A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter at the Bridge Theatre review ****

andersen-hc

A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter

Bridge Theatre, 13th October 2018

OK then. All of you fans of densely-plotted, cerebral, potty-mouthed, fairy-tale, political, splatter, revenge, comedy fantasies. Your ship has come in.

I have a strong feeling that Martin McDonagh’s new play at the Bridge will, in years to come, form the basis for many a Theatre and Drama Studies students’ dissertation. Let’s just say he doesn’t hold back here. All of his tics, tropes and obsessions are on show: moral instability, savage humour, verbal aggression, twisted irony, brutal violence, calculated abuse, punishment, justice and revenge, inversions, post-modernist borrowings, self-reverence, complex allusion, high and low art juxtapositions, exaggerations, call-backs, call-forwards and protean plot twists.

In a word: meta.

Once again he is pushing the audience, deliberately transgressive, a kind of theatrical meta-regression to keep us on our toes, but this time, unlike the best of his work, it doesn’t quite hang together on first viewing. The rhythm of the language is less immediately persuasive, less precise, (even allowing for a few timing issues at this early performance). It cannot be missed mind you, and it may be that the production will tighten up through the run, but overall I found it a little less convincing than Hangmen or The Lieutenant of Inishmore, or Three Billboards … or In Bruges. In these the intricate plotting and more naturalistic settings make for a more satisfying whole. On the other hand AVVVDM might turn out to have more intellectual depth: I am simply not clever enough to take it all in on one viewing. Probably closest to Seven Psychopaths for you students of MM, a film even he described as maybe a bit too meta, but one which I think gets better on repeated viewing.

AVVVDM is drawn from Mr McDonagh’s 1995 play The Pillowman, which was first performed in 2003 at the NT and also starred Jim Broadbent, (who plays Hans Christian Anderson in AVVVDM), as cop Tupolski, alongside David Tennant, Nigel Lindsay and Adam Godley. In this play a writer, living in an unspecified totalitarian theocracy, is accused of murders which mimic the plots of his own fairy tales. It is a bit Gothic, it captures the power of literature, there’s some Kafka going on, the ethical dilemma is fascinating if a little forced, of course there is violent imagery and of course there is humour.Like all of McDonagh’s plays The Pillowman’s morality is slippery, though not really ambiguous; it is normally pretty clear what he is saying, just that its compass is oscillating so rapidly between perspectives of right and wrong that we in turn start to lose our bearings.

Once again it he world of “fairy tales” that forms the starting point for AVVVDM. In fact the “plot” looks to be drawn from The Shakespeare Room, which Michal, Katurian’s damaged brother, references in The Pillowman. In this story it turns out that Shakespeare’s plays were written by a pygmy woman he kept in a box. MM has described in the past, reiterated in the programme here, how he made up fairy tales in his teens for his older brother John. One of these formed the basis for another of Katurian’s stories in The Pillowman, The Tale of the Town on the River, which tells how the Pied Piper “saved” one of the children by chopping off his toes. And so fairy tales get darker and darker with the telling.

AVVVDM kicks off with Hans Christian Andersen giving a contrived recital of The Little Mermaid. Now it turns out that the real HCA was an awkward character, abused at school, with unrequited longings for men and women but likely celibate. One of the objects of his affections, Edvard Collin (Lee Knight), is in the crowd in this opening scene. And, incongruously, also there, well there in HCA’s mind, cue the scary music, are a couple of blood encrusted, walking and talking, corpses, Barry (Graeme Hawley) and Dirk (Ryan Pope), sporting fine moustaches. Well this is a fairy tale after all. Cut to the attic of HCA’s townhouse where, surprise, surprise, we discover that he has a secret, namely a Congolese pygmy, Marjory, in a box, who is writing his stories.

All this is accompanied by a gravelly narration from none other than Tom Waits. From here MM weaves together the genocide in the Congo Free State in the late C19 with the real life friendship of Charles Dickens (Phil Daniels) and HCA, which unravelled when HCA overstayed his welcome on a visit in 1857. I’ll stop there. Let’s just say the plot plays fast and loose with fact, fiction and time.

I guess MM’s main thrust is to contrast the near unbelievable horror of King Leopold II’s direct, private rule of the Congo from 1885 to 1908, where maybe ten million died, and which scarred the country through Belgian colonial rule, and post independence, with the pygmy population suffering most, (as it still does today), with the maudlin tales of innocence and virtue standing fast against corrupting forces of both HCA and Dickens. It is hard to avoid the stories told by the latter, they permeate Western culture: the barbarous reality of the former though, a couple of decades later, and far worse than anything imagined in fiction, is still barely known by many, including me until now.

The fact that MM tells this story in the form of a comedy, in an expletive-ridden contemporary vernacular, is only to be expected from MM. Casting Jim Broadbent and Phil Daniels, who are, by virtue of career and demeanour, are distinctively Dickensian, is surely no accident. After all a new MM script will pretty much guarantee any actor from his roster of favourites will sign up, sight unseen. Both went all out for laughs, many of which were at the broad end of the subtlety scale. Emily Berrington, as she so often does, near steals the scenes she is in as the earthy Mrs Catherine Dickens. I loved the sweary kids as well. Paul Bradley, as the inexplicit Press Man, also turned in his customarily fine performance.

However the play would not be possible without the formidable Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles as Marjory, (and later Ogechi, you’ll see). From the moment she emerged from the box, suspended from the ceiling in Anna Fleischle’s amazing set, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. This was BUD, and KCK’s, first exposure to the wonderful and frightening world of Martin McDonagh. The SO was converted at Hangmen. When we emerged, not a little bewildered, after the 90 minutes, we debated the play long into the night. OK then maybe not long into the night, but certainly as long as it took to have a drink, some rarebit (highly recommended) and some madeleines, in the excellent Bridge foyer. Anyway BUD, being the analytical sort of chap he is, couldn’t get over the fact that the play could only exist with Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles in the role. Surely it must have been written for her?

I agree. But not for the obvious reasons of appearance. Simply because she is an outstanding actor. Sardonic, bitter, vengeful, powerful yet also vulnerable, compassionate and forlorn. Don’t get me wrong she delivers plenty of killer (literally) comic lines but she also carries the entire weight of the emotional and political substance of the play on her shoulders. This is her professional debut. Extraordinary.

Now director Matthew Dunster, and Anna Fleischle, have previous with Martin McDonagh, having brought the Royal Court production of Hangmen into being. (Mr Dunster also has form with HCA, directing the Pet Shop Boys’ ballet adaptation of his story The Most Incredible Thing. Messrs Tennant and Lowe know a thing or two about stagecraft challenges but they are not a patch on MM).

Even so I suspect director and designer, and the rest of the creative team, James Maloney (music), Philip Gladwell (lighting), George Dennis (sound), Chris Fisher (illusions), Finn Ross (video) and Susanna Peretz (wigs and prosthetics), must have rolled their collective eyes at their first meeting. How were they going to make this leap of mischievous imagination from page to stage? Impressively, as it turns out.

So you see the thing with MM is there is just so much there. So many echoes yet uniquely his own voice. Scorsese, Malick, Pinter, Tarantino, Synge, Le Fanu, Mamet, Beckett, Borges, punk. Insert your own thoughts here. I for one really what to believe he likes The Fall.

A master story-teller. With maybe, in this case, not quite a master story. It might annoy you. It might frustrate you. It might provoke you. It might overwhelm you with “WTF” moments. It should make you laugh, (assuming you know a little of what you are letting yourself in for). It will certainly make you think. And you definitely won’t forget it in a hurry.

Machinal at the Almeida Theatre review ****

machinal-1928-setting-cell

Machinal

Almeida Theatre, 27th June 2018

I always like to do as much reading as I can before seeing a play. Reviews, synopses, articles, cross referencing creatives to previous work. You get the idea. The SO however will have none of that, preferring to go in cold and then see what she makes of it. And so it was with Machinal at the Almeida. Which made it a great deal more fun for me when I asked her after we came out to guess when it was written. She guessed the 1980s and was taken aback when I told her that Sophie Treadwell wrote this, her most famous and provocative play, in 1928.

For the most striking thing about the play is its modernity. It has an Expressionist structure, with nine scenes (“episodes”) and 29 characters telling the story of A Young Woman, (named Helen Jones we learn at the end), from her dull office job as a stenographer who lives with her Mother, through to her trial and execution after she murders her Husband, George H. Jones. It is inspired by the notorious real-life case of Ruth Snyder, but Sophie Treadwell significantly changes the facts of that case to portray the Young Woman as, in part, a victim of the mores of the patriarchal society she lived in. This is what has made the play relevant to later generations as this woman’s story could have been told yesterday. The rhythm of the dialogue, the choice of scenes, the motivations of the character,s all display a formal invention that was apparently not so apparent in most of Ms Treadwell’s other, more prosaic, plays (there are 39 in total). Her prime concern though in these plays, and in her short stories and journalism (which also took in sport, theatre and WWI), is the place of women in contemporary society, specifically in the domestic and economic spheres, the role of journalism and questions of race, all of which are addressed here.

Interest in her work waned after her death but has increased over the last three decades or so with major revivals of Machinal. It is easy to see why for this is a startling play. Not just in the story, which is gripping enough, and in the message, a powerful indictment, but in the way in which Ms Treadwell structured the play. I have to think there must be valuable creative opportunity in the rest of her dramatic oeuvre based on this.

No surprise to see this play paired in this Almeida spring/summer season with Ella Hickson’s brilliant The Writer (The Writer at the Almeida Theatre review *****). They both subvert dramatic form in order to express controlled fury at the way women’s desires and creativity are crushed by the expectations of men. And both remember to deliver their ideas in a thrillingly entertaining way.

Director Natalie Abrahami locates this production at the opening in a recognisably late 1920’s America but thereafter adds timeless twists to reinforce how little has changed. Miriam Buether’s set is framed, (in a way similar to The Twilight Zone on this stage), so that each scene is viewed through a window as it were, which, in turn, is reflected by a mirror angled above the stage. This creates a suitably claustrophobic atmosphere and allows for some dramatic contrasts between each scene, (and some extraordinarily quick work by the stage management team at the Almeida led here by Kate McDowell who could give a Formula 1 pit stop crew a run for their money). The opening scene, rows of typewriters and desks, is a tour de force as the Young Woman’s colleagues gossip and bicker as she is hauled up before the boss who eventually becomes her Husband.

The rapid fire dialogue is matched by the superb sound design of the Ringham brothers and lighting of young Jack Knowles, (together these might just be my favourite sound and lighting team especially when it comes to more uninhibited shows). All this sound and rhythm is written into Sophie Treadwell’s text which is astoundingly modernist. Subsequent scenes, at home with Mother, as the Young Woman talks herself into the doomed marriage, in the hotel room on the honeymoon night, especially queasy, in the bar where the Young Woman, helping out a colleague on a double “date’ begins her ill-fated affair with a Man, through to the courtroom scenes and the execution, are also brilliantly realised. There is so much that the Almeida gets right which makes it the best theatre in London right now, but the quality and imagination of the design is always just amazing.

Emily Berrington is spot on as the Young Woman. She is simultaneously the author of her own fate, (the real life Ruth Snyder was the instigator of her husband’s murder egging on her lover), with agency, but also sometimes apparently meek, helpless, naive, accepting, submissive even. She is disgusted by her work and husband but, when offered a way out of the trap, she seizes it, albeit with tragic consequences. The murder is not shown. It is simply the consequence of her escape from the inexorable social and economic forces that weigh down on her. She falls in love, real passion, but, here too, she is eventually disappointed and disillusioned.

Denise Black as her caustic Mother, husband long gone, is from a generation with absolutely no opportunity and sees an “economic” marriage as her daughter’s only path. Jonathan Livingstone as the smothering Husband sees her as a trophy and baby-maker with no interest in her thoughts, ideas or well-being. The Doctor, (Andrew Lewis), in the hospital where she gives birth to the daughter she doesn’t want is a patronising tosser. Her lover (Dwane Walcott) offers excitement, a path to an imagined new life, but you know his interest in her is transient, and he soon takes her for granted too.

Machinal means mechanical or automatic in French and this is what Sophie Treadwell seeks to reveal, the trapped automaton. The art of the 1910s and 1920s was preoccupied with the rapid social and economic change brought on by the rise of the machine. Yet this crushing imperative is contrasted by a series of emotional monologues delivered by the Young Woman which describe her resistance and which only theatre can proffer. I was struck by the resemblance to Alice Birch’s outstanding Anatomy of a Suicide shown at the Royal Court Downstairs directed by Katie Mitchell. Another breathtakingly original, formally experimental, superbly staged dissection of female entrapment with a tragic, repeated, outcome. That too didn’t need swathes of expositional dialogue to get the story across, just rapid, vivid exchanges. Yet that was written in 2015 not 1928.

So another hit for the Almeida. Next up is Dance Nation which is probably not for me but I can’t wait to see what Rupert Goold and the team have up their sleeve for the autumn/winter season.