeking characters vie with each other in a possible future world.
It’s fun to write in this genre. Think about it. You have an empty page, a new world to create and new characters to inhabit it. No one can say that the world you’ve invented is impossible because this place, this situation and these quirky characters are set in a future that no one else knows. Yet.
I like to think I’m a part of a group of inventive visionary writers. I love the idea that my writing is a continuation of this tradition of speculative literature. The genre of utopian literature has a long history. More than 400 utopian works were published prior to the year 1900 and well over a thousand more during the twentieth century and the twenty-first century so far. Here are a few examples of the work of writers who have written in this genre, spanning several centuries. Plato’s The Republic ( 370-360) is an example of a utopian work from antiquity in which he outlines what he believes would be the ideal society and its political system. The word utopia was first coined by Sir Thomas More in Utopia (1516) in which he sets out his vision of an ideal society. As the word utopia resembles the Greek words for “no place” and “good place” it is not surprising that this work presents an ambiguous and ironic projection of an ideal state, a trend that has been taken up by other writers. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is preoccupied with ideas of good and bad society. A later work, Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1812) actually uses an anagram of “nowhere” as its title and is more dystopia than utopia. In 1915 came the feminist utopia, Herland, but from the 1900s onwards literature appears to have been more interested in providing representations of dystopian states rather than utopian ones, a reflection on writers’ growing disillusion with Western contemporary society, perhaps. Consider the irony implicit in the title and content of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and H.G Wells’s gloomy prognosis in 1984, published in 1948. In the 1960s and 70s came a plethora of dystopias, many of which were made into films, including Logan’s Run (1967) Make Room! Make Room! (1966), renamed Soylent Green, and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Elecitric Sheep? J.G. Ballard’s High Rise (1975) has recently been made into a film and has kept the seventies setting. More up to date examples of novels in this genre include the chilling The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985) and her later thought-provoking trilogy, Onyx and Crake (2003) The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013). Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never let Me Go (2005) gives us another terrifying possible future world. Add to this the popular Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins (2008- 2010) and you have some idea of the popularity of this genre. My choices, a few from each decade show the scope of the genre. (A more complete list of utopian and dystopian literature can be found on Wikipedia). No wonder I want to add my name and work to this prestigious group.
One definition of utopian and dystopian fiction is that it explores social and political structures I read the newspapers, watch the news on TV and think – what sort of world am I living in? The activist in me seeks change. What can I possibly achieve? And how? Not by being a politician but by using my skills as a writer. The time-old power of words. I’ll invent my own perfect state. Or an imperfect one. That would be more realistic. A dystopian story can highlight what is wrong with our society and create a desire for change in the reader. Whether we really have the answers to the present problems in our society is a different matter. But I can explore the possibilities through writing and this excites me.
It’s good to look at our world from a different perspective. By placing my imaginary world in the future I can look at our current world from a different perspective. As Keith M. Booker notes, “ dystopian fiction is used to provide fresh perspectives on problematic and political practices that might otherwise be taken for granted or considered natural and inevitable.” For example, when my novel, Ascension, begins, it describes an Earth two hundred years into the future. Some of its inhabitants, mutant humanoids, have developed extra limbs or heads or only have one eye. They tend to move awkwardly and speak jerkily. They are shut up in windowless compounds and don’t venture outside for fear of further contamination from the plague that caused the mutations. But what is this plague that has caused these mutations and the Earth to be barren? Did it occur because we didn’t take enough care of our planet? Instead of writing a political non-fiction book, I can weave these ideas into a story and let my readers make the connection themselves. The last thing I want to be is didactic and preachy. Oh, the power of fiction.
Creating a different world is a freeing activity. It stretches my powers of invention, allowing me to use my imagination to the full. As well as Earth there is another world in my novels: a manmade satellite called Oasis. It was created as a utopian state by privileged people without mutations called completes. It quite quickly falls short of its ideals because its benefits are restricted to this elite class of humans. Those who fail to conform are confined to the projects and subjected to harsh rules, suggesting a police state. Sounds familiar? When some mutant humanoids are imported to do the jobs the completes do not care to do, guess where they end up? Yes, in the projects along with other so-called failures. I hope the parallel with our world is clear without spelling it out.
I find it stimulating that there is a connection between writing, painting and dreams. Writing in this genre overlaps with other creative work, in my case painting. The character of three-headed Ra in Ascension was inspired by my painting of a man with three heads that hangs over my desk. Where did he come from? From my dreams no doubt where so many fantasy images emerge. How exciting it is that characters can come from dreams, through the paintbrush to people my novels. This connection of two medias, art and writing often inform each other especially when writing speculative fiction..
My work is character led rather than plot led. Writing in this genre gives me the opportunity to produce some eccentric characters, but they do respond to change and develop as their way of living changes. When the mutant humanoids find that it is safe to leave their compounds each responds differently. Ambitious Heracles, wants to build a city and a tower to demonstrate his power; some crave a more rural life, while others prefer to stay in the compound and continue living in a community. These odd, endearing characters are the mainstay of the books and the genre of the dystopia has given me the freedom to create them.
I believe in optimistic but realistic outcomes Many dystopias are gloomy and pessimistic and although setbacks and even tragedies do occur in The Oasis Series – every story needs conflict – I keep my characters resilient, upbeat and amusing. It’s important to me to make the ending of each novel an optimistic one. The way I manage this is by having a protagonist, Mercury, who is an idealist. He’s determined to create a world as utopian as possible. Mercury’s a positive character. Although he gets angry sometimes and suffers disappointments, his hope for a better future never flags. The third novel in the series, in the process of being written, is to be called Renaissance which should indicate that this optimism for the future continues. .
Metaphor and symbol are features of dystopian novels that are fascinating to employ. Theses images ensure that situations can be explored as part of the plot. Earth and the compounds can be viewed as a prison, Oasis a symbol of success and the projects can be seen as a metaphor for the way we treat each other. The plague that is mentioned could be seen as a metaphor for the lack of care we have taken with our planet. The irony implicit in these rather simplistic interpretations I’ve given here demonstrates the danger of spelling out the meaning of literary devices. Try to explain what a metaphor signifies and it will disintegrate. Better to let the images remain ambiguous and allow the reader to interpret these images. I believe that the use of metaphors and symbols as integral parts of the story enriches the text and the imagination of both writer and reader.
Writing is a product of the society we live in. I believe, like Karl Marx, that both the content and the form in which books are written are products of the world we live in. But that doesn’t mean that we have to write a realistic story that reflects our day-to-day habits and thoughts. How much more exhilarating to write in a genre in which we can use our powers of invention to the full and bring to life characters and images that distance us from the mundane and yet comment on it. Let’s raise a glass and drink to dystopian fiction.
Available from 12th April 2016
It’s difficult not to have heard of Ai Weiwei the activist and political dissident but this was my chance to view the skill and artistry of Ai Weiwei, the artist, at his first major survey exhibition in the UK.
It soon became apparent as we walked through the nine rooms that displayed his sculptures that it would be impossible to separate the man from his work. From small-scale ceramics to large-scale sculptures and installations, from photographs and videos to wallpaper and furniture his subject matter and the resources he uses are indivisible from his country, his culture and his politic views.
As an activist he has been outspoken about The Chinese government’s suppression of human rights, state censorship curtailing artists’ freedom of expression, the lack of transparency after the Sichuan earthquake and the treatment of workers during the building of the Olympic stadium. For daring to be critical, he has had his blogs shut down, has been beaten and imprisoned. His right to travel has been forfeited, his phones have been tapped. He’s been followed and photographed and his studios have been subjected to surveillance cameras. Despite the manner in which he has been treated Ai Weiwei has remained focused on his art.
Many of the materials he works with are typically Chinese such as marble, jade and porcelain. We see a pair of white marble handcuffs, a marble security camera, both evocative of how he has been treated by the authorities. White marble is also the chosen material for Cao 2015, a sculpture of grass that relates to Caochangdi (green field) the village on the outskirts of Beijing where Ai built his elegant brick studio. The word cao or grass is often used in Chinese literature to refer to the common people, the masses. The irony of using imperial marble for this sculpture is implicit.
Ai salvaged and used the historic fabric of Beijing, the thousands of rods that once held up the buildings before they were twisted and mangled in the force of the Sichuan earthquake. They were reclaimed, straightened by the artist and his assistants and made into the installation entitled, Straight, which takes up one whole room in the gallery, a floor sculpture made out of “history, stories, blood, tears and labour” according to Ai.
Treasure Box, 2014 is a cube sculpture made from honey-coloured hauli wood from which luxury Chinese furniture has been made since the Ming period. The sides are crafted in wood in different shades and shapes. When you walk round the cube the interior is exposed, revealing shelves at different levels, a Chinese puzzle waiting to be solved. It is like a giant Rubik’s cube but can also be seen as a piece of furniture. Tradition and modernity are combined in this work. The seamless joinery, emblematic of Chinese craft, highlights this combination of past and present.
So many images from this exhibition remain with me, signifiers of Ai Weiwei’s take on Chinese history and his own experience: the fond humour of the twisted coat hanger, The Hanging Man, the profile of fellow artist, Duchamp: the installation comprised of 3,000 porcelain crabs, He Xie 2014, – the homonym for crabs in Chinese is “harmony,” a word often used by the government so more than a touch of irony here: the two million-year-old, repainted ceramic pots in bright garish colours, yellow, pink, purple and red named Coloured Pots.
One of the most compelling installations has to be S.A.C.R.E.D (2011-13) which depicts Ai Weiwei’s experiences of being incarcerated in 2011. A series of six shoulder height iron cuboids with apertures in the walls and roof reveal fibreglass half size replicas of Ai and two guards inside each cube. He never saw the outside of the room in which he was imprisoned so the outsides are stark, minimal cubes in an empty space. The interior of the room in which Ai was detained for 81 days and the nature of his time spent there are shown graphically. The limited space, the lack of privacy, the basic facilities, the absence of books or art materials meant that he was able to catalogue in his mind every detail about his life there. Ai does not consider himself a martyr, but an everyman, representing all those who suffer injustice. We look through the apertures or stand on a step to look through the roof, voyeurs of his imprisonment. We watch him perform his ablutions, sit on the lavatory or sleep, watched by the ever-present guards. We are outsiders, eager to share and understand what he had to endure.
His imprisonment may have been intended to clip Ai’s wings, but the publicity it brought had the opposite effect. He continues to make art to show abroad and this summer has taken part in several exhibitions in Beijing. He believes his art can help to represent those who do not have a voice. His art has been criticised for being too calculating in its political intentions. Seeing this exhibition, has made me realise that, although Ai Weiwei’s work is political, driven by a compulsion to fight for a fairer world, he is also focused on creating new art forms. If those new forms are powered by his political passion for change they are all the stronger for that.
If you have a chance, do go and see this exhibition. If your reaction is anything like mine it will stimulate your intellect and your emotions and fill you with wonder. What more can we expect from art?
I’ve been lucky enough to continue my London theatre visits this year. Several regular readers of my blogs have mentioned that they’re missed my play reviews. Because I’ve not written them up straightaway, the following offerings are likely to be short, a list of what I’ve seen and some short comments about what I thought about each production.
The Oresteia by Aeschylus at the Almeida Theatre, updated and directed by Robert Icke. This production has now moved to The Trafalgar Theatre in London’s West End so can still be seen. Warning. It’s a trilogy so it does run for over three hours. Maybe three and a half. But well worth it. Don’t miss it. The theme is still relevant after all these years.
My opinion. During the first part of the trilogy the tension on stage and in the audience is unyielding. We hold our communal breath during the lead up to the first act of violence that will form the basis on which the others depend. Agamemnon faces a terrible dilemma. Should he sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, for the sake of the State? Should one life be forfeited to prevent the deaths of hundreds others? During the quiet scene in which the trusting little girl sits on her father’s knee and drinks the poison, a new meaning is given to the term, dramatic tension. There’s a huge lump in my throat – and everyone else’s I imagine. I can scarcely breathe. I have never felt such oneness with other members of the audience during a performance of any play in any theatre at any time.
When the promised wind arrives, sweeping across the stage like a gush of dry leaves, we realise that Agamemnon’s sacrifice has reaped its reward. But is it justified? The repercussions of that first act of violence are frightening. To quote Aeschylus, it’s ‘an eternal law: blood that is spilled demands more blood.’ Klytemnestra, Agmemnon’s wife, murders her husband, Agamemnon (and his concubine, Cassandra) in revenge for the murder of her child. Orestes avenges his father’s death by murdering his mother. The play asks if there is ever justification for violence. This is the premise of the play as it examines how far the action of an individual is connected to family and the community. How does one family’s strife relate to the social order? Who or what is responsible for acts of violence? In a time of intense social disquiet such as in our current world this play, written in the 5th Century BC about violence and the search for justice in society, continues to resonate.
Robert Icke’s production gives us an old story updated with modern dialogue, costumes and setting. Designed by Hildegarde Bechtler, the set is stark in its whiteness. A transparent division between the upstage and downstage areas suggests the intimacy of inner rooms, including a bathroom, a place where intimate family secrets take place including murder. Once this transparent curtain is raised, for example in the trial scene, it could signify that there are no private, familial areas left and therefore no secrets that do not concern the state.
At the Almeida, for me, the second half of the play lost a lot of tension. Orestes’s procrastination became tedious as did the eternal retelling of the same events. The trial scene was repetitious, drumming home the different sides of the argument. Whether this was due to the original play by Aeschylus or whether it was the fault of the updated version by Robert Icke, or whether three and a half hours is just too long for modern audiences to concentrate I’m not sure. I would like to see this production again at The Trafalgar Studios to see if my reservations still hold. I wonder if I’ll have the stamina to stay to the end….
Three days in the Country by Patrick Marber, a version of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country, at The National Theatre,.
My opinion: Do try to see this one. Why? For Marber’s stylish writing and directing, for the ambience of long sunny afternoons, for the innovative simple staging that encourages us to think in stage metaphors, for the humour and compassion with which the interlinked stories of love and unrequited love are told. And for the high standard of acting which showed animation and lassitude, passion and acceptance.
Postscript: John Simm I love you!
Everyman, a new adaptation of the medieval morality play by Carol Ann Duffy, directed by Rufus Norris at The National Theatre
My opinion: Ensemble playing at its best, the cast headed by Chiwetel Ejiofor so that can’t be bad. Kate Duchene as God was outspoken and down-to-earth. The script was both lyrical and coarse, a good combination, as the storyline reflected contemporary life in all its squalor and the dangers of living only for today. Lighting, sound and special effects gave us glitz and squalor.
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller at The Noel Coward Theatre
My opinion: An opportunity to see this classic American play again but the reason I went was to see the two actors, Anthony Sher and Harriet Walter, in the leading roles and they certainly did not disappoint. The layered set worked well to suggest the layout of the house – convenient for eavesdropping. This family drama about a salesman who has not reached his targets and his son who refuses to follow the path his father has chosen for him, could be seen as the loss of the American dream. Somehow in this production at least, the idea is planted that there is more than one way to keep faith with your own integrity.
Constellations by Nick Payne at Trafalgar Studios, directed by Michael Longhurst
My opinion: Slick, clever script, based on the vagaries of time as a forking path. It embraces the different possibilities of the lives of two people. In some versions they are partners, in others passing strangers. The Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics proposed by physicist, Hugh Everett, forms the basis of Nick Payne’s play. The intricate changes of position and the still moments, are almost like watching a mechanical dance with predestined movements. Joe Armstrong and Louise Brealey play Roland and Marianne with precision. See it, if you’re up for something a bit different. It’s quite short – plays straight through in 90 minutes.
Hayfever by Noel Coward at the Duke of York’s, directed by Lindsay Posner
My opinion: I’m afraid this production didn’t do it for me. The tone wasn’t light and frothy enough, the dialogue often forced. The worst thing about it was that it wasn’t funny. There was hardly any laughter from the audience. Maybe the play is too dated for us to appreciate now. Or maybe, as I suspect, the cast and director hadn’t quite caught the style, tone and pace of the piece. Sorry, I was not amused.
Photograph 51, a new play by Anna Zeigler, directed by Michael Grandage
My opinion: the main attraction for many members of the audience was to see Nicole Kidman’s return to the London stage. She certainly gave an impressive performance in the unglamorous role of Rosalind Franklin, the physicist who played her part in the discovery of the secret of life, DNA. The play traces her work from the time of her arrival at Kings College London to the taking of the seminal Photograph 51. At first she is under-appreciated by her male colleagues. Her dedication to her work and her lack of social skills reveal her as an isolated person but there are signs that she has human qualities when a famous American scientist arrives. The style of the play itself is an interesting combination of formalised narrative to the audience and naturalistic dialogue. The dark and gloomy two-layered set portrays the basement of the bio-physics laboratory at Kings College where these discoveries were made in 1957. The worldly ambition of the male scientists is contrasted with Franklin’s more pure motives as she looks for scientifically proved answers. She will not jump to conclusions in order to court fame or win a prize. How difficult it must have been for a woman at this time to work in such a male-dominated field. That the other five actors on the stage with her are male makes this point theatrically.
Hangmen by Martin McDonagh directed by Mathew Dunster at The Royal Court
My opinion: A strong piece of theatre, the first play McDonagh has written for ten years. He hasn’t lost his touch for bold, witty yet subtle dialogue, nor for tackling controversial subjects. Although set in the sixties just after hanging in England has been abolished, the fallibility of the British justice system is still relevant today. But this play is not an intellectual discussion about the rights and wrongs of capital punishment. It’s a black comedy that shocks us into recognition of the flaws in human nature and the danger of provocative behaviour.
The opening scene is set in a prison cell in 1963 where James Hennessy (a thinly disguised James Henratty, hanged in 1961 and later found innocent) is about to be hanged. The condemned man is terrified and protests his innocence. The hangman and his team just want to get the job done and have their breakfast. The scene is written and played in heightened comedic vein, with dark one-liners, crass violence and verbal abuse that highlights the difference between northerners and southerners, all themes and styles that continue to be explored throughout the play. The scene ends with the actual hanging. Dramatic, terrifying, heart-stopping stuff.
Most of the rest of the play takes place two years later in a pub in Oldham. Harry, the hangman-landlord (David Morrissey), pulls pints the same way he pulled the lever for the hangings. His main clientele consists of his cronies and a plainclothes police inspector who props up the bar. These regulars are all northern and the dialogue comes quick and fast, something I as a southerner had to tune into as did Mooney (Johnny Flynn), the stranger from the south who becomes the trigger that sparks off the plot. I won’t give the story away but suffice it to say that if you find yourself with a spare corpse on your hands I recommend going to the professionals, Harry and Syd to dispose of it. They will know what to do.
If you like your comedy like your coffee, black without sugar, laced with a tinge of fear, don’t miss this one.
My visits to London theatre productions in April, 2015, included two very different musicals, both memorable because of outstanding performances by the protagonists: Imelda Staunton in the entertaining and moving Gypsy at the Savoy and Tamson Grieg in the quirky Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown at The Playhouse. I also saw the Pina Bausch dance group at Sadlers Wells and have asked TJ to write a guest blog about that so don’t want to steal his thunder.
But it was the two straight plays I saw that reminded me – as if I needed reminding – that the aim of theatrical performances is not only to entertain us and move us emotionally to laugh or to cry, but also to engage our intellect. To make us think. The Hard Problem at the National and The Nether at the Duke of York’s have certainly made me think deeply about their themes.
Nicholas Hytner’s final production at the National Theatre as artistic director, The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard is directed with “a stylistic clarity that has long been his trademark.” (Michael Billington). It is staged at the Dorfman Theatre.
The set, designed by Bob Crowley, is topped by a floating image of what could be the pipes of an organ or the complex structure of a brain or computer. It lights up and flashes in blue and silver during the simple scene changes as, at stage level, a bed is exchanged for a sofa or chairs to denote a different location. The scene changes are accompanied by music, mainly by Bach, an organist and analytical composer with the blue brain flashing like a computer. As the play is concerned with how the brain works these readings of the significance of the image seem valid to me, but I’m sure that every member of the audience interpreted the visual metaphor in his/her own way.
As we have come to expect from Stoppard, the play is an intellectual one, bursting with ideas, words, words and more words. The very idea of writing a play about the nature of consciousness is mind-blowing for us lesser mortals but I must say the members of the National Theatre audience rose to the occasion and laughed at the psychological and philosophical in-jokes. I enjoyed the play and its premise but feel I would need to see it at least once more to catch more of the nuances. Even Stoppard’s interview with Hytner on you-tube, intriguing though it was, wasn’t very explicit as far as the dramatic potential of the play was concerned.
The play works because, like all good plays, the relationships between the characters hold our attention. I was captivated by the warmth and commitment of the protagonist, Hilary, (Olivia Vinall) as she progresses from psychology student to a well-respected but controversial psychologist at a well-regarded research institute. Hilary, unlike the other psychologists she works with, prays to God and believes in the intrinsic goodness of human beings. Her belief is embedded in a continued yearning for the child she gave up for adoption when she was fifteen. This feeling accentuates her vulnerability but reinforces her convictions.
Spike, her occasional lover, (Damien Malony) scorns her viewpoint. Their bed talk is an impassioned discourse between intellectuals, keen to expound their views. Like most of his colleagues, Spike believes that goodness is learned behaviour and disputes the concept of the objective reality of goodness.
The frailty of the characters, the neurosis of the head of the institute, (Jonathan Coy) and the desperation of the businessman (Anthony Calf) who needs to make the institute a financial success – surely a link here between evolutionary biology and the banking crisis – contrasts with the enthusiasm and optimism of Hilary’s brilliant protégée (Vera Chok).
I apologise for this somewhat simplistic description of a deep and complex play. To sum up (and probably make my interpretation even more simplistic than before) the central premise seems to suggest that things that are emotionally important are constantly devalued in human life. Tom Stoppard, while not necessarily using the term, God, as his character, Hilary, does, is definitely on her side of the argument – the side of the poet – rather than of the person who believes that everything can be proved. But it is clear that he loves the thrust, the to and fro, of intellectual argument, as do his characters.
The nature of consciousness is a hard problem to determine, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth exploring. The Hard Problem is above all a play that makes you think. Not a bad thing, I suggest.
The Royal Court production of The Nether by Jennifer Haley, directed by Jeremy Herrin, at The Duke of York’s Theatre, St. Martin’s Lane, looks at the idea of leading a parallel life in a digital universe. Haley looks to the near future when virtual reality could become an alternative to everyday life in the real world. It’s not too much of a leap from online games where participants can become warriors and commit violent acts to becoming an avatar (or a shade as they’re referred to in this play) in a virtual world on the Internet (the Nether). The play looks at the advantages and dangers of becoming immersed in this alternate reality.
To explore this theme Haley takes on the emotive subject of paedophilia. Sims (Stanley Townsend) spends ten hours a day as a shade in a virtual world he has created where he can practise his propensity for abusing children, without, he believes, hurting anyone. The child, Iris, is also a shade, in reality a middle-aged man, Doyle (David Beames) who relishes the role-playing and, presumably, the abuse. The official view of the controllers of the Nether, as represented by a woman, Morris, (Amanda Hale) is that by welcoming others to join his site as shades, Sims is manipulating them, encouraging them to behave like him, making him feel better about what he does. Later we learn that Morris too entered that alternative world as a male shade, originally to discover what was going on at first hand; but subsequently she too became ensnared by the charms of Iris and the unlimited licence that allowed intimacy with the child.
Sims believes that if he is banned from entering the alternative world he has created, once he no longer has an outlet for his desires, he could prove a danger to real children. Doyle’s life is shattered when he is told that he cannot enter that world or be Iris any more. Morris is torn by her craving for Iris and her conviction that this fantasy site is unhealthy and must be shut down. Who should be in charge of our morals? Ourselves or the controllers of the Nether?
None of the abuse in the play is graphic but the shade, Iris, is played by a twelve year old, or rather three girls at different performances. I was concerned about the effect on the child actors by the subject matter, but my daughter assures me that it is better for them to know about the existence of paedophiles.
The visuals are amazing. Downstage is the interrogation room in the real world where Sims and Doyle are grilled. Behind them looms the giant login screen with ever-moving faces and videos, designed by Luke Halls, which segues into the alternative reality, Es Devlin’s platform above the normal stage. Surrounded by a forest straight out of a fairy story with a tantalising image of a stately home, we see an elegant fireplace, a bed with white covers, and other stylish furniture matched by the formality of Christina Cunningham’s Victorian-style costumes. The impression is that of a safe, reassuring world, a far cry from the libidinous activities promised. The irony is clear, the hypocrisy patent.
The images stayed with me and so did the dilemma at the heart of the play. This was certainly an apposite theme for our time and for the future. Terrifying but thought provoking. Oh dear, I’ve been doing so much thinking lately my head is in danger of exploding!
Plea to directors and actors. The night I saw this play there was a discrepancy in the level of the volume of voices in the interrogation scenes. The powerful voice of Sims overwhelmed the quieter voice of Morris, whose lines were difficult to catch at times. Later, I realised we had seen the understudy playing Morris, Anna Martine. These scenes were played in profile across the table, but whereas Sims cheated his face to the front at times, Morris didn’t, which meant we only saw her face in profile, which told us little. I mention this because it seems a habit for directors to overdo scenes in profile. It happened in The Hard Problem too when I wasn’t sure if the character in one scene was the same as in a previous one. Why? Because he was in profile. Please directors, think of the members of the audience who want to see the expression on the faces of the actors.
One of my readers sent me this critique of my novel, Oasis. I am so delighted with the interpretation that I decided to share it with readers of my blog on my website. How gratifying it is to know that someone really understands your work!
Critique of OASIS, A novel by Jeannie van Rompaey
Oasis is the first part of a trilogy, dealing with aspects of normality. What is normal? Imagine an Earth, destroyed by human profligacy and devastated by a plague, which results in genomes gone mad. The mutant humanoids are still us even with two heads or three legs or bracelets of snakes. But never normal to the Completes, those who escape the ravages of disease. The idea that co-existence is possible is pie in the sky.
But no blood, no extermination here. Science conceives a series of self sufficient compounds and houses the mutants on earth. Don’t leave this safety, the air outside is toxic. They thank whatever gods there are that the mutants are almost always barren so that’s one problem solved. Duty done, they decamp into space to recreate a green world.
Little Mercury remembers nothing except his compound. He’s there at the beginning of the struggles for power, for the inevitable questioning of their position there. He is comfortable in his mutant world.
Then his life changes. His Complete father tracks him down and in secret erases his mutant characteristics but not his memories. He goes home to the green enclave of leisure and plenty, no longer Mercury but Michael. He makes friends, falls in love, and integrates into his father’s family.
Ms. van Rompaey has made sure that we feel empathy with Mercury/Michael as he tries to make moral sense of his predicament. He hacks into the programmes that monitor the compounds he left and sees the increasing ferment among his brothers and sisters. They desire.. They want.. And why not? He begins to dream of the possibility of real integration. At the end of the first book, we are left with the desire to see how, Michael, the idealist will fare. More than that, as mutants start to reach the Complete enclaves, the attitudes of all parties will present us with a mirror image of our own world.
The author has written a thoughtful multi layered novel. Accept that the occasional concept may stretch our imaginations and read it as a participant in a remarkable world.
The end of an old year is a time to look back. The beginning of a new year is a chance, if not for resolutions, at least for a plan.
It’s always good to have a plan. Otherwise we drift through life and wonder why so little has been achieved. I’ve had various ambitions, dreams and desires, some of which have materialised, some not.
So much has happened in the world during 2014. The events, good and bad, have been reviewed and discussed extensively in the media. No need for me to add my opinions. Enough to say that my personal views often come out in my fiction.
My looking back this year included taking a fresh look at stories, novels and plays that I wrote some time ago. I approached the task with some trepidation expecting to find this early work full of errors that would make me cringe with embarrassment. A bit of cringing did take place but I did find enough promise in the writing to decide to re-write some of it.
I’m not yet ready to begin the third part of the trilogy of OASIS – ideas are still gestating – so this might be the time to start re-structuring, re-writing and generally editing my past work. I’m still in the planning stage. Once I start writing I shall know which pieces are worth re-working. It may be that I will decide that my ideas and my style of writing have changed so much that the task is not worthwhile.
Plans are important but they are not definitive. When looking at past work, I decided a few pointers in the form of questions might help?
1) What is the theme of the piece? Does it embrace ideas that I’m still happy about today? Does it fit into a specific genre?
2) Does the structure fit the needs of the story?
3) Do different narrative viewpoints add depth and variety or do they confuse? Are there too many changes of perspective or not enough?
4) Do the characters grab my interest and that of potential readers? Do they influence what happens in a logical way? Do the characters develop and change?
5) How does the setting support the theme and plot?
6) Do all the scenes, descriptions earn their place in the narrative or are some of them superfluous?
7) Is the dialogue believable? Is there too much dialogue or not enough?
8) Are there sufficient variety of pace, tension and mood?
9) How effective are the beginnings and endings of chapters? Look at the general shape of the piece.
10) Who would be your target readers?
That’s enough for a start. I’m sure more questions will occur to me as I attempt a re-write.
I trust that these thoughts might be helpful to other writers who want to take a look at their previous work and decide if it is worth giving them a makeover.
A spate of art exhibitions, museums and theatre visits in London. What a wonderful life I have, alternating between the relaxing sun of Gran Canaria and the vibrant bustle of London.
I’ve been intent on finishing the final chapters of EARTH UNLEASHED, the sequel to my dystopia, OASIS, so these reviews are a little late being written and shorter than usual. This is no reflection on the quality of the work seen. As usual my reviews are personal opinions – not critiques taken from newspapers.
ELECTRA by Sophocles in a version by Frank McGuinness, at the Old Vic, directed by Ian Rickson.
Kristin Scott Thomas in the leading role gives a performance that makes you listen to every word and share her every emotion.
The seating at the Old Vic is still arranged in the round, particularly appropriate for Greek drama. It lends an intimacy to Electra’s plight, shut out from her family, left to mourn her father and rant about her mother’s culpability with the sympathetic support of the three-woman chorus.
This production follows the current trend for selecting Greek tragedies with a female protagonist. (See my previous blog about MEDEA with Helen McCrory at the National Theatre) and still to come is ANTIGONE with Juliette Binoche at The Barbican in March, 2015. Not only do these choices give a chance for female actors to play the roles they were surely destined to play (but didn’t in ancient Athens) but they it focus the audience’s attention on the female position in a predominantly male society. However strong they maybe, women’s power to instigate change is not an easy one and they do not always choose the same route as men would do because of their status.
One good thing about revisiting Greek tragedy is that the plays are short, written as they were as part of a contest with other dramatists. This means they play straight through without an interval for 90 minutes, which gives an unbroken impetus to theme and performances that adds to their impact. My advice: go to the loo first and take a bottle of water in with you and immerse yourself in the play.
My favourite moment in this production is when Electra meets her brother Orestes again whom she has not seen since he was a baby. She sniffs all over his body to ascertain that it is really is him: a visceral moment of recognition. Her joy seems to course her veins – and mine.
At the curtain call, Scott Thomas looks serious as she takes the first few bows then she suddenly bursts into the most glorious smile as if to say, ‘It’s alright, I’m happy now. I was just acting.’ Another theatrical moment.
My verdict: a production not to be missed.
KING CHARLES III by Mike Bartlett, at Wyndham’s Theatre, directed by Rupert Goold
I cannot imagine a better production of this new play. I loved the simplicity of the set, a central plinth backed by grey walls that could be Windsor Castle or Buckingham Palace, the beautifully judged music from live musicians stationed in one of the boxes, sung by members of the onstage cast and the representation of royal personages by the actors. All these theatrical components contribute to a satisfying whole.
The members of the Royal family are immediately recognisable. Prince Harry’s first entrance raises a laugh with his sticking-up red hair and gangling walk and poor Camilla, another outsider, wanders about trying her best but failing to be some sort of comfort to Charles.
Before I give you the idea that this is a comedic farce I must assure you it isn’t. The issues it deals with are serious. It starts with the premise of “what if?” What if – after the Queen is dead and Charles becomes King he tries to alter the constitution by being more than just a rubber stamp for the acts the Government want to become law. Charles’s obstinate refusal to sign until they have reconsidered the contents of the proposal leads to a series of irreversible events, which give scheming Kate the opportunity she needs to make some changes herself – to her and Will’s advantage.
But yes, the play has some witty lines too, as we laugh and at times feel sorry for the restricted lives our royals are compelled to live. Harry has his moment of freedom when he has the treat of going Sainsbury’s with his Republican girlfriend, but he gives up both his visits to supermarkets and his girl when protocol calls.
The cast is impressive but Tim Pigott-Smith is outstanding as King Charles. His well-meaning but misjudged interference in governmental affairs we recognise as high-handed behaviour, but finally his bewildered acceptance of unexpected change has the ability to move us. We learn that, above all, it is his sons that are most important to him.
My verdict: If you’re British you will appreciate it. Some Americans we met had a little difficulty following all the constitutional ins and outs of the connection between the monarchy and parliament. The play is described as “a future history play” and for me it didn’t fail to fascinate. It made me think, laugh and feel sad. A complete piece of theatre.
SPEED THE PLOW by David Mamet at The Playhouse Theatre, directed by Lindsay Posner.
Warning: I am going to be very critical about this production and the play, itself.
Firstly, I see no reason for putting on David Mamet’s play, written in 1987, on stage again in 2014. Yes, I know Mamet’s a Pulitzer prize winner (for Glengarry Glen Ross) and he writes poetically rhythmic dialogue maybe better than any other living playwright, but his masculinist world can be seen – certainly in this play – as sexist.
In OLEANNA, a play about sexual harassment, he at least gives us a balanced argument from the male and female viewpoints, but in SPEED THE PLOW we are only given the male perspective. Karen is not important as a character except as the object of a bet. Can Bobby persuade her to sleep with him or not? He can, by agreeing to put on the script she supports. In the event, he can’t honour his promise without losing his job, so he reneges on it. In so doing he loses his respect of himself as a “good man.” For some reason we are supposed to care about that. It is Bobby’s angst about whether he is a good man or not that provides the meat of the play. In the midst of all this male discussion the girl is forgotten, you could say written out. She is called into the office the next day to answer one question. Would you have slept with Bobby if he hadn’t agreed to do the play? The answer is no. The girl exits and is not seen (or thought of again).
The cutthroat nature of the film industry Mamet describes is doubtless based on his own experience of the system and the casting couch may well still exist. My grouse is that the male dialogue that tops and tails the piece is the substance of the play – the bread – with the scene in the middle merely the salacious filling in the sandwich.
The play was probably chosen as a vehicle for Lindsay Lohan. She is the bait to get the audience to buy tickets to see it – the creamy filling in the male sandwich. It’s a short role so she should be able to learn the words (I hear she was still on the book at the first preview) and the role of scheming bimbo does not stretch her acting abilities. She copes reasonably well with the seduction scene, although she does not always pick up the necessary rhythm of Mamet’s lines.
I went to the play – not see Lohan – but because I admire Mamet’s use of language and because I’m an admirer of Richard Schiff’s acting. I was disappointed on both counts. Schiff’s performance as Bobby Gould is so low key as to be ineffective and his partner in those male dialogues, Nigel Lindsay as Charlie Fox, shouts his way through the duologues as if about to have an apocalyptic fit. The result is a vocal imbalance between the two actors, which doesn’t give them a hope of achieving the innate rhythm of the dialogue and often impedes the meaning. Interestingly enough, Schiff comes into his own with Lohan in the seduction scene where the melt of tension and relaxation works well.
I also find much to criticise about the direction. The positioning of the actors is not helpful to the actors or the audience. A lot of the dialogue in the office scene is in profile. We rarely see the actors’ faces, which means we lose a whole dimension of their performance. Apart from standing in profile, Lohan’s hair flops down in front of her face. Surely someone should have made sure the audience could see her face.
Verdict: Better give this one a miss.
GREAT BRITAIN, a new play by Richard Bean, at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, directed by Nicholas Hytner.
This National Theatre production about the conduct of tabloid newspapers was rehearsed in secretduring the phone hacking trials. Two versions were rehearsed, one to be put on if a certain person was found guilty and one if found innocent. It is the latter version we see here.
Following on last year’s success of One Man, Two Guvnors, now on tour, audiences have a chance to see three of Bean’s plays running at the same time in London: GREAT BRITAIN, PITCAIRN at the Globe Theatre and MADE IN DAGENHAM, set in 2014, 1814 and 1968 respectively. Richard Bean is a prolific writer whose plays, as Mark Lawson expresses so wittily, “explore his time, past times and the multiple ways of giving the audience a good time.”
GREAT BRITAINis a satirical romp, that sends up the doubtful values and practices of tabloid newspapers and the lengths they will go to get a good story, preferably a scandalous one. It’s a state-of-the-nation play that exposes the corruption of the press, the police and politics.
A huge cast is led by Lucy Punch as the brash Paige Britain, prepared to sell body and soul for the sake of a story and proud of it. She sets the crude in-yer-face tone for the entire cast.
The pace is fast and furious, the one-liners delivered with sharp precision. You can’t miss them because there is nothing subtle about them, but you have to be quick. Shocking, tasteless, hilarious jokes follow on, one after the other. These journalists clearly enjoy the vulgar gratification of their job. There’s no concern about the sensibilities of their victims or readers.
The newspaper office is supplemented by insets of other locations from bedrooms to a ship. There is also a plethora of ever-changing moving screens with press releases, headlines, photographs and videos. On they come, one screen, one photo, one video and then another. The police and politicians are mocked. Commissioner Suffy Kassam (Aaron Neil) brings the house down with his straight-faced delivery of, ‘A clue is something I have not got.’ Paige seduces the handsome Assistant Commissioner (Ben Mansfield). She asks him if he’s married. He says he isn’t so she unceremoniously jumps him and uses him to get secret information. She also has an affair with the Conservative Leader (Rupert Vansittart) and he promises to have a word with the Queen about closing down the BBC. It’s successful. And so on and so forth. All quick-fire, cold-blooded stuff – including, of course, phone hacking.
There is an integral human-interest story about missing twins and the press’s insatiable desire for a story true or not. No more clues. No more story. Go and see the play for yourself, but just remember who we are laughing at – the tabloid press, the police, the politicians or ourselves? Do we get the society we deserve? Note the climax and denouement. Do the culprits get the punishment they deserve? If not, what does that say about us?
On the distaff side, I understand that the script was cut by twenty minutes when the play moved from the National Theatre to the Haymarket, but why weren’t some of the weaker jokes cut – you know the ones that make you cringe. That awful “wankie in your hankie” line for example. Even the brash Paige seems a bit embarrassed to say that. And why does Paige say she’s just a little girl from Bristol without a sign of West country accent? Has it been left over from the original person who played the role? I have the feeling that cuts were made very quickly and not by the writer. Am I right?
Verdict: A timely satirical romp, which opens a window on the world of the tabloids and reveals its ruthlessness and sleaze. A very slick production like the tabloids it describes. Highly recommended – but don’t go if you’re tempted to heckle. You’ll be removed. And that would be a waste of your ticket.
OUR TOWN by Thornton Wilder at the Almeida Theatre, directed by David Cromer.
Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN opened on Broadway in 1938. Considered innovative at the time, it had no set, minimal props, half-lighting and a central character that narrated events by addressing the audience directly.
The present production ran off-Broadway from 2009 for 654 performances, the most in the history of the play.
At the Almeida it is played in re-arranged seating more or less in the round, with the house lights on, inviting members of the audience to feel they are inhabitants of the town. Cromer plays the Narrator or Stage-manager with an American accent while other players adopt their own local (British) dialects as if the town really is their town – not just Grover’s Corners, a small town in America. This gives the play an inclusive feel making us feel part of the lives described.
This must be the most un-dramatic, un-theatrical play I’ve ever seen. There’s no tension and little conflict. At the beginning of the first act, the Stage Manager describes the town and walks us through a typical day in the lives of the townspeople. He admits that nothing out of the ordinary ever happens here. People grow up, go to work, get married bring up their children and die. The only deviant character is the organist, the town drunkard, but, even though we see him staggering home after choir practice watched by his neighbours, he doesn’t do anything to disturb the peace. It’s not hard to imagine why he turns to drink.
The actors play for naturalism and sometimes the dialogue is so soft that, if their backs are to us, it is difficult to catch every word. This certainly doesn’t apply to David Cromer as the Stage Manager who leads us through the description of the events with sincere clarity. It is obvious that Cromer loves this play and has made it his favoured project for the last few years. In spite of its simple tale of everyday life, there are one or two flashes of direction that have a telling effect. The use of tables with chairs on top to represent the facing windows of the young neighbours who share homework and start a relationship that leads to their marriage is one of them. Another occurs during the second act during the young couple’s wedding ceremony. A member of the congregation turns to a member of the audience, makes a comment and receives a cordial reply, accepting readily that she is part of this town.
In the final act we see the graveyard represented by chairs with the dead sitting on them, commenting on their lives and deaths. The most surprising moment is when the young bride, now dead, wants to return to her previous life. The other dead townsfolk say it is possible to do that, but not advisable. The girl ignores their advice. The curtain opens at the rear of the acting area to reveal the cottage where she once lived, traditionally staged. (What a surprise after all this minimalism). She can see and hear what is going on, but her family cannot hear her and she cannot affect change. She returns to her grave (chair) content to spend the rest of her death there. A little coup de theatre.
Verdict:A gentle play that grows on you once you get used to the low-key style and accept that nothing much is going to happen. It gives a view of small town life that many of us will recognise. A sincere production, faithful to the original, with a few extra touches from Cromer that add to its atmosphere, including his own performance. I think Thornton Wilder would approve this version from the comfort of his grave.
It will be interesting to see if this production goes into the West End from the Almeida, as so many of its predecessors did. Such as Chimerica, Ghosts and Charles III.
In addition to the above plays I saw two musicals, the new production of Bonhill and Schönberg’s MISS SAIGON at the Prince Edward Theatre and Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s EVITA at the Dominion.
Twenty-five years after its première MISS SAIGON is still an exciting show. The Vietnamese settings are both realistic and spectacular. The love scenes between Kim (Eva Noblezada) and Chris (Alistair Brammer) are moving, especially the scene on the wooden steps leading up to her simple house when they first declare their love for each other and – of course – the tragic ending. Chris’s wife, Ellen, (Tamsin Carroll) has a voice that rings round the theatre and manages to make us sympathise with her as well as Kim. John (Hugh Maynard) proves himself a good friend to Chris and has a powerful voice. But it is Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer who steals the show. He holds the audience in the palm of his hand, engaging us with his cunning schemes to survive, his indomitable resilience and his power to bounce back. The American Dream number, when he holds the stage almost single-handed, gives new meaning to the term, showstopper. An incredible performance from Briones, helped by the fact that the actor is Asian, not a white man pretending to be one.
One of the best things about EVITA is that all the songs are memorable. I’ve been humming them ever since. I enjoy this current production but not quite as much as the more Brechtian one I saw some years ago. It does capture the ambience of Buenos Aires and the period. The two sets of stairs work well to get rid of redundant lovers and the balcony scene with the famous ‘Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,’ does not disappoint. My favourite image is the colonels jockeying for position like a game of musical chairs as a sack is put on the head of one and then the next and then another and they join the long line of other headless, doomed losers of the regime, “the disappeared” trudging along like zombies, upstage. Madalena Alberto looks very like Evita, has a strong voice and gives the role emotional power. Marti Pellow does not fully portray the irony of Che as a commentator on Evita’s life. He seems to wander about the stage and his voice is lyrical without the abrupt cut of thrust needed to express his alternate view of what is happening politically.
If I had to recommend a one of these musicals and one of these plays to see on a flying visit to London which would I choose?
The musical, MISS SAIGON. The play, KING CHARLES III.
EXHIBITIONS visited during the same week: