Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. review at the Royal Court Theatre *****

Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp.

Royal Court Theatre, 30th September 2019

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.

The Night of the Iguana at the Noel Coward Theatre review ***

The Night of the Iguana

Noel Coward Theatre, 16th September 2019

Last minute purchase. Just about worthwhile. The Night of the Iguana is not normally considered one of Tennessee William’s greatest hits, and I am certainly no TW completist, but the cast, the director, James Macdonald, the designer, Rae Smith, the pretty good, if mixed, reviews and, yes, the price drew me in.

The inspiration for the play came when TW met another young writer, just returned from Tahiti, in Mexico in September 1940, who was also afflicted with the same “troubled heart” that plagued him. Recognition of his talent, and money, was scarce, and TW was close to giving up, but this kindred soul, the environment, and a bunch of perky Germans, sympathetic to the Nazi cause, who appear in the play, spurred him on. A few rum cocktails, long suicidal and literary chats, and a perilous road trip with another guest, seemed to revive our Tennessee and TNOTI was the result. He turned the original 1948 short story into a one act play in 1959 and then into the three acts in 1961.

It concerns the lugubrious Reverend T Lawrence Shannon (Clive Owen) a washed up tourist guide and ex-priest, booted out of his church after an inappropriate relationship with a Sunday school teacher alongside borderline blasphemy. He visits the Mexican resort run by Maxine Faulk (Anna Gunn), the widow of his best friend Fred. She is assisted by a couple of workshy local lads (Daniel Chaves and Manuel Pacific). Alongside the aforementioned incongruous Germans, (Alasdair Baker, Timothy Blore, Karin Carlson and Penelope Woodman), we also meet the grumbling Judith Fellowes (Finty Williams), who leads the tour group which Shannon serially disappoints, and Charlotte Goodall (Emma Channing), a 16 year old member of the group who he may have seduced. More importantly the ageing poet Jonathan Coffin “Nonno” (Julian Glover) then arrives with his niece carer, spinster Hannah Jelkes (Lia Williams). Wheelchair bound Nonno is on his last legs and the couple rely on charity and artistic hustles to get by.

They are an odd bunch who frankly exhibit some pretty dodgy behaviours. Rev Shannon is supposed to be some kind of melancholic, tortured soul, who has lost his faith and suffered a breakdown, but is still irresistible to women. Maxine, (you will know Anna Gunn from her turn as Skyler in Breaking Bad), is pretty direct in her sexual desire, as is, more disturbingly, Charlotte, who says next to nothing, and Hannah is soon apparently under his spell. Yet, with his drinking and self pity, stumbling around the stage in crumpled linen suit, Clive Owen doesn’t highlight any particular hidden depths. Judith may well come across as typecast harridan but she probably has the measure of the man.

Now this being Tennessee Williams, there is poetry in the dialogue between these rather curious characters, even as the plot goes nowhere, and this, alongside Rae Smith’s set, the hotel verandah backed by a massive cliff and verdant planting, Max Pappenheim’s atmospheric sound and, especially, Neil Austin’s lighting, from bright day to dark night via electric storm, is enough to hold one’s attention. And then there is Lia Williams. She normally finds a way to steal the show, even in supporting roles on screen (The Capture, Kiri, The Crown and The Missing) or stage (The Prime of Miss Julie, Mary Stuart, Oresteia, Skylight), but here the rest of the cast are, metaphorically, in her shadow. In the 1964 film version no less an actor than Deborah Kerr played the role alongside Richard Burton and Ava Gardner, so you can probably imagine there is enough for a skilled actor to work on, but Ms Williams is astonishing. Sharp tongued when required, notably in her spats with Maxine, (who was played by Bette Davies in the original Broadway production so you get the idea), dismissive of Shannon’s indulgence, and drinking, yet utterly bewitching when describing her only brief sexual liaisons to him in the third act confessional scene.

TW wrote a ton more full length and one act plays after TNOTI but as his mental health deteriorated, his drug use increased and relationships failed to match that with soulmate Frank Merlo who died in 1963, nothing came close. I still quite make up my mind where TW sits in the pantheon of great playwrights but, for a few minutes as the two lead characters realised how much happier their lives might have been if they could only have been more like the other, I could, once again, forgive the pun, see the attraction. Like Chekhov a chronicler of lost, and odd, souls.

The best theatre coming up in London

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.

John at the National Theatre review *****

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John

National Theatre (Dorfman), 6th February 2018

I would be very wary of playwright Annie Baker if I were you. She will bewitch you. Magical powers. That is the only way to explain John. Nothing really dramatic happens, the setting doesn’t change and the words, initially at least, seem quite ordinary. Yet the longer it goes on, (it clocks in at near 3 hours even stripping out a couple of intervals), the more mesmerised the audience becomes. It is “pregnant with possibilities” you see and turns out to be anything but ordinary. Extraordinary in fact. John goes beyond the exaggerated naturalism of Annie Baker’s previous plays into, well, a theatrical place that I have never quite experienced before.

How she wrote it is beyond me. Conjuring up these voices, and then just letting them speak in the moment, reveals a writer of utter confidence who knows exactly what she is about. If she can see and hear the whole thing before putting pen to paper I am in awe. If she makes it up as she goes along, (I know, she almost certainly didn’t), then frankly I am gobsmacked.

Haunting is the word I have seen elsewhere to encapsulate John and it is a good word both to describe the meanings that Ms Baker seeks to explore, the effects she creates and the memories she delivers beyond initial viewing. The very best plays/productions leave you with a series of pictures in your head that can be recalled long afterwards, (doh – that’s how memory works you numbnut), and it is not always the ones that you might immediately expect. John vividly falls into this category.

It is the week after Thanksgiving. Jenny (Anneika Rose) and Elias (Tom Mothersdale) arrive at a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania run by Mertis (Marylouise Burke). All that follows takes place in the lounge/dining area of the B&B. Chloe Lamford’s set is a thing of wonder and a character in itself. A vintage radio cum juke box seems to be permanently set to Bach. A self-playing piano alarmingly springs to life. The furniture is exactly as you would imagine in a fading but homely B&B. Think dusty chintz. The staircase leads to a handful of unseen bedrooms, (to which Jenny and Elias retreat on occasion), which seem never to be heated. The dining area is, optimistically, named “Paris”. There are knick-knacks a plenty but what is most disturbing are the dolls lining a high shelf. Jenny even recognises one of them as the doll which unsettled her as a child. Peter Mumford’s superb lighting complements the set. The atmosphere which is created is ever so slightly off-kilter from the expected cosy, but still a long way from full-blown, Gothic supernatural.

It was Elias’s idea to come to Gettysburg for a couple of nights after seeing Jenny’s family: she was less sure. (Gettysburg remains the single biggest day, well three days, of slaughter in American history and was the turning point in the Civil War. One for students of semiotics there methinks). Elias is a musician, Jenny writes questions for a TV quiz show. They are three years into their relationship but cracks are appearing.¬†Innocent comments, or texts, can prompt gentle bickering. Moody Elias is always looking to take offence: Jenny predictably counters with textbook passive-aggressiveness. There are silences – Ms Baker really, really understands the importance of silences. Then, just as naturally, they cuddle up on the sofa, (too cold upstairs), with Elias trying to make up “ghost” stories. So, a portrait of an entirely recognisable modern couple, played to perfection by Anneika Rose and Tom Mothersdale.

And so to Mertis, aka Kitty. Marylouise Burke is a veteran of the US stage and this is a remarkable performance. Mertis throughout is sweet, dithery, eccentric, but no cliche. She runs the B&B with second husband George, who is apparently ill and remains unseen. Her blind friend Genevieve, another perfectly pitched performance from June Watson, comes to visit, and, over a few glasses she and Mertis engage Jenny in meaningful conversation, Jenny having stayed behind suffering from menstrual cramps as martyr Elias went off alone to visit the battlefields. Genevieve is a more forthright character than Mertis but both believe they have been accompanied by “watchers” in their lives. This culminates in the idea of love as a haunting, literally in Genevieve case by her ex called, you guessed it, John. Jenny feels something of the same as does Elias when subsequently cornered by Mertis.

This then is what I took to be the central concern of the play. The idea that the uncertainty, loneliness and disappointment of life is what drives the urge to believe in, take comfort from, or be disturbed by, something beyond the immediate and rational. The uncanny stories, (in Act 3 Mertis reads some Lovecraft to Genevieve who then remains in the shadows through Elias and Jenny’s “final” argument), conversations, signs and symbols that abound in the play, as well as the precise naturalism of the lines, are, I think, what Annie Baker has alighted on to force us to think about how this “need” articulates with our interior monologues and our sense of external reality. Alternatively maybe I am just a pseud who thinks too much.

Theatre, at its best, is a shared experience in a way that other art forms cannot replicate. The connection between text and actor, character and actor, audience and actor for sure. But also the connection between members of the audience as text and performance unfold. That was definitely in the air for John. It is subtle but entirely engrossing. It is crammed with detail, and that is just what registered, there was probably loads more that I missed. Oh and did I say it is funny. Because, at times, it really is.

It is no surprise that James Macdonald is the director here. Is there a director working on the UK stage who is more sympathetic to playwrights? I don’t think so. I am pretty sure this will end up being in my top ten plays this year and I will do my level best to see more of Annie Baker’s plays. (I see Circle, Mirror, Transformation is being revived at Home, Manchester shortly).

If you are one of those bellends who feels the need to constantly check your phone then this probably isn’t for you. But if you are at all interested in the possibilities of theatre then you should snap up one of the tickets for the remaining performances, snuggle into a seat at the Dorfman, (not always that easy), and let this evocative play bleed into you.