Machinal at the Almeida Theatre review ****

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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.

 

Cave at the Printworks review ****

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Cave

The Printworks, Surrey Quays, 23rd June 2018

Cave is the second collaboration between composer Tansy Davies and librettist Nick Drake. Their last work, Between Worlds, which took as its subject the Twin Towers on 9/11, was superb. It was an immensely moving and sensitive elegy which focussed on the last conversations with loved ones of just five victims trapped together on one floor watched over by a benign Shaman or spirit, superbly directed by Deborah Warner. The audience I saw it with was floored (even if a couple of jaded critics were a bit sniffy).

I have since heard a few of Ms Davies’s very fine works including the premiere of her Concerto for four horns, entitled Forest. She has a way of finding the right shape, sound or phrase to match the intent and mood of her music, without ever serving up the obvious or banal. There is a rhythmic underpinning which I think reflects her familiarity with popular music genres, especially funk and post-rock. Her music can be muscular, industrial if you will, but, equally, she is capable of great lyricism. In more recent commissions she has been afforded the opportunity to work at a larger scale, but there is still a chamber like intimacy to her work, even when it is belting out in full on forte. In short she has the gift, and, even if contemporary classical music isn’t your bag, in fact maybe especially if contemporary classical music isn’t you bag, I defy you not to hear it.

She is also pretty keen on conveying a message in her music. As is librettist Nick Drake. Cave is set in a world disfigured by ecological catastrophe. A man (Mark Padmore) stumbles into a cave. He probably nibbles on some crazy mushrooms. He remembers his daughter Hannah, played and sung by Elaine Mitchener, and, when young, played by Akilah Mantock at my performance. Her spirits fills the cave. That is pretty much the long and the short of it. There are seven scenes in total beginning with the entry of the audience into The Lost River which runs through the cave.

The Printworks in Surrey Quays used to be where the Evening Standard was printed in the pre-digital era. It is a cavernous industrial space, as I discovered on my pre-prandial hike to the loo just ahead of the opening of the opera, which plays host to a variety of events, united in there “alternative” vibe. Perfect for this work. The audience was lined up along both sides of a very narrow, very long space in Mike Britton’s set, covered with, I think, wood bark. and with the seven members of the London Sinfonietta at one end and vast plastic hanging “doors” at the other. It was largely left to the marvellous lighting of Jack Knowles, who despite looking about 5 years old, has a massively impressive list of credits behind him, to conjure up the required magic, along with a sound design from, usual culprits, Sound Intermedia, as well as the electronics of Tansy Davies and Rolf Wallin.

Even with the principals moving up and down the space there were times when the “action” was a bit “laterally compromised”, especially for those of us pig-headed enough to go right along to the end where the ensemble was positioned. On the other hand this perch did afford a perfect insight into all the moving parts of the score, and, at one key point, the vocal pyrotechnics of Elaine Mitchener. She is not your opera mezzo diva. Thank goodness. Usually to be found in repertoire which is even more boundary-pushing than this, she has an extraordinary range of expression. I was spell-bound. For those of us who are regular listeners to Bach, Britten and Baroque, Mark Padmore needs no introduction at all. Here his singing was predictably exquisite. He also put in an acting shift as the Man plagued by his memories and a world that has literally fallen apart around him. I also suspect this won’t be the last I see of the precocious ten year old Akilah Mantock – no fear at all in what must have seemed a slightly odd role when she went to the audition.

Mr Drake’s other job is a poet. No kidding. The second scene, the Echoes, starts out with the Man hearing Hannah’s voice before he goes into an astonishing quasi aria describing his journey into the cave. This is when we see the connection that Ms Davies and Mr Drake intended to make to some of the very first human impacts on the earth. Apparently they went for a trip to have a peek at cave paintings in Niaux in the Pyrenees, which proved a crucial inspiration. I am not surprised, this is where art and nature recognisably first collided.

Scene three, the Cave of Birds, has the Man describing the onset of ecological catastrophe, and some sort of vision, scene four, The Mirror Cracks, is a “rave of agony” as the Man recalls losing Hannah, who “responds” by singing the last part of his “song” backwards. The Tree of Shadows starts with the Man and Hannah remembering a past holiday and then Hannah going a bit preachy as she describes how she wants to save the world from the havoc wrought by the generations which preceded her. A powerful instrumental interlude (with electronics I think) follows, The Storm, which then gives way to a lullaby shared by the two principals which shows off their superb singing. The final scene The River sees the man leaving the cave, presumably to die, but probably healed.

This is an epic myth, or more exactly a parable, and, in that, I was reminded of Britten’s Church Parables, which I don’t think were a direct inspiration, but, for me, have a similar vibe. The scoring is sparse, under the expert baton of Geoffrey Paterson, with most of the colour coming from the winds and brass, the clarinet/bass clarinet of Timothy Lines, contra bassoon of John Orford and horn of Michael Thompson, contrasted with the prominent harp of Helen Tunstall, set against a sort of continuo from Jonathan Morton’s violin and Enno Senft’s double bass. Elaine Mitchener gets to give a hefty whack to a drum at one point and, as I have said, electronics and some other sound effects (plenty of echo) play a major part. Overall you have no difficulty in musically distinguishing the scenes, there are some breathtaking sounds here and no little drama. I was not entirely convinced about the articulation between music, words and message but that probably says more about my pessimism than the creative talent on show here. It is certainly not the fault of director Lucy Bailey.

I don’t want to get more frightened of, and helpless about, the world around me as I get older, but it seems to be happening nonetheless. It certainly does feel like we humans are accelerating towards our inevitable extinction event despite the apparent gift of consciousness. Mother Earth will get over us I suppose. Anyway it is good that Tansy Davies and Nick Drake are not engulfed by this sort of negativity and prepared to make an ambitious stand of sorts in their art. It is also good that they are not cynical about all things “spiritual”. As this piece is sub-titled, courtesy of modern day environmental shaman and prodigious psychedelic drug-taker Terence McKenna, “Nature loves courage”.

At the end, Ms Davies was zipping by to thank the performers. I briefly thanked her. No doubt she thought I was a nutter so apologies but I felt compelled to offer up my appreciation. Thank you.

 

 

Parliament Square at the Bush Theatre review *****

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Parliament Square

Bush Theatre, 6th December 2017

As a few slightly unkind people have pointed out most of the “reviews” I somewhat sadly post on this “blog” are worse than useless as, more often than not, they appear after the event. Fair criticism but I can’t be toddling off to everything in the first week and I judge that most plays at least are best seen about two thirds of the way through. If they have flaws by then, they can be corrected where possible, or parts excised if really necessary. Cast can get the full measure of character and interaction, timings, pauses and rhythm honed. So I reckon I will get more for my money. So yah boo to you.

In this case though I am doing you a favour. Parliament Square runs until 6th January having first appeared at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, there are plenty of tickets left and full price is just twenty quid. The main space at the Bush is airy, comfy and sightlines are terrific. Oh and it is a mightily good play, with an excellent cast, skilfully directed by emerging talent Jude Christian. It has an absorbing central concept, just how far will an individual go to protest against injustice, is formally inventive, each of the three sections has some sort of clever conceit, and it is very well written by James Fritz. It is probably fair to say that the ending is a little too calculated. On the other hand the first section, in large part thanks to exceptional performances from Esther Smith and Lois Chimimba, is as exhilarating a piece of theatre as I have seen this year.

The play won the Judges Award for Playwriting in the¬†Bruntwood Prize in 2015 and, like other plays I have seen which have been recognised here, it has that spark of invigorating originality from the outset which characterises the best new writing. Kat (Esther Smith) gets up one morning, skips work, leaves her husband and young daughter behind, gets the train to London, and commits a premeditated, dramatic, act of self sacrifice. Through the first act, Fifteen Seconds, she is, literally, coached by her conscience in the form of Lois Chimimba, (last seen by me in the unfairly maligned Common, in Peter Pan and in the excellent Diary of A Madman at the Gate). Lois Chimimba also doubles up as Jo, Kat’s sullen teenage daughter in the final act, Fifteen Years. I expect she, and Esther Smith, will go on to bigger, (and maybe even better), things as they are both superb actors.

Kat “fails” in her protest thanks to an intervention by Catherine, another excellent performance from Seraphina Beh. In the second act, Fifteen Steps, we see Kat, vividly and painfully, reconstructing her life and explaining why she did what she did to husband (a perplexed Damola Adelaja), mother (a bluntly perceptive Joanne Howarth) and health professionals (a sympathetic doctor in Jamie Zubairi and demanding physiotherapist in Kelly Hotten) as well as, eventually, to Catherine herself. The rest you can see for yourself.

James Fritz’s writing is very spare but very accurate. We never get to know exactly what Kat is protesting against but it doesn’t matter. We do get to contemplate why someone might choose this idealistic course to try to make a difference, why some might be inspired and some revulsed and why some might see this as futile and selfish. Jude Christian’s direction, (along with Fly Davis’s design, lighting from Jack Knowles, sound from Ben and Max Ringham and movement from Jennifer Jackson), is perfectly matched to the text. There is nothing extraneous here but the required ambiguity about the wisdom of such action is brilliantly conveyed.

James Fritz’s previous plays (The Fall, Comment is Free, Ross and Rachel and Four Minutes and Twelve Seconds) have garnered significant acclaim. I can see why. This is great theatre, well executed. You will come out likely annoyed by some of the behaviour of the characters, but, that is kind of the point given the subject. I think you will admire both writing and acting though. So get along to the Bush. Now.