After a false start, (the indolent Tourist failed to wake up in time on the appointed on-sale day and this sold out fast), a couple of returns were secured so it was off to the Dorfman with MS in tow for Ella Hickson’s latest play. With high expectations given Ms Hickson’s last two outings, The Writer and Oil, both at the Almeida. Expectations that were, largely, met.
I say Ella Hickson but without the sound wizards of Ben and Max Ringham Anna would not have been possible. For, as I am sure your seasoned theatregoers know, the USP of the play is that the audience listens to the proceedings on stage through headphones. The action being set in the modish East Berlin apartment of Ann (Phoebe Fox) and Hans (Paul Bazely) Weber in 1968, expertly designed by Vicki Mortimer. Anna enters in the dark, potters about. Hans joins her, returning from work. They are about to host a party to celebrate Hans’s promotion. Their elder neighbour, Elena Hildebrand (the ever wonderful Diana Quick), joins them before Hans’s work colleague pitch up en masse, including his intimidating boss Christian Neumann (Max Bennett).
Anna is nervous of Herr Neumann and, with a nod to Death and the Maiden, we soon find out why. Or do we? Across the brief 70 minutes or so Ms Hickson pops in a few twists whilst ramping up the tension as the party drinks flow. We are listening in from Anna’s aural standpoint, as it were, so it’s pretty clear all is not what it seems, though to be fair I didn’t see the end coming. Maybe it didn’t quite hang together dramatically but as a way of conjuring up an atmosphere of claustrophobia, surveillance and suspicion, the cornerstone of Communist East Germany, the technology certainly did the job. And just to be sure we embrace the spying vibe. we are separated from the Dorfman stage by a glasss wall.
The cast, especially those aforementioned as well as Nathalie Armin, Jamie Bradley, Michael Gould, Georgia Landers, Lara Rossi and Duane Walcott, all rose to the technical challenge even if they had limited opportunity to get under the skin of the characters. And director Natalie Abrahami, and movement guru Anna Morrissey, deserve immense credit for orchestrating the party. Phoebe Fox has to portray a range of real, and fake, emotions as Anna and sometimes, much like the play itself, which has to support a number of themes inside its thriller structure, doesn’t quite manage to keepit together. But it is still impossible not to get immersed in the story, even if it warranted twice the length, and you never stop marvelling at what the Ringham boys are punching down your lugholes. Not sure I would want to experience theatre this way every day of the week, (the whole point is that this was not a communal experience), but, like Simon McBurney’s The Encounter, you need to try this once.
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.
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.
Right it was a brilliant idea last year. It was a brilliant idea this year. And it will be a brilliant idea next year (Directors’ Festival at the Orange Tree Theatre review). As part of their MA’s at the nearby St Mary’s University, (in close conjunction with the OT itself), let three talented young directors loose on some superb short contemporary plays written by three equally talented young playwrights. Let us la-di-dah local culture vultures and a bunch of the directors’ fellow students and mates enjoy the results. And charge just a few quid for the proceeds. The Orange Tree now is getting close to Almeida-like levels of consistency, it is a superb space to see intimate two and three handers like these and the works, whether new, recent or revival, are so well chosen that you wonder why others can’t seem to beat them to the punch.
Anyway here was a new play (Katie Johnstone) from the prolific pen of Luke Barnes who writes for and about you young-uns, a revival of the second published play from the brilliant Ella Hickson (Precious Little Talent), she of Oil and The Writer fame, written in 2012, and a production of Nina Segal’s first play (In the Night-Time) which premiered at the Gate in 2016. Unsurprisingly these are all very fine works. Perhaps also unsurprisingly given the quality of last years’ productions they are all amazingly well directed by, respectively, Samson Hawkins, Dominique Chapman and Evangeline Cullingworth. I can’t be sure, in the absence of scripts, just how much they had to work with in terms of the look, feel and pace of each of the plays but I have to say, in every case, these were as inventive and as dramatic solutions to the limitations that the OT space imposes that I could wish to see, or indeed have seen.
Samson Hawkins is AD of his own company, tomfool, and assisted on the recent OT production of Romeo and Juliet and appears to be joining the team at the Oxford Playhouse. Dominique Chapman assisted on Joe Whtie’s excellent debut play at the OT, Mayfly (Mayfly at the Orange Tree Theatre review *****) and is freelance and works at the Globe. Evangeline Cullingworth assisted on Humble Boy and is associated with the Royal Court and the Gate. On the strength of these three shows I expect them all to go far. They all worked with set designer Eleanor Bull and OT lighting and sound regulars Stuart Burgess and Anna Clock to deliver equally dynamic productions and to allow their talented casts to shine.
I am not sure if this was intended but it seemed to me that all three plays were linked in that they all dealt with the crushing of youthful dreams in one way or another.
The eponymous Katie Johnstone is determined not to end up stacking shelves in Tesco alongside Mum and her bessie, and taking up with any old local lad. She wants to get to college and start her own business. Exams, and not knowing what sort of business, are no barrier to her dreams. In the end she can’t escape but Georgia May Hughes, on her main stage debut, shows us a feisty and powerful young woman whose humanity shows through even when her hopes and dreams are dashed. Kristin Atherton who caught my eye in the RSC Rome season is very good as Mum and friend Janet and Reuben Johnson also shines as all the male characters and, especially, as the fox, a recurring and intelligently used symbolic presence. There is a real energy to the production and it packs a lot into just over an hour.
Precious Little Talent tells the story of fervent young American student Sam and somewhat mordant British expat Joey meeting in New York in 2008 just after the election of Obama. This is a night to remember for both of them though their memories don’t quite coincide it transpires. We see that Sam also helps look after his neighbour George who has dementia. It turns out that George is Joey’s Dad. Sam’s crush on Joey never fades and he comes to London to try to persuade her to come back to New York and give up on her going-nowhere jobs and life. There’s a lot more to it than that, as you might expect from the pen of Ella Hickson, as it explores the relationships between each of the three principals, contrasting Sam’s optimism with Joey’s disillusionment, the fracturing of the father/daughter bond and the frustrations of George’s illness. Not a line is wasted and Matt Jessup and Rebecca Collingwood are outstanding as the two young’ers with Simon Shepherd, (you will know him off the telly), lending George an air of deliberate pathos.
Nina Segal’s In the Night-Time is a more experimental play which follows one young couple’s sleepless night with their newborn baby. This is the jumping off point for a fantasia of words and movement telling the story of their relationship to this point, their hopes, fears, dreams, frustrations, all amplified by their extreme tiredness and centred on the child they have together brought into the world.. It is far from naturalistic but still manage to convey just how scary those first few days are with baby number one, (though the SO and MSMM would both fairly point out that I was f*ck all use all those years ago). Ms Cullingworth asks a lot of her actors and Man (Ziggy Heath) and, especially, Woman (Anna Leong Brophy) don’t hold back, pulling us, the audience, into their story. There is also some nifty work from the stage management team pushing prop after prop through the centre staged cot. It didn’t all come off but when it worked it packed a powerful emotional and dramatic punch.
I reckon all three of these productions would merit a further outing and I intend to watch the future careers of these directors, and the less experienced cast members here, with close interest. Put this in your diary for next year. You won’t regret it.
The Writer is …. an absolutely staggering piece of …. writing. No other way to say it. I’d wager there were a few punters in the audience that disagree with me but I think Ella Hickson, along with director Blanche McIntyre and the rest of the creative team, and an outstanding cast, have conjured up a masterpiece. In the same breath it provokes, educates and entertains. It deserves a much wider audience that the well-heeled punters like the Tourist who make up the Almeida throng. Whilst the Almeida may not immediately struck you as part of the solution to the problem of access for telling stories from women on stage, it was heartening to see this project realised there.
It starts with an impellent Lara Rossi, (who is more than a match for Romola Garai, superb as the eponymous Writer), playing a young actor/writer who, post performance, eloquently demolishes the lazy, sexist premises on which a complacent Samuel West’s direction is constructed. As she says theatre is “famous people, doing boring things badly”! Men are judged on what they produce, women on how fuckable they are. They have inevitably met before. We discover though that they are acting out the Writer’s text and sharply shift to a staged Q&A in which the nervous, tongue-tied Writer’s work is undermined by the “real” Director imperiously played by Michael Gould who praises its “promise” but inveigles against it lack of “structure”. Just who is going to watch this sort of stuff?
Scene two switches to the home of the Writer and partner, also Samuel West, who bullies and cajoles the Writer into agreeing to adapting her work into a film. It is all about him. She yearns for, and needs, more. The “biological clock” is invoked. The next, I think deliberately disorientating and galling, scene sees the Writer in a safe, supportive female only space, a jungle-y retreat of sorts, invoking Semele and other Origin mythological mumbo-jumbo (with some fantastic realisation from Richard Howell’s lighting, Emma Laxton’s sound and Zakk Hein’s video). Scene four sees the now confident Writer arguing with Michael Gould’s director about the play to date. He is viciously pulling the prior scene apart, whilst patronisingly banging on about the “rawness” of the opening. The final scene sees the writer with another partner, this time played by Lara Rossi. The compromises and imbalances of scene two are revisited.
From this structure Ella Hickson is able to explore fundamental arguments about how power, the patriarchy and contemporary capitalism, (as Lara Rossi’s character explains early on), affects, and infects, the creative process, art and the theatre and our relationships. It is a polemic of sorts, but Ms Hickson dissects her material, with fearless, supple and sceptical self-awareness. It confronts and confounds the audience, for sure, is intellectually reflexive, but avoids aggressive predictable dialectic. It revels in, and reveals, the artifice of theatre. Which in some ways makes Romola Garai’s performance, remember she has to convincingly “act” this all out, even more remarkable.
If thats sounds like a recipe for a dry evening, think again. The “drama” is delivered with real passion, even anger, with wit, and with a formal inventiveness, that left the Tourist with bum glued to his seat, ears straining, mouth open. Anna Fleischle’s design, (and the on-stage managers), intelligently accommodate the play’s inversions with repeated construction and de-construction. Ultimately though it is the control that Ella Hickson exerts over her themes, assisted by Blanche McIntyre, that makes this brilliant. It twists and turns but it knows exactly what it is doing and saying.
I learnt a lot. I recognise the behaviours exhibited by the men on stage here, especially Samuel West in the second scene. I don’t know how to avoid them. I do know I had to think very hard about what I would say about the play. It will make you want to argue. Ideally not while it is going on although maybe we should.
At one point, forgive me I forget when, the point is made that the Writer will move on to more established theatrical storytelling forms. Presumably this will be so for Ms Hickson thought I doubt she will write anything as powerful as this story about the struggle to tell women’s stories. Mind you Oil was a work of near genius in my book and also shows she isn’t going to fuck about with little subjects. I think she might just be the best and most challenging writer for the British stage right now. Ignore those who will say this is just irritating, indulgent self-therapy. They are wrong. Leave them to watch nonsense like that revival of Absolute Hell or Rattigan knock-offs. This is what theatre is all about.