Oleanna – Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath – 28th June – *****
Finally an opportunity to scratch that travel itch. The SO was forced to drive the Tourist around some of the loveliest parts of Northern England in early June, but the attractions were almost entirely architectural and natural, and there was, I admit, a surfeit of Medieval buildings. (Turns out the highlight however was avian, namely puffins, and best of all, a pair of hen harriers). After a jaunt to Bristol, what a marvellous city, confronting its past and building its future, the Tourist also joined the SO in Bath, which is altogether more sedate and in danger of being pickled in its Regency past.
A chance to see Oleanna at the compact Ustinov Studio though, which had initially been another C19 casualty, and which has been on the Tourist’s wish list for some time. David Mamet’s artistry has faded alarmingly in recent years, Bitter Wheat was a mess, but Oleanna ranks alongside Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed the Plow as his finest stage works IMHO. Oleanna, in its examination of privilege, power and language, against the backdrop of an accusation of sexual harassment sets out to, and succeeds in, goading and provoking an audience. Its two characters, student Carol (Rosie Sheehy) and professor John (Jonathan Slinger), alternately elicit audience sympathy and loathing, as Mamet runs through its controversial gears. It was intended to cause controversy, written as its was, just after the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination proceedings during the GHW Bush presidency in 1991. And it is no less relevant today. You can make up your own mind where you stand on the issues it explores. What struck me was how far Mamet was prepared to go in eliciting sympathy, even justification, for John as the consequences of his actions become clear, whilst ramping up Carol’s “politically correct” hostility and lack of empathy, not least in her using the “group” to pursue her case and in demanding John’s books are banned.
Yet Carol is right and John is wrong, though to be fair, this is made absolute in the shocking ending. John oversteps boundaries at the outset. He may see his patronising self importance as Platonic but we see how his language and movement disturbs and violates Carol. She is worried and confused at the outset but, as she calls out John’s behaviour, she gains in confidence and eloquence as he deflates into narcissistic victimhood. The complexity and ambiguity of Mamet’s dialogue has probably been amplified through time but the way in which Carol and John talk, but fail to listen ,and the symmetry in their unresolved narrative arcs, is highly effective. Rosie Sheehy (who is surely destined for a long and fulfilling stage career) and Jonathan Slinger are equally superb, in action as well as word, as the battle for “supremacy” shifts from linguistic to physical. A good play to be right up front. I can’t imagine anyone improving on Lucy Bailey’s direction.
The Death of a Black Man – Hampstead Theatre – 17th June – ***
The Tourist’s other June outing wasn’t quite so rewarding. The idea of staging Hampstead Theatre Classics, landmark plays that originally premiered at HT, to celebrate the theatre’s 60th anniversary, was inspired and, in retrospect, was prudent in the event of the coming calamity. The Dumb Waiter delivered, but then one might have expected that, it being Pinter, but the subsequent plays weren’t quite as convincing. I couldn’t squeeze The Two Character Play after it was rescheduled, but it does sound like it is at the more challenging end of Tennessee Williams’s oeuvre, though given I am warming up on TW, and it starred Kate O’Flynn and Zubin Varla, it was a shame to miss it. More of Night, Mother in a future post, but, suffice to say, that it, like The Death of a Black Man, probably impressed more on its opening than it does now. Some plays don’t age as well as others. That is one of the many beauties of drama. It doesn’t make the play poor or flawed, just that its concerns, its style, its relevance, changes though time. And, of course, there are those gems that, for whatever reason fade into obscurity only to be rescued in future generations by enterprising creatives.
Alfred Fagon was born in Jamaica and, after emigrating to Britain, he served in the army and worked on the railways before he took up acting and then playwriting. In the 1970’s and early 1980’s his was an important voice in black British drama, before his untimely death, and disgraceful treatment even thereafter by local police, who claimed they couldn’t identify his body. (It continues. Fagon’s bust in St Paul’s Bristol was apparently vandalised by some knuckleheads in retribution for the Colston toppling).
TDOABM premiered at HT in 1975. This was its first revival. It tells the story of 18 year old Shakie (Nickcolia King-N’Da) and Stumpie (Toyin Omari-Kinch), best friends as well as business partners, and posh social worker Jackie (Natalie Simpson), the slightly older mother of Shakie’s child who has come to stay in Shakie’s flat in Chelsea. The conversations between the three of them run the gauntlet across race, gender and politics, in, initially at least, a naturalistic way. Shakie and Stumpie are determined to get on and make money, but their schemes are contrasted, Shakie is selling “African” artefacts to boho whites, whereas Stumpie is aiming to take back black music from its white appropriators. Interesting ideas are presented even if these are sometimes jumbled up. However, the second half takes a Pinteresque turn, namely The Homecoming, after Shakie’s musician father dies and the boys look to imprison and “sell” Jackie, with her apparent consent. The callous misogyny (and in parts blatant anti-semitism) is deliberately provocative but I am not sure if Mr Fagon quite pulls it off. This is true despite the best efforts of cast (especially Natalie Simpson who has a really tricky part to play here), director Dawn Walton, designer Simon Kenny who serves up a bright slice of deconstructing 70’s aesthetic and lighting designer Johanna Town. The experience and argument feels very real and must haver been revelatory to audiences in its time, but plot and character become more forced as the play shifts towards abstraction.
The alchemy of light. Botanical subjects. Historical overview. An investigation into process. A range of artistic practices and images. All done in under an hour on a quiet Wednesday afternoon. With a nice sandwich to follow. What’s not to like. Very pleased I bought the catalogue.
Only other entertainment of note was a filmed play The Merthyr Stigmatist from the Sherman Theatre. Welsh playwright Lia Parry presents 16 year old Carys, truculent, trying to escape detention with what seems like a whopper. Every Friday she claims stigmata on her palms, now spreading to her feet, begin to bleed. And, in the workaday streets of Merthyr Tydfil, there are plenty who want to believe she is telling the truth. Her teacher Sian thinks she is self harming, and as a local girl now returned, wants to offer her protection and a “way out”. Carys is having none of it. From this divine composition Ms Parry fashions a story about left-behind but proud communities for which the stigmata is a metaphor, belief and belonging. It zips along, both characters prowling around the abstract schoolroom set designed by Elin Steele (which holds a surprise coup de theatre at the climax), gathering intensity under Emma Callander’s direction. Newcomer Bethan McLean brings vitality and depth to Carys whilst Bethan Mary-James carefully plots Sian’s insecurities. It would be good to see this reach a wider live audience.
La Clemenza di Tito – Royal Opera House – 18th May – ***
First live event out of the block in 2021. A visit to the socially distanced ROH with BUD to see La Clemenza di Tito, Mozart.s late opera, from 1791, with libretto from by Caterino Mazzolà, after Pietro Metastasio.
Now first up I must say like the ROH more than half empty. The price to seating value in the ROH is normally dreadful, even in the stalls (never done a fancy box mind) and I have had some major run ins with rude punters there, proof that the entitled, including me, are a generally dispiriting bunch. Anyway this time I went cheap(ish), front of amphitheatre, yielding a good enough view, and no BUD squashing. No bar scrum at the interval and everyone masked up, unlike now where the majority can’t be arsed. People, it’s just a bit of cloth, intended to help others out (not least those who work there), not the beating drum of totalitarianism. So get over yourselves.
Anyway I had put in a bit of research by watching the Bergen National Opera LCDT production stream a few weeks earlier though, frankly, the plot ain’t rocket science.
Imperial Rome. Vitellia seeks revenge against Emperor Tito because his dad deposed her Dad. She winds up Tito’s mate Sesto, who fancies her something rotten, to sort him out, but then she calls him off because she, Vitellia, now reckons she can pull and marry Tito. I know the old “I want him dead, I want to wed” routine. We’ve all done it. Tito though plumps for Servilia, Sesto’s sister, as his bride, and sends Annio, Sesto’s mate, off to tell her. An in person proposal clearly beneath him. But, uh-oh, Anno loves Servilia, and she requites, so she tells Tito and he does the decent thing and steps away. However Vitellia hears about this and goes apeshit, once again telling Sesto to top Tito. For reasons that weren’t entirely clear to me, beyond the excuse for a cracking aria, “Parto, parto, ma tu, ben mio”. And then, blow me, if Tito doesn’t decide to marry Vitellia who realises that bullying his mate into being his hit-man is not a good look. Sesto goes for the old “burn down the Capitol” assassination technique which strikes me as a bit OTT. Everyone reacts with horror thinking Tito is now toast, literally, but Vitellia manages to muzzle Sesto before he blabs. Curtain.Interval.
Annio announces big Tito isn’t dead; the corpse Sesto saw was another geezer (yep really) and that he only stabbed another bloke dressed as Tito. Annio persuades Sesto to stay and face the music, but the Court finds him guilty. Annio begs Tito to go easy his bessie and offer him a way out. But pig-headed Sesto says he deserves to be executed, “Deh, per questo istante solo”, so Tito, because he can, (thats autocracy for you), tears up the death warrant. Final twist. Just before Tito can reveal his mercy trip at the Games (where other poor buggers are about to be torn apart by lions), Vitellia confesses that it was all her idea, but Tito, now puffed up on all this clemency lark, lets her off too. Universally acknowledged, Tito, for a tyrant, is a top bloke.
Now you can probably see some flimsy propaganda at work here. And indeed, LCDT was commissioned by the Estates of Bohemia, on the coronation of Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor (which was still a thing), as King of Bohemia, to keep the nobles sweet. Remember the great and good all over Europe were sh*tting their collective pants about what was going on in France, so it was good to remind them that Leopold was having now of that Revolution nonsense in his back yard.
Metastasio’s libretto was already an opera standard, but Mazzola edited it down when WAM came on board, seeing a big purse, Salieri having turned down the gig. And our Wolfie turned it round sharpish, 18 days apparently. Maybe it shows. It isn’t on a par with Figaro and Don Giovanni but, hey, it’s Mozart so it is a) now pretty popular and b) in places sublime. Both BUD and the Tourist couldn’t go all in though: ULTZ’s monochrome set gets shunted around a fair bit and Richard Jones’s direction, in part to accommodate Covid 19 restrictions seemed disjointed at times, with on stage actions not always clear in intention or delivery. We warmed to Emily d’Angelo’s babyface, footballing (?), Sestus far more than the star turn here of Nicole Chevalier as Vitellia (who sometimes risibly over-acted, though she can sing) with Edgaras Montvidas’s Tito lacking a little authority, visually and aurally. Angela Brower (Annio) and Christina Gansch (Servilia) looked and sounded more comfortable. The “intimate” scenes notably between Sesto and Tito proved more affecting than the “public” scenes which were a bit underpowered, unfortunate given the nature of power vibe is what I think Mr Jones was aiming for. The orchestra, under Mark Wrigglesworth, delivered though, in my bank you can always step on the gas more with Classical scores, the harpsichord continuo made its way up to the gods and the chorus, sadly offstage, was lovely.
Flight – Bridge Theatre – 27th May – ****
A very different live theatrical experience a few days later. BD and I had planned to go to see Flight during the late 2020 window but missed out as it was serially canned. So glad I persisted. Vox Motus, led by Jamie Harrison and Candice Edmunds, promise “a theatre of story-telling visuals, transformational design, magic, comedy, music, physical performance, puppetry, multi-media and most importantly thrills.” To be fair Flight doesn’t quite live up to that promise but only because of its format and not in its impact. It is conceptually simple; a revolving diorama containing miniature models in lit-up boxes with an accompanying soundtrack on headphones. After a bit of necessary C19 induced marshalling we were shown to our individual booths and straight into the story of Aryan (voiced by Farshid Rokey) and Kabir (Nalini Chetty), Afghan orphans who are orphaned Afghan boys who make the hazardous journey from Kabul to London. Along the way they nearly freeze to death in a lorry, are enslaved and forced to pick fruit, encounter hatred and compassion. They make it but there is no happy ending. The models are beautifully crafted, some of the tableaux extremely imaginative and the text involving. Maybe the revolve it is a bit slow and the juggling of viewpoints horizontally and vertically a little sapping, but the story is so heartfelt that this can be forgiven. The innovation format drives home the message. Forced migration isn’t going to go away. Likely the reverse. Lines on a map won’t make any difference. Hate won’t work. Love might.
Walden – Harold Pinter Theatre – 29th May – ***
Producer Sonia Friedman, who pretty much single-handedly gets quality theatre into the commercial West End, what we might call a vital actor in the theatre economic ecosystem, was quick out of the blocks with her Re:Emerge series post lockdown. Anna X was a hit at the 2019 Vault Festival, J’Ouvert (still availble on BBC I Player) came via Battersea’s finest Theatre 503 and Walden, which I plumped for, was a new work from New Yorker Amy Berryman. For me the draw was Ian Rickson as director, though a cast of Gemma Arterton, Fehinti Balogun and, especially, Lydia Wilson, helped. Gemma Arterton is a better actor than her credits suggest, her performance in Josie Rourke’s Saint Joan at the Donmar is evidence thereof, similarly Fehinti Balogun is set for a stellar career (as is his namesake Michael, he of the extraordinary backstory, check it out). Lydia Wilson, however, was my favourite going in after spying her in Rebecca Frecknall’s Almeida Duchess of Malfi and the Cheek by Jowl Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and, post this performance remains so, though there isn’t much in it.
All three however were excellent in a play which, having started with a bang, but failed to develop its interesting themes, relying instead on the somewhat limited opposition between two sisters, Stella (GA) and Cassie (LW). It’s the near future, climate change has ravaged Earth, so it’s time for Homo Sapiens to ravage the rest of the solar system. Stella was the designer of the off Earth settlements, Cassie a botanist thereon. High achievers both, Daddy was a big cheese at NASA and don’t they both know it, Stella has turned her back on the Project to shack up with climate activist Ryan, Cassie drops by (though this is a cabin in backwoods America, where the water is still clean) to try to persuade her back into the fold. Believable debates ensue about the fate of man and woman kind, principle vs pragmatism, scientific duty and ethics, ambition and fulfilment, laced with a bit of sexual frisson, all against a backdrop of sisterly rivalry. The text matches the concept, Mr Rickson’s tempo is note perfect as usual, it is just that Ms Berryman, having laid it all out can’t find anywhere to go thereafter so dramatically it just fizzles out. A bit more bite, a bit more ambiguity and this could be a very powerful play.
Best of the rest
A couple of live exhibitions on top of these three outings. Matthew Barney’s Redoubt at the Hayward Gallery (***), a multimedia exploration of Ovid’s Diana and Actaeon, which I assume is also a climate change plea, was just too dense for the Tourist to fully appreciate. Mr Barney has created a (long) silent film where he figures as The Engraver, a ranger in the Idaho Rockies, who tracks and is tracked by a sharpshooter Annette Wachter, and her two sidekicks, a Watching Virgin and a Tracking Virgin. Woods, rocks, water, snow, trailer, skies, skis, rifles, deer, wolves, cougars, bears, copper plate and its processing, there is a lot to take in, ad I confess to bewilderment when I trawled through this back home. However the sculptural output, burnt, scarred trees amalgamated with coppers, alloys, resins, plastics, often in the form of gun parts, is fascinating, the copper plates marginally less so. As are the myths and facts that flow from Barney’s investigation. I only scratched the surface (no pun intended) but it isn’t difficult to see why he has such a high reputation in artistic circles.
South African portrait photographer Zanele Muholi is also lauded, though the focus of their practice is very different, as the Tate Modern retrospective (***) revealed. Across 260 works they describe the lives of South Africa’s Black lesbian, gay, trans, queer and intersex communities. Their perspective may change but their intent, to show love and joy, bodily delight, as well as sickening trauma (“corrective” rape still exists in SA) and discrimination, and thereby shift perceptions, is unyielding. Political as well as political, dripping with satire. Makes you think, makes you stare. BD is better placed to walk you through the context. I was bowled over, in parts, by the beauty, aesthetic and intelligence of the later staged images, especially the self-portraits. And genuinely saddened by the realisation that some of their subjects and collaborators were now dead, victims of violence and HIV/Aids.
Which just leaves a couple of baroque concerts and a couple of theatrical entertainments on screen. Pale Sister (also available as part of the lights Up series on I Player) has Lisa Dwan playing Ismene, Antigone’s sister, written for her by Irish man of letters, Colm Toibin and directed by Trevor Nunn. I yield to no man in defence of the virtues of Ms Dwan, but the monologue actually steers too closely to the Sophocles inspiration when I was hoping for some departure. Still well worth watching.
Much better, and actually a surprise highlight of my on line viewing, was Bristol based Wardrobe Ensemble’s distillation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Tamsin Hurtado Clarke and Jesse Meadows, along with director Tom Brennan and dramaturg James Newton, have preserved, indeed in some ways, enhanced, the essence of Fitzgerald’s elegant skewering of the American Dream, condensing it down to just 90 minutes and imaging as one long, and increasingly, desperate party. They neck champagne from paper cups, sing and dance, make use of a few props. The two actors play all the key characters, Jay Gatsby, Nick Garraway, Jordan Baker, Daisy and Tom Buchanan, George and Myrtle Wilson, even managing to convince when simultaneous dialogue is required. FS-G’s heightened plot, as in the book, is easy to digest. OK so the material trappings of these shallow lifestyles is obscured as is the duplicitous complexity of the characters therefore sacrificing some of the novel’s bite. On the other hand their often ambiguous sexual identity is brought into focus as is the tragedy at its heart. Well worth seeing.
The novelty of digital entertainment by now very much worn off but, fortunately, there were plenty of other worthwhile distractions (the return of birdwatching after four decades perhaps the most surprising) for the Tourist to mask the lack of live cultural stimulation. (And travel, which absence, I am ashamed to say, loomed larger than it should have done).
I can see from my list of film and TV watching, (yes I keep lists of that, so what, it doesn’t make me sad), that, even with the shameful stuff which I choose not to record , my viewing habits were rapidly deteriorating. From art cinema, via Netflix box-sets, to My Kitchen Rules. Clearly, in order to maintain my customary high level of cultural snobbery, effort was required and, no doubt, these were the hard yards of lockdown.
BTW I am acutely aware that these catch up lists are veering ever closer to those humblebrag “family year in review” missives your get at Christmas from “friends” you never liked in the first place. For which I am truly sorry.
As it happens we kicked off the year with a family outing to Christmas at Kew Gardens. Now the Tourist has a very soft spot for light displays, especially at Christmas. This is in sharp contrast to his Scroogerian approach to the rest of the festive season. Anyway this fetish has meant that the SO, BD and LD have been dragged along, much against their collective will, to some shockingly bad would be son et lumieres. (It has just occurred to me that MS has, stealthily, managed to avoid these outings). As it turned out this one actually hit the mark though maybe this said more about our lockdown ennui than the displays themselves. Don’t tell the family but I’ve already booked for this year.
A couple of “live” theatre streams. One a revisit. ITA’s Kings of War which remains a top 10 bucket list watch for all of you (along with their Roman Tragedies). Obvs not as thrilling on a screen as in a theatre but I didn’t miss a moment of the 4+ hours, though, wisely, they offered a break for me tea. Ivo van Hove adapts a translation from Rob Klinkenberg of Shakespeare’s history plays, Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3 and Richard III, focussing on the successive kings as leaders amid the politics that informed their decisions. That doesn’t mean he jettisons the human dramas for the big picture stuff, you will recognise the plays and in some ways the human foibles are made more acute, but it does mean a skewering of detail and a different take on language, translating the Dutch back into English sub-titles, so stripping back verse and prose to the essential. Jack Cade, most of the hoi polloi gone and the women reduced largely to necessary accessories (though this in itself is illuminating). Battle scenes replaced with a crashing score. Other key scenes given a contemporary twist and repeated visual signifiers given centre stage. The corridors of power delivered in a sterile office aesthetic. The technological trickery of video, live and pre recorded. Voice-overs, sheep, trumpet fanfares, war poetry. And Hans Kesting. bursting out of his too small suit, quite simply the best Richard III ever. History plays as Netflix Nordic thriller. Which trust me, in this vase, is a marvellous thing.
Quite a contrast with Mischief Theatre’s Mischief Movie Night in which our favourite comedy theatre troupe take a genre, location and title from the (premium paying) on line audience and improvise a film from there. Like most of Mischief’s works the spontaneity is, of course, well tempered with meticulous planning, and MC Jonathan Sayer has to push, shove and stall in certain directions, but there are some genuinely funny improvised moments (even for Sayer himself) amid the water treading. It has been interesting to watch Mischief, on stage and screen, keep trying to expand the boundaries of their craft, and monetisation, of their concept. That they can continue do this is down to genuine skill from the core troupe. I confess there are times when it can get a little repetitive but just as the ideas start to pall, even annoy, along comes another laugh out loud moment or idea. Mind you, it isn’t always that memorable. Witness I can’t actually remember what film they created the night the family tuned in. Oops.
What else? A couple of European theatre recordings that were interesting but at the outer limit of the Tourist’s tolerance and lost not a little in translation: Deutsches Theater’s Maria Stuart directed by Anne Lenk and Theatre of Nations The Idiot based on the Dostoevsky classic. Closer to home, revisits of Lucy Kirkwood’s “science” play Mosquitoes and Hytner’s NT Othello with the most excellent Messrs Lester and Kinnear as well as the 2013 Young Vic A Doll’s House (though Hettie Morahan was a bit too strung out for my taste). Not so bowled over by the NT’s cash cow War Horse (see what I did there), which I finally clocked. Though not because of its obvious quality, just because this clearly needs to be seen in a theatre and not beamed through a little laptop with a buggered screen. (It would be so helpful if NT at Home could solve the daft technology gap when it comes to Samsung tellies).
I won’t bore with waxing rhapsodic about the live stream of ITA’s Roman Tragedies. You can find my “review’ of the real deal at the Barbican elsewhere on these pages. Like Kings of War this is 6 hours of your life which you will want to get back. that’s why I watched it all over again. Very interesting to see the back stage camaraderie at the end of the adrenaline marathon, a clear demonstration of why this theatre company is the best in the world.
Another online theatre offer from The Original Theatre Company, The Haunting of Alice Bowles, adapted by Philip Franks from MR James’s The Experiment. Great cast led by Tamzin Outhwaite, Max Bowden and Stephen Boxer, a bright updating and some smart technicals but not quite as chilling as hoped. But then ghost stories when taken off the page rarely are, though the SO, who loves this sort of thing, lives in hope.
More successful was the Almeida’s Theatre’s Hymn, and not just because of the writing of the multi-talented Lolita Chakrabarti. I get the impression that she, and hubby, Adrian Lester, pretty much do what they like when it comes to acting. Because they can. When they work together, as here, and as in Red Velvet, well, you just know it’s going to be good. Though the secret sauce here came from Danny Sapani who played Benny to AL’s Gil. Ostensibly it’s a simple story of two black friends and their connection, simply staged and directed (by Blanche McIntyre). In other hands it could veer into cliche, Gil is a professional, comfortably off, Benny less so, but precisely by avoiding the soapbox and concentrating on their emotional connection, happy as well as said, they sing and dance would you believe, it draws you in and, by the end, wrings you out. That is down to the brilliance of the leads, you don’t even notice the distancing requirement, but also the naturalness of the writing. it is my belief that Ms C still has something even better up her sleeve.
And then there was the Sonia Friedman Uncle Vanya filmed at the Harold Pinter Theatre. I was too late into the run so missed out on the live take but this was a more than satisfactory replacement. Obviously Conor McPherson was just the man for the job when it came to another updated adaptation of Chekhov’s, IMHO, best play, and Toby Jones was bound to be a perfect Vanya. And directed by Ian Rickson, the master of letting classic texts breathe ,(I offer you Paradise, Romersholm, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia, The Birthday Party, Translations), whilst still offering contemporary connection. Here augmented for screen by Ross MacGibbon who gradually moves the cameras closer to the “action” as the emotional intensity screws up whilst always remembering we are in a theatre. With Rae Smith serving up a stunning set of decrepitude. The real win though came in the rest of the cast, Roger Allam’s pernickety hypochondriac Alexandre (replacing Ciaran Hinds from the stage version), Richard Armitage’s idealistic Astrov, Rosalind Eleazar’s languid Yelena, Aimee Lou Wood’s cheerful, in the circumstances, Sonya. Tragi-comedy I hear you say. Right here sir I say. Or rather on I Player until the end of the year.
The Young Vic Yerma with Billie Piper giving her all and more, the NT Antigone, more memorable for Christopher Eccleston’s Creon and Soutra Gilmour’s design than Jodie Whittaker’s Antigone, Russell T Davies’s whizz bang Midsummer Night’s Dream and a bonkers Nora: Christmas at the Helmers, Ibsen update from Katona Jozsef Szinhaz Theatre in Budapest.
But the best filmed theatre came courtesy of the (in)famous Peter Hall version of Aeschylus’s Oresteia from 1981, performed at the NT and then filmed for TV early on in Channel 4’s life. (Interesting to see what our “ostrich anus eating for money” Culture Secretary would make of that were it to be repeated). You can cobble together the three parts, Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and Eumenides, thanks to some nice people at YouTube. Brace yourself for masks courtesy of Jocelyn Herbert, a stupendous, propulsive score from Harrison Birtwistle, a verse translation from Tony Harrison that mixes modern idioms with invented expression and some top drawer performances from the all male cast notably Pip Donagy’s Clytemnestra, Roger Gartland’s Electra and, especially, Greg Hicks’s Orestes. Not far behind as part of my Greek tragedy homework was Pier Paolo Pasolini’s quixotic Oedipus Rex.
Another offering from the team that brought us What a Carve Up! (see my prior catching up post). Though this The Picture of Dorian Gray wasn’t quite up to the standards set by that predecessor. The idea of updating everyone’s favourite fictional narcissist as a modern day influencer, replete with Instagram and dating apps, makes eminent sense and Fionn Whitehead as Dorian leaps at the chance to boost his likes and, literally, preserve his profile. However, despite contributions from the likes of Joanna Lumley, Emma McDonald, Alfred Enoch, Russell Tovey and Stephen Fry. Henry Filloux-Bennett’s adaptation never quite broke free of its central conceit (see what I did there) to properly explore Wilde’s morality tale.
Another enjoyable family entertainment this time in the form of Les Enfant Terrible’s Sherlock Holmes: An Online Adventure. This company has a proven track record in innovative, immersive theatre, and whilst this didn’t push the boundaries genre wise, it is straight sleuthing, guided, but it was fun, and for once Dad didn’t get left behind by his smarter, savvier, kids.
The RSC’s Dream, which used cutting edge live capture and gaming technology to give us half an hour with Puck in the Athenian forest, looked marvellous but, in some ways, the Q&A, showing how it was done, was more interesting that the film itself. Always remember theatre is text, actors, audience. Spectacle can expand but not trump this. At the other end Greenwich Theatre’s The After-Dinner Joke, directed by James Hadrell, was a billy basic Zoom rendition of Caryl Churchill’s TV play which served to highlight its proselytising flaws rather than its smart one-liners. And it pains me to say it but The Orange Tree‘s first foray into the C19 digital world, Inside, three plays, Guidesky and I, When the Daffodils and Ursa Major from respectively Deborah Bruce, Joel Tan and Joe White, directed by Anna Himali Howard, was somewhat disappointing. I know all involved can do better. Actually to be fair in Guidesky and I Samantha Spiro made a lot of her character’s lashing out to mask the grief after her mother’s death, Deborah Bruce wisely aping the master of the tragicomic monologue Alan Bennett, but the other two-handers felt forced.
More success this month came from my opera viewing. Bergen National Opera‘s streamed production of La clemenza di Tito, with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Edward Gardner, was an excellent introduction to the late Mozart opera which, until now, has passed me by. Mind you Mr Gardner has a habit of persuading in any opera that I might be predisposed to. He and his Norwegian band also offered the pick of the fair few streamed concerts i too in this month with a programme of Beethoven, Ligeti, Stravinsky and Berio. Scottish Opera filmed take from last year of Cosi fan tutte, a sort of reality TV take, didn’t quite convince but that is as much to do with the libretto/plot as the production. I am still waiting for that killer Cosi. On the other hand it was a joy to revisit Netia Jones’s exquisite Curlew River from 2013. Can’t match being there but well worth tracking down.
I am sorry to say that Outside, the second trilogy of streamed plays from the Orange Tree Theatre, didn’t really improve on the first, and not just because of a technical problem on the evening I tuned in. If I were a betting man, (which I resolutely am not, low risk, compounded returns being more my thing), I would say that Two Billion Beats, Prodigal and The Kiss by, respectively, Sonali Bhattacharyya, Kalungi Ssebandeke and Zoe Cooper and directed by Georgia Green, maybe lacked the two secret ingredients of great theatre, collaboration and time. More of both and all three plays could be turned into something tighter and more convincing to build on strong performances and the kernel of ideas they already have.
Witness Harm, Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s Bruntwood Prize winning play from the Bush Theatre directed by Atri Banerjee and with Leanne Best as the Woman in the version shown on BBC (Kelly Gough in the theatre version). She is an estate agent who sells a house to influencer Alice, whose friendship turns into obsession. A black comedy that presses all the right buttons could have been crashingly predictable in the wrong hands but not here. And I bet (looks like I am turning into a gambler) Ms Eclair-Powell went through careful iteration before polishing this jewel as well as benefitting from the insight of others along the way.
Sorry getting distracted again. Sadie, by David Ireland, which is still available on BBC I Player in contrast to Harm, was a casualty of lockdown never making its premiere at the Lyric Belfast, but instead filmed for the BBC Lights Up festival. The title character, played by Abigail McGibbon, has a fling with a Portuguese cleaner half her age. He seeks therapy, Sadie’s head is invaded by relatives from the past. This “triggers” an excursion into classic David Ireland absurdist black comedy, with the unresolved sectarianism of The Troubles as the backdrop, and, like Everything Between Us, Cyprus Avenue and The Ulster American, it is compelling, funny and unsettling in equal measure. BTW the BBC, for the same price as Netflix, keeps on churning out reams of unmatchable culture, drama, comedy and documentary. Netflix in contrast, mostly derivative shit. Christ I wish there was a way that the BBC and all the nepotistic elite that work for it (I am being sarcastic here) could find a way to shift its ecosystem to a financial model which allowed them to tell the Clown and his pathetic “culture war” acolytes to f*ck right off.
Talking of subscription models you would be a fool not to sign up for NT at Home. I confess I have not made as much use of this as I should have done since signing up but that is only because I have already seen most of the plays now showing. However, the Phedre from 2009, directed by Nick Hytner and using a Ted Hughes translation which hypes up Racine’s Alexandrian verse into something even more direct, was a welcome addition to the Tourist’s canon, neo-classical French drama still being a massive hole. Helen Mirren as lady P, Stanley Townsend as near-cuckolded Theseus, Dominic Cooper as hunky Hippolytus and John Shrapnel as sly Theramene all take a munch out of the bright Greek island scenery but that I guess is the play.
Rufus Norris was the directorial hand behind David Hare’s stage adaptation of Katherine Boo’s lively essay of life in a Mumbai slum in the shadow of the international airport, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Another inexplicable omission for the Tourist when it appeared in 2014 in the Lyttleton. It looks tremendous, the cast, eventually, inhabit their diverse characters, and the focus on one story, young Abdul’s determination to maintain his dignity and honesty, pays dividends.
Some tip-top theatre then but the best viewing of the month came from NTGent and Milo Rau’s The New Gospel. Now the astute observer will know that this is actually a film, despite its appearance as a paid for stream on the website of one of these avant-garde European theatre companies that the Tourist is so in love with. Typical remainer, “everything’s better in Europe”. Forgive me though as I didn’t know this when I booked it. Swiss director Milo Rau, to whom the Tourist, twenty years ago, bore a passing resemblance, is a cultural polymath who likes to cause a stir politically with his work. Top bloke. He has big plans for an activist NT Gent where he is now AD, which I will need to purview based on The New Gospel. Like Pasolini before him, M. Rau takes a dramatisation of Christ’s crucifixion, but his Christ is black, Yvan Sagnet, a Cameroonian activist who has taken on, and beaten, Italian gang-masters in real life. His followers are fellow migrant workers. The New Testament scenes are interspersed with documentary action as well as auditions and rehearsals. Matera in Basilicata is the setting, as it was for Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew, when it was a symbol of barely credible poverty in Italy’s South. Matera’s now chi-chi luxury (we know, we’ve stayed there) is here contrasted within the nearby migrant camps. And, brace yourself fans of the meta, Enrique Irazoqui, Pasolini’s amateur acting Christ, is cast as John the Baptist, Maia Morgenstern, Romania’s acting queen, pays Mary, as she did in Mel Gibson’s execrable Passion of Christ, (which was also filmed in Matera), and the brilliant Marcello Fonte, the maker of the wonderful film Dogman, is Pontius Pilate. Cinematographer Thomas Eirich-Schneider’s background is in documentary but his set-pieces are also stunning.
First week of March 2020. I see that I was still out and about but I also see that I avoided a few entertainments before the cancellations started in earnest and the first lockdown kicked in. I remember feeling a little nervous but obviously no precautions taken apart from the space my bulk and air of misanthropy usually commands.
Four Minutes, Twelve Seconds – Oldham Coliseum. 4th March 2020. ****. A visit with the SO to Manchester for theatre and family. In retrospect, like our wonderful trip to Andalusia a couple of weeks earlier, not the smartest of moves as the virus dug in, but we weren’t to know. The Tourist is very keen on the Oldham Coliseum and here the OC AD Chris Lawson, together with Natasha Harrison, alighted on James Fritz’s 2014 play, Four Minutes, Twelve Seconds, as a worthy and cautionary tale to bring to the good people of Greater Manchester. I was very taken with JF’s Parliament Square and The Fall and this didn’t disappoint (the original Hampstead Downstairs production secured a West End transfer). At its centre is teenager Jack, groomed for success, but who never actually appears. Instead the reaction of his parents, Di (Jo Mousley) and David (Lee Toomes), his feisty ex girlfriend Cara (Alyce Liburd) and his conflicted best mate Nick (Noah Olaoye), is what drives the action and debate. For Jack has posted a “revenge” sex tape on line without Cara’s knowledge and its repercussions allows JF to explore issues of class, power, privilege, consent and shaming without sacrificing the believable human concerns of the protagonists. Anna Reid’s set was a bit tricksy with a mirrored frame (allowing rather too many blackout jump cuts) surrounding the immaculate family home and Andrew Glassford’s score occasionally intruded. JF’s disclosures occasionally stretched credulity, Jack’s parents are very protective/forgiving, but his sharp dialogue, snappy pacing and characterisation is still spot on. The central performances of, especially, Jo Mousley and Lee Toomes more than did justice to the script. Hope to see more of JF’s work and very interested to know what he is working on right now.
Wuthering Heights – Royal Exchange Manchester. 4th March 2020. ***. I sensed from the off that the SO was dubious about this adaptation. But I reminded her how brilliantly Sally Cookson brought Lottie’s Jane Eyre to the stage and crossed my fingers. Unfortunately she, the SO, was right. I can see what co-MRE AD Bryony Shanahan was aiming for in her production of Em’s only opus, let’s call it “elemental”, but there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and lip. WH is a great book, or so the SO who is an expert in these things tells me, for it is a long time since I have read it so can’t properly vouch for the skill of Andrew Sheridan’s adaptation, but it did seem a little haphazard, promoting detail and odd linguistic effect over plot and narrative arc and little concerned with the ending. When compounded with the rock n roll, live score of Alexandra Faye Braithwaite, Zoe Spurr’s nerve jangling lighting design, an earthy, obstacle course, set from Cécile Trémolières, a Heathcliff from Alex Austin that tipped into full teddy-boy werewolf (yep that’s what I meant) and a Cathy from Rakhee Sharma tinged with Gen Z petulance, it was all a bit rich for my blood. And yet. I quite liked it. After all at its core this is a Gothic tale of unhinged love. jealousy (bags of that in Gurjeet Singh’s Hindley) and revenge and in tone, if not timbre, this production got it right.
Our Man in Havana – Spies Like Us – Vault Festival. 5th March 2020. ****. OK so descending into the packed, dank tunnels underneath Waterloo which host the Vault Festival didn’t seem, even at the time, to be that smart a move and I canned a couple of later visits, but in this case my recklessness was rewarded with the kind of hour’s entertainment that only “fringe/festival” theatre can provide. Spies Like Us are a seven strong physical theatre ensemble formed in 2017, based at the Pleasance Theatre in London, with four productions under their belt, an adaptation of Buchner’s tragedy Woyzeck, comedy Murder on the Dancefloor, latest work whodunit Speed Dial and this, their first production, Our Man in Havana, based on Graham Greene’s black comedy about the intelligence service. Impecunious vacuum salesman Wormold (Alex Holley) is an unlikely recruit, via Hawthorne (Hamish Lloyd Barnes), to MI6 in Batista’s Cuba who fabricates reports, and agents, to keep the bosses happy. The stakes rise when London sends him an assistant Beatrice (Phoebe Campbell), who helps him save the “agents”, and the Russians try to take him out. He exacts revenge and tries to outsmart a local general (Tullio Campanale) with designs on his daughter Milly (Rosa Collier). All is revealed but finally hushed up with Wormold getting a desk job, a gong, the girl and cash for his daughter’s education. I confess there were times when I wasn’t absolutely sure what was going on or who was who but, under Ollie Norton-Smith’s direction, Spies Like Us play it fast and very funny. No set, minimal props (the actors themselves provide where required), doubling and tripling of roles. It is all about the sardonic script, accents, movement (choreographed by Zac Nemorinand}, sound, light and, especially, timing, and this caper was honed to perfection.
Love, Love, Love – Lyric Hammersmith. 6th March 2020. ****. My regular reader will know i have a soft spot for the ambitious and fearless writing of Mike Bartlett. Love, Love, Love may not be his best work for theatre (I’d go with Earthquakes in London, Bull and King Charles III) and the issue it explores, generational conflict, may not be original, but, as always, there is heaps of acutely observed dialogue to lap up and a punchy plot to carry you along. In the first act set in 1967, free spirited Sandra (the criminally underrated Rachael Stirling) dumps dull, conservative boyfriend Henry (Patrick Knowles) for his rakish brother Kenneth (Nicholas Burns), a fellow Oxford undergrad. Fast forward to 1990 and the now married, and tanked up, couple are bickering in front of kids Rose (Isabella Laughland) and Jamie (Mike Noble). Finally in 2011 the consequences of their baby boomer generation’s selfish privilege are laid bare at Henry’s funeral, via the undiluted fury of Rose, now well into her 30s and with no assets, career or family of her own. As she says her parents “didn’t change the world, they bought it”. As usual with Mr Bartlett there are a few moments when you think, “nah he can’t get away with that”, and a few of the comic lines are jemmied in, but the way he combines the personal and the political, like a modern day Chekhov, is never less than entertaining and the satire more effective for its relative gentility. Joanna Scotcher’s sets are brim-full of period details, marking the couple’s increasing wealth, and Rachel O’Riordan’s direction was faultless. This was a smart choice by Ms O’Riordan, the play may be over a decade old but the generational stresses it explores are perhaps even more pressing, and, with A Doll’s House and the revival of Martin McDonagh’s, The Beauty Queen of Leenane (generational conflict of a different hue) completes a trilogy of hits from her since taking the helm at the Lyric. And the 2022 season she has just announced matches anything else served up in London houses as we return, hopefully, to “normality”. She will be directing the prolific Mr Bartlett’s new play, Scandaltown, which sounds like his take on a contemporary Restoration comedy, and there is also a revival of Patrick Marber’s Closer, a welcome update of Racine’s tragedy Britannicus, Roy Williams’s take on Hedda Gabler, and a new play Running With Lions. And the directorial talent on show is top drawer: Michael Buffong (Talawa Theatre), Atri Banerjee (Hobson’s Choice), Claire Lizzimore (another Bartlett specialist) and Ola Ince (Is God Is, Poet in Da Corner, Appropriate). Buy tickets for 3 of then and pay for 2. Which comes out at barely a tenner a seat. In a lovely, friendly theatre with acres of space and perfect sight-lines. Surely a bargain.
Red Peter – Grid Theatre – Vault Festival. 7th March 2000. ****. Back to the Vaults for the penultimate visit to the theatre before I chickened out and the curtains starting coming down. As it happens I was able, in fairly short order, to contrast this take on Franz Kafka’s short story, A Report to an Academy, adapted and directed by Grid Theatre’s founder, Chris Yun-Ward, and performed by Denzil Barnes, with a later version, Kafka’s Monkey, from 2009, with the human chameleon Kathryn Hunter as the eponymous ape, directed by Walter Meierjohann and written by Colin Teevan. This latter was on a screen, deadening the impact of what is a tour de force of individual physical theatre, but then again I could watch Ms Hunter open a letter. However, and putting aside the benefit of being in the, very, atmospheric room, (this was one of the Vault spaces with full on train rumbling overhead), Denzil Barnes was mesmerising. In order to escape captivity Red Peter has to learn to behave like a human telling his story via a lecture to an imagined scientific audience. Not difficult to see where Kafka’s absurdist metaphor was targeted, the cruelty of the humans in the story is contrasted with the nobility, patience and eloquence of our hero, but just to be sure there is plenty of philosophical musing on the nature of freedom, assimilation and acculturation to ram home the post-colonial point. Which means Mr Barnes had a lot to say, as well as do, at which he was very adept. But it is the doing, when being chased, when incarcerated in a cage in the hold of a ship, when being paraded like a circus freak, where he excelled. The play is sometimes unsettling, often funny, and always thought-provoking. Not difficult to see why it has been showered with fringe-y awards.
The Revenger’s Tragedy – Cheek By Jowl, Piccolo Theatre Milan – Barbican Theatre. 7th March. *****. So Thomas Middleton was a big, and prolific, noise in Jacobean drama. Equally adept in tragedy, history and city comedy. As well as masques and pageants which paid the bills. He may even have helped big Will S out in Timon of Athens and revised versions of Macbeth and Measure for Measure. The Changeling, Women Beware Women and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside all get run outs today though the Tourist hasn’t yet had the pleasure of any of these (though not for want of trying). He has however seen A Mad World My Masters in Sean Foley and Phil Porter’s 2013 version for the RSC. A devilishly clever plot, dealing with greed, avarice, hypocrisy, seduction, virtue and the like, the usual concerns of city comedies, which the creative team didn’t quite pull off (ha ha seem what I have done there) by relocating the action to 1950s Soho. In the Revenger’s Tragedy, Cheek by Jowl, together with their new Italian collaborator partners Piccolo Theatre, were altogether more successful. Vindice (Fausto Cabra) and his brother Hippolito (Raffaele Esposito) hatch a scheme to get revenge against the Duke (Massimiliano Speziani) for murdering Vindice’s fiancee. This involves disguises, deceits, bribes, conspiracy, treachery, infidelity, imprisonment, voyeurism, murder, execution, beheading, rape, suicide, assassination and, implied, necrophilia. All in the guise of a comedy. Or maybe better termed a black parody since Middleton took the guts, literally, of a revenge tragedy from a couple of decades earlier (itself derived from Seneca) and bolted on the satire and cynicism of a city comedy, all in the service of taking a sideswipe at the increasingly corrupt court of James I. If this all sounds a bit OTT remember sex and violence in the name of entertainment is still a streaming staple but Middleton, his peers, and contemporary audiences, at least used it for a purpose beyond vacuous titillation. Maybe more like a Medieval morality play then, albeit with a knowing wink, plainly acknowledged in this production, than the straight line tragedy of Shakespeare. Performing in Italian courtesy of Stefano Massini’s translation, (which means surtitles, as well as a clever introduction, can help with plot and character in the Act 1 set up and cuts through the dense text of the original), an ingenious “box” set from Nick Ormerod which opens with the word Vendetta scrawled across its width, seasoned with a kinetic energy which mirrors the action thanks to Declan Donnellan’s brilliantly detailed direction and Alessio Maria Romano’s choreography and movement across the 14 strong cast, this is how to lend contemporary resonance to C17 drama. Which CBJ incidentally has a long history of doing. The satirical target may be modern-day Italy but the hypocrisy and venality of the ruling class is sadly generic. It is a great regret of the Tourist’s theatre viewing career that he has come so late to the CBJ party but he is resolved not to miss anything from here. As theatre though this was on a par with their French Pericles from 2018.
Also in March, my last trip to the cinema to see Parasite, (no I haven’t seen the latest Bond yet, at this rate Dune will probably come first), a slightly odd programme (Mozart, Penderecki and Mendelssohn) from the English Camber Orchestra and oboeist Francois Leleux at the QEH, and my first go at lockdown theatre on a screen, Peter Brook’s take on Beckett from Bouffes de Nord. And, as it turned out, one of the best.
Yep. You read that right. February 2020. Just before you know what kicked off and the stages went dark. You would have thought that the last 18 months would have given the Tourist plenty of time and inclination to continue reporting on his cultural journey. But no. Despite his multiple privileges which meant the pandemic had minimal impact on his day to day existence he still fell into the pit marked “intellectual lethargy” spending way to much time looking at a screen and moaning about the world.
But a repeated dose of live theatre (along with Oxford/Astra Zeneca’s elixir – thank you) has, you may or may not be pleased to hear, given him back his mojo. And he has remembered just how useful it is to record what he sees and hears to make sure he keeps on learning and stops grumbling.
So a quick catch up to complete the archives and then some recent highlights. The watchword is brevity. So a few lines only.
The Tin Drum – Coronet Theatre. 24th February 2020. *****. A separate post finally completed.
Tryst – Chiswick Playhouse. 25th February 2020. ****. Front row in this charming space. Second time around at the CP of a play first seen a couple of decades ago. Karoline Leach’s script is based on the real life story of bigamist con-man George Joseph Smith, a serial killer infamous for the Brides in the Bath Murders at the start of the 20th century. Fred Perry played George with a mixture of menace and charm. Scarlett Brookes (just seen again by the Tourist at the Orange Tree) was more successful as the bright but naive shop assistant Adelaide Pinchkin dreaming of a better life. Power shifts intriguingly though the production, directed by Phoebe Barran and mostly narrated, sometimes dragged a little and dialled down the suspense. A smart set from Jessica Staton with the two actors artfully shifted props. Overall the SO and I were entertained. Mind you this was right up our collective street.
Pass Over – Kiln Theatre. 26th February 2020. ****. Antoinette Nwandu’s 2017 play was filmed in 2018 by no less a creative genius than Spike Lee. So we are dealing with a highly regarded rendering of contemporary Black experience here. Easy to see why Kiln’s AD Indhu Rubasingham was keen to take this one for herself. Moses (Paapa Essiedu) and Kitch (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr) are on an American city street corner shooting the breeze and dreaming of lives they will never have passe Vladimir and Estragon. This space though, simply staged by Robert Jones, is gradually revealed as limiting and threatening. Their swagger is matched by their fear of the police. They meet Mister (Alexander Eliot), a folksy eccentric with white suit and picnic basket, whose condescending offer of food and friendship masks racist privilege and manufactured offence. Absurdist but not tortuous, packed with allusion, to history, the Old Testament, contemporary race politics, heavy with carefully chosen dialogue but never dense. Tonal uncertainty can ruin plays of this type but not here, though it is at its best when its political message is not directly articulated as in the beginning of Act 2. Paapa Essiedu and Gershwyn Eustache Jr knock it out of the park as the nervy Moses and wistful Kitch but Alexander Eliot, as he did with Solyony in Rebecca Frecknall’s dreamy Three Sisters at the Almeida, mastered a very tough gig as both Mister and the overtly racist policeman Occifer. Can’t help thinking this needs a wider and bigger audience.
A Number – Bridge Theatre. 26th February 2020. ****. Caryl Churchill’s masterpiece from 2002 about cloning, its possibilities and its pitfalls, was given a robust workout by director Polly Findlay, with Roger Allam as the shambling father, Salter, and Colin Morgan as the sons. Once you get over the initial set up, which of the estranged sons is the “unsatisfactory real thing” and which are the clones, then there is not much in the way of CC’s usual formal experimentation or surrealist play on show here. And, in order to explore the various consequences of the subject matter, scientific, philosophical, ethical, familial, and otherwise, CC loads up with some sparkling dialogue. None of the sparse ellipses that characterise her very latest works. The setting from Lizzie Clachlan was dowdily domestic, the humour, of which there is plenty, played up, especially by the ever-droll Mr Allam. Salter didn’t really think through when he opted to “improve” on the original and the emotional effects on his son, and the copies, requested and rogue, were well played, without losing sight of the core “hard problem” of what it is to actually be human and how we “identify”. Colin Morgan offered a convincing degree of differentiation, Bernard 1 angry, Bernard 2 confused, “Michael” no 3 nonchalant, but this effort meant he, and Roger Allam, didn’t always connect or clash as much as they might/should. And some of the clues about the relationship between father and son didn’t always land. The play runs to an hour but felt a little longer with CC pauses and tics and some deliberately disorientating stage revolves between the five “acts”. Another production with, coincidentally given the above, Paapa Essiedu and Lennie James (a first on stage for me), and directed by Churchill specialist Lyndsey Turner, will appear at the Old Vic in early 2022. I can’t wait to compare, contrast and, as always on repeated viewing of CC’s work, learn and love more.
Death of England. National Theatre Dorfman. 29th February 2020. *****. Apropos of nothing, and paraphrasing for dramatic effect, someone said in my hearing recently that Rafe Spall didn’t make for a convincing Judge Brack in Ivo van Hove’s 2016 Hedda Gabler at the NT. Something along the lines of not nasty enough. My first reaction was to disagree; in a production stripped of its historical context, his was a deliberately unsubtle and brutally physical Brack. But actually they had a point. There is a whiff of little boy lost about Mr Spall which left a scintilla of doubt. In Roy William’s and Clint Dyer’s one man confessional/state of the nation play, Death of England, this vulnerability, however, literally repaid us with interest. Spall played Essex’s finest, Michael, grieving son to a dear and recently departed, but racist father, and best friend to Delroy, who is his sister’s partner. Along the way Spall also takes in his Dad, Delroy’s Mum, a restaurant owner with a vital story to tell, amongst others. He does all this at lightening speed, in both voice and movement, plucking props out of nooks and crannies from Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and ULTZ’s St George’s Cross transverse stage and with occasional asides to the audience. There is much to like, and dislike, about Michael, a confident, lairy swagger fuelled by coke, convulsed by his Dad’s death, riven by contradiction about what it means to be white, male and working class in Britain today. Spall’s performance was hyper, exaggerated by Jackie Shemesh’s often glaring lighting, paralleling Michael’s own psyche, barreling towards the tour de force of his climatic drunken funeral oration. As in Roy William’s Sing Your Heart Out …. , football, nationhood and racism are intertwined though here more as metaphor, Dad dies just after the semi-final loss in 2018, than plot. Now with added Brexit. Michael knows what he is supposed to be against but what exactly is he for? OK so the script wobbles a bit on occasion and the intensity of performance and Clint Dyer’s direction makes it easier to recognise that completely understand the paradox of Michael but it was impossible not to be bowled over by its commitment.
What else that month? A couple of concerts. The Bang on a Can All Stars, champions of post-minimalism with a mixed programme including John Adams (The Chairman Dances), Julia Wolfe (Flower Power), Steve Martland (Horses of Instruction) and Philip Glass (Symphony No 2 arranged for string Orchestra), which was OK but nothing more and an energetic, spirited and ultimately convincing recital from pianist Boris Giltburg of Beethoven sonatas (Ops 26, 57, 109 and 111).
I know. This is ridiculous. Posting some comments on something the Tourist saw over 18 months ago. But I started. So I’ll finish. And with some cracking live theatre now under his belt, the Tourist’s cultural mojo is back with a bang. Not that it went away but that intellectual funk is hard to shake off.
Tuscany. Puglia. Andalusia. For lifestyle and sunshine. Or North/South Holland (Rotterdam, Delft, Leiden, Haarlem, Amsterdam, take your pick). Or Ghent. For people and culture. These are the sort of places that the Remainiac, Metropolitan Elite, Liberal, Tourist fantasises about escaping to when he gets wound up by the latest instalment of idiocy from our venal, lazy, incompetent, ideologue Government and its fan club. Of course he will never actually leave. Oppositional populism always collapses in on itself and the grown ups will be back in charge to pick up the pieces now that reality is biting. Only a matter of time. Mind you the toddler exceptionalist tantrum of Brexit looks set to cause further damage. Such is the elective dictatorship we English seem to have saddled ourselves with.
Oh, and then there is Berlin. For if there is one city which rivals London in terms of its cultural opportunity then Berlin is it. Berlin, obviously, supported its theatres through the recent dark days and months. Here in Blighty some of the greatest theatre-makers on the planet, creating the very stuff of human existence, had to beg for assistance which, though eventually forthcoming, was still couched in the usual philistine carping about the arts standing on their own two feet and some incoherent gammon-rambles about “woke”.
Anyway that’s enough keystrokes wasted on the clown that purports to leads this country and his petty corrupt cronies. The point is Berlin looks after it’s culture. Even the problematic bits. So maybe the list should be extended to said city. After all its theatre is second to none. Whilst the Berliner Ensemble streaming offer through lockdown was rendered inaccessible to the idiot Tourist by his lack of German, its confederate down the road, (quite a long way down the road as it happens), Schaubuhne Berlin, served up all sort of theatrical goodies for us English only speakers during the had lockdown. Mr Ostermeier’s Hamlet, An Enemy of the People, Hedda Gabler and Professor Bernhardi, as well as Katie Mitchell/Alice Birch’s Orlando were amongst the best of my lockdown viewing for which I have very grateful.
Which takes me all the way back to February 2020 and the Coronet which secured the services of director Oliver Reese and fearless performer Nico Holonics for a few nights to perform their celebrated adaptation of Gunther Grass’s novel The Tin Drum. Now as it happens I only the know the story, if that is what you can call Herr Grasse’s confabulation of Nazism, guilt and psychosis as seen through the eyes of bizarre man-child Oskar Mazerath, via the film version directed by Volkor Schlondorff and starring the then 11 year old Swiss actor David Bennent as wee Oskar. But that was some time ago so I confess the details were sketchy. I had not read the book but was surprised to learn that neither had TFP, my companion for this evening and go-to in all matters of German literary culture. Which left us both able to immerse ourselves in this sublime piece of theatre without too much knowledge aforethought.
Now it is a strange story. Oskar is the child who refuses to grow beyond the age of three, an outcast who recounts his own history, the death of his mother, his two “presumptive fathers”, his sexual awakening, alongside that of Germany before and during WWII, forever banning on his beloved tin drum or shattering glass with his screams. Clown or monster, mad or piercingly sane, instigator or passive observer, Oskar is a mess of contradictions. Nico Holonics has been inhabiting this little chap for a few years now so it should come as no great surprise how brilliantly Oskar is realised. What is more astounding is how quickly, with barely more than a pair of short trousers and a few props, though with lashings of thespian skill and attitude, he takes us with us. If acting is conquering the fear of performance, then NH, over near two hours, shows just how it should be down. It’s in German, the sur-titles, I am reliably informed, do not quite nail it idiomatically, and there is a little, somewhat forced, audience participation and fourth wall breaking. Despite this, Oscar, in all his glory and ignominy shone through. If shine is the right adjective.
Messrs Reese and Holonics are not quite ready to put little Oskar to bed just yet. Indeed he is being wheeled out as we speak in Berlin. Apparently in English on occasion. If this ever comes anywhere near you, and high-brow allegory and exemplary acting craft float your boat, then this is a must see.
London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), London Symphony Chorus, Simon Halsey (chorus director), Iwona Sobotka (soprano), Anna Stéphany (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), Florian Boesch (baritone)
Barbican Hall, 12th February 2010
Not quite the Tourist’s last Beethoven fix before lockdown. A very dramatic take on various of the piano sonatas from Boris Giltburg was to follow a couple of weeks later, but this, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, was the final live orchestral piece I heard prior to us holing up, somewhat ahead of “Government” “advice”. The sonatas were shared with MSBD: the Choral with MS himself. A fine way to bow out then, hopefully temporarily, in this Beethoven anniversary year. And not just because the Ninth is such an almighty thing, ending with the “Ode to Joy”. Towering achievement is the customary cliche I believe. No, this was also memorable not just because it was the first time my lad had heard it performed live but also because Sir Simon Rattle, who has always nailed Beethoven in the past in my experience, and the LSO, smashed it.
OK so I can imagine, and have seen and heard, better all-round performances, not least from the wizard Haitink and this band in this hall a few years ago. But this was still something special. We opted for the cut-down programme, just the Choral, in the Half Six Fix slot, an initiative I hope the LSO maintains when normality, or some version of it, returns. Which means we missed out on Berg’s Lulu Suite. No pointing pushing my boy too hard and anyway, Lulu works better as opera than orchestral, where Alban’s lush romanticism can dominate at the expense of the quirky dramatic.
Anyway like I say the Beethoven was very, very good. Sir Si, after a little lecture on lessons learnt from past maestros, didn’t rush the Allegro first movement, from the opening crashing chord entries, properly cosmic, into the two themes, and, especially, in the giant coda, all ma non troppo, just like LVB said. Nor in the Scherzo, that marvel of sonata form, based on a racey fugue ,(pinched from the first movement opening), wrapped inside the ternary structure, with the dinky trio, with perky oboe solo from Juliana Koch, and Goughie’s sublime bassoon, in between. Which meant that when we got to the Adagio, I was happy to luxuriant in the vibrating string bubble bath, which is not always the case. I’d guess Rattle clocked in at over a quarter of an hour. I am normally a fan of the HIP close-to-10-minute take per Gardiner, Harnoncourt and Norrington, where the double variation structure doesn’t get lost, but here Rattle got away with it, like Bohm does in the classic VPO recording, (and unlike Rattle’s own recording with the Viennese which is really, really dull).
It was in the final movement though where the LSO and Sir Si really hit the heights. This wasn’t just down to the soloists, all blessed with power, clarity and control, and, for once, perfectly balanced. Or the simply outstanding LSO Chorus, who have never sounded better to my ears. Bravo Simon Halsey. No, it was because the mix of old-skool tempo and phrasing with more up-to-date technique, from the ear-straining pianissimo throb of the cello/bass first entry of the OTJ theme, after the recaps, to the chop-smashing last couple of bars, really paid dividends. Listening now to that very Bohm recording, which builds, and builds, and builds, then releases, and releases, and releases, I get what Rattle was aiming for. A kind of controlled volatility. MS and the other 2000 souls in the Barbican Hall felt it. For once the ovation made sense.
Say what you like. The Choral may be OTT, manipulative, hackneyed, ubiquitous, but, when done well, especially to those of us who like Beethoven’s big bones, there is nothing better. Still firmly on the credit side of the humanity ledger which we are all finding ourselves contemplating right now.
I remain ambivalent about the work of French playwright Yasmina Reza. I can see why she would wish to lampoon “middle-class” mores in her contemporary comedies of manners. There is, after all, a long and illustrious dramatic tradition of doing so. Especially en francais. Think Moliere. Or French cinema. I can also take pleasure from the set-ups as they develop. That is assuming that the master of French translation, Christopher Hampton, is faithful in his rendition, which I don’t think anyone would argue with.
No the problem lies in the characters she creates and the plots she weaves. Both are subservient to the message. And the message is not nearly as profound as it threatens to be. The plays are short, God of Carnage is just 90 minutes, but, damningly, could be shorter. Put simply, as wiser heads than this have observed, the plays are not nearly as clever as they think they are. In contrast to their illustrious forbears, which are. If you don’t believe me try Theatre L’Odeon’s School for Wives, streaming now, or Renoir’s La regle de jeu, which is all it’s cracked up to be.
Anyway, knowing this, from previous performances of Ms Reza’s Art, about three friends who fall out over a contemporary work of art which one of them purchases, and Life x3 where the comic staple of a disastrous dinner party is replayed three times with slight plot variations, the SO and I settled in at the Rose for this Theatre Royal Bath transfer. I see Billers nominated God of Carnage to appear in the Guardian’s top 50 plays of this century: a rare misstep from the old boy. It was lauded during its original West End in 2008, (it debuted in Germany in 2006), with a cast of Ralph Fiennes, Tamsin Grieg, Janet McTeer and Ken Stott no less, and with Old Vic head honcho Matthew Warchus directing, winning an Olivier and packing in the punters, but that, to me, looks generous.
Of course, it could be that this production didn’t do it justice but, with tragi-comedy/satire expert Lindsay Posner in the director’s chair and London émigré Elizabeth McGovern and Nigel Lindsay and Simon Paisley Day and Samantha Spiro as the two couples, I doubt it. (Just look at their combined stage credits if you don’t believe me). Eleven-year old Ferdinand has belted his would be chum Bruno in the playground because he wouldn’t let him join the gang knocking out two of his teeth. The parents meet to chew things over. It starts civilly but once the drink flows and worldviews collide things get tasty. EMG is Veronica the anally-retentive, passive-aggressive American liberal, writing a book on Darfur, with NL, somewhat improbably, her vulgar self-made man husband. SPD is an arrogant lawyer, never off his phone, who sees no value for the meeting, SS his initially reasonable, then increasingly precious wife, a “wealth management consultant”. All then have money and all the attitudes that, at least in Ms Reza’s eyes, come with it. Misogyny, racism, homophobia are all given a run-out.
I can imagine that the changes of tone, from exaggerated politeness to barbed accusation could offer greater heft in another production, (Roman Polanski adapted it with YR’s screenplay, for the cinema and smart punters rate it), but this came across as more outre sit-com, and, eventually farce, than biting satire.
Still, in fairness, we laughed, quite a lot, and, occasionally, squirmed, as the adults regressed into the very childish argument they have come together to resolve. YR can’t but help chucking in some lines of cod-philosophy which become increasingly grating, and the characters have an annoying habit of telegraphing their lines, but, when it does hit home, it is undeniably effective. Peter McKintosh’s set, and props, offer an accurate check-list of bourgeois taste, and sharp colour contrast, though the light fitting which hangs, Damocles-like, over the room is a bit heavy-handed. LP’s direction works hard to match movement to text. No-one sits still for a moment. And, although the Tourist has eschewed the drink for near a decade now, it’s a bit disconcerting to see four people go from a civilised sip to barking shit-faced in the space of half an hour.
So we will have to wait for Alistair McDowall’s latest full length play The Glow at the Royal Court, postponed thanks to you know what. Mr McDowall was the pen, and brains, behind dystopian/sci-fi/mystery/thriller/social satires Brilliant Adventures, Talk Show, Captain Amazing, Pomona and X. His plays sound audaciously bonkers in synopsis but actually work, albeit with a lot of creative hard work, on page and stage. He is one of our most talented and ambitious young playwrights, influenced, as they all are by the godhead Caryl Churchill, as well as by Sarah Kane and cinema, but blessed with the skill to carry it off. The Glow, which look like it kicks off in the world of spiritualism in Victorian Britain, was one of my most looked forward to plays. I will just have to keep looking forward.
In the meantime we were treated to this. all of it. A 45 minute steam of consciousness monologue which tells the story of one unnamed woman’s life. All of it. The extraordinary Kate O’Flynn, directed by Vicky Featherstone, on a stool under a single spotlight, (easy money for lighting designer Anna Watson but exactly what was required). It starts with noises, burbles, single words, repeated. The child. The teen, self-absorbed, desperate to fit in, discovering drink. Sexual awakening. Marriage, divorce, the monotony of work, re-marriage, motherhood, child-rearing. Disease. Death. Our heroine is resolutely ordinary. I have no idea what it is to be a woman but Mr McDowall seems to get inside her head. The text is funny, warming, smart, insightful. Kate O’Flynn creates rhythm, drama and empathy from the dissociated words. Think Beckett, or, better still, an unpretentious Joyce.
I was captivated. Though I can see why some might have been underwhelmed by the experiment. That’s life.
It is not difficult to see why theatre-makers, and audiences, continue to be drawn to drawn to Ibsen’s masterpiece, now over 140 years old. First and foremost, there is the still extraordinarily powerful message. Just think what old Henrik would have written if he had actually set out to write a feminist manifesto and not used the real-life experience of a family friend. Then there are the complex fully rounded characters, not just Nora herself, but Helmer, Rank, Kristine, Krogstad and Anne Marie, a mixture of good, bad and indifferent, shaped by, and shaping, the society they are immersed in. Of course, our sympathies are drawn towards the women’s predicaments, with indignation reserved for the patriarchal men and the way they treat those women, but, as ever with Ibsen, there is plenty of grey to ponder in between the black and white. Then there is the plot. Enough twists, believable disclosure, that ending, getting close enough to melodrama to please even the casual theatrical punter but offering enough pleasure to those who seek repeated viewings.
And then there is its seemingly infinite elasticity. We may have moved on from the stifling morality of late C19 Norwegian society and the “exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint” that HI observed, but his skill and intention in framing a more universal message of personal freedom and self-expression is, if anything, even more relevant in our world today. As last year’s queer reworking of the play, in Samuel Adamson’s Wife at the Kiln Theatre, demonstrated. (He has previous with reinterpretation of the play, though with psychology rather than gender, in his 2003 adaptation at the Southwark Playhouse).
I am still most drawn to those interpretations which stick closely to Ibsen’s structure, plot and characters though am always up for an interpretation that shifts time, place and/or look. The best of the recent crop was Tanika Gupta’s resetting to colonial India at the Lyric Hammersmith, recently streamed for one day only. Going further back I gather the 2009 Donmar production from Zinnie Harris was a bit of a damp squib despite a stellar cast, (Anderson G, just seen on the NT/YV stream as a peerless Blanche Dubois, Stephens T, Lesser A, Fitzgerald T and Eccleston C). I would certainly have liked to have seen Thomas Ostermeier’s hand grenade reworking based on what he did with Hedda Gabler just shown on the Schaubuhne Berlin streamfest.
Mind you, from the sound of it, the Royal Exchange outing from 2013 sounds like it would have been my glass of akevitt, with Greg Hersov in the director’s chair using Bryony Lavery’s reliable adaptation and with Cush Jumbo as Nora. (I do so hope we will get to see her Hamlet at the YV though I am not holding my breath – oops quite literally as I write this they have had to can it pro tem). Completing the history lesson Nora’s last visit to the Young Vic itself was in 2012 I believe with Hattie Monahan courtesy of Carrie Cracknell which I will watch one day soon on a streaming service near me.
And so to Nora: A Doll’s Hose. This re-think, from Stef Smith (Human Animals, Royal Court), by way of Glasgow Citizen’s Theatre, offered more than enough to chew on. As you probably already know , this comment coming a full 2 months and change after the production closed, (just a week or so early as the curtains came down everywhere), her big idea is to offer us three different Noras: from 1918, the year women finally git the vote, 1968, the “Sexual revolution” and the introduction of the pill, and 2018, the dawn of MeToo., against a backdrop of austerity Britain Though with one actor, Luke Norris, as husband, in a quick-change, of character as well as costume, masterclass.
We gain in Nora dimensionality, as social and, notably, economic context and mundane duty, especially childcare, are fitted to period. 1918 Nora (Amaka Okafor), is patronised, yet remains dignified, in her care of war-damaged Thomas 1, 1968 Nora (Natalie Klamar) is a bundle of nerves, popping pills, bullied by Thomas 2 and 2018 Nora (Anna Russell-Martin), weighed down by debt and childcare seeks solace in drink, Thomas 3 being abusive and bugger all use. Stef Smith cleverly finds ways to keep the broad brush strokes of HI’s plot visible and the choreography of Elizabeth Freestone’s direction, (and especially EJ Boyle’s movement), through Tom Piper’s skeletal set, signifying door and not much more, beefed up with Lee Curran’s lighting and Michael John McCarthy’s sound/composition, as we zip back and forth in time, is remarkable.
However with Mark Arends tripling up as xx Nathan, Zephryn Tattie as xxx Daniel and the three Nora leads also interchanging as her mate, and, in the swinging sixties lover, Christine, it can, even with excellent performances all round (wrong to have favourites, but most impressively, Anna Russell-Martin) it does get a bit breathless with, er, breadth supplanting depth of character. No question it works as innovative theatre making and it conveys its feminist message smartly with rhythm in words and actions, bar a rather maladroit coda. We, the SO, BUD and KCK, could have done with a pie and a pint to discuss further in what, it transpired was our last pre-lockdown outing. But it could have done with drilling down further, and more finely, into the detail of the thoughts it provoked. Maybe in a more focussed, original, contemporary, play with just a faint echo to the Ibsen that Stef Smith so plainly, and rightly, is inspired by.
That’ll be it for Nora this year I think. The Tourist’s annual outing to Amsterdam and the ITA to see Robert Icke’s Children of Nora was a casualty of our times, though the Jamie Lloyd production based on Frank McGuinness’s adaptation and starring Hollywood royalty Jessica Chastain is still planned for July. We’ll see.