I did what you probably shouldn't do when seeing a play that has a film version - I watched the film first. Well, sort of. I started watching it then fell asleep. That's not to say that the film was boring but it didn't prove to be as exciting as I expected it to be. The film version of Rope of course is directed by Alfred Hitchcock and adapted for the screen from Patrick Hamilton's play by actor Hume Cronyn which in turn is inspired by true events. Luckily, by falling asleep I didn't see the ending which is important in this story as the audience already knows who, what, when, where and basically why, from the first scene. What is not known is - will they get away with it?
For the first time in Almeida history, the seating arrangement is in the round. I was seated in the first row of the circle, an excellent seat. What they have done is pull the stage forward into what is usually the first few rows. The back wall of the previous stage area is now lined with two rows of seats on tow levels, matching the existing circle and stalls. It's all seamless. If you hadn't been to the Almeida before you would never realy guess that it was a new configuration.
As the play opens, tow of the main characters Wyndham Brandon and Charles Granillo have just strangled a university friend to death with a rope and are stuffing him in chest in the front sitting room. The first ten or so minutes of Rope are played in almost complete darkness as the two characters discuss what has just happened and what will happen. What will happen is a party. They have invited friends of the deceased as well as his father who they assume will come with the aunt. There is a perverse thrill about having a party in such close vicinity of the dead body, and Wyndham (Blake Ritson - Arcadia for the National Theatre and the film RocknRolla) is relishing it. His partner in crime Granillo (Alex Waldmann - Laertes in Jude Law's West End Hamlet) is much less confident, in fact he is in full on panic mode.
When they finally feel safe to turn on lights the play proper begins. Instead of serving the food and drinks in the dining room they have opted to take their plan further by serving from the chest with the body in the front room. Their servant (this is late 20's, early 30's upper class London) Sabot arrives first to set the table. It's really a thankless part, with the character's only purpose being to help arouse suspicion and then exit. As played by Philip Arditti (England People Very Nice - National Theatre, House of Saddam for HBO) I think he is supposed to be North African or French. This is the one severly underwritten part in the play.
After Sabot, the others arrive one by one: Another university friend Kenneth Raglan (Henry Lloyd-Hughes - almost unrecogniseable from his stint as the bully on The Inbetweeners), another friend, socialite Leila Arden (a very well played and very funny Phoebe Waller-Bridge - 2nd May 1997 at the Bush, co-Artistic Director of DryWrite), followed by the father of the corpse Sir Johnstone Kentley (Michael Elwyn - numerous productions at the Royal Exchange Manchester and Open Air Theatre Regents Park as well as Tv's The Tudors) along with his sister Mrs Debenham who struggles to speak more than three words at a time (Emma Dewhurst - Medea, Jane Eyre both West End, The Invention of Love and Making History - both National Theatre). The general interactions between these guests are entertaining to listen to and watch. As directed by Roger Michell (Female of the Species - West End; Landscape with Weapon, Blue/Orange - both National Theatre; films include - The Mother, Enduring Love and Notting Hill) the characters move effortlessly around the circular set allowing each to emerge and establish themselves without isolating them from the central event.
The balance changes with the entrance of Rupert Cadell, another friend - an ex-serviceman from the first world war, who walks with a cane as a result of a war wound. As played by Bertie Carvel (The Pride at the Royal Court; Parade at the Donmar; The Man of Mode, Galileo and Coram Boy - all National Theatre) Rupert is a a visual and aural curiosity. HIs speech is clipped, with odd exagerations on various phrases and words, he walks with a limp and has a very camp, fey air about him. However, it's the hair - the hair is a marvel all it's own. Where did that come from? All I can say it's an early 1929 quif and it works. All in all, Bertie Carvell gives one of the finest performances of the year. He has an uncanny ability to make Rupert extremely funny as well as endearing although he can be bitchy and arrogant. No matter how funny he is, Carvell never allows the character to turn into farce, knowing when to pull back and allow the other characters to have their turn, he never overpowers the scenes. What is also very admirable is that no matter what volume he pitches the performance, Carvel always follows through with the many ticks of the character.
This can also be said of the entire production. There are many times where it becomes extremely funny, to the point where I had to wonder if it was turning out to be a great comedy and the thriler aspects were going to be secondary. This never happened, the production knew when to reign it in - the comedy came naturally from the characterisations so it was only funny when it should be. And the ending. I really loved the lead up to the final events. There are some really great and touching speeches, and some interesting theories to chew on without ever becoming pretentious and overbearing.
Compare and contrast time. This really has no bearing on my enjoyment of the production but I think these are interesting points to bring up. I'll start with the Hitchcock film as that was my point of entry.
Hitchcocks Rope takes place in the late 1950s in Manhattan. The number of characters are about the same but many have different relationships with each other and the servant has a much bigger part and is female. Keeping this in mind, imagine my surprise when in the opening moments of the play I am hearing RP.
Later that evening, when I returned home, I decided to look further into the Rope story. Lets start with the real story. The real killing took place in Chicago in 1924 by Leopold and Loeb. I 'm not sure why the play then took place in the UK other than the playwright may have felt more comfortable with all things English and was writing for that audience (his other famous plays include Gaslight - recently revived at the Old Vic, and Hangover Square). The other interesting fact is the sexuality of the two main characters.
Leopold and Loeb were gay. It was never called that back in the day of their trial, but they admitted to sexual relations. I find this information of interest because it explains a few things about the film. Of course, the 'love that dare not speak its name' was a no go area in the late 1950s, especially if James Stewart is one of your stars, but if you watch the film closely one does wonder why the two killers are standing so close together. It sounds odd but have a watch and you'll see what I mean. I think Hitchcock was inferring intimacy without making it an issue. Again, this was an issue that you wouldn't find in a 1929 play, so the closest you get in the play text (much like the film) is that the two characters are travelling out of town together for the winter. Flash forward to the West End revival of Rope in the 90's which famously opened with full frontal male nudity, intimating that the killing was part of a honey trapvmaking no bones about the characters sexuality.
In this current revival, it sticks to the text as is. I've never read it so I can't be sure how camp Rupert was written, but as with the film, the sexuality is inferred but off handed comments and physicality but never overtly stated. Ultimately, does their sexuality make a difference to the play? No, not one bit. It's just an interesting sidenote to an interesting and engrossing play which you should see (if you can).
Rope (Almeida 23/12/09) 28 December 2009
With some forethought I bought a scond ticket for the final performance of Cock and I'm glad I did. Early on, I could tell from the cast and creative team that it would be a memorable production, especially with Andrew Scott playing one of the roles. So seeing it again be worth my time as well as a pre Christmas treat.
First off it was interesting to see changes from a front of house perspective. Obviously, as the show was popular (sold out before the run was even half finished) and word got around about the unusual seating, more people were queuing before the doors opened. This caused a little confusion for the attendees of the Downstairs performance of The Priory as the end of the queue extended into their balcony level's bar.
Early queues that snake down stairs and around corners do give an added level of excitement and anticipation to the evening, much like what it was for films, back in the day. Interesting enough, Cock director James MacDonald seemed very taken aback by the queue when he arrived for this final performance, something I thought odd. He must have been aware that it had been sold out. Maybe it was the fact that the audiences cared enough to queue early that surprised him.
There must have been some issues with getting people into the theatre and seated on time as tickets were now being torn while we were queuing. We were let in close to start time and could only go in one direction (which I discovered when I decided to go the oposite way and was stopped). Also, gone was smell of freshly cut wood. Once in the arena we were greeted, if you could call it that, by a female usher who seemed to be somewhere around nineteen years old, firmly barking orders as people. I was very intent on finding a seat which would give me a diferent perspective and when I located it I took aim.
In order not to disturb those already seated I stepped over the fixed cushions on the first level to take my solitary place to the far side next to the railing on the second level. At this point , the 'lovely' usher barked "Do not step on the cushions. Please use the centre stairs" which seemed an odd thing to request after the fact. I reassured her that I did not step on a cushion, which she replied "then use the centre stairs" which again, was strange seeng that I was already seated. I was surprised at the intensity of 'crowd control'. Crowd being a maximum of around 80 people which is taking into consideration that not everyone showed - there were empty places. I mentioned in my first post about Cock about how lovely the Royal Court staff were. I take it back.
I mention all this because I found it interesting that this little play, in the tiny Royal Court Theatre Upstairs seemed to almost have the feeling of a stadium gig for its final performance. That's saying alot about how audiences have reacted to Cock but also put pressure on the performers to deliver. I was afraid that as they had settled into their roles and as it was a final performance that the subtle aspects would be driven out and replaced by overt comedy but my fears were unfounded.
What was most magical about this performance to me was that all performances had grown in relation to each other. What I found awkward (for the wrong reasons) in the earlier performance - Paul Jesson's 'F' - now works well. His perfomance was no longer a charicature of an 'older generation' but a full fledged individual. This made his sections believeable and it didn't come across as being presented with 'theme' wrapped up in a bow and neatly presented to the audeince. It was integrated.
Of the other three actors, the one whose performance changed the most was Ben Whishaw's. Thinking about it, he may have had the most difficult role. Although he is the centre of the action and is in all scenes, his character is often at the receiving end, with the other characters driving the action forward. This can be difficult because you are always reacting to what is being thrown at you and it could leave you in the dust. Ben's performance found more of the humour and a little more strength than he had in the earlier performance.
All this aside, it was still Katherine Parkinson and Andrew Scott who shined - both finding every conceivable character nuance and flinging it into the arena without ever losing sight of the story. Both, as usual, were excellent but Andrew Scott was in top form. His line readings and takes on situations were beyond brilliant. I was sitting directly opposite the director and was watching his his reactions. Judging by what made him sit up and take notice, smile and laugh this late in the day having seen it umpteen times, I would say that Andrew Scott won. I hate bang on about this (well, I just hope you don't get too bored) but he really can push the boat out - not too far as to get lost over the horizon. He was on top form but never upstaged his fellow performers or lose sight of the characters intentions.
I'm glad a went a second time. The whole experience was alot edgier. Like a fine wine, it's aged well with time. I wondered if this was their peak. Would a longer run have turned it into a huge laugh fest in an attempt to keep it fresh and the actors from getting bored? Like with all theatre, we will never know. It's had it's moment in time and any additional productions would have their own slant, no matter who's in it or directed it. I'm glad I saw this one.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Novello Theatre 8/12/09) 9 December 2009
As has already been stated on here, I'm a huge Tennessee Williams fan. Seeing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with such theatre heavyweights was, I thought, going to be a revelation but sadly, I was disappointed. Not in the play but in some of the performances.
In the story Brick, the heavy drinker around whom the story revolves, tells Big Daddy that he is waiting for the 'click' - a moment when the drink kicks in. That's how I felt when watching this production, waiting for the 'click'. Not the drink but that essence that sweeps you into the story and lives of the characters - the moment you forget you're in a theatre. Unfortunately the 'click' never really came. It was close a few times, but like in the story - it was continuously being thwarted.
On the surface it's difficult to not get involved to an extent as it's such a great play it would have to be performed by complete incompetents to be completely ruined. Tennessee Williams has written such rich dialogue and an intriguing story that no matter how it's performed there is always a level of enjoyment. Not too long ago I listened to a BBC radio version of the play and wasn't entirely satisfied because although the language was great I felt I was missing important visual interaction between the characters so it never really came as alive as I felt it should. This new West End production is the first time I have seen it on stage and it made me understand for the first time, what the characters intentions were. And, it also pointed out to me where the production failed.
Here's the story - Brick, a former college star athlete and later successful sports announcer, has fallen upon hard times after 'taking to the drink'. Mourning the death of his friend and fellow athlete Skipper, he breaks his leg while attempting to jump hurdles drunk and is somehwat temporarily immobilised with his leg in a cast. He is married to Maggie but there isn't any love or affection (or childrent) in the marriage. As the story begins we discover that Brick's father, the immensly wealthy Big Daddy, may or may not be dying and that issue of who would inherit the fortune is at the forefront of many family members minds. The most active in the quest for the monney is Brick's brother Gooper and his annoying wife Mae who have had many children to try and steer the vote in their favour. Of course that's the storyline but the real story is the question of Brick's relationship with Skipper - whether they were more than 'friends' - and how this unrecognised issue affects both Brick and those around him.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has three main elements to the story. The first is Brick's relationship with his wife Maggie (the Cat of the title, also self proclaimed), the second is Brick's relationship with his father Big Daddy and the third is the story of the inheritance. For me the two most crucial elements are the opening almost monologue by Maggie and the later almost monologue of Big Daddy's. In each section Brick is trying to get the 'click' yet it's being thwarted by having these other two talk to and at him, incessantly. On one level it would seem that the two big performances get it right, they do but only on one level. Sanaa Lathan as Maggie (Tv''s Nip/Tuck and Tony nomination for her role as Beneatha Unger in A Raisin in the Sun) gets across the incessant chatter and you can feel the opressive nature of having someone talk at you but she doesn't get across the other elements. Maggie is a sex kitten and she is also a manipulator. Her entire opening scene is her attempt to get a rise out of Brick - emotionally, intellectually and sexually. She challenges him, not directly, but by presenting ideas and situations that she hopes he will either refute or accept. Ms Lathan never got the manipulation part. We got the chatter but not the intention.
Unfortuantely (again) I got the same from James Earl Jones as Big Daddy. In this play it's about what's unsaid. In the big scene between Big Daddy and Brick (which can be seen as a companion piece to the first with Maggie and Brick) Big Daddy goes on and on about himself and his less than satisfactory realtionship with Big Mama (and excellent Phylica Rashad who created a character very much unlike herself and threw herself into it). Brick often mentions that this incessant talk is something Big Daddy always does and that it never seems to go anywhere and that's how it came across to me. What was forgotten is for the scene to be important it has to be viewed as ' so why is this time different?'. What should have made it different is that Big Daddy pretty much knows about Brick and Skipper but is unable to come right out and say it. So he resorts to the same tactics as Maggie, trying to manipulate Brick through the telling of stories and the asking of seemingly unrelated questions. Mr Jones delivery baffled me as well, I found it hard to listen to and never got the intention. It was just rambling.
Now on to Brick. As written, Brick (played in this production by Adrian Lester (Tv's Hustle, the film Primary Colors and an Olivier award for his lead in the Sondheim musical Company) is dodging the truth by drinking. It's all made more difficult by having to dodge the bullets being fired at him by his family. It's a role that heavily relies on the assault. You have to really be assaulted to really have to dodge the bullets. As the assaults were minor, his retreat was minor and all he was left with was his back story and the drink. When he lashed out in reaction it came across as ' that was a bit over the top wasn't it?'. Not Adrian Lester's fault.
So, those are the basics. How was everyone else? Standouts for me were Peter De Jersey (Tv's Holby City and a recent stint at the RSC) as Gooper the brother and Nina Sosanya (loads of theatre, Tv's Teachers and the film Love, Actually) as Mae really hit the mark. Both balanced the humour and deperation of going full throttle for the inheritance and made their attacks on other family members understandable. Late in the play Gooper has a last desperate plea for why he should be entilted and Mr De Jersey nails it.
The scenic design by Morgan Large (Tick, Tick... Boom!, The Last Five Years, Fame and Footloose all West End) was fine and the direction is by Debbie Allen (Tv's Fame and on stage as the last Bob Fosse Charity in Sweet Charity). Other than it being serviceable, I have to wonder how many of the choices to not go after the visceral, manipulative elements were down to direction and not the choice of the actors. I have the feeling that there was an attempt to make the characters more likeable. That was a big mistake. Even in the darkest places you can find some light and to not trust Tennesee Williams Pulitzer winning masterpiece is a somewhat foolish choice. All the elements are there, you just have to mine a bit deeper to find the gold.
RED - 2nd preview (Donmar 4/12/09) 5 December 2009
Under normal circumstances I wouldn't have attended a second preview but this was the result of booking as a Donmar Friend for the first time and getting to grips with the booking form. Live and learn. However, it was the second preview and I kept that in mind.
This is the second play in a row that has greeted the audience with a scent (see Cock at the Royal Court for the other). Whether intentional or not, the space smells of artists paint which does set the scene nicely. The Donmar stage has been turned into a painters studio, the walls have been stripped bare with the only built set piece are doors leading out to one side. Hanging on a suspended wall, centre towards the back and dominating the stage is a Rothko painting - see above image for an idea of his work - which they change numeous times throught the production. Here lies problem number one, abstract expressionism can be difficult to get into, understand or appreciate. Either you do or you don't. As with many art forms, having information about them or doing some sofa research could help appreciate it, however if you come to Red with no prior knowledge it could be heavy going. Honestly, I think this is a major problem with this play but more on that after a quick rundown on the story.
It starts in Rothko's studio, 1958, as a young man - Ken (Eddie Redmayne - Now or Later at the Royal Court, films The Other Boleyn Girl and Savage Grace) meets Mark Rothko (Alfred Molina -films Frida, Prick Up Your Ears, Chocolat) for the first time as his assistant. The action takes place over a two year period as Rothko works on a mural for the restaurant in New York's ritzy Seagrams building. Rothko proves to be difficult in his relationship with his assistant as well as being overprotective about his work and how it's presented. That's about all there is to the actual story. The remainder of the play is filled with discussions about how Rothko feels about art, how he challenges his assistant and how he felt about his contemporaries and the art world in general.
I had heard on the by and by that Rothko was known for being very difficult. That's clear after the first scene. Unfortunately 100 minutes of a man being difficult is in fact difficult to listen to. Even more difficult is the language used and subject matter. All very high brow. I could have gone along if there was an ultimate purpose but it just waffled on and on, often repeating the same themes and points. Not much is revealed about either character with the exception of a brief 'tender' moment about two thirds of the way through and the very end which left me wondering even more - what's the point?
Keeping in mind it was an early performance, I couldn't help but wonder if it was in fact a 45 minute play stretched out to make a full evening. Each scene change is marked by two occurances - first, the painting on the suspended wall is changed by Rothko and Ken (this involves loosening ropes, lowering one painting, taking it off of hooks, walking it to the back wall, putting it down, taking a new one, walking it back, putting it on the hooks, putting it on the hooks and fixing the ropes again) and second, one of the two characters exits to change their clothes. There was one exception to this. One of the best visual scenes occurs as the two prime a canvas with red paint. It's a furious and visceral encounter of man, canvas and red paint - all done to an aria - that leaves them both covered in red. At this point Rothko goes offstage to clean up and Ken does his cleaning up onstage. So basically we sat there and watched Ken take off his shirt, wipe himself down, clean up and put on a new shirt. If they took out all the on stage, off stage, change the picture, stretch a canvas and mix some paint actions, it wouldn't have been nearly as long.
Going back to the 'prior knowledge' issue, unfortunately programmes were not available due to an error that was only discovered after they had been printed, but one can assume that there would have be some background information on Rothko, the times and the art world he was a part of. That would be useful to have but my feelings are that you shouldn't need that information to understand or fully engage with the play. There is so much information bandied around that assumes prior knowledge and I'm pretty sure those without it would not get the full effect. It's all about the art. Matisse's work is referred to, Pollock plays a major part (it seems there was some sort of rivalry), Picasso and the cubists and then Warhol and Lichtenstein. If you don't know these artists works then I wonder what the play would say to you I get the impression that there is an attempt to get to the bottom of Rothko's personality and desires but not much is revealed. Maybe it was intentional that what is revealed is almost in an abstract expressionist manner?
My last big gripe with the production is the use of the paintings. I think it would have been much more powerful to not have the paintings on stage, to let our imaginations set free by the characters descriptions. Seeing the paintings makes the production so specific that it's hard to grasp any universal meaning, message or theme. What was also odd was that the mural being painted for the restaurant, the painting that formed the thrust of the story, was never seen. What the audience gets (continuously) are two actors looking at the bottom of the dress circle as if they are looking at the mural.
Again, this was the second preview. The performances were at the place you would expect them to be on a second preview, and one would assume that with their talents they will develop as the run continues. My issue is with the play (by John Logan - known for his screenplays for Sweeney Todd, The Aviator and Gladiator as co-writer. It doesn't say much and the little of what it says is said with self- indulgence. It's the sort of play that many will probably see and come out raving about how fantastic it is - primarily because the language is literary and academic which many equate with being good theatre. It reminds me of those people who think an actors performance is fantastic primarily because they can memorise a five page monologue and rattle it off without error. For me it's not enough.
What I find suprising is that Red is directed by Michael Grandage who is one of the most respected and sucessful directors today. Again, early days, I'm not sure if he will be making any major adjustments, we'll have to wait and see how it develops. I could forgive the play for it's use of over intellectual language and thought but I spent 100 minutes in the company of two people who over think everything only to be told at the end that it's a bad thing. Oh well. Maybe I can get those 100 minutes back somehow.
Cock (Royal Court 1/12/09) 1 December 2009
Almost flawless. That's my feeling. There will always be preferences in performance, style, dialogue etc... but when you put all of that aside and just look at the mechanics and effect of Cock then almost flawless is the only thing that comes to mind. Almost - flawless. There's a little caveat which I will get to in a moment.
I'm going to start with the space itself. For any who have every been to the the Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court, you will know it's a small space. What is surprising is that it's actually more flexible than one would think. Upon arrival for this show what I was hit with first was a strange yellowy light and the smell of freshly cut timber. There's a choice to walk right or left around a timber plywood wall and enter the playing space through a narrow walkway. A round wooden playing space, an arena with three seating levels has been constructed. It's a small space with the main playing area painted a billiard table green and above it what could only be described as a circular plywood lampshade, but as large as the central playing area. The only lighting (other than the yellowy light on the audience) is flourescent tube lighting from inside the giant shade. Because of the set up you were not only in close proximity to the person beside you but in full view of everyone else in the space.
The sparsness of the space designed by Miriam Beuther (Judgement Day, When the Rain Stops Falling at the Almeida, The Good Soul of Szechuan at The Young Vic, Six Characters in Search of an Author in the West End) extended to the production. Here's playwright Mike Bartlett's description from the play text:
The audience is raked down towards the actors.
There is no scenery, no props, no furniture, and no mime.
Instead the focus is entirely on the drama of the scene.
This sounds like it could make for a pretty dodgy evening of ACTING but it worked, beautifully.
Here's the basic setup. Through an opening arguement between a gay couple (John and his boyfriend only known as 'M; in the script) we discover that John is having an affair with a woman. We also see the other side of the story through John and the woman - only known as 'W' in the script. The thrust of the story is John trying to understand these conflicting desires and attempting to make a choice.
Many of the individual scenes skip the interactions that are not relevant with delineations between scenes audibly marked with a buzzer/bell. It's all very subtle but again, very effective as it's clear when the scene has changed. There are two very intimate scenes, both dealing with nudity and sexual exploration where clothes are never shed and the reactions never exploited but are in keeping with the intimatacy of the moment. It's all wonderfully directed by James MacDonald (Judgement Day at the Almeida at the Royal Court) in a manner that is at once very straightforward and choreographed. Where each individual is placed in the space and how they move in relation to each other speaks volumes, about as much as the dialogue itself.
I love coming across a play that has dialogue that is funny, touching and insightful. Playwright Mike Bartlett has an amazing ear for how people speak. At one moment you're laughing hysterically with recognition, and the next it feels as if you're privy to a very private moment, hearing things that aren't meant to be heard outside of private conversation. This effect is not only down to the writing but the actors as well. Each delivers such a connected performance, such an understanding of what they are saying that the marriage between script and performance is explosive. There is nothing showy in the performances, each serving the situation and defining the individual characters.
Of the main three - I would say, which is to be expected, that Andrew Scott (see my Sea Wall post) as 'M' comes out on top. As the betrayed lover he walks that fine line between bitchy, hurt and desperation, giving a fully fleshed out character that in the wrong hands could have just been a one note performance. Coming in a very close second is Katherine Parkinson (The Lightning Play at the Almeida, Other Hands at Soho theatre and TV's The IT Crowd) as 'W'. This role requires softness and a hard centre, an ability to stand up for oneself and also expose an inner need. She's wonderful in her delivery. You couldn't imagine anyone else playing that part. As John, Ben Whishaw (the films Brideshead Revisited, Poison The Story of a Murderer, I'm Not There) gives a good performance but I didn't feel it was as real or nuanced as the other two. There is a third characted 'P', an older gentleman who seems to be more of a representation of an older generation than a real person. I will have to read the play to figure out if this is intentional in the writing or down to the actor - Paul Jesson (The Seagull at the Royal Court, Awake & Sing at the Almeida, Mary Stuart in the West End, on film - TV's Margaret and the film Vera Drake).
We have now arrived at the point when I explain the 'almost' part of the 'almost flawless' statement. Without giving too much away as there is a strong 'what's gong to happen?' thread that runs through the story, there is a section towards the end when all the themes and conflicts merge to be confronted. It's abit clunky. What had previously been revealed through action briefly turned into a disertation drama on the nature of bisexuality and the fluidity of desire. It felt as if he had so many ideas to get out that it seemed to be the only option - for issues to be directly confronted. There is a danger in pounding home those sort of discussions in such an obvious way. I wished it had been handled more in line with the other revelations. It's all a matter of taste. That was the only real downfall to me. A small one, one that can be excused because although it became obvious it still made made think and consider the issues.
Another play that came to mind while watching this was David Mamet's Oleanna - a play where there is no clearcut right or wrong, it's up to th viewer to make their own decision who was at fault. There are circumstances in Cock that ask the same thing from the audience. Who is right? Who is wrong? Is there a right or wrong? I found myself taking sides but I think that was firmly rooted in my own value system and past experiences (not to be revealed here, thanks).
Unfortunately it's only on until the 19th of December and it's all sold out - there are only around 80 seats in the space. It would be great to have this remounted so more people could sexperience it. I'm going again on the closing night so I can see how it evolves.
Side note: Hats off to the staff at the Royal Court - the bookshop, the coatcheck, the ushers, the bar - all fantastic and made the trip even more enjoyable. They could be the best I've come across in London.
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Coming soon - Red at the Donmar, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Novello and Cock again.
The Priory (Royal Court Theatre 25/11/09) 26 November 2009
The Priory - Written by Michael Wynne (People are Friendy at the Royal Court and and co-writer of the film My Summer of Love), Directed by Jeremy Herrin (Tusk Tusk, The Vertical Hour and That Face - all Royal Court)
I thought I'd be checking into an evening of self-revelation and exploration with a group of thirty somethings spurred on by what by many consider to be one of the emotional stressful nights of the year - New Years Eve. I must have checked into the wrong building because I ended up stranded in limp sitcom land. Was it a matter of intent not living up to execution or simply the fact that the description oversold the production? Either way, I was disappointed. Don't get me wrong, I didn't hate it or have a miseable time, I just found it odd to be witnessing something with so little depth or originality at the Royal Court.
I suppose it comes down to what you expect to get out of a theatre performance. Irrespective of the production there will always be the shared experience between actor and audience as well as audience member and audience member. That's a given. Going deeper, there's the play's story and characters to hook and grab you then resonate in some way. Had I been watching this production in say, 1975, when there really wasn't that much on TV then this would have been a welcome diversion, urging me to consider how the passing of time and getting older affects everyone. However, we are in 2009, this sort of story has been done many times over and I expect to discover something new and interesting. At the very least, some good comedy.
Basic story - woman had previously rented The Priory for a getaway her boyfirend prior to breaking up with him. After the breakup she decides to invite a few close friends to see in the New Year. Things don't go as expected when each friend brings a partner the evening gets thrown out of whack. This is an amiable set up but wat we are left with are pretty stock characters and situations. There's the gay one (Joseph Millson - Judgement Day at the Almeida, Every Good Boy Deserves a Favour and Pillars of the Community - both National Theatre) , the married one (Rupert Penry-Jones - TV's Spooks) with the wife (Rachael Stirling - A Woman of No Importance - Haymarket London and TV's Tipping the Velvet) who only can talk about her kids and the one who has finally got his life together (Alistair MacKenzie - TV's Monarch of the Glen) - or has he? - and the host - the getting older single female (Jessica Hynes - TV's Spaced).
There's not much else I can say about this, the dialogue tends to go on and on without purpose (I tuned out during one exchange and I was in the first row). The comedy is pretty run of the mill and the performances competent but nothing to write home about. The play has many farcical elements but was directed in such a straightforward manner that the elements didn't have the punch they should have. I would say the whole production wasn't sure of what it was supposed to be - farce? Drama? Tragedy? Social observation? It had elements of each but ultimately they all cancelled out the other.To sum it up, it doesn't present or explore anything that the majority of theatregoers haven't seen done much better on stage, on tv or in film. I guess I ask alot from my trips to the theatre and this fell short.
On a positive note - there is a storyline involving the gay one and someone he met online that is really interesting. It's the one aspect of the play that rises above the mundane and shows real emotion and pathos. If only the rest of the play followed that cue.
Follow me on Twitter @thisbarry.
Coming in December - Cock at the Royal Court, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Novello and Red at the Donmar.
The Twenty Four Hour Plays Celebrity Gala 2009 (Part 2- The Experience) (The Old Vic Theatre 1/11/09 ) 2 November 2009
It was expensive - it was a fundraiser after all, but utilising some Theatre Tokens the cost came down from £75 to £45. This would be an average price for an excellent to good stalls seat but for this gala I was up in the Lillian Baylis Circle - level three, aka as far up top as you could go - but it was a good cause and there were good people involved. (If I remember correctly - top price for stalls was £750. The information is gne offline no so I can't check).
One thing about these sort of events is that unless you have paid a whopping huge price for your seat you're never really sure how you should dress - would jeans be ok or would you stand out as the only person not dressed up for the occasion? I went half way and I'm glad I did. When I approached the Old Vic I was passing people in tuxes and party dresses. When I arrived in the foyer (packed) there was a mix of suits, casual and tuxes. Spotted - Hardeep Singh Kohli.
I had to climb to the top level and to do that you have to pass though level two which funnily enough seemed to be the dressiest of them all. Level three had a definite mix of those who figured there were just there to see the performances so no dressing up needed and those who figured therey were at a gala so dressing up was important. All in all, I felt comfortable. Important point as I was on my own.
All the performances took place on the bare set of Inherit the Wind which is currently playing at the Old Vic. With it's blonde wood floor and walls the set resembled a school gymnasium especially with the portable movie screen set up near the back. I was in the second row about five seats in from the aisle and the view was excellent. In my head I always imagine the top level at the Old Vic being miles away from the stage but it's actually alright. As we waited for the event to start we were treated to some music - B52's Love Shack, Guns and Roses Sweet Child O' Mine and Salt n Peppers Push It were the one's I remember. Tells you the age of the people at the controls.
As the auditorium filled I noticed quite a few empty places in the top section. I thought that strange seeing that there was a House Full sign posted out front. Graham Noton came on (very funny) and introduced the video after explaning the process from the previous 20 odd hours (you can see it here). Then one by one he introduced the plays, the writers and performers. Spotted - Stephen Mangan and Kieran O'Brien seated close by on empty benches watching the first half.
1st up - I Should Have Never Agreed To This.
They utilised part of the resident set for this - a bed rolled out from the side. In it snuggled together were Elliot Cowan and Nigel Lindsay. They wake up not knowing how or what they did and wearing each others boxer shorts. That's all they wore. The scene switched back and forth between them and Producer - Romola Garai and Director - Haydn Gwynne who are panicked because the Writer - John Light is stuck trying to write his play for the evening. He is writing is the other scene with Cowan and Lindsay. Everyone was very good and it was enjoyable trying to figure out where the Writer would take his two characters and if he would finish in time. Prop used - pink toilet seat cover.
Next - Ouch.
This was hysterical. All four actors start out in a line on stage, each with a single spotlight on the. Clive Rowe who is well know for his magnificent singing voice started with what we thought would be a gospel number and ended up being Britney Spears Hit Me Baby One More Time. We find out that a man - David Haig - was in a rickshaw in Soho when it hit and ran over a pedestrian - Rafe Spall. Also involved was a taxi driver - Clive Rowe and another car, driven by Hattie Morahan. Clive Rowe's singing voice is used once again for a very funny moment when Rafe Spall is describing how his earphoes becam jammed in his head when he fell over. As they were attached to an ipod Shuffle, all the music became scrambled together. This is where Clive cam in as he bounced back and forth through various songs to illustrate the problem.
The scene switches to Rafe Spalls hospital room where one by one those involved in the crahdcome to visit him at his bedside. Rafe's character is a seemingly naive eastender who ends up getting various things from each that visit him until the last - the woman driver who happens to also be an investigative reporter - has discovered that Rafe's character has done this before and therefore is a con. It doesn't sound especially funny in print but the performances (especially Rafe Spall) made this one an absolute joy. I think the prop was a hat like one would get when visiting the seaside on holiday.
Last one before the interval - Stop Blaming, Start Loving
Good idea but didn't come of especially well. I think it could have been funnier than it was. A lesbian couple - Lorraine Burroughs and Helen McCrory wait for the arrival of a therapist to help them through their rocky relationship. The therapist arrives in the form of Dominic West - who is a brash, sloppy and not very good therapist. He asks both banal and offensive questions, takes them through a play acting session and proves to be so uneffective the women leave. Prop used - a head massager.
Interval - I went downstairs but felt I couldn't stay very long because of the crush of people trying to go in all sorts of directions, looking for drinks or just stopping in their tracks. I ended up back at my seat. Spotted - Damien Lewis and director Jamie Lloyd. Dominic West came up and was going to sit where Stephen Mangan and Kieran O'Brien were earlier but then went one level down where I could see many of the actors from the 1st half seated to watch the rest of the performances - Lorraine Burroughs, Rafe Spall and Helen McCrory.
First up - Pencil
This was for me the best of the lot. An absolute joy and a very satisfying 10 minutes. The setting was a halloween party where William Houston was telling a typically spooky story to his partner - Ruth Wilson and another couple - Andrew Scott and Anna Maxwell-Martin. Andrew is well into it but Anna doesn't find the evening even vaguely interesting and her body language tells all. Ruth starts to tell a story and Anna knows it already and in her bored state, tells the punch line. She goes off to call a cab to leave the party early and we find out that Andrew hadn't known her very long and as they met on online, still is trying to impress her. Anna returns and tells them a story about a man who tried to attack her and how she escaped his clutches by jabbing a pencil into his neck. Then, in a very matter of fact and explicitly gory fashion, describes how he bled to death and dies. She then says in a very unemotional straightfoward manner, that as it was an excellent mechanical pencil she took it out of his neck and went on her way. This makes everyone see her differently and get a bit scared of her. Most of the humour came from Anna Maxwell-Martin's spot on performance. Prop used - a fack hatched that you wear on your head that looks embedded.
next up - Genius Bar
This was a huge let down. It didn't really go anywhere and many of he lines were missed which probably contributed. A man - Jason Isaacs, goes to the Apple Store Genius Bar to get his email programme fixed. The Genius attending to him - Ashley Walters, tries to tell him that he needed to do certian things to avoid the problem. The man sees this as a sales technique and is making too much bother about a mechanical object. He gets angry and a supervisor is called - Art Malik - who tries to council the man about his computer. The man thinks they are making too much of it and they call in the next higher up - Anna Chancellor. Unfortunately, Ms Chancellor got two lines in and forgot everything - the performance stopped as she told the audience that she needed to get the script, which she did, and was on book for the remainder. After hearing what she was supposed to have memorised it was easy to see why it was a near impossible task. Not much else of importance really happens in this play. I'm thinking the prop was a laptop.
Lastly - Marmalade
A bubbly young woman - Charity Wakefield, oohs and ahhs over her breakfast at the dinner table. Especially over the marmalade. The brother of her boyfriend - Stephen Mangan, sits nearby and engages her in not so pleasant conversation. She leaves the table soon after the mother of the boyfriend - Jane Asher, enters. Through the discussion between the mother and the brother we find out they both despise the girlfriend and have been doing everything they could think of to make her want to leave. The boyfriend enters - Kieran O'Brien. Stephen Mangan figures out a way to upset the girlfriend who had mentioned that she loves a man with a beard. He convinces Kieran O'Brien to shave his beard off- which he does - live onstage. This backfires when the girlfriend still likes him but the mother is upset. There were some uncomfortable pauses during this - I think people lines were missed and forgotten and they wer partly winging it. Also an entrance was missed which left the actors in limbo. Still, Stephen Mangan managed to hold everything together. Prop used - electric hair clippers.
After the performances the winner of a raffle for a trip for two to New York to the opening of Sam Mendes bridge Project on Broadway incliding first class flight and 4 star hotel (total value £10,000) was revealed. Grahan Morotn asked all the writers and directors who were seated in the audience to stand up ( I could only see two from where I was sitting) and all the cast came out for their bows.
Although the plays and performances fizzled out a bit towards the end it was still a wonderfully enjoyable night and well worth the money, If you love theatre and can manage to scrape together the money, I would well recommend it for next year.
You can follow me on Twitter @thisbarry
The Twenty Four Hour Plays Celebrity Gala 2009 (Part 1 - Process) (The Old Vic Theatre 1/11/09) 1 November 2009
This is the 6th annual 24 Hour Plays Celebrity Galas at the Old Vic, however the history of the format goes back to 1995 when the first 24 Hour Plays was mounted in New York where it has been happening annually every since. This Gala was in aid of the Old Vic's New Voices - developing the very best young and emerging talent and opening up the building to diverse audiences through education and community projects.
Here's a rundown of the specifics - how it works, who wrote, directed and starred:
Luckily we weren't watching 24 hours worth of plays but only an hours worth. Here's what happened during the previous 22 hours.
10pm - Actors, directors and writers meet at the Old Vic. Each was asked to bring an object which they shared with everyone. Each play must include one of the objects brought to this session. After the introductions - the actors and directors are sent home.
11pm - The six writers choose their actors from photos and are taken to a hotel to write a play throughout the night.
6am - The six 10 minute plays are taken and photocopied in preparation for the directors.
7am - The directors speed read the plays and choose their favourites.
8am - Actors gather to hear how they have been cast and receive their scripts.
9am - Rehearsals begin.
3pm - Each company gets 20 minutes of onstage tech time.
7.30pm - The performances begin.
The Plays, the writers, the directors and the actors:
I Should Never Have Agreed To This
Playwright - Ol Parker
Director - Jamie Lloyd
Cast: Nigel Lindsay, Elliot Cowar, Romola Garai, Haydn Gwynne, John Light
Playwright - James Graham
Director - Josie Rourke
Cast: Clive Rowe, David Haig, Hattie Moraham, Rafe Spall
Stop Blaming, Start Loving
Playwright - Chloe Moss
Director - Patricia Benecke
Cast: Lorraine Burroughs, Helen McCrory, Dominic West
- interval -
Playwright - David Nicholls
Director - Douglas Hodge
Cast: Anna Maxwell Martin, Andrew Scott, Ruth Wilson, William Houston
Playwright - Nick Moran
Director - Angus Jackson
Cast: Jason Isaacs, Anna Chancellor, Art Malik, Ashley Walters
Playwright - Amy Rosenthal
DIrector - Annabel Bolton
Cast: Charity Wakefield, Stephen Mangan, Jane Asher, Kieran O'Brien
Although not all of the six plays were equally successful for one reason or another (yes, there were missed lines and one poor actor had to stop to run offstage and retrieve a script - all actors were off book), I enjoyed myself immensely from beginning to end, and it all ran like clockwork which was amazing.
The evening was hosted by Graham Norton and began with a short film that gave insight into the process from the previous 22 hours. The film was introduced (on film) by Artistic Director Kevin Spacey who couldn't be at the event as he had to fly to New York. For a film that was shot and edited over a 20 hour period with mulitple participants I found it extremely engrossing. It was great to see the actors and directors reveal the objects they brought. Here are just a few - electric hair clippers, an inflatable (inflated) Thomas the Tank Engine child's paddling pool and a pink toilet seat. Graham also mentioned that Dominic West forgot his but evidently it was a leather gimp mask. Hmmm. There was also a bit with each playwright as they settled into their swanky hotel rooms faced with the daunting task of writing a 10-minute play on the hoof. In fact, the whole project was daunting for everyone concerned, as was continually mentioned so hats off to everyone for bringing it all together.
I'll add to this soon with more detailed rundowns of each play.
Prick Up Your Ears (Comedy Theatre 29/10/09) 30 October 2009
This is one I almost missed. I've seen three previous productions that director Daniel Kramer has directed - all revivals of plays that I love - Hair, Angels in America, Bent - and I found his vision to be uber gay and tacky. Question - how do you make Bent, a play about debauched homosexuals and Nazi concentration camps gayer? Have Daniel Kramer direct it and turn a few of the Nazis into raging queens, that's how.
Anyway, I have been a big fan of Joe Orton (Loot, Entertaining Mr Sloane, What the Butler Saw) for years, ever since I stumbled across a copy of John Lahr's biography of Orton Prick Up Your Ears in the mid eighties. SInce then I've read it numerous times and have been fascinated by the relationship between Orton and his lover/friend Kenneth Halliwell - what kept them together and the steps leading to Halliwell bludgeoning Orton in the head with a hammer in 1967. For me it has high psychological appeal.
I wasn't entirely thrilled with Stephen Frears film version of the story because it lacked balance. Halliwell seemed to be more of a foil than a major player and there was too much emphasis on the peripheral charcters and the writing of the biography. It was all very academic and high brow which is certainly not what Orton was all about. So, I was thrilled when I heard a stage adpatation was coming to the West End, then I was somewhat put off that Matt Lucas of Little Brittain fame was playing Halliwell. When I found out that Daniel Kramer was directing that nailed the coffin shut. Surely it would be a debauched, superficially gay review of Orton's life. I vowed not to attend.
What eventually got me to go along? First Matt Lucas dropped out for personal reasons, then, Con O'Neill (who I have seen in other productions - and most recently in the film Telstar which is a role he created on stage and was Olivier nominated for) was announced as the new Halliwell. Finally, they really dropped the prices for this transitional period. Well not so much dropped but there were a few offers out there that made it a very attractive proposition - fourth row centre for £15. Excellent. So I booked, I attended and it was excellent. It had all the elements - great script, excellent performances, good set and yes, even good direction. I was wrong to have stayed away.
On a single set that reproduces Orton and Halliwells single room Islington flat, with only three characters (the third being the stupendous Gwen Taylor as their downstairs neighbour Mrs Corden) Prick Up Your Ears managed to cover all the major points of their story from the time right before Orton and Halliwell went to prison for 'redesigning' library books to the murder. What sets this production apart from the film is it gives depth of character to both Orton and Halliwell. It charts the elements that caused friction between the two and helps us understand what their relationship was like, on a physical and emotional level. Halliwell is given an equal voice to Orton's, which oddly enough is what was not present in their lives at the time. He doesn't come across as the irritating and despised monster that the film depicts. In a recent interview Orton's sister remarked that Halliwell wasn't a hated man. I'm glad they put this right because watching Halliwell grasp at straws in various attempts to get Orton to make him feel worthy and needed gives the story a whole new perspective so you sympathise with him. I'm not condoning the behaviour but you understand why things happened the way they did.
All of this storytelling would be nothing without three strong leads. Chris New (who was also in Kramer's Bent and Richard Eyers The Reporter at the National Theatre) gives an energetic, bouyant and cheeky performance as Orton, and as I previously stated Gewn Taylor as the Mrs Corden pitches what could have been a stock performance of the cooky older femail neighbour just right. In fact, all those who know the story will recognise her character as inspriation for some of Orton's characters. This is fact and it's good that playwright Simon Bent picked up on it as well as other details from Orotn's life that influenced his work.
Another nice touch was the use of dialogue to get across background information. This technique is used alot but in this instance it works a charm. Not once do you feel pulled from the flow of the story to listen to lists of background information. It's all organic. Again, in lesser hands it could have been a disaster because however great I think the script is I don't think it's actor proof.
Although all three actors are strong, however, everything depends on the final moments - the murder of Joe Orton by Kenneth Halliwell. Con O'Neill came up trumps and then some. No over the top hystrionics were on display, rather he plumbed the depths of his very being and connected in a way that one rarely gets to witness. During Halliwell's final moments of the play, after the murder, I felt really choked up. I felt his pain. I know it sounds cliche but I was a bit shaken and was wiping moisture from the corner of my eyes. And, it wasn't just me, I heard sniffling from a few others around me as well. When the actors came out for the curtain call Mr O'Neill himself was really holding back the tears, as if a flood of emotions that were stockpiled in the character of Halliwell were trying to burst forth from him. It was then that I realised that he had gone to a very real place in his performance and that reality had a real effect on the audience. A rare treat. Another big plus for live theatre.
I really don't want to say much more about this. One reason is that it seems to have divided the audiences. In my row there were about four or five people who didn't return after the interval. After the performance I saw a woman crying, bu them I overheard someone saying that they 'didn't come to the theatre to hear people argue onstage' and one young woman said that she thought it would be a comedy as it was on at the Comedy Theatre. Hmmmm. On a plus side, Stephen Fry was in the audience and he tweeted later that night about how fantastic it was. He even took Con and Chris out to dinner after the show.
If you see it and I recommend that you do, you have to listen. It's deceptivey simple, the structure, the story, but in reality it's been meticulously constructed. You have to listen.
The Offical Prick Up Your Ears Website
You can also follow me on Twitter @thisbarry.
The Spanish Tragedy with Dominic Rowan (Arcola Theatre 26/10/09) 27 October 2009
Deja vu - on so many levels. Where to start? There are three things that prompted me to see this. 1. It was at the Arcola which has done some great things and it's in my neck of the woods. 2. The image of a young girl in a party dress with a bloody axe was intriguing and 3. I have heard great things about featured actor Dominic Rowan. On a basic level I wasn't disappointed. I always like going to Arcola, wondering how the designer would get around the pillars in the Studio 1, there was a bloody little girl and Dominic Rowan pretty much lives up to his promise as the next big thing. What I had to contend with were uneven performances, not very visceral direction, and derivative design and storyline. Well, that last bit - derivative storyline - was the biggest issue. How was I to know?
From sometime between 1582 and 1592, this Elizabethan tragedy by Thomas Kyd was written in, you guessed it, language familar to Elizabethan's (and those with an ear for Shakespeare which I have mentioned in other posta can be hit and miss). For some reason this didn't click when I was reading the description so it turned out to be a rude awakening.
As those who have seen many Shakespeare plays will say, there are good versions and bad versions. For me, much of what determines good or bad is the delivery of the spoken word. It doesn't matter how many Shakespeares an actor has done or how much they have trained in Shakepeare, it all comes down to whether or not you can understand what they're saying. This was the biggest issue.
There were five different styles of delivery -The classically trained verse speech which lost any meaning or comprehension, the 'if I speak really fast it will sound like regular speech' method which again you can only get bits and pieces, the 'I'm not really sure what I'm doing but I will give it a go' method which surprisingly enough was more effective than the previous two, the 'I'll speak very quitely and slow' method which - well you can figure out how effective that was and finally the I know how to speak this language to make it understandable and emotionally satisfying. My favourite.
Keeping all this in mind, it took me a while to figure out what was happening and who was who. As it's set in Spain, and all the actors were suits, trying to figure out who Hieronimo was as opposed to Lorenzo and Balthazar took some work. Due to the variances in performance I only caught bits and pieces of what was going on however I did get to grips with the basic storyline. Someone died in battle, the love he left behid - Belimperia, falls for the son of Hieronimo who was one of the men responsible for saving the Prince in battle. The Prince falls for Belimperia, her brother orchestrates the murder of Hieronimo's son so Belimperia would be free to marry the Prince. Hieronimo vows revenge and gets it at a performance of a play within a play. There are a few more intrincacies to the story but that's basically it. There were also a few oddities which I couldn't figure out.
The girl in the bloody dress was there talking to, I think, the ghost of the Belimperia's original flame. They were always in and out saying things I couldn't catch. Also there was a show, puppet like but using the actors bodies with someone elses arms sort of thing. I think they may have been giving some background, didn't catch that either. However It was visually effective in its own way.
The space was set up with the audience on either side. Pendulum lights hung over the main playing space, there were two heavy black doors at either end and a working garage door with an additional playing space behind it. All actors were in modern dress, mainly dark suits (but why a few of them had brown shoes defied explanation). In addition to the story line this was another deja vu factor, this set was very reminiscent a production of Edward II I saw at Battersea Arts Centre - suits, pendulum lights used to focus light on specific scenes. I looked into it - not the same designer.
Directorily it was laclustre. I think the director, Mitchell Moreno, never really conquered the playing space. What seemed like intimate scenes between two characters were played with the actors as far apart as possible. There were big gaps between scenes, someone would exit at one end and there were a few too many beats before someone else entered, leaving the audience to keep watching the doors at either end to figure out where the action would resume. The play within a play at the end was very well done and very effective with the use of hanging mics and music however the murders got messy and the focus was lost.
I don't feel the actors were very committed to the production. They rose to the occassion when it was needed but there was something missing. I think it was a connection between the actors and as a result, the characters. Dominc Rowen was really good as Hieronimo and Patrick Myles as Belimperia's brother, orchestrator of all that is bad was also very good. Otherwise, it was akin to watching a summary of a story. The little girl who played the little girl was most effective as a visual incongruity but vocally was incomprehensible.
Later that evening Iooked the play up online. Ahhh, ok now I understand why it seemed so deja vu-esque. The Spanish Tragedy predates Shakespeare and establised the revenge play as a new genre in English Theatre. Shakespeare's Hamlet is said to have it's roots in the play citing the ghost figure (Also, I found out that the girl is the embodiment of revenge and she along with the ghost are discussing how revenge will be taken on all those involved in his murder. The fact that it was a little girl was a device invented for this production. Why? Who knows).
Although the production isn't entirely succesful, kudos to Doublethink Theatre for mounting a play that is rarely seen and trying to bring something new to it. Unfortunately, it ends up being one of those plays that is most effective if you know where it sits within the history of theatre. Deja vu.
The Spanish Tragedy Online
In a nutshell - I enjoyed it but didn't love it; I appreciated it but didn't admire it. I enjoyed the pagentry of the production, the music (once I settled into it), some of the performances and the general overall effect. I appreciated what Director Deborah Warner (Powerbook and Happy Days at the National, Julius Caesar at the Barbican) was getting at and it worked on an intellectual level, to a degree, but not enough to admire it. All in all a pretty mixed bag.
As with all of Deborah Warner's productions of recent memory, the production aesthetics kept me entertained. This was designed by her current regular designer Tom Pye with costumes by Ruth Myers who has mostly worked in film, big major film. I think this collision of ideas was the start of why I felt everything was almost right but just didn't hit the mark.
When you entered the theatre, the Olivier's mostly bare stage, was heavily populated by stage hands, seemingly working on getting the stage ready. I immediately thought that the production was going into 'play within a play' mode, but thankfully it never did. Banners were coming in, flying up, flying down - props moved in and out - all seemingly without any real need. It all seemed staged to appear as if they were preparing but the result was a hollow exercise.These stage hands were pretty much present onstage or just lurking off in the shadows for the entire production, they were even used as dancers (well, movers) in the distant background in one scene, and judging by some of their faces, reluctantly. Other times they were obviously there for health and safety reasons. One came in towards the end with a script and was mumbling something to one of the characters which didn't really have an effect one way or another. I coldn't figure out what this choice was trying to say.
As it settled into the first moments, one of the actors, dressed as a soldier who had been joking and clowning around during the setting the stage section, made use of a stand up mic set off to one side by performing an impromptu sound check, hitting some rhyming hip hop beats and testing a floor pedal next to the mic setting off sounds of an explosion. Throughout the production he would occasionally sit off to the side, watching, and then step up to the mic to provide sound effects or set up the scene we were about to see. This in itself was strange as I'm pretty sure the audience could figure it out through the action and dialogue that followed. This was also odd as there were projections starting each scene with hand written introductions which were read by Gore Vidal in a pre-recorded audio.
The settings throughout were hugely theatrical, with very few 'structures' as such, save Mother Courage's cart and a few tents which were flown in. There were huge beige canvases hung throughout each scene written with each scenes location. Very stark and minimal. On the other hand there were costumes which were pretty unremarkable and erased any clue as when this play was set. They were all true to each character but didn't approach or acknowledge the theatricality of the setting. Having said that, it was fun watching it all happen and I was never bored during the 3 hour running time (+ a 20 minute interval).
Continuing with another first, this was my first Mother Courage and my first Brecht. Many of us know the story - a woman and her children are able to use a war as their only income and salvation, bringing into question the validity of the acts and war. To be honest, there isn't that much more to it. I did know, however, that there was music and song interspersed. In this production, new music was written and performed (on stage) by Duke Special, whose blond dredlocked hair, flared trousers and slightly platformed shoes, added a cabaret feel. He is very good, and I really liked his voice. It took me about three songs in before I understood the role the music played - to comment on and to expand on particular moments.
Although there was an overall story - one by one each child leaves her until she is left on her own, while her own womanly needs are split between two male characters - the play seemed to be a series of moments. Each moment had a message or theme, which is fine but the performaces didn't really handle this aspect well. Fiona Shaw as Mother Courage was as expected very good but didn't knock my socks off. It's a difficult role. On one hand Mother Courage continually belittles her children to their faces and behind their backs, yet she mourns thier loss and absences. It's a difficult balance. You would have to find something about the character which is likeable so that you could empathise with her as she speaks of the love she has for the children she just called stupid. It didn't happen for me. The rest of the performances were just up and down, here and there while the older actors fared best (special mention to Charlotte Randal as Yvette the prostitute. She pitched her performace just right and provided the only genuine laughs and pathos of the evening). On the other hand many of the younger actors grated on my nerves. They relied on tricks and ticks taught in acting school. They could have been deliberate choices of style, to give everything a more theatrical feel, but I found it, especially with one actress who was only on in the final scenes whose hammy overating was a standout for the wrong reasons, unbearable at times.
As with all live theatre, much of the overall experience is decided by audience reactions. On the night I went I had the feeling that it was supposed to be funnier than it ended up being. Many times what should have been a big laugh kind of fell flat. Certainly this has to have an affect on the actors. There could be two choices for them in this situation, really go for it and play it for laughs or retreat and underplay it. I'm afraid, with the exceptions stated above, underplaying was the course for the evening.
The various elements individually had interesting elements - the set, the acting, the music, the direction, but as a cohesive whole it never made the statement I think they were going for. One of my heroes Tony Kushner (Angels in America and Caroline or Change) wrote the adaptation which premiered in New York at a Public Theatre production. I can't tell you how it stacked up next to previous adaptations or it's original German, but from what I heard I thought it was great writing, giving the production a balance between the traditional and the contemporary which the other elemnts failed to do. The vision of the director was the star of the evening with everyone and everything else going along for the ride.
Further information and full credits
Image: Andrew Scott in Sea Wall
Photographer: Simon Annand
This happened fast. There was no time to consider what I may be seeing, where I would be seeing it and finally would I get there in time. I was offered a ticket in the early afternoon and had 1 hour to get there after work - East London to West London. I made it, with time to spare. So, I was relaxed and able to take everything in. For what could be considered a 'small' evening (running time 30 minutes) it most definitely was full of surprises and revelations, on all counts.
Part of my initial aprehension about seeing Sea Wall was the location. The performaces were taking place in a library around the corner from the actual Bush Theatre and I wondered if we were going to have to stand throughout the performance. All doubts were laid to rest as I easliy found the space, right where they said it would be. There were three or four rows of chairs arranged within the large but initmate open main space - two sections of chairs faced each other and the third connected the other two leaving a small 'playing area'. Above our heads was a large skylight made of glass bricks and corner to corner windows in the two outside walls on either side were completely uncovered to the outside world and the elements.
I sat centre, and watched as the audience members entered and took thier seats while Andrew Scott calmly paced just beyond the chairs, also people watching. Occasionally I would see a Hammersmith and City train go by outside of one window and it made me wonder if the residents of the flats opposite the other windows watched the performance on a nightly basis. Time was ticking by and I got a bit antsy. As the start time approched there seemed to be a steady stream of people going to the toilet seemingly oblivious to the fact that the actor was there waiting to start. Then the strangest thing happened.
A man started to talk to me. He told me some things about a friend of his, older, a military man who had some interesting views on the existence of God. This man who was talking to me was a photographer with a wife and a small child. It was interesting hearing his story but it soon turned a corner and became dark. There was a tragedy in his life that he didn't seem to know how to come to terms with. The man was Andrew Scott and that was his performance. So natural, so intimate one quickly forgot that it was a performance. This is why I love theatre, to get an experience so intimate and personal that it transcends being just entertainment.
I had seen Andrew Scott once before in Christoher Shinn's Dying City at the Royal Court, Honestly, besides the set, Andrew Scott is the only thing I remember. He played twins, and I swear if you weren't aware that the same actor was playing both roles you would think it was actual twins on stage (but you would wonder why they were never on stage at the same time). He gets to the heart of a character, there is no showy 'hey look at me' behaviour, no posturing, no self awareness. He seems to be interested in telling the story, that particular story. Couple that with immense talent and skill and you have a magnificent actor. He makes it look easy but that's talent. It's always great to be in the presence of actors who are more intereted in the work than celebrity. Just take a look at what he's been doing recently - He just finished 2nd May 1997 at the Bush, is now doing this small unshowy monlogue Sea Wall which he also did at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year and is also in rehearsal for Mike Bartlett's Cock - Upstairs at the Royal Court. It seems obvious that with his talent he could take his career to 'big things' (he was in the Broadway version of The Vertical Hour) yet he chooses less splashy work. An actor after my own heart.
Sea Wall was written by Simon Stephens who just had a production of his play Punk Rock on at the Lyric Hammersmith. I had heard wonderful things about his writing and this was my first Simon Stephens experience. I enjoyed it, I think it was well written but I can't say more than that. As it's only about 30 minutes long I don't find that to be long enough for me to come to any conclusion about the writing. I have often felt unsatified by short stories and I kind of feel that this was the theatrical equivalent. Having said that, it has since resonated in my head, not on a profound level, but it's there. I guess that says something,
I think I will check out another Simon Stephens play in the future, it would seem wise to do so. In the meantime, there's still more Andrew Scott to come at the Royal Court. I have my ticket, I may need another for an additional visit. He's worth it.
Speaking in Tongues (Duke of Yorks 22/9/08) + Streetcar - More Desire (Donmar 17/9/09) 20 September 2009
It's difficult to know what to say. When I hear the phrase 'speaking in tongues', I think of someone possessed, speaking in a language that one is not familiar with or understands. I don't think the intention of the play Speaking in Tongues at the Duke of York's Theatre was on the demonic level but I certainly had the feeling that someone, somewhere was demonically possesed and as a result should not be held accountable.
Drawn by the cast more than the writer I had high hopes of seeing something new and interesting. It wasn't either. The play itself, written by Andrew Bovell has been around since 1996 and adapted into the film Lantana in 2001, is not new, not even to London having played at the Hampstead Theatre in 2000. I failed on that level. So that leaves interesting - yes it was, for fleeting moments.
Mr Bovell's most recent play When The Rain Stops premiered at the Almeida back in May. I saw that production. It was infinitely more interesting than Speaking in Tongues but was let down, in my opionion, and in a similar way, by some strange directorial choices. (And it was a long haul of an evening - around 2 hours with no interval).
Speaking in Tounges has four actors, each playing dual roles. In this production they are played by John Simm (Olivier nomination for Elling, the original Life on Mars); Ian Hart (see the Three More Sleepless Nights at the National post); Lucy Cohu (Blood Wedding at the Lyric Hammersmith, The Queen's Sister for Channel 4 for which she received BAFTA and Emmy nominations) and Kerry Fox (Cruel and Tender at the Young Vic, the films An Angel at my Table, Intimacy, and Shallow Grave). I don't think it's giving anything away to say that all characters are connected in some way. It's definitely not giving anything away because you can see the connections flying at you a mile away. The reveals that connect the characters were the biggest let down. Once that mystery disappeared all you were left with were style and perfomances.
The play is heavily stylised. HEAVILY stylised. I can go one step further and say that it was overly stylised. It's structure overshadowed everything else. The only thing that could have made it interesting would have been the performances but as this was a preview it was evident that the characterisations were still in the formation stage. This was especially true of John Simm who seemed not to know who his character was. Judging by the text I would say that of all the characters, his was probably the least defined. This is not to say that the others were better written but they had something about them that I think an actor could easily hook into and build upon - some tick or habit that could give a clue. Poor Mr Simm just had that he was a policeman in a bad marriage as a character.
To give an example of the style. The play opens with two sets of couples, each embarking on a one night stand. All four characters are in the same bedroom set, crossing back and forth and having a conversation with their chosen partner. However, if that wasn't difficult enough to follow, the dialogue is split between all four characters. Some start a line and it's finished by another - it could be their chosen partner or not. Other times two characters responded to a question by saying the same thing at the same time. This scene quickly became about the style of the delivery and not about the characters. As this was a preview I could tell that all four actors were concentrating heavily on getting the words and timings right. As a result, most semblances of character had to take a backseat. It's a neat trick but it gave me a headache and I can't ever rember saying that about a play. Not only did you have to keep on top of who was saying what, when, to whom and why they were overlapping, but visually it became a sort of tennis match (I was in the fifth row centre). Things calmed down in the two separate scenes that followed, each with only two characters, but I quickly lost interest in what the characters were saying. There was no real insight and once you got it, you got it.
Act 2 had four different characters. It opened with two characters, with a connection, telling the audience their thoughts, with alternating dialogue. They were speaking about the same event but from two different perspectives. Again, once you got it, you got . And to make it more difficult, each was seated at opposite ends of the stage which made following what was being said even more difficult. The natural human response to someone speaking is to look at them, so - it was definitely a Wimbledon game for this section. Through this act, more of the 'mystery' is revealed, but the audience pretty much already knows what's going to happen and how and to whom, and then it ends. Just like that. Over and out.
To be fair, the performances were good. You could see that with time it could all come together. Kerry Fox especially shown as the one who has most developed her characters, with Ian Hart coming in second, followed by Lucy Cohu. Normally I would say, it's a preview, give it time, but the play is set and it doesn't add up to much. Strangely though, for a 2 hour 20min play with one interval it really went by quickly. I can't figure that one out.
I think the director, Toby Frow, and designer Ben Stones may be partially to blame. It seems to me that for a play that is so complicated in its delivery, one would want to make it as clear as possible instead of adding to the confusion. And the set. I have the feeling that portions of it were remnants from the production of Tom Stoppard's Rock and Roll that was at the same theatre a few years back. The bare, black 'bricks' looked really familiar. There is also a heavy use of video images, especially in the second act. I felt like I may have slipped into a film showing my mistake. Considering the discussions about the differences between the film and the play in the programme, this was probably a way for them to speak to modern audiences and make it more 'accessible'. Just speculation.
At the end of one of the essays in the programme: "Frow states 'The play does not provide easy answers.' But he does hope that it will give rise to vigorous discussion, to communication on one level at least." This surely came to pass. During both the interval and after the play (after a lukewarm ovation) I overheard many discussions, mainly trying to figure out what it meant. I think people were thinking too hard about this one. Usually, if you think it's really complicated and you can't figure it out, it usually is because it isn't.
STEETCAR! I went back for a second serving of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Donmar. Mostly because I love the play but also I always find it interesting to see how a production has progressed during a run. As expected, it has moved, changed, developed and redirected itself. I loved it even more.
Here are the developments (all character based).
Elliot Cowan (Stanley - above) - has dropped his Polish-ised New Orleans accent. I didn't have a issue with it before but I have to say it took the focus off how he was speaking and allowed you to involve yourself with the character.
Barnaby Kay (Mitch) - more forcful, aggressive. Could have been a direct result of Rachel Weiss' performance.
Rachel Weiss (Blanche) - this was the biggest development. There was more definition in her flitting from reality to magic. A much bigger arc from the beginning to the end. Also, as a side note, she was still phlegmy (see original Streetcar post). Either she still has a bit of a cold after all this time or it's some sort of method acting.
On a whole, I would say the production and performances were more aggressive, they had a 'let's go for it' attitude which served it well. There is always a danger that it could tip too far to the other side and lose that delicate balance, like the one Blanche has in her mind. But, it didn't happen. It's also interesting to note that this was an evening performance on matinee day. I wonder if they boosted the energy level in order to get though a second performance? Just a thought.
Tennessee Williams' A House Not Meant To Stand - Dir. Jamie Lloyd (Donmar 14/9/09) 14 September 2009
This was a most pleasant surprise. Well, more than pleasant - joyous. I stumbled across this staged reading as well as an additional one on the 15th, when online buying a ticket earleir in the summer to my A Streetcar Named Desire return visit. Both Tennessee Williams' A House Not Meant To Stand and The Fugitive Kind were being mounted, each for one night only, at the Donmar as rehearsed readings. I know The Fugitive Kind - the precursor to Orpheus Descending which was made into the film starring Marlon Brando - The Fugitive Kind. I don't know A House Not Meant To Stand, and with the added bonus of being only £10, it was an opportunity that I didnt want to miss.
What I was also looking forward to was being in an audience with mainly Tennessee Williams fans. As there was no addtional information made available (Cast, Director) one had to be interested in the playwright to spend an evening on something that many won't be familiar with. I avoided reading anything about it online as I wanted to be surprised and not come in with any preconceptions. Now that I'm home I looked up a few things. Most significant is it was that last play Tennessee Williams wrote. Described as a 'gothic comedy' this tragic comedy comes up with the goods. But more on that in a moment.
As this was a reading there was no programme with additional information about the play but we did get a cast list. Other than the privelege of seeing a rarely performed and not well known Teneesee Williams play, this was the first idication that the evening would be special. The cast, and for me, the director Jamie Lloyd. I think he is the best director around, He really gets inside the work and gets very fine tuned performances from his casts. Here are his credits: Piaf (Donmar and Vaudeville Theatre), Three Days of Rain (Apollo Theatre), The Pride (Royal Court - Olivier award for Oustanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre), Harold Pinter's The Lover and The Collection (Comedy Theatre) and The Caretaker (Sheffield Crucible and Tricylce Theatre). All of which I've seen. All excellent.
Now the cast: Alun Armstong (Sweeney Todd at the National - Olivier award, Bleak House, Little Dorrit -both TV and Get Carter - film); Obi Abili (The Brothers Size - Young Vic, Angels in America - Lyric Hammersmith, Fabulation - Tricycle); Felicity Jones (The Chalk Garden - Donmar, That Face - Royal Court, Brideshead Revisited - film); Anton Lesser (A Doll's House - Donmar, The Vertical Hour, The Seagull - both Royal Court, Little Dorrit - TV); Tom Riley (The Verical Hour - Royal Court, Lost in Austen - TV); Alison Steadman (Abigail's Party - stage and TV, Gavin & Stacey - TV, Confetti, Topsy Turvy - both TV and Shirley Valentine - film); Tim Steed (Much Ado About Nothing - Regen's Park, The Pride - Royal Court) and Una Stubbs (La Cage Aux Folles - Mernier Chocolate Factory, Pillars of the Community - National Theatre, Eastenders - TV). These are by no means exhaustive credits but hopefully you will recognise some of these by the credits I chose.
Now the play. Here's quick rundown of plot from Wikipedia ( editing out bits that should remain a surprise should you ever see it) - ' The play is set during the Christmas holiday in a deteriorating Mississippi home of Bella and Cornelius McCorkle, who have just buried thier eldest son, a gay man Cornelius banished from the home years earlier. During a raging storm, heavy drinker Cornelius, who once had political aspirations, tries to get Bella, who suffer from mild dementia, to disclose where she concealed the considerable amount of money she inherited from her grandfather, who accumulated his wealth by making and selling moonshine. Whe she refuses to cooperate, Cornelius threatens to have her institutionalised, just as he did with thier daughter Joanie. Coming to her rescue is thier negligent youngest son Charlie who has returned home with is girlfriend in tow.'
It sounds like a pretty dire situation, not ripe for comedy, but add in a zany busybody neighbour who has recently succumbed to plastic surgery, her down home macho-ist husband along with wild revelations about the girlfriend and you have a great and very funny comedy. What's interesting is although it's the 70's and sex, pills, plastic surgery and foul language run rife - it is still very much Tennessee Williams. I would venture to say it may be the funniest Tennessee Williams I've seen or read. However funny it might be, as is Tennessee's way, there is alway a sad, forlorn undercurrent. In this play it's Bella's refusal to let go of the past. As she feels she is approaching death, and helped along by her dimentia, she longs more and more for the life she once had, when all three children were present and everything was good.
Keep in mind that this was a reading. There were only chairs on the stripped bare Streecar set and all actors were on book and one of the actors - Obi Abili - read all the stage directions. This element was a great success. Anyone who has ever read a Tennessee Williams play will know that his stage directions tend to be very detialed and he ususally uses the same wonderful use of language in these directions that he uses in his plays. Having them read laoud not only gave the audience a greater sense of the action, it was also entertaining to listen to.
Hats off to the actors. To be able to get such fully realised performances, complete with believable Southern accents in a reading is a testament to their skills. I am sure this is also due to jamie Lloyds direction. i would say that it must be a very difficult thing to get stage a reading, wth little rehearsal , no set and on book, in way that is also interesting to look at, and keeps the audience engaged and entertained. At over two hours with one interval, this reading flew by.
Of all the performances there were three that shone. Both Felicity Jones and Una Stubbs were absolutely hysterically funny and spot on with their characterisations, and the great Alison Steadman gave great humanity and pathos to the bewildered Bella. A close second would be Alun Armstong as Cornelius and Anton Lesser as the macho Emmerson. The only real issue was that although the stage directions were great to listen to, alot of the actors diction was garbled and I felt I was often missing elements.
As with all 'pop out of nowhere' productions I have to wonder why they did the reading. Jamie Lloyd was there, the first time I've seen him in person, as were from what I can tell, Donmar staff. To me it points to the possibility of a full production. That would be fantastic. I would love that and be the first in the queue for tickets. There are a few scenes, ones dealing with the more dramatic parts, that in a fully realised production would be heartbreaking. Elements that can only be hinted at in a reading.
However much I want a full production I have two concerns. One - Jamie Lloyd would have to direct it as it's very obvious that he 'gets' Tennessee Williams, and two - please, oh please let it not be at the Donmar. This play needs a big playing space and the Donmar isn't set up for this, at least without dodgy sightlines. It was great for this reading, but a full production, no.
A House Not Meant To Stand could have just been a nice added gift to the audience. It ties in nicely with Streetcar and there are alot of elements and themes that resonate with current times. So if that's the reason - then I'm extremely appreciative - thanks Donmar! But, I'm still secretly hoping for more.
One last thought. If Tennessee were alive and still writing today, I'm sure he would be writing about how the more things chage, the more they stay the same. Actually, unbeknownst to him, he already has.