Thebes Land at the Arcola Theatre review ****

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Thebes Land

Arcola Theatre, 14th September 2017

Thebes Land was a hit last year at the Arcola, winning a Best Production Offie, and is back for another run as part of a short festival of Latin American theatre. Director Daniel Goldman has created a new English translation of Franco-Uruguayan playwright Sergio Blanco’s work, which has been performed around the world. It is not difficult to see why.

Trevor White play T, a playwright who is attempting to dramatise the life of Martin Santos, a parricide who has been imprisoned for life, played by Alex Austin, who doubles up as Freddie the actor chosen to play Martin. From this simple premise the play explores a whole host of themes. Martin’s culpability for his shocking crime in the face of extreme provocation. The nature of retribution and the justice of imprisonment. What is is to be a man and the burgeoning relationship between playwright and murderer/actor. The value of art and education in rehabilitation. The concept of theatrical illusion and the gap between observer and observed. How truth is constructed. The Oedipal impulse and myth.

Now if all this sounds to you like a recipe for bum-aching, brain-numbing, smart-arsed hard work you’d be wrong. Well almost wrong as there are a couple of times when it felt the conceptual envelope had been pushed a little too far, and that some sight excisions might have been contemplated. But overall this is an impressive construct. Our two actors have the exact measure of this play now. Trevor White reveals T’s ambivalent and changing motives and the way in which his intellectualism is slowly punctured by Martin’s humanity. Alex Austin is genuinely outstanding as he shows Martin and Freddie slowly seeping into each other. There is a great deal of leavening humour. There are enough changes in the direction of the “real” and “imagined” characters, and their relationships, to keep you on your toes, if not quite the edge of your seat. There are scenes of real pathos and shock. The set, a large cage, is drenched in metaphor. You even learn a bit about the precepts of theatre.

All in all a very satisfying night out at the ever inventive Arcola. I see the proper reviews focus on different facets of the play though most seemed to like it albeit not entirely convincing as to why. That about sums it up.

 

 

Loot at the Park Theatre review ****

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Loot

Park Theatre, 14th September 2017

There has been a lot of progress in the last 50 years in this country. Good people are more tolerant and accepting of the identity of others (though there are still plenty of bigoted d*ckheads to be found polluting the discourse), The fairy tales of religions are losing their grip on peoples’ thoughts, (though some still get fired up by this tosh and just will not leave us unbelievers alone). The police will always have unconscionable biases and corruptions but great strides have been made in remedying institutional failings.

Oh and the idea of shoving a dead body around a set for comedic effect in the theatre is unlikely to outrage any but the most conservative of Mail readers. All this means that the dark satire of Joe Orton’s famous play Loot is now muted, and the outrage which greeted its first performances seems quaint to this observer. BUT it is still, when performed well, a very funny, subversive play and its targets are still worth taking aim at. Taking the piss intelligently out of the institutions which create the superstructure is still a vital artistic imperative. And an antidote to all those digital crusaders who get wound up for nanoseconds about ephemera.

And be assured this production, directed by Michael Fentiman, at the Park is very good indeed, and it would be a shame if the remaining sold out performances are the last we see of it. The set and costumes from Gabriella Slade are exemplary – the action cleverly all takes place in an all-black funeral parlour with a hefty dose of religious iconography. The costumes put us slap bang in the middle of the 1960s, not the flower power generation but the more mundane, tired, conservative world which was the reality. The production kicks off with a speech from that tiresome crone Mary Whitehouse. And we have an actor as corpse rather than a dummy which adds a new and funny dimension.

The excellent cast take a great delight in playing up the characters faults and rapidly firing off the lines in the faux sincere way that they require (and largely avoiding the Carry On-esque trap that bedevils amateur interpretations). Everyone here is on the take in some way. Following a “bank job” lovers Dennis (Calvin Demba) and Hal (Sam Frenchum) need somewhere to store the loot. Hal’s Mum has just passed away but her murderous nurse Fay (Sinead Matthews) has designs on his Dad, McCleary (Ian Redford), or, more exactly, his money. Truscott (Christopher Fulford) is the copper investigating the bank robbery but poses as an inspector from the Water Board to grill the others. Cue the acid humour and farcical form and a conclusion where everyone gains financially though loses morally, not that they give a sh*t.

Sam Frenchum show’s up Hal’s jealously in the face of Dennis’s bisexuality and avarice. This is where the restoration of the cuts demanded by the Lord Chamberlain (yes kids we had a bloke in a wig telling us what we could watch until the 1960s) is most welcome, sharpening the ambivalent relationship between the two lads. Shades of Orton and Halliwell’s own relationship? Ian Redford’s McLeary feigns, but cannot entirely claim, innocence. Sinead Matthews is outstanding as the hypocritical Irish nurse and her comic timing is flawless. And Christopher Fulford as Truscott defines splenetic as our bent copper whose twisting of judicial logic ends up with, for example, the priceless concept of Christ’s crucifixion as a put up job. Oh and Anah Ruddin as Mrs McLeavy almost steals the show despite not uttering a word.

So no longer a shocking black satire: more a clever parody with astute commentary on “that old whore society” as Orton observed.  I am guessing it helps if you have a feel for the period but the stereotypes and absurdities are recognisable and the laughs abundant. Like Ben Johnson but without the need for a degree in Ben Johnson studies to understand it. If the production pops up somewhere else (beyond Newbury where it is off to next) take a look. It is perfectly possible to make a sh*tshow of Loot which entirely misses the points in the pursuit of forced laughs and overplayed farce. Indeed, by all accounts, the first productions failed until Orton rewrote and licked it into shape and the 1970 film version is weak.

If you are interested get along to the Queer British Art exhibition at Tate Britain (Queer British Art at Tate Britain review ***). Not a treasure trove of great art but a fascinating journey through gay history in Britain in the century or so proceeding the Sexual Offences Act 1967 which partially decriminalised homosexuality. Orton’s play premiered a couple of years before the Act. The exhibition shows some of the library books that Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell “defaced” and for which they were unbelievably imprisoned for 6 months.