The Prisoner at the National Theatre review **

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The Prisoner

National Theatre Dorfman, 12th September 2018

OK. I should have known better. Having been bemused by Battlefield at the Young Vic in 2016 I still signed up for The Prisoner despite knowing full well I was likely set for a repeat experience. Peter Brook, and long time collaborator Marie-Helene Estienne, are theatrical royalty. The stripped back aesthetic, the philosophical questioning, the emotionally direct text: all this can reveal great truths. But it can also be hard work. Which is what this was.

I am far too simple, too young and insufficiently well versed in theatrical history to have seen Mr Brook’s revolutionary Shakespeare’s interpretations and I can’t speak French. I do have Adrian Lester’s Hamlet at the Old Vic from 2001 in the memory bank to understand just what PB and M-HE can conjure up. That had the assistance of one William Shakespeare however. The Prisoner is in their own words. It isn’t quite the same. Donald Sumpter is a Visitor come to some nameless place to see Ezekiel played bt Herve Goffings. He is the uncle of Mavuso (Hiran Abeysekera) who has killed his father when he discovered the relationship between him and sister Nadia (Kalieaswari Srinivasan). Mavuso is sentenced but is permitted to serve his punishment outside of a prison looking in, watched over by a Man (Omar Silva) and, sometimes, Guards. That’s it.

Why he does this and whether this constitutes justice are the central dilemmas of what was, frankly, a pretty long 75 minutes. It looked beautiful thanks to artfully placed “stage elements” from David Violi and the lighting design of Philippe Vialatte. The international cast performed with utter conviction. The pacing and sparse encouraged meditation but, with no tonal shift or any resolution, well other than when a mouse pitches up, soon became soporific. Drama with all of the drama deliberately sucked out. An old testament parable which might have been done and dusted in one verse. Beckett without the action or laughs (!).

I am ashamed to say this but the piece was beyond me. Still given that it is 50 years since Mr Brook last directed at the NT, and that is when it was still in the Old Vic, I am, perversely, glad I went. No-one said this culture vulture stuff would be easy after all.

Nine Night at the National Theatre review *****

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Nine Night

National Theatre Dorfman, 3rd May 2018

You never quite know what you are going to get at the National Theatre. Mind you the Dorfman has turned into a pretty safe bet. After a painful 90 minutes, (it seemed much longer), sitting through the first half of Absolute Hell in the Lyttleton, I was praying for theatrical Heaven. And I’m an atheist. No review of Absolute Hell because we left at the interval. The SO might have been more forgiving but I can’t recall seeing a worse play. Not a worse production. Design, direction and cast did what they could but I just think there are some “classic” plays, which Absolute Hell purports to be, that are nothing of the sort. A few drunks and sexual libertines careering round a stage, with no plot or message to speak of, might do it for some plummy critics, but it doesn’t cut it in today’s world. We weren’t the only ones to feel that way. The NT has come in for a few knocks in the last couple of years, undeservedly in my view, but why this was revived, and why Joe Hill-Gibbins as director wanted to get involved, is a mystery to me.

And then there was Nine Night. Which is an absolute crackerjack of a play. OK so there are maybe a few too many plot strands spinning around and left unfinished at the end but it doesn’t really matter as there is so much to enjoy from what is wrapped up in just 100 minutes. It never ever drags. In fact I wanted more. Maybe someone could even prevail upon writer Natasha Gordon to create further plays drawn from this milieu and these characters. There is more than enough here to justify it.

It leaves me speechless that this is Ms Gordon’s debut play. I see that she is of Jamaican descent. Which was pretty handy when it came to writing Nine Night. The title refers to the ninth night after a death in Jamaican culture, a celebration involving food, drink, talking, stories, music, dancing (here Kumina rituals from eastern Jamaica) to support the bereaved, pay respects to the deceased and to properly bid them farewell. I understand that many of the traditions have been altered through time and when transposed, as here, into another place, today’s London, but the connections back to the belief systems of an Africa before monotheistic religions can be tracked. These customs are what lie behind the shattering conclusion to the play.

Single Mum Lorraine is caring for her Mum, Gloria. Her brother Robert is an entrepreneurial type married to Sophie, who is white. They are childless. Lorraine’s daughter Anita in turn has a baby daughter with partner Nathan (neither of whom we see). Lorraine and Robert have a half-sister, Trudy, who remained in Jamaica when Gloria, whose husband Alvin left her with the kids, came over to seek work as part of the Windrush generation. When Gloria subsequently passes we also get to see a lot of her cousin Aunt Maggie, and husband Vince. So we have three generations of Britons of Jamaican heritage, and Trudy herself when she comes over, all under the same roof. Celebration and, it probably won’t surprise you to know, recrimination, ensues.

By the way it is a hell of a roof. Or, to be exact. room under a roof in Rajha Shakiry’s beautifully detailed set. George Dennis’s sound design, crammed with off-stage dancehall rhythms is also a delight.

Families coming together after a death, and processing their grief, is theatrical meat and drink. This is different though because of the push and pull between two cultures in the past and in the present, the quality of the writing and the immediacy of the characters. Lorraine’s frustrations at being a single parent and then  having to give up her career to be the carer, and at having to organise all the celebrations, are universal as are Robert’s thwarted financial ambitions and his sense of male entitlement. Sophie is unconditionally accepted by her relations but still, however well intentioned, manages to say the wrong things. Trudy’s brash exterior barely conceals real pain at being left behind. Anita’s struggles to reconcile her heritage with her home also seemed well crafted to me (though I would have happily heard more from her).

Which brings me to Aunt Maggie. Now it may turn out, when this play is revived, as I am sure it will be, that it transpires that only Cecilia Noble could do justice to the part, though so juicy is the role that I doubt it. Certainly she turns in a performance that, on the face of it, steals not just this show, but every show now on across London. Aunt Maggie is a force of comedic nature who turns out a string of belly-aching laughs. The proper reviews have identified the best of these though you have to be there to really savour the delivery. If you ask me though it is Cecilia Noble’s facial expressions, (even from where I was up in the balcony), her movements and the tonal shift at the end that turn this into a shoe-in for an award if there is any justice. For just a few moments I may just have believed in a a world of spirits thanks to Cecilia. Silly me.

For my money though she is not the best actor on the stage. That accolade belongs to Franc Ashman as the careworn coper who cannot allow herself to grieve. Not to say that Oliver Alvin-Wilson as Robert, Ricky Fearon as Uncle Vince, Michelle Greenridge as Trudy, Hattie Ledbury as Sophie and Rebekah Murrell as Anita don’t deliver, they do, just that Franc Ashman lends a real depth to Lorraine. And she, rather than the prior generation, articulates the shame of a country that, even now, will appropriate a community’s labour, whether freely give or not, but will not fully accept its culture, or even, as we now see, grant it legal equivalence in belonging.

I haven’t seen any of the productions where Roy Alexander Weise was in the director’s chair though I see that he was an Assistant on some masterpieces of the last few years at the Royal Court; X, Escaped Alone, Hangmen and Liberian Girl. He is destined for great things. I cannot know what Natasha Gordon would have hoped for when she finished her draft but if it looked and worked any better than this I’d be surprised. The plot and action work like clockwork. The performances are great and in some cases, as I say, outstanding. By putting the weight on the right lines in each of the scenes Mr Weise turns the slight hurdle of over-plotting in Ms Gordon’s text into a desire for us the audience to know more about these people, their back-stories, and their futures.

Nine Night definitely ticks the National box in the National Theatre moniker. It also, unequivocally, ticks the Theatre box. So now it needs to be seen by a bigger audience. A tour maybe? A transfer? That would count as progress.

The Great Wave at the National Theatre review ****

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The Great Wave

National Theatre, 24th Mar 2018

Now theatre can do a lot of things. Delve deep into the psychology of characters and shed light on the human condition. Convey a passionate and heartfelt message. Put poetry into the mouths of actors. Dispense shock and awe through sound, light and material. And, of course, tell stories. And sometimes those stories are so fascinating that the rest can take a back seat. So it is with The Great Wave.

Japanese/Northern Irish playwright Francis Turnly has alighted on an absolute belter of a story to tell in his play and he doesn’t let anything get in the way of its telling. Bolshie Hanako, (a performance of great breadth from Kirsty Rider given Hanako has to hide her true feelings for much of the play and age 25 years), is winding up swotty sister Reiko, (Kae Alexander who is rapidly turning into one of my favourite young actors), and putative boyfriend Tetsuo, (Leo Wan, last seen by me in Yellow Earth’s stripped down version of Tamburlaine the Great). She flounces off in a huff to the beach near where they live on a stormy night and disappears. Mum Etsuko (Rosalind Chao), Reiko and Tetsuo won’t accept that she was swept out to sea and  won’t give up on the search for her, badgering police chief Takeshi (who initially suspects Tetsuo), and eventually government minister Jiro, (both played by David Yip,) to find the truth. It transpires that Hanako has been abducted by the North Korean regime so she can train spy Jung Sun (Tuyen Do) to pass as Japanese all under the watchful eye of an Official, (a marvellous turn by Kwong Loke). And there’s more, involving smart performances from Vincent Lai and Frances Mayli McCann.

This really happened, to a handful of Japanese citizens, as you may or not know. That would be enough maybe in itself. Where Mr Turnley is really clever is drawing out the human dramas at the centre of this thriller and, gently, pointing out the political accommodations that allowed it to persist from 1979, before finally, unravelling. in 2002. He also, again without taking a sledgehammer to proceedings, shows how the histories of Japan and Korea are intertwined and paralleled to some degree. Finally, and maybe most importantly, he asks us how identity and self is actually constructed. Why did Hanako “co-operate”? Why do Jung Sun and the Official believe in, and do, what they do? How was this allowed to happen? I won’t answer as there are a few more performances left (grab a ticket) but, rest assured, you will get wrapped up in the journey. You will also, if you are an old softie like me, actually be quite moved at points. And you will, as you should, reflect on today’s geo-politics.

Tom Piper’s set, a simple revolve with uncluttered, but still authentic, cube rooms, means the episodic structure of the play, jumping between Japan and North Korea, flows without interruption. The sound design of Alexander Caplan’s stealthily kicks in to good effect as well. There are some occasions where the economy of Mr Turnley’s prose becomes a little clunky but this can be forgiven as it gets us from A to B quickly, which frankly, with a story this good, is what you want.

With a powerful story, simply told, the last thing you need is a director over-egging the souffle, as it were. Indhu Rubasingham was never going to do that. What she does do though, so deftly you barely notice, is put the right people in the right place at the right time to highlight the emotion of the story. That takes real skill. When she gets her own theatre back, (the Tricycle), after all the investment, expect fireworks.

BD, being a Japano- and Koreano- phile, was never going to be allowed to miss this. Not quite as difficult to please as her mother when it comes to the theatre, she is still a stern critic. Didn’t move a muscle from start to finish. And I am rewarded with multiple future credits.

So a real-life thriller that, like the set it is set upon, revolves around and around until it becomes something more surprisingly profound. I suppose the fine British East Asian cast could have been afforded more lines to show off their class, and bring full complexity to their characters, but, if so, this may well have clocked in at well over 3 hours, and the suspense dissipated. Like I say, sometimes the story is so good it just needs telling.

 

 

Beginning at the National Theatre review ****

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Beginning

National Theatre, 30th October 2017

No need for some unseemly outpouring of emotional sharing from the Tourist but let’s just say that the very rare occasions when he has been compelled to confess his regard for another human being have been excruciatingly painful. A handshake is unsettling. Hugging and air kissing, in the absence of drink, promote intense anxiety (maybe this is genetic since MS and BD are exactly the same). Approaching a woman with a view to romance can literally leave the Tourist paralysed with fear. Fortunately the pity reflex seems to have taken hold of certain potential life partners in the past which has allowed the Tourist to deploy, and eke out, his pitiful amounts of charm, and then cling, limpet like, until finally, and rightly, he has been cast off. His strategy of keeping out of the SO’s way has miraculously worked for a couple of decades, but being this useless requires discipline.

Anyway this history meant it was easy to feel sympathy for the characters of Laura and Danny in David Eldridge’s outstanding two hander Beginning. As, judging by the reaction, it was for most everyone in the audience. For the anguish of loneliness and the awkwardness of coming together are feelings that most people (assuming basic needs are satisfied) will experience. I guess there are plenty of other ways to negotiate life but, for most, finding someone to share the journey is a vital goal. Technology cannot change the reality of this negotiation nor negate the risks that come with emotional exposure.

We are in Laura’s flat in Crouch End in the aftermath of a party. Only Danny is left. Both are a little worse for wear drinkwise. Danny halfheartedly says it is time to get a cab. Laura confesses she had wanted him to stay. They talk, they drink a bit more, there’s a bit of music, some tidying at Danny’s behest. They lay open their pasts. And their desires. It is funny, touching and engrossing. The “will they, won’t they” is there but reticence is only a tiny part of what unfolds. This are good people trying to be happy and that is what makes you care.

Now this is not, I am guessing, particularly novel territory for a text to explore. But it is also a subject that is pretty easily turned into inconsequential mush. David Eldridge, who was the leading light in the so-called Monsterist manifesto, is one of our leading playwrights, who has proved he can write at any scale. I am not sure though if he has written at quite such a domestic and personal level before. Whatever. This is still an outstanding text whichever way you look at it. Wry but still affectionate, awkward but not uncomfortable, funny but not played for laughs,.

It can only work though with utterly committed performances to create real characters, and, with Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton, this is exactly what you get. The ticking of late thirties Laura’s biological clock and the pain of early forties Danny’s separation from his son are universals which could easily lapse into cliches. Not here.

Polly Findlay’s direction doesn’t put a foot wrong, as usual, and Fly Davis’s set, in an end stage Dorfman, is spot on. The movement of the two characters around the set is as revealing as the things they say and the silences and interruptions are perfectly placed.

I see that a handful of tickets pop up on the day. With a bit of luck this will also find its way to another venue to extend the run. If so, go along, and wrap yourself up in their story for 100 minutes or so. You won’t regret it.

 

 

Consent at the National Theatre review *****

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Consent

Dorfman, National Theatre, 27th April 2017

Crikey. This is a very fine piece of theatre make no mistake. This was my first exposure to Nina Raine’s writing though I had been really looking forward to it based on what I had read about her previous works and on the proper reviews for this. But that didn’t prepare me for quite how strong a work this turned out to be.

The play explores complex issues of consent, empathy and justice in the context of rape. Kitty (Anna Maxwell Martin) and Edward (Ben Chaplin) are new parents. Edward is a barrister as are their friends, couple Rachel (Priyanga Burford) and Jake (Adam James), and Tim (Pip Carter). They try to set up Tim with Zara (Daisy Haggard), Kitty’s actress friend, without success initially. Cue deft comic writing and unsettlingly direct discussions around the rape (and other) cases that the barristers are prosecuting/defending. We watch Jake and Rachel’s relationship flounder on his infidelity and then recover. Edward too has an affair so that Kitty seeks a sort of revenge through a relationship with Tim, who had been seeing Zara. The break up leads to a custody battle and Kitty seeking  to have Edward prosecuted for marital rape. Edward, perhaps, finally understands. Running through all of this is rape victim, Gayle (Heather Craney), who does not secure justice and, in consequence, takes her own life.

No apologies for laying out the plot but I think this is justified firstly, because the run at the Dorfman is nearly over and is sold out, secondly, because the above doesn’t even get close to capturing just how clever and multi layered this play is and thirdly, because no-one will read this anyway. We get to understand something of how the adversarial justice system works in Britain, notably the emphasis on rhetorical skill in driving the outcome. We see how the necessary fictions which lay behind this system, (such as innocent until proven guilty, the so called “cab rank”, cross examination and the admissibility of evidence), together with the driving need to “win”, leaves the barristers incapable of any empathy with the victims in rape cases. We see how the system fails rape victims and destroys lives. We see how frustration and infidelity sours one marriage and breaks another apart. We see how the need to create a “performance” in work can seep into the home and relationships.

Nina Raine’s writing is exquisite as these insights are layered into believable, but still nuanced characters, and the whole tragedy is leavened with real humour. There are some memorable touches: the play begins and ends with Kitty and Edward prosaically folding a sheet, the witty descriptions of Greek drama, the (I think) symbolism in the shifting positions of the sofas, the early reveals and later call-backs, the multiple lampshades/viewpoints of Hildegard Bechtler’s set.

The research that went into the play is palpable but never obvious or didactic, which given the subject matter is remarkable. The dialogue feels entirely natural and never forced. There are occasions when you can see the joins, when Kitty starts needling Edward at one of the get-togethers, when Gayle gate=crashes the party, when Zara reveals her pregnancy plans, but all are justified to move the stake up to the next level. Overall, the rational and emotional part of your brain will be given a massive workout. Roger Mitchell’s direction is perfect precisely because it lets the text and the actors get on with it.

Anna Maxwell Martin is properly awesome as she charts how Kitty’s need to make Edward understand what he has done becomes overwhelming. Ben Chaplin (who was captivating as the amoral fantasist in Apple Tree Yard on the telly) is also perfectly cast, as his egotistical smugness turns to desperate wheedling. I hope Adam James is not a complete misogynist bully in real life because he is brilliant at playing them (I remember his performance in Bull at the Young Vic). Daisy Haggard (who I only know from TV comedy Episodes where she creates comic genius from one expression) is terrific, as are the rest of the cast. Oh and hats off for the performance of Misha Wakefield Raine as Edward and Kitty’s baby.: nerveless.

So if this doesn’t get a run elsewhere I have absolutely no doubt it will be revived in the not too distant future given its extraordinary quality. And I cannot wait for Nina Raine’s next play which I understand will be … ta dah … a play about JS Bach starring Simon Russell Beale. And if I am not mistaken Mr SRB was viewing this very performance of Consent. I have no idea what on earth Ms Raine will do with this idea but I AM SALIVATING AT THE PROSPECT – repeat it is about the genius Bach starring the genius Simon Russell Beale.