Knives in Hens at the Donmar Warehouse review *****

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Knives in Hens

Donmar Warehouse, 21st September 2017

Now I guessed I was going to like this. All the clever folk who know about plays and stuff had raved about it. Written in 1995 by David Harrower it is considered a classic of British modern theatre. Its ostensible subject matter, the power of language, and its setting, an imagined English medieval past, is right up my street (thanks in part to the vicarious interest generated from MS’s journey).

But I had no idea just how brilliant this was going to be. Easily joins my top 10 all time best plays. It is staggeringly good and director Yael Farber’s production could scarce be bettered I would think.

For those like me who weren’t up to speed on Knives in Hens, it goes like this. The Young Woman, an outstanding performance from Judith Roddy, is married to ploughman Pony William, a brutal but fearful, Christian Cooke, in a village somewhere up North. Her knowledge of the world is bounded by her role as wife, the work she has to do, by language and by location. Husband sends her with their grain to the Miller, Gilbert North, played by Matt Ryan with profound depth. His wife has died, he is alone, and the village has cast him out, in part because they are dependent on him. But he can write and he can think and see beyond the everyday. She is wary of the Miller but their relationship develops. Pony William betrays her. There is a dramatic denouement. That is basically it.

The language is spare. The lighting is monochrome. The set, with a giant grindstone, behind a muddied, brickstone floor, is austere. We have a mournful cello and a near unbroken drone. There is even some flour drifting through the air at one point. For those familiar with Yael Farber’s work, including the somewhat unfairly maligned Salome at the NT, (Salome at the National Theatre ***) all this is likely familiar. But in this play these directorial tropes were bang on.

So what is so special about the play? Well for me the text perfectly captures the world in which it is set. The medieval mind was very different from the modern mind. Knowledge was largely derived from immediate experience or dictated by the Church. The supernatural was very real. Nature informed existence. Language for this class was largely spoken not written. Writing was the medium for power, the word of God and contract. The schism between the rural and the urban. David Harrower’s text inhabits this world. No nostalgic arcadia here.

But this is only the starting point for more universal questions. How do we gain knowledge? Why are we scared of knowing? How does language define what we know? How does the written word differ from the spoken word? What do people invent gods to explain the world? How do women secure agency (one of Ms Farber’s vital themes, and, as in Salome, we have a nameless woman here)? What actions can be justified in the pursuit of freedom?

Now I appreciate that I am getting quite carried away here but this is where the play took me. An epistemological triumph if you will, woven out of the most mythic of threads. I can fully appreciate that others might just see a rather bleak, love triangle, fable but this floored me. In fact I had to sit down and have a cup of tea before heading home just to think about what I had seen. And I am still thinking about it.

So thank you Mr Harrower. Thank you Donmar. Thank you Ms Farber. And thanks to our three actors.

“All I must do is push names into what is there the same as when I push my knife into the stomach of a hen”. Indeed.

Oslo at the National Theatre review *****

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Oslo

National Theatre, 19th September 2017

Well I’ll be damned. I didn’t book Oslo at the earliest opportunity, as is my wont for most of the NT output, and only took a swing at it because of the NYC reviews. And even then I wasn’t sure. I mean how could a near 3 hour, straight dramatisation of the negotiations which led to the signing of the Oslo Accord between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1993, possibly form the basis for a riveting work of theatre?

Well it turns out riveting is exactly what it is. Writer JT Rodgers has understood from the master of such entertainments, a certain Will Shakespeare, exactly how to write a “history play”. Get the context in early and make sure we know who is who and why they are there. Weave this information into the drama, but don’t hesitate to repeat it, in this case through the use of a direct to audience narration from Mona Juul, played by Lydia Leonard. Make the scenes short and sweet. Do not permit long, expository monologues. Show the human side of the people but don’t hold back on the process (we the audience don’t need to be patronised – we will get it). In this case, given that the whole purpose of the negotiations in Oslo was to bypass the confrontational and procedural approach of the formal peace negotiations sponsored by the US, showing the humanity of the key protagonists came naturally through the dialogue. Don’t fret too much about sticking too closely to the exact facts – this is drama after all. Finally give us some ebb and flow, some tension, some heroics and sacrifices and some cliffhanger moments. Oh and stuff in plenty of humorous interludes.

Mona Juul is an official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry. Husband Terje Rod-Larsen (Toby Stephens) runs an Institute and meets pragmatic Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin (Jacob Krichefski). They offer a neutral, and clandestine, forum in Oslo, to the desperate PLO finance minister Ahmed Qurie (Peter Polycarpou), and his Marxist sidekick, Hassan Asfour (Nabil Elouahabi), to meet two scruffy Israeli economics professors played by Paul Herzberg (who also doubled as Shimon Peres no less) and Thomas Arnold, to discuss the route to peace. As progress is made, the Israeli side is upgraded with the arrival of colourful Foreign Ministry senior official Uri Savir, (Philip Arditti) and eventually wary legal big cheese Joel Singer (Yair Jonah Lotan). With the assistance of Howard Ward, Geraldine Alexander Daniel Stewart, Anthony Shuster and Karoline Gable doubling up in the supporting roles, the ensemble is completed.

And what an ensemble. Whilst the writer is possessed of of an impeccably direct, funny and natural style, this was never going to work as well as it did without such perfect casting. Toby Stephens nails Rod-Larsen’s urbane mateyness but also left us wondering over his motives. Lydia Leonard (with whom I am a little bit in love I admit) was all archness and efficient charm You really believed that Peter Polycarpou and Philip Arditti’s characters found a shared bond that could bridge their massive political differences. And you reflect, with Toby Stephens’ final lines, on how uplifting the better side of our nature can be, even if so often, we (and our politicians on our behalf if we choose them), fail to let it shine.

This is a properly gripping and affecting story, expertly told, directed with stonking momentum by Bartlett Sher and with a suitably ambassadorial set from Michael Yeargan. If there is any justice it should fill the house at Harold Pinter Theatre for the transfer. I heartily recommend it.

 

Mosquitoes at the National Theatre review ****

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Mosquitoes

National Theatre, 18th September 2017

Two sisters. Some sad stuff happens to them. Sciencey backdrop.

There you go. That’s Mosquitoes. Except that is isn’t. Lucy Kirkwood is not the type of playwright to let us off the hook that easily. She chucks a lot into this pot, brings it to the boil and what a tasty stew comes out after two and a half hours or so. It may be a bit rich but, ultimately, is easily digestible.

Mind you without the two Olivias, Colman and Williams, I doubt this would be half as good. You know the thing where you see a play, and the leads are so utterly convincing that you swear no one else could carry it off. Until you see someone else playing the part as well or better and you realise that the actors were just bloody good at their jobs. Well in this case I really doubt the performances could be bettered. They were the two sisters, Alice and Jenny, made more potent because they look like they could be sisters. (I know this leaves me caught in a simplistic, mimetic trap but in this case really helps that they looked the parts).

For at the heart of this play is the relationship between them. Whilst Ms Kirkwood is becoming ever more ambitious in her plays, and the themes that they engage with, what I love about her writing is the portrayal of the relationships. From the moment Alice feels Jenny’s pregnant bump to the last moment, having come full circle, to substantially the same scene, the sisters dilemmas felt vital and real. Indeed the metaphor of the circle is writ large in the play with the set comprising two giant circles, in part to represent Alice’s work as a scientist at CERN (the home of the Large Hadron Collider). The mosquitoes of the title also get a couple of metaphorical look-ins.

Along the way Ms Kirkwood asks some big questions. How should scientists, for whom science is defined by uncertainty, engage with us lay-people, who fervently need science to deliver certainty? What is the value of physics to society and where are we in reconciling the quantum mechanics of the very small with the forces that govern the universe and the physics of the very large? Where does “God” fit in? What will happen at the end of time? What is the nature of intelligence and how does this relate to emotion? What drives the “success” and “failure” of siblings within a family? Why has women’s contribution to science been so undervalued? How to balance work and family? Yet this all sits comfortably inside the boundaries of the drama – even when we go off the naturalistic piste.

I gather Olivia Colman is a bit ambivalent about the stage. She shouldn’t be. We see from her TV performances that she possesses an uncanny ability to create an intense emotional connection with us the audience, even when playing the most “ordinary” of characters. And she repeats the trick here. Jenny isn’t as bright as sister Alice, as Alice and mother Karen, pointedly, patronisingly and repeatedly remind her. And Jenny makes mistakes. Foregoing the MMR vaccine having swallowed the autism connection bullshit from the media, and in spite of Jenny’s protestations, has fatal consequences for her child. She is estranged from her husband. She sells dodgy insurance from a call centre. But when Alice’s life unravels, as her awkward son Luke is bullied and then absconds after engaging in some over-enthusiastic hacking, it is Jenny that Alice turns to. And it is Jenny that is dealing with Mum’s incipient dementia.

Olivia Colman plays Jenny with an earthy, matter-of-factness. There are a lot of laughs from her lines. She says what she feels and takes risks that Alice cannot or will not. The “emotional intelligence” yin to the “academic intelligence” yang of Olivia Williams’s Alice. Olivia WIlliams perfectly captures Alice’s emotional uncertainty. Luke’s father has left and her devotion to work leaves her son even more alone. The absent father pops up as The Boson, who is also our narrator for the big science lessons, a satisfying conceit. Paul Hilton, last seen by us as Peter Pan here at the National, grabs this role with both hands. I was also mightily impressed with Joseph Quinn as Luke, in a role with some similarities to the last time I saw him in Katherine Sopher’s devastating Wish List at the Royal Court. Amanda Boxer’s Karen is also beautifully realised: you can see echoes of her personality in her two daughters. Sofia Barclay, as Luke’s treacherous friend, and Yoli Fuller, as Alice’s beau, turn in skilful performances in vital roles.

Rufus Norris’s direction is as astute as ever. There is a lot packed in her, and even with the excellent performances and stunning set (courtesy of Katrina Lindsay), sound, lighting, music and video, this still required an expert hand at the tiller. If the director’s job is getting people on and off the stage to paraphrase Peter Brook, then Mr Norris can feel well satisfied, for on and off was perfectly executed.

So all in all a hit. I don’t know if it will pop up elsewhere but this is another production that gives the lie to the “NT has gone wobbly” nonsense meme. And, having covered the secrets of the universe and the mysteries of particle physics here, I have no idea where Lucy Kirkwood’s unbounded imagination will leap to next.