Les Damnes: Comedie-Francaise at the Barbican Theatre review *****

Les Damnes (The Dammed)

Comedie-Francaise, Barbican Theatre, 21st June

The Tourist is now so far off the pace in terms of commenting om his cultural adventures that there must surely be a strong case for giving up. Hurrah I hear you cry. Well I am afraid any joy you feel will be short lived. The purpose of this blog is to force me to collect my thoughts on what I see and hear. Any interest from you beyond that is a happy by-product. So time is not, I am sorry to say, of the essence. Which means I am going to soldier on and try to catch up.

However this dilatory attitude does have clear drawbacks. Not least of which is that the Tourist can’t always remember the details of his what he has seen. Take The Damned at the Barbican for example. The abiding single image is of a couple of naked fellas, including the simply brilliant Denis Podalydes as Baron Konstantin von Essenbeck, rolling around in beer on the Barbican stage, Tackle out. Drunkenly singing fascist songs. Before being massacred. Filmed and projected then meshed together with previous footage to create the full brownshirt bierkeller effect. This being the so called Night of the Long Knives. A powerful image which is very difficult to shake off.

It wasn’t the only one. It is also impossible to look away from the unsettling scene where the young, and very disturbed, scion of the von Essenbeck family Martin, (a stunning performance from Christophe Montenez), “befriends” his young cousin. This is echoed later on in his encounter with the daughter of a prostitute, though the play holds back from emulating the corresponding scene in the film which is the most brutal signifier of the decay and destruction that the Third Reich represented.

Or the funeral scenes, announced by a factory siren, as members of the clan shuffle off the mortal coil in more or less nasty ways, to be “buried alive” in the coffins lined up stage left. Especially the tarred and feathered Baroness Sophie (Elsa Lepoivre), mother of Martin and widow of the patriarch’s only son who was killed in WWI. Then there is the awkward dinner party, complete with artfully choreographed silver service. All of this takes place on a day-glo orange platform with on stage costume changes and make up stage right and backed by video screens relaying the live camera-work.

Now you theatre luvvies will have probably worked out from all the above that all this wizardry comes courtesy of theatrical mastermind Ivo van Hove. His busy, high concept approach, of which this is the epitome, doesn’t always come off but then again neither doesn’t his stripped back, high tension, “psychological insight” alternative.

This though is a triumph. And what makes it extra special is that it is achieved without the collaboration of the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam company, IvH’s own troupe. Mind you if you are going to play away then it would be hard to beat the Comedie-Francaise. Founded in 1680 thanks to a decree of Louis XIV it is the world’s oldest theatre company. It’s had its up and downs but, backed financially by the French state since 1995 and with three venues to showcase its vast repertoire, this is about as good as it gets acting wise. Shame we in the UK have nothing similar.

Not for the first time, when they dreamt this up in 2016 with the company, IvH and designer partner Jan Versweyveld, turned to the Italian film auteur Luchino Visconti in seeking the source for their theatrical adaptation, Specifically his 1969 epic which charts the disintegration of the Essenbeck family, who own a steel company thatcollaborates with the Nazi regime in the 1930s. The reciprocity between state and industry, which forged the autarky that powered the Third Reich war machine, often takes a back seat in dramatic representations of Nazi Germany. Not here though. Yet this is still primarily a terrifying family psychodrama, with an emphasis on the psycho, Greek in scope and savagery.

The story kicks off with a party and then the the murder of the paterfamilias Baron Joachim (Didier Sandre – would have been good to see more of him). On 27th February 1933. The same night as the Reichstag fire. The Baron detests the Nazis. His kids and nephews, with the exception of Herbert Thalmann (Loic Corberry), who runs the company, are less principled, in fact they turn on Herbert and frame him for the murder. He escapes but his wife Elisabeth (Adeline d’Hermy) and kids are shopped to the Gestapo. Leadership of the company passes to the Baron’s thuggish nephew Konstantin (see above) an SA officer ahead of his own bookish son Gunther (Clement Hervieu-Leger) and his deviant nephew, the aforementioned Martin. Meanwhile the firm’s fixer, Friederich Bruckmann (Guillaume Gallienne), makes his bid for control egged on by his lover Baroness Sophie, despite not being a family member and coming from an lowly background. He is initially aided by her cousin Wolf von Aschenbach (Eric Genovese) who happens to be a high ranking SS officer and all round c*nt. It is he who drives the company into the arms of the Nazi Party. To realise his ambitions Fred shoots the drunken Konstantin during the SS coup against the SA in 1934 the infamous Night of the Long Knives. Wolf however turns on him denouncing him as a traitor to the Nazi cause. Herbert returns for his exile and reveals that wife Elisabeth died in the Dachau concentration camp and hands himself over to the Gestapo to save his kids. Aschenbach and the now certifiable Martin who has also joined the SS cook up a deal to oust Friedrich and Sophie from control of the firm. Martin shags his Mummy but allows Friedrich to marry her as long as they then commit suicide. Marty finally hands the firm over to his beloved Party. The End.

See what I mean. Uber nasty and very Greek. Or maybe twisted Racine is a more apposite label. Visconti’s film is tiled La caduta degli dei in Italian, which translates as The Fall of the Gods. In German then Gotterdammerung, the actual subtitle, this conjuring up an OTT Wagnerian vibe. The film doesn’t stint on sets, costumes or symbolism. Though it does on lighting and linear storytelling. And IvH and his dramaturg Bart Van den Eyede, who also worked on Roman Tragedies, have taken their lead from this deliberately mannered approach. Now I can understand why some might recoil at this operatic approach, chock full of modern European theatre tropes, and at the less than subtle allusions to our own troubled times. Notably when the house lights go up after each death and a camera is trained on the audience to remind us of our complicity if we just stand by. Me I don’t mind. This offers theatrical spectacle by the bucket load, a cast of cracking deplorable characters for this superb company to sink their teeth in to and if the moral of such immorality is overwrought, well why not? The lessons of history require magnification and repetition if our vicious species is ever to learn. And for once, in contrast to IvH’s Obsession or his Bergman homages, this is definitely an improvement on the film.

The two unbroken hours passed by in a heartbeat which is not something the Tourist can always say. OK so there were moments when the images distracted a little from the telling of the story and a modicum of effort and knowledge of relevant German history was required to keep up. Tal Yarden’s video, Eric Sleichim’s woodwind and brass driven score, (which makes ironically liberal use of Rammstein’s militaristic thudding NDH grooves) and JV’s lighting don’t hold back but this suits both story and space. And you either love or hate sur-titles.

I do wonder whether the whole would have been quite the equal of the sum of its parts without this extraordinary cast. As with ITA it is thrilling to see and hear actors of the quality, both as individuals but, more than this, as a company. They join initially as pensionnaires, paid a wage, before graduating to societaires, with a stake in the company’s profits. Just a brilliant structure. There have only been 533 since 1680. The longest tenured on the stage here, Sylvia Berge, had the smallest part, the least experienced, still a pensionnaire, Christoph Montenez, had the “best” part as Martin. None of that “star” billing stuff that debilitates West End theatre. And remember all this admiration from the Tourist for a play delivered in a language that he cannot speak. Acting isn’t just the words folks.

William Kentridge retrospective at the Eye Film Museum Amsterdam review *****

William Kentridge – Ten Drawings for Projections, O Sentimental Machine

Eye Film Museum, 20th June 2019

The Tourist can’t really be doing with blockbuster art exhibitions in London any more. Too lazy to take the early morning members’ option and too impatient to put up with the crowds of selfie takers who clutter up the galleries and have no interest in seeing the art. Better to focus on permanent collections here, and in Europe, away from the hordes.

So it was a joy to spend a few hours in the company of William Kentridge in the Eye Film Museum in Amsterdam. A wonderful building with some diverting displays and a ever-changing roster of films old and new from around the world across its four state of the art screens. And a beautiful view of the IJ from the caff. It pains me to say but it probably has the edge on the BFI. And then there are the exhibition spaces currently devoted to this, a display of WK’s breakthrough animation works created between 1989 and 2011 which he donated to the Museum in 2015. The 10 short films are set alongside a selection of the silhouette and map tapestries which WK has designed (some of which I think I have seen before in the Smoke, Ashes, Fable exhibition in Bruges) which similarly address the history of his native South Africa and the film installation from 2015 O Sentimental Machine which is centred on archive footage of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

For those familiar with WK’s work, which frankly should be all of you, there is nothing too surprising here in terms of his Expressionistic method and technique. The animations are comprised of the charcoal sketches which WK draws, redraws, erases and reshapes, which he then films with gaps of between a quarter of a second to a couple of seconds, to create moving, in all senses, images. The act of drawing and erasing leaves traces of the past to remain in the present in metaphor for the evolution of South African society, the cycle of remembering and forgetting. The animations allude to but do not always address key events in South Africa’s modern history both pre and post Apartheid, such as the Sharpeville massacre, the release of Mandela, the passing of abolition and the Truth and Reconciliation hearings.

The films set these events against the life stories of two fictional characters, the dreamy philosophiser, Felix Teitlebaum, who is most obviously the alter ego of WK himself and Soho Eckstein, an amoral industrialist who, through time, begins to see the human suffering his business empire has wrought and seeks redemption. Felix’s history is more focussed on his interior and love lives and on his questions about the world around him. Given their physical similarities though it seems clear that Eckstein represents a darker side of WK’s own nature and, over the course of the series, the identities of the two characters begin to merge.. At least that was what I saw. As WK says, in this series he is interested in “a political art, that is to say, an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings”.

Each film is accompanied by music either composed by WK’s regular collaborators or an appropriate classical piece. Even without the reflections on the evils and crimes inflicted by the apartheid regime on the South African people it is easy to become transfixed by the stories of Felix and Eckstein. Put the allusion and metaphor on top and the fascination of their construction, so simple yet so powerful, and it is impossible not to sit through every one. Which makes for a very satisfying couple of hours.

  • Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris (1989)
  • Monument (1990)
  • Mine (1991)
  • Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old (1991)
  • Felix in Exile (1994)
  • History of the Main Complaint (1996)
  • Weighing and Wanting (1997)
  • Stereoscope (1999)
  • Tide Table (2003)
  • Other Face (2011)

O Sentimental Machine is a little less immediate in its impact. it is made up of five screen projections, and various objects, to recreate the office of Leon Trotsky. The archive film of a Trotsky speech on the future of Communism, which is, give or take, overwritten with cut up subtitles, is drawn from the Eye’s own archives. WK and his collaborators provide additional footage involving various machines and routines with plenty of the trademark megaphones. WK parodies Trotsky whose secretary Evgenia Shelepina has to deal with his ever expanding writing. Apparently Trotsky was in exile in Turkey when he wrote the speech. He also said that “humans are sentimental but programmable machines” which became unreliable if they fell in love, thus providing the inspiration for the installation. Many layers then though the prime message I guess is the idea that technological progress and grand ideas may not necessarily be unalloyed goods and doesn’t necessarily help

WK was born in Johannesburg in 1955 the son of two prominent, ethnically Jewish, anti-apartheid lawyers. He went on to study Politics and then Fine Art, followed by mime and theatre at the Jacques Lecoq school in Paris. Which perhaps explains why his art is so committed, how it manages to successfully spans various media and why he has also been successful as a theatre and opera director.

The exhibition runs through to September. Of course you could go and hang out in a brown cafe of the red light district with all the other tourists ravaging Amsterdam. Or you could come here. You decide.

Our Town at the Open Air Theatre review ****

Our Town

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, 23rd May 2019

Now I’ll be honest, until I started taking this theatre malarkey seriously, I had only the faintest idea of what Thornton Wilder’s most famous play, Our Town, was about. And even going in to this production at the Open Air I confess to some scepticism as to the reasons why it is so highly regarded. I am a sucker for “meta-theatre”, fiddling around with the realms of what is possible on stage and breaking all the naturalistic rules of theatre, but this still sounded a little too, well, American and homespun, and I couldn’t quite see how it would elevate itself it to something more profound. Still this is what the experts told me it would do and I, for one, choose not to ignore the experts, (especially when it comes to, for example, cardiac surgery – for, without one such expert, you wouldn’t be reading this).

Well I can report that the experts, once again, do know what they are talking about. Written in 1938 OT tells the story of the fictional American small town of Grover’s Corner in the years 1901 to 1913, (I gather the photo above is taken from the original Broadway production). The play is set in the theatre in which it is being performed, designed here by Rosie Elnile as simply a bank of temporary seats at the back of the Open Air stage, and we have a narrator in the form of the theatre’s stage manager (Laura Rodgers) who guides us through the characters and the scenes, addresses us directly, introduces specialist “speakers” and fields “questions” from the audience. With the exception of one scene the cast is in modern dress and there is minimal use of props, largely just a couple of table and chairs to symbolise the two main households, the Webb’s and the Gibbs’s, and plenty of miming.

Thornton Wilder apparently insisted that the play “should be performed without sentimentality or ponderousness–simply, dryly, and sincerely,” a request that director Ellen McDougall, AD at the Gate, sticks to with the exception of shifting the “action” from 1938 to an even more timeless today.

Act 1 centres on the daily life of the town, waking up to a normal day in 1901. We get lectures on the history and geography of the town, (one of many reasons why the swot Tourist took to the play), and we meet the main protagonists Frank Gibbs (Karl Collins), the town doctor, his wife Julia (Pandora Colin) and their two children, sporty, tearaway son George (Arthur Hughes) and younger sister Rebecca (Miriam Nyarko), Charles Webb (Tom Edden), editor of the local paper, wife Myrtle (Thusitha Jayasundera) and their bookish daughter Emily (Francesca Henry) and younger brother Wally (I think Tumo Reestang in this performance). Act II concentrates on the courtship and wedding day of Emily and George in 1904. The mood changes in Act III, in 1913, when we are taken to the cemetery outside Grover’s Corner and see who has passed in the intervening years including Emily, who returns to life to look back, regretfully, on her 12th birthday.

This is when the deep stuff about how to live life to the full when it is so short, and how we are all connected in time and place, and out into the cosmos, is let loose. You would be forgiven for thinking this might come over all schmaltzy and, trust me, the cyclical Tourist is ever alert to such manipulation. It does not though and that is where the play most confounds. It was a pretty hot day at the Open Air, and the Tourist foolishly swapped shade for view, and the matinee crowd was the usual bunch of us old and economically inactive and the reluctant school-teens. So I can’t pretend this was some massive communal epiphany. Nonetheless the messages that Thornton Wilder wraps up in his deliberately “simple” meta-play do resonate and I now understand why the play is so highly regarded and so oft performed especially in the US.

I can see how some might not want to go beyond the moral homage to a simpler, more “authentic” past, with a central love story and a sad ending, but it is also hard to avoid the way Wilder stretches, examines and undercuts this surface reading and not just through formal experimentation. I have banged on before about how American art, in its broadest sense, explored in the inter-war years the dichotomy of modern, urban America and its mythic, rural past. This seems to me to spring from the same well. There may not be an explicit nod to the darkness which was to befall Europe, from which the US largely escaped, but there are, as there were so effectively in Annie Baker’s John, ghosts from the Civil War past as well as references to the coming depopulation and the stultifying effects of conformity to home, hearth, gender roles and church.

Some of the proper reviews have a bit of a dig at the production precisely because of its fidelity to Mr Wilder’s original intention. I disagree though, as I say, not having seen it before meant there was no novelty to wear off. Ellen McDougall is not a director who fights shy of radical theatre, (she was assistant to Katie Mitchell and Marianne Elliott and her first production at the Gate, The Unknown Island was a metaphorical riot), but here, outside of the diverse 19 strong cast, the female stage manager, casual clothes and a few, well placed, choruses, as I say, she seems to play it pretty straight.

I suppose you could go all gung ho and start meta-ing the meta and conjuring up all sorts of allusions to darker times. (What is it with everyone in the theatre aching for contemporary relevance and proof that we live in dangerous times anyway. I am not saying our world today doesn’t have some Grade A wankers in positions of power but I would rather live here, now, than as a slave in C5 BCE Athens, a factory worker in C19 Manchester or a homosexual in Nazi Germany). I also accept that this might not, unusually, be a work that benefits from the Open Air setting, though Act III might be enhanced by the twilight of an evening show.

But I see it worked for Billers in the Guardian and that’s good enough for me. I was already a big fan of Laura Rodgers who stood out in Pressure, Rules for Living, Winter Solstice and Tipping the Velvet and I was also struck by Francesca Henry who appeared in another production directed by Ellen McDougall, The Wolves. Karl Collins and Arthur Hughes also managed to create character beyond imitation. This is though, an ensemble piece, and the whole cast stepped up.

(P.S. I was never going to be unaffected by the wedding of a young Gibbs, some three weeks after the real thing).

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin at the Rose Kingston review *****

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

Rose Theatre Kingston, 12th May 2019

WELL F*CK ME. LITERALLY AS I WAS ABOUT TO PUBLISH THIS POST I SEE THAT THE PRODUCTION HAS SECURED A RUN AT THE HAROLD PINTER THEATRE IN JULY AND AUGUST. EXACTLY WHAT I HOPED FOR. YEAH !!!!!!!

Never read the book. Never seen the film. Had no inclination. Assumed it was some soppy love story which would bring no value to my joyless, ascetic life.

Then I saw that Melly Still was directing and that Rona Munro (The James Plays) had adapted Louis de Bernieres’ blockbuster novel. And I am honour bound to support my local theatre which is about to have its funding hacked away by the philistine local council. Whom I support. Doesn’t stop it being anything less than a twattish decision though. Maybe it was a bit ambitious, and vain, to create such a big theatre space here in the first place, but, in the circumstances, and with no AD on the books, the Rose has done a grand job in producing new theatre of the highest quality in recent years.

Grrrrrh. Anyway Melly Still’s last outing here was the adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. Again a book, (actually a quartet of books), about which I had, (and still have), no knowledge. It was a triumph. She is an Associate Artist at the Rose now. Hence this production of CCM in conjunction with the Birmingham Rep. Hopefully in spite of the above news there will be more opportunities for her to display her talent in many future years. Both of these productions took well loved books, sharpened their focus, highlighted their messages and turned them into exciting, physical dramas using a barrage of theatrical technique.

Now I recognise that this approach risks annoying the super-fan who wants every scene to be played out in full and every character interaction to be carefully drawn. On the other hand all this razzmatazz stagecraft, movement (George Siena, I need to watch out for him), set and costume (Mayou Trikerioti, like George she is Greek, smart call), lighting (Malcolm Rippeth), video (Dom Baker), and, especially, composition (Harry Blake) and sound (Jon Nicholls and Dan Hunt), might leave some of the audience breathless. But that is what makes this production so thrilling.

For me though this is what story-telling is all about. A book is a book and a stage is a stage. If, as here, you have a big story to tell, that crosses time, place and people, then this is as glorious an example of how to make it work within the constraints of the latter as you are ever likely to see. It’s the onset of WWII on the island of Cephalonia. Learned widower Dr Iannis (Joseph Long) lives with his daughter Pelagia (newcomer Madison Clare) who gets engaged to local lad Mandras (Ashley Gayle). But war begins and he goes off to fight. Italian Carlo (Ryan Donaldson) watches his love Francesco (Fred Fergus) die at the hands of the Greeks in Albania. The Italian and German forces pitch up in the village led by the surprisingly, in the circumstances, happy chappy Antonio Corelli (Alex Mugnaioni) who is billeted in the Iannis home. Mandras returns, injured, but Pelagia falls out of love with him. Italy switch sides …. and then …. well it really kicks off.

Love. And War. Doesn’t get much bigger than that. So no surprise that I was carried along by the story. But what I didn’t bargain for, apart from the genius of the staging, (again I will refrain from highlighting any of the exquisite details – they just keep coming), is the way the play examined the specific history of the impact of the war on Greece. On occupier and occupied. And the way music, which pours out of this production, is deployed as the antithesis of the carnage of war. As well as what I had expected. What war does to individuals. And what form love can take.

No programmes left at the Rose, (since, eventually, this filled the house), so I can’t be sure if I had seen any of the cast before but most were new to me. No point picking out any individuals. The whole point is that this is an ensemble. Of cast and creatives. Mind you if you don’t fall for Luisa Guerriero’s character I can only assume you are made of stone. And the sound that is spun out from Eve Polycarpou’s voice is devastating.

Apparently Mr de Bernieres is very happy with the result and sees it as faithful to the intention of his novel. (In contrast, I read, to the film which went off the rails big time). I am not surprised. I loved it. I see that some of the proper reviewers felt that the central love story underwhelmed in comparison to the spectacle of the historical context. Not for me. I can report lump in throat, though I am a lachrymose old bluffer.

Hopefully the Rose and Ms Still can alight next time on a text that will pull in the punters from far and wide as well as titillate the local punters to create something that can be flogged in the West End. Mind you if I were a big shot WE producer I would take this on in a shot. As it stands it has the rest of its run at Birmingham Rep, then the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh and finally the Theatre Royal, Glasgow. Do go and see it.

Don McCullin exhibition at Tate Britain review ****

Don McCullin

Tate Britain, 1st May 2019

The main event first. The astonishing work of Don McCullin, the renowned “war” photographer, though this epithet doesn’t get close to covering the depth of the work revealed in this retrospective at the Tate, (now finished, sorry). McCullin, now 83, left art college at 15, worked on the railways and then did his National Service, where he worked as a photographer’s assistant having failed the theory paper which would have let him take pictures. In 1959, back in Britain, his mates persuaded him to submit his portrait of gang members, The Guvnors, to the Observer. It was printed and the rest is history.

His work in Berlin, as the Wall went up, and in Cyprus on partition, catapulted him to the top of his profession, he has been lauded with awards throughout his career. From 1966 to 1984 he was a photo-journalist for the Sunday Times Magazine producing iconic work in Vietnam, Biafra, Northern Ireland, the Congo, Bangladesh, Palestine, Beirut, Uganda, Chad, Cambodia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere. He also documented the plight of the poor, homeless and marginalised across Britain. His later work includes landscapes, ancient architectural treasures, notably Palmyra, and even some still lifes.

The exhibition includes work from across his career, as well as original examples of his work for newspapers and magazines and some helpful biographical details. He cites Alfred Stieglitz, the father of art photography in the US and husband of Georgia O’Keefe, as an influence despite their different genre focus. McCullin’s sharp, monochrome images are remarkable, even to this numpty, for their composition and mastery of light, though DM only staged one image in the exhibition, and for their visceral emotional power. Unusually he has printed very image in the exhibition himself which means he has to constantly return to these powerful images.

He clearly had to be very brave to take these pictures. He was wounded in Cambodia, imprisoned in Uganda and kicked out of Vietnam. His camera got in the way of a bullet intended for him. That camera is here in this exhibition. His has been hospitalised on numerous occasions. The UK Government pretended the ship was full and refused him a pass to cover the Falklands War. He hasn’t let up, travelling in 2015 to Kurdistan to document the struggle between Kurds, ISIS, Syria and Turkey.

Given the often appalling suffering, war, starvation and disease, which his photos captured it isn’t a great surprise that DM wrestled with the ethics of what he was doing. There are a couple of quotes below from Wiki which get to the heart of his dilemmas. Ultimately the urge to show the world the horrifying stories behind what he saw rightly trumped any sense of voyeurism. The most affecting works are the close up portraits especially those where the subject is often staring direct into camera. Even in a crowded Tate exhibition these are impossible to pass by. We live in a world saturated with images. It is hard therefore to understand just how much impact DM’s photos and the stories that accompanied them had on our society and discourse, especially in the pre-digital 1960s and 1970s. You will probably already know some of these images such is their importance.

An excellent exhibition if somewhat overwhelming. There is some relief in the early, nostalgic, photos of the British working class but, when it gets difficult, the Tourist opted to focus on a few works to try to take in the documented subjects and events. Not entirely successful. With this many people milling around and with so much history and suffering to contemplate it was hard to avoid being numbed or simply failing to see. Just occasionally though I think I saw the truth which DM wanted to captured. It was pretty scary.

“I have been manipulated, and I have in turn manipulated others, by recording their response to suffering and misery. So there is guilt in every direction: guilt because I don’t practise religion, guilt because I was able to walk away, while this man was dying of starvation or being murdered by another man with a gun. And I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself: “I didn’t kill that man on that photograph, I didn’t starve that child.” That’s why I want to photograph landscapes and flowers. I am sentencing myself to peace.”

“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”

The Crucible at the Yard Theatre review ****

The Crucible

The Yard Theatre, Hackney Wick, 29th April 2019

The latest instalment in the Tourist’s engagement with this year’s unofficial Arthur Miller season was director Jay Miller’s often insightful, occasionally daft take on The Crucible which for me, and I know this is not the aesthete’s choice, probably just about trumps Death of a Salesman as Arthur Miller’s greatest play.

BTW it looks like, as any fool might have guessed, that the Young Vic and Marianne Elliott, and the stunning cast, have played a blinder with the now-opened revival of Death of a Salesman. This was predictably likely to be one of the best plays in London this year. And so it seems it is.

BTW again. I have been talking to some ypung people. Or rather I have been talking at some young people. At MS and MSC’s wedding amongst other ocassions so technically they had no means of escape. They, like MS and BD, hold Arthur Miller in low regard. I have a feeling that English Lit teachers may have been giving the poor chap a hard time. I get that there is some evidence in his life to support this, and revealed most explicitly in After The Fall, to pin him as an arrogant misogynist, who abandoned his disabled son, trashed the reputation of ex-wife Marilyn Monroe, stuck with impossibly idealistic political positions secure in his ivory tower and repeated himself to diminishing effect in terms of issues and form in his later plays. But, for me, his greatest plays are about as good as drama gets, and that is what matters.

And these plays can still thrive even when starved of creative sympathy. Especially The Crucible. As some sage observes in the Time Out review for this very production The Crucible is “built like a brick shithouse”. Correct. This apparently is the first time that The Yard Theatre has produced a classic play. It has played host to some others’ interpretations, notably Rash Dash’s wham-bam take on Three Sisters. But now Jay Miller and his young cast have given his namesake the shoestring, experimental once-over. Now the Yard, for the uninitiated, is exactly how a privileged, well-off, ageing, ex-City, liberal, insulated, South West Londoner imagines a theatre in edgy East London should look like. Scruffy space, ropey bogs, wooden benches now helpfully rendered fit for purpose with plastic seats. On a site by a canal, in an old industrial estate, next to the ginger line, two brew pubs on the site, (nice pizza courtesy of CRATE), creative spaces, studios, artisanal food-makers, cheek by jowl with old school light industry and breakers yards’. And graffiti. Lots of graffiti. Oh and beards. Lots of beards.

Love it. The Tourist is now looking for ways to get some of his chums to make the trek there. For even with the new material it presents this theatre is making a mark. I like the look of the upcoming Armadillo and its cast and hope that something beyond that might tempt his picky punters. The Yard is now getting Arts Council funding so expect it, like the Arcola, to go from strength to strength.

Probably should have pushed those punters a bit harder on this Crucible. they would have been intrigued. There are a few quirks – the TV screen announcing characters and other visual distractions sat on a chair, the spooky, masked witches that pop up in the later scenes, some extravagant Massachusetts c. 1692 accents, European regie-theater use of microphones, a spot of karaoke – that might bemuse rather than illuminate. But there are other innovations that manifestly do work. The cast kicking off on name-tagged chairs describing characters and context, and even stage directions and Miller’s own footnotes (A not J though that might have worked too); then slowly donning “period” dress (designed by Oliver Cronk) and taking on those accents; the doubling and truly gender blind casting; some dramatic lighting (Jess Bernberg) and ensemble effects; Jonah Brody’s ambient score and Josh Anio Grigg’s killer sound design. Brechtian and disorientating for sure but ramping up the strangeness of the events here and counterpointing the McCarthyite parable.

Since The Crucible is actually a belter of a story independent of its meaning then all this collectively serves to make us more engaged in what is happening as the hysteria in this ramshackle Salem boils over and the epic sacrifices by the Proctors are made. For surely The Crucible is as epic as anything Brecht or Euripides ever conjured up despite its superficially “historical” setting. Hence the link back to those opening quotes from Arthur M highlighting the historical inaccuracies. This is where Jay Miller’s mad genius pays dividends across the full 3 hours he commits to the production.

Young Mr Miller is plainly a clever fellow. For not only has smartly subverted the mythic quality of the play, whilst still retaining its dramatic power, (though like I say I have never actually see a bad production of The Crucible), and emotional connection, (I don’t actually well up when JP hangs on to his name but …..), but he has also feminised A Miller’s muscular language, exaggerated in The Crucible by the C17 New England idiom, with his casting of Caoilfhionn Dunne as John Proctor and Sophie Duval as Giles Corey (as well as Abigail Williams’s chief sidekick Mercy Lewis). Now as it happens these two are the best of the very talented bunch on show. I have seen Ms Dunne before, most recently in Mike Bartlett’s Wild, in The Nest at the Young Vic, on my allotted night at the Gate’s Dear Elizabeth and, most memorably at that same theatre in Suzy Storck, (where Cecile Tremolieres was, as she is here, the innovative designer). This was proof of just how much emotion she can wring from a character and so it proved again with her John Proctor, dim at first, but full beam by the time we get to the confession. Sophie Duval showed us intense pathos when Giles Corey loses his book reading wife to the madness but also plenty of laughs with Corey’s pithy comments about the venal motives of those egging on the teenage accusers.

It is usual to have sympathy for the scorned Abigail Williams. Not much though in Nina Cassells’s take where she has no discernible remorse for the carnage she unleashes. The scene when she meets Proctor, who begs her to recant, is especially chilling. The argument between, in this case, the two women, contrasts with the tetchy and tense arguments between JP and his (good)wife, played by Emma D’Arcy, in the Proctor house and then later the desperate exchange as JP wills her to lie on his behalf. I didn’t see Ms D’Arcy in Mrs Dalloway at the Arcola, (couldn’t find a date that worked for the willing SO), but it seems we missed a trick there. I am reminded that she mastered a tricky role in the unfairly maligned, if scattergun, Against at the Almeida as a complex student. The female side of the casting is completed by Sorcha Groundsell as the alternately, bolshie, brave and intimidated Mary Warren, (the weakest of A Miller’s Crucible characters IMHO). (I gather she has signed up for Netflix series The innocents – good on her). And a spirited (literally) Lucy Vandi as Tituba and the irksome Mr and Mrs Nurse.

As for the gents, Syrus Lowe, fresh from The Inheritance, offers a petulant, self aggrandising Reverend Parris, the willing executioner, as well as the officious Willard and Cheever, Jack Holden manages to avoid the trap of letting Reverend Hale descend into melodramatic self-pity as his faith is broken, and Jacob James Beswick stands out as “the Judges” Hathorne and Danforth, who care more about order and power than true justice.

The doubling shows us that there is good and bad in all of us, though you have to hope yours isn’t going to be exposed by witchcraft trials, and that we are all capable of overlooking or conniving in state sanctioned persecution. The Crucible was written as allegory prompted by his mate Elia Kazan’s naming of 8 members of the Group Theatre to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Following the opening of The Crucible Miller also went before the Committee in 1957, had his passport confiscated, was held in contempt and sentenced to a fine and imprisonment. The “conviction” was overturned the following year but hardened Miller’s political views. He made up with Kazan years later. (As it happens Miller managed to get his work banned in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s as well, proving he was doing something right). Whilst, as I have said, the message of The Crucible and its dramatic power can stand all sorts of treatment, there is no doubt that Jay Miller’s radical take, at its best, offers an exciting and dislocating perspective on the play. A Miller took liberties with the “true” story of the Salem witch-hunts. Jay Miller is simply returning the favour.

The Crucible, like most of A Miller’s greatest plays, is ripped straight from the play book of Sophocles. John Proctor is the archetype tragic hero whose peripeteia (reversal of fortune) is brought on by his hamartia (fatal flaw) which leads him to anagnorisis (self discovery). All the very best plays, the ones that jump out, thump us in chest and head and leave us exhilarated, follow the Greek rules moreorless closely. Well maybe I exaggerate a bit. Though the following, including some of the Greek originals, suggests I might just be right. These plainly should be on everyone’s theatrical bucket list.

  • The Oresteia – Aeschylus
  • Oedipus the King – Sophocles
  • Medea – Euripides – (I know – it broke the rules)
  • Tamburlaine the Great – Marlowe – (see if you don’t end up quite liking the fella)
  • Hamlet – Shakespeare
  • Phedre – Racine
  • Woyzeck – Georg Buchner
  • The Master Builder – Ibsen
  • Long Day’s Journey Into Night – Eugene O’Neill – (four for the price of one)
  • All My Sons – Arthur Miller – (or Death of a Salesman or A View From The Bridge)
  • The Goat, or Who is Sylvia – Edward Albee
  • The Ferryman – Jez Butterworth – (work with me on this)

See what I mean.

Small Island at the National Theatre review *****

Small Island

National Theatre Olivier

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).