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.

Judgement Day (Almeida 08/09/09) 9 September 2009

We're back in adaptation land. I pointed this phenomenon out to my friend and it's now beginning to hit home. Originally I wasn't going to say anything about Judgement Day due to two issues that I faced while seeing it, but after a chat with a work colleague today who saw it the night before I thought it may be worth giving it a go.

As a preface, it's another adaptation but to it's credit, it's a play and a playwirght that don''t really get seen or performed (I had never heard of either). I did have an issue with either the adaptation or the direction, not sure which, but I'll come to that in a minute.

FIrst performed in Germany in 1945, Judgement Day is presented in a new version by Christopher Hampton (adaptations and translations include: God of Carnage, Art, Les Liaison Dangereuses, Sunset Boulevard; Screenplays include: Atonement, Dangerous Liaisons; Original work includes: The Philanthropist which was just revived on Broadway with Matthew Broderick)from the original by Odon von Horvath. The story takes place in a small German village in the 1940's. After a train crash which leaves many dead, the villagers speculate on who was to blame with the results of the trial leaving many in doubt. That's all I will say, I know it sounds somewhat vague, but saying any more would give too much away I feel.

So, what were my reasons for not wanting to discuss this initially? Firstly, it was a preview performance. I find there are two types of previews. One is where a production has been performed at another theatre already so those previews are ususally just ironing out issues with being in a new space, or it's in very good shape already (although I think the preview aspect should still be taken into consideration). The second are previews in which the production is still finding it's feet. I find writing about a performace viewed during the second set of circumstances unfair to all involved. Although productions do grow and mature during a run, those first performances should not be used as a measuring stick for its success or failure.This particular performance fell into the latter category as it was evident that there were alot of kinks that needed to be worked out, and performances that may not have found the right tone yet.

The second issue was the cast. We were greeted by the Almeida's Executive Director who explained that the actress who plays the part of Frau Leimgruber - Sarah Woodward - was unable to be there that evening and that the part would be played by Susan Brown. It was explained that since the Almeida don't employ undersudies Miss Brown only came on board at 4.30pm that afternoon and shet would be on book. (After I returned home ad properly read my programme I discovered it was slipped with Susan Brown's bio and a note stating that Sarah Woodward was granted compassionate leave. My best goes out to her).

So, here we are, a preview performace where one of the actors is a last minute substitute. My friend pointed out after the performance (we were seated behind the director James Macdonald - Dying CIty, Blasted, 4.48 Psychosis, Drunk Enough to Say I Love You - so there wasn't any discussion about the production, on our parts, inside the theatre) that it was quite possible tthe last minute change in cast effected the cast and crew.

The set is a real star. Part of it is a train platform complete with smoke when trains arrive and depart. The platform then, throughout the production, moves back and forth as well as rotates to give the whole production a very cinematic feel. Unfortunately things didn't really go all that smoothly. Nothing outrageously bad but just off kilter enough to notice - things like doors not sliding or closing correctly, missed cues for light fixutres to move - just a bit messy.

The perfomances were somewhat uneven, some more mannered than others (I'm not a fan of mannered performances). Here we are at an adaptation issue, or a directing issue i'm not sure. The entire play takes place in Germany in the 1940's. I think it's fine that decided not to have German accents but everyone was speaking with their natural British dialect. We had accents from Northern Ireland to the East End of London. I found that odd. I wonder what the reasoning was behind that. I kind of gave me the feeling that not enough effort was made athough I'm sure that's not the case. Just a strange decision.

To the play itself. I could see what teh playwright was getting at (clue in the title) but at times it seemed very vague in delivery, tmoving into predictable, then into a place no one could see coming. That was also the place where I lost any understanding of what was going on. My initial thought was that the play itself was not very strong. The circumstances surrounding it that evening didn't help.

I briefly discussed this with a work colleague the next day. She had seen it the night before, with full cast intact. From her description the perfomances were as different as night and day. In particular we discussed the end. Her take on it all made sense. Although I'm not sure if it's meant to be open to interpertation. She also thought it was a shame I didn't get to see Sarah Woodward peform the role of Frau Leimgruber as she gave a wonderful performance.

After all that I have concluded that due to unforseen circumstances, I was witness to an off performance and the production does deserve people's attention. That's not to say if I went back later in the run, all would be forgiven. There are still elements that I know I would have a problem with, such as characters ramdomly changing thier points of view. But, at a little over 90 minutes, I would say that it's worth giving it a shot. And with such theatre pedigree behind it, you will definitely get something out of it.

Vanya - Chekhov Redux (Gate Theatre 1/9/09) 1 September 2009

If it weren't for a Whatsonstage.com two for one ticket offer I probably wouldn't have seen this. (2 tickets for £16 is a good good deal). I had noticed it before, seen the flyer, saw it in their brochure but dismissed it as just another of the 'adaptations' that we've been thrown recently. But, on closer inspection (the description) I took a chance:

Vanya by Sam Holcroft, inspired by Anton Chekov's 'Uncle Vanya'

(So far so good. 'Inspired by'. Sounds like a new play. Here's the rest)

Uncle Vanya is an ode to unrequited love, dogged perseverance and strength of the human spirit. In Vanya, Sam Holcroft and director Natalie Abrahami strip away the bustles, samovars and supporting cast, to chart the inner lives of four of Chekov's most beloved characters.

Two men love the same woman. Two women love the same man.

Vanya explores the chaos and heartach that ensues when we fall in love.

Funny thing, as I was typing this I realised the anomaly in the copy. It's beeing sold as a new play, inspired by Uncle Vanya, yet they seem to be afraid that theatregoers will be angry at seeing a stripped down version so they let us know that a stripped down version is exactly what it is. Not a new play at all. Here we go again.

I think this points exactly to what the main problem is with Vanya, it doesn't know what it is. Is it a new play inspired by the classic? Is it a revisit? Is it a new take? It's all of these and none of these. They all cancel each other out.

Let's start with the peripherals - design and music. Great set on the tiny Gate stage. In fact, it's so sucessfull you never for a moment consider how small space it is. Basically the set is a box, a large crate that rotates becoming interior and exterior scenes in various rooms. I'm sure there is some symbolism that goes along with everything seeming to be under construction and with the one character who deconstructs then reconstructs it but I never figured it out.

It's all in modern dress. So far so current. Then, oddly, an old gas lamp is lit. A lamp like one you could find in a tradtional version of Uncle Vanya. This is replaced by something more modern later on. One of the characters puts a record on an old gramophone, the music is classical in nature and again evokes another, earlier era. Then, in various scenes more modern music is used.

On to the dialogue - again a clash of styles. On one hand there's a lyrical, almost poetic nature to some of the monologues, but as with everything else, this is placed directly again blunt, contemporary dialogue. it doesn't work - on may levels. The poetic lyrical dialogue seems forced and too much of a style that is attempting to echo another era. The contemoporary dialogue is clumsy and often rubs up agains the lyrical dialogue as if to point out that difference.

The story? I've seen an excellent Uncle Vanya directed by Katie Mitchell at the Young Vic about a decade ago and although I enjoyed it, I have to admit that the storyline didn't really stay with me. I remember not really caring that much about what happened. It was interesting but not enough to make me care. It seemed to be more concerned with the politics of the times, personal and otherwise, than with the immediate concerns of the characters. Just my opinion. I'm not a big Chekhov person so that may have played a part. I appreciated it but it didn't uncover any unchartered layers of the human psyche.

Anyway, I am very much of the opinion that one shouldn't need to know original source material to enjoy a play but I did get the impression that by stripping away any political motivation, which they did in Vanya, that one is not left with much. In fact, it seems that everything has been stripped away to the point that there are, If I remember correctly, 5 monlogues that reveal more about the characters than the story or dialogue. For some this might not seem alot but if you take into consideration that the play is only 90 minutes with no interval... well you do the maths. Oh, there was also another speech that could almost be considered a monlogue that the doctor gives, detailing his theories on relationships and attraction - I lost track of how long this was as I occasionally drifted. Throughout, characters are telling us what they think but there isn't enough information given to understand why? This is where knowledge of the source material would come in handy.

The performances were all solid. I personally prefered some over others but that's not to take anything away from them. Here's the cast: Fiona Button as Sonya (who reminded me of a blond Anna Maxwell Martin), Robert Goodale as Vanya, Susie Trayling as Yelena and Simon Wilson as Astrov.

Going back to my original point, this is not from what I observed, a play 'inspired by' Chekhov. This, again, is a basic reworking of a classic. What I will give them though is that they changed the name and used the word 'inspired', letting us know that it is not Chekov. Try as they might, this version doesn't uncover any new ground.

I don't understand why she (Sam Holcroft) didn't just write a new play. It tries so hard to make us understand the connection with the original that I couldn't couldn't consider Vanya as anything other than a stripped down, fiddled with version. The audience seemed to enjoy it, I don't know what they were reacting to but one person gave it a standing ovation. I can't help but think that they were applauding a new version of a classic and not a new play. If we had more of the latter I might consider standing.