Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse review *****

Sweat

Donmar Warehouse, 24th January 2019

Who is the greatest living playwright (in the English language). Caryl Churchill. Obviously. Who is, in the opinion of the Tourist, probably the most talented playwright under 40 in Britain today. Ella Hickson. What was the best original play the Tourist saw last year. John by Annie Baker. And the best play so far this year. Sweat by Lynn Nottage.

So far this year the Tourist has seen 19 plays (well 18 and a half to be exact of which more in a future post. Actually it is quite a bit more than that but I have condensed the Pinter at Pinter season ). Too many. Certainly but such is the life of the friendless, privileged layabout.

Only 4 by women though. Not good enough. Either by me or the industry. Last year, (I shall refrain from the total number – it is embarrassing), just 25% of the plays of the plays I saw were by women. If I take just new plays (not classics or revivals) the ratio edges towards 40%. Not great but getting better.

Before I get started I note that Sweat is transferring to the Gielgud Theatre from 7th June for 6 weeks or so. If you haven’t seen it don’t hesitate.

Sweat is set largely in a bar in a de-industrialising town in the rust belt of the American North East. Lynn Nottage and her team spent over two years interviewing residents of Reading, Pennsylvania in preparation for writing the play. Now, as I know from having seen another Pulitzer Prize winning entertainment, Julia Wolfe’s oratorio Anthracite Fields, Reading was, in its heyday through the second half of the C19 and first few decades of the C20, a powerhouse of US industry built on iron and then steel, its proximity to coalfields and on the railway. Its fall was precipitous however and it became, by the time of the 2011 census, one of the poorest cities in the entire country, though it is now being reinvented as a centre for cycling nationally.

Ms Nottage’s play is set in 2000, though it begins in 2008, with the release of Jason (Patrick Gibson) from prison into the hands of probation officer Evan (Sule Rimi who has, thankfully, popped up on numerous occasions for my viewing pleasure). Jason is “reunited” with once friend Chris (Osy Ikhile). Neither is in a good place. We then flash back to see how we got to that place. Jason’s mum Cynthia (Claire Perkins), Chris’s mum Tracey (Martha Plimpton) and Jessie (Leanne Best) are celebrating in the bar managed by Stan (Stuart McQuarrie) and where Hispanic-American Oscar (Sebastian Viveros) is employed. Cynthia is estranged from husband Brucie (Wil Johnson) who has spiralled downwards after being shut out from the factory during a strike some years ago. All three, tough, women are also employed at the local steel-works, as are the boys, (though Chris wants another life), and as was Stan until an industrial accident, and it is against this back-drop that the story unfolds.

Now you might be thinking, uh-oh, this is going to be one of those terribly worthy political plays where a finger-pointing, hand-wringing lesson about economic and social injustice sucks the life out of the drama and leaves you with conscience enhanced but ever so slightly bored. Well nothing could be further from the truth. The relationships between the characters, and the extraordinary, often moving, dialogue, that describes them is perfectly pitched. The play is flawlessly plotted, structured and executed. The fact that Lynn Nottage is able to locate this within a broader economic and social context (blimey, she even nails the mixed blessings of NAFTA), to conjure up time and place (and history) and to explore fault-lines along racial, class and gender divides, without getting in the way of the personal drama, is what makes this such a complete work of theatre. This is fiction, with no trace of verbatim, but the process of its creation, the people that Ms Nottage talked too, make it very real.

There is nothing redemptive or uplifting here but that is the reality of the damage that the economic dislocation and industrial change has brought to the region and by implication, those left behind in the US and across the Western world. The play opened in New York in 2016 just before Trump’s election. It could not be more relevant. The shattering of the American Dream is hardly a novel subject for drama but Sweat brings home the causes and consequences of the shift away from heavy industry and manufacturing, from managed capitalism, through financial capitalism into the information age. Ms Nottage has said that “we are a nation that has lost our narrative”, which sums up the disillusionment, rage and frustration which is now being vented by those that have lost out and, for whom, the dignity of labour has been upended and faith shattered in a system which was supposed to protect them. Setting the play in an all-American bar, rather than the workplace itself, is a masterstroke, for this is an arena in which the tensions can truly erupt.

Even a play this perfect still needs cast and creatives to deliver. Indeed any flaw in delivery would probably be more visible. Fortunately we are in the secure hands of director Lynette Linton, assistant at the Donmar and now in the hot seat at the Bush. Frankie Bradshaw’s set is wonderful as the bar descends, altar-like, inside a framework of steel girders, supported by Oliver Fenwick’s lighting design and George Dennis’s sound. The cast is uniformly exemplary, another triumph for dialect coach Charmian Hoare, (though this Brit is no expert), with Claire Perkins particularly excellent as the striving Cynthia and Martha Plimpton just, and for once the vernacular is justified, awesome.

Best of all Lynn Nottage didn’t just helicopter in to extract her story and then move on (as it happens now to a work around the life of Michael Jackson – crikey!). No, she and the team, went back to show the play and to engage in many ways with the community across multiple projects. Drama matters. The Greeks knew that. Hard to see how it could matter more than with Sweat.

The best theatre coming up in London

It’s been a little while since the Tourist set out his favourite theatre opportunities either on now (in the case of Nine Night), or coming up over the year in London. Nothing too obscure or fringe-y here. Tried and trusted in terms of writer, director, cast and/or venue.

The first ten plays are written by, are about, or have creative teams led by women. We’re getting there.

Top Girls – National Theatre Lyttleton. The English speaking world’s greatest living playwright Caryl Churchill and one of her best ever plays. Still relevant, with its profound feminist critique, near 40 years after it was written. Audacious beginning with the dinner party scene and then the force of nature Marlene takes over.

Small Island- National Theatre Olivier. An adaptation by Helen Edmundson of Andrea Levy’s brilliant novel about race (the Windrush generation) and class in post war Britain. A cast of 40 count ’em directed by Rufus Norris (this should play to his strengths after a couple of duffers).

ANNA – National Theatre Dorfman. The bugger is already sold out but more seats promised. Ella Hickson, who is probably our most talented young playwright, and the Ringham brothers, sound maestros, combine in a tale set in East Berlin in 1968 which the audience will hear through headphones. Think Stasiland and Lives of Others.

Medea – Barbican Theatre. Euripides’s greatest tale of female revenge with Europe’s finest actress, Marieke Heebink, in a production by Europe’s greatest theatre company International Theater Amsterdam (was Toneelgroep) directed by Simon Stone. Don’t let the Dutch (with English sur-titles) put you off.

Three Sisters – Almeida Theatre. Chekhov. New adaptation. Cast not fully announced but Patsy Ferran and Pearl Chanda is a great start and directed by Rebecca Frecknall who garnered deserved praise for her Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams. Usual Chekhov tragic-comic ennui. A few tickets left.

Sweat – Gielgud Theatre. Transferring after the sell-out run at the Donmar. Lynn Nottage’s conscientiously researched drama about blue collar America is the best play I have seen this year and one of the best in in the last 5 years. Nothing tricksy here just really powerful theatre.

Blood Wedding – Young Vic. Lorca’s not quite the happiest day of their lives directed by Yael Farber (this should suit her style). The last time the Young Vic did Lorca it was an overwhelming Yerma.

A German Life – Bridge Theatre. Dame Maggie Smith. That’s all you need to know. (Playing Brunhild Pomsel who was Goebbels’ secretary in a new play by Christopher Hampton who did Les Liasions Dangereuses and translates French plays).

The Phlebotomist – Hampstead Theatre. Blood of a different kind.. I saw this last year in Hampstead Downstairs. Now a run in the bigger space for Ella Road’s debut near term dystopic relationship play with Jade Anouka tremendous in the lead.

Nine Night – Trafalgar Studios. Only a few days left and only a few expensive tickets left but Natasha Gordon’s debut play about Jamaican and British identity is a cracker.

Death of a Salesman – Young Vic. Arthur Miller’s greatest play and therefore one of the greatest ever with an amazing cast directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell. This is near sold out but book now otherwise you will be paying twice the price in the West End for half the view as this is bound to be one of the best productions of the year and is bound to transfer. Willy Loman is maybe the greatest male part ever written for the stage.

The Lehman Trilogy – Piccadilly Theatre. I told you to see it at the NT and you ignored me. Do not make the same mistake twice.

Cyprus Avenue – Royal Court Theatre. Probably pointless putting this in as it is pretty much sold out but I missed David Ireland’s sharp satire of Irish republicanism and am not about to repeat that error.

Bitter Wheat – Garrick Theatre. World premiere of new play by David Mamet about Weinstein with John Malkovich in the lead, Woo hoo.

Rosmersholm – Duke of York’s Theatre. Hayley Attwell and Tom Burke in the “greatest ever Ibsen play” which rarely gets an outing. Expect usual Ibsen misery tropes. Directed by Ian Rickson and adapted by Duncan MacMillan, marks of quality.

The Night of the Iguana – Noel Coward Theatre. Talking of less often performed classics by the greats here is a Tennessee Williams with Clive Owen putting in a rare appearance along with Lia Williams, directed by James MacDonald.

Love and Information at Sheffield Theatres review *****

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Love and Information

Sheffield Crucible Theatre Studio, 7th July 2018

So here was my cunning plan. LD wanted/needed to have a sniff around the University. I spied this revival on the very evening. A chance to have a good look at this fine city. And, though not the original intention, time to watch the England game, (thanks Novotel), whilst LD and the SO had the shops to themselves before they set off back to London.

Love and Information is by Caryl Churchill, the greatest living writer in the English language. She would be the greatest ever if it wasn’t for some long dead geezer from Stratford (upon-Avon not Ontario).

Love and Information was first performed at the Royal Court, (where CC’s plays are normally first presented), in 2012, but despite its relative youth, it has already seen numerous revivals around the world. No surprise there. Like everything she writes it is a work of staggering genius, in terms of dramatic impact, formal invention and intellectual insight. OK so sometimes I have no idea why she chose to show specific scenes and exchanges or what they might “mean”, but that’s all part of the “fun”. It just makes your brain fizz – “my head’s too full of stuff” as one of the characters says early on – indeed. It is exhilarating, if very occasionally frustrating, stuff.

There are seven sections in total whose order is specified by CC. Within these sections however the 57 individual scenes/episodes can be performed in any order. Moreover a random selection of some of these episodes at the end of the text can be inserted wherever the director chooses. There are over 100 characters in all but CC offers no detail as to age/gender/race. And as is typical for CC there are no stage directions or instructions leaving it to director, cast and creatives to decide how they are going to stage the scenes/episodes. So the way in which the relationship between text, performer and audience is constructed and mediated is about as loose as it is possible to get whilst still avoiding the trap of pretentious twaddle.

There are two clear themes: er, Love and Information. Each episode has some moreorless explicit connection with, and/or insight into, these themes, though there is plenty more to chew on besides that, (memory, ageing and ecological crisis pop up for example which also inform most of CC’s recent work) . The effect is of a kaleidoscope of interactions and relationships alongside an essay on the proliferation of “knowledge, both pointless and valuable. We are bombarded with information? How does that affect the way we interact? The structure of the play reflects the very questions it seeks to confront. A philosophical variety show if you will.

Despite the absence of context, identities, names, narrative or indeed any “normal” dramatic anchors CC still manages, often in the space of just a few lines or a couple of minutes to sketch character, to serve up humour, longing, sadness, regret, anger, jealousy, joy, in fact the whole gamut of human emotions. Like so much of CC’s work it is an exercise in distilling drama down to its very essence in order to create lasting impressions and arresting ideas. And all because CC knows how to use words.

The original production used 16 actors. Here Sheffield Theatres associate director Caroline Steinbeis cut this down to just 6. Which means she and her colleagues did a lot of thinking about how to put the scenes together. It also means that some of the scenes were very effectively stitched together, most notably the “children’s TV show” near the end, to create a longer arc of meaning. Max Jones’s set, a bare stage backed by six coloured light boxes, also permitted rapid cutting between the episodes. Costumes, movement (Jenny Ogilvie), lighting (Johanna Town) and sound (the Ringmam brothers yet again) were also carefully considered to create far more concrete settings where abstraction might have been more tempting (and easier). I see that some critics found this more precise and considered technical achievement, (compared to the premiere apparently), somewhat distracting. I loved it, though having not seen a previous production, I knew no better.

I would imagine the cast had a ball putting this together. It is hard to imagine a more challenging, though ultimately satisfying, acting job. So thank you very much Debbie Chazen, Marian McLoughlin, Mercy Ojelade, Ciaran Owens, Ian Redford and Sule Rimi.

And thank you Sheffield Theatres. And Sheffield. But most of all thank you Caryl Churchill.

 

An Oak Tree the Orange Tree Theatre review ****

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An Oak Tree

Orange Tree Theatre, 13th May 2018

Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree has been on my theatrical wish list for a little while now. First performed in 2005 at the Edinburgh Fringe it was, I understand, inspired by Michael Craig-Martin’s, (he of the day-glo technology), seminal work of conceptual art of the same name (see above) which “explains” why a glass of water balanced on a shelf is, in fact, an oak tree. Absolutely guaranteed to make the philistine’s blood boil. As so, to some extent, would Tim Crouch’s best known play.

Caryl Churchill no less described the play as “about theatre, a magic trick, a laugh and a vivid experience of grief, and it spoils you for a while for other plays”. Turns out that, for once, Ms Churchill maybe over-egging it a tad but it is still a fascinating work. Mr Crouch plays a stage hypnotist, complete with shiny waistcoat and cheap patter, whose act is crumbling, we discover, following a road accident which led to the death of a young girl (or maybe not). The other actor plays the father of the girl, Andy, who he encounters at one of his shows. The play then is ostensibly about guilt and grief, and how we process these emotions, a theatrical staple which has become something of a specialism at the OT.

But there’s a twist. The actor playing Andy, here Kate Hardie, hasn’t seen the play or the script before. Which leaves her being guided, like hypnosis, with a mixture of spoken and whispered instructions, headphones and script in hand, by Tim Crouch, in and out or character. It takes time for us, and her, to believe in Andy, though “he’ always remains slightly, and rightly, bewildered. Mr Crouch, on top of his “directing” duties also plays a character putting on an act, hypnotising an audience no less, and imagining an audience in parallel with us the real audience. We are asked to accept at various points that a chair is the dead child and that the grieving father in turns believes that an oak tree, (actually a tree which is part of the OT set for other current productions just in case this wasn’t all meta enough), is in fact his dead daughter, not just her spirit nor a symbol. It really is to him. This is analogous to the explanation of the Craig-Martin art work which informed the play. Indeed Mr Crouch exits the auditorium to fetch a glass of water at one point.

The wonder is that, as Mr Crouch piles on the deconstruction in his essay on performative language, counterpointing art and life, representation and reality, absence and presence, the artifice and magic of theatre, we actually end up caring about these two characters because of, and not in spite of, the form. No dry, academic exercise but a real play, albeit one with many conceptual layers through its 70 minutes.

You need to see it. And I need to see more of this magician’s work.

 

 

 

 

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle at Wyndham’s Theatre review ****

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Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle

Wyndham’s Theatre, 9th November 2017

Everyone’s at it. The “science” play. Science, whether directly through using theory to inform plot, or indirectly, often through the impact of ecological or other catastrophe, has underpinned many of the best new plays I have seen in the last couple of years. Steff Smiths’s Human Animals, Nick Payne’s Constellations and Elegy, The Forbidden Zone from Schaubuhne Berlin, Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone, Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children and Mosquitoes and Christopher Shinn’s Against all have a healthy dose of science in the mix.

Mind you this is nothing new. The brainy playwrights have been at it for decades. Think of Stoppard’s The Hard Problem, even Brecht’s Life of Galileo, the mighty Caryl Churchill’s A Number and Love and Information. Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s After Darwin. Indeed Michael Frayn in Copenhagen even took Werner Heisenberg himself as the subject for his play. Nor is it really surprising given the importance of mathematics and physics to our lives. After all it is the role of theatre to comment on, engage with and maybe even influence the big ideas that underpin our world. But it does take a fierce intellect to make this sciencey stuff work.

It was probably only a matter of time before the prolific, eclectic and clever Simon Stephens came up with his own variation. Like Lucy Kirkwood in Mosquitoes he takes a big idea from theoretical physics to create a metaphor for the actions of his characters, though I am not sure he is as successful. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that if we measure the position of a particle with ever greater precision, then at some point we have to accept a correspondingly increasing imprecision in our measurement of the particle’s momentum. (Thank you Wiki and the programme – I would be lost without you). When we look at the little stuff, like electrons, its behaviour sometimes emulates a particle bouncing around but sometimes it is like a wave. Apparently “vagueness” is built into nature at the quantum scale. Yet we humans are always deluding ourselves that we have control and that there is order around us. We live at a larger scale than the quantum so see the physical world obey laws and we can trust the effect of statistical averaging.

Allied to the Uncertainty Principle is the idea of the observer effect. The act of observing will influence the phenomenon being observed. At the quantum scale for us to “see” and electron, a photon apparently must interact with it, thus changing the path of the electron. You can see why this concept might appeal to the inventive playwright. 

(I will refrain from opening up to the idea that some neuroscience even suggests our concept of “free will” is an illusion. “Free won’t” maybe, but the electrical activity in or brains that prompts an action seems to come before our “conscious” realisation of the intended action. Get your head round that). 

Anyway this randomness is the idea Mr Stephens builds into his play. Unpredictability is built into our lives. When forty something garrulous, and dissatisfied, American expat Georgie Burns (Anne-Marie Duff) randomly kisses, on the back of the neck, mid seventies lonely butcher Alex Priest (Kenneth Cranham) on a bench in St Pancras station, no-one, least of all them, could have predicted where this would lead. As it happens it leads to a beautifully observed affair which brings happiness and lashings of extra life to both

Now I guess that, at the end of the day, you might be able to take any other boy meets girl (or boy meets boy, or girl meets girl, or other feasible combinations) stage double hander and overlay the same idea. Nick Payne’s Constellations covered similar territory albeit with a very different formal structure. Indeed if you jettisoned old Heisenberg and just took the play on its own merits you wouldn’t lose much. You would ask yourself why would Georgie ever approach Alex in the first place, but might soon be persuaded as to why, and indeed would be offered some alternative explanations. The question of the age gap would loom large but fairly soon be dismissed, as it should be. Some of the twists in the romance might seem a little contrived but then you could say the same about all romances, real or imagined.

That the play works independent of its big ideas is down to the performances, and to a lesser extent, the sure direction of Marianne Elliot, the much praised set of Bunny Christie and the lighting of Paule Constable. In Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham we have here two actors at the top of their game. In fact they are so at the top of their game that they are both banging in hat-tricks on a weekly basis like the love-child of Harry Kane and Cristiano Ronaldo. Ms Duff is always better than the play she leads, even when the play itself is perfect. Saint Joan, Cause Celebre, Strange Interlude, Husbands and Sons, Oil, the unfairly maligned Common. In her every major London stage role in the last few years she has, to overwork the sporting metaphors, banged it out the park. Of course, there may be some cause and effect here, as I will see everything she stars in. Even so, for my money, she is on a par with the theatrical dames of the prior generation. I am literally wetting myself with excitement at next year’s NT Macbeth with her and Rory Kinnear.

Now I was not as impressed as the smart money with Florian Zeller’s The Father thinking it a bit too tricksy, (mind you I had an uncomfy perch on the night of performance so my view might, literally, have been guided by arse), but there was no doubting Mr Cranham’s sterling performance. Here his Alex starts off, unsurprisingly, a little discombobulated by Georgie’s approaches. As the relationship unfolds, and he opens up, we see the joy fill first his face and, eventually, his whole body. Ms Duff similarly is as skilled in bringing Georgie to life through her movement as much as her words. Together their timing is perfect with the interplay of lines, and pauses, perfectly modulated. As Alex explains, when talking about his love of music, it is all about “the space between the notes”. They get it.

My guess is that, in lesser hands, this might all be far less effective. Simon Stephens is a wise man I think because he seems to know how important is the rest of the collaborative eco-system. Whether this be the writers whose works he has adapted (Chekhov on multiple occasions, Mark Haddon for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Bizet for Carmen Disruption) or directors (Marianne Elliot, here and many times before, Carrie Cracknell, Katie Mitchell and, successfully, the erratic Ivo van Hove).

More importantly he is a very wise man because, as he says in the programme, “I think I only write plays because I’ve never been in The Fall”. There are those of us who recognise that the most important artist in the world is alive, well (hopefully) and using his free over 60s bus pass in Prestwich, and those of you who don’t.

Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court Theatre review *****

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Anatomy of a Suicide

Royal Court Theatre, 22nd June 2017

There are many extraordinary things about Anatomy of a Suicide. One is that there are still tickets left in the run at the Royal Court. Snap them up. Another is that as far as I can see all the serious reviews give it 4 stars. I have no idea why they dropped a star. This is as good as theatre gets in my book.

To be fair it is an intense couple of hours. And the formal construction will keep you on your toes. But it connects emotionally and intellectually. We know Katie Mitchell is a brilliant director. We know Alice Birch is a writer of rare talent from Ophelia’s Zimmer and Revolt she said, revolt again as well as the recent. screenplay for Lady Macbeth. Together though they have, along with the three outstanding lead actors, created another powerful and brave piece of theatre. I can’t get it out of my head and the more I think about it the richer the experience becomes.

The title and the proper reviews will tell you the story. Hattie Morahan plays Carol, Kate O’Flynn plays her daughter Anna and Adelle Leonce in turn plays Anna’s daughter Bonnie. The play opens in the early 1970’s in a hospital following Carol’s attempted suicide. The emptiness brought on by her depression is painstakingly mapped out by Hattie Morahan whose every gesture reeks of defeat. The birth of Anna only serves to increase her despair. In turn we first see Anna in hospital. intoxicated, having injured herself. She eventually seems to straighten out and start a new life but pregnancy and the birth of Bonnie cannot lift her depression and erase the memory of her mother’s eventual suicide. She too ends her life. Bonnie, whose story starts in the 2030’s is haunted by the fate of her mother and grandmother and plots a path to avoid this through career and childlessness.

This is the bare bones. As I am writing this I am conscious that it doesn’t even get close to describing just how much detail and insight Alice Birch is able to wring from her intricate text. She indicates in her notes that the play is “scored” and the three stories are presented in landscape across the page in the playtext. The three lives are revealed concurrently and the lines intersect and, at some points, are spoken simultaneously even down to the same word. This creates all manner of profound juxtaposition which echo across the three generations.

Most of the reviews I have seen focus on the portrayal of depression and “mental illness” which directly afflict Carol and Anna, and reverberate through Bonnie’s life. I see this but I think I also saw a profound essay on the role of women in modern Western society. “Wife” and “Mother” seem to crush Carol and Anna and leave no space for their own identity, and Bonnie’s alternatives still leave her seemingly unable to connect. The other characters are generally thinly drawn, deliberately I surmise, but brilliantly serve to show how the women are boxed in. The scene and costume changes, with the three leads reduced to mannequins, reinforced this idea of lives being shaped by others.

With such an ambitious text and with such a creative form (others have drawn the parallel with Caryl Churchill – I agree) it needed expert direction. It got it. The set is minimal (until a minor coup de theatre at the end which maybe offered some redemption) leaving prop and costumes to mark change. The delivery of the text seemed perfect to me. The sound design was immense. The background ambient noise was augmented by off-stage accents of music, parties, babies crying – happier lives if you like – which made the disconnection of the characters more striking. And the intricacy of the words and sound was matched, maybe surpassed, by the intricacy of the movement, within and between scenes. There was even room for a couple of trademark Ms Mitchell slow motion shuffles

I will stick my neck out and say that the reputation of this play and production is only going to grow through time. It is dense and it requires attention but I found it deeply profound and emotionally involving. I am going to stop now because I don’t think I am getting anywhere close to explaining how powerful this is. Please go even if the subject puts you off.