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.