Translations at the National Theatre review ****

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Translations

National Theatre Olivier, 6th June 2018

At the end of the day it is all about the words. That’s theatre. The power of language. Which is exactly what Brian Friel’s play is all about. A modern classic, first seen in 1980, in Derry (with Stephen Rea, Liam Neeson and Ray McAnally no less in the cast), to set alongside Philadelphia Here I Come, Aristocrats, Faith Healer, Dancing at Lughnasa and The Home Place, as masterpieces from his hand. All set in the fictional town of Baie Beag (Ballybeg). All exploring the particularities of Irish history, society and culture but all offering up universal insight. The Irish Chekhov as some would, with very good reason, have it.

So I wasn’t going to pass this up and I was going to insist the SO attend. I have no truck with those currently giving Rufus Norris and the NT a kicking. There have been some absolute belters over the last couple of years which more than compensate for a couple of missteps, so you haters can STFU. Anyway this is a marvellous productions. Rae Smith has conjured up another evocative, organic, set, the “hedge” school in which the play is set is foregrounded, leaving the rest of the Oliver stage as moorland which stretches to a backdrop of rolling mist and clouds. It is 1833 in Ballybeg and embittered Manus, (superbly played by Seamus O”Hara), lame in one leg, is setting up the school run by his father Hugh. He is joined by the voluble Jimmy Jack Cassie whose shambling manner and fondness for a tipple belies his classical education. He and Hugh are equally at home in Latin and Greek as their native Gaelic. Dermot Crowley and Ciaran Hinds offer up a par of towering performances. The hedge schools which were the source of their learning are about to be replaced by a free national school system. Sarah movingly played by Michelle Fox, whose speech is impaired, is joined by Maire (Judith Roddy who was also marvellous in the recent Donmar Knives in Hens), Doalty (Lawrence Kinlan) and Bridget (Aoife Duffin) in the school.

Through their interchanges we quickly become immersed in their domestic worlds, lives that may lack material plenty but are rich in many other ways. The Great Famine is still a decade away but the threat from potato blight is addressed. Translations is not an overtly political play, Brian Friel determined to avoid that commenting  that “the play has to do with language and only language … and if it becomes overwhelmed by that political element, it is lost”. However when Hugh’s other, prodigal, son, Owen, returns after a several year absence, the clash of culture between British coloniser and Irish colonised, is revealed. Owen (Colin Morgan, TV’s Merlin) has returned with two English soldiers, the ruthless and patronising cartographer Captain Lancey (accurately represented by Rufus Wright) and the more sympathetic orthographer Lieutenant Yolland (Adetomiwa Edun). Owen is a translator: the soldiers have been tasked with renaming the Irish place names into English. This was initially it seems a virtuous undertaking but the metaphor is clear and, eventually, as you might guess, the army seeks retribution when one of their number goes missing.

Now Mr Friel’s brilliant central conceit is to have both the English and Irish characters speaking in English. The two English officers speak no Gaelic, though Yolland as he falls in love with both country and Maire, tries to learn. Owen, initially misnamed Roland by the officers, picks his way carefully through his translations. And, it transpires, that a number of the Irish contingent know a great deal more English that they are letting on.

Hopefully my brief description should persuade you just how elegantly, and cleverly, constructed Mr Friel’s play is. But it doesn’t stop there. In scene after scene and line after line, he patiently, but insistently, drives his points home. Even so these characters are no mere ciphers; there is plenty of emotion too. The love scene, ostensibly in two different languages, between Maire and Yolland, is very affecting, Sarah’s yearning for Manus which echoes it, Manus’s flight when he realises there is nothing left for him in Ballybeg,, Hugh’s demons fuelled by drink, Owen’s cultural ambivalence; everyone has a story to tell, and not just in words.

Ian Rickson is as sure-footed in his direction of the marvellous cast as you could wish for though there are moments of over-deliberation. Neil Austin’s lighting, Ian Dickinson’s sound design and the music of Stephen Warbeck all stand out,  and a big hurrah for the voice work of Charmian Hoare and Jeanette Nelson and to dialect coach Majella Hurley, this being a play about language.

 

 

 

Quiz at the Noel Coward Theatre review *****

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Quiz

Noel Coward Theatre, 2nd June 2018

Your starter for ten. (I know I am mixing up my quiz show formats). Why where there empty seats at the Saturday evening performance of Quiz that the Tourist attended alongside the SO, BUD and KCK? Reviews for the original production at the Chichester Minerva, and this transfer, were very good with a couple of exceptions, playwright James Graham is a one man hit machine and the content, whilst parochial in some ways, the story of the “Coughing Major” is a very British affair, is still centred on a game show with global reach. If I were a tourist, as opposed to a Tourist, or a local wanting a good night out, I would be hard pressed to top it. It is a superb entertainment, very funny yet provocative enough to make you really think. Still the run is nearly over, so my comments, as ever, can be safely ignored, but if this does get another outing I can highly recommend it, even if, or maybe especially if, you or any of your chums are normally reluctant theatre goers.

With This House, Finding Neverland, Ink (Ink at the Almeida Theatre review *****) and Labour of Love (Labour of Love at the Noel Coward Theatre review *****), and a string of other plays, James Graham has developed a prodigious Midas touch for popular, witty, effervescent theatre which usually takes “real” events from the recent(ish) past and dissects them to offer lessons for our world today. The drama and cyclicality of politics, threats to the democratic process, the nature and manipulation of “truth”, the power and reach of the media, flaws in the dispensation of justice, the creeping ubiquity of technology, the rise of celebrity culture, the relationship between state, institutions and the individual. These are all fertile areas of concern for most contemporary dramatists but few churn out plays that are as light on their feet as James Graham. I happen to think he is one of our finest living playwrights though I get that some may be a little snippy about his commercial success and the ease with which the muse comes to him.

Quiz takes the story of Major Charles Ingram, (via a book by Bob Woffinden and James Plasskett), who was one of the handful of million pound winners on the British version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. It skips through the history of British Quiz show formats, the genesis of a programme combining big money and high drama, the bizarre “plot” that led to the “win”, the subsequent court case, the lives of the individuals involved and the media reaction. We the audience are asked to vote at the interval, and then again at the end, after some of the details of the case are revealed, having been knowingly manipulated. Just like a TV quiz show. The play toys with our own recollection of the events, (sorry kids if this was before your time), reminding us that memory is uncertain and constructed. It taps in to our obsessions with competition and the notion of winners and losers. It shows the damage that is wrought through hysterical “trial by media”.

Robert Jones’s garish set is a bright lights version of the Millionaire studio, with a “light cube” of sorts taking centre stage. This doubles up as the home of the Ingrams, a pub for quizzes and nefarious meetings of various Millionaire obsessives and as courtroom. The set, the story and the structure of the play demand a high octane production and boy do we get that with Daniel Evans’s direction. The proscenium Noel Coward stage may not be ideally suited to this set-up, (the thrust of the smaller Minerva probably made more sense), and all the frenetic activity, and mic-ing, drowns out some nuances of performance, but hey, this is what you get with JG’s plays. Lighting designer Tim Lutkin, sound designers Ben and Max Ringham and video designer Tim Reid certainly earned their corn here.

The whole cast also has to be on its toes. Kier Charles as the hyperactive warm up act, as TV quiz hosts from the past, and especially as an exaggerated version of Chris Tarrant is hilarious. Paul Bazeley and particularly Sarah Woodward, who has a powerful monologue near the end, also shone when playing the opposing QCs. Gavin Spokes just about managed to get away with an air of bumbling, stiff upper lip, vulnerability for Charles Ingram that allowed us to maybe accept that here was a man wronged as details of the court case emerged. Conversely Stephanie Street managed to show a buried ruthless streak in Diana Ingram. Mark Meadows as erstwhile coughing accomplice Tecwen Whittock seemed harmless but was plainly desperate to win. That was my reading. You might have a different interpretation. That is the point. Maintaining this necessary uncertainty about their motives does mean a bit of an emotional hole at the centre of the play (which is not always the case in other JG hits) but the pay off is the comic dialectic. Did they or didn’t they “cheat”?

Our viewing quartet was in half-time and post match analysis heaven as we tried to piece together our recollection of the “facts” of the case, the detail of what had been presented in the play and whether we could “trust” this and how our sympathies had changed. BUD craves objective verification. In contrast The Tourist has spent way too much time in the theatre so he barely knows how to distinguish art from reality any more. The wiser heads of the ladies prevailed. We laughed a lot. All in all just what you want from a night at the theatre.

The justice system is not a branch of light entertainment. Truth is not relative – as some important historian said about WWI I think, Belgium did not invade Germany. The institutional structures that we derive from the Classical world by way of the Enlightenment are still the best we have. We the people still have agency. There are two participants in a narrative, speaker and listener. But we need to be critical, keep thinking and exercise our power. What better way to remind us than with a “real” story made up on a stage which beguiles and provokes us with the very concepts it wishes us to question.

Mood Music at the Old Vic review ***

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Mood Music

Old Vic Theatre, 30th May 2018

Joe Penhall is definitely on to something with his new play Mood Music. But having found it I am not entirely sure that he then took the time to develop it. Well worth seeing, some fine performances and some thoughtful debate, but, after a terrific set up, a little disappointing and not as satisfying as, say, Blue/Orange.

Ben Chaplin plays louche, supercilious music producer Bernard, a part that could have been written for him, though it wasn’t as Old Vic favourite Rhys Ifans had to step down. Irish actor Seana Kerslake plays gifted young singer/songwriter Cat. From the get-go it is pretty obvious that something has gone horribly wrong between the hit making svengali and the precocious artist. They are each shadowed by psychiatrists, the diffident Ramsay for Bernard, (Pip Carter who played opposite Ben Chaplin in the original cast of Nina Raine’s superb Consent at the NT), and the similarly purposeful Vanessa played by Jemma Redgrave. They are subsequently joined on-stage by their respective entertainment lawyers, animated Seymour (Neil Stuke) and acute Miles (Kurt Egyiawan).

The combination of Bernard’s production experience and Cat’s talent and appeal is expected to produce a sure-fire hit. Initially there is no dialogue directly between the two, just between them and their respective professional advisers. The dialogue is temporally fluid with the thrust stage and design from Hildegard Bechtler, overhung with loads of mics, also shifting between music studio, consultation rooms and lawyers’ offices. When we finally get flashbacks to the beginning of Cat and Bernard’s working relationship we see there were some signs of affections and musical appreciation and mutual learning. As Bernard gets to work on “improving” Cat’s songs the musical boundaries blur and the “ownership” of the creative ideas is confused.

Bernard is plainly an egotistical, sexist bully locked in the past whose musical Midas touch is fading. Cat worships her amateur musician father, is warily truculent and won’t be pushed around. Even so Bernard slowly undermines her and her work claiming it as his own. The direction of travel in terms of the relationship is predictable, though still very illuminating, and made more fascinating by not being too black and white. Bernard, at least in Ben Chaplin’s shoes is not irredeemably evil, though he comes pretty close and is blissfully unaware of the damage he does to Cat, whilst Cat herself, thanks to Ms Kerslake’s acting skill, is not completely sympathetic and certainly not a helpless victim. This is smart writing as you might expect from Mr Penhall.

The relationship between art and life and the wellspring of the creative process is a theatrical staple. Putting this in the more contemporary context of popular music, (rather than writing), makes for a less academic experience than some classic plays which plough this furrow. The economics of composition and performance are also highlighted. Modern music seems to unite the age old artistic divide between creator and performer. This shows us that this is often an illusion. The play has obviously been made more relevant as the scale of male abuse of female artists, notably in contemporary film-making, has been laid bare.

I liked the structure of the play with the interweaving dialogue, “musical’ if you will, and Roger Michell’s direction served this admirably, as he always does (he directed Consent brilliantly). So what’s the Tourist’s beef? Well having set up the arguments we didn’t really move on. Just around and in between them. At a couple of hours or so the play didn’t outstay its welcome but it might have been more effective with some dislocation or shift in perspectives. The pace was quick-fire enough but apart from the scene at the awards ceremony, the uncomfortable height of Bernard’s boorishness, the drama didn’t really branch out. Still Ben Chaplin is magnetic, Sean Kerslake is a genuine real talent (as she plays a real talent) and there are cracking lines and insight.

 

 

 

Lessons in Love and Violence at the Royal Opera House review ****

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Lessons in Love and Violence

Royal Opera House, 26th May 2018

Here is an extract from an illuminated manuscript showing Eddy II getting a crown. Or more precisely a second crown. Not sure what that is all about but given he was by reputation a high maintenance sort of fella maybe two crowns makes sense.

George Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp had a massive hit, (by contemporary opera standards), with their previous collaboration Written on Skin, which in terms of repeat performances has gone down better than BB’s Peter Grimes. Having finally seen it at the ROH in January last year I can report that it is pretty much as good as it is cracked up to be. GB is a superb dramatic composer for drama and, specifically, for the very particular prose that MC creates. I was not entirely persuaded by the only play of MC’s that I have see, The Treatment (The Treatment at the Almeida Theatre review ***), but I think he is growing on me.

This time round they have taken seven “events” in the life of the infamous Edward II, wisely leaving out his messy end, to tell the story of his relationships with lover Gaveston, wife Isabel and rival Mortimer. The two royal kids are thrown into the somewhat unusual household and we also see associated flunkeys and down trodden hoi polloi who were suffering under Eddy’s spendthrift ways. We begin with the banishment of Mortimer, then Isabel joining the plot to murder Gaveston after seeing the desitution of the people, Gaveston predicting the King’s future and then being seized, the King disowning Isabel after Gaveston’s death, Mortimer and Isabel setting up a rival court and grooming young Eddy (to be the III), the King’s abdication at Mortimer’s behest and finally the young Edward III seizing control from his Mummy.

As you might surmise the focus of MC’s story here is more on the “domestic” struggle between the “couples” and less on the conflict between King and nobles. The relationship between Mortimer and Isabel and Isabel and Edward II is given as much weight as that between Gaveston and the King. This, together with the truncated plot, makes it very different from its most obvious precursor, Marlowe’s Edward II, or, more precisely, The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer. Now I happen to believe Marlowe’s play is one of the finest ever written, comparable with Shakespeare’s History Plays. But it does go on a bit. If MC and GB had attempted to set the whole story as an opera I would still be sitting there two weeks later. So Kent, Warwick, the Spensers and all the other nobles. Canterbury and the bishops, Hainault, the Welsh, the sadists and various other hangers-on are absent. As are France, fighting, Kenilworth, scythes and pokers. The key themes in Marlowe’s play, his two fingers to his own contemporary society, namely homo-eroticism, religion and social status are downplayed, Isabella’s role and the passion between the four main protagonists are foregrounded.

Extracting these key episodes and, in some cases, manipulating them to allow GB to weave his marvellous score around them, was a classy move by MC. His libretto, as in pretty much all he writes, swings from the prosaically direct to the cryptically poetic. I mean this as a compliment but his writing is not florid but quite angular with intriguing turns of phrase and clear delineations between characters. I gather that once they have agreed the shape of the work, MC goes off and writes the whole thing, with minimal consultation, before handing it over to GB, who then slowly and patiently builds up the music from the “bottom up”. At least that is what is sounded like from the interview in the programme. But given how distinctive, dark and clever MC’s approach is I can see why it works. GB knows the “voice’ he will write around and, as in their prior collaborations, he knows his musical style, which has itself been through iteration, will fit the libretto.

The music is superb. The orchestration is immensely colourful but GB only uses large scale forces occasionally. Most of the time small clusters of instruments are used to create different moods in each of the seven scenes, notably from bass clarinet, bassoons and brass. The percussion section gets to play with all sorts of new toys. A cimbalom gets an frequent airing. There are probably motifs, patterns and structures within this but you will need to find that out from someone who knows what they are talking about. All I know is that music and drama were perfectly matched across the compact 90 minutes. I think the emotional extremes were more pronounced that in Written on Skin which had a more mythic feel. GB ratcheted up key points in the action by plunging us into dramatic silences. In Scene 3 when Edward and Gaveston private tryst is interrupted by Isabel, the kids and the courtiers and in Scene 2 when the people impinge on the Court a rich musical chaos is invoked. Harmony and counterpoint are wound up into a ball before collapsing.

The production, courtesy of the genius director Katie Mitchell, regular design collaborator Vicki Mortimer, lighting from James Farncombe and movement from Joseph Alford, reflected the enclosed and intimate nature of the drama. Each scene was set in a royal bedroom, which revolved to offer a different perspective. This included the “private” entertainment in Scene 3 with Eddy II and Gaveston and the mirroring “public” entertainment in Scene 7. The “people” were given an audience before Isabel in the bedroom in Scene 2 to air their grievances. Mortimer’s household and the King’s imprisonment at Berkeley are also presented in the confined, intimate setting of the bedroom. A massive fish-tank, which drains of water and therefore life through the scenes, is both visual treat and prominent symbol. There is a Francis Bacon style painting on the wall: that probably tells you all you need to know about the uncomfortable, existential aesthetic the production seeks to traverse. There are one or two predictable Katie Mitchell cliches, slow motion soft-shoe shuffles anyone, but the tableau are undeniably effective, When you are stuck up in the Gods, (you would be hard pressed to be further away from the stage than I was, me being such a tightwad), this matters. At this distance the Court becomes a dolls house, an interesting perspective in itself, so the “choreography” that the director brings to proceedings, matters more than the close up expressiveness of the singers.

The ROH orchestra was on top form. Mind you if you have the composer himself conducting then there is little room for error. This is not a chamber opera, GB’s sound world is too rich, but some of the textures require various players to push their technique which they certainly did. I can’t really tell you much about the skil of the cast, they all amaze me, but Barbara Hannigan, as she always does, was off the scale as Isabel, vocally and as an actor. Stephane Degout bought a petulant, entitled air to Edward II, Peter Hoare’s Mortimer was a mixture of ambition and pragmaticism. Gyula Orendt stood out as Gaveston in his scenes with the King, a mystic of sorts. Samuel Boden’s sweet high-tenor stepped up very effectively towards the end as the Boy King and Ocean Barrington-Cook, (well done Mum and Dad for the name), artfully portrayed the damage done to her and her brother by having to witness the turmoil, despite not having a voiced part (another clever idea from the creators). The children were, I suppose, the ultimate recipients of the “lessons in love and violence” that we the audience were also privy to. Though the production was smartly modern-dress there was no crass attempt to draw any lessons for our own times but the plot, MC’s libretto and GB’s music combined to underscore the tension between the private and the political for those that wield power across history.

My guess is that if I saw and heard this again, perhaps from a more advantaged position, it would merit 5*. A few punters trotted out at various junctures which intrigued me. This surely is as digestible as contemporary. “modernist” opera gets. The historical subject is not obscure, the plot direct, music is beautiful, the libretto intriguing, the staging is excellent and it is hard to imagine the performances being topped. (the vocal parts were largely written for exactly this cast). Not much in the way of tunes and no arias, but surely the most cursory of examination would have revealed this in advance. The dissonance is never uncomfortable and is rooted in chordal progression. And it is short so why not see it through.

I would assume that GB and MC will, in the fullness of time, have another crack at this opera lark given how good they are it but I wonder if they have exhausted for now the “Medieval”. Like Written on Skin there is something of the illuminated manuscript here, (see what I have done there), a jewel like morality tale, (without all the God stuff). Suits me but with this amount of goodwill, (this is a seven way co-production), surely they could get away with something genuinely of the moment next time.

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Greenwich Theatre review ****

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Greenwich Theatre, 24th May 2018

This was the third and final leg of Lazarus Theatre’s hitherto excellent season at the Greenwich Theatre. The previous productions, Edward II (Edward II at Greenwich Theatre review ****) and The Lord of Flies (Lord of the Flies at Greenwich Theatre review ****), both showed off Artistic Director Ricky Dukes’s inventive and combative ideas, and the young, fearless casts, to best effect. This version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was similarly imbued with image, movement and ambition, but fell down a little on the delivery of verse and on pacing.

Getting Shakespeare’s lines out right isn’t easy. There are plenty of experienced actors who steer clear of the challenge. Practice may not make perfect but plainly it helps. Our cast here was, by and large, just out of drama school. Mr Dukes aim is to present theatre to as young and diverse an audience as he can. This will only work if his cast is similarly diverse. In Lord of the Flies he explored the tension from opening up gender in the casting. The young actors largely became the characters from William Golding’s novel filtered through Nigel Williams’s excellent adaptation. In Edward II the slightly more experienced cast, to a man and woman, nailed Marlowe’s muscular prose helped by Mr Dukes’s dramatic reshaping of the text.

Here though the verse was uneven and the spell was, at times, broken. This is not a criticism, just a reality. Max Kinder’s Lysander and Saskia Vaigncourt-Strallen’s Helena were the most accomplished speakers but the rest of the cast shone in other ways. Tessa Carmody played Puck as an enthusiastic, elfin ingenue not really up to the tasks allotted to her by Oberon. She was very funny. Eli Caldwell stepped into the limelight as a camp Flute in a tutu and Zoe Campbell captured the downtrodden air of a mechanical in her Snout. Jonathon George captured Demetrius’s slightly sour air, John Slade’s Quince was an exasperated but ineffective director and David Clayton was a bumptious Bottom, though might have been better served without the full donkey mask. Elham Mahyoub is an extraordinarily expressive actor in terms of face and movement, and, I mean no offence, was perfectly Hermia-sized. Lanre Danmola was a peeved Oberon with an air of making up his mischief as he went along, Ingvild Lakou’s Titania being suitably unimpressed.

The production really came alive when the director’s eye for movement, design (Jamie Simmons once again using the most mundane of materials), lighting (Stuart Glover) and sound (Sam Glossip) came together. Like all three of the Lazarus productions there is idea after idea which is simple but oh so effective. The highlight was Pyramis and Thisbe, here delivered in an hilarious song and dance routine, which the posh quartet get pulled in to. Like most recent productions Lazarus sort to uncover the darker elements in Shakespeare’s pastoral, though it is humour and joy which dominates. With more money, (which this company richly deserves), and more time, I reckon Lazarus, without too much fiddling with the stripped-back aesthetic, could create a memorable Dream. A Festival setting perhaps?

I don’t know what Lazarus will get up to next but I wholeheartedly recommend you check it out. This is not the most polished theatre you will ever see, and there are occasional missteps, it but it will restore your faith in what theatrical classics can deliver if you are already a luvvie, and should persuade you what you have been missing if you are a reluctant newbie. It’s better than Love Island. Mind you most things are.

 

Describe the Night at the Hampstead Theatre review ****

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Describe The Night

Hampstead Theatre, 23rd May 2018

In our country the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the State. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Describe the Night hasn’t gone down too well with the London critics. The SO and I think they might have missed a trick. It is ambitious, ranging across several periods of Soviet and post Soviet Russian history, with a fairly cavalier approach to naturalism, and mixes fact and fiction, real and imagined events. Its workshop-py creative methodology shows through, but it was for us highly effective and enlightening. We’ve seen a fair few other plays that have fallen far shorter, despite their more limited intent. So hats off to Rajiv Joseph the writer for giving this a go. I see he won an OBIE, off Broadway award, for best new play with this. That’s probably a bit generous, (or New York is lamentably short of new work which I refuse to believe), but it’s proof that this isn’t the disappointment some have claimed it to be.

Polly Sullivan’s design sees a cliff wall of grey metal filing cabinets punctuated with a raised corridor and spiral staircase down to a dark open space with a couple of spindly birches. This, with some nifty work from Johanna Town’s lighting and Richard Hammarton’s sound, serves as backdrop for an underground KGB/NKVD filing room, an interrogation room, a minicab office, a plush Moscow apartment, a sparsely furnished flat and a forest exterior. The action kicks off in Poland in 1920 during the Russo-Polish war, (a conflict itself near forgotten), where we meet Isaac Emmauilovich Babel played by Ben Caplin and Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov played by David Birrell. Both actors are superb by the way.

Now Babel was a writer whose stories about his childhood and this war were initially feted by the Soviet authorities but who was eventually arrested, his work confiscated, and he was executed in 1940. Yezhov was a small man, a party functionary, who drank to excess, but rose to become a favourite of Stalin and head of the NKVD through the Great Purge. Eventually though he fell foul of Stalin, his wife Yevgenia Solomonovna Feigenburg (Rebecca O’Mara) was arrested, and he too was executed in 1940, despite trying to save his skin by ratting on his friends including Babel. The photos above show how he was famously “non-person-ned” out of history.

The two meet in a forest near Smolensk as Babel is trying to “describe the night” around him. The literal Yezhov has very little of the poet about him, Babel relishes metaphor,  and the two debate the nature of facts and truth. They strike up a firm, if unlikely, friendship. We move forward to 1930s Moscow where we see Babel, whose estranged wife is in Paris, begin his affair with Yevgenia, (which, in reality, had started earlier before she married Yezhov). In the next scene we have whizzed forward to 2010 and Smolensk, where the plane taking the Polish president, his wife and various political and military elite to the commemoration of the Katyn massacre of 1940, has just crashed. Journalist Mariya (Wendy Kweh) is looking to evade the police and enlists the help of Feliks (Joel MacCormack) to made good her escape so she can tell the story.

For those that don’t know the crash is still the subject of conspiracy theories, despite the Polish and Russian authorities concluding it was down to human error, and the Katyn massacre saw the murder of some 22000 Polish military and intelligentsia by the NKVD, although Soviet authorities only finally admitted this in 2010 having previously blamed the Nazis.

We also seen Wendy Kweh as cantankerous Mrs Petrovna and her “daughter” Urzula, played by newcomer Siena Kelly, living in Dresden in 1989. Urzula wants to escape to the West. They have come to the attention of Vova, extravagantly played by Steve John Shepherd, who you might know as one Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. We see our putative Putin rewriting his own history in a confrontation with Yezkov, who has “lived on” to control the files of the NKVD/KGB. The real Putin’s early history is somewhat uncertain. Urzula may be the grand-daughter of the illegitimate child of Babel and Yevgenia, who ended up in an asylum thanks to Yezkov, unable to distinguish Babel’s stories from her own memory. Vova also interrogates, unpleasantly, Mariya, mirroring Yezkov’s interrogation of Babel.

And so the stories weave together and what is true and what is fiction becomes ever more uncertain. Babel’s diary, started in 1920, becomes the physical link between the “scenes”. Some have seen parallels in th eplay with other contemporary regimes alongside Russia where the truth is routinely manipulated. Rajiv Joseph is after all an American playwright. There is certainly much to ponder on from Mr Joseph’s particular narratives. and from his mix of fact and fiction, with even some magic realism thrown in, (never be tempted to drink leech soup). History has always been uncertain, from the moment it is “made”. Leaders and states have always sought to confound “truth”. limited only by their shame and intelligence, or lack thereof. The multiplicity of viewpoint that curses our contemporary digital world might seem like it has “never been as bad as this” but it has, as this century of Russian “history”, shows us. People lie. History is rewritten. Truth is fiction and fiction truth where only art might be trusted. The scale of Russia’s current strategy of disinformation may be exaggerated by technology but it certainly isn’t novel.

We thought that Rajiv Joseph’s text and Lisa Spirling’s (AD of Theatre 503) unhurried direction turned into an invigorating display of these “realities”. The cast all seem to have adopted a slightly forced quality in their delivery, which is though entirely consistent with the structure of the play and the world it inhabits. The “workshopped” construction, this version is different from its NYC cousin, does sometimes mean the pace eases ever so slightly, and the play is, perforce, disjointed, but the rewards more than justify this. (I am much happier saying this about Describe the Night than Maly Theatre’s Life and Fate, a similar dramatic exploration of Russian history). There is dark humour throughout. I can imagine a more fleet-footed production, (Stoppard and Kushner, also writers who relish the interplay of ideas and theatre, similarly need momentum), but the play is already asking a fair bit from its audience, (there is definitely a case for reading the excellent HT programme in advance), so a less stagey approach might risk confusion.

For the moment though this is well worth the effort. There are a few performances left at the HT but I have a feeling this will come back in some form or other and will be a “grower” whose reputation will grow with time. Not everything is what it initially seems maybe.

PS. The foyer of the HT contains some of the material from David King’s splendid collection of Soviet graphic art and photographs which formed the backbone of the recent excellent Tate Modern exhibition. There are a few links below to reviews of other cultural events that plough a similar furrow. Treat yourself.

Red Star Over Russia at Tate Modern review ****

Life and Fate at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review ***

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov at Tate Modern review ****

The War Has Not Yet Started at the Southwark Playhouse review ***

The Death of Stalin film review ****

Russian Art at the Royal Academy review ****

 

 

 

 

 

Mayfly at the Orange Tree Theatre review *****

mayfly_2

Mayfly

Orange Tree Theatre, 21st May 2018

A play set in a rural location about a family processing grief. Not a million miles away from the not entirely successful Nightfall at the Bridge Theatre I hear you clamour. (Nightfall at the Bridge Theatre review ***). Well yes after a fashion. Joe White’s debut play though benefits, unlike Nightfall, from its location, in the round in the intimate OT space, and because its writing is tighter, funnier and more affecting. This may not be the most innovative play in terms of form and subject that you will ever see but it is a mightily polished effort which marks Joe White out as another talent to add to the list of young British playwrights.

Harry, (a disarmingly genuine performance from Irfan Shamji), works in a rural pub that is closing down. He encounters the plainly damaged pig farmer Ben (Simon Scardifield) trying to take his own life in the river. It is a Sunday in early May in Shropshire. (There are allusions to Housman, Auden and even Breughel through the play. Mr White clearly knows his elegiac English, and Flemish, onions). Loops, played superbly by Evelyn Hoskins, “hard as fuck me”, remembers Harry from some school cadet trip and means to make him her boyfriend. Cat, played by Niky Wardley, completing the quartet of marvellous actors, is lonely and makes an embarrassing pass at Harry in the pub. We soon see that Ben and Cats marriage is stressed to breaking point and immature daughter Loops is trapped. Their pain stems from the death of their young lad, Adam, son and brother. Harry gets sucked in when he comes to eat with them. He too is grieving. Some, limited, catharsis follows. The End.

All in one day. Like the life of the mayfly. The play works because Mr White is neither afraid of, nor forces through, the emotional core at the heart of his story and because it is very funny, more so than many comedies you might see. The naturalistic lilt of the character’s speech is expertly captured but there is still room for telling metaphor. The crumbling of the social and economic fabric in rural areas lurks in the background mirroring the household’s breakdown. When the pub goes all that will remain will be a Spar and a betting shop.

Mayfly is sympathetically directed here by Guy Jones, one of Paul Miller’s proteges at the OT, and the set from Cecile Tremolieres is inventive, (as it was for Suzy Storck at the Gate last year). I’d be surprised if this play doesn’t pop up again elsewhere and I certainly recommend tracking Mr White’s career. The plot here is just occasionally derivative. With a bigger and more complex idea I reckon he might surprise, big time.