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: