I’ll tell you what. That Annie Baker backs herself. Here is another long play, near 2 hours straight through, where, visually, nothing much happens, bar a properly weird interlude, and dense with word. And this time it is a story about stories, Yep that’s right. The meta of meta. Six assorted punters (five men and just one woman) are ranged around a glass, conference style table telling each other stories in an attempt to create a story. Mediated by their distracted passive aggressive boss Sandy (the ever wonderful Conleth Hill), with occasional interruptions from his chipper assistant Sarah (Imogen Doel) to take food orders, excuse Sandy’s absences and chivvy the crew, and the voice of mogul “Max” (Andrew Woodall) who is bankrolling the enterprise. And with a note taker, Brian (Bill Milner), who eventually, memorably, gets stuck in.
It looks and feels like a scriptwriter’s meeting but its real purpose is never fully revealed and the rules of engagement are vague. Just see what happens seems to be Sandy’s instruction and from this all sorts of stuff pours out, from personal disclosures and confessionals, jokes, classical myth and allusion, gods, monsters, religious dualism, stories about stories, right through to various creation myths. It is affecting, thoughtful, funny, intriguing. Chloe Lamford’s set, complete with Perrier overload, Natasha Chiver’s garish lighting, Tom Gibbons’s sound, Sasha Milavic Davies’s movement (much use of swivel chairs), all echo the hyper-reality, or do I mean hyper-banality, of Annie Baker’s text, which gradually shifts the apparently mundane into the realms of the extraordinary. No surprise that Ms Lamford and Ms Baker co-direct.
It doesn’t quite scale the heights of profundity that it sets out to achieve, or the genuine grace of predecessor John, and it probably stole 20 minutes of my life more than it should have, but you still couldn’t fault its ambition and verve. In trying our patience, and venturing into the Freudian “uncanny”, it gets right under your skin even if it doesn’t shed too much fresh light on the creation of collective, and self, narrative. But it does cover all the bases, maybe too many, as concept overwhelms even this committed execution. Though with actors of this quality, Fisayo Akinade, Matt Bardock, Arthur Darvill, Hadley Fraser, Stuart McQuarrie and Sinead Matthews as the writers), individual character emerges out of the ensemble.
I guess the point was that whilst the urge to share our truth and humanity, and bring meaning to pointless existence, through stories remains undimmed, our capacity to do so might be fading, (especially as chaos in the outside world seeped into the ill-judged ending). Or maybe not. The vagueness of purpose is all part of the attraction in Annie Baker’s practice, so best just to go with the intractable flow and don’t pull too hard on the individual, intellectual, threads. It won’t be one of my top 10 2019 theatrical events but was still a story that could not be missed.
Fannyed about and failed to book this when it came to Chichester. Wasn’t about to make the same mistake again so quick off the mark when the transfer to the MCF was announced and a three line whip to include the SO and, a new fellow traveller, TSLOM, whose literary knowledge might even exceed that of the SO herself.
Anyway, and at the risk of coming all over key board warrior alone in his bedroom, IT IS ABSOLUTELY VITAL THAT YOU DO NOT MISS THIS ON ITS THIRD OUTING. It will show at the Harold Pinter Theatre from 8th May to 26th September, and there are plenty of tickets left, which gives you no excuse even if you wait.
For this is one of the funniest and smartest plays you are likely to see in this or any other year. No great surprise given Laura Wade’s track record (Home, I’m Darling, Tipping the Velvet, Posh, Alice, Breathing Corpses, Colder Than Here) and a sympathetic, I assume, director in the form of partner Samuel West (Prue and Timmy’s boy for you canal lovers).
Easy enough to find out the central premise. The Watsons was a novel from 1803/4 that Jane Austen abandoned, (as she did in 1817 with Sanditon, which, as I am sure you are aware, Andrew Davies and ITV recently “completed”). JA produced about 80 pages, laying out all the characters, and some clues as to where it would end up, though whether as novella or full blown novel isn’t clear. Apparently loads of punters have had a stab at completing it, the Austen industry being a continuing British success story, though I doubt have been as successful in their efforts as Ms Wade.
On to the bijou stage at the MCF, mediated through Ben Stones’s, ingenious white box with props and plinth stage, and Mike Ashcroft’s precise movement direction, we meet all the characters from the original novel at a ball, obviously. Emma Watson (Grace Molony – perfect) is the youngest daughter of a widowed, and poorly, clergyman (John Wilson Goddard). She was brought up by a wealthy aunt, and is thus educated and refined, but after her benefactor remarries, she returns home to Daddy and her daft sister Margaret (Rhianna McGreevy). The sisters are, by dint of economic circumstance, looking to make a “good match”, with more than one eye on the dashing, though plainly caddish, Tom Musgrave (Laurence Ubong Williams). His shortcomings are identified by Emma’s level headed eldest sister Elizabeth (Paksie Vernon). Their neighbours include super toff, Lady Osborne (Jane Booker) and her super awkward son (Joe Bannister), and his sprightly sister (Cat White). At the ball, accompanied by kindly chaperone Mrs Edwards (Elaine Claxton), she is introduced to local vicar Mr Howard (Tim Delap), a potential Mr Right, even if he veers towards the priggish, and his eager young nephew, Charles. Soon after Margaret returns home with grasping brother Robert (Sam Alexander) and his snobbish wife Mary (Sophie Duval). Nanny (Sally Bankes), looks on bemused.
So far, so, er, Jame Austen. And then the maid arrives, who is, to say the least a bit lippy and forward. Yes it is, and I am giving nothing away here, our very own playwright Laura (played by Louise Ford -also perfect), hot from “reality” to rescue Emma from making a crappy marriage choice from the three candidates, and boost female agency. When Emma, who isn’t, it must be said, altogether happy with the intervention, and the rest of the cast, have adjusted to this surprising turn of events the fun really begins. Meta doesn’t begin to describe as the cast take umbrage with being “characters” in a “play” and rebel against Laura’s authorship of their “lives”. This permits the dissection of class and gender, as in previous plays by Ms Wade, but against the backdrop of who owns a story, genius in the context that this was both unfinished and that so many of us have an obsessive interest in its author and her books, and the social mores it represents, well beyond what is there on the page, (JA I mean not LW, though, of course, as the conceit unfolds, we are very much invested in LW, the character of LW the playwright).
There are precedents for the play, notably Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, which LW self-deprecatingly admits, but this is much more immediate in its impact. LW doesn’t abandon the comedy that flows from parody, though there are no cheap laughs here, nor does she abandon the search for logic in the face of what she is articulating. Even if that logic is as daft as the very idea of the willing suspension of disbelief in the first place. This is not clever-clever, up its own arse theory theatre, though. It will make you think about its themes but never at the expense of making you chuckle.
Sam West’s direction, and Ben Stokes’s costumes, are geared to this purpose, the conventions of period drama never entirely subverted even when the cast threatens anarchy to plot, and there is a knowing warmth throughout. This may be satire, but everyone involved plainly loves, and fetishises Austen, as much, if not more than the audience. When the production, including Richard Howell’s lighting, Gregory Clarke’s sound and Isobel Waller-Bridge’s music, opens up on the Harold Pinter stage expect the brilliance of Laura Wade’s creation to be even more apparent.
The Lovely Bones, co-produced by Birmingham Rep, Royal and Derngate, Northern Stage and Liverpool Everyman, is just to wrap up its tour in Chichester. If you saw it good on you. If you didn’t then make sure you sign up for what ever director Melly Still does next. After triumphs such as My Brilliant Friend, which you can catch at the NT as we speak, Captain Corelli’s Mandarin, her RSC Cymbeline, and further back her NT Coram’s Boy, it is plain she is the Queen of physical theatre adaptation. What with her role as Associate at the Rose, and with Christopher Haydon about to arrive as the new Artistic Director, and better seating, things are really looking up for the Tourist’s local theatre.
Now some might recoil from Ms Still’s insistence on the primacy of visual spectacle alongside the text. Not me. And not, based on a spot of vox-popping of neighbours post performance, the audiences. Or it must be said most critics. To which we must give many thanks to adapter Bryony Lavery. Ms Lavery is set for a busy 2020. Her 1997 original play Last Easter will have its London premiere at the Orange Tree, she is adapting Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage for the Bridge Theatre, her adaptation of Oliver Twist with Ramps on the Moon will tour, her adaptation of Oscar and the Pink Lady will take the stage in Sheffield and Theatre Royal Stratford East have chosen her musical version of Red Riding Hood for its Xmas 2020 panto. Not bad for a pensioner.
It is pretty easy to see why collaborators keep returning to her as an adapter of broad appeal theatre. Of course the subject and structure of The Lovely Bones, which is narrated by the now dead Susie Salmon, raped and murdered by a neighbour aged 14, may not quite fall into the category broad appeal. But Alice Sebbold’s 2002 debut book was a best seller and the 2009 film directed by Peter Jackson, whilst generating a mixed critical response, grossed around US$100mn. So safe to say it has “brand recognition”. And, whilst the subject matter is initially, and self evidently, unsettling, the way the story develops, with Susie torn between willing her family and friends to nail her killer and watching them get on with their lives and get over her death, is more compelling. In someone ways it is an unsentimental story told, deliberately, in a sentimental way. There is a Heaven but not that of Christian dogma, her family is broken by her death, but it still celebrates American family and community, it does operate like a slickly paced, artfully plotted thriller, but that was not the real point of its writing, there is some supernatural mumbo-jumbo but, obviously given the initial formal liberty the reader will take it in her stride, and the baddie does get his comeuppance in a melodramatic twist.
So there is enough in the way of event and character to justify a theatrical interpretation. And the mechanism by which Ms Laverty and Ms Still realise this is disarmingly straightforward, In the book Susie narrates whilst looking down on family, friends and the killer from her Heaven. Here Susie walks among them, although of course they cannot see or sense her. Until, of course, they can. Heaven, with its host of other victims, led by Franny (Avita Jay) who becomes Susie’s mentor, appears and disappears at the drop of a jump light, but mostly we are in the world of the living with the brilliant Charlotte Beaumont’s teen Susie as stroppy cheerleader in her own investigation armed only with conviction and banana yellow loons.
Ava Innes Jabares-Pita’s set is overhung with a huge sloping two way mirror, not a new conceit but one that works to great effect here, as we are drawn to see events from two different perspectives. Otherwise we have a bare stage with floor lighting to symbolise house, and with the busy cast carting stuff on and off stage (cornfield, clapboard houses, clothing) to advance the many scenes. As with Ms Still’s previous work, it is lighting (Matt Haskins), sound (Helen Skiera), music (Dave Price, whose playlist guides us efficiently through 70s and 80s) and movement (Mike Ashcroft) which generate the thrills through the brilliantly choreographed ensemble. Scenes begin as quickly as others end so that the whole story is crammed into less than a couple of hours and there are countless moments of theatrical ingenuity.
Of course with all this visual activity theatre-makers run the risk of scrambling the plot and cartooning the characters. Not here though. Ms Laverty gives us as much dialogue as we need, leaning on Susie’s punchy narration, without, as far as I could make out, condensing any of the key plot elements . And the characterisations, Dad Jack’s (Jack Sandle) guilt and grief, Mum Abigail’s (Catrin Aaron) withdrawal, sister Lindsey’s (Fanta Barrie) indefatigability, detective Len Fennerman’s (Huw Parmenter) entanglement, are all sufficiently well sketched to hit home. OK so maybe the various friends, mysterio-goth Ruth Connors (Leigh Lothian), sensitive boyfriend material Ray Singh (Samuel Gosrani), (and his No Nonsense Mum Ruana), and the additional composites created in the form of Sophie (Radhika Aggarwal) and Leah (Leah Haile), only just about stand up to scrutiny, but this is true of the book too. And the less said about hard drinking, homily wielding Grandma Lyn (Lynda Rookie) who comes to look after the family when Abigail leaves, the better.
Nicholas Khan as the killer Harvey screams creepy psycho from the off, but as with the rest of the production, and in keeping with the book, effect and momentum are prioritised over psychological insight. He is convincing mind you. Then again so is Samuel Gosrani doubling up as family dog Holiday who is, in that doggy way, immediately on to Harvey. Those familiar with Melly Still’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin will know just what the actor as animal routine can bring to this sort of production.
Of course there are times when theatre is best served by two people getting deep and wordy. But its real power lies in its dynamism and in the shared experience, and, in this regard, Melly Still is, in my book, a brilliant practitioner. I am willing to bet that the version of The Lovely Bones on the night that I enjoyed it, (for just a tenner, grab those secret seats people), will have looked different to that presented on the first night in Birmingham. Which is exactly as I would want it to be.
I am guessing if you are the playwright responsible for The Churchill Play, Epsom Downs, The Romans in Britain, Pravda, Paul, 55 Days and Lawrence After Arabia you can get to write pretty much what you like. Especially if you plainly have a history of not giving a f*ck what people think of your work.
And if you are the outgoing director of the Hampstead Theatre, which you resurrected, (with your team), from near collapse a decade ago you also have the right to choose your swan song. And the writer who offered up five of his plays for you to stage over those ten years certainly deserves your loyalty.
But this is, no doubt, a tricky, uneven and, ultimately, not entirely convincing work. Howard Brenton has taken the bones of the story of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, repurposed it for our time, and then, in what might have seemed like a good idea at the time, added a kind of chorus in the form of Euripides himself.
His Jude is a female Syrian refugee, self-taught in Ancient Greek and the Classics, who, working as a cleaner, improbably secures a place at Oxford on the whim of a lesbian don, Deirdre. After having married a pig farmer. And with a cousin, (yes there a bit of unconvincing cuz-luv per Hardy,) who gets a bit carried way with his religious fervours and end up being surveilled as a terrorist by one of the Prof’s ex students. And Euripides, also self taught, comes to our Jude in dreams. Because he was, as Mr Brenton says, bloody good at this drama lark and interested in the story of refugees, minorities and strangers.
The play’s main message I think is that society must find a place for its geniuses but on to this already rickety framework, HB has a pop, in a moreorless non-PC way, at all manner of targets. Racism, nativism, fear of the other, Brexit, dumbing down and cultural ignorance, tokenism, institutional hypocrisy, the power of the state and surveillance, masks, the bicameral mind (nope, me neither). All liberally sprinkled with quotes from the Iliad.
HB’s heart is definitely in the right place, and there is plenty to chew over, but the execution is often idiosyncratic, the dramatic momentum uneven and the arguments scatter-gun. No amount of directorial patience from Edward Hall, or creative ingenuity from designer Ashley Martin-Davies, can mask (ha, ha) the structural flaws. Isabella Nefar does have a bloody, (literally at one point in a rather forced nod to Hardy), good crack at pulling the contradictions of her character together and Caroline Loncq gets well deserved laughs out of Deirdre. Paul Brennen wears his Euripides mask well and doubles up as one of the spooks, (remember HB wrote for the TV show of the same name), alongside Shanaya Rafaat. But Anna Savya as Jude’s aunt, (her father was killed back home but he is the one who fuelled her ambition, natch), March Husey as the naive cousin, Luke McGregor as the doltish husband Jack and Emily Taafe as Jude’s A level teacher are all stymied by some awkward dialogue and thin characterisation.
Yet, despite all of this, I quite took to Howard Breton’s misguided intellectualism and stylistic kitchen sink-ism. What most of the audience made of it though is anyone’s guess. What with this, David Hare’s not shooting the lights out with I’m Not Running, ditto (actually worse) with Alan Ayckbourn in The Divide, Michael Frayn retired and not a peep for years from Tom Stoppard, maybe the best days of the grand old men of British theatre are behind them.
Thanks heavens for the mighty Caryl Churchill then. The new season at the Royal Court is advertising there new short plays Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. “A girl made of glass. Gods and murders. A serial killer’s friends“. That’s all there is by way of intro. That’s all I need. I can’t wait.
The corruption of innocence, the struggle of good vs evil, Christ-like redemption and Pilate-like equivocation, the conflict between natural and legal justice, the outsider’s struggle for acceptance, repressed, scopophiliac, homosexual desire, the rational, scientific world contrasted with the mythic poetry of the imagination, dreams, the sea, the biblical musicality of his prose. Even the same initials. It isn’t much of a surprise than Benjamin Britten, who always fancied himself as a bit of a martyr, and his librettists EM Forster and Eric Crozier alighted on Herman Melville’s classic novella for operatic treatment.
Forster had long been an admirer of Britten’s music, (who wouldn’t be), but the idea only crystallised in 1948. Eric Crozier was brought in to provide the expert, though not always smooth, link between composer and novelist. The premiere of the original production, in four acts, appeared on this very stage on 1st December 1951, as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations. The revised two act version, with epilogue and prologue for Captain Vere alone, first appeared here in 1964 but it is 19 years since the ROH last staged it in a production directed by Francesca Zambello.
The last time I saw it was in 2012 at the ENO in the Expressionistic version served up by David Alden. In one of Dad’s more widely inappropriate attempts to get BD into opera she came along too. Smart-arse that she was, and is, the themes, even when concealed by Mr Alden’s somewhat wilful interpretation, didn’t evade her. Even under all that maritime lingo this isn’t subtle even when it is ambiguous.
Having witnessed director Deborah Warner’s way with BB in The Turn of the Screw many years ago at the Barbican and in the Death in Venice revival at the ENO in 2013, (with the SO who surprised herself with a favourable reaction), as well as Tansy Davies’ Between Worlds, I wasn’t going to miss this production originally seen in Rome and Madrid. For once the Tourist paid up to sit downstairs though for opera of this scale, ( a cast of over 20 and a chorus of 60), and quality at this venue it seemed like a bargain when compared too the kind of bonkers prices the ROH normally requires from punters for a prime perch. Lucky for me those prices are generally the norm for the very repertoire I can’t abide.
(I know that there are bargains to be found, I normally sit in them, but they are compromised. Up in the amphitheatre you might be forgiven for thinking you had travelled to Zone 2, for example, and at the back of the balcony boxes you might want to take a book).
Billy Budd is BB’s grandest opera, in terms of music and ideas, but, self-evidently, it has one obvious constraint. Namely it is all blokes. BB is somewhat unfairly criticised for not serving up any top-drawer female roles. Ellen Orford, Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw, Tytania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Female Chorus and Lucretia in The Rape of Lucretia and, though I can’t be sure since I have never seen it, Queen Liz I in Gloriana, are all surely exceptions, but the fact is, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is in writing for the male voice where he excelled. In Billy Budd his cup overfloweth with the central trio of tenor (Captain Vere, the captain of The Indomitable), the bass of Master at Arms, John Claggart and the baritone of Billy himself. Then there are another fourteen named roles amongst the officers and the seaman, four boy treble midshipmen, the speaking only cabin boy and a singing chorus of 60, count ’em, augmented by another 30 actors. Put together the drama of the story and the opportunity to weave in traditional music, (including shanties,) with BB’s genius facility for word and scene painting in music and, wallop, you have, BB’s most powerful operatic score.
The orchestra doesn’t skimp on woodwind and brass, 4 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, double bassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombone and tuba, and that’s before doubling up, or percussion, (though there are no “funny” tuned or untuned instruments smuggled in as in other works). So when conductor, here the reliable Ivor Bolton, orchestra and chorus are on song, as they were, especially that chorus under William Spaulding’s direction, then the director and principals have a strong base on which to build.
First decision for the director is whether to go full on 1797 or something more timeless. The former risks dialling up the salty procedurals in the scenes and libretto, the latter over-egging the psychological, parabolic, pudding. Deborah Warner has come out somewhere in the middle. The ROH chippies haven’t been beavering away creating a replica man of war. Instead the ship in Michael Levine’s design is conjured up from an immense skein of chains/ropes from which platforms, sails and hammocks, are suspended. This takes us above and below decks as required and leaves the chorus crew with, believable, work to do (choreography Kim Brandstrup). It’s brilliant. A near literal prison. Then again the rill of water front stage was maybe dispensable. The officer uniforms (costumes by Chloe Obolensky) are more mid C20 than late C18, with the crew in timeless sailor rags (albeit exquisitely tailored rags).
As with Death in Venice, the lighting design of Jean Kalman, (like the above, another of Ms Warner’s trusted collaborators), and Mike Gunning, (including that mist for the symbolic, unconsummated battle scene), is an integral part of Ms Warner’s vision. Billy Budd is not, even in the two act version, a hurried opera, rising and falling like the sea, (I may have got carried away here), to the key confrontations and confessionals. Deborah Warner’s allows some depth and breadth to emerge which maybe detracts from the required foul, claustrophobic atmosphere but brings the slippery themes, and overt symbolism, into focus. BB, whoever his collaborators, never allows moral certainty to emerge in his operas, that is why they are essentially so much better as theatre than most everything written in the previous century, (imagine Puccini or Wagner not melodramatically clunking you over the head every ten minutes – not possible see). Ms Warner wisely runs with BB’s uncertainty.
As usual the Tourist is not qualified to remark on the quality of the singing but, acting wise, Jacques Imbrailo as Billy himself stood out. Obvs he is good to look out, though not as much as Duncan Rock as Donald with his rippling abs, but he moves with complete naturalism and his Billy was “good” but never “simple”. And he certainly wrung some emotion out of his arias especially “the darbies”. Brindley Sherratt as Claggart, nails the giant credo, clear as a ship’s bell, and those inner demons, but could have been outwardly crueller. He is, as Ms Warner intended, an angel who is still falling, rather than full-on disciple of Satan. The still youthful looking Toby Spence’s De Vere does grow as the opera unfolds so that by the end, the “blessing” in the epilogue, he has us in the palm of his pious hand, but his remoteness in the first few scenes is disconcerting. I was also taken, again, with Thomas Olieman’s performance as Mr Redburn and Clive Bayley as the veteran Dansker.
Could you imagine a production that gets closer to some of the really dark questions about cruelty, sex, desire, exploitation and hierarchy that run counter to the narrative of atonement? Of course. Can I have a Billy who looks like who could deck and kill Claggart with one punch. Could there have been a little more “compartmentalisation” set wise to ensure the highlights in the score matched the action on stage? A bit more confusion and less exact choreography. Some sweat. blood and, look away now purists and families of Messers Forster and Crozier, some gratuitous swearing slipped in. A crew that really looked like they might eat the officers for breakfast. For sure.
On the other hand, in the literally overwhelming 34 chord sequence when Vere sentences Billy to death, in this production we stay with Billy and not Vere. And the three officers wordlessly damn him for hiding behind the legalese. Utterly brilliant. With that and other powerful memories I will happily take this production, until, hopefully, one comes along that really doesn’t hold back.
I am still tiptoeing my way into Strindberg. A long history of ignoring him after an early dismissal many years ago was corrected with the companion piece to this, a version of Miss Julie, also translated by Howard Brenton, also directed by JST AD Tom Littler and also co-produced with The Theatre By The Lake which seems to serve the good people of Cumbria very well and probably needs a visit. There was also Polly Stenham’s version, simply Julie, in 2018 at the NT, a variation on her usual style. Neither were completely convincing, the former because of the play, the latter because of the production, but I recognise there is food for thought here, though far less than with Ibsen and Chekhov where I am now properly in the swing after some similar false starts many years ago.
It’s the underlying misogyny, even when old August may well be confronting it, and the violent swings in emotion which seem to be more necessitated by plot than character, which put me off. That is not to say that the grumpy Swede had nothing to say about the nastier side of love and passion just that the way he tackles it feels artificial to me. Now I know. It’s theatre. It isn’t real and doesn’t have to look like. Except that this is intended to be naturalistic and, like his contemporaries, offer an insight into the human condition, and specifically that thing that gets bound up in the phrase “love/hate relationship” or, more lazily I think, “the battle of the sexes”.
Mind you I have to say that this Creditors was a more engaging experience than Miss Julie. Maybe I am getting better at this theatre viewing lark, which would be heartening given the time and money invested, or maybe the way in which Creditors approaches the three way romantic tussle, here MFM rather than FMF, was more “relatable” (ugly word) to me, though I hasten to add I have never been caught up in such a scenario. The benefit, (or maybe curse), of being dull and painfully inept when it comes to matters of the heart.
What it can’t be, obviously is the creative approach. Like I say its the same team. Even down to the set where Louie Whitemore employs the same basic structure to create the seaside hotel reception room in which the sensitive, would-be artist, Adolf is convalescing with his fervent wife Tekla, that she employed to create the Scandi period kitchen for Miss Julie. Maybe the cast here was a little more to my taste though it is the same James Sheldon playing Adolf here in Creditors as the sexy servant Jean in the Miss Julie. I have a lot of time for Dorothea Myer-Bennett most of whose recent performances I have seen (Rosenbaum’s Rescue, Holy Sh*t, The Lottery of Love, The Philanderer) and she always stands out even if the play isn’t entirely convincing. Here she captured Tekla’s independent spirit, her devotion to Adolf and her still unresolved passion for the third character in this conflicted trinity, Gustaf.
He was played by David Sturzaker, another very fine theatre actor as it was my pleasure to discover recently in the multiple parts he mastered in the RSC’s excellent Tamburlaine. Here he shows how Gustaf’s insistent charm first cast doubts in Adolf’s mind about Tekla’s history, fidelity and ambition and then, as it is revealed that his presence in the hotel is no coincidence, he attempts to “win back” his ex-wife whilst Adolf eavesdrops from the room next door. These two scenes sandwich that between Tesla and Adolf where Adolf’s suspicions are angrily voiced despite her attempts to reassure.
Pretty straightforward huh and maybe not an especially original subject for drama you might think. But it is the way that Strindberg explores the motives and psychologies of his three protagonists, and the the way their emotional ambiguity is expressed, that turns it into something compelling. Why is Adolf so weak and open to persuasion? Tekla has expanded his artistic horizons and the marriage has been happy so why does he fall so easily for Gustaf’s Iago-like duplicity? She is intelligent, educated, sophisticated and worldly so why just WTF is Adolf’s beef? What is driving Gustaf to wreak this emotional havoc? Revenge, love for Tesla, wounded pride at the way Tekla, thinly disguised, ridiculed him in her autobiographical novel, toxic masculinity? Are Adolf and Tekla hiding something about their own history? Who is dependent on whom? Is Tekla still attracted to Gustaf’s “stronger” character? Is this just a game for Gustaf? Why the melodramatic ending?
Howard Brenton, like so many theatre types, is fascinated by the interiority, (yep it’s a real word), questions that Strindberg poses. As he is with other literary greats – see my forthcoming attempt to pick the bones of his latest play Jude inspired by Hardy (and, somewhat bizarrely, Euripides). As with Miss Julie this seemed, at least to this novice, an admirably forthright adaptation but then I know no better. It certainly, like the Miss Julie, serves up contemporary dialogue and caustic humour to set against the period setting and it comes in at a crisp 80 minutes or so. Same goes for Tom Littler’s direction and the unfussy lighting of Johanna Town and sound of Max Pappenheim. Howard Brenton has written a play, The Blinding Light, about Strindberg’s drift into madness, his “Inferno” period, which was directed by Tom Littler, and they have also combined for AS’s dances of Death, so you have to think they know what they are about here. So I am guessing this is about as good as it gets when it comes to modern interpretations of our August. Especially in the very intimate surroundings of the JST.
There is a lot more to Strindberg than the early, naturalistic plays which deal with that are most often performed. There are the the later more ambitious, symbolist works (A Dream Play, Ghost Sonata and The Dance of Death). Various history plays. Theatre director and producer. Novels. Poems. Essays. Scientific investigations. Painting, (his symbolist landscapes, example above, tick the boxes for the Tourist). Also dabbled in theosophy, though this was very trendy in fin de siecle artistic circles, occultism and alchemy. Not surprising he went a bit bonkers. A social/anarchist with a strong antipathy for all forms of authority but also an anti-semite. A campaigner for women’s rights who helped transform the role of women in drama who was also an ugly misogynist in print and whose wives where decades younger than him.
When you read about his him, his plays and his place in Swedish culture it is easy to see whay he holds such an important place in world drama. Am I persuaded? I’ll let you know in a few more years, and after a few more productions.
If you know Andrea Levy’s Small Island either from the original 2004 book, (not me I confess), or the 2009 Two part BBC adaptation with script from Sarah Williams and Paula Milne and starring the inimitable Ruth Wilson and Naomie Harris then you will know roughly what to expect from Helen Edmundson’s adaptation directed by NT head honcho Rufus Norris. This is an epic social history, set in post-WWII Jamaica and London, and centred on the lives of two ordinary couples, or more specifically two, extraordinary, women, Hortense and Queenie.
It is a brilliant story, brilliantly told, but, even with the NT’s formidable financial and creative resources to hand, it was still an ambitious ask to bring it to life on the stage. Now I reckon Rufus Norris has been unfairly pilloried in some quarters during his stewardship at the NT. Not all the new commissions have come off but there have been some absolute belters as well. Keeping the progressive and conservative stakeholder congregations onside at the NT would test the patience of a saint, especially in these interesting times, and I reckon RN has had a pretty good stab at it. And a couple of the projects where he has taken the director’s helm himself, Everyman and Mosquitos, were superb. Yet for me he is at his best when pulling together multiple narratives and kaleidoscopic forms; as long as the writing on which any work is created is up to snuff and the stories he helps tell make an immediate emotional connection. London Road, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, The Amen Corner, Feast, (both of which I missed), Festen and, I gather his takes on Cabaret, all fit that bill. So I was pretty sure this would work and fill the Oliver stage with technicolour life again.
And it does. Superbly. We first meet Hortense (Leah Harvey) in the Jamaican school she teaches in alongside glamorous American Mrs Ryder (Amy Forrest). A hurricane is coming. Michael (CJ Beckford), the rebellious son of Mr Philip (Trevor Laird) and Miss Ma (Jacqueline Boatswain), who are also Hortense’s, very strict, stand-in parents, (she is the illegitimate daughter of Mr Philip’s affluent white cousin). arrives. Hortense loves Michael but he has eyes only for Mrs Ryder. Cue a brilliant set piece prologue, bravura lighting (Paul Anderson), sound (Ian Dickinson) and, especially, projection design from Jon Driscoll, taking us through the storm, interspersed with Michael and Hortense’s childhood, (not sure who played little M and H but blimey they are brave), and an explosive argument at the dinner table. In this Tempest-ian prologue it soon becomes clear we are in for an aural and visual treat thanks to these creatives in tandem with the sedulous stage and costume design of Katrina Lindsay, music of Benjamin Kwasi Burrell and movement of Coral Messam. Heaven knows how many hours they all put in but not was worth it.
This is worth the ticket price alone. Especially if, like the Tourist, you only pay £15. The proper reviews have come in and they are excellent. If Billers at the Guardian and DC at the Telegraph both say 5 stars then you would be a t*t to miss it. There are plenty of tickets left towards the end of the run from which to take your pick. With acting of this level and stories with this much passion I would happily have paid £75 for centre front stalls but trust me, with stagecraft of this quality and scale you’ll be fine in the cheap seats as well.
Now the characters do take a little time to fully come to life. The setting does dwarf the actors a little in the prologue and, in the preview I attended, the delivery of the dialogue initially lacked a bit of fizz. But when we move to England, the “mother country”, to meet Queenie (Aisling Loftus) and her awkward, repressed suitor, bank clerk Bernard (Andrew Rothney), and then track the progress of Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr), during the war as an airman and then when he returns after the war, with Hortense who has married him to realise here dream of escape, things really begin to crank up.
Andrea Levy’s story, replayed deftly by Helen Edmundson, is built on memorable episodes which together create an irresistible momentum topped, at the end of the first, long, half by the arrival of the Empire Windrush, and then in the shorter, more constrained second half, set in 1948, by the return of Bernard and the momentous decision which finally binds the two couples. Queenie’s date with Bernard in the cinema, her first encounter with Michael’s irresistible charm after he too arrives in GB to fight for Empire, Hortense mistaking Gilbert for Michael on first meeting, the ill-fated fight in Yorkshire, Hortense’s desperate betrayal of best friend Celia (Shiloh Coke). Queenie’s tender care for her traumatised father-in-law Arthur (David Fielder), the overt racism Gilbert and Hortense encounter, as postie and would-be teacher, (audience visibly outraged), and from Bernard after he returns. And many more. Each scene is expertly navigated and beautifully mounted.
Small Island is, of course, primarily about race and prejudice, and the journey that the protagonists take, both geographical and emotional. It reflects Andrea Levy’s own, mixed race heritage, and the legacy of Empire. In this adaptation though, and maybe just because of the brilliance of Leah Harvey as the proud, uptight, determined Hortense and Aisling Loftus as the openhearted, optimistic but tough Queenie, I was particularly drawn to the compromises the women had to make to carve out any sort of meaningful life for themselves. All the main characters have dreams that, in order to be realised need to confront unpalatable realities, but the two women, in their own, intertwined, ways have so much more to overcome. This, ultimately, is what makes them so sympathetic and the story itself so warm, uplifting and, dare I say, inspirational.
Without the somewhat syrupy narration, and with the exuberant, (even in some of the darker passages), innovation which was required to bring each scene to life, this stage version is more moving and satisfying than the TV version. It is around three hours, even without the interval, but it never feels like it and, though I can’t be sure not having read the book, it seems to offer a more than faithful distillation of Ms Levy’s intention. Unfortunately she passed away in February before the play opened so we can’t be sure but she was apparently fully signed up to director and adaptor’s vision . The programme contains an extract from her 2014 essay “Back To My Own Country”. Everyone should read it.
“We are here because you were there.” I was particularly struck by this quote from Ambalavaner Sivanandan, prime mover in the Institute of Race Relations, highlighted in the programme notes from Leah Cowan. Remember everyone who came to Britain from Jamaica and elsewhere was a British citizen. Same rights as my grandad. Who just happened to be, I knew even as a child brought up in an entirely white monoculture, an ugly, visceral racist. He’s long gone. Yet it seems the open abuse he habitually lobbed at his black neighbours still hasn’t.
Small Island with bowl you over as a piece of theatre, make you laugh and maybe even cry, but it should also make you think long and hard about our shared history. Do go.
(As an aside can I beg Naomie Harris, Hortense in the TV adaptation, to return to the London stage. You will know her from her film roles as Eve Moneypenny in the last few Bonds or Moonlight, amongst others. I think the last time she was in the theatre was in Danny Boyle’s amazing sounding Frankenstein which I never got to see. Come to think of it it would be good to see Mr Boyle’s boundless imagination let loose again on the Olivier stage. He would fill it I am sure. As for Ruth Wilson, Queenie in the TV Small Island, anyone who saw her magic in Ivo van Hove/Patrick Marber’s Hedda Gabler will be counting the days to her UK stage return).