Poison at the Orange Tree theatre review ****



Orange Tree Theatre, 28th November 2017

Sometimes all you want from a play is for it to do exactly what it says on the packet. No sub-plots, symbolism, pointless characters, formal invention, stilted message. Just a powerful and involving story, well told. This is exactly what renowned Dutch playwright, Lot Vekemans, does in Poison. No wonder it has been translated and performed in multiple locations. Another terrific acquisition by Paul Miller and the Orange Tree team. Here it is translated by Rina Vergano who is the go-to for Dutch and Flemish texts.

Mind you this doesn’t make this a play that will have been easy to write, create or act in, and, in some ways, it isn’t easy to watch. Its subject, the loss of a child and the impact it has on a couple, is about as painful a subject as it is possible to imagine, for a “domestic” drama. Yet Ms Vekemans, takes us through all the ramifications of this dreadful event, with such a sure and sensitive hand that every line seems to ring true. A divorced couple meet in an unremarkable chapel building in a cemetery in France. (Blue carpet tiles, the designer’s catch-all for the banal, which Simon Daw wisely embraces here, along with those other staples, water-cooler and vending machine). We never get to know there names as, even after a separation of 9 years, they have no need to employ them. They were torn apart by the death of their son, Jakob, in a road accident, which eventually led to the journalist husband walking out on the millennial New Year’s Eve. They are here ostensibly to discuss what will happy to his body given that the land it lies in is contaminated. No one else turns up though (for reasons that become clear halfway through). They talk. There is pain, humour, tenderness, recrimination, jealousy, goading, misconception. In fact there is everything you might imagine a couple in this situation would put themselves through.

Paul Miller seems to have focussed on the “rediscoveries” in the last couple of years at the OT. Here he reminds us he can do contemporary plays standing on his head as well. Not literally. Like I say at the top there is no attempt to get directorially clever with the text here. There is no need. Movement, gesture, pauses, tensions, as well as words, everything worked.

This needed a couple of top drawer performances which, with Claire Price and Zubin Varla (who I have seen a bit of recently), is exactly what we got. Claire Price showed us a woman who could not move forward. Not because she was not trying nor because she was flawed in some dramatic sense. Just because she couldn’t accept what had happened. Which makes sense I think. She could be funny, she could be scathing, she could be analytical but always brittle and nervous underneath. Zubin Varla’s stilted ex husband had tried to moved on, (a new wife, a move to France from Holland), but was struggling with guilt for doing so. I swear I could hear him thinking at times. His intention to write a book about their bereavement is met with anger and incomprehension by her. The pain of their shared past infects this present but will continue into the future unless they can find some way to make it stop. There is some slight hope of redemption to this end at the end, but it is fragile.

Even beyond the bereavement itself though what is really, really striking about the play, in just 80 minutes, is the way it conjures up the whole skein of connections that a parted couple can recreate on meeting up, both comfortable and awkward, in movement, gestures and words. I was watching two real people, intimate strangers if you will, undergoing real experiences in pretty much real time. You’d think that would be easy to dramatise. It isn’t. This really was very, very good. It is one of those plays that gets better as you remember it.

The Lady from the Sea at the Donmar Warehouse review ***


The Lady From The Sea

Donmar Warehouse, 23rd November 2017

I have an uneasy relationship with Henrik Ibsen and this is the first time I have seen The Lady From The Sea, (though I note that plenty of the usual Ibsen obsessions are on show in it). So I may not be best placed to make a reliable judgement. Then again this blog is really only intended for me to process what I have seen so, strictly, if I am both author and reader here, we can both agree that nothing of what follows matters.

Except that the SO was present. And what she thinks does matter. To me at least. And her view echoed mine. We were not completely persuaded that the Caribbean setting of Elinor Cook’s spikey adaption added an extra dimension to proceedings, even if it satisfied the high watery metaphor count, and we felt that Nikki Amuka-Bird’s admittedly full-blooded performance as an unhinged Ellida didn’t entirely articulate with the other characters, especially Finbar Lych’s diffident, decent Wangel. We get that Ibsen doesn’t have to be cold deep fjords, birch trees and not saying what you mean, and that it is beholden on us, the audience, to work with Ibsen and his interpreters to get to the bottom of the drama, but direction and setting just meant this production didn’t suck us in the way the best Ibsen does.

I like it best when I am simultaneously fascinated by, and want to figuratively slap Ibsen’s characters, (not literally obviously, that is worse than eating or arsing about with your phone in terms of theatre etiquette). Ellida is torn between her duty and her desire, to escape for sure, but more importantly to take control of her stultifying life. Bolette is presented with a similar dilemma, duty or desire, albeit without some flash, bad-boy Stranger sailor hanging around. Hilde, as we see when she leads Solness a merry dance in The Master Builder, is free, even if here she is still missing her real Mum. The blokes, in their different ways, have the scales lifted from their eyes, at least Wangel and Arnholm do. Poor Lyngstrand in this production is just a knob, albeit quite funny, as his artistic pretensions are mocked.

That’s the guts of what I see. Ellida, like Hedda, Nora. Helene, Rita and Ibsen’s other women, are not easy to play, but, for me, it is made immeasurably harder if the stifling nature of the society, and, as here, the marriage, they find themselves in, is not foregrounded. We may be a long way from Europe here, in a land built on oppression, but this is never really explored. Reasons for Ellida’s emotional “prisoner’s dilemma” are easy to see, sexual frustration, the loss of a child, an incomplete memory of first “love”, smothered ambition, thwarted intelligence, but solutions should remain knotty and incomplete, even as they appear. At times the production was a little too direct which left some of the intended haunting allusion and symbolism looking pretty awkward.

Kwame Kwei-Armah presents his and Ms Cook’s case with accuracy against the jaunty set of Tom Scutt, but it never really catches fire. Mind you we were both struck with Helena Wilson’s clever Bolette and Ellie Bamber’s pointed Hilde. I reckon both of them could get properly stuck into an appropriate leading role in a new play.

Age of Terror exhibition at the IWM review ***


Age of Terror: Art since 9/11

Imperial War Museum London, 24th November 2017

The IWM has a splendid collection of war art which is always worth seeing and reflecting on when it is exhibited. Here the curating team has assembled 50 or so works from 40 or so artists to reveal how they have responded to war. conflict, terrorism and security since the events of 9/11. So a first for the IWM I think in terms of contemporary work on this scale.

To quote the curators. The exhibition explores four key themes: artists’ direct or immediate responses to the events of 9/11, issues of state surveillance and security, our complex relationship with firearms, bombs and drones and the destruction caused by conflict on landscape, architecture and people. By and large they succeed though the plethora of artists, approaches, media, messages and effect makes it a bit jumbled. It is concise enough though, some very fine contemporary artists are displayed and there are a handful of works that really make you think. Mind you there are also a few that don’t stand up to much scrutiny.

The exhibition begins with a video from Tony Oursler who lived in Manhattan and recorded the day’s events in an immediate and spontaneous way, You may well have seen some of the footage before: that doesn’t make it any less raw or affecting. Hans Peter Feldmann’s 9/12 Front Page, which collated front pages from major newspapers around the world the day after, has a similar effect. And Ivan Navarro’s The Twin Towers which follows is another striking work, a light installation which creates the illusion you are at the top of the towers looking down through them. The next couple of rooms have some interesting works, for example Gerhard Richter’s September from 2005 which depicts the tail-fin of a speeding jet, but here it is a print not the original oil, and one of the rugs created by Afghan craftsman, which also appear later on. But there are some failures as well, Grayson Perry’s pot, Dolls at Dungeness, and the Chapman Brothers Nein! Eleven!, which is pretty facile.

Ai Weiwei’s Surveillance Camera with Plinth, works as do his other marble renditions of everyday objects, and makes its point, but doesn’t really get more interesting on repeated viewing. Jitish Kallat’s Circadian Rhyme, showing the gamut of everyday situations where we are now searched, makes a similar point through the use of model figures. Further on I was most struck by Rachel Howard’s iconic image Study, Mona Hatoum’s Natura morte, delicate, shiny Venetian glass versions of grenades, by Francis Alys’s video, Sometimes Doing Is Undoing and Sometimes Undoing Is Doingcontrasting the maintenance of automatic weapons by both sides in Afghanistan, Head of State by kennardphillips and, especially by Omer Fast’s 30 minute film, 5000 Feet is the Best, with its repetitions, genre swapping and blurring of fact and fiction. The nature of warfare in the age of the drone is also considered by James Bridle Drone Shadow, an outline created on the lower floor of the IWM. 

As I say there are other works, usually video, that didn’t really leave any impression on me I am afraid, and maybe diluted the overall impact of the exhibition. The direct responses to the events of 9/11 and the works which explore the nature of modern warfare were most effective. Worth seeing I think, it’s on until 28th May 2018, and worth taking the time, with the best of the art here, to think about the impact of 9/11 and the way the “war on terror” has changed our world and the nature of conflict.