So we will have to wait for Alistair McDowall’s latest full length play The Glow at the Royal Court, postponed thanks to you know what. Mr McDowall was the pen, and brains, behind dystopian/sci-fi/mystery/thriller/social satires Brilliant Adventures, Talk Show, Captain Amazing, Pomona and X. His plays sound audaciously bonkers in synopsis but actually work, albeit with a lot of creative hard work, on page and stage. He is one of our most talented and ambitious young playwrights, influenced, as they all are by the godhead Caryl Churchill, as well as by Sarah Kane and cinema, but blessed with the skill to carry it off. The Glow, which look like it kicks off in the world of spiritualism in Victorian Britain, was one of my most looked forward to plays. I will just have to keep looking forward.
In the meantime we were treated to this. all of it. A 45 minute steam of consciousness monologue which tells the story of one unnamed woman’s life. All of it. The extraordinary Kate O’Flynn, directed by Vicky Featherstone, on a stool under a single spotlight, (easy money for lighting designer Anna Watson but exactly what was required). It starts with noises, burbles, single words, repeated. The child. The teen, self-absorbed, desperate to fit in, discovering drink. Sexual awakening. Marriage, divorce, the monotony of work, re-marriage, motherhood, child-rearing. Disease. Death. Our heroine is resolutely ordinary. I have no idea what it is to be a woman but Mr McDowall seems to get inside her head. The text is funny, warming, smart, insightful. Kate O’Flynn creates rhythm, drama and empathy from the dissociated words. Think Beckett, or, better still, an unpretentious Joyce.
I was captivated. Though I can see why some might have been underwhelmed by the experiment. That’s life.
One book, a Soviet TV adaptation, two films. And now a play. And, between us, the SO and I have all the bases covered. SO, a big fan of Stanislaw Lem’s ground-breaking 1961 dense sci-fi/horror novel, me, unusually tolerant of Tarkovsky’s high culture, languid 1972 film, and both fans of Soderbergh’s more straightforward 2002 remake with Clooney playing Dr Kelvin and Natasha McElhone his dead wife. .
With David Greig as adaptor, having thoroughly succeeded with Touching the Void and The Suppliant Women in his last two outings, and some very favourable reviews from the initial run at the Royal Lyceum Edinburgh where DG is Artistic Director, we were both quite excited, particularly after our epic bus journey to get there. (As time expanded it felt like the A310 itself was auditioning for the role of the eponymous blue planet).
A good sized and young audience for the Saturday matinee, and some mesmeric rolling wave cinematography from Tov Belling and Katie Milwright, and the reveal of Hyemi Shin’s bright monochrome set only increased our expectations. Not for the last time I was reminded of the look, feel and intention of Alistair McDowall’s excellent X at the Royal Court a few years ago. What followed was a stripped-down, simplified, but still essentially faithful rendition of the story, (though sticking mostly to the Tarkovsky film) which didn’t quite live up to its theatrical potential.
A gender switched Polly Frame plays Kris Kelvin, the scientist sent to investigate the strange goings-on at the space station studying the water planet Solaris. There she meets the wary Sartorius, (Jade Ogugua in another smart gender switch), and the geeky Snow (Fode Simbo). The planet itself is apparently conscious, sending “gifts” first in the form of objects and then as visitors from the crew’s past. Dr Gibarian, recently dead, possibly by his own hand, possibly a cancer, has left videos, (cue a giant sized projection of Hugo Weaving), offering Kris his insights. Much of the plot however, like the Soderbergh film, centres on Kris and her relationship with her visitor, Aussie surf boy, Ray (Keegan Joyce), her last, uninhibited, love who may offer her some sort of emotional redemption. Unfortunately this version of Ray, who is real and not just a figment, literally has no back story and cannot cope with the absence this creates.
This being a play we clearly need words, however good the technical prowess of the creatives, (including, in addition to the above, lighting from Paul Jackson, picking up on the planet’s red and blue suns, outstanding sound and composition from Jethro Woodward and further visual effects from Toby Angwin). David Greig’s adaptation cleverly obviates the need for prologue, flashback, exposition or resolution. The three surviving humans, Snow and Sartorius being significantly less fucked up by the experience than their literary equivalents, collectively work through the implications of what they have stumbled upon together. But this is where the text slightly lets down the production. Having set up the, shall we say, echo chamber, the opportunity for the three to share their own stories and to debate what this means for wider humanity is only partly explored. No one likes a talky play but surely here, there is after all a vast, infinite intelligence playing with our protagonists on the doorstep, a bit of philosophical theory might not have gone amiss. Existential isolation, infinite space, the problem of consciousness, all are central to Solaris. And these are scientists so no reason why they can’t come over a bit clever clogs.
And this could easily have been done without losing the human dimension. Whilst we do not see Snow’s visitor who he has “destroyed” we do Sartorious’, a small girl child, and learn why she is there, and Ray and Kris’s past, and present, attraction is explored at length. Matthew Lutton, who is AD at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne, who co-produced, oversees the impressive staging and the Aussie end of the casting, Hugo Weaving (who was sooooo good in Patrick Melrose as the abusive Dad) and Keegan Joyce, are more than a match for the Brits. The short scenes and cinematic cuts, with shuttering screen, prompt dislocation, but with nimble stage management from Kiri Baildon Smith and team, do not impede momentum.
This was, in spite of the missed opportunities, a satisfying piece of theatre that perhaps deserved an audience beyond just Melbourne, Edinburgh and London, though these are three of the finest cities on our planet. I see that Mr Greig’s next project is a musical version of Local Hero. Meanwhile I see us Poms are exporting Laura Wade’s Home, I’m Darling and Dennis Kelly’s Girls and Boys to the good people of Melbourne, both of which I can heartily recommend, to add to delights such as Photograph 51, Kiss of the Spider Woman and True West coming up. And in Sydney I see the Theatre Company is showing The Beauty Queen of Leenane as we speak, with The Deep Blue Sea, The Writer, Rules for Living and A View From The Bridge to come.
Guildhall School, Milton Court Theatre, 5th February 2019
The Tourist has remarked before on the benefits of checking out the productions staged at Britain’s major theatre schools. Excellent actors and creatives destined to to go on to greater things, usually professional directors, interesting repertoire, often first revivals of recent lauded plays, and usually a bargain, no more than a tenner in most cases. Right now a quick perusal shows a production of Orca by Matt Grinter at the Bristol Old Vic, one of my top ten plays of 2016, Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Central School opposite the Hampstead Theatre, similarly a top tenner in 2017, Woman and Scarecrow by Irish dramatist Marina Carr at RADA, Pomona by Alistair McDowall, (who should turn up with a new play at the Royal Court soonish), which I contrived to miss at both the Orange Tree and the National, a Doctor Faustus at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Boy at the Mountview Academy, a success a few years ago at the Almeida, a production of Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North, which you might know from the TV adaptation, at the Manchester Metropolitan School of Theatre, the adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s classic The Suicide by Suhayla El-Bushra, which I loved at the National in 2016, and man of the moment Martin Crimp’s shocker Attempts On Her Life at the Guildford School.
Not bad eh. I strongly suggest you follow what they are up to if you love theatre. Makes a change from spunking £60 or £70 on a West End or NT turkey.
So this is how I came to see Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit. Ms D’Amour was, and still, is something of a bright young thing in US theatre, and now interdisciplinary performance, (for which read site specific extravaganza), circles, with a long association with the Steppenwolf Company. Detroit was a Pulitzer finalist and it is pretty easy to see why. It focuses on the unravelling of the American Dream (as do, I loosely estimate, 50% of all US plays, with the other 50% centred on dysfunctional families), but with a twist as it is set, metaphorically at least, in the suburban sprawl of Detroit, colonised, like so many American cities by whites fleeing the centre in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Around half of all Americans live in suburbs apparently.
Anyway all is not well in this particular street. The marriage of Mary (Poppy Gilbert) and Ben (Oli Higginson) is under pressure. Ben has been made redundant from his job at the bank but claims to be seizing the opportunity to strike out on his own as a financial adviser by setting up a website, armed with self-help homilies. Neurotic paralegal Mary is all about appearances and is a bit too fond of the drink. Things seem to take a turn for the better when younger couple Kenny (Nick Apostolina) and Sharon (Laurel Waghorn) move in. They come with an admitted past of drug abuse but our now clean, working in a warehouse and a call centre and, whilst they haven’t much in the way of bucks, they appear excitingly YOLO’ish and curious to make friends. Cue a round of BBQs in their respective backyards. Eventually they all get sh*tfaced and things, shall we say, get a little out of hand. The truth, and a blast of nostalgia, emerges when Kenny’s uncle Frank (Wyatt Martin) pays a visit.
Ms D’Amour’s dialogue is vibrant and dynamic, the characters are interesting and well matched, the plot is sufficiently engaging and the themes it examines are never oversold. It resembles a kind of modernised, reversed, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf which is no bad thing. It doesn’t have the range, acerbity, humour or pain of Albee’s classic but in its odd, twitchy, serendipitous way it manages to make the mundane come to life on the stage. It asks for performances from the four leads beyond the naturalistic, but not lurching into the exaggerated, which director Charlotte Westenra grasped, and the set design of Charlie Cridlan, albeit with a little man-handling from cast and SMs, did the job.
At the end of the day I guess the point is that all four of them are living a lie, unhappy with their lot, and looking for a way to escape. A satire on precarious middle-class America, the shattering of dreams, and the urge to connect in misfortune, in an increasingly uncertain world. Worked for me. Especially with some fine performances. Poppy Gilbert was a particular delight, though Mary’s unravelling gave her plenty of opportunity to shine. Oli Higginson brought an air of vulnerability to Ben, Nick Apostolina made sure we saw the chip on Kenny’s shoulder and Laurel Waghorn revealed Sharon’s emotional, if not intellectual, intelligence.
Next up from the School an Orestes. Reworked. Like we would ever get a literal translation from Ancient Greek.