Al Blyth is not your typical playwright. Having studied Econometrics and Mathematical Economics, (disciplines that spend an inordinate amount of time wishing away the presence of us unpredictable humans), he went on to work as a research economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, though the urge to dramatize never left him. Mind you I suspect the encouragement of his missus, Sam Holcroft, also a playwright (Rules for Living), helped. Still heartless policy wonking’s loss is our gain and Mr Blyth’s previous life certainly helped shaped The Haystack, his first full length play.
It is a gripper. Easy to say why HT’s new AD, Roxana Silbert, reserved this for her directing debut in her first season. (In fact she had already encountered Al Blyth’s work from her previous tenure at Plaines Plough). AB is, as we all should be, profoundly concerned about the potential for State overreach in our world, but, rather than serving up a ranting polemic to draw attention to this, he has written a thriller anchored in a love story and buddy banter. The setting is GCHQ, (which probably now knows more about you than you do yourself), where a couple of IT geeks, Zef (Enyi Okoronkwo) and Neil (Oliver Johnstone) have been seconded to rustle up some algorithm programmes (or some such) to test the efficacy of the agency’s databases. AB’s point is not that this vast network of information is being used for nefarious purposes, just that the UK, uniquely amongst developed democracies, and thanks to the cobbled together “constitution”, lacks the safeguards to prevent abuse.
We are plunged into the lads’ digital world, brilliantly realised through the kinetic set design of Tom Piper, the lighting of HT regular Rick Fisher, the sound design of the Ringham brothers and the video of Duncan McLean, (a line up more suited to this play is hard to imagine). Gradually it becomes clear to both the no-nonsense boss Hannah (Sarah Woodward) and us the audience that the boys are on to something, but it is when Neil, against Zef’s advice and the rules, starts stalking Cora Preece (Rona Morison) that things really hot up. For bolshie, but somewhat naive, Cora is a Guardian blogger/wannabe journalist, on the rebound from Rob (Oli Higginson), getting her teeth into a story involving Ameera (Sirine Saba), the ex-wife of a really dodgy Saudi businessman type, against the wishes of her seasoned home affairs editor Denise (Lucy Black). Things unsurprisingly turn nasty, as the boys stumble into the story, with much of the story told in flashback or through ingenious use of contiguous conversations (shout to the precise movement mapping of Wayne Parsons).
OK so, even with the pacy direction and invariant dialogue, it does go on a bit, and there are moments of Spooks like cliche, but the twists in the second half, and the multiple issues AB confronts, do ensure we forgive some of the blatancy of the set-up. And Rona Morison, who regular readers will know I have a very high regard for, manages to squeeze out ambiguity in her performance of Cora that simply isn’t there on the page. I can see why some punters might get snide-y about the play, but I was carried along by plot and direction, whilst still thinking about its message.
I can see why Tom Morton-Smith would have alighted on the infamous chess match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in 1972 in Reykjavik. There are a ton of tomes on the subject and, after all, if it was good enough to spark the imagination of the ABBA boys …..
A proxy for the Cold War, then at its height, the clash between two ideologies, the “chess machine” Spassky up against the “maverick genius” Fischer, maybe the greatest player of all. No wonder the world was enthralled by the contest in a way that chess has never repeated. Added to which was Fischer’s erratic personality, he was never formally diagnosed, but he left the US, dropped out of competitive chess for two decades after winning this World Championship, got into legal scuffles, and devoted much of his time to vicious anti-Semitism.
Plenty of scope for drama then. TM-S’s smash hit Oppenheimer, which the Tourist, annoyingly, never saw, it coinciding with his peak poorly, so please someone revive it soon, similarly dealt with heightened personal drama set against the backdrop of big geo-political stuff. Other earlier plays have also successfully ploughed the same furrow.
So why didn’t it quite lift off then? Well the action is concentrated on the hall in which the match took place and various ante, hotel and other rooms around this. No faulting the way in which Jamie Vartan’s design, Howard Harrison’s lighting, Philip Stewart’s composition and sound, Jack Phelan’s video and, especially, Mike Ashcroft’s movement all combine to bring animation and excitement to the various confrontations, between and within the two “teams”, and between Spassky and Fischer during and outside the game. All overseen by Annabelle Comyn’s rhythmic direction. The two lead performances are also vivid and credible, Ronan Raftery as the self-contained but somehow melancholic Spassky, and, especially, Robert Emms as the aggressive Fischer. He has a lot more “personality” to play with, drawn out in some striking scenes on the telephone to the voice of Henry Kissinger (Solomon Israel) and his Jewish mother Regina (Emma Pallant). The rest of the cast, (wisely opened up a bit gender wise as I am guessing the reality was almost entirely geezer), don’t have too much opportunity to delve into character though Philip Desmueles has a decent crack as the German chess arbiter Lothar Schmid as does Buffy Davis doubling as the US team, bumptious head honcho Fred Cramer and Bobby’s mentor Lina Grumette.
T M-S’s dialogue too is incisive, and light on forced exposition, though it can’t quite escape chess-y banter, and all of the controversies of the match are rehearsed, notably the bizarre requests and counter-requests that tried the patience of the stoical Icelandic organisers and which was borne of mutual paranoia, notably from Bobby. My favourite was the argument over the chairs.
Like I say it is a cracking story. But not quite a cracking play. For the problem is that, however good the staging and the text, this is a tale of repetitions, which diminish in their return to the audience across the near 3 hours of the play. The scenes may differ, and are, to repeat, entertainingly executed, but don’t really move the narrative on. And, of course, we know the ending. Which means the political and psychological context needs to be explored in more depth than here. We get a sense of the financial and ideological stakes, the way in which Fischer’s mind games undermined a Russian team with an eye on their own government’s reaction, (though Spassky was avowedly apolitical,) and an insight into Bobby’s own, damaged, neuroses, but nothing that really surprises, provokes or disturbs.
My guess is that, having focussed on bringing the “facts” to kinetic life, by the time T M-S went looking underneath the play was already “done”. It might have been more interesting to step outside the detail of the match itself and start elsewhere, in flash-back from Bobby’s later life maybe (though I see that is pretty cliched). The imagined scene between Bobby and his Icelandic bodyguard Saemundur Palsson (Gary Shelford), which lends the play its title, is perhaps a pointer to want might have been of TM-S had left the facts behind.
Us pensioners, well nearly in the case of the Tourist, as well as the real-dealers who haunt the matinees at which he largely frequents, are getting our eyes opened in Roxana Silbert’s first season as AD at the HT. Nothing fusty about the main stage offerings, what with scandal and corruption in China the subject of The King of Hell’s Palace, Cold War by proxy through chess in Ravens on now, and the threat from data capture and surveillance in Haystack to come. And this by Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill, a queer history set in a Renaissance Florence, plagued by, er, plague, centred on the artist Sandro Botticelli.
It starts well. Dickie Beau as Botticelli, who serves up as committed a performance as you could expect to see on this or any other stage, in skinny jeans and leather jacket, opens with a direct to audience confessional which broadsides the artist’s sybaritic outlook and the challenges his art and his sexuality present in a liberal state lurching towards repression. That is the message and James Cotterill’s costumes, and the artist studio set that soon emerges, do a grand job in bringing a contemporary resonance to that message, though don’t quite fill the space. Best of all this soliloquy is filthily funny. Mr Tannahill introduces Botticelli’s assistant, on Leonardo Da Vinci (a measured Hiran Abeysekera), and debauched bessie the vivacious Poggio Di Chiusi (Stefan Adegbola).
Leonardo of course apprenticed in the workshop of Verrocchio, as did Botticelli briefly, and I am pretty sure Poggio is fictional, but the combination serves the purpose well and reflects the fact that both artists were accused of sodomy when the moral clampdown led by radical Girolamo Savonarola (Howard Ward). Before we get to the pivotal scene, again based on fact, where Botticelli trades some of his work, to be consumed in the Bonfire of the Vanities of 1497, in return for immunity, we meet first Clarice Orsini (Sirine Saba). She is the outspoken wife of political and banking big cheese, and Botticelli’s patron, Lorenzo de Medici (Adetomiwa Edun), who it transpires is Botticelli’s lover, Clarice not Lorenzo, though one can imagine. Ms Saba also playa the Venus in that painting which Lorenzo has commissioned.
Plenty to get your dramatic teeth into you would think. The problem is that Mr Tannahill’s modern vernacular text isn’t really up to the task. His legitimate determination to stick with the hedonistic tone established at the outset and reinforce his queering of history intention means the plot starts to get overwhelmed by the spectacle and the arguments that the characters advance, the purpose of art, sexual freedom, the exercise of political and religious power, the mobilisation of parochial populism against the liberal elite, become perfunctory. I suppose there were clues in the opening address, “this is not just a play, it’s an extravaganza”, and “the historians, I’m sorry, you can all go and fuck yourselves”.
Jordan Tannahill is plainly a talented young man, turning his hand to all many of multi-media collaborations, but a play, particularly one which takes as its starting point a lesson from history, (however this is re-imagined), needs a solid grounding in the text. I loved the look and the performances, performance artist Dickie Beau has bags of stage presence, but even he was unable to demand any sustained emotional or intellectual investment from the audience. Blanche McIntyre’s pliant direction, with help from the lighting and sound designs of Johanna Town and Christopher Shutt, engineers some arresting scenes, a camp dance routine, a choreographed squash game, the burning, but cannot compensate for the sparsity of character and contention. In the end, the play, like its protagonist, is so in love with itself that it doesn’t really look out to see what is going on around it.
I am all for revivals of modern plays that have something to say to us right now. Assuming the play was good enough in the first place. And that the director and creative team have a clear idea of how they craft that relevance whilst still staying true to the time and place in which they were written. In my experience texts from the 1970s and before, or those written in the last 20 years, fare best in this regard but those through the 1990s, and especially the 1980s, pose the most headaches. Recreate or update? And this was, remember, a fertile period for drama after a decade or so of artistic stasis. Largely because us luvvies like nothing better than to censure society, politics and culture that shifts rightwards. Thatcherism was a heaven sent artistic opportunity.
This is the context in which Stephen Jeffreys, who passed away last year, wrote Valued Friends in 1989, which premiered at the Hampstead Theatre before a West End transfer. The original cast consisted of Peter Capaldi, Jane Horrocks, Serena Gordon, Tim McInnerney, Martin Clunes and Peter Caffrey. Four thirty-somethings, Marion (here Catrin Stewart), Paul (Sam Frenchum), Howard (Michael Marcus) and Sherry (Natalie Casey), have rented a flat in Earl’s Court then an up and coming, (they always are), part of London since meeting at uni. Posh developer Scott (Ralph Davies) wants to ponce up the block and sell on and makes them an offer he thinks they can’t refuse to get out. However the bourgeois Marion sees an opportunity to negotiate and persuades vacillating partner Paul, the relaxed in the paddock intellectual Howard and the impecunious motormouth Sherry to hold out. A few turns of the wheel later and Sherry is paid off, setting out to travel the world and find herself, and the other three have bought the flat at a discount to do it up, with the help of builder and homespun philosopher Stewart (Nicolas Tennant). High flyer Marion eventually cashes out after splitting up with man-child music journo Paul, who becomes ever more obsessed with making money from the property.
Sounds interesting eh. I can certainly see why director Michael Fentiman was drawn to reviving it and what the Rose and co-producer Original Theatre Company agreed. Especially when you consider Stephen Jeffrey’s reputation. The Libertine, which popped up at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2016 with Dominic Cooper in the lead, is probably his most famous play but Mr Jeffreys was as much teacher, in his roles at the Royal Court, as he was writer. Which, given his skill in pacing, character, structure and language, is unsurprising. Valued Friends is a very well built play, full of telling detail. I am just not sure this production fully reflected that or whether its line of attack would make sense to an audience who wasn’t there at the time it appeared. The nature of their relationship with “property” is rather different.
For trust me the desire to succeed, to get on, to make money, infected us all. And that was most obviously expressed in the delirium of property ownership. Of course that urge, that need, remains but a decade of single digit average price inflation and falling volume of transactions, despite cheap money, doesn’t compare to the madness of the late 1980s, peaking at over 30% in the year before SJ wrote Valued Friends. A group made up of a struggling journalist, a second rate stand up (Sherry), and admin worker (Marion) and a PhD student wouldn’t be contenders to buy a prime flat in inner West London today, but, trust me, there was nothing far fetched about this then for all the money illusion. SJ takes this phenomenon to make broader points about accumulation, credit, greed, the erosion of community, the rise of individualism and the failure of markets. There is more to his dialogue that meets the eye, or ear maybe, sorry mixed metaphors, but this is subtly woven in to a still credible story of friendship and relationships.
It is funny but it is not just a comedy. However it seems that Mr Fentiman didn’t quite trust that reading and decided to dial up the laughs. Now I gather Natalie Casey is best know for her work in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, Hollyoaks and West End musicals. All outside my ken I am afraid. She brings a feisty tenacity to Sherry, who keeps knocking at the comedy door despite making no money, but as an actor she is a bit full on and shouty. Conversely Ralph Davies’s reptilian Scott falters as the negotiation lengthens. And Nicolas Tennant’s turn as Stewart, whilst dissonantly amusing, rather distracts from an ending that already forces resolution. Sam Frenchum (so good in The Outsider adaptation at the Coronet), Michael Marcus and Catrin Stewart are much more sympathetic to the characterisation I think but still feel a little awkward at times, especially in the on-off relationship of the couple.
Michael Taylor’s set design, which shifts from student-y squalor to swish minimalism, does the job, and Madeleine Girling’s costume are spot on, but the lighting (Nic Farham) and sound (Richard Hammerton) are a bit too conspicuous.
Happy enough, especially for my tenner investment here, but couldn’t help thinking what it would be like to see a production of a play by Mr Jeffreys that really hit home.
This was an interesting choice as the first production in Roxana Silbert’s inaugural season at the Hampstead Theatre. A play based on a true story about corruption scandal in China. From a US playwright, (who spent part of her childhood living in China), Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, with an established reputation: her play The World Of Extreme Happiness, which covers similar ground, and offers similar criticism as TKOHP, came to the National in 2013. Directed by veteran director Michael Boyd, (last here with Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide …., and on top form with Tamburlaine at the RSC last year). With a largely British East Asian cast, (though the one exception, US import Celeste Den, understandably attracted some ire given the paucity of BEA casting generally in UK theatre).
Yet the biggest surprise of all was just how clunky the play was. It is an ambitious story well worth telling, no doubt about that,. but to tell it Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig lays on the exposition with a veritable trowel. In the first half especially character after character is made to explain what is happening in momentum-throttling detail. Often for no good reason as it really isn’t that difficult to fathom what is going on. OK so maybe the multiple doubling, and more, of roles starts off as being a little confusing, and I guess part of the aim of the explanation is to delineate each character, but the main players quickly emerge. Ms Den plays Yin Yin, an expert in epidemiology at a Ministry of Health institute. Christopher Goh is her initially supportive, but ultimately pusillanimous, scientist husband Shen. Kok-Hwa Lie is his brother and Yin-Yin’s boss Kuan, who oversees the dastardly scheme, driven by avarice and Party loyalty, and Millicent Wong is Jasmine, the Lady Macbethian nurse who becomes his shameless sidekick.
This four also play members of the extended family of farmers, alongside Aidan Cheng, Tuyen Do, veteran actor Togo Igawa and Vincent Lai, which is destroyed by the get-rich-quick scandal. In 1989 blood plasma collection stations spring up rapidly in rural China to sell to local blood product companies. By 1992, when TKOHP begins, the practice has spread to Henan province with the samples eventually being exported to an unscrupulous US pharma company. Peasants and local officials are rapidly enriched. But this leads to the rapid spread of Hepatitis C and HIV infection. Even after the industry is regulated. Cover ups follow. The State finally admits to the extent of HIV/AIDS in the early 2000s. Even so another blood plasma and vaccine scandal erupts in early 2019. All this was documented by Dr Wang Shuping, on whom the character of Yin Yin is based, and who, like the character, was finally forced to flee China for the US. As you will surmise the good doctor, who I gather attended the emotional press night, is not especially well liked by the Chinese state who would rather the play disappeared.
Like I say good story with relevance beyond its setting. But to pack its many short scenes in to a couple of hours ex interval, required substantial inventiveness on the part of Michael Boyd, movement director Liz Ranken and the rest of the creative team, notably Colin Grenfell’s lighting. Entrances and exits come thick and fast from the central opening at the back of Tom Piper’s sparse set, from side doors and from either side of the stalls. This is accelerated by a cunning pair of moving walkways that run through the middle of the stage, and offer visual metaphor at crucial points. Myriad costume changes are largely achieved off stage and props carted on and off by the cast. It is a triumph of logistics but, along with the expository overload in dialogue described above, does rather come at the expense of character insight.
Even so, given the enthusiasm of the cast, the intricacy of the staging and as the true extent of the crime is laid bare in the second half, it is difficult not to be carried along by the narrative of greed. It isn’t Ibsen’s Enemy of the People (more of that soon – watch this space) but it is shocking and it does highlight Yin Yin’s bravery and the sacrifice she is prepared to make. And it is clearly written and made by people who care which counts for a lot.
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.
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.
Should you be tempted to follow the Tourist into a life of excess …. theatre-going … then I have a warning. These luvvies do put on a lot of Shakespeare. No surprise there I guess. But they also really, really love their Chekhov. As will you after prolonged exposure. But I had not realised just how much there is lurking about. Particularly when you remember there are only really five full plays to choose from. There are a also handful of one-acters and “Platonov”, but basically you are going to get to know these five pretty quickly, particularly when you consider that, whisper it, they all explore similar themes in similar settings. Mind you, given the day-job as a doctor and the billions of short stories he wrote you could never say our Anton was an idler.
It’s the tragic-comedy thing I think. That’s what the directors, casts and, obviously, us audiences are attracted to. And the fact that there are so many layers. And that the characters, even if they are of a certain class at a certain time in a certain place, grapple with the real stuff of life. In short they spend a lot of time basically f*cking it up in one way or another, as we all do. The misery of dashed expectation.
The Chekhov industry also benefits from the seemingly unquenchable desire of other playwrights to adapt his dramas. Not just new works in some way drawn from or inspired by the great man, but countless new adaptations generally now taken directly from literal translations, which the dramatists have then stamped their own ideas, idiom and style on. And I am only talking about the English versions. Samuel Adamson, Torben Betts, Ranjit Bolt, Martin Crimp, Michael Frayn, Brian Friel, Pam Gems, Peter Gill, Christopher Hampton, David Hare, David Harrower, Robert Icke, David Lan, Mike Poulton, Carol Rocamora, Simon Stephens, Tom Stoppard and Nicholas Wright. That’s just the playwrights I have heard of. A very illustrious list I am sure you will agree.
This diversion was sparked by an interesting essay in the programme which looks at the translation and adaptation process and, in particular, how necessary or desirable it is to stay close to the language and/or spirit of Chekhov’s original text. Given AC’s ability to capture the universal, as well as the very particular, I can see why this continues to be a source of immense fascination to these clever and talented people.
Particularly when you consider the fact that this play, Uncle Vanya, is itself based on AC’s own earlier play The Wood Demon. This was written in 1889 though never published but sufficient manuscripts survived and many patient Russian theatre companies have given it a go. AC was pressured into writing it by his publisher Aleksey Suvorin who also contributed plot and even some text. By all accounts he was a bit rubbish but when he lost interest AC kept going and, after it was rejected by three theatres, The Wood Demon eventually got a showing only to be crucified by critics and (small) audiences alike. AC though didn’t give up on it, retaining two-thirds of the text but cutting the cast back to 9 main characters, (previously many of these had “doubles’ of one sort or another), upping the autobiographical contribution, (prevalent in all the plays), reworking Suvorin’s nepotistic bequest and stripping out a load of poncey literary references. And changing a crucial bit of plot, from a successful to a failed, suicide. Result? Well not quite overnight success,Uncle Vanya had a few provincial outings and a bit of a run in with the censors before the triumphant opening in Moscow, but it is, arguably, his most perfect work.
It was probably then only a matter of time before Terry Johnson joined the roll call of other very clever playwrights listed above and had his own shot at Chekhov. Here he upped the interpretative stakes by taking on the role of director as well, (and casting daughter Alice Bailey Johnson as Sonia). My regular reader will know that I am more than favourably disposed to the work of Mr Johnson, despite being a relatively late-comer, with his last original outing, Prism, in this very house, turning into one of those plays that continues to pop up in the memory.
Well he unashamedly opts for the traditional when it comes to the setting, though Tim Shortall’s design cleverly morphs the interior and exterior of stylised dacha with silver birches, and Ben Ormerod’s lighting attractively rings the diurnal and seasonal changes. And there is some mighty fine tailoring on show. The production thus continues the HT’s long run of exquisite sets. (Mind you, having set up the look of fin de circle rural Russia, the soundscape of Emma Laxton doesn’t do much to offer an aural equivalent). TJ has no truck with any of, for example, the modish Anglicisation of Robert Icke’s Vanya at the Almeida. The language is simple, direct and idiomatic. “Modest” is what Terry Johnson, in his own words, set out to achieve and a modest production is what he delivers.
Whilst this might, at times, leave a little bit of the characters’ complexity of motive of the table it does make for a beautifully crisp plot development. Who does what to whom is very easy to grasp and this leaves plenty of headspace to ponder why they do what they do. AC famously said he was better at writing middles than ends and beginnings and this straight reading emphasises that and doesn’t encourage too much in the way of contextual or historical analysis. It is though very funny. Mr Johnson is alert to the humour in Chekhov and, as director, he can, er, direct us towards it. Whilst still showing up the vulnerabilities and venoms that lie behind it.
Alan Cox is a perky, self-aware Vanya. He can’t resist conspiratorially pointing out the failings of others though he well knows his own. He could have been a contender but now he is mordantly shuffling towards …. nothingness. Robin Soans as Serebryakov is fall of flatulent entitlement and Kirsty Oswald, who stepped in at the last minute to replace debutant Abbey Lee, is an unusually sensitive Yelena. (Apparently she kicked off with script in hand in which case she has come a very long way very quickly. Bravo). Alice Bailey Johnson similarly gives us a Sonya who is more assertive than normal, completing, with June Watson’s Marina, a triumvirate of women who bear the burden of supporting their various menfolk. Kika Markham also turns in a solid performance as Maryia, blindly in thrall to her son-in-law’s feeble academic reputation, as does Alec Newman as pickled idealist doctor, and babe magnet by geographical isolation, Astrov, and David Shaw-Parker as the permanently chipper hanger-on Telyeghin.
The Tourist caught one of the last performances, which, in a classic as richly textured as this, is normally not a bad idea. which means it’s gone now. However, if you are still a Vanya virgin don’t despair, (at least not at all you see it). Just like the 38 bus there be another one along shortly.
Right even by the standards of the drivel that the Tourist usually posts on this site this is an utter waste of your and my time. Weeks too late, built on flaky foundations of understanding and appreciation and precious little use to anyone. Except maybe me that is, as an aide memoire. You can find my thoughts on these shows elsewhere on this site, if you can be arsed.
I have also appended a list of the top ten plays, so far announced, that I am looking forward to seeing this year in a desperate attempt to beef up the content. Some marginal utility in that maybe. Or maybe not.
BTW you can, and should, see The Lehman Trilogy at the Piccadilly Theatre from May through August. You can, and really should, see Caroline, or Change at the Playhouse Theatre right now. The good people of Edinburgh can see Touching the Void and it will go to Hong Kong, Perth and Inverness before coming back to Bristol. I bet it pops up in London. And, if you are in NYC, and haven’t yet seen Network, jump to it.
Network – National Theatre
John – National Theatre
The Wild Duck – Almeida Theatre
The Lieutenant of Inishmore – Noel Coward Theatre
The Writer – Almeida Theatre
The Lehman Trilogy – National Theatre
Touching the Void – Bristol Old Vic
Julius Caesar – Bridge Theatre
Death of a Salesman – Manchester Royal Exchange
Caroline, or Change – Playhouse Theatre
Near misses? Girls and Boys at the Royal Court, Cheek By Jowl’s Pericles, The Phlebotomist (now coming back to the main stage at Hampstead – do not miss), Nine Night (at Trafalgar Studios from February), Quiz, Love and Information at Sheffield’s Crucible Studio, Copenhagen at Chichester, Henry V from Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, The Jungle (support the two Joes in their plan to put this in front of the Home Secretary !!) and The Madness Of George III at Nottingham Playhouse.
What about this year? Take your pick from these if you trust my judgement. Which would be a surprise. No particular order BTW. There’s a few big tickets missing from this (When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, All About Eve, Betrayal, All My Sons). Like I said it’s what I am most looking forward to.
Sweat – Donmar Warehouse. Too late to get in now except for returns but this may well pop up elsewhere.
Mother Courage and Her Children – Manchester Royal Exchange. Julie Hesmondhalgh as Brecht’s survivor.
A Skull in Connemara – Oldham Coliseum. For my fix of McDonagh.
Cyprus Avenue – Royal Court. Finally I will get to see this.
Medea – Barbican Theatre. Internationaal Theater Amsterdam bring Simon Stone’s Euripides to London with best female actor in the world Marieke Heebink.
Berberian Sound Studio – Donmar Warehouse. How the hell are they going to make this work?
Top Girls – National Theatre. Caryl Churchill. Enough said.
Three Sisters – Almeida Theatre. Best of the Chekhov offerings.
Death of a Salesman – Young Vic. Miller, Elliott, Pierce, Clarke, Kene. Best play of 2019?
Blood Wedding – Young Vic. Lorca given the Farber treatment.
Oh and Antipodes, Annie Baker’s latest. Obviously.