Mother of Him at the Park Theatre ****

Mother of Him

Park Theatre, 19th September 2019

I confess that the main motivation for seeing Mother of Him was Tracy-Ann Oberman. You will probably know her from her many, and varied, TV roles but she is also a feted stage actor. However until now I had only seen her once before: in Party Time and Celebration, part of Jamie Lloyd’s season of one act Pinter plays, where she shone amidst such acting luminaries as Ron Cook, Phil Davies, Celia Imrie and John Simm.

Here she played Brenda Kapowitz, a single mother in Toronto, estranged from Steven (Neil Sheffield), with two sons, Matthew (Scott Folan) and Jason (young Harri Agarwal at my performance). This was not your average family drama however as Matthew stands accused, alongside a friend, of raping three young women necessitating house arrest and the early appearance of lawyer Robert (Simon Hepworth).

Canadian writer Evan Placey based this, his debut play, on a true story but this is no crime, trial or punishment drama with the action all taking place in the family home in the lead up to the trial. Instead Mr Placey focuses almost entirely on Brenda as she oscillates between belief in Matthew’s innocence and her natural urge to protect her son(s) and disgust at what he might have done. She seeks to shield Jason from the truth whilst husband Steven seems to shirk responsibility instead trying to prise Jason from his mother. Matthew is curiously inert, making no attempt to defend or explain himself when questioned by Robert, maybe in misguided loyalty to his dominant friend or maybe because he is in denial. This even extends to his scenes with his girlfriend Jess (Anjelica Serra) who seeks him out despite Brenda’s misgivings.

Now I am not sure if Mr Placey intended to shift the axis of the plot quite so markedly or just underwrote the other characters. Director Max Lindsay, who has brought Evan Placey’s previous plays to the UK, plainly thought the former, and, given the acting prowess of Tracy-Ann Oberman, why not. Her Brenda is understandably angry, with Matthew, with her husband, at times with her lawyer and at the press parked outside their apartment, who we hear but do not see, and who are pointing blame at her. She is determined to hold things together, including her work, but is also vulnerable, as she runs the gauntlet of emotions, some very uncomfortable, that Mr Placey’s text unflinchingly explores. Her frustration with Matthew’s impenetrability is made more acute because of her, I think, previously controlling nature. The end, for both of them, as they face separation, is both painful and tender.

T-AO is brilliant, sharp and affecting, even when the interactions with the rest of the cast don’t quite ring true. This is not down to the dialogue, more, I would say, because of how the characters have been created in relation to Brenda. Get over this, and the dominant acting it required, as I did, and what you have is an intriguing play brought into focus by a commanding central performance. Lee Newby’s monochrome set, whilst good on paper, wasn’t quite up to the task, dramatically, or practically at this performance, and did get a little in the way of the story.

The producers here were also responsible for What Shadows, Pressure and Madame Rubinstein, at the Park, and this comes close to matching them. Whilst the writing isn’t anywhere near that of Bruce Norris, whose Downstate at the National recently similarly sought to avoid passing judgement on the actions of its protagonists, it did, similarly, try to address the reality of heinous crimes though not here accused or victim. I do hope I will be able to see TA-O again. Maybe next time back in Shakespeare.

Downstate at the National Theatre review *****

Downstate

National Theatre Dorfman, 17th April 2019

Sweat, Shipwreck and now Downstate. Some of the best new plays I have seen this year have come from established US playwrights. Whilst Brits can usually be relied upon to come up with more innovative theatre in terms of subject and form, (well maybe Shipwreck fits that bill), if you want talky, gritty, politicised, soundly structured drama then the American heavyweights fit the bill. I guess it reflects their history, we are currently being treated to a Miller-fest in London, one of the greats, and, socially, culturally and political, the US theatre community has much to comment on right now.

We have more to look forward to later in the year with the world premiere of David Mamet’s latest play Bitter Wheat, a “farce” inspired by the Weinstein scandal, Appropriate, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s take on the classic American family drama at the Donmar, Fairview at the Young Vic, the Pulitzer Prize winner from Jackie Sibblies Drury and The Starry Messenger from Kenneth Lonergan. Judging from the reviews in the US, (they do go on a bit those Broadway critics – mind you, pot, kettle, black), they are all well worth seeing. And maybe later in the year, or next year, we have Antipodes from the mighty Annie Baker to look forward to at the NT.

Now Bruce Norris is most renowned for his play Clybourne Park from 2010, a kind of sequel to Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun from 1959, and The Low Road from 2013, which is pretty much at the top of my “you f*ckwit, how did you manage to miss that” list since its premiere at the Royal Court with a cast to die for. Property, race, the contradictions of capitalism, the marginalised. These are the beefy concerns of Mr Norris and many of his peers. And Mr Norris has an advantage in that his work is usually brought to life by the world famous, (well in certain circles), Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.

Downstate premiered at Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre last year but, having been jointly commissioned by the NT, the company, including our own Cecilia Noble and Aimee Lou Wood, has been preserved for the London premiere. And it shows. This is ensemble acting at its best, and, I assume, the weeks of performance have polished up Mr Norris’s already sparkling dialogue to the jewel we see here. Downstate is not an easy subject to dramatise. Four paedophiles, released from prison but restricted in terms of movement (electronic tags and restriction zones), money, jobs and access to technology by state laws, are sharing a house in downstate Illinois overseen by weary police probation officer Ivy (Cecilia Noble). The elderly Fred (Francis Guinan) is wheelchair bound and the play starts with him listening to the testimony of one of his two victims, Andy (Tim Hopper) accompanied by his wife Em, (Matilda Ziegler). Andy, fresh from a survivors group, is plainly damaged and angry and determined to hear Fred acknowledge the abuse. Fred, who in all respects appears a kindly, almost naive old man, admits the crime but more as a matter of fact than remorse.

Fred is cared for by Dee (K Todd Freeman), a witty, intelligent and acerbic gay man, who still loves the young man, pointedly a Lost Boy in a production of Peter Pan, who was his evident victim. Gio (Glen Davies) is a garrulous younger man who refuses to accept he committed an offence, having had sex with young woman who “lied” about her age and, in breach of the conditions which govern his freedom, has befriended his young co-worker, bolshie Effie (Aimee Lou Wood) . The quartet is completed by Hispanic American Felix (Eddie Torres), who is barred from any contact with his family having abused one of his daughters. Like Gio, he has turned to religion, to atone and deflect.

Bruce Norris has thus created a realistic situation, (the programme offers some vital insights into the way sex offenders are treated in the US after they have nominally served their sentences), and four believable characters who cover the spectrum in terms of offences and the way in which they accept and acknowledge their actions. The play highlights the way in which society seeks to punish and secure revenge for these crimes as well as the debilitating impact on these men of the need to secure “protection” for any future potential recidivism. Punishing offenders for crimes that they have yet to commit is what makes sex offenders a special category of criminal. Which apparently doesn’t work anyway.

The brilliance of Mr Norris’s writing is that, without in any way lessening the impact of the suffering of the victims, Andy continues to play a central, if ambiguous, role throughout, we are asked to see them as sympathetic individuals, not monsters, and to listen to their accounts of what they did and who they are. They all see themselves in some way as victims. The uneasy fact is we start to understand, if never accept, why they would believe this and persist with the self-pity. Some of the bait and switches, and the speechifying, is a little mechanical, and I have still to make up my mind about the ending, but this is forgivable given the drama and dimensionality that it creates. It is not a comfortable watch but it grips from start to finish, and, if ultimately the task of a great playwright is to make you grapple with complex moral issues, without providing definitive answers, whilst still telling a story, then Mr Norris has delivered. It pokes and provokes, with no little humour, and even manages to generate audible audience gasps. That makes it a great play.

Todd Rosenthal’s set, Clint Ramos’s costumes, Adam Silverman’s lighting and Carolyn Downing’s sound, are note perfect. We are in the house with the characters. Pam McKinnon, who is the AD of the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, is a long time collaborator with Bruce Norris. It shows. The rhythm here is well nigh perfect. And the cast is, as I said, superb. Normally when I say this it actually means one or two members didn’t quite bring the A game that most of their colleagues did. Not here though. Even so, if I had to pick out one performance, it would be K Todd Freeman’s Dee. It is he who has to say most of the unsayable.

I would be surprised if, like Clybourne Park, this doesn’t quickly become a staple, and, whilst I find it hard to believe a future production could match this, it is a play you must see. If only to reflect on how easy it would be to fail when dramatising these issues, (Lucy Prebble has fortunately gone on to bigger and better things since her debut The Sugar Syndrome which addressed a similar subject). Mr Norris is a brave writer, like many of the peers mentioned above. I look forward to seeing more of his work.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar Warehouse review ****

the-resistible

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Donmar Warehouse, 18th May 2017

I see a lot of theatre now. Which means I read a lot of press reviews. Which is about the only time I ever step out of my Guardian reading, liberal, metropolitan elite cocoon. And that means reading reviews in the Daily Telegraph (because they often offer insight) and, when I just can’t resist it and assuming no-one is looking, the Daily Mail and Daily Express. (Why are all the hate rags called Daily – is it to remind staff and readers of the material fact of diurnality – if I were them I would be very wary of such scientific consensus).

Now I wagered to myself that in the satirical play about the rise of Hitler in 1930’s Germany (I know there is more to it but we will get to that once I have had my rant) by the Marxist playwright and guiding light of Epic Theatre, and proponent of Verfremdungseffekt, the still astounding Bertolt Brecht, that we might get some references to a certain orange POTUS. And that we might get a hint of a political message maybe even delivered direct to audience. And maybe God forbid a bit of audience interaction.

And I wagered further to myself when the Donmar announced this (with Bruce Norris as the adaptor – a man unlikely to be a scripting a Midsomer Murders episode any time soon), that the right wing rags wouldn’t be able to lay off with hysterical “beware of lefty creatives shoe-horning in references to poor defenceless Donnie” and “why oh why do these creatives have to distract us from the sacred text by involving the audience”. And I hoped it would be properly potty-mouthed as that still seems to get these people in a lather.

Well they, the rags, didn’t disappoint, and actually more of them than just the usual suspects. They really are a humourless bunch. It’s Brecht. We, the audience, are supposed to be bashed over the head with the message, both the direct historical satire and the generality of the warning. And we might find it funny. As we did. Whilst we have a good time. As we did.

Or maybe the DM and its ilk would be happier with a hot line straight to the Supreme Leader so they could denounce any of this degenerate stuff before it took root. Or maybe we should have some-one appointed to check this is all OK for us to see. Y’know just to be sure. I mean no-one wants faceless, unelected bureaucrats telling us what to do. But at least this would mean we could take back control and give the majority the strong and stable theatre that they crave. I mean right now, if you walk the streets of the West End, it is awash with subversive, pinko musicals and you risk some actorly type of indeterminate gender or, worse still, an American film actor, dragging you in to the theatre for a sing-song.

It was all so much better in the 1950s eh, Empire, no dusky types and the Lord Chancellor could help these luvvies see the error of their ways before they they could put on their so-called entertainments and thereby brainwash 27 of their Hampstead dwelling friends and colleagues (on a good night). Or better still back to the 1930’s eh, when any play critical of our Nazi friends could be refused a license. You know when the Daily Mail was firmly on the side of the righteous.

For the avoidance of doubt I am taking the p*ss here as I know that some of the silent majority that live in perpetual fear of us liberal, foreign-looking types may have a slim grasp of irony. Still you know what I mean. Or have I been too crude. Like Brecht and the key protagonists here, adaptor Bruce Norris, and director Simon Evans.

Anyway the play’s the thing. And in this case it was, by and large, a very enjoyable, energetic and thought-provoking thing. As I understand it Brecht was keen to create drama out of his gangster story as well as use the Verfremdungseffekt distancing effects to ram home the satire. I think that such drama did shine through with maybe just a little easing of the pace through scenes 11, 12 and 13, the murders of Roma and Dullfeet and I still think the Shakespearean references Brecht uses to augment the epic are sometimes more distracting than illuminating. I would also strongly recommend a bit of boning up on the rise of Hitler beforehand. The programme does an excellent summary of the events that each of the 15 scenes are satirising.

With the Donmar space done up at the outset to evoke a 1930s Chicago speak-easy, with the audience ranged around, a boisterous cast chatting to audience on entry, a wide variety of musical interjections, a narrator (with the obligatory swinging microphone) tasked with delivering a running commentary laced Marxist economic analysis and the coercion of audience members (who might now envy us up in the cheap seats), we also got the required “stepping away” from the story so that we could again examine how and why history takes this course, then, now, and, no doubt, in future.

All involved are to be congratulated notably Mr Evans and, especially for me, Mr Norris. Of his plays, I have only seen Clybourne Park, which I thoroughly enjoyed, (and I have never seen the play that provoked it, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, which I dearly wish to put right), back I hope more of them cross the pond. Of the cast my particular favourites were Giles Terera as a vicious Ernesto Roma and Lucy Ellinson as a hyper Emanuele Giri.

Oh and some bloke called Sir Lenny Henry. When you are very close to the top of the “National Treasure” pile you can do what you like, when you like, and I guess how you like. This is not naturalistic theatre but there were a couple of times when Sir Len’s AU had the whole place sh*tting itself at his barely controlled aggression. I tell you it was a relief when cuddly Sir Len ambled back on at the curtain call. Amidst all the comedy stuff his portrayal personified a damaged narcissist who pushes at boundaries, ostensibly manipulated by those who think they “control” him, and finds too few, through omission or commission, are prepared to resist. And that’s why the heavy handed contemporary parallels are not to be carped at but embraced in my book. Subtlety and allusion have their theatrical place but so does praxis.

They are amazingly a handful of tickets left. Nab one and see where, and if, you stand.