What to do with Taming of the Shrew. Pretend the framing device with Sly deceived by Milord gets you off the hook. Not sure audiences buy that. Mine the text very carefully and add detail through direction which undermines the misogyny. That takes real skill. Ironically play up the “comedy”, and cast Kate and Petrucio’s final lines as a “show” to mask them coming together, and hope the audience keeps up. Play it straight, as nasty as you dare, even venturing into dark psycho-sexual territory, and hope the audience sees that Will S, as we surely must assume, him otherwise being the unparalleled oracle of the human condition, meant for us to recoil at both the story and our reaction to it. (Though remember John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s successor with The King’s Men felt compelled to write a now rarely performed response to Shrew, The Woman’s Prize, in which Petruchio’s second wife “tames” him). That can work but don’t be surprised if modern, as contemporary opinion did, criticises.
Or change gender as here? One of the best versions of the play that I saw was Edward Hall’s all male version for Propellor. Sly (Vince Leigh) became Petruchio, the misogyny is initially ridiculed in a genuinely funny production, but then becomes more menacing, punky Kate (Dan Wheeler) continually fights back making his/her final submission even uglier. The point being that Sly will continue the cycle of male violence outside the play.
In this RSC production directed by Justin Audibert, not for the first time, the genders are reversed, with Claire Price now a swaggering, derring-do Petruchia, and, names unchanged, Joseph Arkley the very pliant Katherine, the object of her undoubted affection, and James Cooney his more attractive and preening brother, Bianco. Padua becomes a matriarchy, pronouns are judiciously changed, gags retained, but it still doesn’t properly scrutinise the dominance/gaslighting power plays at the heart of the action. We already know what is wrong with or without role reversal.
Elsewhere though the inversion adds sheen, notably the wooing of Bianco by the salacious Gremia (Sophie Stanton complete with comedy glide pace Mark Rylance’s Olivia), the inept Lucentia (Emily Johnstone) aided by her capable sidekick/double Trania (Laura Elsworthy) and Hortensia (Amelia Donkor). The deceptions, rivalries and put downs all entertain. Amanda Harris as Mum Baptista, Amy Trigg as Lucentia’s other servant Biondella and Melody Brown as Vincentia, Lucentia’s mum all have fun with the roles.
The production looks terrific thanks to Stephen Brimston Lewis’s set (here seen to best effect when compared to the other RSC productions in the season) and Hannah Clark’s costumes. Composer Ruth Chan gets away with her “rock Renaissance” vibe. And Alice Cridland’s marshalling of wigs, hair and make-up mightily impressed. But none of this really solves for the fact that simply reversing and softening the genders and positing a social order that doesn’t, nor ever did, exist, can’t magic away the central offence. Which, in itself, is a lesson.
I am guessing if you are the playwright responsible for The Churchill Play, Epsom Downs, The Romans in Britain, Pravda, Paul, 55 Days and Lawrence After Arabia you can get to write pretty much what you like. Especially if you plainly have a history of not giving a f*ck what people think of your work.
And if you are the outgoing director of the Hampstead Theatre, which you resurrected, (with your team), from near collapse a decade ago you also have the right to choose your swan song. And the writer who offered up five of his plays for you to stage over those ten years certainly deserves your loyalty.
But this is, no doubt, a tricky, uneven and, ultimately, not entirely convincing work. Howard Brenton has taken the bones of the story of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, repurposed it for our time, and then, in what might have seemed like a good idea at the time, added a kind of chorus in the form of Euripides himself.
His Jude is a female Syrian refugee, self-taught in Ancient Greek and the Classics, who, working as a cleaner, improbably secures a place at Oxford on the whim of a lesbian don, Deirdre. After having married a pig farmer. And with a cousin, (yes there a bit of unconvincing cuz-luv per Hardy,) who gets a bit carried way with his religious fervours and end up being surveilled as a terrorist by one of the Prof’s ex students. And Euripides, also self taught, comes to our Jude in dreams. Because he was, as Mr Brenton says, bloody good at this drama lark and interested in the story of refugees, minorities and strangers.
The play’s main message I think is that society must find a place for its geniuses but on to this already rickety framework, HB has a pop, in a moreorless non-PC way, at all manner of targets. Racism, nativism, fear of the other, Brexit, dumbing down and cultural ignorance, tokenism, institutional hypocrisy, the power of the state and surveillance, masks, the bicameral mind (nope, me neither). All liberally sprinkled with quotes from the Iliad.
HB’s heart is definitely in the right place, and there is plenty to chew over, but the execution is often idiosyncratic, the dramatic momentum uneven and the arguments scatter-gun. No amount of directorial patience from Edward Hall, or creative ingenuity from designer Ashley Martin-Davies, can mask (ha, ha) the structural flaws. Isabella Nefar does have a bloody, (literally at one point in a rather forced nod to Hardy), good crack at pulling the contradictions of her character together and Caroline Loncq gets well deserved laughs out of Deirdre. Paul Brennen wears his Euripides mask well and doubles up as one of the spooks, (remember HB wrote for the TV show of the same name), alongside Shanaya Rafaat. But Anna Savya as Jude’s aunt, (her father was killed back home but he is the one who fuelled her ambition, natch), March Husey as the naive cousin, Luke McGregor as the doltish husband Jack and Emily Taafe as Jude’s A level teacher are all stymied by some awkward dialogue and thin characterisation.
Yet, despite all of this, I quite took to Howard Breton’s misguided intellectualism and stylistic kitchen sink-ism. What most of the audience made of it though is anyone’s guess. What with this, David Hare’s not shooting the lights out with I’m Not Running, ditto (actually worse) with Alan Ayckbourn in The Divide, Michael Frayn retired and not a peep for years from Tom Stoppard, maybe the best days of the grand old men of British theatre are behind them.
Thanks heavens for the mighty Caryl Churchill then. The new season at the Royal Court is advertising there new short plays Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. “A girl made of glass. Gods and murders. A serial killer’s friends“. That’s all there is by way of intro. That’s all I need. I can’t wait.
I can’t remember the last time I attended a performance at the Hampstead Theatre Upstairs or Downstairs that wasn’t, to all intents and purposes, full. Matinee or evening. Not a great surprise given the theatre’s reputation and location but still a testament to the winning mix of premieres of new plays by Brit drama royalty, (Mike Bartlett, Howard Brenton, Michael Frayn, Simon Gary, David Hare, Terry J0hnson, Nick Payne, Joe Penhall, Nina Raine< Beth Steel and Roy Williams for example), a smattering of revived recent classics, some vital new voices, some canny transfers and some top quality heavyweight American imports. When Edward Hall took over as AD decade ago, (alongside Executive Producer Greg Ripley-Duggan), the theatre was on its knees. Now it is thriving. All this without public subsidy. It will be interesting to see how Roxana Silbert, coming in now that Mr Hall is moving on, builds on his legacy.
All this has been achieved without compromising on quality or intellectual heft. Cost of Living being a perfect example, the hundredth premiere since Edward Hall came in. Martyna Majok’s four hander is another Pulitzer Prize winner seeing its UK premiere at the HT, (with one original cast member in Katy Sullivan who plays Ani), which looks at the marginalised in US society, through the voices of two people with disabilities and their carers. Ms Majok drew from her own experiences as a carer, (amongst many other precarious jobs, a first generation Polish immigrant to the US, with her mother, trying to build a career as a playwright), splicing together the opening monologue in a bar from Eddie (Adrian Lester), with a short play she had written about an academic wheelchair user with cerebral palsy, John (Jack Hunter) and his carer Jess (Emily Barber) and yet another short work with characters which became Ani (a bilateral above knee amputee) and husband Eddie. Whilst initially there isn’t much to link the three stories, Ms Majok just about brings the strands together by the end, though this is still more successful as a character, rather than plot, driven narrative.
That it works is in large part down to the accuracy of the writing and the performance of the cast. We learn how little money three of the characters have to get by on, (the exception being John), the “cost of living”, but, more importantly, we get to see how the three relationships develop, (Jess ends up with Eddie at the end – I’ll refrain from explaining how or why). There is dry humour and some moving, though utterly unsentimental, episodes, but always with a natural cadence in the dialogue and a clear-sighted purpose. Ms Majok, by choosing to just show, rather than confront or evade, stereotypes of people with disabilities and those who look after them, has created an involving, and entertaining, play whose minor structural flaws are easily forgiven.
Mind you this sort of had me with Eddie’s expansive opening monologue, or more accurately one-sided dialogue. He is in a bar buying drinks for a stranger and telling some of his, broken, life story. Now it helps that this was delivered by Adrian Lester who is a master of his craft and, if I am honest, the main reason I snapped up a ticket. Mr Lester may have devoted much of his considerable talent to film and TV but when he pitches up on stage it is always essential viewing as I know from the Hytner NT Othello with Rory Kinnear, (one of the Tourist’s best ever theatre experiences), and in Red Velvet, written by his missus. I am no expert on accents but his Eddie seemed utterly plausible and the way he pleads, pauses, corrects himself, changes expressions, reacts to the unseen stranger, engages with us but without breaking the wall, is just riveting.
Eddie is estranged from the feisty Ani, with a new partner, after the car accident that left her quadriplegic, but, when his truck-driving work dries up, he offers to become her paid carer despite her misgivings. Their shared past is revisited, often with great tenderness, but there is always the sense that Eddie is seeking redemption, despite not being to blame for the accident, and that Ani is only slowly coming to terms with her changed circumstances.
Jess may have recently graduated from Princeton but takes on the role as John’s carer to make ends meet alongside working in a dodgy all-night bar. John’s independent income allows him to pursue his academic career, also at Princeton, free from money worries but also gives him privilege. What makes him interesting is that he knows, and bluntly expresses, this. He is as matter of fact as the other three, struggling, characters and this is where the message of the play lies in its implicit criticism of the US healthcare and welfare systems.
Mr Lester’s performance as the gentle, melancholic Eddie is matched by his fellow cast. Katy Sullivan is mesmeric as Ani. whose wary, hard-arsed exterior only thinly masks a warm and loving interior. The bath scene is about as generous a scene as you could ever see on stage. Presumably because acting is so easy for her, Katy Sullivan is also a producer, writer and four time US 100m (T42) Paralympian champion. Martyna Majok asks a lot of Jack Hunter and Emily Barber to build a believable relationship from a few short scenes which also carry a much of the intellectual meat of the play, and it is to their credit that they pull this off. John verges on the overbearing and, initially, bluntly looks down on Jess. She in turn is defensive and evasive. A warm friendship blooms around their transactional relationship though their crucial, dislocating, final scene slightly strains credulity. The shower scene though, mirroring the bath scene of the other couple, is similarly affecting.
I knew I recognised Emily Barber but couldn’t place where. Turns out she was the Speaker, as Antigone, in the staging of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex at the Royal Festival Hall, a few years back. Top Kudos as Sophocles himself might have said. I also see Jack Hunter moonlights as a comedian. That figures. He has an easy confidence that suggests a bright stage future.
Edward Hall’s fluid direction is matched by the design of Michael Pavelka (new to me) who sketches out the four spaces, the bar, Ani’s functional flat, John’s tasteful apartment and Eddie’s threadbare motel room without getting in the way of the movement (with two wheelchairs) required to complement the dialogue.
Hopefully the HT will continue to get more than its fair share of the best of contemporary US plays to London to set alongside this and the likes of Gloria, Describe the Night, Good People, Rabbit Hole and The Humans which the Tourist has enjoyed in recent years.
Sometimes it can feel like the whole history of US theatrical drama is one long story of family dysfunctionality. Mind you you can see why. When it works, Miller, O’Neill, Williams, Albee, Shepherd, Wilson, Kushner, to name a few, it is hard to top. The immediacy and thrill of recognition, with the visceral power of the Greeks. Ideally you need some fairly immediate character flaws, a specific social and/or economic milieu and enough humour to leaven the tragedy. Then you can hit the jackpot of “state-of-the-nation” relevance with “deep, psychological” human insight. That’s why playwrights keep plugging away. at the genre
Of course the drawbacks can be obvious. Indulgence seasoned with too much autobiography, bombast, captivity of form and an all round failure to recognise that what you think is a resonantly universal experience may actually be just plain bloody dull to the audience.
The Humans came with some cracking reviews out of NYC, four Tony Awards and full houses through its runs and tour. Edward Hall, who is off to pastures new having transformed the HT, treading a fine line between the popular and the pioneering, says he was desperate to nab this for the HT. Then again he says that about everything he has imported from the US. Here though the Roundabout Theatre production has come hook, line and sinker from Broadway with cast, director, Joe Mantello, and creatives, David Zinn (scenic), Sarah Laux (costume), Justin Townsend (lighting), Fitz Pattton (sound). And I suspect that is what made all the difference.
The Humans starts in the most cliched fashion. The Blake family meets for Thanksgiving. In the recently acquired Chinatown basement duplex flat of voluble, fervent daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele), who is recently married to the assiduous, slightly superior Richard Saad (Arian Moayed). Solicitous Mum Dierdre (Jayne Houdyshell) and decent Dad Erik (Reed Birney) have come to the city from Pennsylvania with wheelchair-bound grandma Fiona “Momo” (Lauren Klein). They are joined by big sister Aimee (Cassie Beck). Cue a round of rapid family banter as the parents bemoan the location of the flat, Grandma’s incapacities are revealed and Aimee’s work pressures highlighted. All robust, knockabout stuff, very witty, but you have heard it a million times. Then slowly, but surely, perspectives begin to shift. In entirely naturalistic fashion we get see the financial, emotional and intellectual pressures and insecurities weighing down on this all-American family, so that, like the best of these sort of plays, it holds up a mirror to contemporary US society. At the same time a faint sense of unease, the uncanny, starts to pervade the flat. Not quite with the same intensity as say, Annie Baker’s John (John at the National Theatre review *****), but, with the building itself burbling and croaking, lights flickering, enough to add a further, if not in my view entirely successful, dimension.
The play is in real time, though the family let a lot of food go to waste (!), and the revelations tumble out in an entirely believable way. Brigid’s creative frustrations and Richard’s never-ending studying. Aimee’s girlfriend troubles, her partner has just left her, and illness is set to curtail her banking career. But it is Mum and Dad’s troubles, and the need to care for grandma, which most bring home the precariousness of life for even “middle” Americans. Depression, dementia, illness, making ends meet, rejection, even bowel problems, get a look in, but this is a play that never feels dour. Nor is it some bash-you-over-the-head polemic. These are still people you very quickly care for and hope that things get better for them. The ups, and downs, and general messiness, of family are adroitly set out. Love, and resilience, might just see them through. Or maybe not, since resolution does not follow revelation.
All this in just 90 minutes. And all thanks to the writing talent of Stephen Karam. It will probably come as no surprise, based on the above, when I tell you that Mr Karam’s last stage outing in 2016, (The Humans dates from 2014), was an adaptation of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, and that his was the pen behind the recent screen version of The Seagull, (which got so-so reviews, so has been relegated to my Netflix list). Tragicomedy is his thing, and his ear for the way people who are close actually converse, cross-talking, sniping, apologising, is remarkable. And it is razor-sharp funny.
The performances are outstanding. Timing is impeccable, like clockwork. I guess no great surprise given how long the company have been together on the play but it is still as strong an ensemble as you are ever likely to see. Many of them have worked before with the playwright and Arian Moayed who plays Richard even roomed with Stephen Karam at college apparently. The set, on two levels, joined by a spiral staircase, is sublime, and, with the harsh artificial lighting, conjures up the kind of grim, monochrome, institutional atmosphere that, even when the couple have unpacked, can never truly become a “home”. The six family members are, with some cleverly crafted exceptions, always on stage, there are no breaks or fades here, but the set means we can also see where they are not as it were, the empty rooms, which adds to the sense that of this not being your standard family drama, all crammed into one room.
I am assuming that Stephen’s Karam’s previous full length plays, Speech and Debate, centred on three misfit teenagers, and Sons of the Prophet, a story about a Lebanese- American family (reflecting his own Maronite Christian heritage), haven’t yet crossed the Atlantic. Based on The Humans I think there is a more than fair case for some-one putting that right. Thanks to Edward Hall I have seen a number of excellent plays at Hampstead Theatre from US playwrights in the last couple of years: Dry Powder by Sarah Burgess, Describe The Night by Rajiv Joseph, Gloria by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and a brace of Tony Kushner’s. And now this. I do hope his successor carries on the tradition.
This was my first experience of the work of prolific playwright/novelist/diarist/academic Simon Gray whose stage texts were so adored by luminaries such as Peter Hall, Harold Pinter, (who directed many of his premieres), and Alan Bates, (who starred in them). Cell Mates, of course, is (in)famous for being the play that national treasure, and all round wonderful person, Stephen Fry bailed out of whilst suffering a bout of depression. Simon Gray in turn wrote, somewhat acerbically, about this very episode.
This is the first London revival of the play since that fateful night in 1985. It is based on the true story of the relationship between notorious Dutch-born, British spy and double agent George Blake, and Irish petty criminal and fixer Sean Bourke. After divulging top secret intelligence and details of military exercises to the Soviets in the 1960s Blake had been sentenced to 42 years for treason. In Wormwood Scrubs he met Bourke and they hatched a plan to “spring” Blake in 1966, with help from communist sympathisers on the outside, who then fled to “sanctuary” in Moscow. When Bourke got out he followed Blake to Moscow and then found himself trapped there, by the KGB, with, it seems, the connivance of Blake.
So a meaty story of prison breakout and spy drama. But Simon Gray is less interested in the plot which might naturally unfold from this extraordinary story and more in the relationship between the two men. Both clearly were remarkable in their own ways. Blake, by all accounts, was a gifted, if flawed, character. Schooled in Egypt after his father’s early death, flirting with religious vocation, he joined the Dutch resistance in his teens, was caught by the Nazis, but escaped to Britain. His linguistic skills saw him posted to some hairy places fairly early on in his career before he was turned by a Soviet agent whilst he was imprisoned in Korea. His idealogical shift had, ironically, been fuelled in part by a course in Russian he took at Cambridge. Bourke, as his plan demonstrates, was a resourceful man, with a liking for a drink, and ” a strong sense of the dramatic, an ability to dissemble and an obsessive pride” to use Blake’s own words. Textbook Irish Rover.
We see the conspiracy hatched in prison, the immediate aftermath of the breakout and then four scenes set over a year or so in Blake’s flat in Moscow. So with this back story, and these characters, you might expect high drama. You would be wrong. The tone is surprisingly low-key. The two men clearly come to depend on each other but we do not, I think, really understand why. They find themselves effectively imprisoned once again and I guess we are supposed to reflect on how this came to pass, and whether, in the case of Blake (who is still holed up in Moscow in his 90s), a life of duplicity doomed him to permanent unhappiness and loneliness.
There is some, unsubtle, humour provided by the two KGB agents played by Danny Lee Wynter and Philip Bird, who “observe’ the pair along with maid Zinaida played by Cara Horgan. The two leads, Emmet Byrne as Bourke and, especially, Geoffrey Streatfeild as Blake, do an admirable job in fleshing out the enigmatic couple and Edward delicately directs what is clearly a cherished project for him.
Overall it was just a little too restrained for my liking though. I could see that I was watching something worthwhile but I was never quite persuaded that it really was worth my while. Alan Bennett’s double header, Single Spies, is also by no means a perfect drama, but shed more light, for me, on the curious mix of arrogance, principle and self-loathing that seemed to compel the likes of Blunt, Burgess and Blake on their journey to treachery.