Dry Powder at the Hampstead Theatre review ****

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Dry Powder

Hampstead Theatre, 29th January 2018

At last a play about the world of “high finance” which does not wade in with both feet in some ham-fisted (I know, mangled metaphors), didactic attempt to explain to the audience why it is “evil”. Actually that is a little unfair as most plays I have seen in recent years which tackle this subject have been more nuanced. But none has taken the impartial, but ultimately more insightful, stance here adopted by Sarah Burgess.

We are all complicit in the fiction of money, or, more exactly, credit. No money, no exchange. No credit, no growth. For every transaction there is a buyer and a seller. Fear, greed, supply, demand, the price mechanism. All tricky to avoid. You can argue long and hard about the distribution of the “benefits” that flow from capitalist economic organisation, and debate whether the externalities, or excesses, that it promotes are a price worth paying, (there I go again), but no-one seems to have found a viable alternative.

The people who work in high finance are pretty much the same as the people who don’t. Even at the very top of the tree the only difference, generally, is that they worked harder at school. There is no secret initiation ceremony that turns them into rapacious c*nts. Daddy’s job is not paramount. The are’t all card carrying Republicans or Tories. They have lives, of a sort. They aren’t capitalists with top hats. The capital they manipulate is often your pensions or investment, or has been created by governments on your behalf, so that you can have the things you want when you want them. Most of what they do isn’t shady or clandestine. It is just really, really dull.

Once they get to the top, or near the top, of the tree though it is difficult for them not to be sucked into the drug of self-importance. Being paid big bucks drives, and distorts, behaviours of course. But it is not the reason why these people do what they do. It is simply the scorecard. One house, two houses, three houses. One car, two cars, three cars. One painting, two paintings, three paintings. This is not what brings pleasure. What drives them is a combination of perceived power and self importance, and, most importantly, intellectual satisfaction. Thinking fast about a lot of things and betting on outcomes is what makes the game addictive.

This, I think, is what Ms Burgess seeks to explore in the play. And she does it, most effectively, through witty comedy. The play is by no means perfect but it does, through its four characters, show what can happen to those who get sucked into this bubble. Rick, played by Aiden McArdle, is the founding partner of a smallish private equity firm. He, and the firm, are attracting press opprobrium, thanks to his forthcoming, lavish, wedding (“only one elephant” at the engagement party), which leaked out on the same day as mass redundancy at one of the firm’s investments. He has set his two junior partners, Seth (Tom Riley) and Jenny (Hayley Atwell), to compete. Seth has brought a deal, Californian icon Landmark Luggage, to the table. The price is very attractive because Seth has persuaded the seller, via the CEO Jeff (Joseph Balerrama), that the firm will invest, grow the business online and preserve jobs. A press friendly “America First” proposal. Rick though asks Jenny to look at the case for relocating production across the border. Jenny comes back with a full on asset-stripping, outsource to Bangladesh, squeeze out cash, lever up to pinch a dividend, private equity caricature scenario.

From this set up flows some accurate, if not entirely, surprising paybacks. What makes it work is Sarah Burgess’s attention to the dialogue. Yes, she peppers the scenes with the technical language of private equity, (but is careful to provide context and explanations so if you don’t get it you’re not trying), and there is plenty of swearing. She does though capture the direct, combative, intense but often petty, point-scoring, smart-arse rhythm of this world. Everything here is about winning the argument. Consequences are often abstract. Everyone is very clever but argument tends to the reductive.

You might hear a bit of Mamet in the dialogue. I was reminded of the intent of the City comedies of Jonson and the Restoration, (and not just from the, I think, copious use of Purcell in Max Pappenheim’s sound design). A subtler tone perhaps. No need to accentuate the venality, hypocrisy and pomposity of the targets as in that era, but the same essential dramatic device. Use wit to illuminate self-interest.

You will be drawn to the performance of Hayley Atwell as Jenny. This is a fascinating study. She is not defined by her gender. Not wife, mother, love interest, victim. That is quite rare even in contemporary theatre. Charmless and devoid of “emotional intelligence”. Driven by the logic of return on capital but failing to see what cannot be measured. Saying sorry with no concept of why she should be. Exaggerated it may be but from this extreme emerges a lot of laughs and no little truth. But brilliant as Ms Atwell is it is not just about Jenny. Seth represents another bundle of personality traits. A charming self-assured salesmen who smoothly secures the trust of his clients. He comes to question the morality of Jenny’s management plan for Landmark, but only because he has “lost the game”. He is certainly not prepared to trade his status and back his own plan. Rick is immune to self-doubt his past success makes him think he is infallible. Aiden McArdle is all controlled, demanding aggression. It comes as no surprise that he will take capital from anyone to prop up his firm. Joseph Balerrama’s Jeff exudes a kind of fragile bonhomie but this, unsurprisingly, masks a ruthlessness that is revealed when his agency and price are tested.

Sarah Burgess has clearly delved deep and understood her research and rightly focussed on where it led her. Her writing is assured, droll and perfectly pitched. Anna Ledwich, (who also directed Beth Steel’s Labyrinth on this stage which came at this world from a different era and different asset class), offered sympathetic guidance. The design of Andrew D Edwards, with its revolving mirrors, and I think video of smoke at one point was maybe a bit overstated but no matter.

 

 

 

 

Edward II at Greenwich Theatre review ****

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Edward II

Greenwich Theatre, 24th January 2018

Right then, This is what theatre is all about. Take a cast-iron classic history play from Jacobean bad-boy Kit Marlowe, hack out thematic repetition, wordiness and some characters, pare back set, costumes, sound and lighting, and let a young, hungry cast do its thing. This is not the first time that Edward II has been given this treatment, (there are echoes of Joe Hill-Gibbons divisive NT production a few years ago), and it won’t be the last given the plays themes. Marlowe often proves just too juicy for directors who feel compelled to make their artistic mark. The risible Faustus from Jamie Lloyd a couple of years ago shows just a mess some have made of this opportunity. We walked out at the interval leaving it to those whooping at Kit Harington’s bum and munching on McDonalds (I kid you not).

On the other hand if you let the “actors” get too actorly, and treat every word of Marlowe’s text with solemnity, then it can turn into an impenetrable slog. It shouldn’t. This is a salacious shocker but it also draws out its themes, of homophobia for sure, but also, and more importantly, class division and religious hypocrisy, with brutal clarity. Ricky Dukes as adaptor and director, and his team at Lazarus Theatre, have performed a minor miracle in getting this down to 90 minutes whilst still highlighting these themes, drawing out the characters and their motives and preserving the flavour of Marlowe’s delicious verse. And it is properly thrilling as well. The Spensers and Sir John of Hainault, together with various toffs and hangers-on, are dispensed with. The scenes pre and post the unpleasantness with the poker are all collapsed into one tableaux, replete with scary clown masks, a lot of fake blood, polythene sheets, (practical as well as visually impressive), and, given the Greenwich Theatre air-con is pretty fierce, I should imagine a cold, naked Eddy II. The play ends with tween Eddy III admonishing all over the phone. It is a stunning last 20 minutes.

This cut means that the focus is on Eddy II and Gaveston’s relationship and the early manoeuvrings of the nobles, here just Kent, Mortimers pere et fils, Warwick, Lancaster and Canterbury, for and against them. It also gives more focus on Queen Isabella’s stratagems. The staging from designer Socha Corcoran is utilitarian. Cristiano Casimiro costume design sees the men in rolled up shirts and suit trousers looking like they have have been standing outside a City (or Wharf) bar for a few hours on a summer’s evening. (And what with the shouting and arguing they also sound like they might have downed a few). Edward II gets a sparkling, heavyweight crown and a robe, Queen Isabella a simple blue gown. Costumes and props remain on stage as do the entire cast with Eddy II and Gaveston standing on chairs when not involved as the nobles plot against them. Ben Jacobs’s lighting is harsh and Neil McKeown’s sound is aggressive and dramatic. Ricky Dukes and the team have learnt from the best that contemporary theatre direction can offer, (hello Katie Mitchell), but have avoided going over the top, so that the modern dress and stark set serve the play, not overwhelm it.

Best of all the young cast, even when down to the undies at the end, deliver Marlowe’s concrete verse crisply and clearly and ensure that the questions posed by Marlowe, albeit with deliberate ambiguity, are to the fore. Edward II was, by reputation a vain, immature man-child who presided over a period of weak government and fiscal chaos. Just as well son Eddy III came to the rescue and make England great (again?). Timothy Blore captures Edward Ii’s apparent callow sense of entitlement and his supposed infatuation with Oseloka Obi’s more knowing Galveston. The pair show real tenderness in the “love” scenes but Mr Obi makes sure we are uncertain as to Gaveston’s true motives and his manipulative nature. Jamie O’Neill delivers an excellent Mortimer as he orchestrates the others into first banishing Galveston, and later conspiring to see Edward murdered. Getting rid of, replacing or curtailing the powers of flawed kings, (here the Ordinances of 1311), has, after all, been an occupational requirement for the nobility/elite of this country across the centuries. Kings and queens after all are simply symbols to support the fiction of nationhood and underpin the theft of property. But too often they thought they could do what the liked, because, in essence they could.

Alex Zur as the protective Kent, David Clayton as the vengeful Canterbury, Stephen Smith as the Elder Mortimer, Stephen Emery as Lancaster and John Slade as Warwick are, to a man, superb. Topping them however is Alicia Charles as Isabella whose wounded pride cannot get in the way of her own, and eventually her son’s, destiny.

As I understand it homosexuality was tolerated in medieval and early modern society. The act of sodomy was theoretically punishable however, up to, and including, death. This reflects the influence of the church, always obsessed with the mechanics of sex. Such was the context in which Marlowe, regularly accused of blasphemy, (amongst other things), penned the play. He examined homosexual relationships in other plays and poems, notably in the opening of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and in his descriptions of Leander.

Whatever Marlowe’s own sexuality, and whether or not he was avowedly atheist, he presents his themes with provocative equivocation (to use the Jacobean buzzword). Was he tempting his contemporary audience to celebrate, condone or be moved by the central relationship? How critical is he of the social order which sees Gaveston’s real crime as his anonymous upbringing, a “minion”? How playful is Ed and Gaveston’s mocking of Canterbury, (who stands in for the Bishop of Coventry in this condensed production)? How true are Ed II’s emotions, after all he accedes to Gaveston’s banishment and execution? Is Gaveston driven by passion or the pursuit of power and wealth? What is the true relationship between Isabella and Mortimer and how does this influence their actions? Their lust for power doesn’t end well remember. War, pestilence, famine, the Scots and the French sticking their noses in, seizure of lands and possessions, trials, executions. All this followed from this struggle between king and his toffs. On the other hand some good came out of all this as it hastened in the beginning of Parliament as we know it.

There is so, so much more to Marlowe’s play than a some gay clinches, a poker and an arse and Lazarus’s production is an excellent contemporary attempt to capture this richness. This is a play that looks back to the defining philosophies of its setting, but also goaded and asked questions of its contemporary Elizabethan audience, and, because Marlowe’s writing is so wise and we are essentially the same then as now, (bar the technology), it can make us think today.

Short, sharp, brutish it is. Very short given the cut and paste Mr Dukes has taken to the text and action. But sweet too. I can see that other reviews of this productions are mixed to say the least. There are a fair few that seem not to know quite what had hit them. Not saying I did but I was persuaded and will be back to see Lazarus’s take on Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Thanks very much Lazarus.