Don Carlos at the Rose Kingston review ****

Don Carlos

Rose Theatre Kingston, 9th November 2018

No one could accuse Friedrich Schiller of holding back in Don Carlos. Goethe inspired Sturm und Drang Romanticism, a Kantian paean to the centrality of personal freedom and democracy, the clash of liberty and tyranny, a stab at the sublime, a (loose) history of a turning point in the Spanish Golden Age, a political thriller chock full of intrigue, an (incestuous) love story, an increasingly intense Renaissance style tragedy lifting directly from Shakespeare, most notably Hamlet and Othello, but also Lear, Julius Caesar and Henry IV, which spills over into melodrama: it is big on passion and big on ideas. Operatic in scope you might say. Which is why Verdi wasn’t the only one who espied its potential. 

It took five years to write, finally published in 1787, which might also explain its meandering nature and abrupt tonal shifts, and, if you were unfortunate enough to sit through the original, ostentatious five acts of blank verse in their entirety you wouldn’t get much change out of seven hours. No one ever has mind you. This is kitchen sink drama. As in Freddy chucked the dramatic kitchen sink at it, not as in a pint-sized slice of domestic realism. 

This production, in a translation by Robert David MacDonald, clocks in at 3 hours. Schiller was largely ignored by the English speaking world for a couple of centuries. One reason why he no longer is, as well as Goethe, Lermentov, Gogol, Goldoni and Racine, is Mr MacDonald. Fluent in 8 languages he was the brains behind the Glasgow Citizens Theatre as well as an accomplished playwright in his own right.

Nor could one accuse Israeli director Gadi Roll, and actor Tom Burke, whose inaugural production as theatre company Ara this is, of holding back. Ara is intended to bring non-naturalistic theatre to the regional masses (though I am not sure the good people of Kingston, half an hour by train away from the South Bank, qualify as regional). They have started with a bang here. This is stripped back minimalist European auteur theatre which prizes style as well as content. Designer Rosanna Vize, who normally offers just a little more, makes do with the bare Rose stage and a few chairs, and modern dress with a vague Golden Age/Matrix flourish (and a lot of shades). The constantly moving lighting rigs in Jonathan Samuels’s design are dramatic and very effective (he worked with Gadi Roll on the Belgrade Coventry productions of The House of Bernarda Alba and Don Juan Comes Back From The War which is where Tom Burke met Mr Roll). The mingling of the private and public spheres.

The actors move around the stage in stylised straight lines. In the first couple of acts, the cast, notably Samuel Valentine as Don Carlos himself and Alexandra Dowling as the Princess of Eboli, (though with the notable exception of Tom Burke himself as the Marquis of Posa, the cool, calm voice of reason perhaps), spit their lines out with machine gun intensity, requiring the audience to keep ears and brains on their toes as it were. And there is a lot of shouting, notably from Darrell D’Silva’s Philip II. It is very, very, very dark most of the time and black is the dominant fashion. A nod to Velasquez, Ribera, Murillo et al?

I loved it. I see that the proper critics were less enamoured. Maybe the novelty of the play itself has worn off for these cynical hacks? The less than dynamic staging, the delivery of the lines and some of the acting didn’t past muster for many of them. Now I admit that the deliberately non-naturalistic choices made by Gadi Roll, in terms of look, movement and speech, did take a bit of getting used to, but necessary adjustment made, actually helped to see through to the core of Schiller’s text and messages and helpfully circumvent the worst of the melodrama. And it wasn’t just me. The SO, attracted by the history, and Mr TFP, an expert on German literature and culture, and a man who has read Schiller in German, agreed with me. I am guessing though that not all of the audience were as persuaded.

Young Don Carlos, the Infante, has the hots for Elizabeth of Valois (Kelly Gough). The only problem is Dad, Philip II, has married her. Dad also doesn’t trust the hot-headed Prince to get stuck into the affairs of government. And big Phil remember ousted his own Dad to seize the throne. When Carlos’s boyhood chum, the Marquis de Posa, returns to Court he confides his love and de Posa agrees to advance his suit if he in turn will help free the rebellious people of Flanders, oppressed by nasty Spain. Carlos asks Phil if he can go to Flanders (more exactly the Spanish Netherlands). Phil refuses and instead sends the Duke of Alba (Vinita Morgan). Cue bust up between the Duke and Don Carlos. There is a note and a key and Carlos ends up in the Queens bedroom with the Princess de Eboli who fancies him and wants to escape the clutches of the randy King. Thwarted she goes to Domingo (Jason Morell) the King’s Confessor. He plots with Alba to bring down the Queen and Carlos. A trap is laid but the suspicious King enlists de Posa to help uncover it. The Marquis’s enlightened ideas start to persuade the King but tyrants will be, albeit pragmatic, tyrants. There are some letters. misunderstandings, arrests, imprisonments, failed murders, accusations, double crossings, realisations, escapes and then, just when everyone least expects it, the Spanish Inquisition arrives (with Tom Burke doubling up as the Grand Inquisitor). To remind us that in C16 Spain it was ultimately the Catholic Church that held, literally, the whip hand. 

Obviously it does get a bit silly but the bare bones of the romantic tragedy are involving and there is a brio to the story which is irresistible. The intellectual set piece between the Marquis and the King, “give men the right to think”, is powerful, affecting stuff, which gets to the heart of the struggle between absolutism and representation, filtered, as it is, through the recognition by Philip that the Marquis, even with his heresies, is the son he really wanted. Especially when you realise that the “real” Don Carlos was an utter f*ckwit. A victim of Hapsburg inbreeding, deformed, mentally unstable even before he underwent a trepanation, he might have blinded all the horses in the Royal stables, and was prone to chucking servants out of windows. Phil eventually locked him up. The despot in Philip is plain to see, but we also see his humanity, and his justifications. And de Posa may have right on his side but boy does he know it and, intoxicated by his own argument, he will manipulate anyone and everyone to get what he wants. 

What next for Ara? This was a pretty bold first move. On the assumption that the style, the look, feel and intent of the company is set, I wonder if they might not be better served, at least in terms of critical response, by reviving a more recent play. We shall see. I hope they continue to aim high though. 

Now a few words on the “gosh, how did that Greek/Jacobean/Restoration/Spanish Golden Age/French classicist/German romantic playwright create something so uncannily relevant to today” trope. It’s not because they could see into the future or were especially politically prescient. It is because we, as human beings, either individually or collectively, haven’t moved on much. We may have smartphones, good teeth and a colossal amount of debt, but the way we interact with each other in the body politic, and the core of our individual psychologies, haven’t changed much in the pitifully tiny amount of time where we have, to the detriment of other species I fear, “ruled” this planet. So if a playwright can nail these truths, whether in the 5th century BCE or yesterday, we will listen. Don Carlos was first staged two years before the French Revolution: by the time he published the final version in 1805 the dream has collapsed into the Reign of Terror and Napoleon was Emperor. Then Schiller popped his clogs. And you think we live in worrying times. 

Having now seen this production, and the Almeida Mary Stuart, I hope to be able to bag another Schiller one day, The Robbers, Intrigue and Love, the Wallenstein Trilogy: all look likely candidates. He makes you work hard for your money, there is a lot, maybe too much, discussion, debate, confrontation and contemplation, but that is what the best dramatists do. And his characters are not just good, bad or indifferent. That is the true test of the playwright, the ability to show us many facets of the human condition, not all of which make sense or stack up. Nuance, ambivalence, enigma, complexity. To be on both sides, and on neither. 

The Outsider at the Print Room Coronet review ****

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The Outsider

Print Room Coronet, 19th September 2018

Tricky one this. I can’t pretend I was pinned back in my seat by the two and a half hours of Ben Okri’s adaptation of Albert Camus’ absurd existentialist classic written in 1942. Abbey Wright’s careful direction injects a little humour, (a dog is played by a mop and the trial scene is undercut with satire), but otherwise doesn’t take liberties with either Camus’ story or this intelligent text. The monochrome set, complete with multiple fans, and costume designs of Richard Hudson, bolster the sense of ennui. The Print Room dry ice machine gets yet another comprehensive work out. The plot, French Algerian bloke, bored at work as a clerk, can’t really get worked up about Mum’s death, finds girlfriend but can’t commit, gets involved with rum type neighbour, gets very hot, kills Algerian, is tried and condemned without really explaining himself, has its moments but isn’t going to pack them in at the Victoria Palace any time soon.

Yet this unhurried, unequivocal approach slowly and surely yields dividends assisted by an outstanding performance from Sam Frenchum. Now the Tourist got an inkling into of the talent of young Sam in the role of Hal in the Park Theatre’s excellent revival of Joe Orton’s Loot this time last year. Hal may not be the sharpest too in the box, so needs to be played dumb to get the laughs, but we need to see how his jealously of lover and criminal sidekick intensifies through the farce. That we got. Here though the young man, who is on stage throughout, rises up to a different challenge, gradually uncovering a man in Mersault, who reveals nothing. His delivery is deliberately monotone but far from mechanical. I expect him to go on to bigger things from here (actorally if not philosophically).

The pace gives the audience plenty of time to ruminate on what drives Mersault and why he is like he is. In the same way as the book. Ostensibly simple, almost banal, Mersault’s story yields pointed insight into the human condition, and specifically, the notion of alienation, of Mersault being a “stranger” or “outsider” to his own life and in the society around him. His utter indifference. Of course you might think it is a load of pretentious Gallic guff which only those who think too much and/or have too much time on their hands could possibly think is of any value. You might be right but I respectfully suggest you give it a go. After all you surely must have experienced the feeling of being utterly bemused by what is going on around you or unable to summon up apparently required emotions. Camus’ absurdist philosophy, his utter scepticism, is pretty bleak but it is ultimately truthfully humanist, even if it doesn’t always feel very human and can jar with post-modern sensibilities. It still needs to be understood though.

The book is written in the first person. Ben Okri has preserved that structure with Mersault speaking direct to audience in key passages to detail his experiences, perceptions, feelings, motivations, or more precisely lack thereof, whilst mixing this up with action across 13 speaking characters (and a few brave community locals). His first date with Marie Cardona (an innocently upbeat Vera Chok) on the beach, the murder, when he is alone in the cell and large parts of the courtroom scenes are straight narrative: the interactions with Raymond (an intimidating Sam Alexander), the undertaker and his defence lawyer (Josh Barrow moving swiftly on from his fine performance in The Silk Road at Trafalgar Studios), his boss and the prosecuting lawyer (David Carlyle) and the director and examining magistrate (Mark Penfold) are largely dialogue, though even here the sense that Mersault is at once removed from his own “reality” is palpable. Mind you he certainly “comes alive” when he violently rejects religion in the powerful scene with the chaplain (John Atterbury).

Mr Okri has preserved the minimalist quality of Camus’ text, or at least the translation I remember reading years ago, but still offers enough “colour” for Abbey Wright, lighting designer David Plater, sound designer Matt Regan and movement director Joyce Henderson to work with. Mind you he doesn’t quite scale the spartan heights of Robert Smith lyrics in The Cure’s early classic Killing An Arab.

If you do take the opportunity to see this production at the Print Room, there are a handful of tickets left, or if it pops up elsewhere, which it should, then don’t miss the accompanying short film by Mitra Tabrizian with text, in Arabic, once again from Ben Okri, which imagines events from the perspective of the Arab. Camus’ novel is discomforting in many ways, as was his principled ambivalence to Algerian independence, but giving a voice to the nameless Arab, here Mohamed Moulfath, (in the play Archie Backhouse), in a way similar to the 2014 novel The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, offers a valuable alternative perspective.

The Prisoner at the National Theatre review **

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The Prisoner

National Theatre Dorfman, 12th September 2018

OK. I should have known better. Having been bemused by Battlefield at the Young Vic in 2016 I still signed up for The Prisoner despite knowing full well I was likely set for a repeat experience. Peter Brook, and long time collaborator Marie-Helene Estienne, are theatrical royalty. The stripped back aesthetic, the philosophical questioning, the emotionally direct text: all this can reveal great truths. But it can also be hard work. Which is what this was.

I am far too simple, too young and insufficiently well versed in theatrical history to have seen Mr Brook’s revolutionary Shakespeare’s interpretations and I can’t speak French. I do have Adrian Lester’s Hamlet at the Old Vic from 2001 in the memory bank to understand just what PB and M-HE can conjure up. That had the assistance of one William Shakespeare however. The Prisoner is in their own words. It isn’t quite the same. Donald Sumpter is a Visitor come to some nameless place to see Ezekiel played bt Herve Goffings. He is the uncle of Mavuso (Hiran Abeysekera) who has killed his father when he discovered the relationship between him and sister Nadia (Kalieaswari Srinivasan). Mavuso is sentenced but is permitted to serve his punishment outside of a prison looking in, watched over by a Man (Omar Silva) and, sometimes, Guards. That’s it.

Why he does this and whether this constitutes justice are the central dilemmas of what was, frankly, a pretty long 75 minutes. It looked beautiful thanks to artfully placed “stage elements” from David Violi and the lighting design of Philippe Vialatte. The international cast performed with utter conviction. The pacing and sparse encouraged meditation but, with no tonal shift or any resolution, well other than when a mouse pitches up, soon became soporific. Drama with all of the drama deliberately sucked out. An old testament parable which might have been done and dusted in one verse. Beckett without the action or laughs (!).

I am ashamed to say this but the piece was beyond me. Still given that it is 50 years since Mr Brook last directed at the NT, and that is when it was still in the Old Vic, I am, perversely, glad I went. No-one said this culture vulture stuff would be easy after all.

Exit the King at the National Theatre review ****

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Exit the King

National Theatre Olivier, 15th August 2018

My first Ionesco play, albeit in a version adapted by ubiquitous wunderkind Patrick Marber, (one day the image of Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan that pops up at the mention of his name will pass), and, all things considered I liked what I saw and heard. I gather Exit the King is the least absurdist of his major works but there is nothing existentially impenetrable about this production. Apparently too this was the National Theatre’s first ever production of this playwright.

Maybe, over its 100 minutes or so running time, its theme, forgive the pun, was done to death. And maybe there was a bit too much “one character at a time”, comic-strip style declamation but overall I was hooked. Rhys Ifans, who I cannot lie, can annoy me, (I wasn’t bowled over by his fool in the Glenda Jackson Old Vic Lear), was perfectly cast as King Berenger; his movement, stature and delivery were expertly marshalled to great effect as the King went through the various stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression) on the way to accepting his death. Indira Varma was imperiously forthright as Queen Marguerite, as you might expect, and Amy Morgan as Queen Marie, the King’s pandering favourite was a fine foil, even if I have to assume she was more Breton than Ile-de -France given the Welsh twang in her Gallic accent. Adrian Scarborough as The Doctor has added another notch to his long list of comedy side-kicks, the under-rated Debra Gillett squeezed a lot of laughs out of the maid/nurse Juliette as did childhood hero Derek Griffiths as the Guard, (I only realised it was him halfway through), with his pithy Brechtian pronouncements on the action.

Patrick Marber once again showed what a clever fellow he is, not just in the way he understands and interprets classic texts, but in the way he makes them relevant and lucid to contemporary audiences, (After Miss Julie, Don Juan in Soho, Three Days in the Country, Travesties). That I guess is what makes him so bankable as a writer/director though I would like to see him conjure up another original play to rival the heights of Dealer’s Choice and Closer. Anthony Ward’s set design is a triumph, showing it is possible to fill the vast Oliver barn with just six characters, and the coup de theatre delivered at the end, with the assistance of High Vanstone’s lighting and Adam Cork’s sound design, is worth the ticket price alone. No hyperbole here. I literally think it is worth paying £15, for there are plenty of the cheap Travelex tickets left, to see this technical wonder.

King Berenger has reached the grand old age of 483. His kingdom is on its knees but the despotic old boy doesn’t seem to care. He discovers he only has an hour or so to live. There’s nothing the Doc can do. Welcome to the surreal world of French-Romanian playwright Eugene Inonesco. We are in a fairy tale though one that seems to obey Aristotelian real time. KB isn’t happy about the news. His Queens alternatively coax him into denying or accepting this reality. There’s is a deal of metaphysical and psychological insight, some game-playing and a few good one-liners, even if there is no real surprise in the narrative arc. But it does make you think and you do identify with the humanity inside these fabulous characters and there is an energy or, for want of a better term, a life-force, in the play which draws you in, despite the dramatic inertia. As someone who has veered rather too closely towards the guard-rails of mortality in recent years I could see what Ionesco was driving at. He does sound like a bit of a eeyore who spent too long pondering the big questions in life, (and here death), but we need people like that to spare us having to grapple with all this mind-f*cking stuff.

Exit the King is a tragedy played as a comedy and there is, as we know, a lot of fun to be had in that. It isn’t difficult to spot the parallels with the central concern of Lear say, albeit big Will shoves in a few other themes, (and Lear obviously has a fair dose of the absurd), as well as your man Beckett. I have to say though I found this easier to digest than Beckett, though I am no expert. Maybe that reflects the quality of the production but I think I would be keen to see this chap Berenger again, (apparently he crops up in other EO plays Rhinoceros, The Killer and A Stroll in the Air). I suspect that I won’t have too many opportunities to realise this dream, as this is not the sort of theatre to guarantee bums on seats, so I had better crack on with it.

Lurking behind this one-key morality tale Mr Marber does try to draw out a broader message. Just as when we individually die, we die – that’s it folks – and our lives don’t really matter, so it is the same for our species. Homo Sapiens will end with a slow whimper not a bang (technology I’m afraid is the enabler, not the saviour, of our destruction), and there will be no consciousness left to care or mourn. A combination of cynicism and stoicism is the only solution.

Have a nice day.

 

An Oak Tree the Orange Tree Theatre review ****

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An Oak Tree

Orange Tree Theatre, 13th May 2018

Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree has been on my theatrical wish list for a little while now. First performed in 2005 at the Edinburgh Fringe it was, I understand, inspired by Michael Craig-Martin’s, (he of the day-glo technology), seminal work of conceptual art of the same name (see above) which “explains” why a glass of water balanced on a shelf is, in fact, an oak tree. Absolutely guaranteed to make the philistine’s blood boil. As so, to some extent, would Tim Crouch’s best known play.

Caryl Churchill no less described the play as “about theatre, a magic trick, a laugh and a vivid experience of grief, and it spoils you for a while for other plays”. Turns out that, for once, Ms Churchill maybe over-egging it a tad but it is still a fascinating work. Mr Crouch plays a stage hypnotist, complete with shiny waistcoat and cheap patter, whose act is crumbling, we discover, following a road accident which led to the death of a young girl (or maybe not). The other actor plays the father of the girl, Andy, who he encounters at one of his shows. The play then is ostensibly about guilt and grief, and how we process these emotions, a theatrical staple which has become something of a specialism at the OT.

But there’s a twist. The actor playing Andy, here Kate Hardie, hasn’t seen the play or the script before. Which leaves her being guided, like hypnosis, with a mixture of spoken and whispered instructions, headphones and script in hand, by Tim Crouch, in and out or character. It takes time for us, and her, to believe in Andy, though “he’ always remains slightly, and rightly, bewildered. Mr Crouch, on top of his “directing” duties also plays a character putting on an act, hypnotising an audience no less, and imagining an audience in parallel with us the real audience. We are asked to accept at various points that a chair is the dead child and that the grieving father in turns believes that an oak tree, (actually a tree which is part of the OT set for other current productions just in case this wasn’t all meta enough), is in fact his dead daughter, not just her spirit nor a symbol. It really is to him. This is analogous to the explanation of the Craig-Martin art work which informed the play. Indeed Mr Crouch exits the auditorium to fetch a glass of water at one point.

The wonder is that, as Mr Crouch piles on the deconstruction in his essay on performative language, counterpointing art and life, representation and reality, absence and presence, the artifice and magic of theatre, we actually end up caring about these two characters because of, and not in spite of, the form. No dry, academic exercise but a real play, albeit one with many conceptual layers through its 70 minutes.

You need to see it. And I need to see more of this magician’s work.