Oleanna – Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath – 28th June – *****
Finally an opportunity to scratch that travel itch. The SO was forced to drive the Tourist around some of the loveliest parts of Northern England in early June, but the attractions were almost entirely architectural and natural, and there was, I admit, a surfeit of Medieval buildings. (Turns out the highlight however was avian, namely puffins, and best of all, a pair of hen harriers). After a jaunt to Bristol, what a marvellous city, confronting its past and building its future, the Tourist also joined the SO in Bath, which is altogether more sedate and in danger of being pickled in its Regency past.
A chance to see Oleanna at the compact Ustinov Studio though, which had initially been another C19 casualty, and which has been on the Tourist’s wish list for some time. David Mamet’s artistry has faded alarmingly in recent years, Bitter Wheat was a mess, but Oleanna ranks alongside Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed the Plow as his finest stage works IMHO. Oleanna, in its examination of privilege, power and language, against the backdrop of an accusation of sexual harassment sets out to, and succeeds in, goading and provoking an audience. Its two characters, student Carol (Rosie Sheehy) and professor John (Jonathan Slinger), alternately elicit audience sympathy and loathing, as Mamet runs through its controversial gears. It was intended to cause controversy, written as its was, just after the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination proceedings during the GHW Bush presidency in 1991. And it is no less relevant today. You can make up your own mind where you stand on the issues it explores. What struck me was how far Mamet was prepared to go in eliciting sympathy, even justification, for John as the consequences of his actions become clear, whilst ramping up Carol’s “politically correct” hostility and lack of empathy, not least in her using the “group” to pursue her case and in demanding John’s books are banned.
Yet Carol is right and John is wrong, though to be fair, this is made absolute in the shocking ending. John oversteps boundaries at the outset. He may see his patronising self importance as Platonic but we see how his language and movement disturbs and violates Carol. She is worried and confused at the outset but, as she calls out John’s behaviour, she gains in confidence and eloquence as he deflates into narcissistic victimhood. The complexity and ambiguity of Mamet’s dialogue has probably been amplified through time but the way in which Carol and John talk, but fail to listen ,and the symmetry in their unresolved narrative arcs, is highly effective. Rosie Sheehy (who is surely destined for a long and fulfilling stage career) and Jonathan Slinger are equally superb, in action as well as word, as the battle for “supremacy” shifts from linguistic to physical. A good play to be right up front. I can’t imagine anyone improving on Lucy Bailey’s direction.
The Death of a Black Man – Hampstead Theatre – 17th June – ***
The Tourist’s other June outing wasn’t quite so rewarding. The idea of staging Hampstead Theatre Classics, landmark plays that originally premiered at HT, to celebrate the theatre’s 60th anniversary, was inspired and, in retrospect, was prudent in the event of the coming calamity. The Dumb Waiter delivered, but then one might have expected that, it being Pinter, but the subsequent plays weren’t quite as convincing. I couldn’t squeeze The Two Character Play after it was rescheduled, but it does sound like it is at the more challenging end of Tennessee Williams’s oeuvre, though given I am warming up on TW, and it starred Kate O’Flynn and Zubin Varla, it was a shame to miss it. More of Night, Mother in a future post, but, suffice to say, that it, like The Death of a Black Man, probably impressed more on its opening than it does now. Some plays don’t age as well as others. That is one of the many beauties of drama. It doesn’t make the play poor or flawed, just that its concerns, its style, its relevance, changes though time. And, of course, there are those gems that, for whatever reason fade into obscurity only to be rescued in future generations by enterprising creatives.
Alfred Fagon was born in Jamaica and, after emigrating to Britain, he served in the army and worked on the railways before he took up acting and then playwriting. In the 1970’s and early 1980’s his was an important voice in black British drama, before his untimely death, and disgraceful treatment even thereafter by local police, who claimed they couldn’t identify his body. (It continues. Fagon’s bust in St Paul’s Bristol was apparently vandalised by some knuckleheads in retribution for the Colston toppling).
TDOABM premiered at HT in 1975. This was its first revival. It tells the story of 18 year old Shakie (Nickcolia King-N’Da) and Stumpie (Toyin Omari-Kinch), best friends as well as business partners, and posh social worker Jackie (Natalie Simpson), the slightly older mother of Shakie’s child who has come to stay in Shakie’s flat in Chelsea. The conversations between the three of them run the gauntlet across race, gender and politics, in, initially at least, a naturalistic way. Shakie and Stumpie are determined to get on and make money, but their schemes are contrasted, Shakie is selling “African” artefacts to boho whites, whereas Stumpie is aiming to take back black music from its white appropriators. Interesting ideas are presented even if these are sometimes jumbled up. However, the second half takes a Pinteresque turn, namely The Homecoming, after Shakie’s musician father dies and the boys look to imprison and “sell” Jackie, with her apparent consent. The callous misogyny (and in parts blatant anti-semitism) is deliberately provocative but I am not sure if Mr Fagon quite pulls it off. This is true despite the best efforts of cast (especially Natalie Simpson who has a really tricky part to play here), director Dawn Walton, designer Simon Kenny who serves up a bright slice of deconstructing 70’s aesthetic and lighting designer Johanna Town. The experience and argument feels very real and must haver been revelatory to audiences in its time, but plot and character become more forced as the play shifts towards abstraction.
The alchemy of light. Botanical subjects. Historical overview. An investigation into process. A range of artistic practices and images. All done in under an hour on a quiet Wednesday afternoon. With a nice sandwich to follow. What’s not to like. Very pleased I bought the catalogue.
Only other entertainment of note was a filmed play The Merthyr Stigmatist from the Sherman Theatre. Welsh playwright Lia Parry presents 16 year old Carys, truculent, trying to escape detention with what seems like a whopper. Every Friday she claims stigmata on her palms, now spreading to her feet, begin to bleed. And, in the workaday streets of Merthyr Tydfil, there are plenty who want to believe she is telling the truth. Her teacher Sian thinks she is self harming, and as a local girl now returned, wants to offer her protection and a “way out”. Carys is having none of it. From this divine composition Ms Parry fashions a story about left-behind but proud communities for which the stigmata is a metaphor, belief and belonging. It zips along, both characters prowling around the abstract schoolroom set designed by Elin Steele (which holds a surprise coup de theatre at the climax), gathering intensity under Emma Callander’s direction. Newcomer Bethan McLean brings vitality and depth to Carys whilst Bethan Mary-James carefully plots Sian’s insecurities. It would be good to see this reach a wider live audience.
In which the Tourist condenses down 2020, in and out of lockdown, mostly watching stuff on a screen. Don’t worry he also took walks, saw punters when permitted and growled at the state of his disappointing nation, but it is only now he is back out in the live cultural realm, receiving “multiple inputs” as BUD would have it, that the cognitive slide has stopped. I know, egregious first world world privilege, but this is a blog about culture so forgive my insensitivity.
Where to start. A few highlights of the filmed performances I saw over the year I think, then the same for the “digital” theatre which I consumed and also a word on the “live” performances that snuck in under the wire as restrictions lifted and were then reimposed. Chronologically because I am naturally idle and that is easier. BTW the idea of a “freedom day” per our comedy government raises my liberal, remainer, metropolitan elite hackles but, on the other hand, it couldn’t have come quicker for my theatre ecosystem chums.
First out of the block was one of Schaubuhne Berlin‘s performance streams, namely Hamlet filmed at the Avignon Festival, with Thomas Ostermeier in the directorial chair and Lars Eidinger as the eponymous prince, so mad with toddler tantrums that he couldn’t be mad surely. Bordering on the slapstick, with earth, blood and water liberally splashed around, breaking the fourth wall, cuts galore, extra, incongruous lines, “to be or not to be” a drunken rant, Gertrude and Ophelia psychosexually doubled up, by playing up the comedy and meta-theatre in Hamlet, Ostermeier locates new truths in the greatest of plays (?). Elsinore as excess. Not for those who like their Shakespeare all sing-song verse and doublets. I bloody loved it. As I did later in the month with the company’s take on Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. The scene where the audience is invited into the central political debate, after Stockmann’s prescient rant about liberal hypocrisy, is electrifying. Even in German. What I would have given to see this when it came to London in 2014. What a tit I was for missing it. This is utterly contemporary, Stockmann and mates even have a rock band rehearsal, the conflicts personal as much as political. I am biased since this is one of my favourite Ibsen’s but it is enthralling and a perfect vehicle for TO’s brand of “Capitalist realism” theatre. Finally there was SB’s take on Orlando this time with Katie Mitchell directing with Jenny Konig superb as Virginia Woolf’s eponymous hero/heroine in an adaptation from Alice Birch. This was due to come to the Barbican in this very month but, perforce, was cancelled There are times when I find KM and AB’s aesthetic baffling (The Malady of Death) even as I absorb the provocation, but here it all comes together. And, thanks to the customary live narration and live and pre-recorded video projection, it works brilliantly on the small screen where an expert is guiding your eye (not always the case with KM’s regie-theatre). In contrast to Sally Potter’s lush film version, also brilliant in part thanks to Tilda Swinton’s performance, KM works the comedy, almost rompishly, and revels in the anachronistic artificiality of the story. I hope that SB will be back in London soon but, in their absence, the Tourist will have to live up to his name and get on the train to Berlin.
Another highlight was the filmed version of the Old Vic production of Arthur Miller’s Crucible with Yael Farber at her very best directing and Richard Armitage as John Porter showing he can act as well as well as take his shirt off and shoot up baddies. YF’s brooding atmospherics and measured pacing bring a real sense of paranoia to Salem adding to the petty vengeances. The trinity of Procter, wife Elizabeth (Anna Madeley) and scheming Abigail (Samantha Colley) have real strength and depth, and the thrilling power of the final act is full beam. The political allegory takes a back seat to a critique of religious intolerance and hypocrisy. It is also brilliantly shot and edited, something you can’t say about all filmed productions. Well worth seeing.
Other standouts in a busy viewing month (ahh the novelty of armchair viewing, tea, biscuits and pee breaks) were Breach Theatre‘s It’s True. It’s True, It’s True dramatising the rape trial of Artemisia Gentileschi and Imitating the Dog‘s Night of the Living Dead REMIX, the live frame by frame reconstruction of the George A Romero Zombie classic satire. Genius. Both are available still to watch.
Also of note. The Peter Grimes filmed on the beach at Aldeburgh from the Festival, Sophie Melville’s firecracker of a performance in Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott, the Glyndebourne Fairy Queen, Maxine Peake’s Hamlet, an RSC Two Gentleman of Verona (a play I had never seen before completing the Bard set) and a revisit of Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night at the NT with Tamsin Greig. Pretty sure the enterprising amongst you can find all of these to stream.
More Schaubuhne Berlin. This time Thomas Ostermeier’s take on Hedda Gabler. Ripped out of its buttoned up C19 Norwegian context this petulant, anomieic Hedda, brilliantly captured by Katharina Schüttler, can’t be satisfied by men or material, rails against her bourgeois cage, here a modernist glass house, but can’t give it up. So her suicide is more “you’ll all be sorry when I’m gone” than her only escape from masculine tyranny. And no-one notices. OK so a lot of Ibsen’s delicious text is lost but this is still a thrilling re-imaging of a classic.
On the subject of flawed heroines, and currently the subject of intense study by the Tourist, next up was Blanche Dubois in the form of Gillian Anderson in Benedict Andrews’ 2014 A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic. Ben Foster as Stanley and Vanessa Kirkby (showing why she was destined for higher things) as Stella are superb but Ms Anderson, who doesn’t always get it right, was perfectly cast, capturing the many , and there are many, sides of our Blanche. Treat yourself. It’s on NT at Home. As is the NTFrankenstein double header with Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch alternating as creature and doctor under Danny Boyle’s explosive direction. (Also now on Prime I think). Missed this on stage so was overjoyed to catch this and was not disappointed.
Also of note. A Wozzeck from Dutch National Opera, Alexander Zeldin’s LOVE at the NT, revisits of Simon Godwin’s Antony and Cleopatra at the NT, Complicite’s The Encounter and Simon Stephens’s Sea Wall with Andrew Scott. Midnight Your Time from the Donmar Warehouse was a pretty successful Zoom based revival from Michael Longhurst with script by Adam Brace though largely thanks to Diana Quick’s turn as the lonely, domineering do-gooder mother Judy. Oh, and Bound from the Southwark Playhouse, a pretty good play written and directed by Jesse Briton (though terrible footage) which tells the tale of trawlermen in Brixham. Yey.
The above is just the best of the best from a couple of months of intensive “digital” theatre. By June I can see that the sun had come out, I started taking my cinematic responsibilities more seriously and the theatre online opportunities diminished. Schaubuhne Berlin‘s take on Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi was another highlight but didn’t match Robert Icke’s electrifying, and subversive, adaptation at the Almeida from 2019. I wasn’t quite as taken with the Donmar Warehouse Coriolanus as I had hoped, with Tom Hiddleston as the eponymous kvetch directed by Josie Rourke but it was still worth the long wait.
Otherwise a pair of revisits stood out. This House, James Graham’s breakthrough political comedy at the NT and The Madness of King George with Mark Gatiss from the Nottingham Playhouse.
The BBC’s anthology of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads was the standout in July. Some new additions to the canon but my favourites were Imelda Staunton, Harriet Walter, Lesley Manville and Monica Dolan, though they also happen to be my favourite actors from an enviably talented dozen.
Otherwise there was the Glyndebourne Billy Budd and a revisit, with BD and LD who loved it, of Nick Hytner’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream from the Bridge as well as the NT Amadeus with Lucien Msamati.
And our first “live” event for a few months. At the Garden Museum. Derek Jarman: My Garden’s Boundaries are the Horizon. Mind you there wasn’t much too it but it was good to tick something off.
Amongst the welcome staycation action there were a fair few digital entertainments of note. A magnificent Turn of the Screw at Garsington Opera with a perfectly balanced cast and a striking set from Christopher Oram. I will definitely need to look out for the work of director Louisa Muller. I see it is a highlight of their 2022 season but I can’t be doing with the faff of getting there, the price they charge and the dressing up like a toff. Followed by the RSC Timon of Athens with Kathryn Hunter in the lead. Directed by …. yep, Simon Godwin once again. Timon of Athens as a play makes perfect sense to me as did this production and not just because of Ms Hunter’s performance. The very different Simon Russell Beale also convinced at the NT under Nick Hytner. The knotty parable of a rich man who falls and then, through a process of ironic self-enlightenment, turns on the commercialised society that made him works as well in C21 London as it does in ancient Athens. Yes there are a few plot holes and unexplained appearances/retreats but that is the case in a lot of Shakespeare.
And then there was the classic Glyndebourne The Rake’s Progress with designs by David Hockney and directed by John Cox. More opera. Well bits of. Namely extracts from the Holland Festival/Dutch National Opera/Royal Conservatoire The Hague staging of Stockhausen’s Aus Licht. Itself a selection, over three days mind and covering 15 hours, from the total seven day opera which runs to 29 hours. Mind blowing. Another reason why Holland might just be the greatest country on earth.
The first appearance of theatre made to be streamed. First out of the blocks, the Old Vic with Three Kings a monologue written by Stephen Beresford delivered by Andrew Scott as Patrick. BD and SO sat in and we were all transfixed by this eloquent “sins of the father revisited …..” story. Better still was Faith Healer, Brian Friel’s triple memory monologue play which is both a) brilliant and b) made for the Zoom format. Especially when you have the fantastic Michael Sheen playing the fantastic Francis Hardy, in full on Welshness, Indira Varma as his long suffering wife Grace, and David Threlfall as an uber cockney manager Teddy. Loved the play, love the production.
But lo. There was more. Some live theatre. As the Bridge brought the Bennett Talking Heads monologues to the stage (****). We opted for The Shrine (a new addition) with Monica Dolan as Lorna who discovers there was more to husband Clifford than met the eye after his fatal motorcycle accident. Very funny. And then A Bed Among the Lentils with Lesley Manville utterly convincing as vicar’s wife Susan who seeks solace at the corner shop. Just glorious.
It didn’t end there. Two live exhibitions. The Andy Warhol at Tate Modern (***) which was good but I guess lacked discovery and the Electronic: From Kraftwerk to The Chemical Brothers music history at the Design Museum (**) where I sort of lost interest after Kraftwerk and 80s synths but BD was very enamoured.
There was a cracking Prom broadcast with the London Sinfonietta serving up an eclectic programme of modern.contemporary faves including Philip Glass’s Facades, Julia Wolfe’s East Broadway (for toy piano) a couple of Conlon Nancarrow Player Piano Studies, Tansy Davies’s funk workout neon, Edmund Finnis in situ, Anna Meredith’s Axeman for electrified bassoon and Steve Reich City Life. Tremendous.
But amongst the screen viewings to my surprise the highlight of the month was La Monnaie/de Munt‘s recording of a 2107 production of Luca Silla. Director Tobias Kratzer carved out a jewel from relatively meagre materials by Mozart’s standards in this early opera (composed at just 16) which tells the story of the rise, fall and redemption of a Roman tyrant. BUD, who accommodated with grace all my suggestions for shared lockdown viewing, strongly agreed.
No live theatre this month. You never quite know where you are with our callow cabinet. A couple of exhibitions however. Young Rembrandt at the Ashmolean (****), proof that even the very greatest have to work hard to exploit their talent. All sorts of stuff that I am never likely to see again. So glad I got to see it. And joy of joys we got to see Artemisia at the National Gallery (*****) which I thought we had lost to the pandemic. To be fair there were a few Biblical group scene commissions which to me were less impressive and, understandably a few omissions, and I have already gone out of my way to look at her paintings on show in venues that I have visited, (the NG itself, Palazzo Pitti, Uffizi, Prado, in Bologna, Seville, Pisa), but that still left a clutch of stunning works to take in. Don’t like the underground space in the NG (I know it is perfectly lit), too hot and busy, but still stopped in my tracks by St Cecilia, Mary Magdalene and Cleopatra, for it is in the portrayals powerful women that AG excelled.
A couple of live streamed theatre treats, the Mark Gatiss (with Adrian Scarborough) Ghost Stories from the Nottingham Playhouse which cut the muster and a revisit of ITA‘s Medea which once again astounded. A fair few streamed concerts this month. Igor Levit went out of his way to entertain during lockdown, I caught a Beethoven recital from Wigmore Hall, finally saw the RSC production of Tom Morton-Smith’s play Oppenheimer and the whole family enjoyed the interactive online adventure The Mermaid’s Tongue (and went on to its precursor Plymouth Point) from a couple of Punchdrunk alumni.
By now the live or specially made for streamed theatre was coming thick and fast. Now I am firmly in the camp that sees recordings of theatre productions, or live streamed events, as additive to, rather than a substitute for, live theatre. I appreciate if you can get get to a live show, or missed it, then of course, you should see it on a screen. I understand that your armchair is way better for back, bum and neck than most theatre seats and refreshments come better, quicker and cheaper. And don’t get me started on the toilets. After all I have wasted more than enough text complaining here about West End theatres. I also believe that some of the made for streaming theatre of the past 18 months or so has been interesting and innovative in its use of technology. But it’s just no the same as sitting in a dark room with other punters wondering what is going to happen next on that stage. I had forgotten just how much I miss the electricity and the immersion.
Having said that What a Carve Up!, based on the Jonathan Coe novel, a co-production from The Barn Theatre in Cirencester, the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich and the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield was a triumph and by some way the best digital theatre work we saw during lockdown. Coe’s novel is a satire which examines the workings of power during the 1980s through the lens of the predominantly unpleasant upper class family the Winshaws. But it is also a whodunnit as Michael) Owen, at the behest of Tabitha Winshaw is tasked with documenting the murky family past. And it is this thread that Henry Filloux-Bennett, the AD at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, and director, Tamara Harvey from Theatr Clywd, wisely chose to pull on. What a Carve Up! not only switches in time but also employs multiple narrators, in first and third person, across different genre styles. And its protagonist spends a lot of time holed up in his flat shuffling papers and watching videos. A narrative collage if you will that is perfect then for splicing between “live” interviews, direct to camera Zoom addresses, film excerpts, TV and radio clips and photos. Especially as HF-B reverses the “chronology” of the story, starting with the murders, and filters out material not relevant to the central mystery. More inspired by, than faithful interpretation then, but gripping nonetheless. Especially with a cast that includes Alfred Enoch, (a new character Raymond, the son of Michael), Fiona Button and Tamzin Outhwaite as well as the voices of Derek Jacobi, Stephen Fry, Griff Rhys Jones and Sharon D Clarke. Is it theatre? Who cares when it is this good.
Not quite in the same league in terms of story, structure and execution, but still engrossing and technically adept was the Original Theatre Company’s Apollo 13: The Dark Side of the Moon which dramatised that il fated expedition predominantly through close ups of the three astronauts as well as video footage and an imposing score from Sophie Cotton. Writer Torben Betts also explores the racial tension between Michael Salami’s Fred Haise, here cast as an African American, and Tom Chambers as the rightwing Jack Swigert. Credit to directors Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters and film director Tristan Shepherd for their realisation.
By way of contrast Little Wars by Carl McCasland from Ginger Quiff Theatre was limited to the simple Zoom reading format though the story, an imagined dinner party involving Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Dorothy Parke, Lillian Hellman, Agatha Christie and anti-fascist freedom fighter Muriel Gardiner and the cast, Juliet Stevenson, Debbie Chazen, Natasha Karp, Catherine Russell Sarah Solemani, Sophie Thompson and, best of all, Linda Bassett went a long way to overcoming this.
We also saw a slew of excellent filmed live productions, in order of impact: Sarah Kane’s Crave at Chichester Festival Theatre, a powerful and surprisingly lyrical evocation of love, pain and pleasure, under Tinuke Craig’s potent direction, with committed performances from Alfred Enoch (hello again), Wendy Kweh, Jonathan Slinger and, especially, Erin Doherty; Who Killed My Father, a current favourite of Continental European directors, a monologue from ITA based on Edouard Louis’s impassioned testament to his own father and the treatment of the poor and marginalised in France, with the world’s greatest actor, Hans Kesting, at the top of his game; Death of England Delroy, part 2 of Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’s ongoing NT trilogy examining race, masculinity and other state of the nation gubbins, with Michael Balogun commanding (we missed this live thanks to a period of isolation, bah); and 15 Heroines, the inspired collection of 15 short monologues by women playwrights shaping narratives to the voices of Ovid’s women brought to us by the enterprising Jermyn Street Theatre.
I expected Daniel Kitson wouldn’t be able to resist the opportunity to used the pandemic as material and an opportunity for formal experimentation. In Dot, Dot, Dot, he toured the nation’s theatres performing to an audience of …. no-one. At least not live. I picked the stream from the Tobacco Factory to hear his alternatively poignant and hilarious dissection of the impact of lockdown on our everyday lives and human connections, the schtick being a table of Post it notes acting as prompts. Maybe not vintage Kitson but good enough for now.
There was enough in the filmed performance of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia from the Vaudeville Theatre to persuade us of its many merits but the quality of the stream was just too poor, though we were warned. In contrast the filmed performance of Richard Eyre’s brisk Almeida Theatre production of Ibsen’s Ghosts from 2013 was exemplary both technically and dramatically, and not just because Lesley Manville played Mrs Alving.
A few other plays and concerts but nothing to write home about so on to December and that bizarre British obsession with Christmas.
A couple of live productions managed to sneak in before doors closed again. A fine revival of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter at Hampstead Theatre (****) with Alex Newman as Ben and Shane Zaza as Gus, directed by Alice Hamilton. Not quite up to the Jamie Lloyd Pinter season version from 2019, or the more recent Old Vic offer, but it is too good a play to disappoint. And, at the Rose Kingston, Shit Actually (****) from fringe favourites Shit Theatre, aka Rebecca Biscuit and Louise Mothersole, whose deconstructed tribute to Love Actually’s women is way funnier and more thought proving than we had any right to expect.
Unfortunately the streamed theatre the Tourist took in this month wasn’t up to much; the NT production of panto Dick Whittington felt a bit rushed and predictable, and the RSC Troy Story, which I had high hopes for, turned out to be no more than a fairly mediocre and static reading.
In contrast, with limited means at their disposal, Grange Park Opera made a powerful case for someone to create a full blow stage production of Benjamin Britten’s pacifist “TV” opera, Owen Wingrave, and VOPERA, along with the LPO, produced the definitive virtual opera in Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, designed by Leanne Vandenbussche and directed by Rachael Hewer. Do try and track it down.
I would repeat that advice for Jack Thorne’s A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic which is about to open on stage and for Blackeyed Theatre’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde which is currently on tour.
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.
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.