White Pearl offers an undeniably intriguing premise for a satire. A Singapore based cosmetics company is pilloried on social media when a racist ad created by a partner is leaked onto a French You Tube account and subsequently goes viral. Cue an often scathing, fearless and witty examination of intra-Asian racial stereotyping, corporate culture, brand values, social media outrage and any other hypocrisy that is unwise enough to step into the territory that Thai-Australian playwright Anchuli Felicia King has set her eye on. Yet, after the targets are set up and knocked down, it seems that all she can then do is return and repeat to diminishing effect. Great beginning, promising middle, but not sure there was ever a clear end in sight. Still at just 90 minutes it knew when its work was done. And this sat, old, privileged, white bloke learnt a lot about stuff who knew nothing about.
Farzana Dua Elahe plays Priya Singh, the haughty, Indian-Singaporean, founder of Clearday which, somewhat murkily, ends up with a best seller in its skin-whitening product, White Pearl, a massive success. Moi Tran’s simple set, and Natasha Chivers’s lighting, offer an appropriately clinical corporate head office which is backed, alternately, by a raised platform hiding the loos (!) and a vast video wall. Assistant Sunny Lee (Katie Leung) is Chinese Singaporean whose American “dudebro” argot is Hokkien accented. Built Suttikul (Kae Alexander) is a privileged, and wry, Thai-American, having an affair with conceited French would-be journo Marcel Benoit (Arty Froushan). Soo-Jin Park (Minhee Yeo) is the South Korean scientist who is responsible for sourcing the production of White Pearl. Xiao Chen (Momo Yeun) is from a well connected Chinese family who may now have found itself on the wrong side of the regime. Ruki Minami (Kanako Nakano) is the new recruit office manager, who comes up with the marketing message for White Pearl.
As the crisis for the company escalates, and as we shift between scenes, the video wall offers us ever more extreme tweets from around the world. The whip-smart dialogue, as blame for the f*ck-up ricochets around the group and attempts to stem the damage are proposed, and the way in which layers of history, identity, culture, class, colourism, racism, diaspora-ism, (I know it isn’t a thing but you will know what I mean), are exposed, left me breathless in a good way. By comparison the mocking of corporate behaviour was a little less secure.
The punctiliously assembled cast deliver this heady brew with conviction, though these are not, as you might have surmised, “round” characters, and I can’t faultNana Dakin’s vigorous direction. But it still feels to me that plot and structure remained at the planning stage to be superseded by ideas and the, admittedly, delicious dialogue.
It occurred to me that, as a mini-series, releasing some of the tossed-away sub-plots, relishing the short, sharp scenes, taking the foot off the gas just a bit, opening up the characters and their back-stories, whilst still preserving the acid invigoration of Anchuli Felicia King’s lines, this would be brilliant. Mind you I guessing that, for all their garlanding, the likes of Sky, Amazon and Netflix, do still trot out some appallingly formulaic sh*te amongst the jewels. Still that’s “content” for you. Luckily for us we also still have Sloane Square’s bastion of writing.
WELL F*CK ME. LITERALLY AS I WAS ABOUT TO PUBLISH THIS POST I SEE THAT THE PRODUCTION HAS SECURED A RUN AT THE HAROLD PINTER THEATRE IN JULY AND AUGUST. EXACTLY WHAT I HOPED FOR. YEAH !!!!!!!
Never read the book. Never seen the film. Had no inclination. Assumed it was some soppy love story which would bring no value to my joyless, ascetic life.
Then I saw that Melly Still was directing and that Rona Munro (The James Plays) had adapted Louis de Bernieres’ blockbuster novel. And I am honour bound to support my local theatre which is about to have its funding hacked away by the philistine local council. Whom I support. Doesn’t stop it being anything less than a twattish decision though. Maybe it was a bit ambitious, and vain, to create such a big theatre space here in the first place, but, in the circumstances, and with no AD on the books, the Rose has done a grand job in producing new theatre of the highest quality in recent years.
Grrrrrh. Anyway Melly Still’s last outing here was the adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. Again a book, (actually a quartet of books), about which I had, (and still have), no knowledge. It was a triumph. She is an Associate Artist at the Rose now. Hence this production of CCM in conjunction with the Birmingham Rep. Hopefully in spite of the above news there will be more opportunities for her to display her talent in many future years. Both of these productions took well loved books, sharpened their focus, highlighted their messages and turned them into exciting, physical dramas using a barrage of theatrical technique.
Now I recognise that this approach risks annoying the super-fan who wants every scene to be played out in full and every character interaction to be carefully drawn. On the other hand all this razzmatazz stagecraft, movement (George Siena, I need to watch out for him), set and costume (Mayou Trikerioti, like George she is Greek, smart call), lighting (Malcolm Rippeth), video (Dom Baker), and, especially, composition (Harry Blake) and sound (Jon Nicholls and Dan Hunt), might leave some of the audience breathless. But that is what makes this production so thrilling.
For me though this is what story-telling is all about. A book is a book and a stage is a stage. If, as here, you have a big story to tell, that crosses time, place and people, then this is as glorious an example of how to make it work within the constraints of the latter as you are ever likely to see. It’s the onset of WWII on the island of Cephalonia. Learned widower Dr Iannis (Joseph Long) lives with his daughter Pelagia (newcomer Madison Clare) who gets engaged to local lad Mandras (Ashley Gayle). But war begins and he goes off to fight. Italian Carlo (Ryan Donaldson) watches his love Francesco (Fred Fergus) die at the hands of the Greeks in Albania. The Italian and German forces pitch up in the village led by the surprisingly, in the circumstances, happy chappy Antonio Corelli (Alex Mugnaioni) who is billeted in the Iannis home. Mandras returns, injured, but Pelagia falls out of love with him. Italy switch sides …. and then …. well it really kicks off.
Love. And War. Doesn’t get much bigger than that. So no surprise that I was carried along by the story. But what I didn’t bargain for, apart from the genius of the staging, (again I will refrain from highlighting any of the exquisite details – they just keep coming), is the way the play examined the specific history of the impact of the war on Greece. On occupier and occupied. And the way music, which pours out of this production, is deployed as the antithesis of the carnage of war. As well as what I had expected. What war does to individuals. And what form love can take.
No programmes left at the Rose, (since, eventually, this filled the house), so I can’t be sure if I had seen any of the cast before but most were new to me. No point picking out any individuals. The whole point is that this is an ensemble. Of cast and creatives. Mind you if you don’t fall for Luisa Guerriero’s character I can only assume you are made of stone. And the sound that is spun out from Eve Polycarpou’s voice is devastating.
Apparently Mr de Bernieres is very happy with the result and sees it as faithful to the intention of his novel. (In contrast, I read, to the film which went off the rails big time). I am not surprised. I loved it. I see that some of the proper reviewers felt that the central love story underwhelmed in comparison to the spectacle of the historical context. Not for me. I can report lump in throat, though I am a lachrymose old bluffer.
Hopefully the Rose and Ms Still can alight next time on a text that will pull in the punters from far and wide as well as titillate the local punters to create something that can be flogged in the West End. Mind you if I were a big shot WE producer I would take this on in a shot. As it stands it has the rest of its run at Birmingham Rep, then the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh and finally the Theatre Royal, Glasgow. Do go and see it.
What was that all about? Benjamin Britten and WH Auden’s “choral operetta” which premiered in 1941 when they were in America, is a fable, structured like a Broadway musical, with an array of musical styles, (though BB’s hand is always clear), sometimes camp, sometimes deadly serious with a libretto which, allegorically and sometimes explicitly, takes aim, and occasionally misses, at a whole host of, then, fashionable artistic targets. It got panned, was shelved by Britten until his very last days in 1976 when he revised it for a performance at the Aldeburgh Festival, (which sadly he didn’t witness), and it has gradually clawed its way back into the repertoire.
I saw it decades ago when my head was nowhere near capable of making sense of it and I had intended to see it at Wilton’s Music Hall where this ENO production fist surfaced, but, you know, stuff. Anyway the reviews persuaded me and, by and large, I am glad I listened. I can’t imagine a production that could better convince me of its peculiar merits, and the themes started to resonate, but I still confess I am not convinced by Britten and Auden’s motives. They were a clever couple of lads no doubt, (go see Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art to be persuaded), and this must have looked good on paper, particularly in the intellectual climate of the time, but it does feel like they over-egged it, and, for something that is supposed to be performed by semi-professional groups, it doesn’t seem to have a clear audience home.
Paul Bunyan, and his faithful companion Babe the Blue Ox, is a staple of American folklore, who apparently came out of the oral storytelling tradition of American loggers. He is, just run with this will you, a giant lumberjack, who, along with his trusty crew, set off across the US to perform feats of superhuman strength and carve out the landscapes of the US. Or maybe he wasn’t. Perhaps he was dreamed up by an adman, William B. Laughead, to promote the Red River Lumber Company in 1916, whose exploits then became a staple of kids books. Or maybe not. Maybe he was an actual lumberjack in Canada by the name of Fabian Fournier. Who knows? Whatever his origin he has been the subject of all manner of creative endeavour ever since and I gather the US is littered with oversized statues of the fella.
Already you can see why a couple of posh gay Brits, in love with America and its meaning, and keen to give something to the country in which they have, temporarily, taken refuge, might see the potential in such a subject. You might not know the Paul Bunyan legend but their hosts, across society, certainly did. The homegrown art of the US in the C19, (after all the portraiture of the late C18 and early C19 in common with Europe), was focussed on nature, the immensity of the landscape, and especially on man’s conquest of nature. This was fundamental in creating a powerful new identity for the young nation. The Hudson River School, pioneered by Thomas Cole, led the way. I knew f*ck all about this until I, with no great intent, saw the recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Cole’s work and specifically his allegory The Course of Empire. Very interesting.
Now you may wonder what a massive lumberjack, (here I have to ask you to listen to the Human League’s Empire State Human – wry banality is a sadly rare quality in pop music’s lyric history), and his blue ox might have to do with this. Well its springs from the same well. The creation of America though internal colonisation. Both good and bad. Now sticking with art history by the time we get to the 1930s, (BB and Peter Pears arrived in 1939 just after WHA and Christopher Isherwood), US art was torn in four ways as far as I can see. A more or less folksy nostalgia for America’s rural past and founding myths, or something far more critical which recognised the damage that had been done to the heartland by the Depression and Dustbowl. Or even something which stood, ironically, in both camps, with Grant Wood being the most powerful exponent. Then there was art which celebrated, or lamented, the march of US capitalism and power and the impact of technology on the city. As the America After the Fall exhibition, this time courtesy of the knowledgeable people at the Royal Academy (and elsewhere) and America’s Cool Modernism at the Ashmolean amply demonstrated the 1930’s, for those of us who like paint, figurativism and context, this was a fertile period and stateside.
Will you please get to the point Tourist? Well, the point is that Paul Bunyan the operetta represents the same optimism and pessimism, the celebration and subversion of the rural, mythic pas,t and the way the change to the urban would potentially upset it, that American pictorial art was exploring. And not just pictorial art. Take Our Town by Thornton Wilder in theatre from 1938, in film, Stagecoach and Modern Times in there very different ways, and art music, notably Aaron Copland, who Britten befriended and whose musical influence is also clear in Paul Bunyan. (As it happens Copland was a mentor to one Leonard Bernstein who left his own indelible mark on US musical culture after the war, and an early champion of Charles Ives who was exploring the very territory I am describing, the clash of past and present, some thee decades earlier).
Now musical theatre in 1930s US was a serious business. By which I mean that the government, specifically with its Federal Theatre Project in drama, stood firmly behind cultural revitalisation to match the economic recovery underpinned by the New Deal, and that some musicals even offered a deeper social and political message. Take Porgy and Bess at the high art end of the spectrum. BB and WHA had form back home when it came to a political message with their documentary collaborations and song cycles such as On This Island and the under-rated Our Hunting Fathers.
And at the end of Paul Bunyan, in the final Litany, they lay it on thick with the paean to the individualism and acceptance they see in America and the psalm chants of the animal’s petition in the preceding Christmas Party scene. It may be idealistic, even naive, but it is, especially in this production, undeniably effective.
So there you have it. My take on what it’s all about. No f*cking use whatsoever. So you could profitably enjoy PB without agonising about its messages and context and just as a story with some, this being BB, wonderful tunes. A story about some old trees who get warned by three geese that they will be in big trouble when the moon turns blue for that is when PB is born. A narrator, well three to be exact, tell of PB’s early life before we join him and Babe in the forest with his team of Swedish lumberjacks, a pair of culinarily challenged chefs, a bookkeeper, Johnny Inkslinger, and assorted cats and dogs (yep they sing). PB goes off to fetch his daughter Tiny but the crew gets unruly whilst he is away and a bloke called Slim turns up. PB returns, offers some of the lumberjacks the option of farming, the leader of the Swedes, Hel Helson, talks to all sorts of animals, before being egged on by his Scandi mates to pick a fight with PB, which he, unsurprisingly loses. Tiny and Slim fall in love and Helming realises the error of his ways. Christmas Eve. Slim and Tiny and Slim are to marry, Hel is off to Washington to join the Administration and Johnny is going to Hollywood.
I mean all fairly routine no? OK maybe not. It is as bonkers as it sounds and BB takes full advantage by chucking his take on all manner of musical genres, folksongs, ballads, blues, county & western, hymns, Broadway, cabaret, even ad jingles into the pot, and WHA lets rip with his precise poetry. knowing irony and unexpected vernacular, (Scandinavia rhymed with behaviour).
Even if doesn’t all quite add up it isn’t for the want of trying from the ENO players and chorus under James Henshaw, the cast, designer Camilla Clarke and, especially, director Jamie Manton. Whilst the execution was undeniably as serious as if this were, say Wozzeck at the Coliseum, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves so eventually, despite my reservations, it just seemed easier to go with the flow. And, I figured, maybe this “plot” was no dafter than the gods and monsters of the early Baroque.
For all the pastiche the score is bursting with BB’s melodic gift and ear-catching invention. He even offers a test of what was to come decades later with a hint of the singular scales of Balinese gamelan. And there is, in the choral and instrumental passages, even some “serious” opera to savour.
The Ally Pally theatre offers a beautiful, but voluminous, space so, given the transfer from the intimate surroundings of Wilton’s I was a bit concerned that this might, like the Headlong Richard III, get a bit swallowed up. Not in the slightest. Ensemble on a platform at stage rear, another platform for our three narrators, Claire Mitcher, Rebecca Stockland and Susanna Tudor Thomas, (when they are off-duty from being geese of course), projection stage, wheelie bins, blue Smeg fridges symbolising ox, constant motion, dance, costume designs John Waters would have embraced for his films. All presided over by a giant neon blue PB – did I mention we don’t actually see Paul Bunyan – never mind. We do hear him though booming out in the mellifluous shape of none other than Simon Russell Beale. And the chorus makes full use of the aisles, slips and rear, of the auditorium.
Which, when you have the mighty presence and voice of New Zealand based Samoan baritone Benson Wilson on your shoulder, turns out to be a hell of thing. Mr Wilson, who also plays farmer John Shears, was the winner of this years Kathleen Ferrier Award. I must say I was much taken with the big fella. I have never head an operatic voice up that close. More fool me. At somewhat lesser proximity I was also taken with Elgan Llyr Thomas as Inkslinger and Rowan Pierce as Tiny. But honestly this whole ensemble was just another reason why I prefer the ENO home grown talent to the ROH fly ins.
So there you have it. BB went on to bigger and better things, (and fell out big time with Auden), though this work, for all the funs and games, shows why no-one should have been surprised when, four years later, and back in Blighty, BB pitched up with Peter Grimes putting us back on the operatic compositional map 250 years since Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Don’t feel too sorry for clever clogs Auden. He went on to write the libretto for Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.
Take Arthur Miller’s most “Greek” and, probably, most moralising play. Wheel in a couple of Hollywood heavyweights (Bill Pullman and Sally Field, Neve before seen on a UK stage). Add a couple of high recognition and talented Brit actors (Jenna Coleman and Colin Morgan). And a supporting cast at the top of its game (Sule Rimi, Gunnar Cauthery, Kayla Meike, Bessie Carter and Oliver Johnstone). Design an entirely naturalistic, picket fenced, clapboard house set (Max Jones) draft an A team for lighting (Richard Howell), sound (Carolyn Downing) and video (Duncan McLean). Put Headlong chief Jeremy Herrin in charge, a man with a proven record of delivering serious, yet still entertaining, popular theatre (This House, Labour of Love, People, Places and Things, The Never, Junkyard and Wolf Hall/Brin up the Bodies). Kick off proceedings at a gentle canter but slowly and surely racket up the tension as the disclosures tumble out and the velocity of the dialogue accelerates. Don’t hold anything back at the end. Mr Miller certainly didn’t.
No surprise then that the Old Vic has a hit on its hands playing to packed houses with no need for the occasional discounting that has dogged a few, very good in my opinion, productions in the last couple of years (notably Fanny and Alexander). If you are to believe the Blonde Bombshells, BUD, KCK and the SO, and you should, this is well deserved. After a near miss with Three Sisters I have the team back in the palm of my booking blind hand.
So what is about the play and production that works so well? The last time I saw it, at the Rose Theatre in 2016, director Michael Rudman took a similar unfussy approach to proceedings, with a near identical set and some strong performances from Penny Downie as Kate Keller, Alex Waldmann as son Chris Keller and David Horovitch as Joe Keller, the “common man” and flawed “hero” of Miller’s tragedy. But it never really caught fire as here.
This is largely down to the quartet of excellent performances at the heart of the play. Though we have had a couple of contrarian opinions elsewhere in the viewing circle that mostly centre on the casting of Bill Pullman as Joe, which I can acknowledge but not agree with.
Bill Pullman started out as a stage actor but, as far as I can see, got sidetracked, as one might, by the big bucks of Hollywood. It is fair to say not everything he has laid down on celluloid has been of the highest quality though, also fair to say, I don’t know most of his films. He does have a very particular style of delivery though which, for me, works to great effect here. The pitch of his performance is pretty much unchanged throughout, but its amplitude is constantly changing. Alternately sympathetic, matey, defensive, aggressive, wheedling underneath the homespun, bumbling exterior, this is a man who who knows one day his secret will break him but continues to deny it even to himself, until right at the end. Sally Field as Kate, is similarly covering up, and therefore refuses to accept that her pilot son Larry died in the war, casting a protective cordon around her family. When she finally “finds out” the truth her impassiveness speaks volumes. In my pretty limited experience the stars of the American big screen generally hold back on stage, (a notable exception being Christian Slater in the recent Glengarry Glen Ross). That’s close-ups for you. It can seen underpowered, (and I wouldn’t want to see this production from up in the gods). Jeremy Herrin tough, with his master of pace, finds a way to turn this to advantage, “naturalising” the exposition of the first act and making the sh*t-hit-fan third act even more devastating
It was a joy to see Jenna Coleman as Ann Deever take to the stage after her phenomenally successful TV career. Her exchanges with Sally Field, as she and Chris seek her approval, are extremely affecting. For me though, Colin Morgan as Chris was the star of the show. Racked with survivor guilt from his brother’s death, and buried anger from his own war experiences, and then seeing his chance of happiness through a life with Ann turn to ashes as his father’s sins, (which deep down I think he knows), are revealed. Mr Morgan, as in Translations at the NT, (though this is a very different role even if he again stands at the centre of the plot), is dynamic and enthralling.
All My Sons first appeared in 1947. AM’s first efforts attracted critical acclaim but his previous Broadway opening in 1944, The Man Who Had All The Luck, was a flop closing after just 4 performances. Thank goodness he didn’t give up. All My Sons doesn’t quite scale the heights of its successors, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible and A View from the Bridge, but, as the standing ovation here demonstrated, (mind you that is par for the course now and no bad thing – these creatives deserve our gratitude), it delivers a whacking great emotional punch to the gut. Maybe not quite as much food for thought or structural elegance as those successors, and there are a few near McGuffins, (that letter), in the plot, but this is what drama is all about. You might occasionally rankle at the way AM controls the flow of information, and elevates dialogue over action, but you’ll still be hanging on every word as you catch up with what the various characters know, don’t know and learn about the central hubris. There’s also the old Miller criticism chestnut of veiled misogyny given that Ann acts primarily as the catalyst of the emerging truth and Kate is seen as somehow manipulating those around here. You might also, as a couple of our crew did, question the end, but, hey, that’s catharsis folks.
Well I didn’t know this. AMS is actually based on a true story which AM’s mother-in-law pointed out about an Ohio based aeronautical company that conspired with army inspection officers to approve defective aircraft engines for military use, eventually leading to a congressional investigation. I can see why this would have piqued AM’s interest. It could accommodate his overarching concern, the corruption of the American Dream, but here his critique of capitalist individualism riding roughshod over socialist collectivism, found an unambiguous moral centre in one family’s story. Whatever one’s political persuasion, putting profit above the safety of young men fighting for their country and for freedom is surely a no-no, but then again sending them to war in the first place shows a remarkable lack of collective intelligence on the part of the human race. Joe made the execrable decision, (or absence of decision), but did he feel the pressure from the military and the ideal of family? Where AM is really smart though is in taking inspiration not just from the Greeks, (All My Sons even strictly obeys the unities of time, place and action), but also from Ibsen, specifically The Wild Duck, where Hakon Werle’s wealth and influence is built on a crime that his former business partner, Old Ekdal, took the rap for.
There is also a pop at the veracity of the legal justice, (both Ann and brother George (Oliver Johnstone) believe their father is guilty and Joe innocent because the investigation said so), the frustrations, resentments and contradictions of “normal” small town America families, the Bayliss’ and the Lubeys,( though at least they don’t have the back story of the Kellers and the Deevers), are exposed, as are class and education. In the end though the story of a man, (or woman), losing, (or finding), their honour has brought us together for thousands of years (as all you GoT fans know). Hard to imagine anything better.
Of course all that was before we went down the road a week later to see The Death of a Salesman. Crikey.
The Tourist was much taken with Zoe Cooper’s last play, Jess and Joe Forever, also at the Orange Tree, in 2016. A coming of age story which charted the relationship of Joe, Norfolk born and bred, and Jess, posh and up from London for her holidays, but with, quite literally, a difference. In Out of Water she has, on a somewhat broader scale, created another uplifting story of difference and acceptance, this time set in the North East. She has a light and witty touch, but there is something more, an emotional depth that gradually emerges out her beautiful writing which marks here out as a dramatist of genuine talent.
Forthright Kit (Zoe West) is a police officer who returns to her native South Shields with her diffident partner Claire (Lucy Briggs-Owen) who is a teacher and is expecting their first child. Kit’s family, give or take, is accepting of the lesbian couple but Claire, a posh-ish Home Counties type, who has landed a job in a local school to facilitate inclusion and work with certain of the pupils, finds it more difficult to adjust. Her attempts to reach out to non-binary Fish (Tilda Wickham), who dreams of the sea, and is regarded with suspicion by her prosaic peers, are received warily and provoke misgivings from others.
These three excellent actors also play a bevy of other characters, Kit’s down to earth Mum, the head teacher that recruits Claire, Brendan, the disciplinarian PE teacher who gets results, a lippy school-kid, amongst others. All turn out to be not quite what they seem as Ms Cooper mines the arguments about how we define who we are. Scenes slide into each other, Georgie folk songs evoke a sense of place, this being the Orange Tree, the parquet floor of Camilla Clarke’s set open up to reveal the “sea” beneath, there is a fish tank in one corner, a ladder in another. In one effective scene Fish lip-syncs to a David Attenborough nature programme. The symbolism is maybe a touch heavy handed and the narration to supplement the dialogue is maybe a little overdone but it does mean Ms Cooper, and director Guy Jones, are able to cover a lot of ground and allows the subtlety of the themes she is exploring to fully emerge.
Please can you persuade Maxine Peake and Andrew Scott to come together on stage in a naturalistic two hander about a normal couple who have something extraordinary happen to them. Manchester, London or Timbuktu. I don’t care where. Subject TBD. As long as there is bucketloads of emotional pain which has to be worked through whilst stoically carrying on with their daily lives.
There is nothing actually that innovative about this monologue based on Australian writer Julia Leigh’s memoir about her experience of IVF. There is no need for it. A bit of symbolism from an avalanche and a pair of imagined kids. Otherwise it charts the fractured relationship of a film-maker, her overwhelming need to conceive and the grief that follows from the failed treatments. Anna-Louise Sark’s staging, a three sided, clinical, white space which rises slowly through the 90 minute production, a table and chairs that collapse, from designer Marg Horwell, some, occasionally, overly forthright lighting and sound from Lizzie Powell and Stefan Gregory, may give a hint of art-theatre. It doesn’t really add anything though to the performance.
Which is, in the least surprising surprise since we were apprised of the fact that His Holiness is of the Roman persuasion, just brilliant. It isn’t just the fact that Maxine Peake makes the movement of face, hands and body look entirely natural, (even when awkwardly directed to shift stage positions to break up the monologue), or the easy conversational style that projects, on on one, even up to us cheapskates in the gods. It is the fact that whilst remaining entirely Maxine Peake throughout – vowels, grins, wry knowing asides, pauses, reflections, repetitions, pointing, pawing – she becomes the woman whose harrowing story she is telling. This is not, forgive me, and thankfully, a story that I can relate and yet, pretty much throughout, I was there with her.
In anyone else’s hands the slight drawbacks in the adaptation would probably have been laid bare. It is too long, you can, an hour in, practically hear the pages turning, with too much emphasis on the how and what of the journey and not enough on the why, and this is too big a space for any monologue, (and robs the end of much of its theatricality). It does though get into the joyless mechanics and desperate economics of IVF treatment, six rounds in total, and captures the loneliness of the Woman’s quest. As it happens IVF treatment played a small part in Out of Water, the new play by Zoe Cooper, on my next night’s viewing. And this was, by comparison with the other stage work I have seen prompted by this experience, the weak Genesis Inc, a resounding success. And the Fertility Fest at the Barbican, of which this was a centrepiece, deserves everyone’s praise.
To my mind the only actor who can match Maxine Peake when it comes to force of personality and stage charisma is the aforesaid Andrew Scott. As was apparent to anyone lucky enough to see Simon Stephens’s monologue Sea Wall at the Old Vic last year (or in its previous outings);
I am guessing if you are the playwright responsible for The Churchill Play, Epsom Downs, The Romans in Britain, Pravda, Paul, 55 Days and Lawrence After Arabia you can get to write pretty much what you like. Especially if you plainly have a history of not giving a f*ck what people think of your work.
And if you are the outgoing director of the Hampstead Theatre, which you resurrected, (with your team), from near collapse a decade ago you also have the right to choose your swan song. And the writer who offered up five of his plays for you to stage over those ten years certainly deserves your loyalty.
But this is, no doubt, a tricky, uneven and, ultimately, not entirely convincing work. Howard Brenton has taken the bones of the story of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, repurposed it for our time, and then, in what might have seemed like a good idea at the time, added a kind of chorus in the form of Euripides himself.
His Jude is a female Syrian refugee, self-taught in Ancient Greek and the Classics, who, working as a cleaner, improbably secures a place at Oxford on the whim of a lesbian don, Deirdre. After having married a pig farmer. And with a cousin, (yes there a bit of unconvincing cuz-luv per Hardy,) who gets a bit carried way with his religious fervours and end up being surveilled as a terrorist by one of the Prof’s ex students. And Euripides, also self taught, comes to our Jude in dreams. Because he was, as Mr Brenton says, bloody good at this drama lark and interested in the story of refugees, minorities and strangers.
The play’s main message I think is that society must find a place for its geniuses but on to this already rickety framework, HB has a pop, in a moreorless non-PC way, at all manner of targets. Racism, nativism, fear of the other, Brexit, dumbing down and cultural ignorance, tokenism, institutional hypocrisy, the power of the state and surveillance, masks, the bicameral mind (nope, me neither). All liberally sprinkled with quotes from the Iliad.
HB’s heart is definitely in the right place, and there is plenty to chew over, but the execution is often idiosyncratic, the dramatic momentum uneven and the arguments scatter-gun. No amount of directorial patience from Edward Hall, or creative ingenuity from designer Ashley Martin-Davies, can mask (ha, ha) the structural flaws. Isabella Nefar does have a bloody, (literally at one point in a rather forced nod to Hardy), good crack at pulling the contradictions of her character together and Caroline Loncq gets well deserved laughs out of Deirdre. Paul Brennen wears his Euripides mask well and doubles up as one of the spooks, (remember HB wrote for the TV show of the same name), alongside Shanaya Rafaat. But Anna Savya as Jude’s aunt, (her father was killed back home but he is the one who fuelled her ambition, natch), March Husey as the naive cousin, Luke McGregor as the doltish husband Jack and Emily Taafe as Jude’s A level teacher are all stymied by some awkward dialogue and thin characterisation.
Yet, despite all of this, I quite took to Howard Breton’s misguided intellectualism and stylistic kitchen sink-ism. What most of the audience made of it though is anyone’s guess. What with this, David Hare’s not shooting the lights out with I’m Not Running, ditto (actually worse) with Alan Ayckbourn in The Divide, Michael Frayn retired and not a peep for years from Tom Stoppard, maybe the best days of the grand old men of British theatre are behind them.
Thanks heavens for the mighty Caryl Churchill then. The new season at the Royal Court is advertising there new short plays Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. “A girl made of glass. Gods and murders. A serial killer’s friends“. That’s all there is by way of intro. That’s all I need. I can’t wait.
The corruption of innocence, the struggle of good vs evil, Christ-like redemption and Pilate-like equivocation, the conflict between natural and legal justice, the outsider’s struggle for acceptance, repressed, scopophiliac, homosexual desire, the rational, scientific world contrasted with the mythic poetry of the imagination, dreams, the sea, the biblical musicality of his prose. Even the same initials. It isn’t much of a surprise than Benjamin Britten, who always fancied himself as a bit of a martyr, and his librettists EM Forster and Eric Crozier alighted on Herman Melville’s classic novella for operatic treatment.
Forster had long been an admirer of Britten’s music, (who wouldn’t be), but the idea only crystallised in 1948. Eric Crozier was brought in to provide the expert, though not always smooth, link between composer and novelist. The premiere of the original production, in four acts, appeared on this very stage on 1st December 1951, as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations. The revised two act version, with epilogue and prologue for Captain Vere alone, first appeared here in 1964 but it is 19 years since the ROH last staged it in a production directed by Francesca Zambello.
The last time I saw it was in 2012 at the ENO in the Expressionistic version served up by David Alden. In one of Dad’s more widely inappropriate attempts to get BD into opera she came along too. Smart-arse that she was, and is, the themes, even when concealed by Mr Alden’s somewhat wilful interpretation, didn’t evade her. Even under all that maritime lingo this isn’t subtle even when it is ambiguous.
Having witnessed director Deborah Warner’s way with BB in The Turn of the Screw many years ago at the Barbican and in the Death in Venice revival at the ENO in 2013, (with the SO who surprised herself with a favourable reaction), as well as Tansy Davies’ Between Worlds, I wasn’t going to miss this production originally seen in Rome and Madrid. For once the Tourist paid up to sit downstairs though for opera of this scale, ( a cast of over 20 and a chorus of 60), and quality at this venue it seemed like a bargain when compared too the kind of bonkers prices the ROH normally requires from punters for a prime perch. Lucky for me those prices are generally the norm for the very repertoire I can’t abide.
(I know that there are bargains to be found, I normally sit in them, but they are compromised. Up in the amphitheatre you might be forgiven for thinking you had travelled to Zone 2, for example, and at the back of the balcony boxes you might want to take a book).
Billy Budd is BB’s grandest opera, in terms of music and ideas, but, self-evidently, it has one obvious constraint. Namely it is all blokes. BB is somewhat unfairly criticised for not serving up any top-drawer female roles. Ellen Orford, Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw, Tytania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Female Chorus and Lucretia in The Rape of Lucretia and, though I can’t be sure since I have never seen it, Queen Liz I in Gloriana, are all surely exceptions, but the fact is, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is in writing for the male voice where he excelled. In Billy Budd his cup overfloweth with the central trio of tenor (Captain Vere, the captain of The Indomitable), the bass of Master at Arms, John Claggart and the baritone of Billy himself. Then there are another fourteen named roles amongst the officers and the seaman, four boy treble midshipmen, the speaking only cabin boy and a singing chorus of 60, count ’em, augmented by another 30 actors. Put together the drama of the story and the opportunity to weave in traditional music, (including shanties,) with BB’s genius facility for word and scene painting in music and, wallop, you have, BB’s most powerful operatic score.
The orchestra doesn’t skimp on woodwind and brass, 4 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, double bassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombone and tuba, and that’s before doubling up, or percussion, (though there are no “funny” tuned or untuned instruments smuggled in as in other works). So when conductor, here the reliable Ivor Bolton, orchestra and chorus are on song, as they were, especially that chorus under William Spaulding’s direction, then the director and principals have a strong base on which to build.
First decision for the director is whether to go full on 1797 or something more timeless. The former risks dialling up the salty procedurals in the scenes and libretto, the latter over-egging the psychological, parabolic, pudding. Deborah Warner has come out somewhere in the middle. The ROH chippies haven’t been beavering away creating a replica man of war. Instead the ship in Michael Levine’s design is conjured up from an immense skein of chains/ropes from which platforms, sails and hammocks, are suspended. This takes us above and below decks as required and leaves the chorus crew with, believable, work to do (choreography Kim Brandstrup). It’s brilliant. A near literal prison. Then again the rill of water front stage was maybe dispensable. The officer uniforms (costumes by Chloe Obolensky) are more mid C20 than late C18, with the crew in timeless sailor rags (albeit exquisitely tailored rags).
As with Death in Venice, the lighting design of Jean Kalman, (like the above, another of Ms Warner’s trusted collaborators), and Mike Gunning, (including that mist for the symbolic, unconsummated battle scene), is an integral part of Ms Warner’s vision. Billy Budd is not, even in the two act version, a hurried opera, rising and falling like the sea, (I may have got carried away here), to the key confrontations and confessionals. Deborah Warner’s allows some depth and breadth to emerge which maybe detracts from the required foul, claustrophobic atmosphere but brings the slippery themes, and overt symbolism, into focus. BB, whoever his collaborators, never allows moral certainty to emerge in his operas, that is why they are essentially so much better as theatre than most everything written in the previous century, (imagine Puccini or Wagner not melodramatically clunking you over the head every ten minutes – not possible see). Ms Warner wisely runs with BB’s uncertainty.
As usual the Tourist is not qualified to remark on the quality of the singing but, acting wise, Jacques Imbrailo as Billy himself stood out. Obvs he is good to look out, though not as much as Duncan Rock as Donald with his rippling abs, but he moves with complete naturalism and his Billy was “good” but never “simple”. And he certainly wrung some emotion out of his arias especially “the darbies”. Brindley Sherratt as Claggart, nails the giant credo, clear as a ship’s bell, and those inner demons, but could have been outwardly crueller. He is, as Ms Warner intended, an angel who is still falling, rather than full-on disciple of Satan. The still youthful looking Toby Spence’s De Vere does grow as the opera unfolds so that by the end, the “blessing” in the epilogue, he has us in the palm of his pious hand, but his remoteness in the first few scenes is disconcerting. I was also taken, again, with Thomas Olieman’s performance as Mr Redburn and Clive Bayley as the veteran Dansker.
Could you imagine a production that gets closer to some of the really dark questions about cruelty, sex, desire, exploitation and hierarchy that run counter to the narrative of atonement? Of course. Can I have a Billy who looks like who could deck and kill Claggart with one punch. Could there have been a little more “compartmentalisation” set wise to ensure the highlights in the score matched the action on stage? A bit more confusion and less exact choreography. Some sweat. blood and, look away now purists and families of Messers Forster and Crozier, some gratuitous swearing slipped in. A crew that really looked like they might eat the officers for breakfast. For sure.
On the other hand, in the literally overwhelming 34 chord sequence when Vere sentences Billy to death, in this production we stay with Billy and not Vere. And the three officers wordlessly damn him for hiding behind the legalese. Utterly brilliant. With that and other powerful memories I will happily take this production, until, hopefully, one comes along that really doesn’t hold back.
Time to update my London theatre recommendations. The last list from February 2019 turned out pretty well and a fair few from that are still available for selection. Now I know I go on a bit, and offer too many options, so I have taken the wider selection below, considered quality, certainty, availability (if they are sold out or won’t be extended they don’t appear) and chronology, and picked out the eight very best which should not be missed IHMO. The first four are tried, tested and, Lehman Trilogy excepted, aren’t too pricey. The final four are classy classics with top-drawer creatives in the saddle.
Here then are the selections from the various categories. Enjoy.
ON NOW AND STAMPED WITH THE TOURIST’S APPROVAL
Death of a Salesman – Young Vic. Along with Sweat the play of the year so far. Brilliant text, brilliant direction, brilliant cast. The best version I have ever seen. Of course this was always going to be the case so you should have listened to me months ago. Sold out now so the only way to see it will be if/when it transfers. My guess is, if it happens at all, it will end up on Broadway before coming back to London but don’t hold your breath.
Small Island – National Theatre Olivier. If you know the Andrea Levy epic novel about two couples in post war Jamaica and Britain, (or have watched the TV adaptation), you are in for a treat. If you don’t, well you still are. There are tickets left later in the run and, in terms of scale, stagecraft and story, you are definitely getting your money’s worth.
Rosmersholm – Duke of York’s Theatre. OK so it probably helps if you are Ibsen trained, and be prepared for the performance from the Stephen Toast school of acting from Tom Burke, but this is a superb production of an under-appreciated play with its finger on lots of pulses – moral, social, gender and political hypocrisies and contradictions . It isn’t jolly though. Plenty of tickets left but try to find a discount.
All My Sons – Old Vic. As with Death of a Salesman I told you so and it has now sold out. Probably Miller’s most moralising play and Bill Pullman’s performance is idiosyncratic for some, but the play is bullet-proof anyway. Will it transfer? Depends on the two Americans. My advice? Make sure next time a classic Miller is reunited with top-drawer cast and creative teams you just buy ahead.
Out of Water – Orange Tree Theatre. A beautifully written and uplifting three hander set in the North East about difference and acceptance. Playwright Zoe Cooper has a light and witty touch and the cast are excellent.
ANNA – National Theatre Dorfman. OK so this has already started but I haven’t seen a review yet. Ella Hickson, who is probably our most talented young playwright, and the Ringham brothers, sound maestros, combine in a tale set in East Berlin in 1968 which the audience will hear through headphones. Think Stasiland and Lives of Others. It is sold out so you will have to sniff out returns on the day.
BOOKING AHEAD AND STAMPED WITH THE TOURIST’S APPROVAL
Sweat – Gielgud Theatre. Transferring after the sell-out run at the Donmar. Lynn Nottage’s conscientiously researched drama about blue collar America is the best play I have seen this year, bar Death of a Salesman, and one of the best in in the last 5 years. Nothing tricksy here just really powerful theatre. The impact of de-industrialisation in the rust belt on three women friends and their families.
Equus – Trafalgar Studios. Just announced. Theatre Royal Stratford East’s superb production of Peter Shaffer’s classic play is transferring. You have to get your head around the concept, the relationship between a damaged young man with an erotic fixation on horses and his psychologist, but you won’t see more committed and exciting staging, direction and performances.
The Lehman Trilogy– Piccadilly Theatre. I told you to see it at the NT last year. If you ignored me, do not make the same mistake twice. An acting masterclass as the three leads take us through the history of the leaders of the eponymous investment bank and thereby the history of America since the mid C19.
Touching the Void – Duke of York’s Theatre. So the tale of Joe Simpson, the mountaineer left for dead by his partner who then survived against all the odds, is a obviously powerfully dramatic, hence his book and the subsequent, superb, film. But the way cast and creatives have then turned this into something that works in a theatre, with just a few props, some flashbacks and some inspired physicality, is marvellous. I saw this in Bristol before it went on tour and can thoroughly recommend it.
YET TO OPEN BUT YOU WOULD BE A MUG NOT TO TAKE THE PLUNGE
Blood Wedding– Young Vic. Lorca’s “not quite the happiest day of their lives” for a couple in rural Spain will be directed by Yael Farber (this should suit her style). The last time the Young Vic did Lorca it was an overwhelming Yerma. It will probably be atmospheric, stylised. angry and emotional.
Bitter Wheat– Garrick Theatre. World premiere of new play by David Mamet about Weinstein with John Malkovich in the lead. Woo hoo.
Noises Off – Lyric Hammersmith. The funniest play ever written returning to the theatre where it premiered in 1982. It may be theoretically possible to make a mess of Michael’s Frayn’s farce in two halves, seen from front of stage and then backstage, but I reckon it is unlikely with director Jeremy Herrin in charge. If you have never seen it you will be stunned by its technical construction and laughs per minute. And just £20 a ticket.
Appropriate – Donmar Warehouse. Branden Jacob-Jenkins take on the dysfunctional American family drama and confront their racist past finally comes to London. No messing with form as in his previous plays (An Octoroon, Gloria) but this young playwright has the knack.
A Very Expensive Poison – Old Vic. Lucy Prebble wrote Enron, one of the best plays of the last decade, about the financial crisis. She is finally back with this, based on the real life thriller book by heroic British journalist Luke Harding about the Russian spy poisoned in London. Espionage and power politics. Could be a stunner.
The Hunt – Almeida Theatre. Will probably help if you know the film with Mads Mikkelsen about a teacher who is wrongly accused of child sexual abuse in Denmark. It’s in because the Almeida and Rupert Goold the director rarely mess up.
The Doctor – Almeida Theatre. It is Robert Icke directing. It is Juliet Stevenson in the lead. It is at the Almeida. That’s all you need to know. Based on the classic play by Schnitzler about a doctor in early C20 Vienna destroyed by anti-semitism. Has a trial in it that will be meat and drink to Mr Icke. I am very excited by this.
RISKIER PUNTS TO BOOK AHEAD ON
Glass. Kill. Bluebeard – Royal Court Theatre. Three new short plays by Caryl Churchill. I’ve realised that, like Shakespeare, recommending productions by CC to non theatre obsessives doesn’t always pay off, (the Top Girls at the NT wasn’t perfect I admit), but she is still a genius.
Hansard – National Theatre. Not much to go on. A comedy about a Tory MP and his wife. But Simon Godwin is directing and best of all it has Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan in the lead. Obviously I am not the only one to realise that is a classy combination so it has sold out but they will likely conjure up more dates so look out and just buy blind.
Magic Goes Wrong – Vaudeville Theatre. If you are familiar with Mischief Theatre then this, created with magicians Penn and Teller, has to be seen. It will probably run for years but why not treat yourself for Christmas.
When the Crows Visit – Kiln Theatre. Ibsen’s Ghosts revamped and relocated to modern day India. The Kiln in Kilburn, along with the Arcola in Dalston and the Theatre Royal Stratford East, are all on a roll at the moment in terms of repertoire that isn’t too fringe-y but still diverse. This is the most intriguing offer.
Right finally a review that might conceivably be of some value to my solitary, loyal reader. Not that you should need me to tell you to go and see this. The proper critics and committed theatre bloggers will already have told you that. But I can heartily concur. Though I freely admit this is, in part, because I am awestruck by Hayley Attwell, who turns in an even better performance than she did in Measure for Measure at the Donmar, Labyrinth at Hampstead or The Pride at Trafalgar Studios.
Rosmersholm is apparently considered by many Ibsen aficionados to be his best play though it is rarely performed when compared to say, Hedda Gabler, Ghosts, The Wild Duck or The Master Builder. Now that normally just means it has some fatal flaw which the clever luvvies are prepared to forgive but which leaves us normal folk a bit nonplussed. Well, on the basis of this production, it is hard to see what has held it back from being as “popular” as Ibsen’s other works. The ethical, religious and political message is more pointed, the heroine, Rebecca West, more “contemporary”, the hero, Rosmer, more conflicted, the plot more transparent and the message more “relevant”, (though you should always be wary of people who vest past dramatists with “uncanny foresight” – it is human behaviour that doesn’t change). If you like your Ibsen social critique raw and bloody, and characterisation that doesn’t fanny around with dainty nuance, then this will be right up your street.
I have seen some reviews that imply that director Ian Rickson takes his time here. Nonsense. As in his other, superb, productions recently, Translations, The Birthday Party and The Goat, and his work with Jez Butterworth, he doesn’t feel the need to display any directorial excess, simply concentrating on forensically letting his actors breathe life into the text. Now of course I cannot be sure if the adaptor here, Duncan MacMillan, has taken liberties with Ibsen’s intent, never having seen the play before, (and having fallen behind, actually having never left the starting gate, with my Danish). If he has then good on him. It works. There is a bit of maladroit symbolism on show, a vision of a white horse which first appeared after Rosmer’s wife, Beata, committed suicide a year earlier by throwing herself into the waterwheel, but this no less grating than what’s served up in Lady From The Sea, Little Eyolf or, in the closest parallel, Ghosts. Oh, and there is of course, this being Ibsen, apparently some unintentional incest.
It is true that there is no escaping the melodrama of the conclusion, as the burden of guilt for the central couple becomes to much to bear, but frankly I want to be emotionally manipulated by great drama. There is a reason why the Greeks, Shakespeare, Ibsen and Miller still punch in the gut and it isn’t located in cosy domesticity. Of course it is hard to believe that in the space of 10 minutes Rebecca and Rosmer make their pact but it is not as if the two of them have been hiding their emotional dissonance up until then. Oh, and there is, of course apparently some unintentional incest. So even if deep-rooted shame is something few of us in 2019 might recognise, (look to our political class for confirmation), it doesn’t require too much of a leap of imagination to believe it of Norway in 1886.
I can also see why some might not take to Tom Burke’s “actorly” portrayal of John Rosmer. Mr Burke has a particular intonation and delivery, (last see by us in Schiller’s Don Carlos), which doesn’t always ring true but it does make his character’s intellectual life explicit. You make not entirely accept what Rosmer is feeling here, especially when it comes to his guilt about Beata, but you certainly now what he is thinking. Set against Ms Attwell’s restless, impulsive Rebecca, whose “freedom” almost overwhelms her, and Giles Terera’s inflexible, but oh so reasonable, brother-in-law Andreas Kroll, his anguished, grieving Rosmer soon makes sense.
The tension between the Rosmer’s heritage as a rich aristo at the heart of local society who has lost his clerical mojo and the progressive leanings fuelled by Rebecca, and by Jake Fairbrother’s cynical reformist journo Peter Mortensgaard, all set around local elections, is pummelled to a pulp by Ibsen, MacMillan and cast, but that is what gives the arguments universality. The way in which values inform political positions, the way in which the press turns ugly and fans the flames, the struggle between engagement or withdrawal, (here taken to its ultimate, Romantic, conclusion). Lay on top the clarion feminist call that Rebecca represents, the doomed passion that follows Rebecca and Rosmer’s meeting of the minds and the dissolution of Peter’s Wright’s knackered Ulrik Brendel, Rosmer’s ex-teacher, the hypocritical foil to the buttoned up Kroll, and you have the full Ibsen package of contradiction.
Rae Smith has conjured up another elegant set. Much like Mike Britton’s construction for the Royal and Derngate’s Ghosts which the Tourist relished a few days earlier, authenticity was key, but here the faded grandeur of a long unused reception room in Rosmer’s ancestral pile was imagined. Lined with ancestral portraits which Rebecca instructs the staff to reveal from under dust covers at the opening, the new broom, (apparently the original text calls for Rebecca to sit in a chair knitting before the first line). Later on, just to make sure we haven’t missed them, Rosmer chucks flowers at his forebears. Neil Austin’s lighting design takes full advantage of the possibilities of the setting, as does Gregory Clarke’s sound. The servants are omni-present reminding Rosmer of his position and creating swish scene changes but only the pithy housekeeper Mrs Helseth (Lucy Briers) gets to chip in with dialogue. And big respect to whoever signed off the health and safety papers for the aqueous resolution.
As with Ghosts as I was leaving I overheard some punters saying that they liked the actors but that it was a bit “word-y”. I am going to say this fully aware of just what a patronising c*nt it makes me sound like but …. it is not just about whether you recognise the cast from the telly and …. it is a play …. it is supposed to be “word-y”.