I can see why Tom Morton-Smith would have alighted on the infamous chess match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in 1972 in Reykjavik. There are a ton of tomes on the subject and, after all, if it was good enough to spark the imagination of the ABBA boys …..
A proxy for the Cold War, then at its height, the clash between two ideologies, the “chess machine” Spassky up against the “maverick genius” Fischer, maybe the greatest player of all. No wonder the world was enthralled by the contest in a way that chess has never repeated. Added to which was Fischer’s erratic personality, he was never formally diagnosed, but he left the US, dropped out of competitive chess for two decades after winning this World Championship, got into legal scuffles, and devoted much of his time to vicious anti-Semitism.
Plenty of scope for drama then. TM-S’s smash hit Oppenheimer, which the Tourist, annoyingly, never saw, it coinciding with his peak poorly, so please someone revive it soon, similarly dealt with heightened personal drama set against the backdrop of big geo-political stuff. Other earlier plays have also successfully ploughed the same furrow.
So why didn’t it quite lift off then? Well the action is concentrated on the hall in which the match took place and various ante, hotel and other rooms around this. No faulting the way in which Jamie Vartan’s design, Howard Harrison’s lighting, Philip Stewart’s composition and sound, Jack Phelan’s video and, especially, Mike Ashcroft’s movement all combine to bring animation and excitement to the various confrontations, between and within the two “teams”, and between Spassky and Fischer during and outside the game. All overseen by Annabelle Comyn’s rhythmic direction. The two lead performances are also vivid and credible, Ronan Raftery as the self-contained but somehow melancholic Spassky, and, especially, Robert Emms as the aggressive Fischer. He has a lot more “personality” to play with, drawn out in some striking scenes on the telephone to the voice of Henry Kissinger (Solomon Israel) and his Jewish mother Regina (Emma Pallant). The rest of the cast, (wisely opened up a bit gender wise as I am guessing the reality was almost entirely geezer), don’t have too much opportunity to delve into character though Philip Desmueles has a decent crack as the German chess arbiter Lothar Schmid as does Buffy Davis doubling as the US team, bumptious head honcho Fred Cramer and Bobby’s mentor Lina Grumette.
T M-S’s dialogue too is incisive, and light on forced exposition, though it can’t quite escape chess-y banter, and all of the controversies of the match are rehearsed, notably the bizarre requests and counter-requests that tried the patience of the stoical Icelandic organisers and which was borne of mutual paranoia, notably from Bobby. My favourite was the argument over the chairs.
Like I say it is a cracking story. But not quite a cracking play. For the problem is that, however good the staging and the text, this is a tale of repetitions, which diminish in their return to the audience across the near 3 hours of the play. The scenes may differ, and are, to repeat, entertainingly executed, but don’t really move the narrative on. And, of course, we know the ending. Which means the political and psychological context needs to be explored in more depth than here. We get a sense of the financial and ideological stakes, the way in which Fischer’s mind games undermined a Russian team with an eye on their own government’s reaction, (though Spassky was avowedly apolitical,) and an insight into Bobby’s own, damaged, neuroses, but nothing that really surprises, provokes or disturbs.
My guess is that, having focussed on bringing the “facts” to kinetic life, by the time T M-S went looking underneath the play was already “done”. It might have been more interesting to step outside the detail of the match itself and start elsewhere, in flash-back from Bobby’s later life maybe (though I see that is pretty cliched). The imagined scene between Bobby and his Icelandic bodyguard Saemundur Palsson (Gary Shelford), which lends the play its title, is perhaps a pointer to want might have been of TM-S had left the facts behind.
I am all for revivals of modern plays that have something to say to us right now. Assuming the play was good enough in the first place. And that the director and creative team have a clear idea of how they craft that relevance whilst still staying true to the time and place in which they were written. In my experience texts from the 1970s and before, or those written in the last 20 years, fare best in this regard but those through the 1990s, and especially the 1980s, pose the most headaches. Recreate or update? And this was, remember, a fertile period for drama after a decade or so of artistic stasis. Largely because us luvvies like nothing better than to censure society, politics and culture that shifts rightwards. Thatcherism was a heaven sent artistic opportunity.
This is the context in which Stephen Jeffreys, who passed away last year, wrote Valued Friends in 1989, which premiered at the Hampstead Theatre before a West End transfer. The original cast consisted of Peter Capaldi, Jane Horrocks, Serena Gordon, Tim McInnerney, Martin Clunes and Peter Caffrey. Four thirty-somethings, Marion (here Catrin Stewart), Paul (Sam Frenchum), Howard (Michael Marcus) and Sherry (Natalie Casey), have rented a flat in Earl’s Court then an up and coming, (they always are), part of London since meeting at uni. Posh developer Scott (Ralph Davies) wants to ponce up the block and sell on and makes them an offer he thinks they can’t refuse to get out. However the bourgeois Marion sees an opportunity to negotiate and persuades vacillating partner Paul, the relaxed in the paddock intellectual Howard and the impecunious motormouth Sherry to hold out. A few turns of the wheel later and Sherry is paid off, setting out to travel the world and find herself, and the other three have bought the flat at a discount to do it up, with the help of builder and homespun philosopher Stewart (Nicolas Tennant). High flyer Marion eventually cashes out after splitting up with man-child music journo Paul, who becomes ever more obsessed with making money from the property.
Sounds interesting eh. I can certainly see why director Michael Fentiman was drawn to reviving it and what the Rose and co-producer Original Theatre Company agreed. Especially when you consider Stephen Jeffrey’s reputation. The Libertine, which popped up at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2016 with Dominic Cooper in the lead, is probably his most famous play but Mr Jeffreys was as much teacher, in his roles at the Royal Court, as he was writer. Which, given his skill in pacing, character, structure and language, is unsurprising. Valued Friends is a very well built play, full of telling detail. I am just not sure this production fully reflected that or whether its line of attack would make sense to an audience who wasn’t there at the time it appeared. The nature of their relationship with “property” is rather different.
For trust me the desire to succeed, to get on, to make money, infected us all. And that was most obviously expressed in the delirium of property ownership. Of course that urge, that need, remains but a decade of single digit average price inflation and falling volume of transactions, despite cheap money, doesn’t compare to the madness of the late 1980s, peaking at over 30% in the year before SJ wrote Valued Friends. A group made up of a struggling journalist, a second rate stand up (Sherry), and admin worker (Marion) and a PhD student wouldn’t be contenders to buy a prime flat in inner West London today, but, trust me, there was nothing far fetched about this then for all the money illusion. SJ takes this phenomenon to make broader points about accumulation, credit, greed, the erosion of community, the rise of individualism and the failure of markets. There is more to his dialogue that meets the eye, or ear maybe, sorry mixed metaphors, but this is subtly woven in to a still credible story of friendship and relationships.
It is funny but it is not just a comedy. However it seems that Mr Fentiman didn’t quite trust that reading and decided to dial up the laughs. Now I gather Natalie Casey is best know for her work in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, Hollyoaks and West End musicals. All outside my ken I am afraid. She brings a feisty tenacity to Sherry, who keeps knocking at the comedy door despite making no money, but as an actor she is a bit full on and shouty. Conversely Ralph Davies’s reptilian Scott falters as the negotiation lengthens. And Nicolas Tennant’s turn as Stewart, whilst dissonantly amusing, rather distracts from an ending that already forces resolution. Sam Frenchum (so good in The Outsider adaptation at the Coronet), Michael Marcus and Catrin Stewart are much more sympathetic to the characterisation I think but still feel a little awkward at times, especially in the on-off relationship of the couple.
Michael Taylor’s set design, which shifts from student-y squalor to swish minimalism, does the job, and Madeleine Girling’s costume are spot on, but the lighting (Nic Farham) and sound (Richard Hammerton) are a bit too conspicuous.
Happy enough, especially for my tenner investment here, but couldn’t help thinking what it would be like to see a production of a play by Mr Jeffreys that really hit home.
Another day, another Ibsen update. After Tanika Gupta’s intelligent relocation of A Doll’s House to colonial India and Cordelia Lynn’s not quite so successful ageing of Hedda Gabler, the Tourist’s next stop was Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s transformation of Henrik’s prototype eco-warrior and inconvenient truth teller, Doctor Thomas Stockmann, into Doctor Theresa. Marvellous to see three immensely talented women writers transform the always relevant work of Norway’s groundbreaking progressive genius.
Of course Ibsen’s target in AEOTP is not the way in which the hidebound morality of C19 Norway, for which read the rest of Western society, stifled liberal progress and especially women. For sure it was written as a riposte to the critics of its “scandalous” predecessor Ghosts, and takes a potshot at the hypocrisy of the conservative community in which it is set, but for me it is more a critique of the greed and corruption that disfigures uncontrolled capitalism.
It therefore doesn’t need the gender change to work as drama but, my goodness, as a conceit it really works. Stockmann, deliberately, is normally a man who lets his ego get the better of him. Ibsen thus plays with our sympathies. He is nailed-on in the right when he takes on the municipal authorities in the form of his boss, the mayor and, famously, his brother, Peter Mattsson, and plainly deliberately poisoning your guests is not a good look for a spa town, but the way in which Tommy takes his case to people and press does come across as, shall we say, a little overwrought. Dr Theresa is made of the same stuff, but as a woman, with a supportive, though tested, husband and a patronising elder brother, the motivations for her urgency become satisfyingly complex.
The prolific and multi-talented Rebecca Lenkiewicz has previous with AEOTP so knows it inside out. Here she has taken a literal translation from Charlotte Barslund, and deftly adapted it to a modern vernacular, without sacrificing any of the small-town claustrophobia and moral ambiguity that informs the original. There are a few moments when the attempt to shoe-horn in today’s political discourse – fake news, whistle blowers, the liberal elite vs the manipulated masses, the disparaging of expert opinion and that little matter called Brexit – are somewhat too transparent, the play doesn’t need it as it is already all there, but the central gender conceit, and the fact that “strong woman” Dr T won’t be silenced, really resonates.
As director Adam Penford plainly relishes the opportunity to build on such firm foundations of plot, character and text as does the cast led by her off the telly Alex Kingston. Ms Kingston, as the character demands, doesn’t hold back, occasionally leaving some of her colleagues in her defiant wake, but fortunately the one person who has to take her on, performance wise as well as dramatically, is him off the telly Malcolm Sinclair as brother Peter. He was magnetic as Eisenhower in David Haig’s Pressure and here is all supercilious, Rees-Moggian entitlement as he attempts to bulldoze his amoral way through Dr T’s evidence and objections, questioning her science and her sanity.
Of course AEOTP is not just about the battle of wills between brother and sister. Emma Pallant also stands out as Ulrika Hovstad the, now female, editor of the progressive local paper, prepared to turn principle on a sixpence when money starts talking and opinion turns, as does Tim Samuels as smarmy Aslaksen, the spineless printer. Deka Walmsley as steadfast husband Christopher, Richard Evans as his father, the contrary, and wealthy, tannery owner, Morten Kil, Donna Banya as idealist daughter Petra, Jordan Peters as Hovstad’s sidekick Billing and Karl Haynes as loyal friend Captain Horster, all slot in admirably.
There is humour in the adaptation, though maybe not quite in the way Ibsen intended, and Tina MacHugh’s lighting, Drew Baumohl’s sound and Frans Bak’s composition, all step in during the crucial scenes to up the required ante alongside Morgan Large’s versatile set, notably in the impassioned speech that Dr T makes to the Skein community in the pouring rain in Act V. This is where Dr T’s frustration with the masses boils over and her contempt is barely hidden, (and where some of Ibsen’s whackier notions are vocalised in the original). Sound familiar? Us London metropolitan elite patronising you provincial dimwits. It is powerful stuff made more so because even in adaptation these same arguments were being rehearsed in C19 Norway (as they were in 5th century BCE, Jacobean England or C18 Germany if you pay attention to the finest dramatists).
Another winner then from Adam Penford and his team. As with Robert Hastie in Sheffield and James Dacre in Northampton he keeps his directorial powder dry, but when he does let fly theatre that is on a par with the very best the capital can offer is invariably the result.
This was an interesting choice as the first production in Roxana Silbert’s inaugural season at the Hampstead Theatre. A play based on a true story about corruption scandal in China. From a US playwright, (who spent part of her childhood living in China), Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, with an established reputation: her play The World Of Extreme Happiness, which covers similar ground, and offers similar criticism as TKOHP, came to the National in 2013. Directed by veteran director Michael Boyd, (last here with Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide …., and on top form with Tamburlaine at the RSC last year). With a largely British East Asian cast, (though the one exception, US import Celeste Den, understandably attracted some ire given the paucity of BEA casting generally in UK theatre).
Yet the biggest surprise of all was just how clunky the play was. It is an ambitious story well worth telling, no doubt about that,. but to tell it Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig lays on the exposition with a veritable trowel. In the first half especially character after character is made to explain what is happening in momentum-throttling detail. Often for no good reason as it really isn’t that difficult to fathom what is going on. OK so maybe the multiple doubling, and more, of roles starts off as being a little confusing, and I guess part of the aim of the explanation is to delineate each character, but the main players quickly emerge. Ms Den plays Yin Yin, an expert in epidemiology at a Ministry of Health institute. Christopher Goh is her initially supportive, but ultimately pusillanimous, scientist husband Shen. Kok-Hwa Lie is his brother and Yin-Yin’s boss Kuan, who oversees the dastardly scheme, driven by avarice and Party loyalty, and Millicent Wong is Jasmine, the Lady Macbethian nurse who becomes his shameless sidekick.
This four also play members of the extended family of farmers, alongside Aidan Cheng, Tuyen Do, veteran actor Togo Igawa and Vincent Lai, which is destroyed by the get-rich-quick scandal. In 1989 blood plasma collection stations spring up rapidly in rural China to sell to local blood product companies. By 1992, when TKOHP begins, the practice has spread to Henan province with the samples eventually being exported to an unscrupulous US pharma company. Peasants and local officials are rapidly enriched. But this leads to the rapid spread of Hepatitis C and HIV infection. Even after the industry is regulated. Cover ups follow. The State finally admits to the extent of HIV/AIDS in the early 2000s. Even so another blood plasma and vaccine scandal erupts in early 2019. All this was documented by Dr Wang Shuping, on whom the character of Yin Yin is based, and who, like the character, was finally forced to flee China for the US. As you will surmise the good doctor, who I gather attended the emotional press night, is not especially well liked by the Chinese state who would rather the play disappeared.
Like I say good story with relevance beyond its setting. But to pack its many short scenes in to a couple of hours ex interval, required substantial inventiveness on the part of Michael Boyd, movement director Liz Ranken and the rest of the creative team, notably Colin Grenfell’s lighting. Entrances and exits come thick and fast from the central opening at the back of Tom Piper’s sparse set, from side doors and from either side of the stalls. This is accelerated by a cunning pair of moving walkways that run through the middle of the stage, and offer visual metaphor at crucial points. Myriad costume changes are largely achieved off stage and props carted on and off by the cast. It is a triumph of logistics but, along with the expository overload in dialogue described above, does rather come at the expense of character insight.
Even so, given the enthusiasm of the cast, the intricacy of the staging and as the true extent of the crime is laid bare in the second half, it is difficult not to be carried along by the narrative of greed. It isn’t Ibsen’s Enemy of the People (more of that soon – watch this space) but it is shocking and it does highlight Yin Yin’s bravery and the sacrifice she is prepared to make. And it is clearly written and made by people who care which counts for a lot.
Sainsbury Theatre, London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, 4th June 2019
Last minute jaunt to Hammersmith to see one of LAMDA’s summer season offerings. If there are times when you start fulminating about paying close to a ton for a cramped perch in a dingy West End mausoleum, then can I recommend again the end of year productions from London’s top notch drama schools. A ticket, a programme, a snack and a drink and still likely change from a pony, all supported by professional creatives and maybe with the chance to see the next big star of stage and screen.
Especially if you have a yen to see a particular play. In this case, for the Tourist, a reminder of just how good a play Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money is. We have had the slightly underwhelming, but still wonderful, revival of Top Girls at the NT earlier in the year, and we have a new, now quartet, of shorts to look forward to at the Royal Court come September, but London’s major houses have not, to my knowledge staged this play in the last few years. Which is daft given its continuing relevance and the fact that it is, trust me, highly entertaining.
It is, to be fair, of its time. Its time being 1987. It is now over three decades since Big Bang revolutionised London equity markets, during which financial capitalism has run riot through the global economy. Global capital (debt and equity) stock now totals well over USD 200 trillion up from around USD 30 trillion in 1987. The notional value of global derivatives contracts is well over USD 500 billionn and some might have you believe that it is actually over a quadrillion (thats 16 zeros). Take comfort the gross value of the contracts is “only” north of USD 10 trillion. But the fact is no-one knows and when this goes tits up it is going to hurt you even if you have absolutely no idea what this involves.
Open outcry on LIFFE, (London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange), which is the setting for part of the play, may be long gone, with the electronic exchange now part of a global network, the financial regulatory functions of the DTI, (Department of Trade and Industry), handed over to successor organisations, Brexit probably means the British Government doesn’t have time to bump off dodgy stockbrokers and I doubt anyone plays Pass the Pigs anymore.
Otherwise CC’s satire, in terms of behaviour and consequences, is still pretty much spot on. Fear and greed still drive market “volatility”and worse. That is baked into the DNA. That has been true from the beginnings in the C17 as CC shows at the opening of SM with the extract from Thomas Shadwell’s 1693 Restoration comedy The Volunteers or Stockjobbers. A few years years later in 1720 the Mississippi and South Sea Bubbles brought European economies to their knees. Pretty much every decade since then markets have imploded. It’s just that the numbers have got bigger and bigger. No capital markets means no growth though and none of the lovely things we all prize but now the global body politic is hooked on the free money which the “independent” central bank pushers have no choice but to supply. Which only underwrites today’s equivalents of all the naughty boys and girls who toss away their moral compasses in Serious Money.
The play opened at the Royal Court in March 1987, was in the West End by July, (where the Tourist first saw it), and New York by November. In between, on 19th October, we had the Black Monday global crash. CC looked prescient. Not really. She just identified the nature of the system and set about puncturing it. Mercilessly. Surprising really given how far CC is normally ahead of the curve.
At the turn of the C20 stock markets collapsed again following the bursting of the dot-com bubble, in 2007/08 the grandiloquently named Global Financial Crisis arrived which you may have heard of, there was the flash crash of 2010 and then another sell-off through 2015/16. At the end of last year markets tanked 20%. Did you notice? Thought not. I seem to recall ever Her Maj had a pop post the GFC asking why no-one had warned of the pending catastrophe. Ma’am. They did. Not enough people listened. Until they finally did. Markets, never forget, are driven by largely excitable people acting “fast” pretending they are clever and thinking “slow”.
Playwrights, as CC’s reference to Thomas Shadwell shows, have been on to this story from the off. Indeed you can go back further, to the Restoration city comedies, and Ben Jonson for example. There isn’t much about the behaviour of the characters in SM that BJ didn’t nail in Volpone and The Alchemist. However punters, and reviewers, do get a bit antsy about all the jargon it seems in these entertainments. True of SM and, moreorless, true of more recent forays into the “financial markets” genre such as Enron, Labyrinth, Dry Powder, Other People’s Money, The Invisible Hand, Other People’s Money, Glengarry Glen Ross, American Psycho. And that’s just what I have seen in the last few years, (and can remember). To which I respectfully suggest, find out. See above. This stuff matters to you. That is partly what CC is trying to say. Interrogate don’t abrogate. It’s often, one way or another, your capital these punters are playing with.
“Financial” plays also usually come with ambiguous morality baked in. Writers, in seeking to avoid killing plot and drama with one-sided polemic, (I am making the assumption that no-one is in the market for writing a play which celebrates financial capitalism), try to offer up “rounded” characters. Which makes sense. Behaviours in markets may turn venal, and markets themselves need close and careful regulation, but, generally, the people in them are not “evil”. They are just like you and me. Well I confess me. They are there because they are clever and lucky. The paradox between, generally, the determination of the individual to be “good”and for structures, forces and processes at the societal level to turn “bad”, is as acute in a bank as it is in government or down the pub on a Friday night.
Which also can mean the actions of the “heroes” in the financial play, or more obviously film, think Wolf of Wall Street, can become a cause for celebration for some. CC tried to get round this by making everyone in SM a c*nt in some for or another, by having 20 named characters, (even managing 6 women in this macho world, who are all flawed), overstuffing the action, there are 24 scenes across the 2 acts, and incorporating song and dance. Apparently this didn’t stop entire floors of investment banks pitching up to the original production. Whilst individuals may just be “doing their jobs” the cultures they create and the rewards they enjoy have, over the last few decades, ended up near the top of the aspirational pile. Markets are addictive for participants such that they cannot see the world outside. Markets are opaque for non-participants, making it easier just to reject them. This is not healthy.
Anyway back to SM. CC is rightly lauded for her imagination and innovation of dramatic form. And for the breadth of her practice. For me though she is also a genius because she is so clever and learns so quickly. SM is filled with detail, not just about how things work, that’s not too difficult, but more in the understanding of what motivates this array of characters. As usual CC gets straight to the heart of things with the minimum of dialogue. Whilst presenting that dialogue as rhyming couplets in a nod to the past and to reflect the rhythm of markets. If there is a better summation of a market when the shit hits the fan, (and that still happens even in a quant and liquidity driven electronic trading world) than “Sell! Quick! Prick! Yes! No! Cunt!” then I haven’t heard it.
And this all comes with a proper plot. A detective story of sorts as Scilla Todd tries to uncover the facts behind the mysterious death of her brother Jake. And CC doesn’t hold back on the innovation. The first contemporary scene after the Shadwell opening takes place in three locations simultaneously. Greville Todd, old school broker, buttering up a client. Scilla, a rare women salesperson on the floor of a post Big Bang bank in London and her slimey sexist colleague Grimes, and brother Jake on yet another floor, broking with his sales and trader colleagues.
Next the champagne bar. The dialogue of the pissed nails the aspirations of the young and greedy, Then US banker Zac explains, clearly and succinctly, how the stock market changed post big-Bang and the scions of UK merchant banking sold out to the US behemoths. And how, within the US banks the traders, who make the money pushed the bankers, who carry the prestige, aside. Less than 15 minutes in and this crucial change in the direction of Western capitalism has been nailed. In verse.
Next the hunt where we see Frosby, the disgruntled old guard jobber who shops Jake when he passes insider information to Marylou Baines, the arbitrageur with comic assistant TK, based in NYC. We learn that Jake was being investigated by the DTI and was worried he was in too deep. We then meet Corman, the private equity raider, taking a tilt at Duckworth’s company Albion, his various advisors, white knight Biddulph, Peruvian Jacinta happy to sell out her country for a few quid, improbable cocoa trader Nigel, a US business patsy who is wheeled in to take out Corman’s company and finally a UK politician, stepping in to stop Corman’s “vote-losing” take-over.
The plot is, in the manner of the Jacobeans, deliberately a little tortuous. Yet the stagecraft that CC employs makes it easy-ish to follow. And the characters are stereotypes. That is the point. It is satire. Everyone is greedy. Everyone wants more. CC shows that there is never “enough” for players in a market. Someone always gets more. The “game” is all about the winning and revenge is served piping hot. “Truth” is elastic and just part of the armoury. Even Scilla, who is closest to a conventional character who “changes” through the play, gives up investigating her brother’s death to take up the offer from Marylou. CC doesn’t stop with financial markets, stuffing in the abuse of power by the DTI and a shadowy MP into the mix. Media and advertising gets a slap as well.
It is fair to say that, with all these riches, the setting, the message, the Brechtian alienation, the jargon, the flashbacks, (dead Jake keeps popping up), the lack of resolutions, the absence of redeeming qualities in the protagonists, (there are no romantic consciences taking on this corrupt world on behalf of the audience), the multiple dialogue, the often daft couplets which ape the commodification and financialisation of the “real” world, the sheer, accelerating pace of the action, that some audiences might lose their bearings. I think this is partly deliberate. After all those on stage have lost theirs.
In this production LAMDA spared us from significant doubling which can really vex some. Of course the perennial problem of such productions is the age of the actors but, in Serious Money, given its unreality, this is less of a problem. As usual it is unfair to pick out individuals but, arm twisted, I would post to Ryan Burch as Zackerman, Ivan Du Pontavice as Corman, Colm Glesson as Greville Todd, Elizabeth Hammerton as Scilla, Emma Lauristan as Marylou Baines, Charlie McVicar as Jake and Joe McNamara as TK.
I was mightily impressed with the direction of Emily Jenkins who is also, I see, a playwright, who definitely deserves my attention. Serious Money, as you have probably surmised from the above is not an easy play to put on. This wasn’t perfect but it was a very convincing account and Ms Jenkins surely takes much of the credit for this. As do Assistant Directors, I assume from LAMDA, Thea Taverner and Mariagrazia La Fauci. And designer Adrian Gee wisely struck with all the trappings of 1987. SM requires no updating. Its universality stems from its very particularity.
I couldn’t tell you which is Caryl Churchill’s greatest play. Mostly because I haven’t seen them all. But this will always been near the top. It is very funny, breathtakingly theatrical, bitingly intelligent, brilliantly inventive and always urgent. And the kids here did her proud.
It is not difficult to see what Githa Sowerby’s photo feminist play from 1912, and brought back to life at the Royal Court by feminist theatre company Mrs Worthington’s Daughters in 1980, now has such a secure place in the repertory. Its characters and its dialogue simply have so much to say about what it was to be a woman, and indeed man, in the stifling atmosphere of Northern England at the turn of the C19. I don’t what to go all Marxist on you but the way the play examines the relationship between capital and labour, the cultural superstructure that is built atop it and patriarchal repression still looks astonishing even when compared to contemporary plays which mine the same territory.
It offers rounded characters despite, or maybe because of, the economy of dialogue and even has an absorbing plot centred on the “invention” of John Jr. However it does go on a bit, especially in the first hour set-up, and the action, contained within one room of the Rutherford house, can get, intentionally, claustrophobic. (Yet more nods to the master Ibsen).
Director Polly Findlay wisely offers us a little relief by taking a couple of intervals (prefacing each act, including the opening, with Northern folk songs from Kerry Andrew and Sarah Dacey) and jogging the pace along where possible. (I’ve just noticed the run time is down to 2 1/2 hours with interval so sounds like a bit of judicious streamlining has been administered). Lizzie Clachlan’s set however has no truck with abstraction: a perfectly realised slice of Victorian melancholia, emphasised by Charles Balfour’s gloomy lighting and (Ibsen-ian) rain. The setting is 1912 Tyneside. In real life Gita Sowerby’s father, like Rutherford, ran the family glass-making business in Gateshead, at a time when this small stretch of the Tyne dominated the global glass industry, before the family left for London in 1896 after the business went t*ts up. We are therefore treated to some full on Geordie accents, (courtesy of the voice and dialect work of Simon Money and Daniele Lydon), which, feel free to call me a patronising Southern twat, just occasionally got lost in translation from my perch at the back of the stalls.
Against this atmospheric backdrop the A list cast get properly stuck in to Githa Sowerby’s text. Now I don’t need to tell you how good an actor Roger Allam is. You are reading this so must have some interest in the theatre and the dramatic arts. Therefore you will know him from his innumerable stage roles, (a recent favourite was John Christie in The Moderate Soprano), his films, or off the telly, (the laconic Peter Mannion in The Thick Of It whose spirit he memorably exploited with a couple of the best one-liners in the whole of GoT as Illyrio Mopatis right at the beginning).
Anyway here he is magnificent. Daddy Rutherford is a cantankerous, despotic bully who is prepared to sacrifice all of life’s pleasures and his family, John Jr (Sam Troughton), Richard (Harry Hepple) and Janet (Justine Mitchell), on the altar of his business and, by implication, his legacy. Or is he? Whilst I am not defending the old sh*t I do think that showing some sign of deeply buried humanity and empathy, as Mr Allam did, yields dividends. Even Rutherford presumably loved his wife and kids once and, as his final promise to Mary (Anjana Vasan) shows, there is some feeling even in this ostensibly commercial transaction. Having to hand over control of the company he built to the bank and a Board has only served to make him work harder, grow tighter and turn his autocracy on those nearest to him. But he is doomed to lose the control he has over his family, mirroring the loss of control of his company. An alienated capitalist disfigured by profit in a society that will move away from him. Very clever.
And, dare I say, these three kids, whilst all having their reasons, are bloody annoying in their own way. Just to be clear I am not imposing some sort of privileged male revisionism on the play. Just that, by exposing the subtlety of the text, Polly Findlay got me to thinking about the play in a way that I had not after seeing Northern Broadsides version with the inimitable Barrie Rutter in the lead in 2013. Love has been squeezed out of the house, as Janet memorably observes, no doubt about that, but the idea that it might have been different once just made me admire the play even more. Githa Sowerby, even when her masterpiece first appeared, to great acclaim, was patronised, as all women were at that time, so the last thing her memory needs is some fat bloke, whose only qualification is that he has seen a few plays recently, upticking, but I was genuinely gobsmacked by just how much depth there is in these characters even beyond what I had remembered from a couple of previous viewings. Everyone thinks they can make everyone else happier in the play. Everyone spectacularly fails to do so.
Sam Troughton is also one of my favourite stage actors, most recently as everybloke Danny opposite Justine Mitchell’s Laura in David Eldridge’s whip-smart Beginning or, seizing the opportunity in what was otherwise a slightly pedestrian affair, as the various, flawed, men-children in Nina Raine’s Stories. His John Jr is desperate from the off. Desperate for Daddy’s approval even as he hates the f*cker, wasting his education, running off to that London, marrying Mary who is “beneath” him, running back to the family home, seeking to extract his birthright through his “invention”, venting his frustration on his own family. The Ibsen-ian sins of the father are listed on the weak, vacillating, quasi-hysterical, son. It was heart-breaking, (well maybe I exaggerate a bit, it’s just a play), to watch his continued self-deception even as Mary was shuffling him out the door as he set off once again to fail to seek fame and fortune.
Justine Mitchell is another brilliant actor who invariably stands out in whatever she appears in. See Beginning above but also, for me, in Anne Washburn’s opus Shipwreck, in Vivienne Franzmann’s Bodies, in the Donmar’s Arturo Ui and in the NT’s Plough and the Stars.. Hell she can even make sense of Restoration comedy. There are multiple layers of bitter, ironic resentment in her Janet because of the way she has been treated by her father and the Victorian/Edwardian patriarchy but this is still a powerful, sensual woman as we see in the scenes with Joe Armstrong’s blunt Martin, whose loyalty to Rutherford, (which itself maybe be the false consciousness of the oppressed), is put to the test. The release when Janet “confesses” to the affair, and Rutherford boots her out, following hot on the heels of Mrs Henderson’s (Sally Rodgers) p*ssed up tirade against Rutherford for the way he treated her son, is immense.
Harry Hepple as the younger son Dick, a curate, a profession old Rutherford regards with sneering disdain, who determines to escape to another parish in Southport, has less to play with but also makes the most of it. Anjana Vasan, so, so good in An Adventure at the Bush, and with smaller roles in Rebecca’s Frecknall’s lauded production of Summer and Smoke and the Young Vic Life of Galileo, represents the future as Mary, exercising her agency and opinion from the start in marked contrast to Barbara Marten’s aunt Ann, who is almost parodic as a woman whose behaviour and thinking is entirely dictated by the archaic values of the “society” around her.
Marvellous play, perfectly realised by a director who trusts the author, with a cast, to borrow the literary cliche, at the peak of its powers. OK, so much like its characters, it can’t quite escape its Edwardian roots, three acts, unity of time, place and action, painstaking exposition, which requires commitment from you the audience but once drawn in there is enough in the climaxes in the story, and especially, the detail of the context, to keep the committed theatre nut as happy as a sandboy. (A phrase from the C18 I gather which refers to the lashed up lads who were paid in drink to deliver and spread sand on the floor of pubs to soak up the various forms of sh*t. A much vivid indictment of the evils of unregulated capitalism is tricky to imagine).
So if this sounds like your sort of thing then you shouldn’t hesitate, there’s plenty of tickets left. If it doesn’t probably best not to be brave here. The Tourist though, having missed the Orange Tree revival of Githa Sowerby’s other major play, The Stepmother, is now firmly on the look-out for a chance to rectify.
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.