Present Laughter at the Old Vic review ****

Present Laughter

Old Vic Theatre, 24th July 2019

Ummed and ahhed about whether to see this. On the one hand it was Andrew Scott in the lead as one of theatre’s most renowned hyper-narcissists, Gary Essendine. On the other hand it was a play from the dreadful old reactionary Noel Coward, albeit one of the quartet of classic comedies of manner, alongside Hay Fever, Private Lives and Blithe Spirit, before he became a terribly bitter sh*t.

Its problem is that it is smugly celebrating the very world and people that it purports to subvert. Of course it racks up caustic barb after knowing aside, many of which are admittedly pretty funny, all wrapped up in a well constructed, if gentle, farce, but it never really gets under the skin of its main, or supporting, characters. Which leaves me more annoyed than intrigued by the central conceit, that an actor/artist, and now just “celebrity”, needs the constant validation of others to stave off lonely despair as he/she negotiates the divide between reality and performance. Message to Gary/Noel. Just because you know you are a needy prick doesn’t make you any less of a needy prick. (Essendine, famously, is an anagram of neediness).

Still my adoration for Mr Scott won out, alongside a hunch, correct as it turned out, that director Matthew Warchus would be unable to resist having some fun making explicit the covert sexual relationships at the centre of the original play. And, in the end, I was very glad I went. Still can’t quite shake off the indignation that informs the above opinion of the snobbish, bullying Coward and his plays, but I have to admit the layers that emerge through the play really did surprise me.

Rob Howell’s set and costumes offer a striking jazzy deco period vibe, (the plays dates from 1943), with a contemporary twist, which helped enliven the somewhat cardboard supporting characters, and Mr Warchus instructed them not to hold back. Which suits the talents of Enzo Cilenti as Joe, Gary’s forthright paramour and Suzie Toase as his cuckolded wife Helen. Abdul Salis is Gary’s agent Morris Dixon, natural comic Sophie Thomson as Gary’s protective assistant Monica, Joshua Hill as stalwart valet Fred whilst rising talent Kitty Archer turns in another vivacious performance as young devotee Daphne. Though these are all a little overshadowed by Luke Thallon as super-fan and aspiring playwright Roland Maule and, especially Indira Varma as Liz, Gary’s world-weary wife. Not quite everyone is putting on a performance but Gary certainly is not alone in the attention seeking stakes. And they obviously need him as much as he needs them.

The deliberately ropey plot is never over-accelerated, although a few gags are still painfully telegraphed. And somehow the genius stage actor that is Andrew Scott managed to extract pathos and ambiguity, beyond the sexual, from Gary’s egomania. He cannot quite escape the masturbatory-squared approach that Coward takes to his stage alter-ego but he does leave you guessing as to his true feelings and the idea of Gary/Coward as some sort of mid-life, man-child, he is in his early 40s, is perspicacious. And, once again, Mr Scott manages that rare trick of projecting his performance not just to the whole audience but also to each and every one of us, (at least that’s what I felt).

So message received and understood. Though I don’t think I will ever feel pity for those who choose celebrity. If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen. And definitely don’t stick your head in the oven whilst getting your publicist elicit public sympathy.

Tartuffe at the National Theatre review *****

Tartuffe: The Imposter

National Theatre Lyttleton, 24th April 2019

Top Girls. Downstate. Small Island. Follies which I can vouch for from the first run. And now this Tartuffe. All superb. If the NT is still going through a dodgy patch artistically then f*ck knows how good it is going to be when it gets back on track. This punter for one is very happy. And having paid £15 for this, as well as Small Island, and just a few notes more for Downstate, combined this has to represent just about the best bullseye the Tourist has ever spent.

For those of you Londoners, (I accept that for those outside the capital the N in NT may be a source of frustration despite the NT Live and touring initiatives), who whinge about not being able to get to see the NT “sold-out” productions I say the following. Sign up. Watch the updates. Book early. And take a risk. There will always be a few hot playwrights or big name actor productions where the members will beat you to it, but generally you will be OK. Risk a few quid. Worst case if your busy social life means when the date looms you are positively FOMO’d then, for a couple of quid, you can get credit for next time. And, if it does turn out to be sh*te, think of it as a necessary donation to maintain society’s cultural fabric. Any one of these recent productions was still eminently, and cheaply, bookable just a few weeks in advance. If you wait for reviews and chase the big hits you’ll end up paying twice the price in some cramped West End mausoleum. Here endeth the lesson.

Until now I hadn’t seen a convincing adaptation of Tartuffe or, frankly, any of Moliere’s plays. Started too late in my learning and maybe just unlucky. Played with too much fidelity to the “original” conception and it’s just unfunny caricature. Depart too far from the central hypothesis of hypocrisy, especially religious, or cram to much in in a bid for relevance and it can become chaotic or risibly naive. Keith A Comedy?, Patrick Marmion’s take at the Arcola recently smacked of the latter. As for the recent RSC Tartuffe, no comment. Sounded interesting but just a bit too far for the Tourist to go to knacker his back again in the Swan.

For this version, at the time of booking, I didn’t know the cast and, in any event, had never see anything by our Tartuffe here, Dennis O’Hare. Translator/adaptor John Donnelly was also new to me. Forget actors. I can’t stress enough how important the role of the adaptor is to making ye olde theatre work for modern, attention deficit audiences. But, as I say, in this case, no form guide. So that just left director Blanche McIntyre as the only confirmed draw. That was enough however. Ms McIntyre was the canny brains behind the RSC’s 2017 Titus Andronicus with David Troughton in the lead and The Writer, Ella Hickson’s brilliant feminist discourse at the Almeida last year. Next up she will tackle Bartholomew Fair at the Sam Wanamaker.

What can I say? Result. John Donnelly and Blanche McIntyre have created a Tartuffe who genuinely appears to believe his own hype and an Orgon (Kevin Doyle) who desperately wants his sins expiated. He is a speculator who has made a fortune trading around some dodgy war time activity facilitated by the government. (Think big oil, Cheney and Iraq if you find this too hard to believe). He is holed up with family, and Tartuffe himself, in his hyper-designed Highgate palace, Robert Jones’s set offering a nod to French baroque routed through World of Interiors.

Dennis O’Hare’s Tartuffe comes with prayer beads, topknot, bizarre South American accent and compromised personal hygiene. His spiritual philosophising veers from trite to acute. His religion is eclectic but filled with Goop-y self-help, lifestyle, homilies. Kevin Doyle’s agitated Organ believes the rest of his family sees his family’s antipathy to Tartuffe’s wisdom as reflecting their selfish claims on him and his wealth. So far, so recognisable. The difference here is that our shaman Tartuffe might just be right rather than the pious Christian hypocrite of most interpretations. And Orgon might just be justified in ridding himself of his ill-gotten gains and the guilt that comes with it to try to live a simpler life, albeit steeped in nostalgia. And there is a hint of something more like love in their complex relationship. (Maybe the pink and green neon St Sebastian on the back wall had something to say about this?)

From this starting point Mr Donnelly builds a consistent thesis all the way through to the expeditious deus ex machina which concludes the business. Here Orgon is saved from Tartuffe’s disclosure because the government doesn’t want its illegal war-time activities disclosed. Tartuffe is still the vehicle for much comedy but his genuine belief in his mission shifts the focus of the play into more satirical territory, closer to Moliere’s original intention. The original was quickly banned, not because Louis XIV, (and the public by all accounts), didn’t love it but because the Church and Aristocracy couldn’t stomach the p*ss taking.

The rhyming couplets, at least until the end, are abandoned which allows the retributive message, the farce in the plot, the fine jokes (Spymonkey’s Toby Park was involved) and the characters, (with their roots in the stock characters of Roman comedy), to emerge with more than usual clarity. Money makes their worlds go around and Orgon is the ATM. Kitty Archer, (who stood out in her debut One for Sorrow at the Royal Court), as daughter Marianne is a spoilt brat, but painfully aware of it, as she debates the forced marriage to Tartuffe per Daddy’s demands, or pauperdom with posh “street poet” boyfriend Valere, (some cracking lines for Geoffrey Lumb – “rhyme is a bourgeois concept”). Susan Engel does a fine turn as Orgon’s dismissive mother Pernelle who even, at one point, starts to fall for Tartuffe’s logic. Olivia Williams as wife Elmire shines in the “seduction” scene, here showing the wrong done to women by being used as sexual pawns in male games. Hari Dhillon’s Cleante and Kathy Kiera Clarke as Dorinne both offer a knowing, though still selfish, take on the action. Enyi Okoronkwo’s doltish son Damis gets some good laughs out of being a few lines off the pace.

I can see why some might want their Tartuffe to be lighter and less didactic. See the pic above. More comedy less message. Tough. There’ll probably be the same bunch who can’t contemplate Shakespeare without doublets. The reason theatre lives is because it changes as we do. And Tartuffe is a classic because it can speak to all times. This certainly did.

One for Sorrow at the Royal Court Theatre ****

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One For Sorrow

Royal Court Theatre, 5th July 2018

Sometimes I wonder why I bother with this blog. It takes me so long to get round to seeing and commenting on anything that any post here is worse than useless to the unlucky reader who inadvertently stumbles across it. And all it ever does is recycle far more learned opinions from more talented commentators and bloggers. I can’t be doing with social media so no-one gets to hear about it anyway. I could pretend I like it that way but that would be untrue: my ego needs as much stroking as the next man or woman. I’m just a bit intimidated by this new world of immediate communication.

Sometimes, as here with One for Sorrow, I even momentarily forget what is is that I have seen. Which, in essence, is why I keep going. For there is no better way to learn than writing stuff down and learning through consuming culture is where I am at. So here we go again.

The premise for One for Sorrow was intriguing if not entirely novel – young, privileged, “middle-class”, idealist type invites “victim” of attack in London into the family home despite the misgivings of her liberal family – and playwright Cordelia Lynn was, by all accounts, someone worth listening too. The Royal Court certainly believes in her talent. And I can confirm that, broadly, they are right (no surprise there), and that the play delivers on its promise, even if it does get a little stuck in a cul-de-sac plot-wise towards the end.

Irfan Shamji, who stole the show in Joe White’s excellent debut play Mayfly at the Orange Tree (Mayfly at the Orange Tree Theatre review *****), plays the stranger John. The scene is set with his breathless voiceover as we sit in total darkness. He has a gentle, yet intense, presence that convinces you that he might just be the perpetrator, rather than the victim, of the atrocities that have descended on the capital. Pearl Chanda captures elder daughter Imogen’s air of stubborn righteousness, but also her desire to test her own, and her family’s, commitment to the politics of tolerance. When John turns up after responding to Imogen’s social media invitation to help he is understandably agitated and disheveled but his defensiveness, rucksack and refusal to remove his coat, sow the first seeds of doubt in the family. The sublime Sarah Woodward and the unshowy Neil Dudgeon are perfectly cast as Guardianista parents Emma and Bill, and Kitty Archer, as the breezily self-absorbed, excitable younger daughter Chloe, on her stage debut, also turns in a fine performance to complete the quintet. Ms Lynn has a way of pinpointing not just what this family would say if such an existential threat were posed to them but exactly how they would say it. Shades of Pinter, whose estate commissioned this play.

As the scale of the terror outside becomes apparent, up to and including gunshots on the surrounding streets, and a direct personal connection is unveiled, the tensions within the family, catalysed by John, ratchet up, and the gulf between what they say and how they act, widens. John’s sympathies, and his engineering knowledge, create greater uncertainty and, to Imogen’s disgust, the rest of the family turns on him. The problem is that, in order to maintain the suspense, “is he or isn’t he”, the plot does go round in circles somewhat and the arguments become a little over-extended. However with writing, acting and directing, from the ever reliable James MacDonald, of this quality it is pretty easy to forgive the meandering momentum in the second half.

The culture of fear (and fascination) of terrorist violence, the hypocrisy of the “liberal elite” (that’s me), the impetuosity of youth, the hollowness of hashtag activism, all are eloquently exposed. The title comes from a story Imogen tells about a trapped magpie in the house, bird symbolism being de riguer in London theatre recently. I was reminded of Winter Solstice, the superb play by Roland Schimmelpfenning, which, taking different subject matter also skewered the crisis of liberalism in Western society.

It was a warm day outside, (state the bleedin’ obvious why don’t you Tourist), so I can’t be sure if a dial turn on the air-con, or deliberation, accounted for the streaks of moisture that emerged on the walls of Laura Hopkin’s efficient set but it certainly helped add to the unsettling tenor of the play, alongside Max Pappenheim’s dynamic sound design.

Ms Lynn has the dramatic knack, no doubt about that. I suspect there is much more to come from her pen. She also writes opera librettos apparently and is a mean pianist. She’s only 29.