Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. review at the Royal Court Theatre *****

Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp.

Royal Court Theatre, 30th September 2019

Caryl Churchill is the greatest English language living playwright and, IMHO, the greatest playwright since Shakespeare. Now I know that many of you would disagree, and that the vast majority of people on the planet couldn’t give a f*ck, but I don’t care. I was, I confess. slightly more miffed that those I hold most dear didn’t agree with me. I insisted that the SO and BD come along to the Royal Court, the scene of most of CC’s dramatic triumphs, for not one, not two, not three but the premiere of four new plays from CC. Their verdict – “pretty good”, “yeah interesting”, “OK I suppose”, “I sort of see what you are driving at Dad”. And thus, despite relentless prodding, (the Tourist can go on a bit when he feels the need), they didn’t share my boundless enthusiasm. Oh well I guess I shall just have to live with it.

You however are made of more discerning theatrical stuff and I feel sure will have snapped up tickets and now share my opinion that these four plays were further proof, if any were needed, of CC’s genius. She is now 81 years old and could easily enjoy a deserved retirement, though let’s be fair this is not generally how the artistic muse plays out. Instead she promised Vicky Featherstone, Royal Court AD, a trio of new plays and instead, a few weeks before staging, actually delivered a quartet, three short and one, Imp, a meatier affair. Pristine and perfect as usual, though also as usual, not without interpretative challenges for trusted long term director James Macdonald, designer Miriam Buether, the cast and the rest of the creative team, (lighting Jack Knowles, costumes Nicky Gillibrand, sound Christopher Shutt), to solve.

For me what is most amazing is how these plays, these narratives, are linked. Subtly, obliquely, so that you only really wake up to it at the end and in the weeks since. There are words, phrases, ideas that are repeated. Nods to Shakespeare and the Greek dramatists. To fairy tales and to the late, great Angela Carter. Things we do believe when we shouldn’t and things we don’t believe when we should. For all Churchill’s experimentation with form, and there is plenty on show here, it is her way with words that makes her unique. And I mean unique not just rare. Her dialogue is now very spare, but still so very rich, with every line burrowing into your brain. Even when you are not quite sure, or cannot pin down, what it actually means. What is clear is CC’s exhortation that, beneath the veneer of civilisation, there has always lurked a much darker side of the human condition, identified in myth, legend and drama, but too often ignored or suppressed.

Glass sees four teenage actors, Kwabena Ansah, Louisa Harland, Patrick McNamee and Rebekah Murrell perched on a suspended brightly light shelf against an otherwise black background. They variously play a girl made of glass, her brother, mother and friend, a clock, a plastic dog and a vase and some schoolgirls. The glass girl, and the others, are traumatised from abuse. Alice in Wonderland for our age. Seven scenes. Ten minutes. Startling sound.

Kill sees Tom Mothersdale as a peevish, chain-smoking god on a cloud recounting a mish-mash of Greek tragedy myths, murder, revenge, incest and the like, barely pausing for breath. Denying responsibility, after all “we gods don’t even exist”, and blaming us humans for all their excess. Below the “people”, us, interrupt with a few random phrases, (according to CC’s text). Here James Macdonald has chosen a small child, playing by himself, to be the people who only speaks at the end to aggressively say “I hate him” and “kill” three times.

Bluebeard’s full title is Bluebeard’s Friends which imagines a group of four well-to-do types, Deborah Findlay, Toby Jones, Sarah Niles and Sule Rimi, reminiscing after they learn that their friend Bluebeard is a serial killer – “with hindsight all those weddings, all those failed marriages” – excusing his actions and even working out ways to monetise the brides'”power” dresses. Weinstein, male violence, fridging, commodification, celebrity. All skewered in a satire based on a fairy tale. Surely with undertone given CC’s historical association with Out of Joint and previous Royal Court AD, Max Stafford-Clark.

Imp is more naturalistic, with echoes of Pinter, as a grouchy Toby Jones and a trenchant Deborah Findlay play a bickering odd couple, cousins Jimmy and Dot, who share some sort of violent secret. They are visited by an orphaned Irish niece, Niamh, the superb Louisa Harland, (Derry Girls fans will recognise), and then by the down-on-his-luck, ex addict Rob, (Tom Mothersdale again), and these two subsequently fall in love much to Jimmy’s initial delight. Jimmy staves off depression with jogging and tells stories which echo Shakespeare and the Greeks. Dot, whose nursing career was cut short we learn after she abused a patient, is confined to her chair. She believes in the power of a baleful imp in a bottle she keeps under the chair. The others are sort of sceptical. Niamh and Rob, in the various short, sharp conversations they have with the elder couple, and each other, also reveal something of the disturbing and extraordinary in their ostensibly mundane lives. Fear of their interior lives. Fear of the other and the outside. The set up is pure Pinter, the dialogue couldn’t be anyone else but Ms Churchill. It is very funny.

The acting was top notch, as was the performance of the juggler (Fredericke Gerstner) and acrobat (Tamzen Moulding) who perform front of stage, red curtains and arch of bulbs, during the breaks between plays. Was this CC’s idea or James Macdonald’s? No idea but it was a memorable addition and further reminder of the idea of theatre, the shared experience of story telling that thrills, inspires and warns, in the hands of one of its greatest ever exponents. Theatre that is resolutely in the now, (or then as obviously the run is now over – sorry once again), but also sets off the synapses such that weeks later it still works its magic. Words, actions and ideas all spin off each other. No exposition here. We are asked to do a lot of the work. Allusive and elusive.

Next up the revival of Far Away at the Donmar directed by another CC acolyte Lyndsey Turner. Totalitarian terror filtered through millinery. It was written twenty years ago. Like Euripides we will likely still be working it out two and a half millenia later. If we get that far. I doubt CC expects us to.

Macbeth at the Barbican Theatre review ***

Macbeth

Barbican Theatre, 15th November 2018

Is this a dagger I see before me … well maybe more of a kitchen knife …

It is pretty tightly plotted (at least if you pare it down). It is quick by comparison to a lot of the Bard – half the length of Hamlet, though that always needs a few nips and tucks – in part perhaps because Thomas Middleton adapted the text that has come down to us. It wastes no time at all in getting going – if anything it is a bit too abrupt at the start I reckon. Other than Macbeth and his lady wife most of the characters don’t get much air time to reveal themselves. It’s language is direct, often shockingly so. It is eminently quotable. There is no welter of arcane classical references. Most interested people know it or know of it (it’s a GCSE set text after all). The themes are easily defined and understood – ambition and patriotism, moral disorder and inversion, violence begetting violence, childlessness and legacy, gender roles and masculinity, the suppression of feeling and equivocation, the supernatural.

It might be built on an edifice of contemporary (when written) conventions, verse speaking, soliloquies, quibbles, audience asides, witches, ghosts, a dumb show, severed heads, but it is the supernatural that gives plenty of scope for coups de theatre. It may also have been intended to massage a royal ego, the patron of the company that first performed it, Jimmy I (of England, No 6 of Scotland) being an expert in the magic field with his best-seller Demonology, and coming just after the failed Roman Catholic plot to blow him up. Yet the supernatural also works on our imagination, (as it works on the power couple), always a good idea in a play, which, together with big Will’s acute psychological insight, and repetitive language – blood, blood and more blood, time, darkness, man – explains why it is so popular.

So why then is it apparently now so difficult to get right? Search me though if I take this somewhat disappointing version, alongside the similarly underwhelming recent NT production, (and plenty more in the last decade), the problem might lie in trying to hang too much on the play. No problem with a clear overarching creative vision but keep it simple. Don’t add all sorts of frills – there are enough interpretative and visual choices to be made from the text itself. Make sure the two leads nail the verse. No mumbling. Ensure they can explain their motivations – remember they are travelling in opposite directions, from normative revulsion to nihilistic emptiness in the case of Macbeth and vice versa for the Lady. The other characters can play it straight. Duncan is a symbol of kingship, Banquo matters because he doesn’t fall for all that weird sister sh*t. (And he can scare us later). The Porter is there to offer ironic commentary, warn against those who say one thing and do another, and, here in this production, very successfully mind the time. Everyone else is pretty much plot collateral.

It works best when we the audience are dragged into the couple’s nightmare. Small space, simple staging, like the landmark Dench/McKellen/Nunn RSC version. Or the Walter/Sher/Doran apparently, which kicked off in darkness. The recent Ninagawa version, though it is different, worked because the Samurai backdrop leant contextual clarity and the age of the couple a desperate poignancy.  The 2015 Justin Kurzel film, if you can forgive the accents, also has a clear aesthetic and some very smart interpretative choices. You can add your own to the list.

In this version however, director Deborah Findlay, seems to have focussed on the details of the visual, and on the “horror” to the exclusion of the themes. Some of this works, notably Michael Hodgson’s Geordie Porter, always present, tapping his watch, chalking up the body count, hoovering incessantly, disturbing in his ordinariness, as well as the digital clock countdown, even if it is a big of a cliche, which links to the theme of time passing. Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth, clawing and pawing, also has the measure of most of her key lines and David Acton’s Duncan, whilst a little fruity, is what you expect from a man born (rather than compelled) to rule. However Christopher Eccleston, whilst capturing Macbeth’s military bearing, doesn’t, for me, vary the verse sufficiently, such that he comes across as insufficiently tortured by events. The same is true of the Edward Bennett’s Macduff who comes across as more geography teacher than grief stricken revenger. Mr Bennett is an outstanding Shakespearean, especially in comedy, but he looked lost here. Rafael Sowole’s hefty Banquo was more convincing, especially as ghost. 

Having the witches played by three girls, dressed in red, Don’t Look Now/Shining style and signifying blood, is initially striking but the novelty soon palls. The jump cut fizzing/flickering lighting from Lizzie Powell, and the “spine-chilling” score from Rupert Cross and sound design of Christopher Shutt leans a little heavily towards the cinematic. Fly Davies’ set, with de rigeur upper level, accommodates the interpretation but doesn’t really wow or command the front of the vast Barbican stage. 

Having said all this the production doesn’t drag, it squeezes out a few laughs, not all intended, and its pinball of ideas craves attention. Maybe I should try some of the other current London Macbeth’s, the NYT at the Garrick, or the Michelle Terry/ Paul Ready at the Sam Wanamaker (if it wasn’t so bloody uncomfortable, and more problematically, sold out). Or maybe I’ll just wait. Something wicked will this come again soon. 

Allelujah at the Bridge Theatre review ****

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Allelujah

Bridge Theatre, 12th September 2018

Yet again by the time the Tourist gets round to seeing a major London premiere and, worst still given his feckless nature, comments on it, it is as good as over. Mind you the good news is that, as far as I can see, Allelujah was an unqualified success for the Bridge Theatre, playing to full(ish) houses which can only be a good thing. Nick Hytner, the Bridge AD and director here, and Alan Bennett go back a long way. If there was one thing guaranteed to get bums on those plush, comfy(ish) Bridge seats then this was it. Hopefully more people get to see just how marvellous this new theatre is and will return for whatever comes next. If they have any sense at all they will sign up for A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter, the new Martin McDonagh play, which opens here in a couple of weeks.

Now I am not sure there is, maybe bar Queen Liz II, a person more qualified to take on the National Treasure mantle than Alan Bennett. You know pretty much exactly what you are going to get when Mr Bennett puts pen to paper. If you love his wry, quizzical artistic voice, then you were never going to be disappointed by this. And plainly there is a pretty wide demographic who do love that voice. But that voice does come with some drawbacks, a few of which were on show in Allelujah. He can be, dare I say it, just that teeniest bit lazy when it comes to getting a laugh. (Mind you any image of louche behaviour in Yorkshire towns is pretty funny I guess). His characters have aged with him and he can veer towards the stereotypical. Overt nostalgia and sentimentality can seep into the text. He doesn’t really go in for plot, preferring to stitch together episodes to tell his story. All in all then sometimes Alan Bennett can be a bit too Alan Bennett.

Yet slowly and surely, underneath all that Bennettism, he makes his points here such that, by the end of Allelujah, I, and I suspect much of the audience, was both moved and angered by the plight of its subject, the NHS, here becoming a metaphor for the breakdown of community and State by decades of neo-liberalism and “market solutions”. The Bethlehem is an august Yorkshire hospital, meeting its “targets” but threatened by closure simply because it is too small and negates the fatuous “economies of scale” that Government demands. The surprisingly hands-on Chair of its trust, Salter, a robust performance from Peter Forbes, isn’t going down without a fight however, recruiting a documentary team (Sam Bond and Nadine Higgin) to the cause. The action is centred on the geriatric ward, highlighting that many of the patients here have nowhere else to go, from an august cast of twelve, dare I say, mature actors including the likes of Julia Foster, Gwen Taylor and Simon Williams. (I bet rehearsals for Alleluhah were a hoot). They sing, they dance, they reminisce, they moan, they have inappropriate conversations.

One of their number, Joe (a cantankerous Jeff Rawle, an AB regular), is paid a visit by his gay son, Colin, (Samuel Barnett), who just happens to be the slimey management consultant who is behind the closure plan. We also see a pair of grasping relatives, the Earnshaws, (Rosie Ede and Duncan Wisbey), who blame the hospital for robbing them of the inheritance, (note to AB, check out taper relief), feckless work experience teen Andy (David Moorst) and various put-upon staff (Manish Gandhi, Richie Hart, Nicola Hughes and Gary Wood).

The crux of AB’s didactic though is revealed by a pair of excellent performances from Sacha Dhawan as Dr Valentine and by the peerless Deborah Findlay as Sister Gilchrist. She has an alarming system to ensure efficiency on her wards. Yet when she delivers her valedictory “farewell” speech there is real poignancy. Deborah Findlay really is a special actor who never seems to miss a step in the roles she takes on nor in the performances she gives. This is no exception.

Yet if you really want to be reminded of just how biting AB can still be when he wants to then look no further than the closing lines, delivered direct to audience from Sacha Dhawan’s student visa immigrant doctor. AB, by his own admission a “blend of backward-looking radicalism and conservative socialism”, is angry about the country we have become, and the risks we face, and, wisely, uses its most beloved institution, to vent his spleen. Don’t worry this is no in-yer-face political diatribe, it is AB through and through, and he doesn’t preach, but there is a cumulative rage which takes it well beyond 2012’s People or the autobiographical plays.

Nick Hytner is obviously an expert at presenting AB’s material and creating action out of pure text and here he is immeasurably helped by Bob Crowley’s versatile staging and the choreography of Arlene Philips and her assistant Richard Roe. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a soundtrack album emerging from the play: if you wanted to keep the old folk happy with a “knees up” at Christmas this fits the bill kids.

Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art is currently on tout with Matthew Kelly as Auden and David Yelland as Britten and we have Mark Gatiss to look forward to in The Madness of George III at Nottingham Playhouse (to be broadcast on NT Live). I don’t think it will be too long before Allelujah gets another outing. It will be interesting to see just in what direction this country travels between now and then.