Gang of Four - intimate gig (The Macbeth 24/8/09) + Three More Sleepless Nights (National Theatre 24/8/09) 26 August 2009

At first glance it would seem that would seem that these are two very disparate events, but in reality they have one big thing in common, they both were about observation, one of society in general and one of human interaction and romantic entanglements.

I stumbled across Three More Sleepless Nights at the National Theatre when the flyer came across my desk one day. To be honest it was seeing that Ian Hart (Backbeat, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the American TV series Dirt) was in the cast that really interested me as well as the price (£10) and the author. It's an early play by Caryl Churchill who's best known for writing Top Girls and the more recentish A Number which I saw in it's original incarnation at the Royal Court with Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig. (It's the play about the clones which was made into a TV version either earlier this year or last)

On the whole, I have a hard time keeping up with what's on at the National - three theatres, each with multiple productions that perform in what I see as random repertory. Productions overlap start and end dates, some seem to pop back after you assumed they were over. This production seemed to make the situation even more complicated. Just a handful of performances, stuck in the middle sized National space, the Lyttlelton, over Helen Mirren's Phedra set. Litterally. Pushed as far downstage as possible, the set of an ordinary bedroom, was placed directly on the Phedra set. The back bedroom wall was almost nonexistent so the vista above and beyond was Phedra's grey stone set.

The majority of the start times for these handfull of performances were 6pm, with the occasional 8pm second show. At a short 50 minutes long, this seemed reasonable but I have been wondering what was in it for the National. All tickets were £10. You had to reserve your seat but no matter where you sat you paid £10. Very reasonable. I assumed at first that the early start time meant that they could still do Phedra later, but I don't think it could really have been an option as that would mean less than an hour to get the audience out, tear down the Sleepless Nights set and dress Phedra. Possibly, having not studied Phedra's performance times, there was a gap in the rep schedule and it wasn't feasible to remove Phedra.

I did study the cast and crew biographies for a clue. In addition to the wonderful Ian Hart (who by the way will be appearing soon in the West End with John Simm in Speaking in Tongues - the play version of the film Lantana - I'll be seeing it), the other actors were all, judging by their credits, accomplished and always working. They were Lindsey Coulson, Ian Hart, Hattie Morahan and Paul Ready. Maybe the clue was with director Gareth Machin. This was his first directing project on the National stages. He is associated with the National Studio and prior to that was the Artistic Director of Southwark Playhouse after Thea Sharrock (Equus). Maybe all the elements came together at the right time to make it possible to do a low risk piece. Great idea. Maybe not the right piece for the space though.

Here's the National's description of the play - 'An explosive play abouth human interaction and love tangled relationships'. I'd agree with everything except 'explosive'. As the title hints, the play is divided into three sections. Each section concentrates on a couple, either getting ready for bed or trying to sleep. The first features Ian Hart and Lindsey Coulson in tour de force performances of a bickering couple. A loudly bickering couple. Accusations are thrown, then thrown back, the tables turn, the characters intentions blur. It's a great feat to pull that one off. It was very believable, entertaining, funny and recognisable. Within the fast paced, overlapping dialogue you can hear truths, their truths, emerge, used as artillary to obliterate the other. Loved it - it kept me transfixed.

The second scene was the downfall. There were alot of silences as this couple slowly fall apart - literally and figuratively. This particular scene brought any shortcomings the production had to the forefront. I was in the second row as I had heard it was an intimate play and although it helped being closer it was still evident that it would have worked better in a smaller theatre. The enitre scene moved in and out of being very static. Many silences, including extended 'in bed not doing alot' moments.The scene started very much in contrast to the first scene. Any communication was passivly aggressive and only audible through series of grunts and groans as they tossed and turned. Interesting, for a second. Once you got it, you got it. I'm not sure if it was the actors but maybe more the direction and the space. How do you play silence? Especially when a couple are lying in bed with dimmed lights? Honestly, even at 6.30pm or so, I had difficulty keeping my eyes open.

It all comes to a good conclusion with the third scene, which effectively takes elements from the first two scenes and puts them into a scenario which makes everything that came before more clear. (I wondered, more than a few times, what the second scene was all about while I was watching it).

Overall I enjoyed it. It was interesting and I liked the structure. It was very much about observation as I doubt anyone would come away really caring for any of the characters. That would be almost impossible to do in 50 minutes. It was a good unpretentious evening, which is always welcome. Too bad it wasn't in the the smaller Cottesloe Theatre.

Directly after the performance I was on a bus, headed to Hoxton for an intimate pre Anniversary tour gig by Gang of Four. They are my 'friends' on MySpace which I use for keeping up with my favourite bands, and they had a competition for free intimate gig tickets. I didn't enter as you had to buy tickets to the main gig at the HMV Forum to win. I hadn't planned on going so I didn't enter. They posted another link about a week later through NME, this time no strings attached. I have to say that I hesitated for a moment thinking that they were having a difficult time shifting a few tickets to a small gig. Could that be a good omen? I knew that there were only two of the original four remaining. I went through that before when in the late 90's I saw The Brothers Johnson open for Isaac Hayes, Or should I say the Brother (singular) Johnson. As there were only two originally, this was a huge disappointment. Anyway, I took the chance, and was rewarded by being put on the list.

My exposure to Gang of Four was initally limited to the first couple of albums, YEARS ago. I won't say how long in order to protect the innocent. I wasn't living in the UK at the time and there never seemed to be much to be found about the band at the time, especially as this was pre internet. My interest was then revived when they released the excellent Brief History of the 20th Century, sort of greated hits, more overview album in 1990. Anyone wishing to get into their music should start there. For some time I sort of wrote them off after their foray into the more populast sounds of 'I Love A Man in a Uniform' (the irony was lost on popular culture as the song was adopted by any TV show, hen night or gay party as the anthem for oggling men in uniforms). After this they sort of disappeared from my radar. Every so often I'd play the Brief History CD, now with ipod it rotates more frequently. it wasn't unitl My Space that I really began to look more carefully at the band and what they were all about. To say all that prepartion in no way prepared me for how amazing they are live is an understatement.

Doors opened at 8pm and it stated in my email - get there early, band starts 8.30ish. I didn't have too much control over how long it took to get there. I arrived at The Macbeth pub in Hoxton Street around 8ish. There was no queue outside and only a handful of punters once inside. The Macbeth is a smallish pub dominated by the bar and at the far end of the room they built a stage complete with lighting rig. 8.30 came and went. By this time it was pretty full. The only thing that kept me sane during the wait (I was on my own) was the great music they were playing. A real mix from the 60s, 70s and 80s. Real quality. As those of us in the middle jostled for a good view without a supporting pole in the way as we reached 9pm. It was getting mighty hot in there and I wondered how long I would be able to hold out. Overall it was a great crowd. Mix of ages - obvious fans from day one mixed in with newer, younger fans. No uber fans in sight which was a relief.

They finally hit the stage close to 9.30pm and it was worth the wait. To an extent I find it difficult to describe a bands music with any justice. I never, ever consider descriptions that compare bands - I don't think it does anyone any good.Imagine chainsaw guitar, wall of sound guitars often using a rhythm guitar pattern, sometimes staccato mixed in with thumping r&b tinged basslines and powerhouse rhythmic drums. Vocals have a punk edge to them, conveying, thoughts in less of a sing-songy way than as statements - sometimes lyrical, sometimes authoritative and sometimes matter of fact. That's the best I can think of to describe it.

My fear of them being elder statermen trying to relive their youth was soon dispelled. The two original members - Jon King and Andy Gill - performed like their life depended on it. Jon King with his sometimes demonically possessed look (not forced) and Andy Gill's guitar playing were spot on, lifting what could have been a quick trip down memory lane to a first rate live music experience. It helps that their music has not dated. It sounds as fresh as it ever did. Live, great songs and musicianship is transformed into a energetic, visceral, heart pounding, and body bobbing good time.

They played all their well known tunes (with the exception of 'I Love a Man...' and the other song from that album which never really made sense to me within the Gang of Four canon - 'Is it Love?') - 'To Hell With Poverty!', 'Damaged Goods', 'Anthrax' and the fantastic 'What We All Want' being my highlights.

I love Jon's lyrics, very politically aware and wonderfully observational. He plays with words and references literature. Also, what I had to keep reminding myself that this sound was being made by only three instruments - Guitar, bass and drums. It was so full. A sound that many bands could not even begin to replicate with more. I must give a shout out to the two newest members of the band - Thomas McNeice on bass and Mark Heaney on drums (who became a father the day before - that's dedication). Both exceptional and integrate seamlessly into the band.

All in all, 90 minutes of excellent music. I have found of late that one could easily forget what a great live gig really is. This was the real deal.

During a few breaks Andy entertained questions from the audience. My favourite - 'Is it true you hate Coldplay (sic)?' - Andy 'Music for bedwetters'. I think that pretty much sums it up.

A Streetcar Named Desire - Rachel Weisz, Elliot Cowan (Donmar 6/8/09) + Helen (Shakespeare's Globe 5/8/09) 8 August 2009

Before I roll off the Streetcar I would like to mention the show I saw the night before, Euripides' Helen and more specifically the theatre where I saw it, Shakespeare's Globe.

I was at the press night performance of Helen which is unusual as I tend not to go to Shakespeare's Globe - there's one main reason for this, Shakespeare. Don't get me wrong, I think Shakespeare is just fine but what I've learned over the years is that I only seem to like certain productions. I've also learned that for me these certain productions are few and far between. To date there are only three I've truly enjoyed and not just appreciated that come to mind - the full length Hamlet with Paul Rhys at Plymouth and the Young Vic Theatre, the recent All's Well That Ends Well at the National and the film version of Titus directed by Julie Taymor (that's a cheat I know, but it was a film version of her original stage version so I'm counting it).

Anyway, I thought a Greek classic could be interesting, and it's not Shakespeare. Well, everyone seemed to enjoy it, mostly, but I didn't. Although it's not Shakespeare it still had that Shakespeare edge in it's style. It was mostly presentational storytelling and not much pathos, for me. I just couldn't connect. From what I understand this was a literal translation of the original Greek without much thought for the original poetry. That explained alot.

Strange thing about Shakespeare's Globe, the elements that make it special are the same that I don't really like. I was sat at the top with a pole blocking some of my view and that immediately took me out of that place I need to be in to concentrate. I think there are more partially obstructed views than not in the Globe. Plus, of course it's still light outside and everyone else in the audience is in plain view, so much in fact that there's almost no delineation between audience and production. I usually find the audience much more interesting and end up watching the groundlings and the blank expressions of those seated opposite me. As a result, I miss out on great chunks of what's happening on stage. It's great to experience the Globe a few times but I don't find it to be an ideal place to see theatre. And great reviews aside, I didn't notice alot of people enraptured by the production. I think if you generally enjoy Shakespeare you will enjoy Helen (and it's only 90 minutes with no interval).

On to Streetcar at the Donmar. I love Tennessee Williams. Let's get that out of the way first. However, that fact in no way clouds my reactions to the productions. Tennessee Williams is my Shakespeare. To date, in London, I've seen five productions of Tennessee Williams plays - two poor, two great, one excellent. First the poor - Night of the Iguana with Woody Harrelson. Boring and uninvolving. The other, Summer and Smoke - same experience. It just didn't work and quite possibly as I saw it at the end of a truncated run, the actors may have lost interest. The great - The Glass Menagerie with Jessica Lange in the West End directed by Rupert Goold along with The Rose Tattoo with Zoe Wannamaker at the National. And the excellent - A Streetcar Named Desire at the Donmar.

A word to those who have only seen the film version - nothing could prepare you for how visceral, sexual, shocking and moving it is on stage. It's been widely known that cuts were made to the film so it could pass the censors. Part of that footage was reinstate in recent DVD versions - the scene where Stella slinks down the stairs to Stanley after a bust up. It was deemed too sexually provocative by 1950's standards. I always forget that the censoring and strict standards applied to films in those years didn't apply to the stage. On stage Streetcar gets ugly, and real. I can't help but think how it must have felt to have experienced it during its original stage incarnation in 1947. It must have been like getting hit by lightning. If it feels electrifying now, it must have been a crazy force of nature type hurricane back then. It's a classic and won the Pullitzer for a reason.

I've always depended on the kindness of strangers. I don't want realism, I want magic. STELLA!
As with many classic plays there are tense moments when the classic lines appear. One false move and they can often take you right out of the moment. It's a dangerous line between remaining true to the text and character whilst giving 'those' lines a new spin. On top of that it's just getting Tennessee right.

What most of the American South based Tennessee Williams productions I saw were missing was an understanding of the American South and the Southerner. In addition, I would venture to say that his dialogue can be as difficult for some actors as Shakespeare's. Tennessees language is a mixture of poetry and straight ahead realism and humour. Getting that balance right can be tricky business. You really have to understand the character and get in the groove to sucessfully pull it off. It's so much more than just getting the accent right. This production gets it right. There's not one wrong note in it's style and delivery (although accents are sometimes shaky it doesn't matter - at all). I think much of this is down to the American director who is himself from the South.

I now realise I'm assuming you know the story. If you don't, here is the nutshell version (thanks Amazon)-

Fading southern belle Blanche DuBois is adrift in the modern world. When she arrives to stay with her sister Stella in a crowded, boisterous corner of New Orleans her delusions of grandeur bring her into conflict with Stella's crude, brutish husband Stanley. Eventually their violent collision course causes Blanche's fragile sense of identity to crumble, threatening to destroy her sanity and her one chance at happiness.

Back to the production, all of the performances are solid. I really believed that Blanche (Rachel Weisz) and Stella (Ruth Wilson) were sisters. Great casting there. I think the most difficult role is Stanley, mainly because every actor will always have to fight to get out of the original's - Marlon Brando - shadow. Elliot Cowan carves his own Stanley - frightening, lecherous, primal and sometimes conflicted. There were a few spots, however, mostly in the beginning where I thought he might have chosen to channel Brando's voice but this could have been a deluded expectation on my part. Strange side point - Mr Cowan's body is ripped beyond belief (mainly due to his personal atheletic interests) and although that's not my preference, I heard a great many 'Stanley's fit' statements during the interval and afterwards. I find this really strange some choose to ignore how brutish Stanley is and just see sex. Talk about parallels.

Luckily my friend and I were sitting stage right next to the aisle in the fifth (and back) row in the stalls so had a good view. I imagine however that If you were on the other side or sitting closer to the upstage area you may have your views impaired. The action takes place in two rooms, separated by a sheer curtain that is sometimes drawn. Sightlines seem to be an issue sometimes with the Donmar. I'm am seeing it again in September and will be on the other side so we'll see.

Another side note - a testament to the talent of Rachel Weisz. It was evident that she was suffering with a cold. She had to blow and wipe at her nose a few times and there were tissues and hankies available in various places on stage. Despite this there was not one time when it impaired her performance. She gave a full on, fully realised and touchingly accurate performance, bringing Blanche's inner world to life. Neither her energy nor passion ever flagged. I never for a moment felt that she was giving less as a result of illness. A true professional in every sense of the word.

Lastly, I have always been moved by the filnal scenes in the film. In this production those emotions were maginfied 10 fold. I 'felt' it. I was embarrassed, saddened, moved - I held my breath and fought back tears. Just thinking about it moves me even now. What a thrill. They have all done Tennesee justice. I loved it.