The War Has Not Yet Started at the Southwark Playhouse review ***

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The War Has Not Yet Started

Southwark Playhouse, 18th January 2018

I don’t really read that much anymore. Which means I take a rather circuitous route to the acquisition of knowledge and satisfaction of curiosity. The page has been replaced by the stage, the museum and gallery, visits, music and my dear friend, Wiki. Books can then fill in the gaps. (Though I must call out the wonderful OUP Very Short Introductions. If I need a way in to something brainy here is where I start. Bite and pocket sized, though a bit variable in tone.)

This means some “stuff” has become more prominent that other “stuff” in my head. Bear in mind the capacity of my head RAM has opened up exponentially now that is is largely free of my work-life specialist subject. I knew a lot about very little. Now I am trying to find out a little about a lot. Which suits me as I am a consummate bullshitter who relies on knowing a tiny bit more than any conversational partner, and a sonorous delivery that bores them into agreeing with me.

One of the things that has crept up on me in the journey has been the modern(ish) history and state of Russia. A bit of Chekhov, too much Shostakovich, a handful of art exhibitions and a couple of conversations, and, to paraphrase Winnie Churchill, the enigma is revealed. Well not revealed but I go from nothing to something. It is a tiny something, but, at the risk of going all epistemological on your ass, it is more than I know about the state of Hounslow, my next door neighbours or our cat.

The point is that the relationship between State, as in the instruments of power, and the individual, has been a fertile one for the Russian/Soviet Artist. In the rapid lurch from backward, pre-revolutionary, feudal autocracy, through Revolution to oligarchical Capitalism, it looks like it has paid to keep things close to your chest.

Which in a roundabout way brings me to TWHNYS. Mikhail Durnenkov is an actor on stage and TV, as well as a playwright, living in Moscow. The Drunks, written with brother Vyacheslav, aired at the RSC a few years ago, in a translation by the marvellous Nina Raine. I didn’t see it but, from the sound of it, it is a satirical comedy, tracing a long line back through to Gogol, that took the unfortunate adventures of an Everyman, a soldier, as a metaphor for modern Russia and its history.

TWHNYS is a more discursive, experimental affair brought to the Southwark Playhouse in a translation by Noah Birksted-Breen, by way of the Theatre Royal Plymouth. Unconnected characters play out 12 seemingly unconnected vignettes, some banal, some more striking, over 80 minutes or so. Apparently they can be played in any order with any number of actors. Here we have three. Sarah Hadland, (Stevie in Miranda, she of the allure!), Mark Quartly, last seem by me as the gymnastic “real” Aerial alongside his real-time holographic doppelganger in the RSC Tempest, and, most strikingly, Hannah Britland. Many of the scenes are set within the family unit or deal with the impact of violence and propaganda. There is black comedy, confusion, menace, little in the way of entry or exit from the scenes and much obfuscation. The scenarios are all recognisable but throughout is an air of mistrust and uncertainty that sort of compels.

It is really tricky to make this sort of writing work and I am not sure how much is lost in translation, not of the language, but from Moscow to London. Whilst much of the contemporary zeitgeist which Mr Durnenkov is trying to capture is universal, it might make just a bit more sense there rather than here. Cultural specificity is a slippery waif and I always try my best to ditch the dangerous fiction of borders when thinking about this sort of entertainment, but I was still struck by how much the mood of the play fitted with what I think I have learnt about the Russian mindset.

Still anxiety is anxiety wherever you live and the cast and director Gordon Anderson, (who has experience of this sort of mood from his League of Gentlemen days), seem to be enjoying it. Andy Purves’s lighting design is noteworthy.

Go see for yourself. I am still making my mind up.

 

Antony and Cleopatra at the Barbican Theatre review ***

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Antony and Cleopatra

Barbican Theatre, 18th January 2018

The last instalment, for me, of the Rome season at the Barbican, and so late in the run that it has been and gone. Sorry. Anyway I have to say this was my least favourite of the four productions, though there was still much food for thought.

I think the reason for this is simple. I prefer the other three plays. Titus Andronicus for its over the top, knowing black comedy, Coriolanus for its astonishing insight into pride, the democratic ideal, the mother-son relationship and homo-eroticism and Julius Caesar for, well, everything you will ever need to know about the use and abuse of political power.

Titus Andronicus at the Barbican Theatre review ****

Coriolanus at the Barbican Theatre review *****

Julius Caesar at the Barbican Theatre review ****

The language in these three is flintier, more muscular, more direct. The drama is played out across a broader backdrop even if this is still measured across individual psychology and the relationships between friends, enemies and family. In A&C the language is way more florid, despite the similar source material as JC (Plutarch via Thomas North), and the focus is firmly on the mature lovers. High Baroque not Early Renaissance if you will.

There is a curious ironic, detached quality to our observation of A&C. I am not saying I identify with unhinged sadist and novelty pie maker Titus A, by way of example, but I can sort of see where he is coming from. Elsewhere in Shakespeare the thrill of recognition is never exhausted, no matter how many viewings, but with A&C I can’t escape the performance, the spectacle. That may well be the whole point. There are times where the pompous grandiosity of these two entitled mid-lifers sets me spluttering, internally and, embarrassingly, externally. Certainly Will S has the right words and right scenes to skewer them. But all the poetry ¬†and “look at me” gets a smidge wearying. I know that complaining that Shakespeare sometimes has too many words is like saying Mozart has too many notes but the platitude applies.

Of course it could just be that I haven’t come across the right A&C yet. I see the NT is set to stage a production with Simon Godwin at the helm, (who sucked all the meat off the bones of Twelfth Night and Man and Superman at the NT), with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo. If those two get fired up sparks can fly. Let’s hope so.

Designer Robert Innes Hopkins here chooses to go with a look straight out of Cecil B DeMille. Josette Simon as Cleo has more frock changes than I have underpants, including, at one point, sporting her birthday suit. Costume supervisor Sian Harris, and all the unsung heroes who cut and stitch, must have thought Christmas came early, just in greaves alone (google it). There is a big black cat. natch, and I hear Southall high street is now short of kohl. There are even some steamy Roman baths and an impromptu harbourside bar on display. I bet they only ruled out the incense sticks at the first rehearsal. Mind you I get it is tricky to take A&C out of its historical context.

Ms Simon captures Cleo’s unpredictability, grace and caprice but maybe not the extremes of cruelty and vulnerability. Some of her vocal delivery, to use football commentator parlance, “takes the wrong option”. She does have stage presence though, even when brooding on the sidelines. Workaholic Antony Byrne, who knows his way about the Shakespearean stage, has a cursive way of delivering lines and character and a grizzled, martial look about him. Yet, at times, he felt a bit mechanical and MA’s intense fear of shame was not fully realised.

I was never entirely persuaded of the couple’s passion or plotting. ¬†There was none of the seemingly spontaneous physicality that Hans Kesting and Chris Nietvelt brought to the parts in the TA Roman Tragedies. That really stank of sex, with Marieke Heebink’s Charmian the …. well I better stop there as I am getting hot and bothered. Alexandria never looked so decadent, and the cropping of action and lines, as well as the translation process, seemed to help me overcome my objections to the play.

I am not sure if Ben Allen’s Octavius here was intended to be quite so limp, and the contrast with David Burnett’s roister-doister Pompey, quite so sharp. Andrew Woodall swapped Caesar for Enobarbus, taking world-weary to a previously untested level. When it comes to ironic commentary on what is going on around him, Enorbarbus has some of the best lines in the play and these were delivered with relish by Mr Woodall, though he does have an uncanny resemblance to my brother-in-law. I am much taken with James Corrigan here playing Agrippa as upright conciliator. Amber James as Charmain and Kristin Atherton as Iras provide sterling support as ego-masseurs-in-waiting to Queen Cleo.

Director Iqbal Khan offers a straightforward account of the play, in line with the staging, and somewhat of a contrast to his previous Shakespeare, where he has mixed it up a bit. That means that each line is pretty clear but the overall rhythm a little baggier than Angus Jackson’s Julius Caesar. There comes a point in many a Shakespeare history play, when the to-ing and fro-ing between locations, and the long line of messengers bearing news, can distract. A&C, nominally a tragedy, can fall into the trap. If your head is filled with contemplation of motive or poetry you won’t see the joins. Here, once or twice, I did.

So there you have it. It seems I was far more taken with Angus Jackson’s Coriolanus and Julius Caesar in this season than consensus, reckon Blanche McIntyre fully got to grips with the uncertain tone of Titus Andronicus and agreed with most that this Antony and Cleopatra was more stately than seductive.

 

 

 

My Mum’s a Twat at the Royal Court Theatre review ***

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My Mum’s A Twat

Royal Court Theatre, 16th January 2018

I am a fat bloke with a dodgy heart and a sore back in his 50s. So I should not be swanning around London without a care in the world hoovering up culture to make up for lost time. I should be grinding away engaged in pointless labour for 12 hours a day to ensure late Western capitalism can continue to eke out basis points of economic growth. “Growth” that is only secured by measuring the wrong things or by mortgaging the future. But, in some unseemly regress to my student and early post student years, that, (the swanning), is what I am doing.

Which in turn means I end up seeing theatre where I am plainly not the target audience, surrounded by youngers who could be my kids, on seating which has not been designed with me in mind. There is an excellent tendency amongst the most progressive theatres, the Gate, the Young Vic, the Royal Court, in London to incorporate the audience seating into the set design. I probably had a lucky escape from The Jungle at the Young Vic recently, (no allusion intended), as I was unable to make the booked date. From the sound of it that was a cultural loss, given the sparkling reviews, but a medical gain as the chances of me sitting for an hour or so on a cushion without the entire audience sensing my discomfort was miniscule.

And so to My Mum’s a Twat where a quick scan on the way in saw me quickly bypass the floor cushions and opt for the sturdiest wooden chair I could find, which just about did the trick. Now to be absolutely clear I am not moaning about any of these design concepts. Quite the reverse. Bringing the audience in, rather than shutting it out, can only be a good thing. And, at the end of the day, if I could just lay off the pies, the discomfort could be dialled down. No, this is simply an awkward, space-filling preamble to the bland realisation that My Mum’s a Twat may not have been for me.

Which is galling in so many ways. The Girl in this 75 minute monologue was played by my favourite stage pixie, Patsy Ferran. By my calculations you could secure maybe 4 Patsys for every 1 of me. And since Patsy Ferran delivers more joy in 30 seconds of stage performance that I could muster across several lifetimes, (even learning from my mistakes), then this would be a very valuable trade. She was the stand-out actor in Polly Findlay’s As You Like at the National in 2015 and in Ms Findlay’s most recent RSC Merchant of Venice. And her turn in Blithe Spirit in the West End a few years ago near upstaged some way more venerable colleagues. I note she is set to take the lead in the Almeida’s forthcoming TW’s Summer and Smoke – can’t wait.

Anyway she was made for this part. This debut play by Anoushka Warden, (whose day job is schmoozing the press for the RC – good on her), is a forthright memoir of the Girl’s childhood after her Mum and partner join a ropey (“batshit crazy”) cult. She tells tales of her siblings, her stepdad (“Moron”), Mum obviously, (the twat), the pious cult leader (sorry can’t remember her name), her Dad, who she eventually rejoins after Mum and stepdad move to Canada to set up a new outpost of the cult, her friends, drugs, sex, music. In fact all the things you would expect from a memory play about childhood and teenage years. It is not too gentle though it is pretty funny, and it captures many of the pleasures, the disappointments, the self-absorption, the bedroom rebellion, of those years. At its heart lays the bond between the Girl and her Mum, despite the nonsense that her Mum subscribes to in the cult.

I wished it had gone a little bit darker, especially into the workings of the cult. The story would allow that, the anger is rooted, but Ms Warden’s writing defaults back to comedy. And it might have benefitted from a little more surprise and revelation along the way, especially towards the end, where it becomes a little bit “teenage rebel” predictable. It does though have moments of real insight and acuity which expand beyond the specific’s of the Girl’s story and it serves as a perfect vehicle to showcase Ms Ferran’s undoubted talents. Some actors recede from the memory post performance, some actors intensify. Patsy Ferran is one of the latter.

Seating aside, Chloe Lamford’s teenage bedroom design is a winner, and Ms Warden has secured the services of, not one, but two, of our finest directors in boss Vicky Featherstone and Jude Christian. Ms Christian directed Parliament Square at the Bush and in Bath (Parliament Square at the Bush Theatre review *****), to thrilling effect, and Bodies (Bodies at the Royal Court Theatre review ****) in this very space. Next up she will be bringing Trust to the Gate Theatre. A post-theatre, dance based German-Dutch collaboration having a pop at global capitalism, in the tiny Gate space. It will either be genius or ludicrous. Probably a bit of both.