Opportunity partially missed I am afraid. Inua Ellams has come up with a brilliant idea by transporting Chekhov to 1960s Nigeria, specifically during the Biafaran Civil War. Yet his urge to educate and contextualise leaves the dialogue heavy on exposition. And, in deference to the Russian master, his adaptation retains the key elements of AC’s plot, which then leads to a few incongruous shifts in the narrative.
It certainly looks the part with Katrina Lindsay’s mobile set, and especially extensive costumes, along with Peter Mumford’s lighting design, and especially Donato Wharton’s sound design, creating a real sense of time and place. The music, under the direction of Michael Henry, also contributes significantly. The cast is top drawer, with some particular favourites of mine showcasing their talents: Ronke Adekoleuejo (previously The Mountaintop, Cyprus Avenue), Tobi Bamtefa (The Last King of Scotland, Network), Ken Nwosu (An Octoroon, As You Like It, The Alchemist, and Sticks and Stones on the telly recently), Sule Rimi (American Clock, All My Sons, Glass/Kill/Bluebeard/Imp, Sweat, Measure for Measure, Love and Information, The Rolling Stone) and Natalie Simpson (Cymbeline, Hedda Tesman, Honour, The Cardinal). They, and their colleagues, definitely have their moments but in such a broad panorama, with many shifts in pace, action and tone, didn’t really get the opportunity to get under the skin of their characters.
Of course Chekhov’s original play can work in all manner of settings and, as long as translators/adaptors remain true to the tragi-comic timbre, the text can be whatever they want it to be. Inua Ellams’s sisters Onuzo, melancholic but politically aware Lolo (Sarah Niles), restless and resentful Nne Chukwu (Natalie Simpson), who was married at just 12, and initially playful, eventually broken, Udo (Rachael Ofori, who impressed), and brother Dimgba (Tobi Bamtefa), are a long way from where they were brought up, cosmopolitan Lagos, as Igbos returned to the east of the country as war breaks out. Their geographical and psychological separation, and the presence of the Biafran army, fits AC like a glove. Ronke Adekoluejo, as Dimgba’s Yoruba vulgar wife Abosede, adds a bullying edge of superiority to brash comedy, as she takes over the family home. I learnt a lot about modern Nigerian history, the baleful influence once again of the colonising Brits, the coup and counter-coup ahead of Biafra’s declaration of independence in 1967, the ethnic divisions, the war waged through bombing and blockades, the role of women in the war. And I have added Half of a Yellow Sun to my, admittedly thin, holiday reading list. But I didn’t really learn very much about the family, and the attarctions, at the heart of the drama.
Knowing the story made it pretty easy to fill in the gaps and to see how IE had weaved in the key symbols and events in the plot. The birthday party, the fire, here the result of an impressively staged airborne bomb strike, the clock, the photo, the duel. If one were new to Three Sisters I could imagine some of the interactions might have felt a little hazy amidst the spectacle but that didn’t seem to faze the enthusiastic audience at this preview performance. I see that, whilst there are tickets remaining through the rest of the run for the next three weeks (sorry, so far behind), it is been pretty successful and the crowd on our outing, was very enthusiastic, as well as, by NT standards, pretty diverse.
BTW all those dullards taking a pop at Rufus Norris’s tenure at the NT should recognise what he has done to extend the reach of the institution. I appreciate that there is still a way to go but here was a classic play, skilfully adapted by a British-Nigerian artist of immense talent, directed by one of the very best AD’s around right now, Nadia Fall at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Can’t see that would have happened under previous NT regimes. Anything that reduces the proportion of entitled, old, white duffers like me in the NT audience is a good thing.
Though I have to say that, whilst Ms Fall showed her customary energy in the set-piece scenes, and mined the comedy in text and character, even she couldn’t find a way of marrying the big picture events outside the frame and the personal, domestic drama at the core of AC’s masterpiece. Still on the plus side there was none of the sense of ennui that can pervade some productions that are too literal (or, sorry to say, too Russian). I am with those who say that Inua Ellams could have made an even better play by running even further away from the original.
Spigeltent, Chichester Festival Theatre, 17th October 2019
There are a few candidates for my favourite play of 2019. Lynn Nottage’s stunning Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse, or either of the revivals of the Miller classics at the Old and Young Vics respectively, All My Sons and Death of a Salesman. Still TBD but this revival of Roy Williams’s 2002 play about racism, nationalism, football and aggressive masculinity will run them close. So far I have only seen this and RW’s previous offering, The Firm, but I am most definitely a fan. He writes about stuff that matters, politics, race, institutions, friendship, identity and obvs, Marvin Gaye, with big gestures and authentic dialogue. As far as I can tell his work pulls no punches, literally in some cases, and he doesn’t hold back from examining uncomfortable truths about our society. The good news is that TRSE is set to revive Sucker Punch next year directed by Roy Alexander Weise and that Rafe Spall will star in the monologue RW has co-written with Clint Dyer at the NT, Death of England.
Spiegeltents are wood and canvas tents which originated in Belgium in the C19 for the purpose of travelling entertainment. Perfect for housing the replica of the King George pub, designed by Joanna Scotcher, in which SYHOFTL is set, on the afternoon of Saturday the 7th October 2000 for the England-Germany World Cup qualifier at Wembley (the one after which Keegan walked as manager). Or at least the tent would be if it wasn’t lashing down with rain outside. Of course this was one of those days where the deluge was followed and preceded by clear skies, (that’s climate change for you), but I am pleased to report that the tent, bar a bit of shaking, stood up to the storm. What it did mean is that for 5 minutes or so the cast had to bellow to make themselves heard and it added another dose of ferocity to what is already a play steeped in violence. Terrific atmosphere.
It opens with Jimmy (Martyn Ellis, more usually a musicals man), the father of landlady Gina (Sian Reese-Williams) pottering in the pub ahead of the match. Now this being South West London, (I want to call it as a non-gentrified of Fulham), everyone has a full on Eastenders type accent, quite something coming from as Welsh as it gets, Ms Reese-Williams, who excels here. They are joined by her lippy teenage son Glen (Billy Kennedy) and her ex Mark (Mark Springer) who recently left the army. When they leave Glen, desperate to be accepted on the “street”, is left with two of his new friends Duane (Harold Addo) and tough-guy Bad “T” (Dajay Brown) who bully Glen and try to steal drinks from the bar. Gina returns and chides them. One by one the rest of the pub team regulars turn up, in England kit regalia, to watch the match. Pub football team captain Lawrie (Richard Riddell) who is looking for a fight and nakedly racist, his conciliatory ex copper brother Lee (Alexander Cobb), the mendacious Alan (Michael Hodgson) who, it transpires, is a local councillor for far right political party Britain First, Becks (James Jack Ryan), Jess (Kirsty J Curtis), Phil (Rob Compton) and finally Barry (Makir Ahmed), Mark’s conflicted younger brother.
Against the backdrop of the game, banter turns to threat, debate to violence, fuelled by alcohol. The tenor of the dialogue reflects this. It is, at times, funny, as well as viscerally disturbing, and the cast, superbly marshalled by director Nicole Charles whose last outing was Emilia at the Globe, completely immerse themselves in their roles. This is vital theatre, not just because of the staging, but also because it dares to expose the reality of racism and misogyny in C21 Britain. I have rarely seen a trio of performances more affecting than those of Richard Riddell, whose twitching belligerence seems to hid some deeper resentment, Mark Springer whose spell as a squaddie leaves him aggrieved and determined to confront the racism of his former friends, and Michael Hodgson whose needling of Mark and whose warped arguments are especially unnerving. (He also stood out as first the Porter and then Duke Capulet in the last RSC season).
RW also packs in plenty of plot, which I can see some might feel veers towards the melodramatic; the arrival of the coppers after Glen’s phone is nicked, as well as Sharon (Jennifer Daley), Duane’s Mum, at the end of the first act, (and which memorably here, saw a police car actually arrive outside the tent), and even more so the tragic conclusion. But it certainly gets you on the edge of your seat.
You don’t need to be reminded that racism is still associated with football. And the kind of attitudes and behaviours that are depicted in SYHOFTL are also still prevalent. Relevance, character, language and spectacle make this production a classic. What’s more, for once, I was one of the older members in this matinee audience. I can see why the this might have frightened the pensioner horses of Chichester but the students, for I am pretty sure that’s who they were, were transfixed.
I understand the Spiegeltent went on to host a variety of one-nighters after the run of SYHOFTL. If you ask me there must surely be case for bringing this production up to the big smoke as has happened with so many CFT productions. I can see an ideal pitch on the South Bank next door to the National. In which case I implore you to grab a ticket. In an ideal world an enterprising producer would find a way to overcome the health and safety and blocking issues and stage this in a pub. Downstairs from a theatre upstairs would be a neat inversion. Imagine this in the Latchmere below the 503. What would be a real shame is if this superb realisation of this modern classic didn’t reach an extended audience.
This must have been tough. Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Secret River is an epic production, in terms of the story it tells and the way it tells it, involving numerous creatives and a large cast, over 40 people in total. All came over to headline the Edinburgh Festival and then move on to the NT. And then the heart of the production, Ningali Lawford-Wolf, a leading First Nations activist and performer, who played Dhirrumbin, the narrator of the story, passed away suddenly in Edinburgh. Her family and the creative team agreed to go ahead, Pauline Whyman stepped in and we were fortunate enough to see, (and hear and smell), this marvellous slice of theatre. So thank you all.
Now when I say epic this doesn’t mean the play loses the human dimension. The Secret River, based on Kate Grenville’s award winning novel, (part of a trilogy), is a fiction intended to explore Australia’s colonial past but at its heart are two families struggling to survive. Ms Grenville was prompted to write the book, following the May 2000 Reconciliation Walk, to understand the history of her ancestor, Solomon Wiseman, who settled on the Hawkesbury River. It tells the story of William Thornhill whose death sentence for petty theft is commuted to transportation to New South Wales for life in 1806. He arrives with wife Sal and children and is eventually able to buy his freedom to start afresh. The family’s encounters with the Aboriginal people of Australia, and their relationship with other settlers, good and bad, is explored, culminating in violence. Thornhill’s determination to own and tame “his” 100 acres of land is contrasted with the Aboriginal family’s bewilderment at the very idea and with Sal’s desire to return “home”. Thornhill may be a good man in some ways but cannot stop himself from dehumanising his indigenous neighbours, though by the end his guilt is manifest.
Not having read the book I can’t be sure how tightly Andrew Bovell’s adaptation cleaves to the original story, but director Neil Armfield, associate Stephen Page and dramaturg Matthew Whittet take full advantage of the dramatic opportunity it affords. A simple brown ochre suspended cloth creates a cliff face thanks to set designer Stephen Curtis, Tess Schofield offers simple but authentic costumes and Mark Howett’s lighting is superb. The sound design of Steve Francis and especially the score of composer Iain Grandage, brilliantly realised by Isaac Hayward through piano (keys and strings), cello and electronics, is one of the best I have ever experienced. The full extent of the Olivier stage, and theatrical technique, is used to conjure up this bend of the Hawkesbury River in 1813/14.
The play was first performed in 2013 in Sydney to rave reviews. Which is unsurprising giving just how well the story is told and the power of the message. But you don’t need to be Australian to appreciate that message. The ugly truth of colonisation and the damage done to the culture and society of First Nations people (in Australia and by implication elsewhere) is laid bare but through metaphor not didactically, and the motivations of the characters are made real in actions as much as words. The indigenous Dharug family begins by voicing their apprehension at what the settlers might bring, whilst Thornhill justifies his claim to the land by saying they are effectively nomads who choose not secure land or crops. Curiosity gives way to conflict. Any hope of shared understanding soon flounders on the greed, and/or desperation, of the settlers.
The performances are excellent led by Georgia Adamson as the ruminative Sal, Nathanial Dean as her less thoughtful husband, Elma Kris doubling up as Buryia and Dulla Din, the wife of Blackwood (Colin Moody), Dubs Yunupingu, similarly as Gilyaggan and Muruli, Major “Moogy” Sumner AM as the patriarch Yalamundi, Joshua Brennan as the conniving Dan Oldfield, Jeremy Sims as the vicious Smasher Sullivan and Bruce Spence as the erudite Loveday. (For those of a certain vintage you will remember Bruce as the pilot in Mad Max 2 and 3).
And, of course, Pauline Whyman. Her narration needs to shape and reflect the rhythm of the story, which can’t have been easy after, literally, a few hours of rehearsal. Dhirrumbin is the Dharug name for the Hawkesbury, suggesting, as much of her script does, that she was their long before any human ever arrived. And that she knows how this tragedy will end. It is she that provides the way into not just this place but also the emotional hinterland of the two peoples and, specifically provides the Dharug with a voice for us to understand. Unlike the book the play doesn’t just see these people solely through the eyes of the white settlers. Initially however Andrew Bovell and his team had no language for them to speak. Until actor Richard Green joined the original cast. As a Dharug man he was able to show that their language was very much alive and went on translate and show the cast how to speak and sing it. The Anglicised names of the Dharug in the book could now be reclaimed in their own language and we could begin to understand how they might perceive a history which they had not written.
A theatre saddo, loafer and tightwad like the Tourist can be relied on to fill in the surveys that theatres send out post performance. Do you go to the theatre to be entertained, inspired or educated they say. In the case of The Secret River I can definitively say all three. Equally. And the SO who came along is set to read the book. No higher praise is possible.
I have been mightily impressed with the two adaptations by David Greig, the AD of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, that I have seen to date. The Suppliant Women, based on Aeschylus’s The Suppliants, which came to the Young Vic a couple of years ago, benefited from an excellent professional and amateur cast, some superb movement/choreography courtesy of Sasha Milavic Davies and music from percussionist Ben Burton and double aulos-ist (is that a thing) Callum Armstrong, but it was Mr Greig’s rhythmic text which powered the whole thing on. As for his skill in bringing Joe Simpson’s mountaineering epic, Touching the Void, to the stage, (which also features stunning movement work courtesy of Ms Davies), well I strongly suggest you make up your own mind and snap up a ticket for the transfer to London at the Duke of York’s. It was one of my top ten plays of 2018 at its original run in Bristol for good reason.
I am also set to see DG’s latest adaptation, Solaris, based on the 1961 novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, made into a brilliant film by master Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972 and then subsequently sharpened up by Steven Soderbergh in 2002. If you like your science fiction to be all crash, bang, wallop, dispense-with-plot-and-character, CGI-fest, then this is not for you. It’s claustrophobia always felt like a good fit for the theatre to me and from the sound of the reviews from the current run in Edinburgh so it has proved, Can’t wait. And I should also probably consider seeing the Old Vic’s musical version of Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero next year where DG will write the book, though the involvement of one Mark Knopfler in the music department worries me. (In the Tourist’s post-punk musical heyday of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Dire Straits were the enemy of taste, no question).
Sadly though I had never seen any of DG’s original plays. I see there have been relatively recent revivals of Midsummer and The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, and I would hope that one day soon the likes of The Events and Dunsinane reappear based on the reactions to their original outings. For the moment though I will make do with Europe, DG’s first ever play from 1994, and this marvellous revival at the Donmar Warehouse which Michael Longhurst choose to direct as the opener in his first season as the new AD at the Donmar. Big boots to metaphorically fill after Josie Rourke but with this production, Branden Jacob-Jenkins’s Appropriate and the revival of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away to come, he seems to be firmly on the right track.
Now if you had told me that the prophetic Europe was written in the 1930’s, or yesterday, I would have a) been very surprised since I don’t know you and b) even more surprised that you were actually reading this blog. But, limp jokes aside, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised, (an impression shared in the proper reviews). It is set in a mittel-European border town, a place, we sense, with a rich history, but now left-behind, chiefly known for “soup and lightbulbs”. Specifically we are taken to a railway station where young Adele (Faye Marsay) dreams of escape from her life and job as assistant to officious station-master Fret (Ron Cook). Adele is married to Berlin (Billy Howle who spends most of his time whinging and drinking with his jobless mates, the realist Billy (Stephen Wight) and proto-fascist Horse (Theo Barklem-Bigggs). Refugees from former Yugoslavia, Sava (Kevork Malikyan), and his daughter Katia (Natalia Tena), pitch up at the railway station one night. And stay. Initially to the consternation of Fret. But, after the train service is closed, he and Sava strike up a friendship and protest and Adele starts to break down Katia’s many emotional barriers. The three men however turn against the incomers and, when he returns from his travels, their childhood friend, the spivvish Morocco (Shane Zaza).
The story plays out, Brecht like, over twenty, titled, episodes. But Chloe Lamford’s scrupulous set, Tom Visser’s lighting and Ian Dickinson’s superb sound are anything but Brechtian. Even so Mr Longhurst’s direction still manages to draw out the thick metaphor in DG’s text, creating a universal out of this fascinating particular. This may be 1994, but Europe has seen this many times before, including right now, and, shamefully, will likely see it all again even, as it will, peace and tolerance triumph. (Always remember the bad guys know they are doing wrong: that is why they spend so much time and effort trying to deny and hide it). I gather Mr Greig has dealt with the themes of the cultural, personal and political differences between us, and specifically the fiction of borders and the plight of refugees, before but I wonder if he has done so as eloquently as here. I would like to find out if anyone fancies reviving his work.
That this Donmar production is so persuasive is also down to the excellent cast. Now normally when the Tourist says all the actors are tip-top he doesn’t really mean it. There are often stand-outs. He is just too polite to draw attention to them. Here though the entire ensemble shines. I am a huge fan of Ron Cook and here he matched his performances in Faith Healer, The Children and The Homecoming. I don’t think I had seen Turkish actor Kevork Malikyan before, other than in the best forgotten At Tale of Two Cities in Regent’s Park, but here he lends Sava immense dignity in the face of crushing adversity. Similarly I only know Natalia Tena from her turn as a Wildling in you know what, and that LD has a soft spot for her Potter role. Here she revealed a woman whose life experience leaves affection and trust as luxuries she simply cannot afford. I remember Faye Marsay and Shane Zaza from John Tiffany’s exemplary revival of Jim Cartwright’s road at the Royal Court a couple of years ago and Billy Howle I also remember from his performance as Galileo’s student in the Young Vic Life of Galileo. Both Theo Barklem-Biggs and Stephen Wight have familiar faces through TV roles but, on these performances I would like to see them on stage again.
The big, wide, “globalised” world is a scary place. But then again so, often, is home. Whether to stay or go feels like a question far too many have to grapple with. Europe with a mix of aggression, humour, tenderness and intelligence examines this dilemma through pointed narrative and character.
BTW is you want to see how a bitter tw*t at the other end of the humanity spectrum saw the play read the Spectator review. All the tired cliches and preposterous exaggeration. It must be hard work being this p*ssed off about everything all the time. Apparently “most borders are the product of geography”. Not history, politics or economics then. Unintentionally hilarious. I promise you I know a bit about this and I can assure you my academic specialism doesn’t wield that much power. Remember don’t let the idiocracy grind you down good people.
Sir David Hare has written a fair few plays. Important plays. As well as TV screenplays and film scripts. I’ve only seen a handful but it’s not difficult to work out why the old boy is so important. Even if some would suggest he has gone off the boil a bit in recent years. Maybe that’s true though for me there was still much to admire in his last two plays I’m Not Running and his adaptation of The Red Barn, and in the TV drama Collateral. Is he Britain’s greatest living playwright? I think Mr Stoppard’s admirers would have something to say about that and, for me, Caryl Churchill, trumps them both.
So to this revival of Plenty. It wasn’t Sir David’s first success in the theatre. Slag from 1970, performed at the Royal Court, was the breakthrough with Knuckle, Brassneck, (written in collaboration with Howard Brenton as was 1985’s Pravda, a truly great play which is still lodged in my mind), and, especially, Fanshen, the Joint Stock workshopped production about land reform in revolutionary China, all attracting considerable attention. But Plenty stands as one o the clearest expositions of his talent. At least so I was told by those in the know. So I leapt at the chance to nip down to Chichester to see this new production. Especially as the CFT had handed the keys over to a talented, but not big name, cast (with maybe one obvious exception) and creative team.
Mind you director Kate Hewitt had already shown her gifts to the good people of Chichester in last year’s revival of Mike Bartlett’s Cock in the Minerva and again, at the Young Vic, with Jesus Hopped the A Train. Designer Georgia Lowe also worked on Cock and has come up with some grand designs for recent ETT productions and An Octoroon which the Tourist has enjoyed. For Plenty she has produced a lean but richly toned representation with further depth courtesy of Lee Curran’s lighting, Giles Thomas’s sound and Nina Dunn’s backgrounds and close up live video. There are a lot of scene changes in Plenty as the action flips from 1943 to 1956 and 1962. Every scene looks the part in this production and none of these changes get in the way of the story.
The title was inspired by the idea that post war Britain would be a land of “plenty”, an idea that Sir David has always been keen to contend. In Plenty he does this through the life of Susan Traherne, a heroine in the wartime Special Operations Executive whose life after the war is blighted by disappointment and regret. As the wife of a repressed career diplomat, Raymond Brock, she cannot replicate the rush of her secret missions behind enemy lines and, as depression sets in, she in turn drags down her husband. Their childlessness being the most crushing outcome both literally and metaphorically. Apparently 75% of the women engaged by the SOE divorced soon after the war. Susan’s own decline is intended to mirror that of post war Britain with Raymond’s postings and specifically his actions alongside boss Sir Leonard Darwin at the time of the Suez Crisis creating a brilliant counterpoint.
This is what Sir David does. Mixes the political and the personal. The way in which an individual’s life is intertwined with the, here, upper class, repressed British society into which they are thrust. Fair to say he is not the only dramatist who has ploughed this particular furrow. But he is amongst the best. Because he has the gift for the gab. Lines spill effortlessly out of the mouths of his characters. Any exposition, and with all these big themes lurking in the not-so background, a lot of ground needs to be covered, flows naturally in the dialogue. OK so maybe they get to the big picture arguments a bit too rapidly but then again in Plenty, as in his other plays, his people actually live in the big picture.
But this never detracts from the interior journey of the main protagonists. Here Susan and Raymond. Sir David may be a Chekhov groupie like so many of his illustrious peers but Susan Traherne might have stepped straight out of the pages of an Ibsen classic. In reverse trajectory. And with a nod to Rattigan’s Hester in The Deep Blue Sea which CFT also revived earlier in the year. Same class, same period, (though TDBS is set over one day compared to the 20 years of Plenty), same frustrations. This is a woman trying to revive the agency of her past life whilst surrounded by men determined, for reasons moreorless deliberate, to thwart her.
You have probably surmised that Susan Traherne is a gift of a part but it takes an actor of rare skill to do justice to it. Rachael Stirling is just such an actor. (Mind you if your Mum is Diana Ring I guess you wee genetically predisposed to be brilliant on stage). She refrains from laying on too thickly ST’s descent into depression and, maybe, psychosis, and handles the shifting time frames with ease. The bitter sarcasm she levels at, most memorably, the dinner party guests at the height of the Suez crisis and, then again, in 1962 at Raymond’s bosses at the FCO, is not entirely absent even at the outset when she meets “Codename Lazar” (Rupert Young) and “A Frenchman” (Raphael Desprez) in occupied France. She’s brutally honest in a social and political milieu that doesn’t want to listen. Which is what makes the play so popular with us lefty, liberal types though in far too subtle a way to register with the gammons, then and now. As it happens I am not sure I share Sir David’s implied pessimism about the direction of GB’s travel since the war. There have been periods of ascent over the past decades, but I do think this is usually despite, not thanks to, the c*cks who are generally in the box seats.
Rory Keenan never loses sight of the fact that Raymond Brock is a bit of a dick imprisoned by his own values and upbringing but he still offers emotional support above and beyond for the woman he loves. Yolanda Kettle offers light(-ish) relief as ST’s life long chum Alice Park, an archetypal toff playing at the bohemian, but with a freedom ST years for, and Antony Calf and Nick Sampson also shine as the two knighted diplomat, the latter more sceptical of the Establishment system than the former.
“State of the Nation” and, for want of a better phrase, the dramatisation of institutional structures, is what we have paid Sir David Hare to deliver over the last five decades. Too many lightly sketched characters? Too many targets for his ire? Or too preoccupied with fighting the battles of previous years? A sometimes uncomfortable shoehorning of the personal into the political. All maybe true but this ain’t easy and, with line after line, Is David shows us why he is as good as it gets with this sort of stuff. And Plenty is about as good as it gets as an example of his sort of stuff.
Never easy to work out what to sign up for at the Arcola Theatre since so much of quality and interest passes through the doors. So the Tourist has adopted a somewhat whimsical approach and given up worrying too much if he misses the cream of its output, However this was different. I was very taken with Al Smith’s take on Diary of a Madman at the Gate and thus more annoyed that I missed his last effort, Harrogate, at the Royal Court, So this, a revival of one of his first plays, written when he was a regular for Holby City and Eastenders, was an opportunity not to be missed.
And, whilst I cannot imagine another way of playing Peter Shaffer’s gift of a part, Adam Gillen was a memorable Mozart in the NT Amadeus from 2016. For Mr Gillen it is who plays Charlie Fairbanks the “star” of Radio. As the blurb says, “Charlie Fairbanks was born in the dead centre of the United States at the deda centre of the 20th century. Americans are going to the Moon and Charlie’s sure he’ll be the first one three. But as he shines his spotlight on the Moon, so too does it illuminate the darker side to his nation’s history. Radio is a story about memory, love and spaceships“.
A pretty fair summary. From this notion Mr Smith spins a yarn that more than holds out attention for its 80 minutes or so running time even if it only hints at a critique of modern America’s inability to live up to its Dream. Adam Gillen’s Charlie is an optimist, brought up in Kansas, though his Dad moves the family around to ensure his tourist schtick, the house at the centre of the US from which he sells flags, is maintained. His dreams of being an astronaut, fuelled by the radio and the optimism of the 1950s and the Kennedy presidency, fade as he confronts the reality of the Vietnam War, the actual Moon landings and destitution as a veteran through the Nixon and Ford years.
The intricate text meanders but always illuminates, Josh Roche’s direction is never rushed, Sophie Thomas’s set is minimal, a skein of wires in red, white and blue and a few props and Peter Small’s lighting is similarly direct in the atmospheric downstairs space in the Arcola. So everything is focussed on Mr Gillen. There is more than a whiff of Forrest Gump in Charlie but his performance commits and so persuades us of Charlie’s brand of self-conscious sincerity, whilst still sketching out the supporting characters, Mum, Dad, girlfriend and so on. This kind of close-up monologue always takes guts on the part of the actor, especially when playing an Everyman on to which the external world is projected, but AG, bar a few accent slips, is utterly convincing.
What was that all about? Benjamin Britten and WH Auden’s “choral operetta” which premiered in 1941 when they were in America, is a fable, structured like a Broadway musical, with an array of musical styles, (though BB’s hand is always clear), sometimes camp, sometimes deadly serious with a libretto which, allegorically and sometimes explicitly, takes aim, and occasionally misses, at a whole host of, then, fashionable artistic targets. It got panned, was shelved by Britten until his very last days in 1976 when he revised it for a performance at the Aldeburgh Festival, (which sadly he didn’t witness), and it has gradually clawed its way back into the repertoire.
I saw it decades ago when my head was nowhere near capable of making sense of it and I had intended to see it at Wilton’s Music Hall where this ENO production fist surfaced, but, you know, stuff. Anyway the reviews persuaded me and, by and large, I am glad I listened. I can’t imagine a production that could better convince me of its peculiar merits, and the themes started to resonate, but I still confess I am not convinced by Britten and Auden’s motives. They were a clever couple of lads no doubt, (go see Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art to be persuaded), and this must have looked good on paper, particularly in the intellectual climate of the time, but it does feel like they over-egged it, and, for something that is supposed to be performed by semi-professional groups, it doesn’t seem to have a clear audience home.
Paul Bunyan, and his faithful companion Babe the Blue Ox, is a staple of American folklore, who apparently came out of the oral storytelling tradition of American loggers. He is, just run with this will you, a giant lumberjack, who, along with his trusty crew, set off across the US to perform feats of superhuman strength and carve out the landscapes of the US. Or maybe he wasn’t. Perhaps he was dreamed up by an adman, William B. Laughead, to promote the Red River Lumber Company in 1916, whose exploits then became a staple of kids books. Or maybe not. Maybe he was an actual lumberjack in Canada by the name of Fabian Fournier. Who knows? Whatever his origin he has been the subject of all manner of creative endeavour ever since and I gather the US is littered with oversized statues of the fella.
Already you can see why a couple of posh gay Brits, in love with America and its meaning, and keen to give something to the country in which they have, temporarily, taken refuge, might see the potential in such a subject. You might not know the Paul Bunyan legend but their hosts, across society, certainly did. The homegrown art of the US in the C19, (after all the portraiture of the late C18 and early C19 in common with Europe), was focussed on nature, the immensity of the landscape, and especially on man’s conquest of nature. This was fundamental in creating a powerful new identity for the young nation. The Hudson River School, pioneered by Thomas Cole, led the way. I knew f*ck all about this until I, with no great intent, saw the recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Cole’s work and specifically his allegory The Course of Empire. Very interesting.
Now you may wonder what a massive lumberjack, (here I have to ask you to listen to the Human League’s Empire State Human – wry banality is a sadly rare quality in pop music’s lyric history), and his blue ox might have to do with this. Well its springs from the same well. The creation of America though internal colonisation. Both good and bad. Now sticking with art history by the time we get to the 1930s, (BB and Peter Pears arrived in 1939 just after WHA and Christopher Isherwood), US art was torn in four ways as far as I can see. A more or less folksy nostalgia for America’s rural past and founding myths, or something far more critical which recognised the damage that had been done to the heartland by the Depression and Dustbowl. Or even something which stood, ironically, in both camps, with Grant Wood being the most powerful exponent. Then there was art which celebrated, or lamented, the march of US capitalism and power and the impact of technology on the city. As the America After the Fall exhibition, this time courtesy of the knowledgeable people at the Royal Academy (and elsewhere) and America’s Cool Modernism at the Ashmolean amply demonstrated the 1930’s, for those of us who like paint, figurativism and context, this was a fertile period and stateside.
Will you please get to the point Tourist? Well, the point is that Paul Bunyan the operetta represents the same optimism and pessimism, the celebration and subversion of the rural, mythic pas,t and the way the change to the urban would potentially upset it, that American pictorial art was exploring. And not just pictorial art. Take Our Town by Thornton Wilder in theatre from 1938, in film, Stagecoach and Modern Times in there very different ways, and art music, notably Aaron Copland, who Britten befriended and whose musical influence is also clear in Paul Bunyan. (As it happens Copland was a mentor to one Leonard Bernstein who left his own indelible mark on US musical culture after the war, and an early champion of Charles Ives who was exploring the very territory I am describing, the clash of past and present, some thee decades earlier).
Now musical theatre in 1930s US was a serious business. By which I mean that the government, specifically with its Federal Theatre Project in drama, stood firmly behind cultural revitalisation to match the economic recovery underpinned by the New Deal, and that some musicals even offered a deeper social and political message. Take Porgy and Bess at the high art end of the spectrum. BB and WHA had form back home when it came to a political message with their documentary collaborations and song cycles such as On This Island and the under-rated Our Hunting Fathers.
And at the end of Paul Bunyan, in the final Litany, they lay it on thick with the paean to the individualism and acceptance they see in America and the psalm chants of the animal’s petition in the preceding Christmas Party scene. It may be idealistic, even naive, but it is, especially in this production, undeniably effective.
So there you have it. My take on what it’s all about. No f*cking use whatsoever. So you could profitably enjoy PB without agonising about its messages and context and just as a story with some, this being BB, wonderful tunes. A story about some old trees who get warned by three geese that they will be in big trouble when the moon turns blue for that is when PB is born. A narrator, well three to be exact, tell of PB’s early life before we join him and Babe in the forest with his team of Swedish lumberjacks, a pair of culinarily challenged chefs, a bookkeeper, Johnny Inkslinger, and assorted cats and dogs (yep they sing). PB goes off to fetch his daughter Tiny but the crew gets unruly whilst he is away and a bloke called Slim turns up. PB returns, offers some of the lumberjacks the option of farming, the leader of the Swedes, Hel Helson, talks to all sorts of animals, before being egged on by his Scandi mates to pick a fight with PB, which he, unsurprisingly loses. Tiny and Slim fall in love and Helming realises the error of his ways. Christmas Eve. Slim and Tiny and Slim are to marry, Hel is off to Washington to join the Administration and Johnny is going to Hollywood.
I mean all fairly routine no? OK maybe not. It is as bonkers as it sounds and BB takes full advantage by chucking his take on all manner of musical genres, folksongs, ballads, blues, county & western, hymns, Broadway, cabaret, even ad jingles into the pot, and WHA lets rip with his precise poetry. knowing irony and unexpected vernacular, (Scandinavia rhymed with behaviour).
Even if doesn’t all quite add up it isn’t for the want of trying from the ENO players and chorus under James Henshaw, the cast, designer Camilla Clarke and, especially, director Jamie Manton. Whilst the execution was undeniably as serious as if this were, say Wozzeck at the Coliseum, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves so eventually, despite my reservations, it just seemed easier to go with the flow. And, I figured, maybe this “plot” was no dafter than the gods and monsters of the early Baroque.
For all the pastiche the score is bursting with BB’s melodic gift and ear-catching invention. He even offers a test of what was to come decades later with a hint of the singular scales of Balinese gamelan. And there is, in the choral and instrumental passages, even some “serious” opera to savour.
The Ally Pally theatre offers a beautiful, but voluminous, space so, given the transfer from the intimate surroundings of Wilton’s I was a bit concerned that this might, like the Headlong Richard III, get a bit swallowed up. Not in the slightest. Ensemble on a platform at stage rear, another platform for our three narrators, Claire Mitcher, Rebecca Stockland and Susanna Tudor Thomas, (when they are off-duty from being geese of course), projection stage, wheelie bins, blue Smeg fridges symbolising ox, constant motion, dance, costume designs John Waters would have embraced for his films. All presided over by a giant neon blue PB – did I mention we don’t actually see Paul Bunyan – never mind. We do hear him though booming out in the mellifluous shape of none other than Simon Russell Beale. And the chorus makes full use of the aisles, slips and rear, of the auditorium.
Which, when you have the mighty presence and voice of New Zealand based Samoan baritone Benson Wilson on your shoulder, turns out to be a hell of thing. Mr Wilson, who also plays farmer John Shears, was the winner of this years Kathleen Ferrier Award. I must say I was much taken with the big fella. I have never head an operatic voice up that close. More fool me. At somewhat lesser proximity I was also taken with Elgan Llyr Thomas as Inkslinger and Rowan Pierce as Tiny. But honestly this whole ensemble was just another reason why I prefer the ENO home grown talent to the ROH fly ins.
So there you have it. BB went on to bigger and better things, (and fell out big time with Auden), though this work, for all the funs and games, shows why no-one should have been surprised when, four years later, and back in Blighty, BB pitched up with Peter Grimes putting us back on the operatic compositional map 250 years since Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Don’t feel too sorry for clever clogs Auden. He went on to write the libretto for Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.