My regular reader is likely on the verge of giving up on the grounds that otiose attitude, (a sign of which is that I am running out of synonyms for lazy in these preamble apologies), means most of these comments take so long to appear on the page that the associated entertainment has invariably come on and gone.
But even by the Tourist’s shocking standards this takes some beating. Barber Shop Chronicles, which catapulted the careers of writer Inua Ellams and director, Bijan Sheibani, first appeared at the NT in 2017. Since then it has embarked on two national tours and returned to the South Bank. In this tour it will finally visit Leeds Playhouse before crossing the pond for a week at Brooklyn Academy of Music. New Yorkers, do not miss it.
So you can see it took the Tourist an inordinately long time to get round to seeing it, having initially assumed that it wasn’t for him, what with all that modern dance music, then that it wasn’t convenient and then having got slightly antsy at all the people telling him he must see it. Finally, and somewhat shamefacedly, he snuck off to Oxford to take a peek at the ever delightful Playhouse. Where fortunately a bunch of students were lapping up the on stage pre-show that frames the play sparing us boomers from any embarrassment.
I don’t need to add to the reviews and word of mouth approval. This is as good as they say it is. Inventive, exciting, uplifting. All true. But what most impressed me was the ability of Inua Ellams to shine a light on what it means to be a “strong, black man”, a father, a son, a friend, a colleague, in Africa today. And he does this without apology or faint-heartedness. There isn’t really a plot as such, we switch between 6 barber shops/shacks in Africa and in London on the day in April 2012 when Chelsea take on, and beat, Barcelona in the Champions League semi. However, as the men talk football, politics, language, race, disapora, relationships, fatherhood, in argument, confession and in jest (they all share the same, tired, joke), the stories mesh together to reveal their shared hopes, fears and frustration. Actually when I say there isn’t a plot, that isn’t quite true as in London we learn the truth about Samuel’s (Mohammed Mansaray) father and his father’s friend Emmanuel (Anthony Ofoegbu), which turns into an epiphany for this angry young man. These two share their shop with the nonchalant Jamaican Winston (Micah Balfour), generally bemused by the Afrocan customers, and help support the acting dreams of new customer Ethan (Elmi Rashid Elmi).
Music and dance punctuate the rapid scene changes as chairs, tables, towels and razors are shifted into place, courtesy of Aline David’ s sublime choreography, across Rae Smith’s rough and ready set, spinning globe and posters signing location. Peckham, Lagos, Harare, Kampala, Johannesburg, Accra, may differ in terms of accent and fashion, (there are some very sharp threads on show), but these men share their masculinity, and, it is true, their misogyny, though generally in a humorous, not ugly, way. The 12 strong touring cast, (Okorie Chukwu, Maynard Eziashi, Adee Dee Haastrup, Emmanuel Ighodaro, Demmy Lapido, Tom Moutchi, Eric Shango, David Webber, in addition to the four above), effortlessly shift between the various characters, moving from cocky to compassionate in the blink of an eye. Maybe, at times, it might have been interesting to linger longer in each of the locations, though we do get to reflect on unsettling political truths in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Uganda, but, on balance, I can see why Inua Ellams, who spent six weeks interviewing and observing in Africa, whittling down 60 hours of recording to just two, wanted to cram so much of this vibrant dialogue in. After all his day job is a poet. Though with The Half God of Rainfall at the Kiln and his forthcoming take on Three Sisters back at the National it is his stage work which is in the ascendant.
Exhilarating, joyful thoughtful theatre. Ordinary lives rendered extraordinary. A must see. And a reminder to me that a) I am quite dull and b) that I am too awkward for anything but 10 minutes and a couple of grunted pleasantries in the Turkish barbers down the road. Never mind.
PS I also have learnt what a WHAM supervisor, here Andrew Whiteoak. Wigs, Hair and Make-up. Obviously pretty important in BSC And not, unsurprisingly, the DJ at Club Tropicana.
Caryl Churchill is the greatest English language living playwright and, IMHO, the greatest playwright since Shakespeare. Now I know that many of you would disagree, and that the vast majority of people on the planet couldn’t give a f*ck, but I don’t care. I was, I confess. slightly more miffed that those I hold most dear didn’t agree with me. I insisted that the SO and BD come along to the Royal Court, the scene of most of CC’s dramatic triumphs, for not one, not two, not three but the premiere of four new plays from CC. Their verdict – “pretty good”, “yeah interesting”, “OK I suppose”, “I sort of see what you are driving at Dad”. And thus, despite relentless prodding, (the Tourist can go on a bit when he feels the need), they didn’t share my boundless enthusiasm. Oh well I guess I shall just have to live with it.
You however are made of more discerning theatrical stuff and I feel sure will have snapped up tickets and now share my opinion that these four plays were further proof, if any were needed, of CC’s genius. She is now 81 years old and could easily enjoy a deserved retirement, though let’s be fair this is not generally how the artistic muse plays out. Instead she promised Vicky Featherstone, Royal Court AD, a trio of new plays and instead, a few weeks before staging, actually delivered a quartet, three short and one, Imp, a meatier affair. Pristine and perfect as usual, though also as usual, not without interpretative challenges for trusted long term director James Macdonald, designer Miriam Buether, the cast and the rest of the creative team, (lighting Jack Knowles, costumes Nicky Gillibrand, sound Christopher Shutt), to solve.
For me what is most amazing is how these plays, these narratives, are linked. Subtly, obliquely, so that you only really wake up to it at the end and in the weeks since. There are words, phrases, ideas that are repeated. Nods to Shakespeare and the Greek dramatists. To fairy tales and to the late, great Angela Carter. Things we do believe when we shouldn’t and things we don’t believe when we should. For all Churchill’s experimentation with form, and there is plenty on show here, it is her way with words that makes her unique. And I mean unique not just rare. Her dialogue is now very spare, but still so very rich, with every line burrowing into your brain. Even when you are not quite sure, or cannot pin down, what it actually means. What is clear is CC’s exhortation that, beneath the veneer of civilisation, there has always lurked a much darker side of the human condition, identified in myth, legend and drama, but too often ignored or suppressed.
Glass sees four teenage actors, Kwabena Ansah, Louisa Harland, Patrick McNamee and Rebekah Murrell perched on a suspended brightly light shelf against an otherwise black background. They variously play a girl made of glass, her brother, mother and friend, a clock, a plastic dog and a vase and some schoolgirls. The glass girl, and the others, are traumatised from abuse. Alice in Wonderland for our age. Seven scenes. Ten minutes. Startling sound.
Kill sees Tom Mothersdale as a peevish, chain-smoking god on a cloud recounting a mish-mash of Greek tragedy myths, murder, revenge, incest and the like, barely pausing for breath. Denying responsibility, after all “we gods don’t even exist”, and blaming us humans for all their excess. Below the “people”, us, interrupt with a few random phrases, (according to CC’s text). Here James Macdonald has chosen a small child, playing by himself, to be the people who only speaks at the end to aggressively say “I hate him” and “kill” three times.
Bluebeard’s full title is Bluebeard’s Friends which imagines a group of four well-to-do types, Deborah Findlay, Toby Jones, Sarah Niles and Sule Rimi, reminiscing after they learn that their friend Bluebeard is a serial killer – “with hindsight all those weddings, all those failed marriages” – excusing his actions and even working out ways to monetise the brides'”power” dresses. Weinstein, male violence, fridging, commodification, celebrity. All skewered in a satire based on a fairy tale. Surely with undertone given CC’s historical association with Out of Joint and previous Royal Court AD, Max Stafford-Clark.
Imp is more naturalistic, with echoes of Pinter, as a grouchy Toby Jones and a trenchant Deborah Findlay play a bickering odd couple, cousins Jimmy and Dot, who share some sort of violent secret. They are visited by an orphaned Irish niece, Niamh, the superb Louisa Harland, (Derry Girls fans will recognise), and then by the down-on-his-luck, ex addict Rob, (Tom Mothersdale again), and these two subsequently fall in love much to Jimmy’s initial delight. Jimmy staves off depression with jogging and tells stories which echo Shakespeare and the Greeks. Dot, whose nursing career was cut short we learn after she abused a patient, is confined to her chair. She believes in the power of a baleful imp in a bottle she keeps under the chair. The others are sort of sceptical. Niamh and Rob, in the various short, sharp conversations they have with the elder couple, and each other, also reveal something of the disturbing and extraordinary in their ostensibly mundane lives. Fear of their interior lives. Fear of the other and the outside. The set up is pure Pinter, the dialogue couldn’t be anyone else but Ms Churchill. It is very funny.
The acting was top notch, as was the performance of the juggler (Fredericke Gerstner) and acrobat (Tamzen Moulding) who perform front of stage, red curtains and arch of bulbs, during the breaks between plays. Was this CC’s idea or James Macdonald’s? No idea but it was a memorable addition and further reminder of the idea of theatre, the shared experience of story telling that thrills, inspires and warns, in the hands of one of its greatest ever exponents. Theatre that is resolutely in the now, (or then as obviously the run is now over – sorry once again), but also sets off the synapses such that weeks later it still works its magic. Words, actions and ideas all spin off each other. No exposition here. We are asked to do a lot of the work. Allusive and elusive.
Next up the revival of Far Away at the Donmar directed by another CC acolyte Lyndsey Turner. Totalitarian terror filtered through millinery. It was written twenty years ago. Like Euripides we will likely still be working it out two and a half millenia later. If we get that far. I doubt CC expects us to.
Jack Thorne, (recents include H. Potter, Woyzeck, Junkyard and Kiri and The Virtues on the box), writing, (so blame him for the lower case affectation). John Tiffany, (H. Potter, Road, The Glass Menagerie), directing. A cast of Lesley Sharp, David Morrissey, Kate O’Flynn, Laurie Davidson, Zoe Boyle and Sam Swainsbury. A family drama set against the travails of the political Left across the last two decades. Whose title references Fukuyama’s dodgy theory about the triumph of neoliberalism. All at the Royal Court.
What could go wrong? Well not much as it happens. On the other hand it never really delivered on its promise. Acting top notch as you might expect. Same true of the directing and the set (Grace Smart), lighting (Jack Knowles), sound (Tom Gibbons), score (Imogen Heap) and, especially in the choreographed passages between the acts, movement (Steven Hoggett). Never dull, in fact engaging throughout with sharp dialogue and rounded characters. But …. it just didn’t really surprise with the way it handled the big issues it purported to tackle.
Heart-on-sleeve Sal (Lesley Sharp), a veteran of Greenham Common, and David (David Morrissey), are old school Labour intellectual types living in Newbury. Shabby (not chic) interior. Piles of books. “Ethnic” art. It’s 1997. They have no truck with Blair and his gain about to get elected. Carl (Sam Swainsbury) is bringing his posh, moneyed new girlfriend Harriet (Zoe Boyle) home for the weekend and awkward daughter Polly (Kate O’Flynn) is up from Cambridge to join in the fun/interrogation. Which just leaves youngest Tom (Laurie Davidson) finishing his detention and dashing back from school.
The family doesn’t hold back in the ensuing ding-dongs with plenty of sarcasm, pointed argument and negotiation, and there is a real sense of shared history, but it just doesn’t really go anywhere. We see the children face down their own triumph and disasters and there is a, somewhat predictable, plot twist at the end, (when it is now 2017 after we have passed Act 2’s 2007). Sal and David grow increasingly disillusioned with the world around them, and veer towards self-acknowledged parody, but with no specific event for us to latch on to the effect is of waves of, albeit quotable, dialogue flowing over us and no persuasive narrative arc.
A shame in some ways. A theatrical dissection of the failure of progressive politics is not unique but is still necessary and with this writer, director and cast more might have been achieved.
It creeps up on you this Three Sisters. As with her feted take on Tennessee Williams’s neglected Summer and Smoke last year, Almeida Associate Director Rebecca Frecknall is unafraid of letting the play take its time to unfold and delivers a similar, dreamy quality to events in this Chekhov staple. And, with Cordelia Lynn’s loose-limbed, idiomatic, yet poetic, adaptation, (draw from Helen Rappaport’s literal translation), and Hildegard Bechtler’s barely-there set and timeless costumes, (if there had been some old rope lying around I would have guessed she were the taking the p*ss), she has some very willing accomplices. This is a Three Sisters pretty much stripped of context or artifice, no birch trees or big frocks here, where we are forced to focus entirely on the relationships between the characters. Time, space and place, and even action at some points, are erased to just leave people, their language and their interaction (or lack thereof – there aren’t many great listeners is Chekhov).
Fair enough. This is, after all a play about (father and mother-less) three sisters and their dodgy brother (I’ve always wondered if Anton C had a Bronte thing going on), bored sh*tless and pointlessly dreaming of returning to the buzz of metropolitan Moscow. And marriage. And its frustrations. And parenthood. And its frustrations. And old age. And its frustrations. And work. And its frustrations. And money. And its frustrations. And unrequited love and its frustrations. And idealism. And its frustrations. And denial. And its frustrations. And sacrifice. And emotional manipulation. And politics. And class. And knowledge. And drink. In fact the whole meaning of life gig. There’s a party. A bunch of soldiers come. There’s a duel. Then they go. A clock gets smashed. A piano doesn’t get played. And, in the background, there is the march of history with the first Russian Revolution just 5 years away from when AC completed TS.
Patsy Ferran is back with Ms Frecknall after her award winning performance in S&S but as Olga the oldest, unmarried, sister and the self sacrificing glue that holds the family, just about together. She is mesmeric but actually has less to say and do than Pearl Chanda as Masha or Ria Zmitrowicz as the youngest Irina. Here Irina veers towards needy, self-obsessed, Gen Z-er, reinforcing the abstracted nature of the interpretation. In any one else’s hands this might not have worked but Ria Zmitrowicz is good enough to get away with it, For me though Pearl Chanda as the sardonic Masha is the pick of the three. Masha is the engine room of the play, the catalyst for its sharp humour and for the changes in the direction of the meandering plot. Her infatuation with Peter McDonald’s solemn philosophising widower Lieutenant Vershinin, needs to mix a genuine passion with a sort of bored, going through the motions. And she needs to bait her cuckolded Latin teacher husband Kulygin who knows exactly what is going on. Elliot Levy’s portrayal of Kulygin certainly captured his foolishness and compulsion to deflect tension with humour but not so much his underlying sadness and yearning for Olga.
The other central female character is Natasha, (another precise performance by a favourite of mine Lois Chimimba), who goes from gauche, brittle servant to imperious lady of the house after marrying the weak, vacillating Andrey (Freddie Meredith) who spunks the, limited, family fortune away gambling. Natasha, with her doting on her new born son Bobik, her antipathy to devoted family retainer Anfisa (Annie Firbank) and her pursuit of the unseen Protopopov, the head of the local council which Andrey joins to give him purpose, is here the most conventionally Chekhovian, at least from my memory of previous productions I have seen.
Mind you my memory is far from perfect as, for a few minutes in the second act I think I may have drifted off into The Cherry Orchard as I confused the confused Ferapont (Eric MacLennan) with Firs and the drunk army doctor Chetbutykin (Alan Williams) with Leonid Andreieveitch Gayev. Fortunately the ever attentive BB’s, who, along with my other guests, BUD, KCK and, of course, the SO, put me right and, as usual, saw in the production all that I missed. This is one of the joys of Chekhov. We all agreed on the overall tone of the play, in a word melancholic, and the direction of the plot, but because there is so much of themselves explicitly voiced by these complex characters we all focussed on different facets and dimensions off their existence, to then share our findings, albeit briefly, at the end.
Normally having set out situation and the arrivals, (there are always arrivals and a departure, after moreorless dramatic disclosures, in Chekhov), here the soldiers, including the unfortunate Baron Tuzenbach (Shubham Saraf) who pines for Irina, a troubled poet Solyony (Alexander Eliot), photographer Fedotik (Akshay Sharan) and Rode (Sonny Poon Tip), AC plays start to move through the gears drawing you in with major key attempted resolutions, before drifting off into a minor key conclusion. Not here though. Once the pace is set, at Irina’s name day party, it doesn’t really alter. It is as if the ominous, “keep calm and carry on even if it is all going to sh*t” ending feeds backwards into the rest of the play. But the absence of any distraction here, (dusky lighting and ambient sound by Jack Knowles and George Dennis are as non-specific as set and costumes), the intimacy of the space, the dedication of cast and director to the intention and, especially, Cordelia Lynn’s adaptation reeled us all in and held us there. It feels its length, just shy of three hours, and there are times when words, and only words, test the patience but ultimately it is a rewarding, if nebulous, experience.
For it is perfectly possible to never get out of a wistful second gear in Three Sisters. Nick Hytner did this in his 2003 NT production, despite a cracking cast. I plumped for this in contrast to Michael Blakemore’s West End production a few months later. Which appears to have been a mistake even though MB used a Christopher Hampton rather than a Michael Frayn adaptation. Alternatively, as Benedict Andrews proved at the Young Vic in 2012, it is possible to pimp it up, rev up to fifth gear and set out on the highway. That wasn’t perfect but it was bloody exciting in parts. I think I have seen a couple of other takes before record-keeping began, (yes I am a boy and I like making lists), but don’r remember them too well but there’s always the ennui.
I see the reviews are a bit all over the place. I can see why. In this case I think the only way to be sure is to see for yourself. And, if you like it, then mark down Rebecca Frecknall’s next outing. I suspect she will have her way with Ibsen one day soon. That could be very interesting. Meanwhile we have another Three Sisters in the pipeline. This time at the NT with Inua Ellams shifting the action to 1960s Nigeria and with Nadia Fall in the director’s chair. Neither, in my experience, reach for the soporific so this should be fun.
OK. So I might have oversold this one. It is still Caryl Churchill. With that extraordinary opening act. And that carefully calibrated feminist message, as relevant now as it was when it first appeared in 1982, of how to balance “success” in work and as a mother. The argument between collective and individualistic strands of feminism. To ape the patriarchal norms or to reject them.
But as an introduction to the greatest living playwright in the English language? Maybe this wasn’t the production. So profuse apologies to those most faithful of the Tourist’s recommendation followers, BUD and KCK, who came along. And to the most long suffering of all, in so many ways, the SO, whose previous CC exposure was the brilliant (to me), but admittedly knotty and OTT, production of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire on this very stage in 2015. I hope my chums could see where I was coming from even as the flaws in the production became apparent.
Not that these flaws were substantial. The opening scene here has a cast to die for, Siobhan Redmond as the indomitable Isabella Bird, Amanda Lawrence as the ebullient Pope Joan, Wendy Kweh as the enigmatic Lady Nijo, Ashley McGuire as the laconic Dull Gret and Lucy Ellinson as the most obviously misused Patient Griselda. The way CC takes Marlene’s drunken dinner party celebration and transforms it into a confessional which explosively, hilariously and movingly transcribes the fate of women, real and fictional, across time and geography, and specifically the way the patriarchy determines their roles as mothers, is still, for me about the most riveting half hour of theatre I have ever seen. Especially when the technical challenges of the multiple, simultaneous, conversations are, as here, perfectly realised, not to say the getting pissed part. And all presided over by the dauntless Marlene about to take the top job at the Top Girls employment agency. Katherine Kingsley, who you will probably know best from her musical theatre roles, initially locates Marlene firmly in the 1980’s Thatcherite, “ballsy”, power woman mode. To watch her equivocation, and Suffolk accent, emerge in the later scenes is a measure of just how good a performance this is.
The second scene, (here the usual order is shuffled a little), sees stage debutant Liv Hill, (Three Girls, on the telly, just watch it – though for my money Ria Zmitrowicz is actually the best of the trio of talent on display), initially at least, convincing as the immature Angie, sharing her angst with younger chum Kit (Ashna Rabheru). The two actors are confined to a small box room stage right as the technicians crack on, quietly, with transforming the space behind.
Into ….. the Top Girls agency. Which is where the full glory of the period detail of Ian MacNeil’s set and Merle Hansel’s costumes, (so superb for the dinner party), are revealed. And which also highlights one of those modest flaws is the production. By anchoring the look of the play so firmly in the year when it was written it encouraged the audience to do the same. The universality of the messages were diluted. Those of us who are old enough to recall the period, (all the Tourist’s party I am afraid), were drawn into thinking about the archetypes and behaviour of the period rather than the wider issues examined in the play, and I suspect you younger folk will have been affected more by the story here than its implications.
For it is, especially as we turn into Scene 4, and the not so big reveal, a mightily powerful piece of drama, especially when actors of the calibre of Ms Kingsley, and Lucy Black as her sister Joyce, are charged with delivering CC’s brilliant text. I don’t suppose I will ever tire of the thrill of listening to Ms Churchill’s dialogue. Complex and ambiguous ideas, observations and dilemmas framed in entirely natural dialogue, (even sometimes when how it is framed is formally inventive or even, frankly, a bit weird). There is so much dialectic revealed in Marlene and Joyce’s final argument that it is hard to keep up and yet it also sounds and feels exactly like the kind of set-to that any sisters might have had, at least in the modern world, about family, choices, dreams and disappointments, as well as politics. Family and/or career. Collective and/or individualistic feminism. All in less than half an hour.
And yet, as many critics have observed, this production, because the NT could, by not having actors double up from the first scene into the office scene, loses much of its resonance. CC didn’t specify doubling. That is just the way it has generally been done, a cast of seven for the simple reason of cost. But it certainly, at least when I have seen the play before, has far greater impact as the women that emerge from the interviews, Jeanine, who just want to travel and be with her husband, Louise, who has devoted her life to her job but still watched men promoted over her, and Shona forced to exaggerate her experience, as well as Mrs Kidd, who comes to plead for husband Howard who had expected to get the job Marlene has secured. This pivotal scene loses some impact because of the introduction of new faces, (the SO observed that she was expecting the dinner party guests to reappear in new guises and she has never seen Top Girls before), and maybe because, in an attempt to fill the Lyttleton stage, there is a fair bit of superfluous movement and furniture in this agency scene.
Director Lyndsey Turner, unsurprisingly given her experience in reviving Caryl Churchill’s work, pretty much nails the words, from Marlene’s initial instructions to the waitresses at the restaurant, (of course they are women), through to Angie’s final, plaintive, cries for her Mum at the end. This is such a rich play, just read it, and, with a cast of this distinction, the words can’t help but leap from the page. It is just that the look and feel of the production, even with the solid contributions of Jack Knowles (lighting) and Christopher Shutt (sound), didn’t quite work for me. Still to watch 18 women, (many of whom, in the “lesser” roles, were new to me), line up across the stage at the curtain call was pretty awesome. I doubt I will see that again.
I don’t doubt though that I will get another opportunity to see Top Girls. The programme lists 25 English language productions since the Royal Court premiere. With 6 last year alone, (though its been 8 years since the last major revival in the UK from Out of Joint).
That’s the thing with Caryl Churchill. She changes the game whilst being ahead of it.
The Tourist, as this blog shows, is a nice bloke given to giving creatives the benefit of the doubt. Hence the string of positive reviews on these pages. He likes to think that he is wise in his choice of entertainment. The reality is that he just wants to be liked, even when it manifestly doesn’t matter.
Even so he admits to toddling off to the Almeida to see Shipwreck with some trepidation. Reviews were mixed but rarely overwhelming. The SO, BD and LD had all bailed out in advance, for good reasons, though Dad’s sales pitch was about as convincing as that of The Apprentice candidate, (a clever Trump reference there people), who is fired in week one. The Tourist and BD had abandoned Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns one act in, though this was in part due to “cold-induced fatigue”/teenage hangover, and the SO had to abandon The Twilight Zone, now playing at the Ambassadors Theatre, due to a domestic crisis. A poor familial showing all round. Would lightning strike thrice then?
Certainly not. I bloody loved this. As usual that is of no use to you if you fancy seeing it since it is now all over but it really shows why Rupert Gould and the Almeida have such faith in Ms Washburn’s abilities. There may be some dramatic shortfalls, largely born of excess ambition, but boy can she turn a phrase. Now I don’t know when, or if, this will make its way to the other side of the pond but if it does, assuming you are a member of the very echo chamber it purports to excavate, then you should definitely see it. (I think I can safely assume that the Trumpian side of the cultural divide will have no interest in watching their “opposition” introspect, though they would get apoplectically wound up).
Shipwreck is a meticulous unpicking of liberal America’s current paralysis in the face of angry populism. It may be very time and place specific but its messages are universal. Populist politics, which can and will turn ugly, cannot be dismissed, mocked, pandered to or ignored. It has to be confronted and unpicked, piece by piece, through argument, mobilisation and democratic will. Hand wringing and virtue signalling won’t cut it.
By bringing together seven privileged, articulate, white bar-one, liberal American progressives in a snowbound, holiday farmhouse in upstate New York, and then letting then slug out the arguments one by one, with a useful, if not unsurprising twist, AW is able to rehearse all the arguments in forensic detail. The dialogue is actually centred on June 2017 after the ex head of the FBI, James Comey, offered up his damning testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Comey, you will recall, or maybe you won’t for that is one of the points the play forcibly makes, was the bloke who was fired by Trump, ostensibly on the recommendation of the attorney general Jeff Sessions and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein because the FBI rank and file had allegedly lost confidence in their director, but, in reality, because Trump feared the net closing in the the strands of collusion with Russia in the election, taken up subsequently in the Mueller enquiry. Comey, you may also remember, was the chap who rashly indicated that he was re-opening an investigation into the so-called Hilary Clinton e-mails just before the election having previously said there was no case to answer. Confused? I am and that is the point. Keeping up with the truth is tough enough. Unpicking truth, lies and fantasy when narrative and ideology conflict and when there are multiple “reporting” platforms makes it near impossible even for those with the time, inclination and critical faculty to care.
One of the pivotal moments in the debate between the Shipwreck crew comes when, I think, Adam James’s lawyer Andrew reminds then of the time when Trump, in a Republican primary event, claimed the GOP bigwigs had pleaded with him to cool his opposition to the Iraq War. He had not publicly declared any such opposition. He just made it up. And kept repeating it. Then this kind of breathtaking audacity was a surprise. Now many have have become inured to it, just accept it or positively embrace it. Truth has always been a slippery fellow, manipulated by teller and beholder, and more so as time passes, but deliberate, outright fabrication is plainly dangerous to the body politic. But pitifully easy it seems.
The other key moment comes when Andrew’s partner, banker Yusuf, (Khalid Abdalla), admits he voted for the comb-over bogeyman in the election. With the age old excuse of “wanting to shake things up”. Justine Mitchell plays Allie, the sarky, Facebook-ing keyboard warrior “activist”, who criticises the complacency of others but whose logic can send her liberalism way off-beam. The hosts Jools (Raquel Cassidy) and Jim (Elliot Cowan) are more concerned with day-to day accommodation of the changed environment, expecting a reversion to their comfortable mean, whilst Tara Fitzgerald as Teresa and Risteard Cooper as Lawrence are the hippyish slackers, who bang on about the natural birth they have just come from and who see their green-tinged, near-socialism as adequate inoculation. And so all the strands of liberal call and response are represented.
Now I would have been happy with a couple of hours of this fascinating, pointed, if admittedly wordy, to and fro, but, AW being AW, she clearly felt we needed more. So we are introduced to Mark, an orphan of Kenyan descent, who has ended up in the foster care of a traditional, Christian, Trump-voting, rural couple Richard and Laurie, doubled by Risteard Cooper and Tara Fitzgerald. The connection is the farmhouse which Jools and Jim bought from them. Mark then becomes the mouthpiece for racial politics and identity. It is a clunky device but all is forgiven pretty much as soon as Fisayo Akinade as Mark opens his mouth. Now for those that don’t know Mr Akinade, he was the comic turn as Eros in the NT Antony and Cleopatra where he near stole the show from under Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo. He also starred in Barber Shop Chronicles which, for my sins, I haven’t seen, and in the Donmar’s Way of the World, St Joan and The Vote, as well as the Caryl Churchill short Pigs and Dogs, all of which I have. Here, in a series of monologues, in total contrast to the structure and mood of the group scenes, he charts the subtle, and not so subtle, racial dilemmas in his upbringing, imaging what it would be like to be a slave and describing his difficulties in describing the American racial divide to his own child. It is powerful stuff, sharp, funny and rhetorical, made more so by a very fine performance.
And there’s more. As if enough ideas haven’t been explored, AW then goes on to subvert the dramatic form in a very Churchillian (Caryl not Winnie) way and thereby offer up multiple theatrical opportunities for Mr Goold and, especially, the lighting and sound of veterans Jack Knowles and Paul Arditti. Firstly by having Fisayo Akinade playing a sheepish George HW Bush who is rounded on by the besuited, megalomaniac Trump about the Iraq War. And secondly, and this is where the fun really starts, going all out fantasy as Elliot Cowan (I think), bravely, morphs into a gold-painted, Caesar-esque unhinged tyrant, complete with bird-hooded priests, (yep you read that right), berating a nervous James Comey (Khalid Abdella again) during the infamous one-on-one meeting with Trump in the Oval Office where the POTUS allegedly tried to influence the investigation and demanded his loyalty. Mythic.
As in her previous plays AW shows she doesn’t seem to have an edit function, so even within the tripartite form she crams in so much more. References to Greek tragedy, the nature of art, politics and theatre (“art needs time, space and reflection” as Jools says – not here, AW just gets stuck in), class, incessant social media chatter and mock outrage, the lack of food and drink and their practical shortcomings, disparities in wealth between the couples. But always returning to the uncomfortable idea that the rise of Trump is a retaliation to the pious entitlement and performative shortcomings of white liberalism. And that what these people are most afraid of is losing their economic and cultural dominance to the unenlightened.
No plot, occasionally bonkers, no apologies speechifying, three hours plus, repetition and circularity. Shipwreck is so obviously flawed. But I don’t care because AW, even when she goes too far, can still slum-dunk ideas, message and theatrical thrills which the uniformly excellent cast and Rupert Goold, (and the rest of the creative team, including Miriam Buether symbolic, circular design and Luke Halls, who else, with his striking political and religious iconographic video,) greedily feast upon. It is complex, over-stuffed, baggy, ill-disciplined but in going beyond the usual incredulity at how the Orange One gets away with it, it is brilliant and telling.
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.