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.

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

jamaica-655083_1920

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.