Knockout premise. Some splendid dialogue. Beguiling, complex characters. Inspired design courtesy of Cai Dyfans. Supported by the lighting of Elliot Griggs and sound of Mike Beer, And engaging performances from the outstanding Welsh cast of Rhys Ifans, Rakie Ayola (the first time I had seen her on stage), Sion Daniel Young and Jason Hughes.
So what was it that left me a little underwhelmed by Ed Thomas’s latest play On Bear Ridge, transferring to the RC after opening at Cardiff’s Sherman. I guess it was the age old problem of development and resolution. Having taken so much care to set up a potent setting, (not always the case when it comes to the theatrical post-apocalyptic), and to flesh out generous back stories for devoted couple, irascible butcher John Daniel and calming wife Noni, their slaughterman apprentice Ifan William (Sion Daniel Young) and the Captain, an exhausted, deserting soldier (Jason Hughes), the narrative seems to runs out of steam, even as the, often startling poetry, accumulates. This is a play about nostalgia, memory, loss and glottophagy (look it up), as the couple, holed up in their dilapidated Welsh mountain home, feel the past, and the wider world, slip away from them. Lists of meat cuts, old customers, even John Daniel’s trousers are seized on to fix their history. they reference a dying “Old Language”. It soon becomes clear though that what really holds them together, and Ifan William, is the love of Twm Siencyn, their son and his best friend/lover.
It is not a long play, just over 80 minutes, and, to be fair. never drags, but I wonder if Ed Thomas could not have been more incisive with his text. The Beckettian dialogue he spins is incisive and immersive, earthy and lyrical, fluently invoking time, place and character, but in the absence of evolution in the plot meant this might have worked better at under an hour. No shame in brevity when your facility with language is so adept, though ET has spent most of the last two decades writing for the small screen. Mr Thomas shared direction with RC head honcho Vicky Featherstone so I might reasonably assume that over-writing, not execution, was the cause of my slight misgivings.
I see the Sherman is set to stage another Welsh post apocalypse saga in the form of and adaptation Manon Steffan Ros’ novel Llyfr Glas Nebo. And JJoe Murphy, the incoming AD, is set to direct a new adaptation of An Enemy of the People, from Brad Birch (another doyen of the theatrical Welsh mountain sub-genre with Black Mountain), set in South Wales.
Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th October 2019
The Tourist’s last exposure to Arthur Miller’s oppressive tale of an ordinary man brought low by his particularly disturbing brand of hamartia was Ivo van Hove’s stripped bare psychodrama with Mark Strong at his very best as Eddie Carbone, alongside Nicola Walker as wife Beatrice and Phoebe Fox as woman-child orphan niece. Miller’s debt to the Greeks is rarely hidden. Here Ivo and Jan Versweyveld didn’t spare us one iota of gut wrenching intensity as Eddie tumbled into his hell of shame and betrayal.
Juliet Forster, the Associate Director at the York Theatre Royal, the co-producer, takes a more traditional, naturalistic path, with an Eddie in Nicholas Karimi who, as his disgust at the passage of Catherine, (Lili Miller in a commendable professional debut), from child to woman and her relationship with the, in his eyes, effete Rodolpho, (a nuanced Pedro Leandro), boils over, lashes out with tragic consequences. Robert Pickavance as the lawyer Alfieri, the chorus who frames the story, locates us slap bang in 1950s Red Hook, the Italian-American neighbourhood in the shadow of Brooklyn Bridge, dominated by the longshoremen who work the docks and their families. Rhys Jarman’s set, enclosed by steel beams and metal staircases, slips unobtrusively from the main room of the apartment where the Carbones live, and where most of the action takes place, to the docks themselves and Alfieri’s office. Aideen Malone’s lighting creates atmosphere without gloom and Sophie Cotton’s sound accents appropriately.
Eddie’s repugnant desire for Catherine, and the dearth of physical intimacy with Beatrice are not underplayed, but it is the way in which this represses and displaces his ungovernable emotions, mixed up with the machismo of his Sicilian background, that powers the obsession which breaks him. We cannot empathise with Eddie, he is wrong, but we can see how he is what he is. The more he strives to preserve his reputation and honour the more they dissolved.
The plight of the immigrant, the uncertainty of work, home and status, the conformity of community, the role of the law, gender stereotyping, all themes with relevance, and which Miller is careful to explore, are underplayed here in deference to the plot. There are some very fine supporting performances not least from Laura Pyper, whose dignity and commitment to her man never wavers, and especially, Reuben Johnson as Marco, the virtuous elder of the cousins, whose restraint when talking about the family he has had to leave behind contrast with the explosive anger he lets loose when he finds out that Eddie has denounced him and Rodolfo to the authorities.
So all the elements are there in this production, the pacing is never hurried, the lines are never snatched, the tension builds progressively. It just lacks the punch that comes from great Miller interpretations. Solid if not spectacular. But with Miller that is normally enough. Though clearly not for the numbnut who felt the need to unwrap a few sweets in the last 20 minutes or so at the back. You wonder why he didn’t just stay at home in front of the telly.
I got a bit nervous going into this. For those who don’t know, South African director Yael Farber has a certain style, an aesthetic, and approach to interpretation of classic plays, which isn’t too everyone’s taste. For me it works. Mies Julie, Knives in Hens, Les Blancs, even the much derided Salome at the NT, all drew me in. Very satisfying. We have her take on Hamlet also at the Young Vic to look forward to next year and newbie, the Boulevard Theatre, has lined her up to direct her compatriot, Athol Fugard’s, Hello and Goodbye.
For Blood Wedding though I had roped in the SO, a more forbidding critic, who is not, as most chums rightly are, as tolerant as the Tourist of, shall we say directorial longueurs. And this was near 2 hours straight through. On the benches of the Young Vic main space. And with her back playing up.
As it turned out I had nothing to fear. Lorca’s play, (his day job was poet after all), has a mythic and elegiac quality perfectly suited to Ms Farber’s ethereal approach, though this tale of forbidden love and revenge is not without drama and lends itself to a clear feminist interpretation. All this and more was on show at the Young Vic. A barely there, in the round, set design from Susan Hilferty, with occasional visual declamation via doors on one side, some artful cascades and a rope and harness which permitted muscular bad boy Leonardo (Gavin Drea) and absconding (nameless) Bride (Aoife Duffin) the striking means to pretend gallop. The intervention of the symbolic Moon (Thalissa Teixera), who can now add superb flamenco singing to her acting flair, and woodcutters (Roger Jean Nsengiyumva and Faaiz Mbelizi) made perfect, just about, sense. The bold lighting of Natasha Chivers, the score of Isobel Waller-Bridge, the spectral hum of Emma Laxton’s sound design, the balletic movement of Imogen Knight, witness the closing fight (overseen by Kate Waters) and subsequent requiem.
Most of all though Marina Carr’s beautiful translation. By shifting the setting of Lorca’s revenge tragedy to rural Ireland, though never quite leaving 1930’s Andalusia behind, Ms Faber allowed Ms Carr the opportunity to conjure an English language translation which was sympathetic to the poetry, metaphor and idiom of the Spanish original. A colonised Irish interior, suppressed by Church and State, bears obvious similarities to the paralysed, benighted Spain that Lorca delineated, critiqued and celebrated in his rural trilogy (Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba as well as BW). The hybrid setting also allowed the natural casting of the magnificent Olwen Fouere as the grizzled, austere Mother and the equally magnificent Brid Brennan as the Weaver. If I tell you that Annie Firbank as the Housekeeper and Steffan Rhodri as the outraged Father also graced the stage, along with relative newcomers Scarlett Brookes, (watch her closely in future) as Leonardo’s spurned wife and David Walmsley as the equally wronged Groom, then you can see that this was a grade A cast top to toe.
Lorca’s story is straightforward. Mother reminds son (the Groom) that his Dad and Bro were killed by the men of the Felix family next door. A dispute over land. Leonardo Felix and the Bride are still in love. Mrs Leonardo knows. The Mother finds out as well but decides to visit the Bride and her Dad. The wedding goes ahead by Leonardo turns up and steals the Bride. Outrage. Vengeance. Fight. Deaths. Sacrifice. It is very heady stuff but its chimerical qualities mean it is a long way from melodrama or even Greek tragedy. Closer to fable.
Anyway Yael Farber and Marina Carr have done a little nip and tuck with the plot but all the primitive elements are still there. That this is a traditional, brutally patriarchal society is never in doubt, as much but what the older women say, as the men, and yet there is still a sense of agency in the striking performances of Aoife Duffin and Scarlett Brooks. There is intentional comedy in the vernacular passages and there is no unintentional comedy in the brutal and fantastical scenes, (though once or twice it skirts close near the end – it is the women who mop up the blood). The cumulative effect is undeniably powerful even when the pace edges towards the, shall we say, Largo. In fact there is something of the minor key symphonic in Yael Farber’s reading.
I am not sure I would recommend this to fans of the Lion King or indeed anyway unfamiliar with this deliberately stylised auteur approach to theatre. On reflection I shouldn’t really have worried about the SO’s reaction. She reads books. Proper books. Lots of them. We are drowning in theme. Imagination, to augment the visual abstraction, is therefore no limitation for her.
Royal and Derngate Northampton, 12th September 2019
Another instalment in August Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle though, four in, the Tourist still has some way to go. Two Trains Running premiered in 1990 and is set in the turbulent 1960s – remember each of the ten play series covers one of the decades of the C20 and all bar one (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) are set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh.
All the action in TTR, well words really, for August Wilson’s plays prize dialogue and character over plot, both their strength and their weakness, takes place in 1969 in the neighbourhood diner owned and run by Memphis Lee (Andrew French). The 1960’s saw the economic decline of the Hill District, once a byword for prosperity and cultural relevance in Black America, accelerate, prompting intervention from the Pittsburgh Urban Development Authority. Vast swathes of the neighbourhood were demolished to be replaced by a white elephant Civic Arena and failed public housing projects. Many residents were displaced and the redevelopment became an object lesson in how not to do “urban renewal“. Memphis’s business has seen better days but now he is holding out for the price he thinks it is worth from the City authorities, not just for the money but also to take a stand for the overlooked and disparaged community. He dreams of returning to his Southern roots from where he and so many others were compelled to escape in earlier, darker, decades. Frankie Bradshaw’s set captures this transition with the beautifully detailed diner sporting a hole in its roof above which is suspended a massive wrecking ball.
Memphis is assisted by cook and waitress Risa (Anita-Joy Uwajeh) who constantly has to push back against her boss’s criticism and the sexist comments and assumptions of the regulars. These include the assured West (Geoff Aymer), the local undertaker whose business is thriving, hustler Wolf (Ray Emmet Brown), who uses the diner’s phone to run a numbers racket, and the stoic Holloway, an unemployed painter and decorator, (Leon Herbert). Most poignant though is Hambone, (the excellent Derek Ezenagu), brought low by his obsession with getting fairly paid by the white butcher customer for work he did twenty years ago. The outside world relentlessly encroaches upon the lives of the company, first when the animated ex-con Sterling (Michael Salami) returns to the Hill looking for work and for Risa, and as the rallies, protesting racial injustice, increase in intensity.
Impossible to fault all the performances or the careful direction of Nancy Medina, who was similarly adept with Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman at the Young Vic and, I gather, Inua Ellams’s The Half God of Rainfall at the Kiln. Easy to see why she has won both the Peter Hall Directors Award and the Genesis Future Director Award. The lighting and sound design from other young talents Amy Mae and Ed Lewis was equally accomplished. Which means the somewhat discursive nature of events of stage is down to August Wilson alone. That is not to say that the lyrical dialogue, what and how the characters say, isn’t pitch perfect. Just that there is rather to much of it. Too many layers if you will. This is true of the other plays in the cycle I believe but here the contrast of individual reversals with societal transformation is just a little too carefully wrought.
As a production it matches the high standards previously set by English Touring Theatre. As a play maybe not quite as convincing as the others in the cycle I have seen. Still very keen to see further instalments however and given the resonance of the parts that AW wrote for black actors I expect I won’t be waiting too much longer for just such an opportunity.
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.
Now I’ll be honest, until I started taking this theatre malarkey seriously, I had only the faintest idea of what Thornton Wilder’s most famous play, Our Town, was about. And even going in to this production at the Open Air I confess to some scepticism as to the reasons why it is so highly regarded. I am a sucker for “meta-theatre”, fiddling around with the realms of what is possible on stage and breaking all the naturalistic rules of theatre, but this still sounded a little too, well, American and homespun, and I couldn’t quite see how it would elevate itself it to something more profound. Still this is what the experts told me it would do and I, for one, choose not to ignore the experts, (especially when it comes to, for example, cardiac surgery – for, without one such expert, you wouldn’t be reading this).
Well I can report that the experts, once again, do know what they are talking about. Written in 1938 OT tells the story of the fictional American small town of Grover’s Corner in the years 1901 to 1913, (I gather the photo above is taken from the original Broadway production). The play is set in the theatre in which it is being performed, designed here by Rosie Elnile as simply a bank of temporary seats at the back of the Open Air stage, and we have a narrator in the form of the theatre’s stage manager (Laura Rodgers) who guides us through the characters and the scenes, addresses us directly, introduces specialist “speakers” and fields “questions” from the audience. With the exception of one scene the cast is in modern dress and there is minimal use of props, largely just a couple of table and chairs to symbolise the two main households, the Webb’s and the Gibbs’s, and plenty of miming.
Thornton Wilder apparently insisted that the play “should be performed without sentimentality or ponderousness–simply, dryly, and sincerely,” a request that director Ellen McDougall, AD at the Gate, sticks to with the exception of shifting the “action” from 1938 to an even more timeless today.
Act 1 centres on the daily life of the town, waking up to a normal day in 1901. We get lectures on the history and geography of the town, (one of many reasons why the swot Tourist took to the play), and we meet the main protagonists Frank Gibbs (Karl Collins), the town doctor, his wife Julia (Pandora Colin) and their two children, sporty, tearaway son George (Arthur Hughes) and younger sister Rebecca (Miriam Nyarko), Charles Webb (Tom Edden), editor of the local paper, wife Myrtle (Thusitha Jayasundera) and their bookish daughter Emily (Francesca Henry) and younger brother Wally (I think Tumo Reestang in this performance). Act II concentrates on the courtship and wedding day of Emily and George in 1904. The mood changes in Act III, in 1913, when we are taken to the cemetery outside Grover’s Corner and see who has passed in the intervening years including Emily, who returns to life to look back, regretfully, on her 12th birthday.
This is when the deep stuff about how to live life to the full when it is so short, and how we are all connected in time and place, and out into the cosmos, is let loose. You would be forgiven for thinking this might come over all schmaltzy and, trust me, the cyclical Tourist is ever alert to such manipulation. It does not though and that is where the play most confounds. It was a pretty hot day at the Open Air, and the Tourist foolishly swapped shade for view, and the matinee crowd was the usual bunch of us old and economically inactive and the reluctant school-teens. So I can’t pretend this was some massive communal epiphany. Nonetheless the messages that Thornton Wilder wraps up in his deliberately “simple” meta-play do resonate and I now understand why the play is so highly regarded and so oft performed especially in the US.
I can see how some might not want to go beyond the moral homage to a simpler, more “authentic” past, with a central love story and a sad ending, but it is also hard to avoid the way Wilder stretches, examines and undercuts this surface reading and not just through formal experimentation. I have banged on before about how American art, in its broadest sense, explored in the inter-war years the dichotomy of modern, urban America and its mythic, rural past. This seems to me to spring from the same well. There may not be an explicit nod to the darkness which was to befall Europe, from which the US largely escaped, but there are, as there were so effectively in Annie Baker’s John, ghosts from the Civil War past as well as references to the coming depopulation and the stultifying effects of conformity to home, hearth, gender roles and church.
Some of the proper reviews have a bit of a dig at the production precisely because of its fidelity to Mr Wilder’s original intention. I disagree though, as I say, not having seen it before meant there was no novelty to wear off. Ellen McDougall is not a director who fights shy of radical theatre, (she was assistant to Katie Mitchell and Marianne Elliott and her first production at the Gate, The Unknown Island was a metaphorical riot), but here, outside of the diverse 19 strong cast, the female stage manager, casual clothes and a few, well placed, choruses, as I say, she seems to play it pretty straight.
I suppose you could go all gung ho and start meta-ing the meta and conjuring up all sorts of allusions to darker times. (What is it with everyone in the theatre aching for contemporary relevance and proof that we live in dangerous times anyway. I am not saying our world today doesn’t have some Grade A wankers in positions of power but I would rather live here, now, than as a slave in C5 BCE Athens, a factory worker in C19 Manchester or a homosexual in Nazi Germany). I also accept that this might not, unusually, be a work that benefits from the Open Air setting, though Act III might be enhanced by the twilight of an evening show.
But I see it worked for Billers in the Guardian and that’s good enough for me. I was already a big fan of Laura Rodgers who stood out in Pressure, Rules for Living, Winter Solstice and Tipping the Velvet and I was also struck by Francesca Henry who appeared in another production directed by Ellen McDougall, The Wolves. Karl Collins and Arthur Hughes also managed to create character beyond imitation. This is though, an ensemble piece, and the whole cast stepped up.
(P.S. I was never going to be unaffected by the wedding of a young Gibbs, some three weeks after the real thing).