the end of history …. at the Royal Court Theatre review ***

the end of history …

Royal Court Theatre, 29th July 2019

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.

Pinter at the Pinter One review ****

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Pinter at the Pinter One

Harold Pinter Theatre, 18th October

  • Press Conference
  • Precisely
  • The New World Order
  • Mountain Language
  • American Football
  • The Pres and an Officer
  • Death
  • One for the Road
  • Ashes to Ashes

Just so you are clear. These are plays by Harold Pinter. Did I mention that?

A combination of diary clashes and me hoping for ticket prices to come my way, (always fun playing Economics 101 with West End theatres), meant that I missed out on Part Two of Jamie Lloyd’s season of all of the one act plays of Harold Pinter, (and many other morsels besides). So no The Lover or The Collection and therefore no Hayley Squires, John MacMillan, Russell Tovey or David Suchet. A shame but rest assured dear reader I am signed up to the rest.

Now Pinter is an acquired taste but once acquired is rarely relinquished. The Lover is a two hander about an apparently adulterous couple which sounds like it went down well although, as with much of Pinter the surface misogyny can discomfort, though being Pinter there is always sufficient ambivalence to undermine the apparent premise. For me HP’s unrelenting picking away at human weakness is not gender bound but I can see why others might disagree. The Collection from 1961 covers similar territory in a similar way but with two couples, one gay, sharing a stage, linked by a possible affair.

Anyway probably better if the Tourist focusses on the programme he did see. Here, in the first half, we are in the world of late Pinter, with politics as the subject, and specifically the excesses which can be visited on the individual by a totalitarian state. Some of the pieces imagine more brutal and sadistic scenarios than others but all can be seen as warnings of what can happen when power corrupts. Their very lack of specificity is meant to show that this sort of oppression is only a few short steps away even in a liberal democracy. Not all of the pieces are up with Pinter’s best, and they have never really been, to be frank, universally appreciated even by criterati, but when they work, notably for me here in Mountain Language, they are very effective.

Press Conference is exactly that. A sketch where a Minister of Culture, who was the head of the secret police, responds about the state’s attitude to children. His brusque matter of fact responses – “We distrusted children if they were the children of subversives. We abducted them and brought them up properly. Or we killed them” – is very funny but also very chilling precisely because Jonjo O’Neill’s politician is speaking as if he were right here, right now in Britain. Precisely is another short sketch where Maggie Steed and Kate O’Flynn play a pair of toff establishment types debating a number, 20 million or maybe more, which turns out is a body count.

Next up was The New World Order from 1991 which saw a cocksure Des (Jonjo O’Neill) and a pumped up Lionel (Paapa Essiedu) discussing how they will torture the gagged, blindfolded and naked man (Jonathan Glew) in the cell with them. No physical violence, the menace is all in the language, which is almost stereotypically Pinteresque in its banal tone. These are almost caricatures of modern day torturers, in sharp suits and, in Paapa’s case, aviator shades. They are trying to impress each other as much as scare the victim. They could be Goldberg and McCann. Taking pleasure in their work. Once again Brits not Americans as in the original premiere. Pinter nails that uninhibited, exuberant arousal that seems to inhabit the cruel.

Mountain Language is an better piece of drama though. Written in 1988 apparently in response to the treatment of the Kurdish people, Pinter actually saw this as a more universal attack on regimes where minorities are victimised through the suppression of language. It is an altogether more expressive piece as Jonjo O”Neill’s callous Sergeant, assisted by the officious voice of Michael Gambon (who took the role at the premiere), and Paapa Essiedu’s Officer, work out want to do with, variously, Kate O’Flynn’s young woman, her elderly woman relative Maggie Steed who can only speak the “mountain language”, Jonathan Glew, this time hooded, and Pappa Essiedu doubling as a prisoner. The prison/detention centre is revealed as a series of rooms in Soutra Gilmour’s suitably depressing cuboid set, all dark walls and utilitarian chairs. No beginning or end but we do get the movement through the set and the contrasts between the characters. And our first proper sight of the mesmerising presence of Kate O’Flynn.

She then bounds on as a US military type for Pinter’s poem American Football written in response to the Gulf War and which satirises the aggressive triumphalism of the victor. This was followed by The Pres and an Officer, a sketch which sees John Sessions impersonating our current POTUS alongside Jonjo O’Niell as the top brass tasked with issuing his orders, here to nuke London, albeit accidentally, reflecting the president’s geographical confusions. I’ll be honest it is a bit soft and one-dimensional but, written in 2008, it is remarkable for its prescience. The presence of a narcissistic, ill-educated, populist bully in the White House clearly wouldn’t have surprise HP who died on Christmas Eve a few weeks before Obama was sworn in.

This was followed by Maggie Steed performing’s HP’s moving short poem Death about the registration of an unknown corpse. Then One for the Road from 1984 the most substantial and well-known of HP’s political plays. It was prompted by HP reading Jacobo Timerman’s book on torture during the Argentinian military dictatorship, but, as you might expect, reveals no specific setting. There is no on-stage violence but the references to the off-stage mutilation of Victor (Paapa Essiedu), the multiple rape of his wife Gila (Kate O’Flynn) and the implied murder of their son Nicky (Quentine Deborne) is upsetting enough. Anthony Sher plays Nicholas the precise officer (“one has to be so scrupulous about language”) who represents the totalitarian regime. He shifts from matey pen-pusher to psychotic tormentor in the blink of an eye though Sher wisely tones down the apoplexy. Think O’Brien in Room 101. And Hannah Arendt’s rule of nobody. Nicholas has all the tools of the state at his disposal, and, it seems, years of experience, but still seems troubled by what he is doing. I can’t quite put my finger on why, though it may be because I am not Mr Sher’s greatest admirer, but this felt a little over-egged to me. It is still a mighty fine play though.

After this varied and variable dissection of the roots and risks of totalitarianism, Act Two ostensibly sees a return to the domestic with two-hander Ashes to Ashes. Yet by contrasting this, here directed by Lia Williams, with the Act One pieces directed by Jamie Lloyd, what we really see is HP’s insights into one theme, the use and abuse of power. Kate O’Flynn is Rebecca who is being “interrogated” by her “estranged” husband Devlin, Paapa Essiedu, but who has done what to whom, and what they each say about how they feel, is even more slippery than usual for HP. Maybe they aren’t married, but lovers. Maybe he is threatening her, or she is mocking him. Is Rebecca describing her dreams? What does the story about the police sirens mean, or the pen? Rebecca’s responses to Devlin’s prompts are oblique to say the least. There are pauses and silences galore and some harrowing imagery. not the least at the end with the apparent description of women, or a woman, or Rebecca herself, being separated from her baby en route to a concentration camp. The whole thing swirls around, and, with acting of this quality, draws you in. In any other hands it would be utter b*llocks but with Pinter the language makes it compelling if ultimately impenetrable.

HP’s reputation and casts should be enough to persuade the uninitiated and/or the curious. Jamie Lloyd can push the envelope a bit far on occasion but he is a master in Pinter. So sign up. If I had to choose I would say 3 and 6. More to follow …..

Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court Theatre review *****

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Anatomy of a Suicide

Royal Court Theatre, 22nd June 2017

There are many extraordinary things about Anatomy of a Suicide. One is that there are still tickets left in the run at the Royal Court. Snap them up. Another is that as far as I can see all the serious reviews give it 4 stars. I have no idea why they dropped a star. This is as good as theatre gets in my book.

To be fair it is an intense couple of hours. And the formal construction will keep you on your toes. But it connects emotionally and intellectually. We know Katie Mitchell is a brilliant director. We know Alice Birch is a writer of rare talent from Ophelia’s Zimmer and Revolt she said, revolt again as well as the recent. screenplay for Lady Macbeth. Together though they have, along with the three outstanding lead actors, created another powerful and brave piece¬†of theatre. I can’t get it out of my head and the more I think about it the richer the experience becomes.

The title and the proper reviews will tell you the story. Hattie Morahan plays Carol, Kate O’Flynn plays her daughter Anna and Adelle Leonce in turn plays Anna’s daughter Bonnie. The play opens in the early 1970’s in a hospital following Carol’s attempted suicide. The emptiness brought on by her depression is painstakingly mapped out by Hattie Morahan whose every gesture reeks of defeat. The birth of Anna only serves to increase her despair. In turn we first see Anna in hospital. intoxicated, having injured herself. She eventually seems to straighten out and start a new life but pregnancy and the birth of Bonnie cannot lift her depression and erase the memory of her mother’s eventual suicide. She too ends her life. Bonnie, whose story starts in the 2030’s is haunted by the fate of her mother and grandmother and plots a path to avoid this through career and childlessness.

This is the bare bones. As I am writing this I am conscious that it doesn’t even get close to describing just how much detail and insight Alice Birch is able to wring from her intricate text. She¬†indicates in her notes that the play is “scored” and the three stories are presented in landscape across the page in the playtext. The three lives are revealed concurrently and the lines intersect and, at some points, are spoken simultaneously even down to the same word. This creates all manner of profound juxtaposition which echo across the three generations.

Most of the reviews I have seen focus on the portrayal of depression and “mental illness” which directly afflict Carol and Anna, and reverberate through Bonnie’s life. I see this but I think I also saw a profound essay on the role of women in modern Western society. “Wife” and “Mother” seem to crush Carol and Anna and leave no space for their own identity, and Bonnie’s alternatives still leave her seemingly unable to connect. The other characters are generally thinly drawn, deliberately I surmise, but brilliantly serve to show how the women are boxed in. The scene and costume changes, with the three leads reduced to mannequins, reinforced this idea of lives being shaped by others.

With such an ambitious text and with such a creative form (others have drawn the parallel with Caryl Churchill – I agree) it needed expert direction. It got it. The set is minimal (until a minor coup de theatre at the end which maybe offered some redemption) leaving prop and costumes to mark change. The delivery of the text seemed perfect to me. The sound design was immense. The background ambient noise was augmented by off-stage accents of music, parties, babies crying – happier lives if you like – which made the disconnection of the characters more striking. And the intricacy of the words and sound was matched, maybe surpassed, by the intricacy of the movement, within and between scenes. There was even room for a couple of trademark Ms Mitchell slow motion shuffles

I will stick my neck out and say that the reputation of this play and production is only going to grow through time. It is dense and it requires attention but I found it deeply profound and emotionally involving. I am going to stop now because I don’t think I am getting anywhere close to explaining how powerful this is. Please go even if the subject puts you off.