Hedda Tesman at the Minerva Theatre Chichester review ***

Hedda Tesman

Minerva Theatre Chichester, 26th September 2019

This counts as a disappointment. Not because of the source material. Hedda Gabler for goodness sake. Nor the cast though I will come back to this. There were plenty of actors on show, Haydn Gwynne, Anthony Calf, Jonathan Hyde, Natalie Simpson and Irfan Shamji, who have stood out and given much pleasure in previous performances. Anna Fleischle’s design was as accomplished as her previous work, realistic and spacious. And I think Holly Race Roughan’s direction, (this is the first time I have seen the work of this Headlong associate), was as faithful to the adapted text and action as possible. It was never dull, full of thoughtful detail and as robust a plot as the day Ibsen dreamt it up in 1891.

No I mean it was a disappointment as I was hoping for so much more. The idea of taking one of, maybe the, greatest female roles in theatre and reworking it, to move the story forward not just to the modern day, but also to age Hedda, George and Brack by three decades, was intriguing. And Cordelia Lynn, whose adaptation of Three Sisters for the Almeida, was so successful, (even if Rebecca Frecknall’s direction over-egged the indeterminate), seemed like just the woman for the job. And text wise she was. It’s just that the premise didn’t deliver on its promise.

We start with level-headed cleaner Bertha (Rebecca Oldfield) sorting out the slightly fusty country house that George and Hedda have returned to from the US. When Anthony Calf’s George breezes in he is recognisably an older, and even more painfully underachieving, version of his younger self who hasn’t yet made it to professor but is still buoyed up by innate enthusiasm. Hedda herself, shuffling in in dressing gown and slippers, is now brimful with regret and reflects this in every, often cruel and acerbic, word. She is a Tesman now through and through, middle-aged and largely “invisible”, the Gabler of her youth a distant memory. Thea Tesman (Natalie Simpson) is now the daughter that Hedda was carrying in the original play and not the rival for Eilert, now Elijah’s, (Irfan Shamji) affection. To say mother and daughter, who is the same age as Hedda in the original, weren’t close would be something of an understatement. Thea “trapped” Hedda in the marriage, (postpartum depression is hinted at), motherhood robbed her of her own academic career and duty, in the form of Daddy Gabler, the general whose giant portrait is one of the first things to find a place in the new home, has kept her there. Threatening, amongst other things, to burn your child’s hair, as we discover, was probably never going to engender much in the way of affection.

George is working on improving his big idea but it is plain his intellect still lags behind Elijah. Thea, who has left her husband, is in love with that intellect and thinks she can “rescue” Elijah from his depression and excessive drinking, as she works with him on the sequel to his best-seller. The affair with a younger Hedda still haunts him. Brack (Jonathan Hyde) is still a shit-stirring perv and Aunt Julie (Jacqueline Clarke). Boys’ drunken night out, the temptation of Thea and Elijah’s manuscript, (no USB sticks here), the pair of pistols, Elijah’s messy death, Brack’s blackmail and …. well you know the end, are are still intact. But …. Ibsen’s puissant plot only works if you are invested in the set-up.

And here, I am afraid, I was not. Not because I couldn’t believe that Hedda would have stuck around, though I had my doubts, but because, having done so, she would then have taken this way out. Some Ibsen works because the characters seek to escape the past. Others, like Hedda Gabler, because they fear their future. To use old Henrik’s genius as a point of departure often pay dividends but to mix up chronology and therefore motivation, as here, did not. Haydn Gwynne did her admirable best to solve this conundrum but never quite cracked it, too much self-loathing, and, though it pains me to say it, having seen his air of gentle vulnerability fit the bill perfectly in Ms Lynne’s razor-sharp satire One for Sorrow at the Royal Court and Joe White’s outstanding debut play Mayfly at the Orange Tree, Irfan Shamji seemed completely miscast as Elijah.

In some ways given the space, the cast, the top notch creatives (Ruth Chan’s music, complete with off stage tinkling hinting at Hedda’s past pianistic akills,George Dennis’s sound, Zoe Spurr’s lighting) I sort of wished Cordelia Lynn had abandoned the Ibsen plot and explored some of the more tantalising relationships that she opened up. The scenes between this Hedda and the very fine Natalie Simpson as Thea for example showed this potential. Envy of Thea in the original, and the denigration this fosters, partly defines and explains Hedda, (along with the conflicted Daddy worship). And, from this, maybe draw out more explicitly the contrasts between the economic, class and emotional condition of the, now four, women in the play, and how societal change has impacted recent generations.

So all in all not quite up to Headlong’s best who, when they get it right (All My Sons, Mother Courage, This House, People, Places & Things, Junkyard, American Psycho, 1984, Chimerica, The Effect, Medea, Enron), are just about the finest purveyors of theatre in this country. Still a good idea with plenty to admire but one that, like its lead, seemed to lose the courage of its convictions the longer it went on.

A Doll’s House at the Lyric Hammersmith review *****

A Doll’s House

Lyric Hammersmith, 18th September 2019

You can never have too much Nora. After Samuel Adamson’s gender fluid Wife at the Kiln, and this adaptation from Tanika Gupta set in colonial India, the Tourist has the 3 for the price of 1, Glasgow Citizens, radical re-working from Steff Smith coming to the Young Vic and then Robert Icke’s take in Amsterdam next year.

Of course no modern creative in their right mind is going to offer up a straight up and down Doll’s House but it is a testament to old Henrik’s genius that it can stand all sorts of updating and alteration. And that’s not just because of its feminist message but also because its a cracking plot.

Tanika Gupta’s plays and adaptations have explored her cultural heritage, race and female agency in myriad ways before. Just before this her version of Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice attracted excellent reviews at the Manchester Royal Exchange and this re-setting of Ibsen’s masterpiece to Calcutta, still in 1879 as in the original, was originally aired as a BBC radio play in 2012. Nora becomes Niru an intelligent young Bengali woman married to English colonial tax collector bureaucrat Tom Helmer. He plainly loves her but more as exoticised plaything, “my little Indian princess”, than partner and insists she convert from her “heathen” religion to Christianity ahead of their marriage. With minimal changes to the “past coming back to haunt her” plot which heralds Niru’s liberation, Tanika Gupta very effectively explores the impact of race and colonialism, as well as gender politics, in her text. The power that Tom exerts over Niru flows not just from his sex but also the assumption of his cultural superiority, his religion and the state.

The setting also lends resonance to Dr Rank’s (Colin Tierney) creepy feelings for Niru and his liberal concerns about what the injustices inflicted by the colonial regime might catalyse and clerk Kaushik Das’s, (the Krogtad character played by Assad Zaman), motives for his “blackmail”. And to the sacrifices and social position of Mrs Lahiri (Tripti Tripuraneni), Niru’s now widowed childhood friend, and maid Uma (Arinder Sadhra), who is driven to leave her children by economic necessity. These connotations flow elegantly from the concept however and don’t get in the way of the central narrative.

Incoming AD at the Lyric Rachel O’Riordan chose to direct the production herself to kick off her tenure, (she will also oversee the revival of Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love later in this season), and she has made a splendid job of it. I am afraid Belfast, Perth and Cardiff, her previous residences, were just a little too far even for the intrepid Tourist so his previous encounters with Ms O’Riordan’s work have been restricted to the somewhat underwhelming Foxfinder revival at the Ambassador’s and the powerful Gary Owen plays, Killology and Iphigenia in Splott, (will someone please give Sophie Melville a big starring role on the telly). Whilst Tanika Gupta’s many layered adaptation and Henrik’s plot would be hard to make a mess of, the fact is that this was perfectly judged, building tension without ever losing sight of message.

Lily Arnold’s set, the tiered courtyard of the Helmer’s rather too comfortable house, heavy doors to the outside world backstage dead centre, Kevin Treacy’s lighting, Gregory Clarke’s sound and, especially, Arun Ghosh’s on stage music, were similarly on the money, lending atmosphere and supporting the drama. Above all though it was the performances of the two leads which won us over. For I was accompanied by BD. Now I may have slightly oversold the feminist credentials of HI, BD being a very modern and persuasive advocate of female equality, but she was still much taken with the setting and the story. And with Anjana Vasan. Now this is the second time the Tourist has seen Ms Vasan anchor a fine play, after Vinay Patel’s An Adventure at the Bush (which touched on post-colonial experience in India, Kenya and Britain), and what with her noteworthy supporting turns in Rutherford and Sons at the NT, Summer and Smoke at the Almeida and Life of Galileo at the Young Vic, it is pretty clear the secret is out. This though was another level as she depicted the journey for which Nora is renowned whilst laying on top the conflicted perspective that Niru, in this very different society and place, could offer.

Whilst Elliot Cowan didn’t quite get to offer as many dimensions with Tom, he is largely a patronising, self-regarding shit, most notably at the end, when his ugly racism is laid bare as he fears the scandal that threatens to envelope the couple, and then pretends everything can go back to normal when a way out is revealed thanks to Das’s repentance at Mrs Lahiri’s behest. The famous confrontation scene ahead of the even more famous exit was electric, especially given the stakes for Niru are arguably even greater than for the average Nora. Now the last time I saw Mr Cowan was as the host at the holiday home which provided the setting for Anne Washburn’s brilliant dissection of liberal America Shipwreck at the Almeida. Where he doubled up as a kind of mythic tyrant Trump. Bloody scary. He is a tall bloke: the physical contrast with the elfin Ms Vasan added to the mental tussle between the Helmers. I also note that Mr Cowan had an important part too as the idealistic journalist Charlie in the NT revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s African post-colonial epic Les Blancs.

Anyway my guess is both are leads jumped at the opportunity to take on these roles and I for one am glad they did. Like I say A Doll’s House is going to be the subject of constant innovation but you could wait a long time before seeing an interpretation as intelligent and thought provoking as this. West End producers are constantly on the hunt for a popular classic> they could do far worse than this production though I get that no super big names are involved here. Mind you I am pretty sure Anjana Vasan will be one day.

Faith Ringgold at the Serpentine Galleries review ****

Faith Ringgold

Serpentine Galleries, 22nd August 2019

Once again it has taken the Tourist way too long to gather his thoughts on something he has seen. Which means this snappy retrospective of the work of Africa- American artist has now finished. Sorry. It was Very Good. I guess that doesn’t help.

I first encountered Ms Ringgold’s work at the Soul of a Nation exhibition at Tate Modern in 2017. Thematic anthologies are always a dream for an art numpty like the Tourist, giving an opportunity to discover all manner of ideas and artists, but this exhibition was especially fertile. Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, Charles White, (especially) David Hammons, Timothy Washington, Barkley Hendricks and Melvin Edwards. All blokes. Which made Betye Saar and especially Faith Ringgold stand out, because not only does their art tackle issues of race, African-American identity and history, it also powerfully explores gender inequality.

Given Ms Ringgold’s engagement with the civil rights and feminist movements in the US over her five decade career it is perhaps surprising to learn that this the first exhibition devoted solely to her work in Europe let alone the UK. Through paintings, posters, books, sculpture, performance and her fascinating quilts she makes acute political points whose relevance has certainly not declined with time. Through her teaching and through the National Black Feminist Organisation which she founded in 1973 with her artist daughter Michelle Wallace, Ms Ringgold has been as much activist and influencer, (with real purpose, not like today’s self-obsessed “model/icons”), as artist.

She was born (1930) in Harlem where she grew up immersed in jazz culture and the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance, majored in art education and started her career teaching. She began painting in the 1950s and 1960s influenced by African art, Impressionism and Cubism and inspired by writers such as James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka. She turned to art full time in 1973.

This survey opens with 7 paintings from her American People series from 1963 to 1967 which examines social inequality and racial tensions at the height of the Civil Rights movement from a woman’s perspective. These works formed the core of her inaugural exhibition at the Spectrum Gallery in 1967. The large scale US Postage Stamp Commemorating The Advent Of Black Power about sums it up. Oversizing a stamp, Pop Art style, depicting 100 sets of eyes and noses, in a grid, with 10 black faces across the diagonal, (symbolising the 10% of the population that was African American in 1967), the worlds BLACK POWER are spelled out across the other diagonal, but with WHITE POWER not so subtly encrypted horizontally. As with her quilts later on you are presented with an arresting overall image, here using flat, bright paint, which demands further detailed inspection, even after the message has made its mark. At the time FR said she did not have a clear idea of what Black Power represented but she did feel the need to ask the question about how women would fit into the struggle. And, if you ever wondered where the inspiration for the iconic Obama Hope poster campaign came from look no further.

In the 1970’s she led protests against the representation of women and Black artists in galleries, designed posters to support her politics and organised The People’s Flag Show in 1973 where she was arrested for “desecrating” the American flag. Her paintings darkened in tone, drawing from African art and, away from traditional oils. She began to explore the potential in fabric after being stirred by the C14 and C15 Tibetan tanka paintings that she saw in the Rijksmuseum on a visit to Europe in 1972.

Less convincingly to my eyes were the abstract works from the Windows of the World series made with her fashion designer mother Willi Posey. This diverse practice was represented in Room 2 but. based on the punters when I visited, one work in particular reels you in. The United States of Attica dates from 1971/72, prompted by the Attica NY prison riots where 43 people died, and depicts a map of the US in green, red and black, the colours of Marcus Garvey’s black nationalist flag, recording the details of genocides that have occurred in the US from the colonial era.

In the 1980s FR first turned to the story quilts for which she is best known and which form the heart of this exhibition. These incorporate images and text to present the inter-generational stories of African American women from slavery through to the present, often painful and poignant, but also powerful and uplifting. FR’s great-great grandmother Susie Shannon, born into slavery, was compelled to sew quilts for plantation owners.

I was particularly struck by the triptych of quilts extracted from the Slave Rape series which show naked women modelled on FR’s daughters fleeing through stylised undergrowth. The colours and lines reflect the rich textiles of Central Africa, the images are made more alarming by the absence of the pursuers. Then there is Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemina? from 1983 which reimagines the racist stereotype from interwar minstrel shows used in the pancake mix brand as a determined matriarch who runs her own restaurant chain. The embroidering is exquisite, the characters sparkle, the text demands to be read. Rare sight to see people. after the regulation snap on their phones then standing still to follow the story across four generations. The other highlight was the personal Change: Faith Ringgold’s Over 100 Pounds Weight Loss Performance Story Quilt from 1986.

Later on in the 1980s FR moved away from narrative quilts to something closer to her earlier oil paintings and, for me at least, some of the classic art of the Harlem Renaissance, most obviously in Jazz Stories . Though the powerful political messages remain. In fact maybe even more so. Even without the text these dense complex works, as in the earlier pieces, need time to fully take in. We Came to America from 1997, part of the American Collection, shows a dreadlocked Statue of Liberty with black baby in one hand and torch in the other, astride an Atlantic Ocean, filled with writhing black bodies. The ship in the background is based on JMW Turner’s The Slave Ship. FR created a fictional artist creator for the series who dreams of walking back across the sea to Africa arm in arm with her brothers and sisters.

The Tar Beach quilt from 1988 is more autobiographical recalling childhood summers spent on the hot roof of her apartment building in Harlem with parents, friends and siblings. This formed the basis for FR’s acclaimed books for children. Subway Graffiti from 1987 shows friends and neighbours crammed on a subways platform with names and tags filling the panels which surround them.

But just in case we get too comfortable this collection ends with something more trenchant in the form of 1997’s The Flag is Bleeding again from the American Collection. We see a black women bleeding from her heart protecting her two small children all against the backdrop of the Stars and Stripes. The title is the same as that used in the American People series which opened the exhibition though that picture shows a black man armed with a knife, a white woman, and a white armed man peering through the bleeding flag.

The exhibition, and this is no criticism, did not include any of FR’s mixed media masks and costumes which she created in 1973, notably the Witch Mask series and the Family of Woman Mask series. Or any of her life-sized soft sculptures, which, like the masks, take inspiration from African art. The masks and costumes, together with music and dance, formed the basis of FR’s performance in the 1970s and 1980s which often retold the stories in her quilts.

Even without these elements this exhibition gave a very clear overview of FR’s practice. This is art with a clear message on behalf of those marginalised by race or gender, aware of its origins and its history. Nothing ambiguous or simplistic here. It elevates materials and making over theory and process, anger over aesthetic, and invites the viewer to take time to reflect on its meaning.

Above all else FR is a story teller. I like stories. And, I’ll bet, you do to. It’s just a shame that some of these stories still have to be told.

Rutherford and Son at the National Theatre review ****

Rutherford and Son

National Theatre Lyttleton, 16th May 2019

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.

Top Girls at the National Theatre review ****

Top Girls

National Theatre Lyttleton, 4th April 2019

OK. So I might have oversold this one. It is still Caryl Churchill. With that extraordinary opening act. And that carefully calibrated feminist message, as relevant now as it was when it first appeared in 1982, of how to balance “success” in work and as a mother. The argument between collective and individualistic strands of feminism. To ape the patriarchal norms or to reject them.

But as an introduction to the greatest living playwright in the English language? Maybe this wasn’t the production. So profuse apologies to those most faithful of the Tourist’s recommendation followers, BUD and KCK, who came along. And to the most long suffering of all, in so many ways, the SO, whose previous CC exposure was the brilliant (to me), but admittedly knotty and OTT, production of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire on this very stage in 2015. I hope my chums could see where I was coming from even as the flaws in the production became apparent.

Not that these flaws were substantial. The opening scene here has a cast to die for, Siobhan Redmond as the indomitable Isabella Bird, Amanda Lawrence as the ebullient Pope Joan, Wendy Kweh as the enigmatic Lady Nijo, Ashley McGuire as the laconic Dull Gret and Lucy Ellinson as the most obviously misused Patient Griselda. The way CC takes Marlene’s drunken dinner party celebration and transforms it into a confessional which explosively, hilariously and movingly transcribes the fate of women, real and fictional, across time and geography, and specifically the way the patriarchy determines their roles as mothers, is still, for me about the most riveting half hour of theatre I have ever seen. Especially when the technical challenges of the multiple, simultaneous, conversations are, as here, perfectly realised, not to say the getting pissed part. And all presided over by the dauntless Marlene about to take the top job at the Top Girls employment agency. Katherine Kingsley, who you will probably know best from her musical theatre roles, initially locates Marlene firmly in the 1980’s Thatcherite, “ballsy”, power woman mode. To watch her equivocation, and Suffolk accent, emerge in the later scenes is a measure of just how good a performance this is.

The second scene, (here the usual order is shuffled a little), sees stage debutant Liv Hill, (Three Girls, on the telly, just watch it – though for my money Ria Zmitrowicz is actually the best of the trio of talent on display), initially at least, convincing as the immature Angie, sharing her angst with younger chum Kit (Ashna Rabheru). The two actors are confined to a small box room stage right as the technicians crack on, quietly, with transforming the space behind.

Into ….. the Top Girls agency. Which is where the full glory of the period detail of Ian MacNeil’s set and Merle Hansel’s costumes, (so superb for the dinner party), are revealed. And which also highlights one of those modest flaws is the production. By anchoring the look of the play so firmly in the year when it was written it encouraged the audience to do the same. The universality of the messages were diluted. Those of us who are old enough to recall the period, (all the Tourist’s party I am afraid), were drawn into thinking about the archetypes and behaviour of the period rather than the wider issues examined in the play, and I suspect you younger folk will have been affected more by the story here than its implications.

For it is, especially as we turn into Scene 4, and the not so big reveal, a mightily powerful piece of drama, especially when actors of the calibre of Ms Kingsley, and Lucy Black as her sister Joyce, are charged with delivering CC’s brilliant text. I don’t suppose I will ever tire of the thrill of listening to Ms Churchill’s dialogue. Complex and ambiguous ideas, observations and dilemmas framed in entirely natural dialogue, (even sometimes when how it is framed is formally inventive or even, frankly, a bit weird). There is so much dialectic revealed in Marlene and Joyce’s final argument that it is hard to keep up and yet it also sounds and feels exactly like the kind of set-to that any sisters might have had, at least in the modern world, about family, choices, dreams and disappointments, as well as politics. Family and/or career. Collective and/or individualistic feminism. All in less than half an hour.

And yet, as many critics have observed, this production, because the NT could, by not having actors double up from the first scene into the office scene, loses much of its resonance. CC didn’t specify doubling. That is just the way it has generally been done, a cast of seven for the simple reason of cost. But it certainly, at least when I have seen the play before, has far greater impact as the women that emerge from the interviews, Jeanine, who just want to travel and be with her husband, Louise, who has devoted her life to her job but still watched men promoted over her, and Shona forced to exaggerate her experience, as well as Mrs Kidd, who comes to plead for husband Howard who had expected to get the job Marlene has secured. This pivotal scene loses some impact because of the introduction of new faces, (the SO observed that she was expecting the dinner party guests to reappear in new guises and she has never seen Top Girls before), and maybe because, in an attempt to fill the Lyttleton stage, there is a fair bit of superfluous movement and furniture in this agency scene.

Director Lyndsey Turner, unsurprisingly given her experience in reviving Caryl Churchill’s work, pretty much nails the words, from Marlene’s initial instructions to the waitresses at the restaurant, (of course they are women), through to Angie’s final, plaintive, cries for her Mum at the end. This is such a rich play, just read it, and, with a cast of this distinction, the words can’t help but leap from the page. It is just that the look and feel of the production, even with the solid contributions of Jack Knowles (lighting) and Christopher Shutt (sound), didn’t quite work for me. Still to watch 18 women, (many of whom, in the “lesser” roles, were new to me), line up across the stage at the curtain call was pretty awesome. I doubt I will see that again.

I don’t doubt though that I will get another opportunity to see Top Girls. The programme lists 25 English language productions since the Royal Court premiere. With 6 last year alone, (though its been 8 years since the last major revival in the UK from Out of Joint).

That’s the thing with Caryl Churchill. She changes the game whilst being ahead of it.


The Women of Whitechapel at the ENO review *****

Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel

English National Opera, 3rd April 2019

Composer Iain Bell and his librettist Emma Jenkins wanted to call this just The Women of Whitechapel. Some marketing types at the ENO decided it needed to be prefixed with the title of the infamous murderer, charitably I suppose to let the potential audience know its subject. Worse, to continue the tiresome obsession with perpetrator and not victims. For this opera is specifically written about the women who were murdered. The murderer does not appear. Shame then that the creator’s original intentions could not have been fully honoured. Mind you I see that some bozo US deathcore band has appropriated the grotesque misogynistic fixation at the heart of this story by calling themselves Whitechapel. The band are in their 30s. Grow up lads.

I was predisposed to this new opera from the start. And I was extremely impressed with the end result. I see some proper reviewers who, to be fair, know their opera unlike the Tourist, think the opera is lacking in dramatic impact. I disagree. Yes there is no central single heroine to latch on to, there is no narrative arc towards some sort of tragedy or redemption, there are a fair few characters, the overall feel of the piece is dark and it is made up of a procession of set pieces. But that reflects the story of the five women that Mr Bell and Ms Jenkins wanted to tell, (based on scrupulous research where possible as well as some leaps of imagination). For me it was very powerful and very involving throughout.

I also accept that some of Iain Bell’s music and the way in which Daniel Kramer directed many of the scenes verged, on occasion, towards Les Mis style caricature, though this is no bad thing in terms of the immediacy of impact. However the more obvious inspiration might be Britten, Peter Grimes for the tone of the piece, and Death in Venice for the musical colouring. Worthy template. Mr Bell does not have BB’s compositional facility but the mix of solo and ensemble pieces, the set pieces with chorus, the unusual instrumentation, (the eerie elastic tone of the cimbalom to signify the presence of the murderer for example), the shifting in and out of tonal and more dissonant, atonal music, all conjure up a similar atmosphere.

The opera is centred on the last of the known victims, Mary Kelly, superbly sung and realised by Natalya Romaniw. Mr Bell and Ms Jenkins have created roles specifically for the mature voices of some ENO big stars, namely Marie McLaughlin (Annie Chapman), Janis Kelly (Polly Nicholls), Susan Bullock (Liz Stride) and Lesley Garrett (Catherine Eddowes), as well as the redoubtable Josephine Barstow as Maud, the proprieter of the doss house where the women are forced to live. The illustrious cast is further enhanced by the presence of Alan Opie as the aloof Pathologist who carries out the autopsies on the women’s bodies, Robert Hayward as the compromised Chief of Police and Paul Sheehan as the intimidated Coroner. From the current ENO vintage Nicky Spence provides a lighter touch as Sergeant Strong, James Cleverton is a Photographer with dubious intentions, William Morgan a rather underwritten, reformist Writer and Alex Otterburn is Squibby a local butcher’s boy. On the evening I attended Sophia Elton also stood out as Mary’s voiceless daughter Magpie.

Soutra Gilmour has conjured up another striking set, though it is sombre and dark, (and a bit Goth), in line with the mood of the piece, which is sufficiently versatile to persuade as doss-house, pub, street, mortuary and funeral procession for the coup de theatre of the, slightly over-long, ending (in which Paul Anderson’s lighting design, literally, really shines). Martyn Brabbins’s enthusiasm for the score and the commitment of the ENO Orchestra was never in doubt even in the slightly padded passages.

I think the opera makes its points about the callous way that the patriarchal society of the day treats these poor women – the murderer is simply an extension of the more “respectable” men that abuse them – the solace and support they take from each other and their overwhelming fear as the threat mounts. On its own this work cannot counter a century of writing out the victims as the expense of the sick fascination with the male perpetrator, (turn on your TV any night of the week to see that is still par for the course), but it is a brave, ambitious and engrossing attempt to do so and to provide a valid three hours of musical theatre. The symbolism, the Minotaur metaphor, the male chorus poking through the windows of the doss-house, the final ascension, is thought through and adds texture to the naturalism of previous scenes. The more poetic passages in Emma Jenkins’s libretto similarly contrast with the vernacular episodes.

I read a fair few reviews in thinking about this. They were all written by blokes. There were, with few exceptions, wrong about this. Presumably they would have been happier seeing yet another production of that scrupulously unmanipulative tale of female agency Madama Butterfly.

Medea at the Barbican Theatre review *****

Medea

International Theatre Amsterdam, Barbican Theatre, 6th March 2019

Now you can’t always be sure that wunderkind director Ivo van Hove delivers the goods when he comes to the UK, which is now surprisingly often with All About Eve his latest offering. When it comes to the company where he is AD, alongside design partner Jan Versweyveld, International Theatre Amsterdam, (previously Toneelgroep Amsterdam), you can pretty much guarantee theatre of the very best quality.

Especially when the story is Medea, Euripides’s most performed play, and still a rich source of inspiration some 2,450 years after its first performance. If you accept Euripides as the guiding light of drama, and you should, then this must rank as one of the greatest plays ever written. Mind you apparently it didn’t get rave reviews on its first run, Euripides coming last at that particular City Dionysia. The Romans took to it though as did the Renaissance Europe and it’s been a staple ever since.

However, if not re-interpreted for a modern audience, (it’s a two hander in the original), you might beg to differ. Left to the creative devices of writer and director Simon Stone you can be sure it will connect. Which it surely does. Mr Stone, an Aussie as you can see above sporting the casual surfer look, has an impressive track record, initially with new interpretations of classics in Oz and then in Europe, in Basel, Amsterdam and London. His Yerma, with Billie Piper, at the Young Vic was a knockout. And his debut film The Daughter, based on Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, (he brought his stage version to the Barbican a few years ago), is also a triumph.

If that wasn’t enough the lead in his version of Medea is Marieke Heebink, who is one of the most impressive stage actors I have ever seen (Oedipus, After The Rehearsal/Persona, Kings of War, Roman Tragedies, After the Fall). MH has been with the ITA ensemble since 1994 and now seems to get first dibs on the plum mature female roles in the ITA flagship productions though there is stiff competition.

Hence I had been raving about the visit of this production to the Barbican, (hopefully ITA will be back later in the year), for months and buttonholing anyone and everyone to get a ticket for one of the five performances. As usual they completely ignored me. Well more fool you. It was magnificent.

Simon Stone has taken the true story of one Deborah Green and woven this in to the classic Medea story. Ms Green is an American doctor who has spent 22 years in prison for attempting to poison her husband and setting fire to her house in 1995, killing two of her children. Her marriage to fellow doctor Michael Farrar was volatile but it was his affair with Margaret Hacker which prompted Deborah Green to become increasingly unpredictable with Farrar eventually leaving the family house. One of their daughters managed to escape the blaze.

In the play Marieke Heebink plays Anna, a research scientist whose own career has been eclipsed by her former assistant, and husband, Lucas (Aus Greidanus Jr), as she has brought up their two sons Gijs (Poema Kitseroo) and Edgar (Faas Jonkers). Lucas has moved in with the much younger Clara (Eva Heijnen) who happens to be the daughter of Christopher (Leon Voorberg), the head of the Institute where Anna and Lucas work. Anna has returned home after a breakdown and an attempt to poison Lucas. Her increasingly frantic attempts to get Lucas back, to rebuild her family and return to work, all fail and so we build up to the inevitable, though still shocking, conclusion.

All this is played out on Bob Cousins’s unadorned, brilliant white, set, (redolent of lab and hospital), with a panel above on which the sur-titles are projected, (the play is in Dutch with translation from Vera Hoogstad and dramaturg Peter van Kraaij), as well as the videos taken by the two sons for their school project. This allows us to cut to the actors at moments of high drama and provides a vital plot development. Just about the cleverest use of on stage video the Tourist has seen. The blank set does eventually see some adornment in the form of blood and ash but that’s about all. The costumes, courtesy of regular ITA collaborator An D’Huys, are nondescript modern dress.

So all our attention is focussed on the story and the characters. This is, once again, an immensely physical performance, not just from Ms Heebink but also from Aus Griedanus Jr. Watching her unravel and watching him watching her unravel is utterly compelling. There is no sign of a god, no Medea rising up with the dead bodies in the chariot of the Sun God, and Mr Stone has wisely only intersected with the detail of the original plot where it makes sense and fits the narrative of the Green story. Even so it has the same visceral power as Euripides and the same ability to make you sympathise with Medea/Anna who understandably takes revenge as everything that makes up her life is taken away from her.

The set and Simon Stone’s direct text, (created as the performance takes place), also means no time is wasted in scene setting or exposition. Scenes just pile up into each other. This means the play takes just 80 minutes adding to its raw impact and the clarity of its message. There are moments of tenderness and much humour in the family scenes with both of the young actors playing the sons turning in polished performances to match there more seasoned colleagues. Eva Heijnen’s pregnant Clara, in her dismissal of the desperate and bitter Anna, is especially cutting and the drinking scene between Lucas and Christopher shows male privilege at its most crudely transparent. Indeed every scene has been thought through in detail, there is not a wasted line or movement in the entire play. Intensity. Perfectly distilled.

I was pretty sure this would be one of the best things I would see this year, or indeed, any year. It was. Mind you a string of reviews from its previous staging pretty much guaranteed it would be. Even so when theatre is this good there is nothing better. Simon Stone is quoted in the programme notes. “I think theatre could well be the most important art form of this time. Where else do people still come together to collectively experience and think about something?” Quite. Though I would say it is the most important art form of this, or any, time.

Can’t wait for Simon Stone’s next move. Electra might be fun.