I’ll tell you what. That Annie Baker backs herself. Here is another long play, near 2 hours straight through, where, visually, nothing much happens, bar a properly weird interlude, and dense with word. And this time it is a story about stories, Yep that’s right. The meta of meta. Six assorted punters (five men and just one woman) are ranged around a glass, conference style table telling each other stories in an attempt to create a story. Mediated by their distracted passive aggressive boss Sandy (the ever wonderful Conleth Hill), with occasional interruptions from his chipper assistant Sarah (Imogen Doel) to take food orders, excuse Sandy’s absences and chivvy the crew, and the voice of mogul “Max” (Andrew Woodall) who is bankrolling the enterprise. And with a note taker, Brian (Bill Milner), who eventually, memorably, gets stuck in.
It looks and feels like a scriptwriter’s meeting but its real purpose is never fully revealed and the rules of engagement are vague. Just see what happens seems to be Sandy’s instruction and from this all sorts of stuff pours out, from personal disclosures and confessionals, jokes, classical myth and allusion, gods, monsters, religious dualism, stories about stories, right through to various creation myths. It is affecting, thoughtful, funny, intriguing. Chloe Lamford’s set, complete with Perrier overload, Natasha Chiver’s garish lighting, Tom Gibbons’s sound, Sasha Milavic Davies’s movement (much use of swivel chairs), all echo the hyper-reality, or do I mean hyper-banality, of Annie Baker’s text, which gradually shifts the apparently mundane into the realms of the extraordinary. No surprise that Ms Lamford and Ms Baker co-direct.
It doesn’t quite scale the heights of profundity that it sets out to achieve, or the genuine grace of predecessor John, and it probably stole 20 minutes of my life more than it should have, but you still couldn’t fault its ambition and verve. In trying our patience, and venturing into the Freudian “uncanny”, it gets right under your skin even if it doesn’t shed too much fresh light on the creation of collective, and self, narrative. But it does cover all the bases, maybe too many, as concept overwhelms even this committed execution. Though with actors of this quality, Fisayo Akinade, Matt Bardock, Arthur Darvill, Hadley Fraser, Stuart McQuarrie and Sinead Matthews as the writers), individual character emerges out of the ensemble.
I guess the point was that whilst the urge to share our truth and humanity, and bring meaning to pointless existence, through stories remains undimmed, our capacity to do so might be fading, (especially as chaos in the outside world seeped into the ill-judged ending). Or maybe not. The vagueness of purpose is all part of the attraction in Annie Baker’s practice, so best just to go with the intractable flow and don’t pull too hard on the individual, intellectual, threads. It won’t be one of my top 10 2019 theatrical events but was still a story that could not be missed.
The UK premiere of Israeli playwright Maya Arad Yasur’s “strikingly original, audacious thriller”. Hmm. Striking yes. Original. I guess so. Audacious thriller. Not so sure. It is a fascinating story with a powerful message but its formal construction serves to distract and obfuscate rather than illuminate.
An Israeli violinist, living in Amsterdam, and about to give birth, receives an unpaid gas bill dating from 1945. From this premise the cast of four, deliberately diverse, tell the story of how this came to happen ranging across time, place and character. They start off bickering about where to start, interrupt, and comment on, each other, fracture and distort their narratives and regularly interrupt to ring a bell to amplify or translate. It takes time to adjust to the structure and the script is packed with details, repetitions, overtones and undertones, which can make events hard to follow.
Maya Arad Yasur (through Eran Edry’s translation) makes sure we understand the complexity and self-fabrication of narrative through her conceit and highlights the corrosive effect of hostility to the “other” but the expansion into contemporary conflict has the perverse effect of blunting the central historical fact. Over 75% of the Jewish population in the Netherlands was murdered by the Nazis and once the war was over, those returning home were forced to pay the utility bills of their wartime occupiers. The unnamed violinist’s own investigation, and disturbing discovery, and her personal journey as immigrant and mother to be, strike me as more than enough to make the point. Especially when the “scenes”, the arrival of the €1700 bill, the blithe response of the bureaucrat, the paranoiac unease in the supermarket, the birth anxiety, the “discussions” with her agent and the hairdresser, emerge through the conceptual fog. Dramatisation would have equally served as provocation and testament. We might then have been better able to see more clearly what she could see in a “foreign” place haunted by history.
I am all for experimentation and can’t fault the performances of Daniel Abelson, Fiston Barek, Michal Horowicz and Hara Yannas but, at the end of the day, this was harder work than I wanted it to be. Director Matthew Xia, as the new head honcho of the Actors Touring Company, who co-produced this with the OT and Theatre Royal Plymouth, is obviously a true believer in the power of the work though his previous engagements, Blood Knot here, Wish List at the Royal Court and the revival of Blue/Orange at the Young Vic, show his is equally at home in more naturalistic forms. Here though he opts to exaggerate the already contrived structure with lurches in tone and pace, simple staging (designed by Naomi Kuyck-Cohen) with dissonant props and constant motion (Jennifer Jackson).
The production will run in Plymouth in February next year before moving on to Salisbury, Glasgow, Manchester, Oxford, Coventry, Leeds, Birmingham, Newcastle and Bath. On balance? You should see it.
Lucy Prebble wrote The Effect, ENRON and The Sugar Syndrome all of which were rightly lauded. She is currently one of the writers on Succession the best thing on the telly in this, or any other, year. And Guardian journalist Luke Harding writes vital books about the modern state, two of which have already been made into films. So this adaptation of his book A Very Expensive Poison: The Definitive Story of the Murder of Litvinenko and Russia’s War with the West was always going to be A BIG THING. And so it proved. The Old Vic is always a good place to spy luvvie types on their nights off and the evening we (the SO and the Blonde Bombshells) went was no exception. I won’t say who the Tourist fawned over this time. Just that it was almost as great a pleasure as the play itself.
Now this being Lucy Prebble we were never going to get a straightforward narrative. Even so the sheer invention on/in show was breathtaking. First though a quick reminder of the story. Alexander Litvinenko was an officer of the Russian FSB secret police who specialised in investigating the links between the state and organised crime. In 1998 he and other officers publicly accused their superiors of ordering the assassination of oligarch, and thorn in Putin’s side, Boris Berezovsky. He was acquitted but re-arrested, and when the charges were again dismissed, he fled to London with his family, where he was granted asylum, wrote articles and books accusing the FSB and others of terrorist acts and worked with British intelligence. In November 2006 he suddenly fell ill and was hospitalised. It transpired that he had been poisoned by a lethal radioactive dose of polonium-210. The subsequent British investigation pinned the blame on Andrey Lugovoy a former member of Russia’s Federal Protection Service but he could not be extradited. Litvinenko’s widow Marina, together with biologist Alexander Goldfarb, tirelessly sought justice for her husband and a coroner’s inquiry was set up in 2011. This was eventually, after much foot dragging by the Home Office, (yep one T May was in charge), followed up with a public enquiry which in 2016 conclusively ruled that his murder was sponsored by the FSB and likely conducted with the direct approval of FSB director Nikolai Patrushev and Putin himself.
Not difficult to understand why Luke Harding would want to document this extraordinary story or why Lucy Prebble could see its dramatic potential. The action centres on the indefatigable Marina (MyAnna Buring) and, in a series of slickly staged flash-backs, forwards and sideways, jumping across genres, tackles the who, how and why of the crime. I would be a liar if I can remember all the striking scenes but let’s try a few. The song and dance routine in a quasi brothel led by Peter Polycarpou’s Berezovsky. Amanda Hadingue as Professor Dombey giving a rapid fire 101 lecture on the history of radiation complete with puppets, Tom Brooke’s oddball Alexander Litvinenko serving up deadpan humour from the hospital bed which regularly appears on stage in a thrice, the two incompetent stooges played by Lloyd Hutchinson and Michael Shaeffer sent to carry out the assassination, the super meta-theatricality of Reece Shearsmith’s petulant, but still sinister, Putin commenting unreliably from the Old Vic boxes, the tell-tale trail of radiation handprints, the powerful direct address to the audience from Marina, and, finally, Alexander.
Of course the whole idea is to mess around with the truth in order to show how the modern state messes about with the truth. This near vaudevillian approach to political satire is not especially new (for LP herself), indeed I could imagine Joan Littlewood lapping this text up in the heyday of the Theatre Workshop, but the juxtaposition with such a serious subject is what makes this so interesting and, in some ways, challenging. OK so I can see why some might tire of all the theatrical fun and games but the abrupt shifts in tone, with humour constantly undercutting the serious narrative, worked for us, and, judging by the reaction, the audience including my new celebrity friend.
Bringing all this together will have tested the directorial powers of John Crowley, who has spent most of the last decade on a movie set. However this is the man who brought Martin McDonagh’s Pillowman to the NT stage so this wasn’t going to phase him. Mind you success was in no small measure due to the versatile box set of Tom Scutt, the choreography of Aletta Collins and remarkably nifty stage management from Anthony Field, Jenefer Tait and Ruby Webb.
I have said it before and I’ll say it again. If you want to make a powerful political point in the theatre then humour is your best bet. But it is also the most difficult way to do so. Maybe this isn’t absolutely perfect but given how much Lucy Prebble has gifted us here, as in her previous plays, it is as close as dammit and for that we should be grateful.
The main event first. The astonishing work of Don McCullin, the renowned “war” photographer, though this epithet doesn’t get close to covering the depth of the work revealed in this retrospective at the Tate, (now finished, sorry). McCullin, now 83, left art college at 15, worked on the railways and then did his National Service, where he worked as a photographer’s assistant having failed the theory paper which would have let him take pictures. In 1959, back in Britain, his mates persuaded him to submit his portrait of gang members, The Guvnors, to the Observer. It was printed and the rest is history.
His work in Berlin, as the Wall went up, and in Cyprus on partition, catapulted him to the top of his profession, he has been lauded with awards throughout his career. From 1966 to 1984 he was a photo-journalist for the Sunday Times Magazine producing iconic work in Vietnam, Biafra, Northern Ireland, the Congo, Bangladesh, Palestine, Beirut, Uganda, Chad, Cambodia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere. He also documented the plight of the poor, homeless and marginalised across Britain. His later work includes landscapes, ancient architectural treasures, notably Palmyra, and even some still lifes.
The exhibition includes work from across his career, as well as original examples of his work for newspapers and magazines and some helpful biographical details. He cites Alfred Stieglitz, the father of art photography in the US and husband of Georgia O’Keefe, as an influence despite their different genre focus. McCullin’s sharp, monochrome images are remarkable, even to this numpty, for their composition and mastery of light, though DM only staged one image in the exhibition, and for their visceral emotional power. Unusually he has printed very image in the exhibition himself which means he has to constantly return to these powerful images.
He clearly had to be very brave to take these pictures. He was wounded in Cambodia, imprisoned in Uganda and kicked out of Vietnam. His camera got in the way of a bullet intended for him. That camera is here in this exhibition. His has been hospitalised on numerous occasions. The UK Government pretended the ship was full and refused him a pass to cover the Falklands War. He hasn’t let up, travelling in 2015 to Kurdistan to document the struggle between Kurds, ISIS, Syria and Turkey.
Given the often appalling suffering, war, starvation and disease, which his photos captured it isn’t a great surprise that DM wrestled with the ethics of what he was doing. There are a couple of quotes below from Wiki which get to the heart of his dilemmas. Ultimately the urge to show the world the horrifying stories behind what he saw rightly trumped any sense of voyeurism. The most affecting works are the close up portraits especially those where the subject is often staring direct into camera. Even in a crowded Tate exhibition these are impossible to pass by. We live in a world saturated with images. It is hard therefore to understand just how much impact DM’s photos and the stories that accompanied them had on our society and discourse, especially in the pre-digital 1960s and 1970s. You will probably already know some of these images such is their importance.
An excellent exhibition if somewhat overwhelming. There is some relief in the early, nostalgic, photos of the British working class but, when it gets difficult, the Tourist opted to focus on a few works to try to take in the documented subjects and events. Not entirely successful. With this many people milling around and with so much history and suffering to contemplate it was hard to avoid being numbed or simply failing to see. Just occasionally though I think I saw the truth which DM wanted to captured. It was pretty scary.
“I have been manipulated, and I have in turn manipulated others, by recording their response to suffering and misery. So there is guilt in every direction: guilt because I don’t practise religion, guilt because I was able to walk away, while this man was dying of starvation or being murdered by another man with a gun. And I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself: “I didn’t kill that man on that photograph, I didn’t starve that child.” That’s why I want to photograph landscapes and flowers. I am sentencing myself to peace.”
“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”
It’s been a shocking year so far in terms of getting to the cinema for the Tourist. No excuses. He has the time, the wherewithal and the desire but the theatre and concert addiction, (there have also been a few notable misses on the exhibition front), have crowded out film. There is also the not insubstantial fact that every time he looks to see what is on offer, most of it looks to be utter sh*te, and that the more intimate, thoughtful art-housey European guff that the Tourist prefers can probably wait until a subscription opportunity presents itself. This is patently a self-con, a great film should be always be seen on a big screen, but the Tourist justifies the primacy of theatre in his cultural life by pointing out that theatre is alive. The same production of the same play will vary, as much because of the reaction of the audience as the performances of the actors, and different productions of the same play ….. well just ask my chum BUD. Film, by contrast, is static. Once committed it never changes.
That doesn’t make film a lesser art form. Far from it. Just, right now, the Tourist cares more about theatre than film. And there is just too much to see and learn about even with the luxury of all the time in the world. Anyone who is able, (not even fit as the Tourist can testify), in retirement and can’t find things to do just isn’t trying hard enough. Anyway, for the moment, cinema is taking a bit of a back seat.
That’s not to say that the Tourist hasn’t racked up a fair few film classics so far this year in the discomfort of his own home. (Never managed to find a chair with the perfect construction to support the Tourist’s generous frame and the rest of the family have selfishly secured a more optimal viewing angle). Moreover, and we shall return to this at some point, the Tourist after years of mocking GoT without ever having seen it has bootcamped almost the entirely Westeros back catalogue in the past few weeks so that he is able to criticise from a position of knowledge. It’s eaten into the available hours mind. For your edification, and the Tourist’s own amusement, here is a list, in reverse chronology of the best of what I have seen since the incident that spared me from incessant wage-slavery. You will see there are a fair few “all time greats” here, as the Tourist values the opinion of experts, is easily impressed and, above all, is keen to show off his cultural “cleverness”. Comments welcome.
(BTW for those who prefer to ignore and belittle the facts expressed by those who know what they are talking about, or see conspiracy to deceive at every turn, may I respectfully suggest they give up on their jobs. After all presumably any skills they might have are either made up or valueless based on their own logic).
Strangers On A Train
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane
Ace in the Hole
La Regle de Jeu
I Am Not A Witch
The German Doctor
Don’t Look Now
Sweet Bean (An)
Catch Me If You Can
The Last King of Scotland
Notes on Blindness
This is England
Dazed and Confused
Shakespeare in Love
Look Who’s Back
The Look of Silence
Twelve Angry Men
A Clockwork Orange
The African Queen
King of Comedy
The Wicker Man
All About Eve
Berberian Sound Studio
A Field in England
The Third Man
Wolf of Wall Street
Beasts of No Nation
Hannah and Her Sisters
The Grand Budapest Hotel
A Matter of Life and Death
12 Years A Slave
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Night of the Hunter
The Godfather 1, 2 and 3
Mad Max 2
Gangs of New York
Withnail and I
The Madness of King George
The Lady in the Van
The Last Temptation of Christ
American Werewolf in London
Dead of Night
On the Waterfront
The French Connection
North by Northwest
Life of Brian
To Catch a Thief
The Crying Game
Right, diversion over, on to Vice then. Whilst this didn’t entirely pass me by when it came out and I must have read some decent reviews, it didn’t leap out at me either. Which is odd given the content, a comic hatchet job on, Dick Cheney (above) one of the architects of the America First doctrine of politics, the director and screenwriter Adam McKay is responsible for two of the funniest films ever made in Anchorman and Talladega Nights, and whose The Big Short I thoroughly enjoyed, and the cast, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell and Steve Carell, all of whom can, unlike some of their Hollywood peers, actually act. Still a slot in the diary opened up and £3.75 later (yep that’s the pensioner price, even if you aren’t a pensioner) off I trotted.
I loved it. I can see that half of America, and presumably Blighty, would hate it because of its political stance, and many more because of its breathless construction but this, for me, is what makes it so brilliant. Adam McKay doesn’t f*ck about taking sides when it comes to satirising Cheney’s legacy, even as he questions his own veracity, and he mixes up chronology and technique, (a mystery narrator, documentary footage, fourth wall breaks, a nod to Macbeth, crass symbolism, voice-overs, flash-backs, a meta focus group, even a false ending). A kind of cinematic Brechtian satire, familiar from The Big Short, but here more biting and certainly funnier.
Dick Cheney was the Vice President under George W Bush from 2001 to 2009, probably the most powerful in history, and certainly the least liked on his departure. After studying politics at Yale and the University of Wyoming (his home state), he served as an intern for Donald Rumsfeld in the Nixon administration, rose to became Chief of Staff under Ford from 1975 to 1977, represented Wyoming in the House of Representatives from 1979 to 1989, then became Secretary of State under George HW Bush from 1989 to 1993, overseeing Operation Desert Storm in the First Gulf War. He was Chairman and CEO of Halliburton during the Clinton regime before being chosen as GW’s running mate. He was a key player in the response to 9/11 and the Global War on Terrorism, sanctioning wire-tapping and torture, and promoting the invasion of Iraq. Together with his acolytes, including Secretary of Defence Rumsfeld, “Scooter” Libby, David Addington, John Yu and Karl Rove, he expanded the notion of executive privilege and the unitary executive theory and legitimised enhanced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding.
Now Republican administrations, as far as this laymen can observe, seem to function best when there is a genial chump as front man, letting the machiavellian brains behind the throne crack on with doing the nasty stuff. Cheney is particularly important because he was, as even this satire shows, an extremely intelligent man and gifted political operator. It strikes me that the problem with the current administration is that the chief is anything but genial and that there is, in contrast to the relationship between Cheney and GW, no hint of intelligent design behind him, as the GOP is either consumed by an ideology of opposition or, more prosaically, no-one knows what the POTUS is going to do from one tweet to the next, least of all him. Mind you I suppose the caprice, narcissism, limited attention span and questionable work ethic combine to limit the damage, though others are worryingly taking advantage notably in the composition of the judiciary.
What drives these blokes to behave like this? Money? For sure, though Cheney could have made more sticking with Halliburton, especially after smoothing the path for big oil at home and abroad, (specifically in Iraq as Vice shows). Legacy? That only comes once influence is cemented and, if we are to believe the film, Dick only got going after a kick up the arse from wife-to-be Lynne. Faith? Cheney was a Methodist but his religious belief didn’t seem to be at the core of his identity. Ideology? Of course but, in an early amusing scene, Cheney’s politics only become clear to him after he gets going. Not sure I believe that. Our politics are a function of upbringing and environment shaped by experience. For many the critical faculty that higher education brings leads to a politics based on what one stands for. For some though it simply reinforces what they are against. So “conservatives” like Cheney are against rights for minorities. Against change. Against other ways of thinking about the world. Against global co-operation except where it suits their definition of, in this case, America’s interests. Against the “other”. Against collectivism. Against intervention in the working of “free” markets, ironic since “free” markets always seem to require constant intervention in order to be “free” and to resolve the inefficiencies built into the (still required) price mechanism.
Of course when ideology is confronted by immediate, personal reality we can all become a little unstuck. In Cheney’s case this challenge came in his refusal to back GW and his party on the issue of same sex marriage for the very reason that his younger daughter Mary is a lesbian. The film implies that even this principle was abandoned to offer endorsement to his other daughter, Liz’s, successful campaign to become congresswoman for Wyoming. (US politics being more nepotistic than Ancient Rome it would seem). There is plenty of material which documents Cheney’s more equivocal activities whilst in office, notably the Washington Post’s 2007 appraisal and various documentaries, and DC himself was prone to be candid at times, notably his “so” response to a journalist’s remark that the US people had lost confidence in the Iraq War. He has also published a couple of lengthy memoirs which centre on his doctrine of American exceptionalism and influence and gives his side of this ‘story”.
Still it is up to you how much of Adam McKay’s polemic you wish to believe. That’s the problem with knowledge. Even the bit based on experience and perception can be misleading. And, in an ever complex world of information, we seem to getting into a right pickle when it comes to knowledge based on education, that is what comes to us from third parties, outside our own experience. No wonder we are all so confused and angry.
Anyway back to what drives men like DC, almost always men, who are so convinced of their righteousness that they never seem to question what they do or why they do it. Whether their actions are just or whether they simply serve their interests or beliefs, (generally strongest in the abstract fictions that bind us together: money, nationhood, history, culture, freedom, religion). If you ask me they are most dangerous not when their beliefs and values or being formed, nor when their sense of their rectitude is at its strongest in their urge to lead and save us, but when they exercise power simply because they can. I don’t know anything about the academic literature on power but thinking about this will set me on my way. There is a line early on from Rumsfeld which identifies the young Cheney’s dedication to power, loyalty and discretion (read, hiding stuff). And the scene prior to this where Rumsfeld just collapses into giggles when DC asks him “what we believe in”. That just about sums it up.
Anyway it looks like DC ended up as one of this men, a huge influence on where we are now. And Adam McKay’s film, underneath the laughs, and there are lots of them, serves to highlight this. His early labouring days, the hard drinking which led to a drink driving conviction, twice, the Yale drop-out, draft deferments, votes against sanctions imposed on the apartheid regime in SA and against the early release of Nelson Mandela, Desert Storm and the Panama invasion, cuts to military spending, intervention in Somalia, accounting irregularities at Halliburton, the 2000 election with the contested Florida outcome, the creation of a transition office ahead of the result, claims that Iraq possessed WMD and that Saddam Hussain was linked to al-Qaeda, the genesis of Islamic State, the pressure exerted on Colin Powell at the UN, lobbying for big oil and weakening environmental controls, concealment of documents, the Plame affair, the Taliban’s assassination attempt, his various offices in the House and in the Senate, his heart problems and, amongst all of the above, the event for which he is best known in popular imagination, shooting his mate in the bum on a quail hunt. Mr Kay certainly had plenty to choose from when making his “bio-comedy-drama” and most of it gets in one way or another.
The creative havoc that Adam Kay has unleashed on the material though needed to be balanced by a superb central performance and this he gets from Christian Bale. He has put on the pounds to look the part, with great make-up work, and, I assume, he has captured Cheney’s alarmingly blunt, charmless manner to a tee. Physically slow, mentally quick. Scarily self-possessed even when suffering a heart attack. Most intimidating when pausing mid sentence. Obviously CB was never going to win any meaningful awards given the nature of the film but it’s easy to see why he was nominated. As good as his Patrick Bateman, a nihilist from the previous decade.
Sam Rockwell as GW Bush, Steve Carell as Rumsfeld, Tyler Perry as Colin Powell and scores of others, (even Alfred Molina pops up as a waiter in a fantasy sequence, delivering a menu of euphemisms for atrocity), don’t really get much opportunity to inhabit their characters, but Amy Adams as loyal wife and supporter Lynne is utterly convincing.
Fragmentary, full of holes, partial, wild, high-concept but very funny. As Adam McKay indicates at the outset the creative team here “did its f*cking best”. They certainly did.
It is pretty easy when you spend as much time consuming theatre as the Tourist to go full on luvvie and get well carried away with the “genius” of playwrights, directors, creatives and, especially, actors. So you would probably be wise to ignore all of what follows and the gushing that generally ensues whenever acting royalty treads the boards. But, just for once, this was the real deal.
I see, for example, in today’s Guardian that there is a ranked list of Dame Judi Dench’s film roles. It’s pretty thin pickings, with the exception of some big screen Shakespeare, Iris, Philomena and, especially, Notes on a Scandal. This is not because Dame JD is a poor actress. Nonsense. It is because most films are rubbish. But when a proper text is given to her she is peerless. Which, for anyone who has ever seen her on stage, should be self-evident. I only know her from the recent collaborations with Kenneth Branagh and Michael Grandage, an RSC Mother Courage, Madame de Sade and the Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rose. Too young and too stupid to have seen her in any major Shakespeare roles unfortunately.
Mind you I had never seen, until now, Dame Maggie Smith, on stage. Never saw The Lady in the Van at the NT or in the West End. Or earlier West End triumphs like Albee’s Three Tall Women and A Delicate Balance, or David Hare’s The Breath of Life. All in the fallow period for the Tourist’s theatre going. So it’s just the film and telly stuff. More often than not DMS stamps her mark on these screen roles so completely that you cannot imagine anyone else playing them. Sardonic, trenchant, caustic, acerbic, take your pick of adjectives, you know what I mean. Yet always something far more profound, revealing and empathetic beyond the natural comic timing.
So I wasn’t going to miss this. Whatever it was. Even if she had read out the telephone directory. As it happens a play based on the testimony of Brunhilde Pomsel, a personal secretary to Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, was always going to be right up my street. Ms Pomsel died in 2017, aged 106, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, having given a series of interviews, aged 102, that formed the basis for a documentary film A German Life, produced and directed by Christian Krones, Olaf Muller, Roland Schrotthofer and Florian Weigensamer. This script in turn formed the basis for a subsequent biography and for Christopher’s Hampton’s translation and adaptation for the Bridge stage.
Ms Pomsel had a relatively unremarkable upbringing, despite the remarkable times, as a child in WWI and in 1920s Germany, and went to work as a stenographer in the late 1920’s for a Jewish lawyer and, soon after, simultaneously, for a right wing insurance broker. In 1933 she moved to a a job in the news department of the Third Reich’s broadcasting department, (having taken up Nazi Party membership), and eventually was posted in 1942 to the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment where she was a shorthand writer. Following the fall of Berlin in 1945, and Goebbels’s suicide, she was imprisoned by the Soviet NKVD for 5 years in various concentration camps, escaping to West Germany after her release and working for state broadcasters until her retirement, living in Munich.
Now it is pretty easy to see why the German documentary makers alighted on Brunhilde Pomsel. Yes, her proximity to Goebbels, but also the clarity and honesty of her recollection. Her apparent apolitical stance, she joined the party to get the job and couldn’t quite remember if she voted for the Nazis or the DNVP (the Nationalist party) in the early 1930s, but liked the colours and the meetings, and refusal, even in retrospect to utterly condemn the system she found herself at the heart of, made her a more authentic commentator on what happened to Germany than many others with more pointed conviction in their stories. Her testimony is not concerned with her own personal guilt or innocence and can therefore more credibly get to the heart of the question: what would you have done differently in the same situation?
I am not sure if Mr Hampton had Maggie Smith in mind when he began the process of translating and editing the material from the documentary, though I gather she had plenty of input to the final outcome. I assume that an unbroken monologue, in line with the film, was the only feasible option but I would guess again that Mr Hampton, and the creative team here, Jonathan Kent as director, Anna Fleischle (designer), Jon Clark (lighting), Paul Groothuis (sound), must have had some trepidation at presenting a talking head for near two hours. The set, a naturalistic representation of Ms Pomsel’s apartment, moves gradually towards the front of the thrust stage, Mr Clark’s lighting subtly rings changes and there are a handful of crucial sound interventions, (not least of which is subtle amplification – the Bridge is a brilliant space but not intimate), but otherwise it is just DMS sat in chair.
They shouldn’t have worried (in fact they probably didn’t). From the opening knowing aside “let’s see how this goes”, through Ms Pomsel’s strict childhood, her delight in Weimar Berlin society, the reckoning of Kristallnacht, the fear in Hitler’s bunker, disgust at the Soviets and the search for her Jewish friend post-war (she died in a camp in 1943), DMS is, and this is no exaggeration, spell-binding. You don’t hear and see a German centenarian on stage, it’s still DMS, but this is the vivid, animated story of a real person, conveyed in an entirely naturalistic way, with just hesitant voice, mobile hands and febrile face. Leaving you ample opportunity, as the details build, to reflect on the core question posed above. For it seems to me that any guilt than Ms Pomsel may have carried was actually more the guilt at not feeling guilt, despite all that had happened, and not the guilt of complicity, ignorance or indifference. The banality that lies behind Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil personified. The contradictions about what she did and didn’t know about the concentration camps, or more actually cared to remember about what she knew, especially when contrasted with her own experience in these same camps after the war, are the most pointed passages of testimony and play. “We didn’t want to know about them, we really didn’t”.
This I suppose is why this “evil” is a constant in human history. It’s not lack of resistance or evasive denial that lets this continue. Just “ordinary” people not understanding or caring enough to stop it. This story will never be irrelevant.
I would assume that this will proved to be Dame Maggie’s stage swan song. If so it is a remarkable demonstration of her skill. But beyond that this is a vital story. Powerfully told. It looks like Blackbox Film and Media, the documentary makers, have told, and are telling, other such vital stories. I need to find out more. Not least of which is to see the A German Life documentary. As should you perhaps given the play is sold out.
The Tourist, as this blog shows, is a nice bloke given to giving creatives the benefit of the doubt. Hence the string of positive reviews on these pages. He likes to think that he is wise in his choice of entertainment. The reality is that he just wants to be liked, even when it manifestly doesn’t matter.
Even so he admits to toddling off to the Almeida to see Shipwreck with some trepidation. Reviews were mixed but rarely overwhelming. The SO, BD and LD had all bailed out in advance, for good reasons, though Dad’s sales pitch was about as convincing as that of The Apprentice candidate, (a clever Trump reference there people), who is fired in week one. The Tourist and BD had abandoned Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns one act in, though this was in part due to “cold-induced fatigue”/teenage hangover, and the SO had to abandon The Twilight Zone, now playing at the Ambassadors Theatre, due to a domestic crisis. A poor familial showing all round. Would lightning strike thrice then?
Certainly not. I bloody loved this. As usual that is of no use to you if you fancy seeing it since it is now all over but it really shows why Rupert Gould and the Almeida have such faith in Ms Washburn’s abilities. There may be some dramatic shortfalls, largely born of excess ambition, but boy can she turn a phrase. Now I don’t know when, or if, this will make its way to the other side of the pond but if it does, assuming you are a member of the very echo chamber it purports to excavate, then you should definitely see it. (I think I can safely assume that the Trumpian side of the cultural divide will have no interest in watching their “opposition” introspect, though they would get apoplectically wound up).
Shipwreck is a meticulous unpicking of liberal America’s current paralysis in the face of angry populism. It may be very time and place specific but its messages are universal. Populist politics, which can and will turn ugly, cannot be dismissed, mocked, pandered to or ignored. It has to be confronted and unpicked, piece by piece, through argument, mobilisation and democratic will. Hand wringing and virtue signalling won’t cut it.
By bringing together seven privileged, articulate, white bar-one, liberal American progressives in a snowbound, holiday farmhouse in upstate New York, and then letting then slug out the arguments one by one, with a useful, if not unsurprising twist, AW is able to rehearse all the arguments in forensic detail. The dialogue is actually centred on June 2017 after the ex head of the FBI, James Comey, offered up his damning testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Comey, you will recall, or maybe you won’t for that is one of the points the play forcibly makes, was the bloke who was fired by Trump, ostensibly on the recommendation of the attorney general Jeff Sessions and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein because the FBI rank and file had allegedly lost confidence in their director, but, in reality, because Trump feared the net closing in the the strands of collusion with Russia in the election, taken up subsequently in the Mueller enquiry. Comey, you may also remember, was the chap who rashly indicated that he was re-opening an investigation into the so-called Hilary Clinton e-mails just before the election having previously said there was no case to answer. Confused? I am and that is the point. Keeping up with the truth is tough enough. Unpicking truth, lies and fantasy when narrative and ideology conflict and when there are multiple “reporting” platforms makes it near impossible even for those with the time, inclination and critical faculty to care.
One of the pivotal moments in the debate between the Shipwreck crew comes when, I think, Adam James’s lawyer Andrew reminds then of the time when Trump, in a Republican primary event, claimed the GOP bigwigs had pleaded with him to cool his opposition to the Iraq War. He had not publicly declared any such opposition. He just made it up. And kept repeating it. Then this kind of breathtaking audacity was a surprise. Now many have have become inured to it, just accept it or positively embrace it. Truth has always been a slippery fellow, manipulated by teller and beholder, and more so as time passes, but deliberate, outright fabrication is plainly dangerous to the body politic. But pitifully easy it seems.
The other key moment comes when Andrew’s partner, banker Yusuf, (Khalid Abdalla), admits he voted for the comb-over bogeyman in the election. With the age old excuse of “wanting to shake things up”. Justine Mitchell plays Allie, the sarky, Facebook-ing keyboard warrior “activist”, who criticises the complacency of others but whose logic can send her liberalism way off-beam. The hosts Jools (Raquel Cassidy) and Jim (Elliot Cowan) are more concerned with day-to day accommodation of the changed environment, expecting a reversion to their comfortable mean, whilst Tara Fitzgerald as Teresa and Risteard Cooper as Lawrence are the hippyish slackers, who bang on about the natural birth they have just come from and who see their green-tinged, near-socialism as adequate inoculation. And so all the strands of liberal call and response are represented.
Now I would have been happy with a couple of hours of this fascinating, pointed, if admittedly wordy, to and fro, but, AW being AW, she clearly felt we needed more. So we are introduced to Mark, an orphan of Kenyan descent, who has ended up in the foster care of a traditional, Christian, Trump-voting, rural couple Richard and Laurie, doubled by Risteard Cooper and Tara Fitzgerald. The connection is the farmhouse which Jools and Jim bought from them. Mark then becomes the mouthpiece for racial politics and identity. It is a clunky device but all is forgiven pretty much as soon as Fisayo Akinade as Mark opens his mouth. Now for those that don’t know Mr Akinade, he was the comic turn as Eros in the NT Antony and Cleopatra where he near stole the show from under Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo. He also starred in Barber Shop Chronicles which, for my sins, I haven’t seen, and in the Donmar’s Way of the World, St Joan and The Vote, as well as the Caryl Churchill short Pigs and Dogs, all of which I have. Here, in a series of monologues, in total contrast to the structure and mood of the group scenes, he charts the subtle, and not so subtle, racial dilemmas in his upbringing, imaging what it would be like to be a slave and describing his difficulties in describing the American racial divide to his own child. It is powerful stuff, sharp, funny and rhetorical, made more so by a very fine performance.
And there’s more. As if enough ideas haven’t been explored, AW then goes on to subvert the dramatic form in a very Churchillian (Caryl not Winnie) way and thereby offer up multiple theatrical opportunities for Mr Goold and, especially, the lighting and sound of veterans Jack Knowles and Paul Arditti. Firstly by having Fisayo Akinade playing a sheepish George HW Bush who is rounded on by the besuited, megalomaniac Trump about the Iraq War. And secondly, and this is where the fun really starts, going all out fantasy as Elliot Cowan (I think), bravely, morphs into a gold-painted, Caesar-esque unhinged tyrant, complete with bird-hooded priests, (yep you read that right), berating a nervous James Comey (Khalid Abdella again) during the infamous one-on-one meeting with Trump in the Oval Office where the POTUS allegedly tried to influence the investigation and demanded his loyalty. Mythic.
As in her previous plays AW shows she doesn’t seem to have an edit function, so even within the tripartite form she crams in so much more. References to Greek tragedy, the nature of art, politics and theatre (“art needs time, space and reflection” as Jools says – not here, AW just gets stuck in), class, incessant social media chatter and mock outrage, the lack of food and drink and their practical shortcomings, disparities in wealth between the couples. But always returning to the uncomfortable idea that the rise of Trump is a retaliation to the pious entitlement and performative shortcomings of white liberalism. And that what these people are most afraid of is losing their economic and cultural dominance to the unenlightened.
No plot, occasionally bonkers, no apologies speechifying, three hours plus, repetition and circularity. Shipwreck is so obviously flawed. But I don’t care because AW, even when she goes too far, can still slum-dunk ideas, message and theatrical thrills which the uniformly excellent cast and Rupert Goold, (and the rest of the creative team, including Miriam Buether symbolic, circular design and Luke Halls, who else, with his striking political and religious iconographic video,) greedily feast upon. It is complex, over-stuffed, baggy, ill-disciplined but in going beyond the usual incredulity at how the Orange One gets away with it, it is brilliant and telling.
He’s only gone and done it again. Director Robert Icke has taken Ibsen’s perhaps most circumspect, but probably greatest, masterpiece, from 1884, and adapted it to make it shine anew and say something profound about our world today. There may be a small price to pay in terms of subtlety, (and the sense of eyebrows-raised irony that permeates old Henrik’s world), but the gain, in terms of the clarity of text and story, and the lecture on the nature of truth, more than compensates. Mr Icke, to paraphrase Ian Drury, ain’t half a clever bastard, and he has no qualms about showing us that he is, but when he creates theatre as powerful as this then we should all be grateful. Mary Stuart, Uncle Vanya, Oresteia, Hamlet, 1984, Oedipus, Romeo and Juliet and now this. One or two hiccups outside these triumphs for sure but when he takes a classic and lets fly with his intellectual vajazzling you know you are in for a treat.
Gregory Woods (yep, as in his Vanya, Icke has anglicised the names), has just returned from a self-imposed exile. His father Charles is having a party to celebrate his betrothal to his housekeeper Anna Sowerby, also attended by Greg’s old school chum, jobbing photographer James Ekdal. James has married Gina, previously a servant in the Woods household, who may have had an “affair” with patriarch Charles, at least according to Greg’s now dead (unhappy) mum. Greg believes James and Gina’s life is built on a lie. In subsequent acts, set in the Ekdal’s apartment and photography studio, we also meet James’s own broken, alcoholic father Francis, once Charles’s business partner, daughter Hedwig, who is slowly losing her sight, and cynical neighbour, John Relling.
Oh and there is a wild duck upstairs, (or not as it turns out). And, when Bunny Christie’s set extravagantly pays off near the end, (in tandem with the production itself), much more besides. It is artifice, of course, that’s Icke’s point, but it is so dammed affecting.
You might have guessed that Mr Icke treats us to more than the naturalism normally accorded to Mr Ibsen’s play however. The play opens with an empty stage. It’s the old rehearsal room schtick. Kevin Harvey as Gregory, (last seen by me in preposterously high heels and sparkly drag in the marvellous community theatre Pericles at the National), sets the scene armed with microphone and explanation. “All stories are lies”. That’s the gist of it. Edward Hogg’s James enters from the stalls and borrows a jacket from an unfortunate front-rower. He takes the mic and starts to explain his character. And so we continue with the actors coming in, seizing the mic, (Nicholas Day’s Charles started off in a seat next door to the Tourist), and then breaking into the narrative of the play itself to offer reflections on their characters motivations, the way Ibsen’s own life, (notably the illegitimate daughter he fathered with a servant girl and abandoned), interact with the play and to explain sub-text. Gradually though Ibsen’s own words, (filtered through modern Norwegian and then Icke’s idiomatic English from archaic Danish-Norwegian as Greg reminds in an initial aside), take centre stage and the brilliance of his plot is revealed. Simultaneously the stage is, almost imperceptibly, transformed into a period version of the Ekdal household, as the props accumulate and Elliot Grigg’s lighting gradually dims.
Pretty much everyone in the Wild Duck lies to themselves and to each other. For that is what they do just to keep going, just like we all do. Their “life-lies” in Ibsen’s words. Political idealist Greg though is having none of this and, as he picks away at the scabs of the past, starting with his Dad, everything unravels. For him truth is what matters, regardless of the damage caused by its revelation. So he wades in with his size twelves leaving James as the main casualty, as the multiple skeletons cascade out of multiple metaphorical cupboards.
Now you might contest that Mr Icke too has aggressively waded in feet first in his determination to expose the message and the context of the play. Mind you I don’t know how big his boots are nor, indeed, whether he is, indeed, too big for them. It is just a clumsy metaphor. Just like the many that Ibsen employs. And now Icke. The real time “deconstruction” hammers home these metaphors but the attention to detail and intelligence of the “interventions” only serves to increase our understanding and enjoyment. The audible gasp from the audience at the big reveal shows me that Icke’s restoration job has made the Ibsen “original” arguably more powerful and more vivid. It certainly doesn’t want for emotional power. I’ll even forgive him the torch version of Love Will Tear Us Apart. Some might prefer their Old Masters in a mausoleum, dark, dingy and covered with layers of accumulated interpretative varnish. Not me. Get back to the original colours, slap them in a white, light filled room and provide copious notes please.
I’ll warrant that the cast also profited from the reworking. Kevin Harvey strikes just the right note of fractured righteousness in his soft Scouse. Edward Hogg is mesmerising as his pride is undone and his moods shift alarmingly. Nicholas Farrell and Nicholas Day excel as the two estranged fathers and Rick Warden as Relling and Andrea Hall as Anna Sowerby both offer convincing support. However for me the standout was Lyndsey Marshall as Gina, whose pain is most acute but who still has to pull the threads of her family together. “I don’t know if I love you but it is my best guess that I do”. Just marvellous. And finally I was frankly bloody stunned by the performance off Clara Read, as Hedwig in our performance. Little Hedwig is largely the reason why so many lies are told. Most young actors, when surrounded by adult characters, are always still acting however good their performance. Ms Read didn’t appear to be acting, ironic since, as I recall she was the only one on stage who didn’t break the fourth wall. I would love to see her perform again.
The Wild Duck sadly has flown away from the Almeida and, like The Writer, I suspect it may prove a little bit too cerebrally audacious for a West End sojourn. But it does prove the current No 1 rule of London Theatre. Always take a punt when booking opens on anything at the Almeida. Especially when directed by Mr Icke, Mr Goold or Ms Frecknall. Sounds like the Tragedy of King Richard the Second with Simon Russell-Beale is dividing the criterati – I have yet to see it, though reading between the lines and based on Joe Hill-Gibbons’ recent Shakespeare outings I suspect I’ll love it. But the new play by Annie Washburn, Shipwreck, looks tempting, (even if I had some reservations about her last two outings premiered here, Mr Burns and The Twilight Zone), and the Three Sisters, in an adaption by Cordelia Lynn, directed by Rebecca Frecknall, (whose Summer and Smoke is now bowling ’em over at the Duke of Yorks), and with Patsy Ferran and Pearl Chanda in the cast, is near guaranteed to be a belter.
Regular readers of this blog, (ok some kindly chums), have oft remarked that I am prone to generosity in my reviews, if not in life. True. But in this case if you don’t believe me then take the word of the SO who rated this Wild Duck up there with Network and The Lehman Trilogy as her plays of the year. And trust me she isn’t always easy to please. Theatrically that is, not domestically.
One final aside. I spend a lot of time in the theatre. It is therefore quantifiably a large part of my own reality. And sometimes it feels more real than reality. This was one of those times. I could still happily be sat in the Almeida watching the unhappiness of the Ekdals and the Woods three weeks later so immersed was I by the end. Pick the bones out of that.