A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter at the Bridge Theatre review ****

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A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter

Bridge Theatre, 13th October 2018

OK then. All of you fans of densely-plotted, cerebral, potty-mouthed, fairy-tale, political, splatter, revenge, comedy fantasies. Your ship has come in.

I have a strong feeling that Martin McDonagh’s new play at the Bridge will, in years to come, form the basis for many a Theatre and Drama Studies students’ dissertation. Let’s just say he doesn’t hold back here. All of his tics, tropes and obsessions are on show: moral instability, savage humour, verbal aggression, twisted irony, brutal violence, calculated abuse, punishment, justice and revenge, inversions, post-modernist borrowings, self-reverence, complex allusion, high and low art juxtapositions, exaggerations, call-backs, call-forwards and protean plot twists.

In a word: meta.

Once again he is pushing the audience, deliberately transgressive, a kind of theatrical meta-regression to keep us on our toes, but this time, unlike the best of his work, it doesn’t quite hang together on first viewing. The rhythm of the language is less immediately persuasive, less precise, (even allowing for a few timing issues at this early performance). It cannot be missed mind you, and it may be that the production will tighten up through the run, but overall I found it a little less convincing than Hangmen or The Lieutenant of Inishmore, or Three Billboards … or In Bruges. In these the intricate plotting and more naturalistic settings make for a more satisfying whole. On the other hand AVVVDM might turn out to have more intellectual depth: I am simply not clever enough to take it all in on one viewing. Probably closest to Seven Psychopaths for you students of MM, a film even he described as maybe a bit too meta, but one which I think gets better on repeated viewing.

AVVVDM is drawn from Mr McDonagh’s 1995 play The Pillowman, which was first performed in 2003 at the NT and also starred Jim Broadbent, (who plays Hans Christian Anderson in AVVVDM), as cop Tupolski, alongside David Tennant, Nigel Lindsay and Adam Godley. In this play a writer, living in an unspecified totalitarian theocracy, is accused of murders which mimic the plots of his own fairy tales. It is a bit Gothic, it captures the power of literature, there’s some Kafka going on, the ethical dilemma is fascinating if a little forced, of course there is violent imagery and of course there is humour.Like all of McDonagh’s plays The Pillowman’s morality is slippery, though not really ambiguous; it is normally pretty clear what he is saying, just that its compass is oscillating so rapidly between perspectives of right and wrong that we in turn start to lose our bearings.

Once again it he world of “fairy tales” that forms the starting point for AVVVDM. In fact the “plot” looks to be drawn from The Shakespeare Room, which Michal, Katurian’s damaged brother, references in The Pillowman. In this story it turns out that Shakespeare’s plays were written by a pygmy woman he kept in a box. MM has described in the past, reiterated in the programme here, how he made up fairy tales in his teens for his older brother John. One of these formed the basis for another of Katurian’s stories in The Pillowman, The Tale of the Town on the River, which tells how the Pied Piper “saved” one of the children by chopping off his toes. And so fairy tales get darker and darker with the telling.

AVVVDM kicks off with Hans Christian Andersen giving a contrived recital of The Little Mermaid. Now it turns out that the real HCA was an awkward character, abused at school, with unrequited longings for men and women but likely celibate. One of the objects of his affections, Edvard Collin (Lee Knight), is in the crowd in this opening scene. And, incongruously, also there, well there in HCA’s mind, cue the scary music, are a couple of blood encrusted, walking and talking, corpses, Barry (Graeme Hawley) and Dirk (Ryan Pope), sporting fine moustaches. Well this is a fairy tale after all. Cut to the attic of HCA’s townhouse where, surprise, surprise, we discover that he has a secret, namely a Congolese pygmy, Marjory, in a box, who is writing his stories.

All this is accompanied by a gravelly narration from none other than Tom Waits. From here MM weaves together the genocide in the Congo Free State in the late C19 with the real life friendship of Charles Dickens (Phil Daniels) and HCA, which unravelled when HCA overstayed his welcome on a visit in 1857. I’ll stop there. Let’s just say the plot plays fast and loose with fact, fiction and time.

I guess MM’s main thrust is to contrast the near unbelievable horror of King Leopold II’s direct, private rule of the Congo from 1885 to 1908, where maybe ten million died, and which scarred the country through Belgian colonial rule, and post independence, with the pygmy population suffering most, (as it still does today), with the maudlin tales of innocence and virtue standing fast against corrupting forces of both HCA and Dickens. It is hard to avoid the stories told by the latter, they permeate Western culture: the barbarous reality of the former though, a couple of decades later, and far worse than anything imagined in fiction, is still barely known by many, including me until now.

The fact that MM tells this story in the form of a comedy, in an expletive-ridden contemporary vernacular, is only to be expected from MM. Casting Jim Broadbent and Phil Daniels, who are, by virtue of career and demeanour, are distinctively Dickensian, is surely no accident. After all a new MM script will pretty much guarantee any actor from his roster of favourites will sign up, sight unseen. Both went all out for laughs, many of which were at the broad end of the subtlety scale. Emily Berrington, as she so often does, near steals the scenes she is in as the earthy Mrs Catherine Dickens. I loved the sweary kids as well. Paul Bradley, as the inexplicit Press Man, also turned in his customarily fine performance.

However the play would not be possible without the formidable Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles as Marjory, (and later Ogechi, you’ll see). From the moment she emerged from the box, suspended from the ceiling in Anna Fleischle’s amazing set, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. This was BUD, and KCK’s, first exposure to the wonderful and frightening world of Martin McDonagh. The SO was converted at Hangmen. When we emerged, not a little bewildered, after the 90 minutes, we debated the play long into the night. OK then maybe not long into the night, but certainly as long as it took to have a drink, some rarebit (highly recommended) and some madeleines, in the excellent Bridge foyer. Anyway BUD, being the analytical sort of chap he is, couldn’t get over the fact that the play could only exist with Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles in the role. Surely it must have been written for her?

I agree. But not for the obvious reasons of appearance. Simply because she is an outstanding actor. Sardonic, bitter, vengeful, powerful yet also vulnerable, compassionate and forlorn. Don’t get me wrong she delivers plenty of killer (literally) comic lines but she also carries the entire weight of the emotional and political substance of the play on her shoulders. This is her professional debut. Extraordinary.

Now director Matthew Dunster, and Anna Fleischle, have previous with Martin McDonagh, having brought the Royal Court production of Hangmen into being. (Mr Dunster also has form with HCA, directing the Pet Shop Boys’ ballet adaptation of his story The Most Incredible Thing. Messrs Tennant and Lowe know a thing or two about stagecraft challenges but they are not a patch on MM).

Even so I suspect director and designer, and the rest of the creative team, James Maloney (music), Philip Gladwell (lighting), George Dennis (sound), Chris Fisher (illusions), Finn Ross (video) and Susanna Peretz (wigs and prosthetics), must have rolled their collective eyes at their first meeting. How were they going to make this leap of mischievous imagination from page to stage? Impressively, as it turns out.

So you see the thing with MM is there is just so much there. So many echoes yet uniquely his own voice. Scorsese, Malick, Pinter, Tarantino, Synge, Le Fanu, Mamet, Beckett, Borges, punk. Insert your own thoughts here. I for one really what to believe he likes The Fall.

A master story-teller. With maybe, in this case, not quite a master story. It might annoy you. It might frustrate you. It might provoke you. It might overwhelm you with “WTF” moments. It should make you laugh, (assuming you know a little of what you are letting yourself in for). It will certainly make you think. And you definitely won’t forget it in a hurry.

Home I’m Darling at the National Theatre review ***

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Home, I’m Darling

National Theatre Dorfman, 29th August 2018

Now I have to confess to a slight feeling of disappointment with Home, I’m Darling. Don’t get me wrong. It is a very amusing play, with a fine cast led by Katherine Parkinson, and note-perfect set, costume, lighting and sound designs from Anna Fleischle, Lucy Carter and Tom Gibbons, which, cumulatively makes its points. It’s just that it doesn’t really yield too much in the way of surprises once the initial inversion has played out. It feels like writer Laura Wade, whose work to date has been inspired, notably Posh, had a really good idea and a series of fine scenes in her head, but, in translating them on to the page, some of the fizz seemed to evaporate.

Katherine Parkinson plays Judy, a stay at home housewife, married to Johnny (Richard Harrington), an estate agent. It quickly transpires that they, together, have taken their nostalgic obsession with the 1950s to its logical, (or maybe illogical), conclusion. Their friends Fran (Kathryn Drysdale) and Marcus (Barnaby Kay) share their enthusiasm for the clothes, music and style but not the domestic arrangements, right down to Judy decanting the sugar into 1950s containers and milk into glass bottles. Mum Sylvia, (a trenchant Sian Thomas), who brought up Judy in a commune, finds her daughter’s choice hard to comprehend, this “gingham paradise”. The cast is completed by Alex (Sara Gregory), Johnny’s boss, who Johnny is trying to curry favour with to secure promotion. The set up, with the insertion of an Act 2 flashback, allows Laura Wade to explore all angles of the “debate” about gender roles and choices in contemporary society. What value does that society place on “traditional women’s work”? How to balance “choice” with economic necessity? Who can judge on the choice to stay at home or work? What are the risks in fetishising the past? If this sound like its going to be a dour evening never fear. It is all delivered with the lightest of comic touches as you would expect from this writer and from Tamara Harvey who has directed her work before.

The problem is that having conjured up this admittedly intriguing conceit, and established a sit-com mood, the tone never really wavers, and there are maybe a couple too many plot revolutions jemmied in to cover all the bases, for example when Marcus reveals his true misogynist colours. There are occasions when the play steps out of its self imposed comic straightjacket, when Sylvia delivers an impassioned speech about the sacrifices her generation made to promote feminism in the 1970s and just how materially tougher life was for a child in the 1950s, for example. And Katherine Parkinson, with her ability to convey Judy’s brittle interior nature, (she always sounds the weeniest bit p*ssed to me), shows how she crumples under her own self-imposed contradictions. Having teased out a dramatic explanation for Judy’s decision from her own childhood, the plot seems to go into reverse and the ending is something of a damp squib. We all, the SO, BUD and KCK, came out just a little deflated.

I am thinking maybe I am being a little harsh here, and maybe we were asking too much, but that’s where we came out. There are some priceless lines, (Fran’s “the longest recipe I followed this week was Pierce Film Lid”), and the play will definitely make you think. Given that it has sold out at the NT and, prior to that at Theatr Clywd, and has garnered a slew of 4* reviews, I wouldn’t dream of putting you off but there was just something that held us back. And trust me the 4 of us are usually very easily pleased.

 

 

The Writer at the Almeida Theatre review *****

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The Writer

Almeida Theatre, 9th May 2018

The Writer is …. an absolutely staggering piece of …. writing. No other way to say it. I’d wager there were a few punters in the audience that disagree with me but I think Ella Hickson, along with director Blanche McIntyre and the rest of the creative team, and an outstanding cast, have conjured up a masterpiece. In the same breath it provokes, educates and entertains. It deserves a much wider audience that the well-heeled punters like the Tourist who make up the Almeida throng. Whilst the Almeida may not immediately struck you as part of the solution to the problem of access for telling stories from women on stage, it was heartening to see this project realised there.

It starts with an impellent Lara Rossi, (who is more than a match for Romola Garai, superb as the eponymous Writer), playing a young actor/writer who, post performance, eloquently demolishes the lazy, sexist premises on which a complacent Samuel West’s direction is constructed. As she says theatre is “famous people, doing boring things badly”! Men are judged on what they produce, women on how fuckable they are. They have inevitably met before. We discover though that they are acting out the Writer’s text and sharply shift to a staged Q&A in which the nervous, tongue-tied Writer’s work is undermined by the “real” Director imperiously played by Michael Gould who praises its “promise” but inveigles against it lack of “structure”. Just who is going to watch this sort of stuff?

Scene two switches to the home of the Writer and partner, also Samuel West, who bullies and cajoles the Writer into agreeing to adapting her work into a film. It is all about him. She yearns for, and needs, more. The “biological clock” is invoked. The next, I think deliberately disorientating and galling, scene sees the Writer in a safe, supportive female only space, a jungle-y retreat of sorts, invoking Semele and other Origin mythological mumbo-jumbo (with some fantastic realisation from Richard Howell’s lighting, Emma Laxton’s sound and Zakk Hein’s video). Scene four sees the now confident Writer arguing with Michael Gould’s director about the play to date. He is viciously pulling the prior scene apart, whilst patronisingly banging on about the “rawness” of the opening. The final scene sees the writer with another partner, this time played by Lara Rossi. The compromises and imbalances of scene two are revisited.

From this structure Ella Hickson is able to explore fundamental arguments about how power, the patriarchy and contemporary capitalism, (as Lara Rossi’s character explains early on), affects, and infects, the creative process, art and the theatre and our relationships. It is a polemic of sorts, but Ms Hickson dissects her material, with fearless, supple and sceptical self-awareness. It confronts and confounds the audience, for sure, is intellectually reflexive, but avoids aggressive predictable dialectic. It revels in, and reveals, the artifice of theatre. Which in some ways makes Romola Garai’s performance, remember she has to convincingly “act” this all out, even more remarkable.

If thats sounds like a recipe for a dry evening, think again. The “drama” is delivered with real passion, even anger, with wit, and with a formal inventiveness, that left the Tourist with bum glued to his seat, ears straining, mouth open. Anna Fleischle’s design, (and the on-stage managers), intelligently accommodate the play’s inversions with repeated construction and de-construction. Ultimately though it is the control that Ella Hickson exerts over her themes, assisted by Blanche McIntyre, that makes this brilliant. It twists and turns but it knows exactly what it is doing and saying.

I learnt a lot. I recognise the behaviours exhibited by the men on stage here, especially Samuel West in the second scene. I don’t know how to avoid them. I do know I had to think very hard about what I would say about the play. It will make you want to argue. Ideally not while it is going on although maybe we should.

At one point, forgive me I forget when, the point is made that the Writer will move on to more established theatrical storytelling forms. Presumably this will be so for Ms Hickson thought I doubt she will write anything as powerful as this story about the struggle to tell women’s stories. Mind you Oil was a work of near genius in my book and also shows she isn’t going to fuck about with little subjects. I think she might just be the best and most challenging writer for the British stage right now. Ignore those who will say this is just irritating, indulgent self-therapy. They are wrong. Leave them to watch nonsense like that revival of Absolute Hell or Rattigan knock-offs. This is what theatre is all about.

 

Terror at the Lyric Hammersmith review ****

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Terror

Lyric Hammersmith, 19th June 2017

Terror is not your typical piece of theatre. It is a courtroom drama yes, but not in the form of a classic “did he/she or didn’t he/she do it”. Nor is it especially interested in probing the psychological make-up of accused, victim or legal representatives. Instead it is focussed on a classic moral dilemma: which takes precedence, the rule of law and the principles that lie behind it, or the conscience of the individual.

Writer Ferdinand von Schirach sets the stakes pretty high though. The defendant Lars Koch (Ashley Zhangazha) is an exemplary major and fighter pilot in the German air force. He has admitted shooting down a commercial plane which had been hijacked by a terrorist. In doing so 164 people have died but potentially he has saved the lives of 70,000 in a football stadium, the known target of the terrorist. The facts are succinctly laid out by Christian Lauterbach (John Lightbody), the air force officer tasked with co-ordinating any response to this sort of event. Major Koch was expressly ordered not to shoot down the plane but chose to go ahead. The judge (Tanya Moodie), prosecuting (Emma Fielding) and defence (Forbes Masson) counsels lay out the arguments with some eloquence and pull in a few classic examples from ethics and moral philosophy (the trolley problem for example). We also here the testimony of one of the victim’s wives played by Shanaya Rafaat.

We the audience then toddle off to the short interval, have a debate about what we think (as a number of people around me were doing – Billy No Mates here once again had to have a debate inside his head) and then return to press a button to decide if the major is guilty or not guilty.

It is thought provoking stuff but only works as a piece of theatre because of the canniness of the writing. Mr von Schirach’s day job is as a lawyer. I am guessing he is a flipping good lawyer. I have no idea how “accurate” a representation of the German legal system this “trial” is, but I am not sure it matters, so deftly is the dilemma set up. The set design by the very talented Anna Fleische is imposing and the direction by the Lyric’s own Sean Holmes is typically confident. The excellent cast also rises to the occasion. For me though the real hero here is translator David Tushingham. The role of translator is often overlooked but if I admired the economy of the text here this evidently reflects the skill of translator as well as playwright. I note that Mr Tushingham also translated Winter Solstice by Richard Schimmelpfenning which enthralled me at the Orange Tree earlier in the year. He was also dramaturg for the Forbidden Zone, one of Schaubuhne Berlin’s finest exports to these shores.

So if you and some mates are looking for a thought provoking night out, (with plenty of time for some grub and/or a livener or two afterwards as this comes in well under 2 hours even with the break), then you could do worse than secure some tickets for Terror. And after it is all over, check out the Lyric website to see how your audience jury compared to the many previously across the world. I won’t say what I thought.