The Knight of the Burning Pestle at the Barbican Theatre review ****

The Knight of the Burning Pestle

Barbican Theatre, 8th June 2019

The Tourist has fallen embarrassingly behind on his documentation of a cultural life. Ironically because he has been on holiday. Unfortunately for you though this is not (yet) one of those countless dormant blogs, casualties of time and application. So back to early June, the Barbican and the inestimable Cheek by Jowl. But this time the Russian ensemble under the direction and design of Declan Donellan and Nick Ormerod. The last time they visited was 2015 with Measure for Measure, though I venture I recognised a couple of cast members from the rep season earlier this year of the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre (on this stage, of course) who make up the CbJ company.

Now The Knight of the Burning Pestle makes a fair claim to being the first work of meta-theatre in the English language. Written by Frances Beaumont in 1607, and first published in 1613, it is a satire on the chivalric romances of earlier centuries, in a similar vein to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which specifically parodies the work of contemporaries Thomas Heywood, The Four Prentices of London, and Thomas Dekker, The Shoeman’s Holiday. CbJ stick fairly closely in this adaptation to the original plot, though of course, delivered here in Russian with English sur-titles. Which heritage provides inspiration for a further twist. Since before the grocer George and his wife Nell emerge from the audience to berate performers and director on stage, and subsequently promote the acting “talents” of their inept nephew, we are treated to some hard core minimalist European auteur theatre (of the type that CbJ itself excels at). Monochrome, mannered and mystifying, beginning with actors shuffling up chairs in hands, even a few minutes of this leaves the audience feeling like it is going to be in for a long, “high concept”, night.

So that the laughs which come when Alexander Feklistov and Agrippina Steklova, our “low” culture delegates, pipe up, are as much from relief as from the character’s gaucheness in breaking theatrical convention. They want to be entertained (we later find out they couldn’t get tickets for The Lion King!) and demands changes. Our bemused director Tim (Kirill Sbitnev), the spit of Brecht, eventually persuades then to sit stage left and we return to the staging of “The London Merchant” but it is not long before the couple call young Rafe (Nazar Safonov) to the stage and insist he be allowed to act out his own “knight (grocer) errant” role complete wit burning pestle heraldic device, apparently a medieval knob gag.

The actual play concerns the attempted elopement of Jasper Merrythought (Kirill Chernyshenko) and Luce (Anna Vardevanian), who is betrothed to toff Humphrey (Abdrei Kuzichev). The lovebirds dream up a fake elopement scam, Jasper’s long suffering Mum (Anna Karmakova) decides to leave his feckless Dad (Alexei Rakhmanov) taking younger brother Michael (Danila Kazakov), there is some jewellery, a coffin, fights, testing of devotion, but all ends happily. At the same time the hapless knight Rafe gets in on the action, swanning off to Moldavia, rejecting a princess, before, egged on by his employers, giving us his ostentatious death scene.

Amongst all this meta upon meta upon meta conflation, (the set is a rotating cube, each scene is announced by Brecht-like projections, there is live video, obvs, there is a psychedelic-dance-dream routine to thumping techno), the daft story is actually quite entertaining, the crack Russian cast, especially Mr Feklistov and Ms Steklova, actually manage to project real character, and there are a fair few laughs, even if of some of the theatrical in-jokes went over my head. And the serious point about what theatre is for and who “owns” it, audience, writer or performers, is deftly made. Of course the Tourist would expect nothing less from Messrs Donellan and Ormerod. And even if the main, conceptual, joke wears a little thin after a while the whole thing is wrapped up in 90 minutes and thus easily forgiven. Apparently in versions that stick to the original text this can top 3 hours.

Francis Beaumont started out as a lawyer before studying with Ben Jonson no less, and went on to write in partnership with John Fletcher who collaborated with Shakespeare on Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen and the lost Cardenio. On the strength of this it would be interesting to see a new take on the Beaumont/Fletcher collaborations which generally went down well with Jacobean audiences, in contrast to TKOTBP which bombed apparently as the punters failed to appreciate the irony and satire. Which, if you think about it, probably gave Beaumont a great deal of pleasure given that his play is about the failure of an audience to appreciate the play presented to it. I also wonder what they would make of current popular culture, dripping as it is, with self-reverential, meta-, post-modernism.

Serious Money at LAMDA review review ****

Serious Money

Sainsbury Theatre, London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, 4th June 2019

Last minute jaunt to Hammersmith to see one of LAMDA’s summer season offerings. If there are times when you start fulminating about paying close to a ton for a cramped perch in a dingy West End mausoleum, then can I recommend again the end of year productions from London’s top notch drama schools. A ticket, a programme, a snack and a drink and still likely change from a pony, all supported by professional creatives and maybe with the chance to see the next big star of stage and screen.

Especially if you have a yen to see a particular play. In this case, for the Tourist, a reminder of just how good a play Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money is. We have had the slightly underwhelming, but still wonderful, revival of Top Girls at the NT earlier in the year, and we have a new, now quartet, of shorts to look forward to at the Royal Court come September, but London’s major houses have not, to my knowledge staged this play in the last few years. Which is daft given its continuing relevance and the fact that it is, trust me, highly entertaining.

It is, to be fair, of its time. Its time being 1987. It is now over three decades since Big Bang revolutionised London equity markets, during which financial capitalism has run riot through the global economy. Global capital (debt and equity) stock now totals well over USD 200 trillion up from around USD 30 trillion in 1987. The notional value of global derivatives contracts is well over USD 500 billionn and some might have you believe that it is actually over a quadrillion (thats 16 zeros). Take comfort the gross value of the contracts is “only” north of USD 10 trillion. But the fact is no-one knows and when this goes tits up it is going to hurt you even if you have absolutely no idea what this involves.

Open outcry on LIFFE, (London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange), which is the setting for part of the play, may be long gone, with the electronic exchange now part of a global network, the financial regulatory functions of the DTI, (Department of Trade and Industry), handed over to successor organisations, Brexit probably means the British Government doesn’t have time to bump off dodgy stockbrokers and I doubt anyone plays Pass the Pigs anymore.

Otherwise CC’s satire, in terms of behaviour and consequences, is still pretty much spot on. Fear and greed still drive market “volatility”and worse. That is baked into the DNA. That has been true from the beginnings in the C17 as CC shows at the opening of SM with the extract from Thomas Shadwell’s 1693 Restoration comedy The Volunteers or Stockjobbers. A few years years later in 1720 the Mississippi and South Sea Bubbles brought European economies to their knees. Pretty much every decade since then markets have imploded. It’s just that the numbers have got bigger and bigger. No capital markets means no growth though and none of the lovely things we all prize but now the global body politic is hooked on the free money which the “independent” central bank pushers have no choice but to supply. Which only underwrites today’s equivalents of all the naughty boys and girls who toss away their moral compasses in Serious Money.

The play opened at the Royal Court in March 1987, was in the West End by July, (where the Tourist first saw it), and New York by November. In between, on 19th October, we had the Black Monday global crash. CC looked prescient. Not really. She just identified the nature of the system and set about puncturing it. Mercilessly. Surprising really given how far CC is normally ahead of the curve.

At the turn of the C20 stock markets collapsed again following the bursting of the dot-com bubble, in 2007/08 the grandiloquently named Global Financial Crisis arrived which you may have heard of, there was the flash crash of 2010 and then another sell-off through 2015/16. At the end of last year markets tanked 20%. Did you notice? Thought not. I seem to recall ever Her Maj had a pop post the GFC asking why no-one had warned of the pending catastrophe. Ma’am. They did. Not enough people listened. Until they finally did. Markets, never forget, are driven by largely excitable people acting “fast” pretending they are clever and thinking “slow”.

Playwrights, as CC’s reference to Thomas Shadwell shows, have been on to this story from the off. Indeed you can go back further, to the Restoration city comedies, and Ben Jonson for example. There isn’t much about the behaviour of the characters in SM that BJ didn’t nail in Volpone and The Alchemist. However punters, and reviewers, do get a bit antsy about all the jargon it seems in these entertainments. True of SM and, moreorless, true of more recent forays into the “financial markets” genre such as Enron, Labyrinth, Dry Powder, Other People’s Money, The Invisible Hand, Other People’s Money, Glengarry Glen Ross, American Psycho. And that’s just what I have seen in the last few years, (and can remember). To which I respectfully suggest, find out. See above. This stuff matters to you. That is partly what CC is trying to say. Interrogate don’t abrogate. It’s often, one way or another, your capital these punters are playing with.

“Financial” plays also usually come with ambiguous morality baked in. Writers, in seeking to avoid killing plot and drama with one-sided polemic, (I am making the assumption that no-one is in the market for writing a play which celebrates financial capitalism), try to offer up “rounded” characters. Which makes sense. Behaviours in markets may turn venal, and markets themselves need close and careful regulation, but, generally, the people in them are not “evil”. They are just like you and me. Well I confess me. They are there because they are clever and lucky. The paradox between, generally, the determination of the individual to be “good”and for structures, forces and processes at the societal level to turn “bad”, is as acute in a bank as it is in government or down the pub on a Friday night.

Which also can mean the actions of the “heroes” in the financial play, or more obviously film, think Wolf of Wall Street, can become a cause for celebration for some. CC tried to get round this by making everyone in SM a c*nt in some for or another, by having 20 named characters, (even managing 6 women in this macho world, who are all flawed), overstuffing the action, there are 24 scenes across the 2 acts, and incorporating song and dance. Apparently this didn’t stop entire floors of investment banks pitching up to the original production. Whilst individuals may just be “doing their jobs” the cultures they create and the rewards they enjoy have, over the last few decades, ended up near the top of the aspirational pile. Markets are addictive for participants such that they cannot see the world outside. Markets are opaque for non-participants, making it easier just to reject them. This is not healthy.

Anyway back to SM. CC is rightly lauded for her imagination and innovation of dramatic form. And for the breadth of her practice. For me though she is also a genius because she is so clever and learns so quickly. SM is filled with detail, not just about how things work, that’s not too difficult, but more in the understanding of what motivates this array of characters. As usual CC gets straight to the heart of things with the minimum of dialogue. Whilst presenting that dialogue as rhyming couplets in a nod to the past and to reflect the rhythm of markets. If there is a better summation of a market when the shit hits the fan, (and that still happens even in a quant and liquidity driven electronic trading world) than “Sell! Quick! Prick! Yes! No! Cunt!” then I haven’t heard it.

And this all comes with a proper plot. A detective story of sorts as Scilla Todd tries to uncover the facts behind the mysterious death of her brother Jake. And CC doesn’t hold back on the innovation. The first contemporary scene after the Shadwell opening takes place in three locations simultaneously. Greville Todd, old school broker, buttering up a client. Scilla, a rare women salesperson on the floor of a post Big Bang bank in London and her slimey sexist colleague Grimes, and brother Jake on yet another floor, broking with his sales and trader colleagues.

Next the champagne bar. The dialogue of the pissed nails the aspirations of the young and greedy, Then US banker Zac explains, clearly and succinctly, how the stock market changed post big-Bang and the scions of UK merchant banking sold out to the US behemoths. And how, within the US banks the traders, who make the money pushed the bankers, who carry the prestige, aside. Less than 15 minutes in and this crucial change in the direction of Western capitalism has been nailed. In verse.

Next the hunt where we see Frosby, the disgruntled old guard jobber who shops Jake when he passes insider information to Marylou Baines, the arbitrageur with comic assistant TK, based in NYC. We learn that Jake was being investigated by the DTI and was worried he was in too deep. We then meet Corman, the private equity raider, taking a tilt at Duckworth’s company Albion, his various advisors, white knight Biddulph, Peruvian Jacinta happy to sell out her country for a few quid, improbable cocoa trader Nigel, a US business patsy who is wheeled in to take out Corman’s company and finally a UK politician, stepping in to stop Corman’s “vote-losing” take-over.

The plot is, in the manner of the Jacobeans, deliberately a little tortuous. Yet the stagecraft that CC employs makes it easy-ish to follow. And the characters are stereotypes. That is the point. It is satire. Everyone is greedy. Everyone wants more. CC shows that there is never “enough” for players in a market. Someone always gets more. The “game” is all about the winning and revenge is served piping hot. “Truth” is elastic and just part of the armoury. Even Scilla, who is closest to a conventional character who “changes” through the play, gives up investigating her brother’s death to take up the offer from Marylou. CC doesn’t stop with financial markets, stuffing in the abuse of power by the DTI and a shadowy MP into the mix. Media and advertising gets a slap as well.

It is fair to say that, with all these riches, the setting, the message, the Brechtian alienation, the jargon, the flashbacks, (dead Jake keeps popping up), the lack of resolutions, the absence of redeeming qualities in the protagonists, (there are no romantic consciences taking on this corrupt world on behalf of the audience), the multiple dialogue, the often daft couplets which ape the commodification and financialisation of the “real” world, the sheer, accelerating pace of the action, that some audiences might lose their bearings. I think this is partly deliberate. After all those on stage have lost theirs.

In this production LAMDA spared us from significant doubling which can really vex some. Of course the perennial problem of such productions is the age of the actors but, in Serious Money, given its unreality, this is less of a problem. As usual it is unfair to pick out individuals but, arm twisted, I would post to Ryan Burch as Zackerman, Ivan Du Pontavice as Corman, Colm Glesson as Greville Todd, Elizabeth Hammerton as Scilla, Emma Lauristan as Marylou Baines, Charlie McVicar as Jake and Joe McNamara as TK.

I was mightily impressed with the direction of Emily Jenkins who is also, I see, a playwright, who definitely deserves my attention. Serious Money, as you have probably surmised from the above is not an easy play to put on. This wasn’t perfect but it was a very convincing account and Ms Jenkins surely takes much of the credit for this. As do Assistant Directors, I assume from LAMDA, Thea Taverner and Mariagrazia La Fauci. And designer Adrian Gee wisely struck with all the trappings of 1987. SM requires no updating. Its universality stems from its very particularity.

I couldn’t tell you which is Caryl Churchill’s greatest play. Mostly because I haven’t seen them all. But this will always been near the top. It is very funny, breathtakingly theatrical, bitingly intelligent, brilliantly inventive and always urgent. And the kids here did her proud.

The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson at the Park Theatre review **

The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson

Park Theatre, 31st May 2019

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is probably going to be your next Prime Minister, chosen by a hundred thousand or so duffers average age in the 70s. Sovereignty? Democracy? If that doesn’t make you laugh nothing will. Anyway the rise of the tousled haired, Latin mangling, philandering, fustian journalist/politician, even without the gift of his impending premiership (his aim at Eton was to become “king of the world”) should, you would think, provide fertile ground for a satirical comedy.

After all this is a bloke who had both British and American citizenship, has Turkish, French and Russian ancestry, was born into an educated family, whose Dad worked for the EU, (I know hard to believe), overcame deafness as a nipper, speaks French fluently, had all the advantages, yet still takes a dig at Johnny Foreigner whenever he can like the godfather of gammon that he is. I see he won a scholarship to Eton where he worked on his eccentricity, changed his religious affiliation, (a harbinger of flip-flopping things to come), excelled in classics despite a somewhat indolent attitude and edited the school rage. At Oxford some have alleged that he toyed with the SDP in oder to secured the position of president of the Union, though, like so many other things, poor old BoJo has no memory of this. (I actually believe Boris when he says a line of coke had no effect on him: even this being insufficient to stimulate a full days’ work from him). Apparently he was mightily cheesed off he didn’t’t get a First.

He lasted a week in management consultancy, before the family got him into the Times, where he was promptly sacked for making stuff up. Then placed in the Telegraph where his career as liar in chief about the EU began. In some ways it is the ultimate irony that the man who is likely to preside over the final collapse of the Conservative and Unionist Party over something that really shouldn’t matter to it is the man who was largely responsible for fuelling the division between Europhile and Eurosceptic in the first place. After receiving a small dose of liberalism from his marriage to Marina Wheeler, and time spent in Islington, he cracked on with delivering some of his most offensive apophthegms in his Telegraph column. “Piccanniny”, “watermelon” or, more latterly, “letterbox”, I can’t decide which is the most unpleasant. Though one of the less remembered, his reference to gay men as “tank-topped bum-boys”, runs them close. This whole thing, Fartage does it as well, where some privileged, rich, straight, white, middle-aged bloke pretends to be taking on the Establishment, and saying “the things that can’t be said”, in a world where “political correctness has gone mad”, just drives me potty.

Not getting sacked when he was asked to divulge the address of a journalist so that his bessie from school, convicted fraudster Darius Guppy, could have the hack beaten up, was another low point I had forgotten about. On to the Spectator and GQ where he regularly filed his copy late, (which, given its quality, is hard to fathom), and then all his TV turns. Convicted fraudster, though now I see pardoned by the whiter than white Donald Trump, (himself only having been involved in the 3.500 or so court cases), Conrad Black, then promoted him to editor the Spectator turning it into the self-parody of Conservatism that it is today.

Finally parachuted into the safe seat of Henley when the principled Michael Heseltine retired, as a journalist with a sideline as an MP, he pitched up to a few votes in the House, and gave, in his own words, a few “crap” speeches. He did support Ken Clarke, of all people, in the leadership campaign that IDS won, a random act of good judgement, but also got reprimanded subsequently by Michael Howard for letting though the infamous Spectator article which trotted out the filth about the victims of Hillsborough which The Sun had so evilly kicked off. Next up he refused to resign as Arts Minister when he was caught lying about his affair with Spectator columnist Petronella Wyatt, so Michael Howard was forced to sack him.

Still no matter. His mate from Oxford, “call-me Dave” Cameron, installed him as shadow higher education minister ( a job his principled younger brother Jo also held), but then another alleged affair, booted off the Spectator by Andrew Neil, but still raking in half a million a year from his media work, he then got the gig as London mayor in a campaign masterminded by Lynton Crosby (the Aussie evil genius behind his current job application).

Still keeping his “chicken-feed” £250K salary from the Telegraph column (and failing to make promised donations), he pitched up late for a few early meetings, failed to get a planning permission, might have had a further affair, over claimed on expenses, denied London’s pollution levels, recruited cronies and came up with hare-brained vanity schemes. Still he was always a “laugh” which remains his key qualification for high office it seems and he occasionally said and did the right thing to confound us liberal metropolitan elite lefty types, though he could just as easily revert to type moments later. And London felt proud.

Back to the House of Commons, kept at a distance by Cameron and then his fateful decision to throw in his lot with the Vote Leave campaign. And all that bollocks on the bus, about Turkey (subsequently denied), that face he pulled the morning after when Leave won, and then, after Cameron walked, the political assassination by Michael Gove and his missus which put paid to BoJo’s ambition that time round. This is roughly where Jonathan Maitland’s play kicks off, with a dinner party given by Boris and Marina Wheeler attended by Gove, Sarah Vine and, somewhat bizarrely, Evgeny Lebedev, the owner, with his Dad, of the Evening Standard and The Independent.

Before we get on to the play though let’s wrap up on the real Boris. That nice Mrs May thought it would be a good idea to make him Foreign Secretary. To neuter his threat some thought. That didn’t turn out too well did it. But surely, even at a time when a Government is literally paralysed but its inability to deliver the undeliverable in Brexit, the way in which BoJo conducted himself in this position of high office should disqualify from the top job. Support for Erdogan, the House of Saud (in contravention of Government policy), his intervention in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the gaffe quoting Kipling in Myanmar, his advice to the Libyan city of Sirte, his reprimand by UK Statistics Authority, his nonsense on the Irish border, that missed vote, breach of the Ministerial Code, his lusty support for British business, and finally, his flounce out, alongside the loafer’s loafer, David Davies, when Brexit turned just that little bit tricky, unicorn-delivery wise. All achieved in a couple of years.

Since then plotting, ramping up the racism for the benefit of Conservative members, failing to declare earnings on nine occasions, the “suicide vest” comment, flirting with Bannon and Trump, the “spaffing” remark in the context of child abuse allegations, another Europe lie confirmed by the Independent Press Standards Office. and the idiot flirting with no-deal. For remember even if the Tory party goes all spineless and worried about preferment when it comes to the inevitable no-confidence vote which will follow Boris’s coronation, or he gets tempted by prorogation, (yes people, in the country that “gave democracy to the world”, we actually have candidates for Prime Minister who wish to emulate Medieval kings), we will still be tied in negotiations with Europe for the rest of most of our natural lives. Yep even BoJo the clown can’t make it all go away.

Right that’s off my chest. So what about this play. Well I am afraid that, with all this material to play with, and the gift of relevance, Mr Maitland’s play didn’t really come across as much more than a few, admittedly quite good, impressions by the assembled cast, Will Barton as Boris, Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as Gove (and parliamentary agent Jack), Davina Moon as Marina Wheeler and spad Caitlin, Tim Walters as Lebedev, Huw Edwards and Tony Blair, Arabella Weir as Sarah Vine, Leila, a Tory Chair and, intriguingly, Winston Churchill and finally, Steve Nallon, doing his Thatcher routine.

Now as you might gather there are plenty of blasts from the past who appear to help guide BoJo as he lurches from wannabe Winston, inheritor of Mrs T’s monetarist/household economics and social authoritarianism, and then back to one-nation liberalism courtesy of Blair. Good idea. Not brilliantly executed. The second half throws us forward to 2029 with BoJo plotting a comeback on a platform of “Brentry”. Again shrewd set up but not enough is done with it. The first half takes place at a dinner party, with the Goves and our name dropping Russian publisher, (as I speak the Standard has just come out for Johnson – not sure what George Osborne’s game is there), when MG bounces BoJo into supporting Vote Leave. There is a ton of tired exposition which makes the repeated gags pall even more.

So some intriguing ideas, and a target that could hardly been more topical or richer in opportunity, but I am afraid Jonathan Maitland’s lines don’t really match his ideas. There are a few good jokes but it is just not barbed enough as satire. In fact it edges close to playful hagiography at times. At our performance the edgiest moment actually came when one audience member, to the chagrin of her partner, enthusiastically applauded at a Make Britain Great Again peroration that the real Boris tosses off in perfunctory fashion, (see how easy it is to talk like the peroxide prat). Not a good look in liberal, Metropolitan elite North London. Director Lotte Wakeham and designer Louie Whitemore have both delivered better than this.

In the real world I see the coppers have turned up to an altercation at the latest incarnation of Chez Johnson. No doubt the Tory membership, whose response to “no deal” economic chaos is apparently “bring it on”, will see this as further confirmation of his “man of the people” status. You literally couldn’t make this stuff up. In retrospect maybe I have been a little unfair on Mr Maitland. Reality here is beyond satire.