A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter at the Bridge Theatre review ****

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A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter

Bridge Theatre, 13th October 2018

OK then. All of you fans of densely-plotted, cerebral, potty-mouthed, fairy-tale, political, splatter, revenge, comedy fantasies. Your ship has come in.

I have a strong feeling that Martin McDonagh’s new play at the Bridge will, in years to come, form the basis for many a Theatre and Drama Studies students’ dissertation. Let’s just say he doesn’t hold back here. All of his tics, tropes and obsessions are on show: moral instability, savage humour, verbal aggression, twisted irony, brutal violence, calculated abuse, punishment, justice and revenge, inversions, post-modernist borrowings, self-reverence, complex allusion, high and low art juxtapositions, exaggerations, call-backs, call-forwards and protean plot twists.

In a word: meta.

Once again he is pushing the audience, deliberately transgressive, a kind of theatrical meta-regression to keep us on our toes, but this time, unlike the best of his work, it doesn’t quite hang together on first viewing. The rhythm of the language is less immediately persuasive, less precise, (even allowing for a few timing issues at this early performance). It cannot be missed mind you, and it may be that the production will tighten up through the run, but overall I found it a little less convincing than Hangmen or The Lieutenant of Inishmore, or Three Billboards … or In Bruges. In these the intricate plotting and more naturalistic settings make for a more satisfying whole. On the other hand AVVVDM might turn out to have more intellectual depth: I am simply not clever enough to take it all in on one viewing. Probably closest to Seven Psychopaths for you students of MM, a film even he described as maybe a bit too meta, but one which I think gets better on repeated viewing.

AVVVDM is drawn from Mr McDonagh’s 1995 play The Pillowman, which was first performed in 2003 at the NT and also starred Jim Broadbent, (who plays Hans Christian Anderson in AVVVDM), as cop Tupolski, alongside David Tennant, Nigel Lindsay and Adam Godley. In this play a writer, living in an unspecified totalitarian theocracy, is accused of murders which mimic the plots of his own fairy tales. It is a bit Gothic, it captures the power of literature, there’s some Kafka going on, the ethical dilemma is fascinating if a little forced, of course there is violent imagery and of course there is humour.Like all of McDonagh’s plays The Pillowman’s morality is slippery, though not really ambiguous; it is normally pretty clear what he is saying, just that its compass is oscillating so rapidly between perspectives of right and wrong that we in turn start to lose our bearings.

Once again it he world of “fairy tales” that forms the starting point for AVVVDM. In fact the “plot” looks to be drawn from The Shakespeare Room, which Michal, Katurian’s damaged brother, references in The Pillowman. In this story it turns out that Shakespeare’s plays were written by a pygmy woman he kept in a box. MM has described in the past, reiterated in the programme here, how he made up fairy tales in his teens for his older brother John. One of these formed the basis for another of Katurian’s stories in The Pillowman, The Tale of the Town on the River, which tells how the Pied Piper “saved” one of the children by chopping off his toes. And so fairy tales get darker and darker with the telling.

AVVVDM kicks off with Hans Christian Andersen giving a contrived recital of The Little Mermaid. Now it turns out that the real HCA was an awkward character, abused at school, with unrequited longings for men and women but likely celibate. One of the objects of his affections, Edvard Collin (Lee Knight), is in the crowd in this opening scene. And, incongruously, also there, well there in HCA’s mind, cue the scary music, are a couple of blood encrusted, walking and talking, corpses, Barry (Graeme Hawley) and Dirk (Ryan Pope), sporting fine moustaches. Well this is a fairy tale after all. Cut to the attic of HCA’s townhouse where, surprise, surprise, we discover that he has a secret, namely a Congolese pygmy, Marjory, in a box, who is writing his stories.

All this is accompanied by a gravelly narration from none other than Tom Waits. From here MM weaves together the genocide in the Congo Free State in the late C19 with the real life friendship of Charles Dickens (Phil Daniels) and HCA, which unravelled when HCA overstayed his welcome on a visit in 1857. I’ll stop there. Let’s just say the plot plays fast and loose with fact, fiction and time.

I guess MM’s main thrust is to contrast the near unbelievable horror of King Leopold II’s direct, private rule of the Congo from 1885 to 1908, where maybe ten million died, and which scarred the country through Belgian colonial rule, and post independence, with the pygmy population suffering most, (as it still does today), with the maudlin tales of innocence and virtue standing fast against corrupting forces of both HCA and Dickens. It is hard to avoid the stories told by the latter, they permeate Western culture: the barbarous reality of the former though, a couple of decades later, and far worse than anything imagined in fiction, is still barely known by many, including me until now.

The fact that MM tells this story in the form of a comedy, in an expletive-ridden contemporary vernacular, is only to be expected from MM. Casting Jim Broadbent and Phil Daniels, who are, by virtue of career and demeanour, are distinctively Dickensian, is surely no accident. After all a new MM script will pretty much guarantee any actor from his roster of favourites will sign up, sight unseen. Both went all out for laughs, many of which were at the broad end of the subtlety scale. Emily Berrington, as she so often does, near steals the scenes she is in as the earthy Mrs Catherine Dickens. I loved the sweary kids as well. Paul Bradley, as the inexplicit Press Man, also turned in his customarily fine performance.

However the play would not be possible without the formidable Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles as Marjory, (and later Ogechi, you’ll see). From the moment she emerged from the box, suspended from the ceiling in Anna Fleischle’s amazing set, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. This was BUD, and KCK’s, first exposure to the wonderful and frightening world of Martin McDonagh. The SO was converted at Hangmen. When we emerged, not a little bewildered, after the 90 minutes, we debated the play long into the night. OK then maybe not long into the night, but certainly as long as it took to have a drink, some rarebit (highly recommended) and some madeleines, in the excellent Bridge foyer. Anyway BUD, being the analytical sort of chap he is, couldn’t get over the fact that the play could only exist with Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles in the role. Surely it must have been written for her?

I agree. But not for the obvious reasons of appearance. Simply because she is an outstanding actor. Sardonic, bitter, vengeful, powerful yet also vulnerable, compassionate and forlorn. Don’t get me wrong she delivers plenty of killer (literally) comic lines but she also carries the entire weight of the emotional and political substance of the play on her shoulders. This is her professional debut. Extraordinary.

Now director Matthew Dunster, and Anna Fleischle, have previous with Martin McDonagh, having brought the Royal Court production of Hangmen into being. (Mr Dunster also has form with HCA, directing the Pet Shop Boys’ ballet adaptation of his story The Most Incredible Thing. Messrs Tennant and Lowe know a thing or two about stagecraft challenges but they are not a patch on MM).

Even so I suspect director and designer, and the rest of the creative team, James Maloney (music), Philip Gladwell (lighting), George Dennis (sound), Chris Fisher (illusions), Finn Ross (video) and Susanna Peretz (wigs and prosthetics), must have rolled their collective eyes at their first meeting. How were they going to make this leap of mischievous imagination from page to stage? Impressively, as it turns out.

So you see the thing with MM is there is just so much there. So many echoes yet uniquely his own voice. Scorsese, Malick, Pinter, Tarantino, Synge, Le Fanu, Mamet, Beckett, Borges, punk. Insert your own thoughts here. I for one really what to believe he likes The Fall.

A master story-teller. With maybe, in this case, not quite a master story. It might annoy you. It might frustrate you. It might provoke you. It might overwhelm you with “WTF” moments. It should make you laugh, (assuming you know a little of what you are letting yourself in for). It will certainly make you think. And you definitely won’t forget it in a hurry.

An Adventure at the Bush Theatre review ****

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An Adventure

Bush Theatre, 26th September 2018

Now I cannot pretend that, when the lovely people at the Bush moved the matinee performance of An Adventure that I attended forward by an hour, and indicated it had metamorphosed into a three hour plus extravaganza, I wasn’t concerned. And reading the proper reviews, which were variable, but generally pointed to narrative ambition trumping dramatic momentum, didn’t help.

Well I can report that this is, give or take, a wonderful story, superbly, and smartly, told. The Bush is still claiming a 3 hour 15 minute running time but it isn’t, it certainly doesn’t feel anywhere near it, and there are a couple of intervals to catch your anyway. If anything I would have liked, whisper it, a bit more. It kicks off with feisty Gudjarati Jyoti, ostensibly 16, interviewing callow Rasik, ostensibly 22, one of the five suitors chosen by her father, on a stormy night on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in post-partition India in 1954. Not best qualified, Rasik doesn’t start his wooing too well but eventually, after a little sparring, Jyoti warms to him and the match is made. It is a cracking opening scene with emotional warmth set against the non-naturalistic set of Rosanna Vize, a golden plinth flanked by Louise Rhodes-Brown’s video designs (which help to anchor time and place throughout). The second scene, on a beach where Rasik, who can’t swim, clings on to Jyoti, is no less powerful and is the metaphor from which the rest of the story unfolds.

We then track the couple through Nairobi, during the fight for Kenyan independence in the late 1950’s, where Rasik goes into business with patriot David and buys him land, to London where the couple arrive in 1968, through the 1970’s, and daughter Sonal, and back to India, for the funeral of Joyti’s mother, where we meet niece Joy, and then finally Nairobi, in the present day. Along the way we see the India diaspora experience unfold, with exposition which generally doesn’t interrupt the flow, entwined with the personal journey of the couple. Home, emigration, immigration, post-colonialism, racism, gender roles, political activism, ageing, parenthood, the tyranny of everyday life, in fact just about everything that matters, is lightly ticked off along the way, but all is coherent.

The first part, (and the finale), in Kenya, is the most pointed in terms of political message, contrasting Kikuyu David’s support for violent Mau-Mau resistance with Rasik’s more pragmatic faith in a peaceful transition. This in turn contrasts with the personal politics of Jyoti who joins a union and campaigns to improve the conditions of British Asian working women in the 1970s. At the same time we see the racism that Rasik endures in his work and the strains that the struggle to get on put on their marriage. We see the next generation in the shape of Sonal looking to move up and on through education and travel encountering Jyoti’s motherly resistance.

This is though more a love story than history lesson and is all the more successful for it. In the final scenes, with the couple in their seventies, Rasik’s sight failing and mobility impaired, they look back and this, frankly, is where it really connected emotionally. I cannot claim to understand the journey of Jyoti and Rasik but I can certainly empathise with the prosaic intimacy of their relationship. For these final scenes Jyoti and Rasik are played by Nila Aalia and Selva Rasalingam, but you can still feel the essence of the characters shaped by the superb Anjana Vasan and Shubham Saraf in the earlier years. Jyoti may be headstrong but her inner strength shines through from the off. Rasik may be less certain, earnest in his youth, irascible in his old age, but they make an entirely believable couple. Writer Vinay Patel based his story on the life of his grandparents which is maybe just why.

Mr Patel’s expansive tale wears its learning pretty lightly. As with his previous work, notably his play True Brits and his TV drama Murdered By My Father, he shows that he has a way with story and character and can conjure up a lot of content from relatively straightforward starting points. An Adventure is more ambitious that his previous works, and maybe this time he has tried to pack a bit too much in to create his odyssey of marriage, but it is still a very entertaining and skilful attempt. I imagine he is a confident young man and I suspect he believes, as do I, that he will get even better from here. Madani Younis is, unsurprisingly, a completely sympathetic directorial presence; you get the feeling writer and director brought the best out of each other from the very start of the project. It will be very interesting to see what Mr Younis brings to the South Bank in his new role.

The cast, including a resolute Martins Imhangbe as David and impressive work from Aysha Kala as Sonal/Joy, is well matched to character, though, for me, Anjana Vasan stood out, as she did Life of Galileo at the Young Vic and Behind the Beautiful Forevers at the NT. Sally Ferguson’s lighting and Ed Clarke’s sound were able to navigate the intimate and expansive as the story demanded.

Six actors and seven characters, (well eight when you include younger daughter Roshni who literally phones in at the end), is not a lot to span this much history and geography. Then again the best way in drama to understand the big stuff is to see its repercussions at the human level. This is where Vinay Patel’s play works. He gets away with shoehorning in maybe just a bit too much of what he wantt to say because the characters are so real and the dialogue, with a few overly dreamy, symbolic interruptions, so apothegmatic. Above all there is that fearless enthusiasm for the power of drama that the best writers convey which makes this, for all its obvious faults, work.

The Outsider at the Print Room Coronet review ****

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The Outsider

Print Room Coronet, 19th September 2018

Tricky one this. I can’t pretend I was pinned back in my seat by the two and a half hours of Ben Okri’s adaptation of Albert Camus’ absurd existentialist classic written in 1942. Abbey Wright’s careful direction injects a little humour, (a dog is played by a mop and the trial scene is undercut with satire), but otherwise doesn’t take liberties with either Camus’ story or this intelligent text. The monochrome set, complete with multiple fans, and costume designs of Richard Hudson, bolster the sense of ennui. The Print Room dry ice machine gets yet another comprehensive work out. The plot, French Algerian bloke, bored at work as a clerk, can’t really get worked up about Mum’s death, finds girlfriend but can’t commit, gets involved with rum type neighbour, gets very hot, kills Algerian, is tried and condemned without really explaining himself, has its moments but isn’t going to pack them in at the Victoria Palace any time soon.

Yet this unhurried, unequivocal approach slowly and surely yields dividends assisted by an outstanding performance from Sam Frenchum. Now the Tourist got an inkling into of the talent of young Sam in the role of Hal in the Park Theatre’s excellent revival of Joe Orton’s Loot this time last year. Hal may not be the sharpest too in the box, so needs to be played dumb to get the laughs, but we need to see how his jealously of lover and criminal sidekick intensifies through the farce. That we got. Here though the young man, who is on stage throughout, rises up to a different challenge, gradually uncovering a man in Mersault, who reveals nothing. His delivery is deliberately monotone but far from mechanical. I expect him to go on to bigger things from here (actorally if not philosophically).

The pace gives the audience plenty of time to ruminate on what drives Mersault and why he is like he is. In the same way as the book. Ostensibly simple, almost banal, Mersault’s story yields pointed insight into the human condition, and specifically, the notion of alienation, of Mersault being a “stranger” or “outsider” to his own life and in the society around him. His utter indifference. Of course you might think it is a load of pretentious Gallic guff which only those who think too much and/or have too much time on their hands could possibly think is of any value. You might be right but I respectfully suggest you give it a go. After all you surely must have experienced the feeling of being utterly bemused by what is going on around you or unable to summon up apparently required emotions. Camus’ absurdist philosophy, his utter scepticism, is pretty bleak but it is ultimately truthfully humanist, even if it doesn’t always feel very human and can jar with post-modern sensibilities. It still needs to be understood though.

The book is written in the first person. Ben Okri has preserved that structure with Mersault speaking direct to audience in key passages to detail his experiences, perceptions, feelings, motivations, or more precisely lack thereof, whilst mixing this up with action across 13 speaking characters (and a few brave community locals). His first date with Marie Cardona (an innocently upbeat Vera Chok) on the beach, the murder, when he is alone in the cell and large parts of the courtroom scenes are straight narrative: the interactions with Raymond (an intimidating Sam Alexander), the undertaker and his defence lawyer (Josh Barrow moving swiftly on from his fine performance in The Silk Road at Trafalgar Studios), his boss and the prosecuting lawyer (David Carlyle) and the director and examining magistrate (Mark Penfold) are largely dialogue, though even here the sense that Mersault is at once removed from his own “reality” is palpable. Mind you he certainly “comes alive” when he violently rejects religion in the powerful scene with the chaplain (John Atterbury).

Mr Okri has preserved the minimalist quality of Camus’ text, or at least the translation I remember reading years ago, but still offers enough “colour” for Abbey Wright, lighting designer David Plater, sound designer Matt Regan and movement director Joyce Henderson to work with. Mind you he doesn’t quite scale the spartan heights of Robert Smith lyrics in The Cure’s early classic Killing An Arab.

If you do take the opportunity to see this production at the Print Room, there are a handful of tickets left, or if it pops up elsewhere, which it should, then don’t miss the accompanying short film by Mitra Tabrizian with text, in Arabic, once again from Ben Okri, which imagines events from the perspective of the Arab. Camus’ novel is discomforting in many ways, as was his principled ambivalence to Algerian independence, but giving a voice to the nameless Arab, here Mohamed Moulfath, (in the play Archie Backhouse), in a way similar to the 2014 novel The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, offers a valuable alternative perspective.

Zama film review ****

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Zama, 22nd June 2018

Now here is a work of imagination. Just what film is for. I suspect its languorous pace might not be to everyone’s taste but it delicately captures the sense of isolation and ennui that its hero, the eponymous Diego de Zama finds himself trapped in.

We are in Asuncion on the Paraguay River in the C18. Zama has been scantily rewarded with a position as a government magistrate in the service of the Spanish Empire after his exploits in battle, an americano born in present day Argentina, desperate to return to his family in Buenos Aries after many years away. His oft-promised transfer requires the imprimatur of the ministry in Madrid and that requires a letter from the Governor. Meanwhile Zama has to just get on with the unlovely business of life in a colonial outpost, flirting with the wives of the ruling elite, avoiding the temptations of the local prostitutes and drowning his sorrows in drink. Daniel Jimenez Cacho brings a palpable sexual frustration to Zama, alongside the barrenness of his emotional and intellectual landscape. You sense his despair at the hand that fate has dealt him and his own shame at the man he has become. The film opens with him spying on some indigenous women bathing in mud on the banks of the river. Not a good look.

The setting is magnificent. Interiors and exteriors look and feel totally authentic. Nature intrudes. The heat is oppressive. Cholera is endemic. Domesticated animals wander in and out of buildings. The colonisers and colonised are entwined. Indeed it turns out that Zama himself has a child with a local woman. The colonisers don’t have much to do here at the end of the world. Zama has a few cases to deal with, one of which exposes the ugly racism embedded in his office, and precipitates a scrap with his Spanish subordinate, who, much to Zama’s chagrin is “punished” by being sent away. A new, even less sympathetic Governor, replaces the incumbent when he returns to Spain and he takes over Zama’s quarters forcing him into a decrepit shack on the outskirts of the outpost. Early on Zama steps in, unconvincingly, to protect the honour of the local inn-keeper’s daughters, later on he fails to have an affair with the Governor’s wife.

Eventually Zama, deciding he has nothing to lose, throughs his lot in with a bunch of Quixotic bounty hunters who are tasked with tracking down a local bandit named Vicuna Porta, who may or may not exist. This, you won’t be surprised to learn, doesn’t end well.

Now if I was a betting man I would say that Zama is a walking metaphor for colonial guilt. He exists in a perpetual state of paralysed reverie. Someone is needed to represent the “civilising” force even as it becomes progressively less “civilised”, only able to bring “order” through terror and moving on once the economic exploitation is complete. Everyone on the ground is trapped in the hierarchical bureaucracy.

Familiar territory in some ways, novelists Achebe, Conrad, Forster, Orwell, Naipaul, Rushdie, even Kipling in his ham-fisted way, have been there, with film-makers like Coppola, Denis and Herzog following, and Fanon, Said, Rodney, and countless other academics, have examined the corrosive effects on coloniser and colonised and the profound impact on our world today. Indeed Zama itself is based on the 1956 novel of the same name by Antonio di Benedetto, who was tortured and imprisoned by the junta in 1970s Argentina.

Argentinian director Lucrecia Martell  has served up a very worthy addition to this canon. This is her first feature for 10 years which probably explains why I had not heard of her but I will hunt out her previous films. Apparently some people think she went on a trip up the Amazon, Kurtz like, during her hiatus. If so she has put it to good effect in the visual language of Zama.

If you are of a patient disposition, keen on stories that might stretch you a little further than usual in terms of space and time, and enjoy cinema for how it looks as well as where it goes, then I recommend you give this a viewing if, and when, it pops up on your chosen streaming service. I was reminded of the films of Terence Malick as I watched it, which is mostly, though not exclusively, a good thing.