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

Fiona Shaw in Mother Courage and Her Children (National Theatre 20/10/09) 20 October 2009

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

Big Little Night: Sea Wall with Andrew Scott (Bush Theatre 14/10/09) 14 October 2009

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.